Alfred Thayer Mahan: Proponent of American Naval Power

Alfred Thayer Mahan: Proponent of American Naval Power

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Alfred Thayer Mahan was born in West Point, New York, in 1840, educated at the U.S. Mahan served twice as president of the college, 1886 to 1889 and 1892 to 1893.The Influence of Sea Power upon History appeared in 1890 and The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire in 1892. According to his analysis of history, the great powers were those that maintained strong navies and merchant marines. He urged the United States forward in its naval building programs.Alfred Thayer Mahan also argued that modern navies needed repair and coaling stations. This reasoning inferred a rationale for American acquisition of port facilities throughout the world.Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote at the time of a great international arms race. He exerted a major impact on Theodore Roosevelt, as well as upon leaders in Britain, Japan and Germany.

Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History: Securing International Markets in the 1890s

In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan , a lecturer in naval history and the president of the United States Naval War College, published The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783, a revolutionary analysis of the importance of naval power as a factor in the rise of the British Empire. Two years later, he completed a supplementary volume, The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812 .

Mahan argued that British control of the seas, combined with a corresponding decline in the naval strength of its major European rivals, paved the way for Great Britain’s emergence as the world’s dominant military, political, and economic power. Mahan and some leading American politicians believed that these lessons could be applied to U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the quest to expand U.S. markets overseas.

The 1890s were marked by social and economic unrest throughout the United States, which culminated in the onset of an economic depression between 1893 and 1894. The publication of Mahan’s books preceded much of the disorder associated with the 1890s, but his work resonated with many leading intellectuals and politicians concerned by the political and economic challenges of the period and the declining lack of economic opportunity on the American continent.

Mahan’s books complemented the work of one of his contemporaries, Professor Frederick Jackson Turner , who is best known for his seminal essay of 1893, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” An American history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Turner postulated that westward migration across the North American continent and the country’s population growth had finally led to the “closing” of the American frontier, with profound social and economic consequences. While Turner did not explicitly argue for a shift towards commercial expansion overseas, he did note that calls for a “vigorous foreign policy” were signs that Americans were increasingly looking outside the continental United States in order to satiate their desire for new economic opportunities and markets.

Mahan was one of the foremost proponents of the “vigorous foreign policy” referred to by Turner. Mahan believed that the U.S. economy would soon be unable to absorb the massive amounts of industrial and commercial goods being produced domestically, and he argued that the United States should seek new markets abroad. What concerned Mahan most was ensuring that the U.S. Government could guarantee access to these new international markets. Securing such access would require three things: a merchant navy, which could carry American products to new markets across the “great highway” of the high seas an American battleship navy to deter or destroy rival fleets and a network of naval bases capable of providing fuel and supplies for the enlarged navy, and maintaining open lines of communications between the United States and its new markets.

Mahan’s emphasis upon the acquisition of naval bases was not completely new. Following the Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward had attempted to expand the U.S. commercial presence in Asia by purchasing Alaska in 1867, and increasing American influence over Hawaii by concluding a reciprocity treaty that would bind the islands’ economy to that of the United States. Seward also attempted to purchase suitable Caribbean naval bases. Finally, he attempted to ratify a treaty with the Colombian Government that would allow the United States to build an isthmian canal through the province of Panama. In the wake of the Civil War, however, Congress became preoccupied with Reconstruction in the South, and the Senate rejected all of Seward’s efforts to create a network of American naval bases.

In the 1890s, Mahan’s ideas resonated with leading politicians, including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, and Secretary of the Navy Herbert Tracy. After the outbreak of hostilities with Spain in May 1898, President William McKinley finally secured the annexation of Hawaii by means of joint resolution of Congress. Following the successful conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States gained control of territories that could serve as the coaling stations and naval bases that Mahan had discussed, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Five years later, the United States obtained a perpetual lease for a naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba .

Alfred Thayer Mahan

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Alfred Thayer Mahan, (born September 27, 1840, West Point, New York, U.S.—died December 1, 1914, Quogue, New York), American naval officer and historian who was a highly influential exponent of sea power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mahan was the son of a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1859 and went on to serve nearly 40 years of active duty in the United States Navy. He fought in the American Civil War, later served on the staff of Adm. J.A.B. Dahlgren, and was steadily promoted, reaching the rank of captain in 1885. In 1884 he was invited by Stephen Luce, president of the newly established Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, to lecture on naval history and tactics there. Mahan became the college’s president in 1886 and held that post until 1889.

