Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Birth of the US Navy

I've been reading the new book Six Frigates by Ian W. Toll. It is the story of the first 22 years of the US Navy.

The single most important factor in persuading the infant United States to fund the building of the eponymous six frigates (USS United States, USS Constellation, USS Constitution, USS Congress, USS President, USS Chesepeake) was the kidnapping of American merchant sailors by the Barbary pirates -- Muslim corsairs out of Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli (modern Libya), and Tunisia.

When asked, in 1786, by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams why Tripolitan corsairs attacked and enslaved the crews of American ships, the Tripolitan ambassador in London told them:
That it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman [Muslim] who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise.
The European powers of the day, busy with wars on the Continent, were content to pay tribute and ransom to the Barbary pirates to protect their shipping and sailors; and at first the United States did as well. But lo and behold, appeasement only bought demands for ever greater amounts of annual tribute.

Thomas Jefferson proposed that an international naval force be established to protect shipping in the western Mediterranean Sea and the eastern Atlantic Ocean. But the European powers, out of parochial concerns, refused to participate in Jefferson's high-minded plan. Eventually, the United States Navy and Marines, in the Barbary Wars of 1801-1805 and again in 1815, took on the pirates alone and twice defeated them, ending the payments of tribute.

Throughout the early period of the Navy, significant factions of the US Congress opposed a military response and advocated quietly paying for protection.

Kidnapping of sailors, justifying aggression by the Koran, appeasement, European non-cooperation, unilateral action by the United States, and obstructionism and defeatism in the US Congress... why does this all sound so familiar?

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