The first decade of the twentieth century was a time of heightened tension between Japan and the United States. The two nations were emerging as the dominant naval powers in the Pacific. Japan had devastated the Russian navy in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, surprising the world, Russia, and to some extent themselves. Likewise, victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898 served not only to bolster United States prestige as a world power, but gave the country tangible Pacific assets in the Philippines and Guam.
Against this backdrop were two major points of contention between the countries. Japan’s continued expansion in Asia was interfering with the United States’ own economic agenda in the region and in general fueling worries about Japan’s ambitions. California’s strict anti-immigration laws and other discriminatory practices were becoming a national embarrassment for Japan who above all wished to be taken seriously and respected as a peer on the global scene. Race riots and other unpleasantries in both the United States and Canada led to anti-American editorials in Japanese newspapers, political posturing and militaristic rhetoric. By 1907 Americans increasingly believed a confrontation with Japan was likely.
President Theodore Roosevelt who had been working to ease diplomatic tensions, knew as well as anyone that the United States was ill prepared for war with Japan. Roosevelt was a Spanish-American war veteran, former assistant secretary of the Navy, and a great believer in the need for a strong navy. Under his leadership United States shipyards turned out 11 new battleships between 1904 and 1907 dramatically expanding the country’s capabilities. However, the bulk of the United States naval forces were concentrated in the Atlantic, and in the event of hostilities realignment would take time. A defense study ordered by Roosevelt at the time provided a sobering assessment of the progress of an all-out war in the Pacific.
In a move of sweeping showmanship, and the epitome of his "big stick" philosophy, Roosevelt elected to deploy the Atlantic fleet on a round the world tour. The armada would come to be known as the Great White Fleet because the ships were painted white with gold trim. It was a massive assemblage of 16 battleships and their attending auxiliary ships manned by 14,000 sailors.
The mission itself was honestly multifaceted. Roosevelt wanted to test the seafaring mettle of the “new” Navy, and prove to the world that it could be relocated from the Atlantic to the Pacific intact and arrive ready for action. The tour was also one of good will and international outreach. The fleet made twenty port calls on six continents with stops including New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon, and Egypt. When news of an earthquake in Sicily reached the fleet, a detachment was immediately sent to Italy to give aid.
Amongst other nations, The Great White Fleet was very warmly greeted by Australia!
Sydney hailed the arrival of the American Fleet as a sign that Japanese aggression would not be allowed to expand towards them without having the American Fleet to deal with. The defeat of the Russian Navy and the departure of the British Navy to waters closer to home had left a void that the people of Australia felt America could fill.