In 1890 Mahan published his college lectures as The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783. In this book he argued for the paramount importance of sea power in national historical supremacy. The book, which came at a time of great technological improvement in warships, won immediate recognition abroad. In his second book, The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812 (1892), Mahan stressed the interdependence of the military and commercial control of the sea and asserted that the control of seaborne commerce can determine the outcome of wars. Both books were avidly read in Great Britain and Germany, where they greatly influenced the buildup of naval forces in the years prior to World War I.

Mahan retired from the U.S. Navy in 1896 but was subsequently recalled to serve on the Naval War Board during the Spanish-American War (1898). He served as president of the American Historical Association in 1902. In 1906 Mahan and other naval captains who had served in the Civil War were promoted to the rank of rear admiral.

In The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (1897), Mahan sought to arouse his fellow Americans to a realization of their maritime responsibilities. His other major books included The Life of Nelson (1897) and The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (1913). Before his death in December 1914, Mahan foretold the defeat of the Central Powers and of the German navy in World War I.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Brian Duignan, Senior Editor.


Duncan, Francis 1957 Mahan: Historian With a Purpose. United States Naval Institute, Proceedings 83: 498-503.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1954 National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy. United States Naval Institute, Proceedings 80:483–493.

Livezey, William E. 1947 Mahan on Sea Power. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press. ⊒ Contains a comprehensive bibliography.

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Mahan formulated his concept of sea power while reading a history book in Lima, Peru, after having observed the final stages of the War of the Pacific, in which Chile decisively defeated an alliance of Peru and Bolivia after seizing naval superiority. [7] [8]

The book was published by Mahan while president of the US Naval War College, and was a culmination of his ideas regarding naval warfare.

Mahan began the book with an examination of what factors led to a supremacy of the seas, especially how Great Britain was able to rise to its near dominance. He identified such features as geography, population, and government, and expanded the definition of sea power as comprising a strong navy and commercial fleet. Mahan also promoted the belief that any army would succumb to a strong naval blockade. [9]

The book then goes on to describe a series of European and American wars and how naval power was used in each.

  • Preface
  • Introductory
  • Chapter I: Discussion of the Elements of Sea Power.
  • Chapter II: State of Europe in 1660. Second Anglo-Dutch War, 1665-1667. Sea Battles of Lowestoft and of the Four Days.
  • Chapter III: War of England and France in Alliance Against the United Provinces, 1672-1674.--Finally, of France Against Combined Europe, 1674-1678.--Sea Battles of Solebay, the Texel, and Stromboli.
  • Chapter IV: English Revolution. War of the League of Augsburg, 1688-1697. Sea Battles of Beachy Head and La Hougue.
  • Chapter V: War of the Spanish Succession, 1702-1713. Sea Battle of Malaga.
  • Chapter VI: The Regency in France. Alberoni in Spain. Policies of Walpole and Fleuri. War of the Polish Succession. English Contraband Trade in Spanish America. Great Britain Declares War Against Spain, 1715-1739.
  • Chapter VII: War Between Great Britain and Sapin, 1739. War of the Austrian Succession, 1740. France Joins Spain Against Great Britain, 1744. Sea Battles of Matthews, Anson, and Hawke. Peace of Aix-La-Chapelle, 1748.
  • Chapter VIII: Seven Years' War, 1756-1763. England's Overwhelming Power and Conquests on the Seas, in North America, Europe, and East and West Indies. Sea Battles: Byng off Minorca Hawke and Conflans Pocock and D'Ache in East Indies.
  • Chapter IX: Course of Events from the Peace of Paris to 1778. Maritime War Consequent upon the American Revolution. Battle off Ushant.
  • Chapter X: Maritime War in North America and West Indies, 1778-1781. Its Influence upon the Course of the American Revolution. Fleet Actions off Grenada, Dominica, and Chesapeake Bay.
  • Chapter XI: Maritime War in Europe, 1779-1782.
  • Chapter XII: Events in the East Indies, 1778-1781. Suffren Sails from Brest for India, 1781. His Brilliant Naval Campaign in the Indian Seas, 1782, 1783.
  • Chapter XIII: Events in the West Indies after the Surrender of Yorktown. Encounters of De Grasse with Hood. The Sea Battle of the Saints. 1781-1782.
  • Chapter XIV: Critical Discussion of the Maritime War of 1778.

