ANZUS at 70: The Great White Fleet and the beginnings of the security partnership
12 Aug 2021|

This post is an excerpt from the new ASPI publication ANZUS at 70: the past, present and future of the alliance, released on 18 August. Over the next few weeks, The Strategist will be publishing a selection of chapters from the book.

In the first years of the 20th century, shared perceptions of the potential threat from Japan began to bring Australia and America together. President Theodore Roosevelt’s dispatch of 16 battleships of the US Navy on a round-the-world cruise in December 1907 resulted in one of the greatest events of Australia’s first decade as a federation. In part intended as a deterrent against a Japan aggrieved by the treatment of Japanese immigrants in the US’s west coast states, the Great White Fleet’s demonstration of the rise of American power was one that couldn’t be missed—and certainly wasn’t, by at least one Australian politician.

The enthusiastic invitation by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin for the fleet to visit Australia was itself significant in many ways. An early initiative in Australian foreign policy, it was regarded with concern by British authorities, and with reason. This was a time when Australian protests about the inadequacy of the British Empire’s defences in the Western Pacific were mounting, largely—but not only—because of the fear of Japan. The extraordinary reception given to the American ships when they arrived in August 1908 was of little comfort to imperial authorities. More than half a million Sydneysiders were there to watch the fleet’s entry to Port Jackson—well over five out of six of the city’s population!

Other observers drew an obvious, if premature, conclusion. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of Germany’s naval expansion, which was intended as a direct challenge to British naval supremacy, and whose East Asiatic Squadron was an additional threat to maritime Australia in the Western Pacific, later asserted that ‘one of the results of that American voyage was to make Australia lean strongly from England towards America.’ The truth, as Deakin well understood, was that Australia wanted both great powers on its side.

The visit demonstrated not only the relative weakness of the local Royal Navy squadron of nine mostly small and ageing cruisers, but the inadequacy of the young Commonwealth’s naval forces. The only active Australian units—two aged gunboats—were ‘prudently kept in the background’. William Creswell, the Director of the Commonwealth Naval Forces, worried that a turn to America for protection against Japan would become a substitute for Australian naval development. Over the long term, Creswell’s fears of Australian underinvestment in defence would frequently be justified, but in the short term AW Jose’s assessment was more accurate: ‘The moral that Australians drew was that they simply must have a fleet of their own.’

The British took the point as well. The 1909 Imperial Conference produced a formula for Australian naval development acceptable to both the Admiralty and Australia, resolving a problem that had defied solution for several decades. The Fleet Unit that arrived in Sydney in October 1913 would prove to be one of the most timely strategic investments Australia ever made. Plans to use the new navy to foster relations with the US were soon in train. The dispatch of the battle cruiser Australia to represent Australia at the opening of the Panama Canal and then visit San Francisco for the city’s 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition was halted only by the onset of war.

Australian naval units worked with those of the US Navy in several theatres after the American entry into World War I in 1917, most notably as components of the British Grand Fleet in the North Sea. This meant the Australian Navy’s emerging leaders gained first-hand experience of American capabilities—as well as making friends in the US Navy. A future Chief of Naval Staff, the then Commodore GF Hyde, pointed out to the Australian Defence Council as early as 1923 that, if the British were unable to dispatch a fleet to the Pacific, a completed and operational facility at Singapore would provide the US Navy with the fleet base in the Western Pacific that it couldn’t create for itself under the restrictions of the Washington treaties regime.

The US Navy would make another visit en masse to Australia in 1925, when no less than 56 ships, including 11 battleships, visited east coast ports. This, still the largest peacetime visit by a naval force in our history, had as much of a Japanese dimension as that of 1908, although it was less of a demonstration than a test of capability. The Americans, conscious that a conflict with Japan would require their fleet to deploy across the vast distances of the Pacific, used the Australian deployment to increase their understanding of the logistic requirements involved—while avoiding the increase in tensions with Japan that a similar expedition to the Philippines or East Asia would have inevitably created. The interest in and enthusiasm for the American ships and their crews displayed by the Australian population weren’t quite on the mammoth scale of 1908, but they remained remarkable—and were greatly appreciated.

Thus, when, as commander of the Australian Squadron, Hyde took the newly completed heavy cruiser Australia to the US on her delivery voyage to Australia from the UK in 1928, the American welcome was equally warm. In Boston, the US Navy sought support from the locals specifically because the hospitality shown in 1925 to American sailors had been so great and ‘had left a remarkable impression on the visiting seamen’. The Commander-in-Chief of the US Fleet, Admiral Henry A Wiley, one of the flag officers in the 1925 fleet visit, made a point of bringing his flagship to Boston to host the Australia. It was no coincidence that Wiley had commanded the battleship Wyoming in the Grand Fleet in 1918—the Wyoming had exchanged many visits and social events with the light cruiser Sydney.

It would take another global war for the growing links of friendship to help establish the operational partnerships that would be vital to winning the war in the Pacific and in the ‘limited conflicts’ that would follow with the onset of the Cold War. But there can be no doubt that the 1908 visit of the Great White Fleet began a relationship that would be and remains a vital component of Australia’s national security strategy.