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3.1 T.R.’s Motivations

It is little secret that the writings of Alfred T. Mahan had a seismic impact in making the case for increased American involvement in world affairs, and in particular in calling for a modernized and robust Navy. His 1890 work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, which linked the power of nations to their ability to control the sea, became an immediate classic. The timing of the publication was even more significant given that it occurred in a period when modern technologies had essentially shrank the oceans and leveled the playing field between traditional naval super weights, such as Great Britain, and ambitious aspiring powers, such as Germany and Japan. No one before Mahan had explicitly made the link between naval strategy, military strategy, and national greatness.142 Indeed, such was its effect that the German Kaiser required every German ship to carry a copy of the text.143 Unsurprisingly, Mahan’s work had a significant impact on Theodore Roosevelt’s world view. The relationship was also symbiotic however, with young Roosevelt’s writings also influencing Mahan. Theodore Roosevelt’s study, written mostly while he was an undergraduate student at Harvard, caught Mahan’s eye because it propounded a thesis that coincided with and perhaps even influenced Mahan’s own thinking. Mahan, like Roosevelt, was critical of the decisions made by the U.S. in the aftermath of the War of 1812, primarily the decision to build “a navy of cruisers, and small cruisers at that; no battle-ships nor fleets….We wanted a navy for coast defense only, no aggressive action in our pious souls.”144 Just as Mahan and Roosevelt agreed with this analysis of American error, they also agreed on what had to be done: The United States needed a big navy with large ships and a global reach. They established not only a friendship but an alliance. Mahan would supply the brain and Roosevelt the brawn, and together they would set out to reform the U.S. Navy and, with it, American foreign policy in general.145

A study of Theodore Roosevelt’s First Annual Message to Congress in December 1901 is perhaps most revealing for its remarkable onus on naval matters and the fundamental importance he placed on strengthening America’s navy:

“The work of upbuilding the Navy must be steadily continued. No one point of our policy, foreign or domestic, is more important than this to the honor and material welfare, and above all to the peace, of our nation in the future. Whether we desire it or not, we must henceforth recognize that we have international duties no less than international rights. Even if our flag were hauled down in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, even if we decided not to build the Isthmian Canal, we should need a thoroughly trained Navy of adequate size, or else be prepared definitely and for all time to abandon the idea that our nation is among those whose sons go down to the sea in ships.”146

And in what could be construed as a telling reminder to the metropoles of Europe, Roosevelt added- “The Navy offers us the only means of making our insistence upon the Monroe Doctrine anything but a subject of derision to whatever nation chooses to disregard it…..There should be no cessation in the work of completing our Navy”. Further dissection of the speech indicates that Roosevelt was aware of the shifting geopolitical situation of the period and possibly foresaw tumultuous times ahead. Take, for example, his quite dramatic call for an establishment of a National Naval Reserve, which almost suggests he was readying America for a war footing- “In addition we should at once provide for a National Naval Reserve, organized and trained under the direction of the Navy Department, and subject to the call of the Chief Executive whenever war becomes imminent.”147

A section from his closing remarks highlights the supreme importance the Navy would play in Roosevelt’s strategic maneuvers and foreign policy, and the tactics he would use to sell that policy to the wider public: “The American people must either build and maintain an adequate navy or else make up their minds definitely to accept a secondary position in international affairs, not merely in political, but in commercial, matters.”148

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