Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” included a worldwide tour of the American Fleet to project American power.

The New Navy

In the 1880s, the U.S. Navy was sufficient for chastising errant Koreans or Panamanians, but by Great Power standards it was a joke, ranking twelfth in the world in number of ships, behind Turkey and Sweden, among others. One midshipman complained in 1883 that his ship, the Richmond, was “a poor excuse for a tub, unarmored, with pop-guns for a battery and a crew composed of the refuse of all nations, three-quarters of whom cannot speak intelligible English.” During a crisis in 1891 caused by an altercation between some drunk and unruly American sailors and a Valparaiso mob, the Benjamin Harrison administration was brought to the sobering realization that Chile’s navy might be more powerful than America’s.

This was an intolerable state of affairs, and the U.S. did not long tolerate it. The creation of the New Navy began in 1883, during the Chester Arthur administration, when Congress approved the construction of three steel cruisers—the Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago—that had partial armor plating and breech-loading, rifled cannons (as opposed to the smoothbore muzzle-loaders of old), though they also retained sails to supplement their steam plants. Three years later, during the first Cleveland administration, the Maine and Texas, America’s first battleships powered exclusively by steam propulsion, were authorized by lawmakers.

In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a 50-year-old professor at the Naval War College whose long career had hitherto been distinguished only by his hatred of sea duty and his affinity for alcohol and high-church Episcopalianism, published a work that would define an age: The Influence of Sea Power upon History. It both grew out of, and contributed to, the revolution in naval thinking. Previously the navy had been designed to protect U.S. shipping and the U.S. coastline and, in wartime, to raid enemy shipping. Now Mahan urged the U.S. to match the Europeans in building an armada capable of gaining control of the seas. There was some opposition, including from the complaisant military establishment, but the critics were pounded into submission by the rhetorical broadsides fired by Mahan and his influential friends, a circle that included Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, philosopher Brooks Adams, Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, and, not least, a rising young politician named Theodore Roosevelt, who displayed his genius for invective by denouncing “flapdoodle pacifists and mollycoddlers” who resisted the call of national greatness.

The navalists’ triumph has been much written about but remains insufficiently appreciated. It was by no means foreordained. In the late nineteenth century the U.S. faced no outside imperative, certainly no major foreign threat, necessitating the construction of a powerful navy. Some historians argue that economic uncertainties—a recession occurred in 1873, a depression in 1893—gave added impetus to military expansion, as part of a search for overseas markets. But hard times could just as easily have led to a contraction of the armed forces and foreign commitments, as they would in the 1930s and 1970s. Instead, in the 1880s and 1890s, Mahan and his cohorts convinced their countrymen that they should propel themselves into the front rank of world powers. The result was the first major peacetime arms buildup in the nation’s history, a buildup that gave America a navy capable of sinking the Spanish fleet in 1898.

If the U.S. was to have a two-ocean, blue-water, steam-powered navy, it would need plenty of coaling depots to supply it. The old sailing navy had enjoyed a degree of freedom from fixed bases that would not be rivaled until the advent of nuclear propulsion. Square-riggers could go wherever the winds carried them, repairing and replenishing themselves in virtually any harbor—even on an undeveloped island like Nukahiva, site of David Porter’s 1813 landing. Steamers, by contrast, needed assured access to coal and modern repair facilities. The search for coaling depots had already been a powerful impetus for colonialism by the European powers, as it was believed that no navy could ensure access to this vital fuel supply unless it controlled its own stockpiles scattered around the world. The need for secure coaling stations would likewise spur American annexations overseas.

The U.S. acquisitive impulse had been building for some time and, contrary to the popular impression today, did not arrive full grown, as if by immaculate conception, in 1898. William H. Seward, the great apostle of empire who served as secretary of state in the Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson administrations, succeeded in buying Alaska and acquiring Midway Island in 1867 after it was claimed by Captain William Reynolds of the screw sloop Lackawanna. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to acquire British Columbia, Greenland, the Danish West Indies (Virgin Islands), and naval bases at Samaná Bay in Santo Domingo (the Dominican Republic) and at Môle Saint-Nicolas in Haiti. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, in 1869, and Benjamin Harrison, in 1891, attempted to revive plans to buy Samaná Bay and Môle Saint-Nicolas, respectively, but nothing came of it.

The U.S. was more successful in expanding its control over Hawaii. With the signing of a free-trade treaty in 1875, the islands became so closely integrated economically with the U.S. that they were, in the words of one senator who voted for the pact, “an American colony.” In 1887 Hawaii granted the U.S. Navy exclusive use of Pearl Harbor, giving America a strategically vital Pacific base. In 1893, American residents overthrew the native queen and asked to join the United States. The local U.S. consul landed 164 bluejackets and marines from the U.S. cruiser Boston, proclaiming the islands a U.S. protectorate and urging Washington to annex them. The outgoing president, Benjamin Harrison, signed the annexation treaty. But newly inaugurated Grover Cleveland looked this gift horse in the mouth; he withdrew the treaty from Senate consideration. The U.S. would not acquire Hawaii for another five years, by which time America had become a full-fledged imperialist power.


