Two years later Homer Lea, a short, nondescript former Stanford University student, published The Valor of Ignorance. Echoing Roosevelt’s philosophy, Lea’s book was about the perils of military and naval weakness. He dedicated his work to Secretary of State Elihu Root, who was busy arranging a series of treaty agreements with Japan, and he secured an enthusiastic endorsement from Lieutenant General Adna R. Chaffee, former chief of staff of the U.S. Army. The novel differed from other jeremiads in one significant sense: Lea was no racist. His checkered career included several years as military adviser to Sun Yat-sen, who was then in exile awaiting the fall of China’s corrupt Manchu dynasty. Lea depicted the Japanese as highly intelligent, valorous, and resourceful warriors on land and at sea. He wanted no war with them.
Lea argued that a sudden Japanese assault on the United States would inevitably follow California’s vicious racial policies and that it would happen soon, before the Panama Canal was completed. The American battleship fleet would be in the Atlantic, at least two months’ steaming from San Francisco. The American army, centered in California but pitifully small ever since the Civil War and ten years away from its “splendid little war” against Europe’s worst soldiers, would be no match for Japan’s one hundred thousand troops recently seasoned in battle on the heights of Port Arthur. The Imperial Japanese Navy would brush aside the few small American warships on the Pacific Coast. The Imperial Japanese Army would simultaneously storm the San Francisco and Marin peninsulas. American troops, bottled up in the Presidio, would be unable to stop Japanese guns from reducing San Francisco to rubble, causing general panic that would dwarf the hysteria after the 1906 earthquake.
The inevitable consummation that follows the [Japanese] investment of San Francisco becomes apparent in the utter helplessness of the Republic. In the entire nation is not another regiment of regular troops; no generals, no corporals. Not months, but years, must elapse before armies equal to the Japanese are able to pass in parade. These must then make their way over deserts such as no armies have ever heretofore crossed; scale the intrenched and stupendous heights [that is, the Sierras] that form the redoubts of the desert moats; attempting, in the valor of their ignorance, the militarily impossible; turning mountain-gorges into the ossuaries of their dead, and burdening the desert winds with the spirits of their slain. The repulsed and distracted forces to scatter, as heretofore, dissension throughout the Union, brood rebellions, class and sectional insurrections, until this heterogeneous Republic, in its principles, shall disintegrate, and again into the palm of re-established monarchy pay the toll of its vanity and its scorn.
Conservatives throughout the country agreed with Lea’s description of a militarily weak, politically fragile republic. Appomattox, less than a half century in the past, remained a living shame to the many thousands of vanquished who still revered the cause. Could the South be considered loyal if the Union was again imperiled? The industrial strikes of the nineties were still fresh in people’s minds, and the International Workers of the World, a revolutionary labor union of considerable force and influence, continued to agitate openly and effectively throughout western mining and timber camps. Finally, several million immigrants, officially designated “aliens,” continued to pour onto American shores each year. If the Pacific Coast was detached by a Japanese occupation, no one could predict how badly the rippling effect might tear the nation apart.
Roosevelt undoubtedly read or knew about most of the alarmist tales about Japan that were swirling around the country. Certainly, they conformed generally with Taylor’s scenarios and the quiet work by naval planners to devise a plausible rationale for a Blue-Orange war. The rising tide of American concern about Japanese intentions and capabilities after 1906 thus closely paralleled British hysteria over Wilhelm’s High Seas Fleet. The Panama Canal was still years from completion, and American bases in Hawaii, the Philippines, and the island holdings in between were either rudimentary or non-existent. The only way the United States could demonstrate its power in the Pacific was to send the fleet there. But when word came from Washington that the battle fleet would soon leave the Atlantic, all the old fears of being left undefended resurfaced in the East Coast press and legislative halls. Editorial writers up and down the seaboard concocted doomsday scenarios of American battleships being dashed to pieces on far-off rocky coasts or sabotaged by foreign agents in Latin or Asian ports while German or even British naval bombardment reduced Boston, New York, and Philadelphia to rubble and the White House became the headquarters of European invaders.
