White Ships, Blue Angels:
Early every October the Bay Area hosts Fleet Week, a giant party for the U.S. Navy and Marines sponsored by City of San Francisco and the Navy League. The Blue Angels streak overhead and local dignitaries greet the giant warships as they parade through the Golden Gate. Because this year's event has been cancelled due to security concerns following the tragic attacks in New York and Washington, the Bay Area Peace Navy would like to suggest that this is an excellent opportunity to examine Fleet Week and reconsider whether it truly reflects the values and goals of this diverse and freedom-loving community.The current incarnation of Fleet Week has only been around since 1981, when then-mayor Dianne Feinstein established it as an annual event. She was a resurrecting of the glory of the Fleet Week of July 1908, when San Francisco was proud host to President Teddy Roosevelt's "Great White Fleet." This was a flotilla unprecedented in world history; sixteen sparkling new battleships of the Atlantic Fleet, painted white except for the gilded scrollwork on their bows, were on a fourteen-month long voyage around the world. The U.S. Navy was showing the world that the Spanish-American War, in which it aptly and resoundingly demonstrated its ability to project power, was just the beginning. After all, Admiral Dewey had sailed into Manila Harbor and defeated the Spanish without a single U.S. casualty, and the hastily-assembled Atlantic Fleet had thrashed the Spanish navy in Santiago harbor in a war lasting less than four months. Was not the United States the preeminent defender of freedom and thus worthy of showing off its forces of good to the world? Unfortunately, the answer was no. This war, like many others, was a complex mixture of motivations and events. Despite popular rhetoric about the sinking of the Maine and mistreatment of the Cuban people by the Spanish colonial authorities, U.S. commercial and military interests fueled an invasion that subsumed the Cuban's and Puerto Rican's struggle for self-determination, resulting in geopolitical consequences that remain with us to this day. The situation in the Pacific was even worse. Although the Filipinos initially appreciated the U.S. role in helping evict their Spanish rulers, tensions mounted as it became clear that our interest there had less to do with protecting democracy than it did with territorial expansion. Even before the Peace Treaty was signed, U.S. troops fired on a group of Filipinos and started the Philippine-American War, a vicious and ugly chapter in U.S. history that lasted until 1914. Openly racist views of the Filipinos underscored public debate and policy. Whole villages were relocated into concentration camps, a method shamefully reminiscent of both the Spanish military practices we had just earlier criticized in Cuba and the "strategic hamlets" we would much later institute in Viet Nam. The actual death toll will never be known, but estimates of the number of civilians that perished from famine, disease, and other war-related causes range from 200,000 to 600,000. In March 1906 an estimated 600 Muslim Filipinos - men, women, and children - were massacred over a four-day period under troops commanded by General Leonard Wood, who later became the Phillipine governor general. One year later the "Great White Fleet" embarked on its glorious journey.
arrested, tried and punished, but a military response against other countries will doubtless cause extensive civilian casualties and will fail to prevent future acts of terrorism. Terrorism will remain with us until we are able to redefine our foreign policies to become a respected world leader rather than an oppressor. Fleet week is an ugly symbol of such oppression. Converting Fleet Week next year to a peaceful celebration of the Bay would be an important step in the right direction. One needs not dig very deeply to understand why there were no parades commemorating the centennial of this war, yet the legacy of the "Great White Fleet" remains with us through the existence of Fleet Week.
Like Mark Twain, the Bay Area Peace Navy has taken on the unpopular role of critics of militarism. Every year since 1984, when Fleet Week festivities blasted into town, our flotilla carried banners to present alternative views for peace, the environment and social justice. We were pleased when, in 1993, the Fleet Week promoters followed our lead and announced that the event would "redefine itself" to become the "San Francisco Bay Area Fest, a more broadly based celebration of the sea without the exclusive emphasis on the Navy." It is unfortunate that these changes never took place, and that the event remains a municipally-funded recruiting festival for the armed forces.
"Sitting in Darkness: An Unheeded Message About U.S. Militarism", by Jim Zwick, 1995 http://www.boondocksnet.com/ai/ail/baltsun.html
1898-1998, Centennial of the Spanish-American War,
"Changes Announced for Bay Area Fleet Week", S.F. Chronicle, 9/24/1993.
"Blue Angels Practice Runs Set Stage for Fleet Week" by Chuck Squatriglia, S.F. Chronicle, 10/6/1999.
Peace Navy position of Fleet Week 2002 - "Four Reasons to Convert Fleet Week"