Thursday, August 25, 2022

A New “Great White Fleet”: Harnessing Navy Humanitarianism for the Cold War

By Zac Cunningham
School Programs Educator

On December 16, 1907, the Great White Fleet sailed from Hampton Roads on its voyage around the world. Among this fleet of U.S. Navy warships were 16 new steel battleships, all painted white.[1] With this fleet, the United States demonstrated its new naval technology and its new status as a global imperial power. The U.S. also sought to win the goodwill of the nations the fleet visited.[2] The most notable way the fleet tried to win goodwill was through humanitarian assistance provided to the victims of a catastrophic earthquake on Sicily. The goodwill mission and humanitarian actions of the Great White Fleet were long remembered and, half a century later, inspired a call for “A New Kind of Great White Fleet.”
USS Connecticut (BB 18) leading the original Great White Fleet (NHHC)

Street in Messina, Sicily, photographed in January 1909 and showing damage caused by the December 28, 1908 earthquake. (NHHC)
USS Culgoa, stores ship for the Great White Fleet, at Messina, Italy (Sicily) in January 1909 to render assistance to the victims of the December 28, 1908 earthquake. (NHHC)
On July 27, 1959, Life magazine enthusiastically announced a “Bold Proposal for Peace.” Explicitly harkening back to the early 20th-century’s Great White Fleet, Life’s editors called for “a ‘New White Fleet’ . . . with a new mission.” As dramatically illustrated on the magazine’s cover, this new fleet’s unarmed, white-painted ships “would sail around the world with food for the hungry, medical facilities for the sick and injured, and technicians to help underprivileged peoples improve their own lot.” The fleet would “harness America’s productive goodwill and energies to help ensure peace and combat the spread of Communism.”[3]
Cover of the July 27, 1959 issue of Life. (Time Inc.)
On the next eight pages, Life outlined how the fleet could be created and how it would work. Linking the new to the old once again, the article imagined the fleet responding to a natural disaster like an earthquake, just as the original Great White Fleet did. In a color drawing stretching across two of the magazine’s oversized pages, earthquake victims are cared for on the fleet’s hospital ship. In the background, helicopters conducting rescue operations take off from a small aircraft carrier and landing craft make their way to shore where a large fire can be seen.[4]
A two-page Illustration in the July 27, 1959 issue of Life imagines how a New White Fleet might respond to an earthquake in Southeast Asia. (Time Inc.)
Life’s New White Fleet plan called for:

“six ships to start with—the hospital ship, complete with operating room, X-ray facilities and medical wards; the carrier; a small destroyer escort to provide coastal communities with emergency power; a cargo vessel loaded with stores of food and clothing; a transport converted into a floating technical school to help improve the local standard of living; and a supply vessel to replenish the fleet.”

In ports of call on regular voyages, local patients and doctors would come aboard for treatment and training in illnesses and diseases beyond the capabilities of the local medical system. If a disaster struck elsewhere, the fleet would abandon its planned schedule of port visits to sail immediately to the site of the disaster.

While its ships would come from the U.S. Navy, Life cautioned that the New White Fleet would not be a military fleet. By limiting its military nature, the magazine hoped the world’s non-aligned nations that were hesitant to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union might still welcome the fleet’s assistance.

Military connections were part of the proposal from the very beginning, however. In fact, a U.S. Navy officer first suggested the need for a New White Fleet. This officer, Commander Frank Manson, shared his non-official views about the fleet as part of Life’s story.[7]
Commander Frank Manson (Life)
The idea came to Commander Manson while serving as Special Research Assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations. In December 1957, he happened upon some photos of World War II hospital and auxiliary ships and then he talked with a Navy doctor just back from Southeast Asia. Regarding that region’s medical conditions, Manson asked the doctor, “Would hospital ships help?” After an enthusiastic yes, the commander drove home, expanding the idea beyond hospital ships into a fleet of humanitarian vessels “designed to make the benefits of the free enterprise system available to the entire human race.”[8]

He shared the idea with leaders in industry, labor, politics, and the military, including a retired admiral, at least two U.S. senators, and other assorted congressmen, all unnamed. In the article, Life reported separately that Senators George Aiken (D-Vermont) and Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota) plus Representatives William Bates (R-Massachusetts) and Ed Edmondson (D-Oklahoma) were calling for the Eisenhower administration to provide surplus government vessels to the fleet.[9]

Humanitarianism motivated Manson and Life only so far. Manson felt that showcasing the material well-being of the U.S. could help it catch back up to the Soviets in the Cold War’s propaganda contest. Ultimately, he believed the New White Fleet would help build peace on a people-to-people level beyond governments.[10] For its part, Life ambitiously dreamed the fleet could win more goodwill for the U.S. than even the Marshall Plan.[11]

The New Great White Fleet, however, would remain just a dream. It was never formed. Only the hospital ship SS Hope, which the Life article cast as the first ship in the fleet, became operational.
SS Hope (Library of Congress)
As recounted in a previous blog post, the Eisenhower administration gave former Navy hospital ship USS Consolation (AH 15) to the non-governmental organization Project HOPE. Renamed the Hope, it sailed to several non-aligned nations in the 1960s and early 1970s and carried on—not on the scale of the dreamed of New White Fleet—the legacy of the original Great White Fleet’s goodwill mission.

[1] “The Great White Fleet,” Naval History and Heritage Command, [accessed June 30, 2022].
[2] John E. Moser, “Theodore Roosevelt Launches the Great White Fleet,” Teaching American History website, [accessed June 30, 2022].
[3] “A New ‘Great White Fleet,’” Life, July 27, 1959, 17.
[4] Life, 17-19.
[5] Life, 19.
[6] Ibid.
[7] “Manson, Frank A., Capt., USN (Ret.),” U.S. Naval Institute, [accessed June 30, 2022]; Life, 20.
[8] Life, 21.
[9] Life, 21, 24-25.
[10] Life, 21.
[11] Life, 19.

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