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Power projection at the dawn of the American century

The United States Navy in the Pacific, 1897-1909 - William Reynolds Braisted

America's war with Spain in 1898 is generally viewed as inaugurating the emergence of the United States as a world power, as the acquisition of the remnants of the Spanish empire gave the nation a global presence for the first time. Yet while the annexation of Puerto Rico and the protectorate over Cuba were undertaken in a region where the U.S. had long asserted its interests, the acquisition of the Philippines posed a radical new challenge for American policymakers. This challenge and how the United States responded to it dominates William R. Braisted's book, which examines the role played by the U.S. Navy in shaping and carrying out America's foreign policy in East Asia at the turn of the 20th century.

For the Navy, the acquisition of the Philippines involved the assumption of a new set of responsibilities. Prior to the Spanish-American War, the Navy's mission in the western Pacific was a limited one, with the few vessels of the Asiatic Squadron primarily tasked with "showing the flag" in the ports of the region. The Philippines gave the United States a springboard from which they could establish a more dominant presence in Asia, though this came at a price. The base that permitted America to expand its naval presence also needed to be defended, requiring a far larger force in the region than before. At first, the balance of power between the European powers and Japan reduced the necessity for a substantial presence, but Japan's victory over Russia in 1905 and the reduction of the British squadron to concentrate the Royal Navy in European waters left the United States to face alone a dominant regional power. Exacerbating this problem was the pressure to maintain a powerful force in the Atlantic as well against the growing threat posed by Germany. Faced with demands for squadrons of battleships in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, President Theodore Roosevelt sent out the Great White Fleet to demonstrate America's ability to project their naval power anywhere it might be needed to protect it expanding interests, an impressive display that nonetheless papered over the challenges that the Navy was only beginning to address by the time Roosevelt's presidency came to an end.

Cogently argued and grounded in a thorough command of the archival sources, Braisted's book offers a perceptive study of the United States Navy as it assumed the role of a major power in the western Pacific. Throughout the book, he is generally laudatory of the Navy's success in handling its increased responsibilities, a success all the more notable given the limited amount of funding it received to accomplish its mission and the lack of proper coordination with both the Army and the State Department, both of which also played critical roles in this process. Yet Braisted never lets his overall admiration for the Navy deter him from offering critical assessments where they are deserved. It is this mixture of research, analysis, and judgement which makes this book even today an indispensable study of America's evolving role in East Asia at the dawn of the "American century," one that is necessary reading for anyone interested in the subject.