Local History. World Events.
This phrase has been a part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum brand for many years, emphasizing that what happens here is connected with historical events, big and small, all around the world.
For example, thousands of Sailors from the Great White Fleet, which left Hampton Roads in 1907, were spending the second week of January 1909 performing disaster relief operations in Messina, Sicily, after earthquakes and tsunamis killed up to 200,000, including the American consul and his wife.
From disaster relief to myriad Navy-led diplomatic initiatives around the world, Hampton Roads-based ships and Sailors have affected the destinies of nations near and far. But of course no naval operation is as consequential as those conducted to win wars, which is still a core mission of the United States Navy.
World events have also affected Hampton Roads in profound ways, but again none more dramatically than those connected to war. Although half a world away, seemingly disconnected from the daily lives of those living in Tidewater Virginia, the events of World War I, which by January 1917 had been raging in Europe for nearly two and a half years, would culminate in the establishment of the world’s largest naval base, right here in Hampton Roads.
|Theodore Wool. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)|
Norfolk-based lawyer Theodore Wool had been campaigning for such a base in Sewells Point, north of the city, ever since the Jamestown Exposition had closed in November 1907. The exposition had attracted nearly a million visitors to the area from around the world, yet the massive investment had not yielded the financial windfall investors had hoped, and the Jamestown Exposition Company ultimately went bankrupt. Wool and a number of other investors had bought the 474-acre property from the company and almost immediately began lobbying for its purchase by the federal government. An attempt to move an appropriations bill for the property through the Senate in 1908 foundered, yet Wool soldiered on, taking up residence in one of the state houses built on the exposition property as the effort continued.
|The cover of a rare copy of Wool's pamphlet, Reasons. (HRNM Collection)|
In January 1917, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels received Wool and a group of prominent Virginia politicians in Washington to discuss the acquisition of the exposition property. Wool had probably brought a self-published pamphlet with him, entitled Reasons. Within it he argued, among other things, that Sewells Point's size, location, and existing infrastructure made it a natural choice for a new naval base. Whether the pamphlet made an impact on Daniels is unclear, but what seems more certain is that a decision made that month in Berlin, not Washington, would ultimately become more decisive in convincing Secretary Daniels and President Woodrow Wilson that the existing infrastructure the Navy possessed in Hampton Roads was insufficient to meet the needs of a nation in a global war.
The aversion to becoming directly involved in foreign conflicts was a key doctrine in early American foreign policy. "Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation," said President George Washington in his farewell address. "Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns." Presidents from Thomas Jefferson to John Quincy Adams echoed this policy, with Adams declaring that America "goes not abroad, searching for monsters to destroy.” Woodrow Wilson had begun his presidency nearly a century later with much the same stance towards Europe. He had been primarily focused upon domestic matters during his first term, and had run for his second term upon an antiwar platform, urging Americans to stay “neutral in fact as well as in name.” One of his key reelection campaign slogans in 1916 was, “He Kept Us Out of War.” That he was reelected on this platform just a few short months after one of the most destructive attacks ever made by agents of a foreign government on American soil says much about the national mood.
German saboteurs had set explosives at the Black Tom Island munitions depot in northern New Jersey on the morning of July 30, 1916. The titanic detonation of over 100,000 pounds of TNT and other Britain-bound munitions killed only a handful of people but caused $20 million in damage (estimated at nearly half a billion in today’s dollars), including $100,000 in damage to the Statue of Liberty, caused the evacuation of Ellis Island, and broke windows up to 25 miles away. The Black Tom explosion was only the most infamous of over 50 attacks conducted under the auspices of a unit of the German army intelligence’s Sektion Politik, operating from cells in New York, New Orleans, and Baltimore, including fires and other damage to at least 37 ships. We now know that the tendrils of of this network also reached into Hampton Roads, and its members confessed to setting fires in Newport News and Norfolk. Some cell members even staged anthrax attacks upon animals being sent to Europe, the first such biological attacks conducted in America.
Although Wool and his compatriots returned to Norfolk empty-handed, the German high command was to hand Wilson his greatest single reason to change his entire approach to the war in Europe before the month was out. On January 31, 1917, Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German ambassador in Washington, told Secretary of State Robert Lansing that the pledge his government made the previous May to respect international law with regards to submarine operations was ending. Starting the following day, any ship, under any flag, within the German-designated "war zone" around Great Britain could be attacked without warning.
The German General Staff had conceived of this shift because they believed that they were within months of choking off the British from vital war material and forcing a negotiated end to the war, on their terms. Their reading of the situation with the British was not altogether inaccurate, but they failed to anticipate the American response to such a move. By resuming unrestricted submarine warfare they were in effect throwing down a gauntlet before Wilson and setting the stage for America's entry into the war. The nation’s credibility rested upon its ability to win that war. America’s Navy would play a crucial role in delivering a war-winning response to the Germans, and procuring the land that would ultimately become the world’s largest naval base would in turn become a crucial part of that effort.