America’s deepening involvement in Hawaii reflected its growing orientation toward the Pacific Ocean. As early as 1875 Congressman Fernando Wood had declared, rather prematurely, “The Pacific Ocean is an American Ocean.” Well, not quite. But the U.S. was certainly trying to secure its interests all over the Pacific, and nowhere more so than in Samoa, a chain of 14 volcanic islands conveniently located midway between Hawaii and Australia. These islands, populated by 28,000 people in 1881, became the center of increasingly nasty competition between Britain, Germany, and the U.S. in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

The first U.S. warship had reached Samoa in 1835, but America did not become deeply enmeshed in its affairs until 1872, when Commander Richard W. Meade of the USS Narragansett concluded a treaty with local chieftains that, in return for extending a U.S. protectorate over Samoa, granted Washington the right to construct a naval station at the first-rate harbor of Pago Pago on Tutuila Island. The Senate declined the protectorate, but in 1878 agreed to take the harbor in return for mediating Samoan disputes with outside powers. The following year, Germany and Britain demanded and won similar privileges at other Samoan harbors. Not content with this concession, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck tried to extend German control over the entire islands in 1887 by installing a favored candidate on the Samoan throne. When a revolution broke out, German forces landed, only to be repulsed by the Samoans.

The Cleveland administration was so upset by this act of German aggression, which threatened America’s Pacific flank, that it sent Rear Admiral Lewis Kimberly to Samoa with three warships from the Pacific Squadron. He arrived at the same time as three German warships and one British. All sides were eyeing one another warily when, on March 15, 1889, a mighty hurricane ravaged Samoa, wrecking almost all the foreign warships in the harbor, including the bulk of America’s Pacific Squadron. The war fever was literally blown away, at least temporarily.

Instead of fighting, the three powers negotiated and in 1889 agreed to divide control of Samoa among them, just the sort of “entangling alliance” the U.S. once would have rejected. Nine years later the old king of Samoa died and a civil war broke out pitting the followers of Mataafa, the German candidate, against Malietoa Tanu, the Anglo-American choice. Mataafa gained control of the government—but not for long. Viewing Mataafa’s usurpation as a violation of the 1889 Treaty of Berlin, U.S. Rear Admiral Albert Kautz, aboard the cruiser Philadelphia, coordinated a counterattack with the Royal Navy. In the interest of unity of command, some American sailors were placed under the command of British officers and some British bluejackets were placed under the command of American officers.

On March 13, 1899, an American landing force was put ashore to begin the occupation of Apia. On March 15 and 16, the USS Philadelphia along with HMS Royalist and HMS Porpoise bombarded the area around the towns of Apia and Vailoa, targeting Mataafa’s followers but also hitting, allegedly by accident, the German consulate and a German gunboat. On March 23, wearing an ill-fitting British naval officer’s dress uniform and borrowed canvas shoes, Malietoa Tanu was crowned king of Samoa under the protective guns of the Anglo-American force. But far from surrendering, the followers of Mataafa, the German-backed pretender, fired into Apia from the bush and constantly skirmished with U.S. and British troops. The Anglo-American forces found it relatively easy to operate along the shoreline, where they could be covered by naval guns, but on April 1, 1899, they made the mistake of leaving the safety of shore to pursue Mataafa’s followers inland.

Sixty Americans joined 62 Britons and at least 100 of Tanu’s men on this expedition, commanded by Lieutenant A. H. Freeman of the Royal Navy. They were ambushed by Mataafa’s men firing guns from well-prepared positions in the tall grass. The Anglo-American soldiers put great store by their machine gun; in the past, the Samoans had fled in terror before its bark. This time, however, the Colt gun jammed, Westerners began dropping, and it looked likely that the column would be annihilated. U.S. Marine Lieutenant Constantine M. Perkins organized a desperate rearguard action around a wire fence, holding off the Mataafans long enough for the column to retreat to the beach, where it was saved by covering fire from HMS Royalist. It was only then that they discovered that two American officers and one British officer were missing. The following day the three men were found buried, their heads and ears cut off. In all, four Americans were killed and five wounded in this expedition. Three marines received the Medal of Honor for their bravery on April 1.

The British and Americans continued their sorties and bombardments against the Mataafans until April 25, 1899, when word arrived that Mataafa had agreed on cease-fire lines. An international commission subsequently ended tripartite rule in Samoa, dividing the islands between Germany and America, with Britain receiving compensation elsewhere. The U.S. won title to the island of Tutuila, where the navy set about building a coaling station. In World War I, an expedition from New Zealand expelled the Germans from western Samoa; the islands became independent in 1962. American Samoa never achieved much strategic importance, but it remains part of the United States to this day.

The larger significance of the Samoan adventure is twofold. First the U.S. was abandoning the old strategy of “butcher and bolt”; now U.S. forces were staying in foreign countries and trying to manipulate their politics, if not annex them outright. Normally this practice is known as imperialism, even though Americans, belonging to a country born of a revolt against an empire, are sensitive about applying this term to their own conduct. There is no doubt that at least one American would have been delighted to see this development, if only he had lived so long. The dreams of Commodore David Porter—America’s first, frustrated imperialist—were starting to be realized.

A second and perhaps related point is that American troops in distant lands were now encountering much more substantial opposition than they had in years past, due to the diffusion around the world of Western ideals, such as liberalism and nationalism, and Western technology, such as rifles and cannons. In 1841, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes’s men had burned three villages and killed countless Samoans without suffering any casualties. Fifty-eight years later, Admiral Kautz’s party was almost annihilated by Samoans firing rifles with great accuracy. After a cease-fire had been declared and a weapon buy-back program instituted, the Samoans turned over 3,631 guns. This was the start of a trend: During the Boxer rebellion, German marines would be killed with Mauser bullets and Krupp artillery. America had the misfortune of joining the imperial game just as it was becoming more dangerous.

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