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Originally published Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Great White Fleet's mission resonates 100 years later

In our history, the hearts of the American people have experienced certain moments of patriotic pride and joy. These include hearing the news that World War II had finally ended or watching television screens in wonder as an American made history by walking on the moon.

Special to The Times

In our history, the hearts of the American people have experienced certain moments of patriotic pride and joy. These include hearing the news that World War II had finally ended or watching television screens in wonder as an American made history by walking on the moon.

The awe-inspiring deployment of the Navy's "Great White Fleet" 100 years ago was another such moment. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt conceived the idea of sending 16 battleships on a 14-month around-the-world cruise — a feat never attempted before. Those battleships, with hulls painted white, became known as the Great White Fleet.

This week, Navy ships return to Seattle as part of the centennial celebration recalling the fleet's visit to Seattle May 23, 1908. The port call garnered much attention, with Seattle Mayor John F. Miller presenting Rear Adm. C. S. Sperry with the key to the city (made from Klondike gold). The newspapers were full of stories profiling the ships, the commanders, and Roosevelt's naval and foreign policies.

The Great White Fleet had several purposes.

It was first and foremost a demonstration of U.S. Navy strength. Riding high in the wake of the exploits of Adm. George Dewey in Manila Bay and our victory in the Spanish-American War, America was a nation eager to be recognized as a respected actor on the world stage.

Another important objective in Roosevelt's mind was to rally U.S. public opinion in support of the Navy and win over recalcitrant members of Congress who opposed his shipbuilding program.

The tour was also envisaged as a diplomatic outreach to foreign lands, particularly countries such as Australia and Japan, where U.S. Navy ships had seldom gone before.

A final rationale for the world cruise was operational, in order to test the capabilities of the fleet during a time of peace.

A lifetime student of the role of Navy in world events, Roosevelt once declared that "far from being in any way a provocation to war, an adequate and highly trained navy is the best guaranty against war."

As president, Roosevelt pushed Congress relentlessly to build up the Navy, convinced that America's role in the world would largely depend on our ability to defend our interests using naval power.

The deployment of the Great White Fleet announced to the world that America was a both a world power and a maritime power. Roosevelt believed in peace through strength. The whole point of demonstrating strength is to avoid war. He understood that a nation must show that it is willing and able to wage war and win, lest aggressors, as they have throughout history, take advantage and exploit the weakness of other nations. It is one of the enduring lessons from the time of Theodore Roosevelt that we would do well to keep in mind today.

Other important lessons also come to mind. We have a need for a strong, standing navy. The U.S. Navy is a very capital-intensive enterprise, requiring long lead times and ships that are in service for decades. Thus, the Navy, more than all the other services, must maintain a long-term perspective.

Roosevelt understood this, and the need to prepare the Navy well in advance of threats is a recurring theme in his writings. If we wait until threats are fully in view to build the ships we need, we will have waited too long. For this reason, it is necessary to sustain strong congressional support for funding the Navy — support that is based on an informed populace that understands the necessity of long-term investments and planning.

In his 1906 letter to the secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt was emphatic about the role of public support for the Navy in a democracy, saying "the Army and Navy can only be so good as the mass of the people wish them to be."

The American people deserve to understand why it is vital to our security and to the protection of our interests to maintain a strong Navy-Marine Corps team — not only during wartime but in times of peace. The future of the United States as a great nation depends on our continued maritime superiority, and a long-term perspective.

As the Navy returns to Seattle, let us all reflect on President Roosevelt's vision and the benefits of the Great White Fleet world tour and celebrate this great achievement in the history of the United States and its great Navy.

Donald C. Winter is secretary of the Navy.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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