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Speech at the launch of Great White Fleet to Coral Sea: naval strategy and the development of Australia-United States relations, 1900-1945

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Speech by

Stephen Smith MP

Minister for Foreign Affairs

at the launch of

Great White Fleet to Coral Sea: Naval Strategy and the Development of Australia-United States Relations, 1900-1945

McLaurin Hall

University of Sydney


18 August 2008

(Check Against Delivery)



Thank you Professor Alan Dupont (Director of the Centre for

International Security Studies) for that introduction and for the

invitation to the University of Sydney.

On Wednesday, the USS John S McCain will arrive in Sydney

to commemorate the 1908 voyage by the United States Navy’s

Great White Fleet, marking the centenary of the visit to

Australia by sixteen battleships of that Fleet.

The man after whom the ship is named, the grandfather of

Presidential candidate Senator John McCain, was a young naval

officer on the 1908 visit.

The visit of the USS John S McCain reflects the historical

significance of the original visit by the Great White Fleet for

today’s Alliance between Australia and the United States.

In its day, it signalled the arrival of the United States as a Pacific

naval power.



To mark the occasion, I am very pleased to launch the

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s publication Great

White Fleet to Coral Sea: Naval Strategy and the Development

of Australia-United States Relations, 1900-1945.

I thank Professor Dupont and the Centre for International

Security Studies at the University of Sydney for the opportunity

to launch the book in conjunction with this year’s Michael

Hintze Lecture in International Security by Dr Jonathan Pollack

of the United States Naval War College.

While Great White Fleet to Coral Sea examines the historical

foundations on which the Australia-United States relationship

and the Alliance has been built, Dr Pollack’s lecture looks to the




The Commonwealth of Australia to which the Great White Fleet

sailed in 1908 was a very different place to that to which the

USS John S. McCain will arrive.

Australia was new federal union formed from a group of six

British colonies.

The Australians of the new Federation had not yet embraced the

full independence which their American cousins had asserted in

the late eighteenth century.

However, the action taken by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin in

inviting the Great White Fleet outside the normal channels of

communication through Britain was an important and striking

assertion of the young Australia’s emerging sense of self-belief.

The Great White Fleet was welcomed effusively in Australia.



The visit built closer contact between two Nations, two

Governments and two peoples and paved the way for the

establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations on the eve of

World War II.

This culminated in a fully fledged military alliance in 1942,

formalised by the ANZUS Treaty of 1951.

Great White Fleet to Coral Sea covers an important period in

Australian foreign policy, where our nation moved gradually

towards an independent vision of its own place in the world.

As great power competition increased tensions in the Asia-

Pacific region, some (but not all) of Australia’s leaders looked

to the United States as a potential ally.

While the relationship developed slowly, there was some

recognition from the outset of the importance of our shared

ideals and interests.



When Prime Minister Deakin invited President Theodore

Roosevelt in 1907 to send the fleet to Australia, he observed

accurately, as history would show, that the visit would ‘tend to

knit their relations more closely.’

When the fleet arrived in August 1908, Deakin returned to this

theme and, borrowing from Sir Henry Parkes, spoke of the

‘crimson thread of kinship’ as the chief bond between the two


This kinship was keenly demonstrated by the Australian public

during the Fleet’s visit and served as a firm foundation for the

US-Australia relationship.

The New York Times reported that 500,000 Australians lined the

harbour foreshores and quays or stood on public buildings to

view the arrival of the Fleet.



500,000 from an Australian population of just over four million

and a Sydney population of around 800,000.

The official Sydney program, dubbed Fleet Week, ran to twenty

pages and included fireworks, sporting contests, a gymkhana,

parades and reviews, a vice-regal ball, a garden party and

massed displays by schoolchildren.

In Melbourne, American Week was marked by similar parades,

reviews, soirées and fireworks.

In Albany, from where Australian ships sailed during World

War One, the fleet made a seven-day visit. It was accorded a

warm civic reception by then Western Australian Premier, Sir

Newton Moore.

Western Australia has played a central role in the development

of the bonds between Australia and the United States.