Roosevelt decided to trump his domestic critics. He would not only send the fleet to the Pacific to awe Japan; he would also immediately bring it back to the Atlantic via the Indian Ocean and Suez to act as sentry against possible German machinations. American battleships would thus make the most spectacular around-the-world voyage ever undertaken. The U.S. Navy would demonstrate a previously unimaginable global reach. The idea had been in the president’s mind as soon as Zinovi Rozhestvenski had been defeated at Tsushima. “Unquestionably a main object was to impress Japan with our power so that she would not be tempted to make trouble.” But visits to Latin American ports on both oceans could also strengthen hemispheric solidarity and send a message to Berlin. Moreover, a successful cruise far exceeding in length and hardship the earlier dramatic dashes of Oregon around South America and Brooklyn from New York to Manila would demonstrate beyond question U.S. superiority in navigation, engineering, communication, vessel and crew stamina, and fleet maneuvering. The cost and duration of such a voyage would reveal the imperative need to complete the Panama Canal, whose construction according to constitutional law had to be refinanced every two years by a new Congress. And finally, a world cruise would stimulate increased national pride in the navy as the changeover to expensive dreadnoughts made public support for naval spending essential.
Later, Roosevelt would write that dispatching the American battle fleet round the world “was the most important service that I rendered to peace. . . . I had become convinced that for many reasons it was essential that we should have it clearly understood, by our own people especially, but also by other peoples, that the Pacific was as much our home waters as the Atlantic, and that our fleet could and would at will pass from one to the other of the two great oceans.” Not only would the voyage benefit the navy and arouse popular interest in the service, but also it “would make foreign nations accept as a matter of course that our fleet should from time to time be gathered in the Pacific, just as from time to time it was gathered in the Atlantic, and that its presence in one ocean was no more to be accepted as a mark of hostility to any Asiatic power than its presence in the Atlantic was to be accepted as a mark of hostility to any European power. I determined on the move without consulting the Cabinet,” Roosevelt continued, “precisely as I took Panama without consulting the Cabinet. A council of war never fights, and in a crisis the duty of a leader is to lead and not to take refuge behind the generally timid wisdom of a multitude of councillors.” Roosevelt claimed that “neither the English nor the German authorities believed it possible to take a fleet of great battleships round the world. They did not believe that their own fleets could perform the feat, and still less did they believe that the American fleet could. I made up my mind that it was time to have a show down in the matter.” If the United States Navy was incapable of roaming the global sea-lanes, American foreign policy would have to be dramatically reshaped.
In the weeks between the formal announcement of the voyage and the departure of ships, Roosevelt slowly became aware of the enormous implications of his decision. Like a great magnet swimming through forty-six thousand miles of ocean, America’s sixteen battleships would attract all the tensions, animosities, excitements, and yearnings of a profoundly unsettled world. Roosevelt worked day and night to control the impending enterprise. Officers were warned that anxieties about the ability of their ships and men to complete such a voyage could never be expressed. Only the most jingoistic journalists—unreflective friends of the administration and the navy—were allowed to make the trip and report on its progress. A small “train” of colliers and supply ships was dispatched to key ports throughout the world to replenish the fleet as it passed by. Roosevelt and others repeatedly assured Ambassador Baron Kogoro Takahira that the American naval demonstration was not directed at Japan. President and ambassador exchanged many notes, in which each informed the other that a fleet visit to Tokyo Bay could be considered only an act of friendship, not intimidation. When an unexpected message arrived in the midst of the battle fleet’s voyage from the aging empress dowager in Peking inviting the battleships to visit China for a joint naval review that would symbolically reinforce the concept of the Open Door, Roosevelt quickly capitulated to Takahira’s insistence that fleet commander Admiral Charles S. Sperry administer a subtle but unmistakable insult. Only a handful of American ships would be detached for a China visit, while most of the fleet would sail from Tokyo to Manila Bay.
On December 16, 1907, America’s sixteen newly refurbished pre-dreadnought battleships steamed majestically down Hampton Roads and out into the Atlantic. They were initially commanded by Admiral Robert “Fighting Bob” Evans, who because of exhaustion would unexpectedly turn his command over to Sperry once the fleet reached California. The white hulls and buff upper works gleamed in the pale early-winter sunlight. Roosevelt proudly led them out of the Roads on the presidential yacht Mayflower. As the long column reached the ocean, Mayflower swung aside, and each battleship passed with a twenty-one-gun salute and bands playing before wheeling southward toward Brazil and the distant fog-shrouded Strait of Magellan. Just before departure Dr. Lee De Forest visited each ship, adjusting his new wireless communications systems while confidently spreading the word that signal flags would someday be obsolete.