In the opening paragraph of Barbara W. Tuchman's The First Salute, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian describes the very first time that the fledgling United States was recognized as a sovereign nation by another sovereign nation.
The year was 1776. One of the four warships belonging to the newly created U.S. Navy approached the harbor of St. Eustatius, a 7-square-mile, Dutch-owned island in the West Indies. In accordance with naval custom, the American ship fired a salute to the Dutch flag flying atop Ft. Orange. Then came the magic moment: Johannes de Graaf, Governor-General of St. Eustatius, ordered the Dutch saluting cannon to fire an answering salute to the American ship.
As Barbara Tuchman wrote: "In its responding salute the small voice of St. Eustatius was the first officially to greet the largest event of the century - the entry into the society of nations of a new Atlantic state destined to change the direction of history."
It was the dawn of America as an emerging world power.
In 1776, no one could have known that, by 1945, the United States would possess the world's most powerful navy, would take on the role of guarantor of freedom-of-the-seas for all nations desiring to engage in peaceful trade with other nations, and would continue to carry out that historic role until the year ... well, that remains to be seen.
President Reagan's almost 600-ship U.S. Navy is now only 284 ships. A reduction of almost 50 percent. The Obama administration plans to cut $400 billion from defense and shift that money to non-defense spending. At some point, the freedom-of-the-seas mission will become unsustainable.
Currently, four of the Navy's 10 aircraft carriers are docked side-by-side in Norfolk harbor doing maintenance. The Eisenhower and the Stennis are in the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas, respectively. Lack of funding delayed the scheduled deployment of the Harry S. Truman from Norfolk to join the Stennis. Three carriers are docked in other home ports performing maintenance.
The Abraham Lincoln is due to have its nuclear reactors refueled; however, there is no money. Failure to refuel the Lincoln on time throws the entire nuclear refueling schedule out of alignment and could result in having more aircraft carriers awaiting refueling than those capable of operating at sea.
Just how important are our aircraft carriers? In 1993, President Bill Clinton said: "When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it's no accident that the first question that comes to everyone's lips is: 'Where's the nearest carrier?'"
Unless the current downward trajectory in our naval strength is checked by the election of 2016, the day may well come when a ship of the United States Navy might fire a salute upon entering a foreign port and the salute will be met with ... well, a revealing silence.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.