Great Red Fleet: How China Was Inspired by Teddy Roosevelt

A navy honor guard prepares for a welcome ceremony for U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, at the Chinese Navy Headquarters in Beijing, China

China is looking to the United States' early naval experiences for inspiration.

Theodore Roosevelt was an avowed Mahanian. He was also a closet Maoist! Or at least, his convictions about strategies for lesser competitors ran parallel to those made popular by Mao Zedong during the Chinese Civil War and Second Sino-Japanese War, as transposed to marine warfare by the Great Helmsman’s saltwater-minded successors.

Nor, as it turns out, should this synchronicity come as any surprise. Both Roosevelt and Mao coveted conventional triumphs on oceanic battlegrounds. The chief difference: spared decades of internal strife and foreign invasion, Roosevelt’s America had trodden farther along its pathway to industrial and military might than had Mao’s war-ravaged China. The United States could afford to mount a challenge for mastery of American seaways. China enjoyed no such luxury in its nautical environs. It had ground to make up before it could take to the sea in force.

Disparate national circumstances demand disparate approaches to designing, building and deploying fleets. You go to war with the navy you can afford.

Beyond the material dimension, the two strategists’ ideas about maritime combat were much the same. Once China made itself wealthy, it could bankroll a more forceful approach to naval development—an approach strikingly similar to fin de siècle America’s. Make no mistake: Roosevelt would have no truck with Mao’s murderously utopian purposes. But he would instantly recognize Mao’s operational and strategic methods—and might well endorse if not applaud them. As well he should, since these are methods that have borne the test of time.

Roosevelt entertained an offensive vision of American sea power, and thus regarded coastal defense as a fallacy of the first order. He framed his opinions about sea strategy and combat most succinctly in 1908 while chairing the once-celebrated, now mostly forgotten “Battleship Conference” at the Naval War College. Students and faculty convened in Newport that summer to evaluate technical feedback coming in from the U.S. Navy’s “Great White Fleet” during its world voyage.

While battleship design constituted the focal point for deliberations, President Roosevelt ascended his bully pulpit to hold forth about larger strategic matters. Matters such as this: a common question before would-be seafaring societies is whether they should content themselves with coastal defense, striving to shoo away threats from waters immediately offshore, or bid for something more ambitious. Roosevelt’s answer: embrace as forceful a strategy as your means permit.

And America’s economic and industrial means not just permitted but encouraged vigor and audacity. The United States at the dawn of the twentieth century commanded a far more fortunate strategic position than China’s at midcentury. It was an industrial society on the make. It stood at the verge of overtaking European great powers by such measures as steel production, a crucial index of warmaking capacity. It had commenced constructing an armored, steam-propelled, big-gun navy in 1883, and vanquished a European empire, Spain, in 1898. It could contemplate making itself supreme in American waterways while governing a modest Pacific colonial empire.

In short, the American republic was feeling its oats by Roosevelt’s presidency (1901–9). The “Rough Rider”—so nicknamed for the regiment of roughnecks he led into battle against Spain in the Caribbean Sea—seldom minced words about anything. He exuded confidence in America’s capacity for sea power. “A purely defensive navy, a mere coast-defense navy,” he told the Battleship Conference, would be “almost worthless.” Building a navy merely for coastal defense would be tantamount to “advocating the creation of a school of prize-fighters in which nobody should do anything but parry.”

Even an outmatched navy, explained Roosevelt, must strike offensive blows if it aspires to victory. It has to hit—even if just to jab (Roosevelt lionized John Paul Jones, who jabbed the British Isles repeatedly during the War of American Independence, courtesy of the Continental Navy). Such insights gladden Maoist hearts a century hence.

Roosevelt, moreover, discerned a symbiosis between land and sea power. These constituted mutually reinforcing arms of military might. Coastal gunnery, he maintained, should shoulder the task of safeguarding seaports against seaborne assault while the navy carried the fight to foes cruising the high seas.

If effective, shore gunners would release the navy from the toil of defending homeland coasts. This joint division of labor would render the battle fleet “foot-loose,” liberating it to “search out and destroy the enemy’s fleet.” That errand of destruction, vouchsafed President Roosevelt, represents “the only function that can justify the fleet’s existence.” And it’s a function no “ridiculous” coastal-defense navy can discharge.

Offense thus represents the watchword even for defensive strategy. Mao is smiling in whatever hot place he now inhabits.

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