Naval Diplomacy - The first period: 1790–1890




To protect Americans as they moved across the seas during the early days of the Republic, the navy eventually followed the example of the British Royal Navy by establishing ships on distant stations in the Mediterranean, the Far East, the Caribbean, the southern Atlantic, the Pacific, and Africa. The ships on each station, rarely more than three to six, were too few to meet all the calls from ministers, consuls, and citizens for a show of force. Only on exceptional occasions did the navy organize a squadron for impressive display, such as the Japan expedition of 1853–1854. The station commanders were both itinerant diplomats and administrative officers who kept their ships moving individually from port to port, reported on conditions in their areas, and watched over enlistments, supplies, and ships' fitness. Before the rank of rear admiral was introduced during the Civil War, they usually were accorded the courtesy rank of commodore.

Since the Navy Department was unable to undertake detailed direction of the distant stations before the advent of electrical communications, the station commanders enjoyed broad discretion within their domains. Their instructions were generally to protect American commerce and to heed the appeals from Americans to the best of their ability. Only rarely was a navy man placed under direction of a State Department official. Indeed, in a day when American consuls were commonly merchants—and even foreigners—and when ministers were usually political appointees, naval officers were often the most reliable officials serving the United States abroad. In contrast with the independence of naval men overseas, the Navy Department in Washington was under pressure to follow the State Department's wishes. Introduction of cable and radio by the time of World War I ended most of the autonomy enjoyed by flag officers abroad.

The Mediterranean The roots of the distantstations policy extend to the late eighteenth century, when Americans sailing to the Mediterranean were overhauled by corsairs from Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. The Barbary pirates assumed that non-Muslims were subject to capture and enslavement unless they were protected by treaties involving tribute payments. In response to Algerine depredations, Congress resorted to naval diplomacy in 1794 by voting to construct six frigates for a navy. Within three years, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli had agreed to call off their corsairs in return for monetary considerations. Thereafter, however, the navy was diverted from chastising North African potentates by the Quasi-War with France (1798–1800) and by differences with Great Britain that culminated in the War of 1812.

Once peace with Britain was restored in 1815, Congress voted for further war against the Algerine corsairs, and Commodore Stephen Decatur quickly forced a treaty on Algiers that ended tribute payments. Decatur's decisive action halted Barbary depredations, and the Navy Department provided against further outbreaks by establishing a permanent squadron in the Mediterranean. Before 1845 its ships were based at Port Mahon, Minorca.

The navy's cruising range in the Mediterranean extended eastward to Turkey, where in 1800 the frigate George Washington (captained by William Bainbridge) was the first American warship to call at Constantinople. After the destruction of the Turkish-Egyptian fleet at Navarino during the Greek War of Independence (1827), the Sublime Porte in 1830 finally signed a treaty of commerce with Captain James Biddle and two American commissioners that included a "separate and secret" article providing for American assistance in rebuilding the Turkish navy. Although the Senate rejected the article, President Andrew Jackson overrode the Senate's veto by sending Commodore David Porter, the first resident American representative, to Turkey with instructions to help the Turkish navy.

The Mediterranean Squadron was also a symbol of American sympathy for the liberal movements in Christian Europe. After the revolutions of 1848, American and European liberals rejoiced when the steam frigate Mississippi conveyed the Hungarian hero Lajos Kossuth and fifty other refugees safely to freedom. The squadron, like other distant stations, was practically disbanded during the Civil War. After it was revived in 1865 as the European Squadron, with expanded area, it provided amiable social billets for naval officers as they watched the Mediterranean and Africa fall under an order dominated by Europe.

Asia Although the American China trade dated from the sailing of the Empress of China from New York for Canton in 1784, the East India Squadron gradually took shape only during some nine cruises to Asia between 1800 and 1839, six by single ships and three in pairs. Initially, the navy dispatched ships to the East Indies to protect American merchantmen on the high seas and to transport public officials such as Edmund Roberts, who negotiated treaties with Siam and Muscat in 1833. In the conflicts between China and the West that destroyed the traditional Chinese tribute system in East Asian relations, it was the diplomatic mission of the U.S. Navy to support the claims by Americans to the various rights that Britain, and later France, gained for their nationals by war. During the first Opium War between China and Britain (1839–1842), Commodore Lawrence Kearney on the frigate Constitution won from the governor-general at Canton what amounted to a promise of most-favorednation treatment for Americans in China. This principle, anticipating the U.S. Open Door policy toward China, was written into the Treaty of Wanghia (1844) secured by Caleb Cushing with support from the East India Squadron. Once China was opened under the "unequal treaties," the American navy's ships on the renamed Asiatic Station, including the famed Yangtze Patrol, were important props for the vast system of interlocking foreign treaty rights, including extraterritoriality, that Chinese nationalists bitterly resented.