In the darkest hours of World War II, Prime Minister Curtin, the

Member for Fremantle, together with General MacArthur,

forged what we now know as the Australia-United States


The Commander of the Great White Fleet, Admiral Charles

Sperry, recognised that as nations with Pacific coastlines, ‘a

community of interests’ existed between the United States and


In 1908, however, circumstances did not permit either nation to

develop the association beyond mutual expressions of friendship

and goodwill.

Shortly after, not in the Asia-Pacific, but in Europe, our two

nations cemented their first close military links.

Soldiers from Australia and the United States fought together

for the first time in the assault on the German held village of



Hamel on 4 July 1918, under the command of the greatest of the

Australian Generals, Sir John Monash.

Monash, not easily moved, was impressed by the fighting spirit

of the US troops.

He noted that the small US contingent had ‘acquitted themselves

most gallantly and were ever after received by the Australians

as blood brothers—a fraternity which operated to great mutual


The Australia-United States relationship could at best be said to

have developed unevenly in the intervening period between the

First World War and the War in the Pacific.

Two further noteworthy United States Fleet visits occurred

during this time.



In 1925, a Fleet of fifty-six vessels, including twelve battleships,

reprised the 1908 visit of the Great White Fleet.

It was accorded a similarly warm and enthusiastic welcome

when it steamed into Port Philip Bay. This fleet also visited

Melbourne, and a smaller detachment from it visited Hobart.

In March 1941, a detachment of two cruisers and five destroyers

from the US Pacific Fleet visited Australia once again.

Acting Prime Minister Fadden noted at the time of the March

1941 visit: “nothing in the life of Australia has so stirred,

inspired, and thrilled the nation as has this visit of part of the

great United States Navy, synchronising with the wonderful

actions and works of President Roosevelt”.

Some of these ships would soon afterwards face battle in the

climactic naval engagements at the Coral Sea and Midway.



After the outbreak of the war in the Pacific in 1941, the two

countries, led by Curtin and Roosevelt, established a formal

military and political alliance to fight together in a war in which

many Australians feared invasion of their continent.

The victories of the Pacific Fleet at the Coral Sea and Midway

in 1942, and the indomitable Australians along the Kokoda

Track in Papua New Guinea, turned the tide in the Pacific and in

the war against Japan.

This established the enduring bond between our two great


It is built on a common heritage, shared values and joint

endeavour, resolve and sacrifice when times were at their worst.

Both our nations share a common belief in democracy, in

respect for the rule of law, in equality of opportunity and in “a

fair go”.



The Alliance that bond reflects remains the indispensable

bedrock of Australia’s security, strategic and defence


Last month, I had the pleasure of hosting my United States

counterpart Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Perth.

Secretary Rice’s visit was both a celebration and a reaffirmation

of the Alliance and the commitment that Australia and the

United States share to deepening and strengthening it by further

building our people-to-people links.

The Australian Government very much values the co-operation

Australian and United States forces continue to demonstrate in

working together to meet security and strategic challenges, both

regionally and globally.



Our ongoing efforts to create a stable and secure future for the

people of Afghanistan are representative of that.

The Alliance is not just a relationship between our military

forces or a friendship between Governments. It is a friendship

between nations and people.

Nearly half a million Australians visit the United States every

year. The same number of Americans visit our shores.

These days we see ongoing growth in people-to-people ties

between our societies, particularly in education, research and

development and the arts.

The University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre is one

example of growing intellectual links.



Our trade and investment relationship with the United States,

underpinned by our Free Trade Agreement, is a vibrant and

significant one.

The United States is our third-largest merchandise trading

partner, our largest services trading partner, and our largest

source of foreign direct investment.

Today, one hundred years on from the visit of the Great White

Fleet, we have all the trappings of a modern Alliance,

partnership and friendship between our nations and our peoples.

I thank the Historical Publications and Information Section of

the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which researched

and prepared the book, and Wilton, Hanford, Hanover, for

publishing it, thereby putting the Great White Fleet’s visit in its

proper historical context.



On the 100th anniversary of the visit of the Great White Fleet, I

have great pleasure in officially launching this work.

Thank you.