The United States was no less a part of this international trend than the greatest European seapowers. The end of the American Civil War saw the national psyche turn to settling the West, to free land and great ranches, gold and silver mines, hordes of cattle -- it was a time of unlimited moneymaking and town and railroad building. Meanwhile, at war's end the U.S. Navy had been mostly laid up. By the 1870s the USN was a bare shell of its wartime self, and that in obsolescent wooden walls with smoothbore cannon, and crews half of whom were foreign-born. But it had gotten a heady taste of steam in warships, and among the thoughtful of both Army and Navy, there was a very different westward outlook -- to the Pacific Ocean.
Early in 1873, Secretary of War William W. Belknap issued confidential instructions to Major-General John McAlister Schofield, and Lieutenant-Colonel Barton S. Alexander. They would sail to the far-off Kingdom of Hawaii, best known for sugarcane plantations, whalermen and missionaries, and secretly look it over. On 8 May they recommended that the native kingdom be persuaded to cede the area of Pearl Harbor to the United States, in return for a treaty of reciprocity benefitting its many sugar planters. A treaty was agreed to, signed on 8 September 1876. In 1884 the Kingdom asked for an extension; it was given in 1887, with an amendment giving the United States "exclusive right to enter the harbor of Pearl River in the island of Oahu, and to establish there a coaling and repair station for the use of vessels of the United States ...."
Nothing happened for 10 years. Then, in 1894, men from USS Philadelphia surveyed the reef that lay across the harbor to see what would be needed to make the harbor accessible. An attempt to get $50,000 in clearance funding from congress failed in 1897 -- but with Rear-Admiral George Dewey's stunning defeat of the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay on 1 May 1898, the island chain became vital overnight. U.S. Consul-General William Haywood promptly purchased every ounce of coal he could lay hands on, allowing the first five Army expeditions to the Philippines to be coaled at Honolulu long before any could arrive from America's West Coast, and authorised construction of four huge coal sheds. On 7 July, the former kingdom -- lately and briefly a republic -- was abruptly annexed as a Territory of the United States; and on 10 May 1899 Commander John F. Merry, USN, became the commanding officer of those Honolulu coal sheds.
One year later Secretary of the Navy John D. Long told the Senate and House Naval Affairs Committee that he endorsed the Pearl Harbor Board's call for a naval station there; it "can be successfully defended, rendering its anchorages safe from outside attack, and .. capable of expansion if needed. And it should also be borne in mind that it is the only defensible harbor within the entire Hawaiian group."
In ensuing years, that initial denied request for $50,000 came totally about, and on ever-increasing scale. In 1901 came $150,000 to buy land for the naval station and do some dredging, giving birth to another institution, the Hawaiian Dredging Company, which has had contract after contract ever since. More would begin to follow. In 1905, Sereno Bishop, preacher, teacher, editor, and general Hawaiian activist, lashed out at Congress for not voting funds to fully develop Pearl Harbor and Hawaiian defences generally. In doing so he quoted Rear-Adm. Albert Barker, head of the 1900 Pearl Harbor Board, whose comments then proved darkly prophetic:
"Were I the Japanese Admiral with the power to act, I should get the Japanese vessels ready for service in their respective ports, so as not to attract too much attention, then issue orders to go to sea ... I would have rendezvous on a certain day at the Hawaiian Islands. I would arm the Japanese population to the number of 25,000 or so, hoist the Japanese flag over the islands, attack and defeat the United States vessels -- for all could be easily destroyed, as they would be tied up head and stern in Honolulu harbor... it must be borne in mind that if the Japanese mean business they will endeavor to take the Islands and attack the fleet by surprise ... "
Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, USN, at the head of a fleet of "black ships", had compelled the opening of long-secretive and xenophobic Japan in 1853. Now, with the Shogunate gone and that formerly medieval island empire modernising at a staggering rate, inclusive of a growing and powerful steel navy and the will and proven ability to use it effectively in war, the USN already could see handwriting on the waters.
In 1907, Secretary
of the Interior James R. Garfield was told that the Navy had not even begun
to construct its base, though the Army had started to prepare defences
for the harbor, and that the planned visit of the Atlantic Fleet next year
would find no facilities. Needed were channel improvements, a complete
coaling plant, and at least one drydock. Admiral Dewey, at the height of
his political influence as head of the Joint Army-Navy Board, wanted the
Navy to move out of crowded Honolulu and into Pearl Harbor, which should
become the U.S. Navy's main Pacific base. President Theodore Roosevelt
-- naval historian, advocate of Mahan, and firmly favoring a "Big Navy"
policy -- laid it on the Congress, demanding prompt attention to wholesale
defensive works and ship facilities. He got it: in May of 1908, Congress
voted 246-1 for $3,100,000 in improvements. With that in hand, the Navy
moved swiftly. When the Atlantic Fleet arrived on its round-the-world tour,
top officers found themselves pressed into service as idea men. Soon came
another contract for the Hawaiian Dredging Company -- $3,296,000 for channel
widening and dredging and removal of the reef, and managed it 30 days ahead
of schedule. The gunboat Petrel crossed it in January of 1911; on
14 December the cruiser California, flagship of the Pacific Fleet,
became the first capital ship across it, her
ram bows ceremonially breaking a long yellow ribbon shortly before 1100 hours.
On 23 September
1912 Pearl Harbor was closed to all foreign commercial shipping, and foreign
warships might enter only by special permission.