The most spectacular demonstration of American naval diplomacy in the nineteenth century was the expedition led by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry to reopen Japan after two centuries of seclusion. Planning his expedition to impress the Japanese with the wealth and power of the United States, Perry first moved up Edo (Tokyo) Bay in July 1853 with a squadron of two steam frigates towing two sloops to present letters from President Millard Fillmore and himself urging the Japanese to modify their closed-country policy. Returning seven months later with a more impressive squadron, he induced the decrepit Tokugawa shogunate to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa, which met American demands for limited intercourse. Quite unwittingly, Perry proved to be the catalyst that unleashed a furious struggle within Japan, which led within fifteen years to the full reopening of the country, the overthrow of the Tokugawa, and the great changes of the Meiji Restoration.

To Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt fell the honor of opening the hermit kingdom of Korea to Americans. Korea was historically a Chinese tributary without desire for other intercourse. The expansionist Shufeldt embarked in 1878 on a much-publicized cruise to the Far East on the USS Ticonderoga, during which he mediated differences between Liberia and its neighbors, investigated sites for coaling stations in Africa, negotiated with the rulers of Madagascar and Johanna (Anjouan), and introduced the U.S. Navy to the Persian Gulf. Shufeldt's ultimate objective was to open Korea, which he sought unsuccessfully to do through the good offices of Japan. On a return trip to the Far East, he finally negotiated a Korean treaty with China's leading scholar-official, Li Hung-chang, which the Koreans signed in 1882. Although the treaty established relations between the United States and Korea, it also proved to be a further blow to the Chinese tribute system without winning secure independence for Korea.

The Americas The U.S. Navy established stations embracing waters of the Americas where, in addition to showing the flag in support of trade, it watched for alien intrusions into the hemisphere and occasionally intervened in its troubled lands. The West Indies Station, created in 1821 to run down pirates infesting the area, was expanded to form the Home Station in 1841 (the North Atlantic Station after 1865), when strained relations with Great Britain reminded the navy that American coastal shipping was defenseless against raids from overseas. The navy operated its ships in the Caribbean throughout the nineteenth century in the presence of the more powerful British navy. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823, proclaiming the American continent closed to further colonization, was initially rendered effective by tacit support from the Royal Navy. By the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, the United States won from Great Britain the right to participate on equal terms with the latter in building an isthmian canal at a time when the U.S. Navy was not yet dominant in the Caribbean.

South of the Caribbean was the Brazil Station, established in 1826 primarily to extend protection to Americans in feuding Brazil, Argentina, and the states of the Rio de la Plata. Usually numbering from two to six ships except during a crisis with Paraguay in 1858, the Brazil Station after 1843 included some 17 million square miles north from Cape Horn to the Amazon, eastward to Cape Negro, and then south along the African coast to the Cape of Good Hope. The station was reconstituted after the Civil War as the South Atlantic Station.

Largest and probably least well defined of the stations was the Pacific Station, dating from 1818. During the early years, the few ships on station tended to cruise between Callao, Peru, and Valparaiso, Chile, with occasional runs to Panama and to the Pacific islands: the Marquesas, Tahiti, Hawaii, and others. After the cession of California by Mexico in 1848, the focus of the station shifted northward, with San Francisco serving as home port. Although it was involved in spectacular crises with Chile in 1891, when Chilean sailors clashed with sailors from the USS Baltimore at Valparaiso, and with Germany over Samoa in 1889 and 1899, after the Civil War the navy's primary concern on the Pacific Station was the fate of the Hawaiian Islands. It habitually kept a ship at Honolulu, gave moral support to white planters against the native monarchy, acquired naval base rights at Pearl Harbor in 1887, and provided protective cover for the movement that led to American annexation of the islands in 1898.

Africa Most lonely of the distant stations was the African Station, created in 1843 after the United States agreed in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842) to cooperate with Britain in suppressing the slave trade. Whereas the Royal Navy seized 594 ships suspected of slave running between 1840 and 1848, the few American ships on station captured but nineteen suspected runners between 1843 and 1857. Moreover, since before the Civil War the United States denied British warships even a limited right to visit American merchantmen, the illicit trade found shelter under the American flag.

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