No one understood the implications of Mahan and Turner better than Theodore Roosevelt, who in a brief but vigorous lifetime had direct experience both in the frontier West and in the Navy Department. To Roosevelt the prospect of America isolated and confined in a world of predator nations was anathema. Together with Lodge, Secretary of State John Hay, and a handful of others in government, Howard Beale has observed, he “plunge[d] the nation into an imperialist career” in 1898 “that it never explicitly decided to follow.” The pugnacious young “TR” believed that a man just wasn’t a man without a six-gun and a nation just wasn’t a nation without a fleet of battleships. Should the nation be forced to go to war with either European meddlers or hemispheric predators, a large steel-clad, big-gun navy, he argued, would allow it to emerge “immeasurably the gainer in honor and renown. . . . If we announce in the beginning that we don’t class ourselves among the really great peoples who are willing to fight for their greatness, that we intend to remain defenseless, . . . we doubtless can remain at peace,” but “it will not be the kind of peace which tends to exalt the national name, or make the individual citizen self-respecting.” In an amoral world of nations maneuvering incessantly for power, prestige, and position, peace could be preserved only by periodic threats of sword and gun. “If we build and maintain an adequate navy and let it be understood that . . . we are perfectly ready and willing to fight for our rights, then . . . the chances of war will become infinitesimal.”
But the navy could not be simply defensive and reactive; it had to be the spearhead of a vigorous, healthy national empire that stretched to the ends of the earth. “Every expansion of a great civilized power,” Roosevelt wrote at the end of 1899 in a typically Mahanian tone,
means a victory for law, order, and righteousness. This has been the case in every instance of expansion during the present century, whether the expanding power were France or England, Russia or America. In every instance the expansion has been of benefit, not so much to the power nominally benefited, as to the whole world. In every instance the result proved that the expanding power was doing a duty to civilization far greater and more important than could have been done by any stationary power.
Although Europeans that year generally viewed the upstart Yankees as bullies who exploited Spanish imperial weakness to grab a modest Asian and Caribbean empire, the citizens of the United States were convinced that they had rescued the hapless peoples of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and even Guam from the yoke of oppression and that the navy had been the chief instrument of righteousness. All the nightmarish scenarios of helpless men in thrall to whimsically exploding machines that had emerged from the Sino-Japanese conflict evaporated during the euphoria of victory in a “splendid little war” over a chivalrous if incompetent and often disheartened opponent.
Unlike the earlier clash off the China coast, the Spanish-American War was fully reported throughout the Western world and thus became the first naval conflict of the industrial age that both the public and the experts understood. The dominant perception was of industrial man’s mastery of his creations. Well-handled warships run by well-trained crews were no menace to anyone but their enemies. Such an impression helped stifle initial public concern in the United States and abroad that the loss of Maine might have been due to faulty industrial technology. The ensuing naval triumphs over Spain convinced the Americans and Europeans that the ship’s destruction had been an act of Spanish sabotage.
Although in 1898 shipborne radio was still some years in the future, “for the first time in naval history, a government directed the action of distant ships at sea, communicating by telegram” to Commodore George Dewey at Hong Kong and later Manila and to Admiral William T. Sampson and Commodore Winfield S. Schley at Key West and Cuba. When Sampson finally found Admiral Pascual Cervera’s fleet huddling inside Santiago harbor, he ordered that his major warships take turns illuminating the channel at night with searchlights. “It was the first such use of light by naval forces.”
But contemporary observers were less impressed with the use of the new technology of electricity for communication and illumination than with the overall power of the modern warship and, above all, the technical competence displayed by the American seamen in running it efficiently. At Manila Bay, Dewey coolly brought his small squadron through the minefield off Corregidor in the dead of night and early the next morning quickly maneuvered his handful of steel and steam cruisers and lesser war craft into a coherent battle line against the few enemy warships lurking behind the guns of the narrow Cavite Peninsula. Already under steady but wildly inaccurate bombardment, Dewey calmly informed Olympia’s captain, “You may fire when ready, Gridley,” and after seeing his gunners methodically pulverize the enemy, he withdrew and sent the men to breakfast. The supposedly hellish elements of the battle—stokers locked and crammed into dark, feverishly hot propulsion compartments with hissing steam pipes, clattering engines, and roaring furnaces—in fact did not bother the men involved at all. According to one participant, the engine-room crew aboard the cruiser Baltimore spent the time when not engaged in answering orders and moving dials smoking cigars, chewing tobacco, and “swapping yarns.” Only one man died (an engineer suffered a heart attack), a few wounded, and the casualties were understandably obscured by total victory.26 Thousands of miles from home and help, Dewey nonetheless proceeded to fend off by bluff and bluster the handful of European warships that soon arrived to scrounge for any potential imperial scraps they could lap up, thus preserving Manila Bay and the entire Philippine archipelago for Yankee occupation.
Off Santiago some weeks later, Schley ably handled his small squadron of battleships and cruisers. As Vice Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete’s cruisers emerged from the harbor, Schley chased them down and mortally wounded them one by one after a spirited run that in this instance did demand the final ounces of energy from the poor devils who toiled away passing coal and tending boilers in the engine rooms of Iowa, Indiana, Oregon, Texas, New York, and Brooklyn. When the last Spanish cruiser captain despairingly crashed his vessel against the rocks of eastern Cuba, America had won itself a modest Caribbean empire to go with its new holdings in East Asia. Almost as an afterthought, Washington finally annexed the Hawaiian Islands, which had been under the control of a planter “republic” for the previous five years.
The same American writer who only weeks before had questioned the safety of battleships was now ecstatic. “Military prowess passed away from Spain many years ago, and her organization to manage the modern ship, composed principally of machinery, is wretchedly deficient,” Hollis told his readers. The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, understood the value of “education and technical training to a specific end” and had triumphed. Sailors, officers, and marines had performed superbly in their highly technical tasks of machine tending. If the war with Spain had demonstrated anything it was that the United States needed more battleships of every type. The cost would be high, but “these ships are well-nigh impregnable, and they must continue to hold their own as our main reliance for offense and defense.”