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Rise of the Battleship

The United States commissioned her first battleship, USS Texas, on 15 April 1895. This coal-burning ship, had an overall length of 309 feet and an extreme beam of 64 feet, displaced 6, 315 tons, and had a complement of 30 officers and 362 enlisted men. She carried two 12-inch and six 6-inch guns and was equipped with four 14-inch torpedo tubes. For protection she carried 12-inches of steel armor, and while not the titan of later years, for her era she was one of the most powerful ships in the world.

Theodore Roosevelt was a big-navy man, an unashamed imperialist, and a "Monroe Doctrinaire," obsessed with the idea of getting the Old World out of the New World. The Venezuela incident of late 1902 was the origin of his famously colloquial foreign policy, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." In 1903, in response to the German passage of a law authorizing further naval build-up, the US government developed a plan to expand its own navy in order. With the crisis in Venezuela serving as the impetus, the Navy began to draw up plans to construct 48 battleships and 24 heavily-armed cruisers over the coming decade. However, this plan was rejected by the Congress, which instead approved the construction of only a few battleships. But battleships continued to grow. The ships of the BB-18 Connecticut Class, with the lead ship laid down in 1903 and commissioned in 1906, displaced twice the tonnage of Texas, were more heavily armed, and had 42 officers and 838 enlisted men.

Some might say that the development of the battleship began with USS Monitor, the famous ironclad whose battle with the CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads on Mar. 9, 1862, drew the attention of the world. Monitor had a centerline, rotating iron gun turret, armored sides and deck, and steam propulsion. She was ill-equipped for sailing on the high seas, however, and foundered off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in December 1862. Others may say, however, that the genesis of the American battleship began with USS Michigan, a side wheel steamer commissioned on Sept. 29, 1844. Michigan was the Navy's first iron-hulled warship and was built for the defense of Lake Erie.

Which ever ship is considered to be the forerunner of the battleship, there were other developments which spurred the origin of the lethal leviathan of the sea. One was the writings of the great American Naval historian Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, USN, who published several books on naval strategy that became the bibles of many navies throughout the world. Capt. Mahan's works pointed out the importance of having a capital ship for the control of the sea. Mahan pointed out that the greatest legacy of Trafalgar was that British sea power was set free to influence history. In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, then a lecturer in naval history and the President of the United States Naval War College, published The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, a revolutionary analysis of the importance of naval power as a factor in the rise of the British Empire. Two years later, he completed a supplementary volume, The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812. Mahan argued that British control of the seas, combined with a corresponding decline in the naval strength of its major European rivals, paved the way for Great Britain's emergence as the world's dominant military, political, and economic power. Mahan and some leading American politicians believed that some of these lessons could be applied to US foreign policy, particularly in the quest to expand US markets. Mahan's writings did not fuel naval rearmament in the US or the concurrent Anglo-French naval arms race; they were all reflections of similar currents in world affairs. But it did fuel the German race for naval parity, along with the tremendous victory of America's new steel navy over the pitifully obsolete Spanish Navy at Santiago de Cuba on 03 July 1898.

Another formative event was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Here, the "battleship" was put to the test, and the results showed that the new ship class was supreme at sea. Initiated by the Japanese with a naval attack against the unsuspecting Russian fleet at Port Arthur, the Russo-Japanese War erupted during a period of intense worldwide political, economic, and military uncertainty. The war culminated with what maritime strategist Sir Julian Corbett called "the most decisive and complete naval victory in history," the victory of the Japanese fleet over the Russian fleet in the Battle of Tsushima on 27-28 May 1905, in which the Russian fleet was almost completely destroyed. At the Battle of Tsushima, the opponents started firing at 19,000 yards, questioning whether the secondary armaments (6-, 8-, and 9-inch guns) were needed on battleships. Because of this phenomenon, the United States and England began work on classes of all "big gun" battleships.

German foreign policy in the Wilhelmine Era (1890-1914) had turned away from Bismarck's cautious diplomacy of the 1871-90 period. It was also marked by a shrill aggressiveness. Brusque, clumsy diplomacy was backed by increased armaments production, most notably the creation of a large fleet of battleships capable of challenging the British navy. This new bellicosity alarmed the rest of Europe, and by about 1907 German policy makers had succeeded in creating Bismarck's nightmare: a Germany "encircled" by an alliance of hostile neighbors -- in this case Russia, France, and Britain -- in an alliance called the Triple Entente.

Tensions between the British Empire and an industrially expanding Germany became especially acute when Berlin decided in 1898 to challenge British naval supremacy in European waters. The German naval expansion program had many domestic supporters. The Kaiser deeply admired the navy of his grandmother, Queen Victoria of Britain, and wanted one as large for himself. Powerful lobbying groups in Germany desired a large navy to give Germany a worldwide role and to protect a growing German colonial empire in Africa and the Pacific. Industry wanted large government contracts. Some political parties promoted naval expansion and an aggressive foreign policy to win votes from a nervous electorate they kept worked up with jingoistic rhetoric.

The chief figure in promoting the naval buildup was Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who is considered the founder of the modern German navy. Tirpitz was an effective spokesman for the program and had the ear of the kaiser and his advisers. In 1898, after the Reichstag passed the first Naval Bill, Anglo-German relations deteriorated. The Supplementary Naval Act of 1900 further strained relations with Britain, as did a proposed Berlin-Baghdad railroad through the Ottoman Empire, a project that threatened British as well as Russian interests in the Balkans. European tensions were increased still further, and the expectation that there would eventually be war on the continent became more certain.

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