Timeliness contributed no small part to the widespread acceptance and resultant influence of Mahan's views. Although his history was relatively thin (he relied on secondary sources), the vigorous style and clear theory won widespread acceptance by navalists across the world. [10] [a] Seapower supported the new colonialism that Europe and Japan were imposing on Africa and Asia. Given the very rapid technological changes underway in propulsion (from coal to oil, from reciprocating engines to steam turbines), ordnance (with better fire directors, and new high explosives) and armor (hardened steel), the emergence of new craft such as destroyers and submarines, and the development of radio, Mahan's emphasis on the capital ship and the command of the sea came at an opportune moment. [11] [12]

Daniel Immerwahr in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States outlines that Mahan's greatest concern is with trade and how to secure shipping routes throughout the complex process of ports, coaling stations, restocking supplies, and naval protection. [13] "Mahan warned that war might close the seas to the United States. Its ships would then be 'like land birds, unable to fly far from their own shores'". [13]

19th - 20th Century Edit

British Edit

Between 1890 and 1915, Mahan and British admiral Jacky Fisher faced the problem of how to dominate home waters and distant seas with naval forces not strong enough to do both. Mahan argued for a universal principle of concentration of powerful ships in home waters and minimized strength in distant seas, while Fisher reversed Mahan by utilizing technological change to propose submarines for defense of home waters and mobile battle cruisers for protection of distant imperial interests. [14]

German Edit

Mahan was initially introduced to the German navy by the strategist Ludwig Borckenhagen, in a series of influential papers. Subsequently, his name became a household word in the German navy, as Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered his officers to read Mahan, and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849–1930) used Mahan's reputation to build a powerful surface fleet. Mahan's ideas decisively shaped Japanese naval doctrine, especially in the fleet actions of World War II. [15]

French Edit

The French at first adopted Mahan's theories. French naval doctrine in 1914 was dominated by Mahan's theory of sea power and therefore geared toward winning decisive battles and gaining mastery of the seas. But the course of World War I changed ideas about the place of the navy, as the refusal of the German fleet to engage in a decisive battle, the Dardanelles expedition of 1915, the development of submarine warfare, and the organization of convoys all showed the navy's new role in combined operations with the army. [9]

The navy's part in securing victory was not fully understood by French public opinion in 1918, but a synthesis of old and new ideas arose from the lessons of the war, especially by admiral Raoul Castex (1878–1968), from 1927 to 1935, who synthesized in his five-volume Théories Stratégiques the classical and materialist schools of naval theory. He reversed Mahan's theory that command of the sea precedes maritime communications and foresaw the enlarged roles of aircraft and submarines in naval warfare. Castex enlarged strategic theory to include nonmilitary factors (policy, geography, coalitions, public opinion, and constraints) and internal factors (economy of force, offense and defense, communications, operational plans, morale, and command) to conceive a general strategy to attain final victory. [16]

United States Edit

Locating a sufficient supply of guano that enabled the radical incline of refertilizing American farmlands that would otherwise become desolate from nitrogen deficiency through successive farming year-on-year was a contextualising element to Mahan's work. With a Peruvian (and British) monopoly on guano across South American islands, this pushed the US into searching and securing alternative islands that fed into Mahan's goal of creating sea "highways" between land. [13] [17] To expediate this process, the US Congress had previously passed the Guano Islands Act 1856 to allow citizen to take unclaimed islands for the US and allow extraction of this resource. [18] This can be seen in the historic and continued owned island Territories of the United States.

American expansionism and imperialism was influenced through this book as Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Mahan: "during the last two days I have spent half my time, busy as I am, in reading your book . I am greatly in error if it does not become a naval classic". [19] There is noted influence on reading this book and Roosevelt's push to start expansionism with the Spanish-American War [13] to secure resources and naval "highways" for ships across the Caribbean and Pacific - later influencing their ability to operate airstrips for World War I and World War II in places such as Guam.

21st Century Edit

Mahan's strategic theories continue to be influential into the 21st century, especially in the newly emerging naval powers India and China. [20] [21]

Although Mahan's influence on foreign powers has been widely recognized, only in recent decades have scholars called attention to his role as significant in the growth of American overseas possessions, the rise of the new American navy, and the adoption of the strategic principles upon which it operated. [22] [23] [b]

Mahan & The Influence of Sea Power Upon History

From 1865 to 1885, commerce raiding and coastal defense were the accepted strategies of the U.S. Navy. In an age of technological change, these ideas began to seem obsolete to an influential group of American naval leaders. RADM Stephen B. Luce established the Naval War College in 1884. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was assigned there. Mahan's lecture notes become the basis for his book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, published in 1890. The book brought Mahan fame in his lifetime and ever since.

In the context of late 19th Century during times of peace as well as war. This had understandable appeal to industrialists, merchants interested in overseas trade, investors, nationalists, and imperialists, and peacetime America. Mahan provided a powerful argument for achieving and preserving sea power.

The decline of the U.S. Navy ended about 1880, and by 1890, a renaissance was in full swing. The dominant evidence was Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan's book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660- 1763 (1890). Equally significant were the new battleships utilizing Mahan's strategy of command of the sea and clearly displaying the industrial maturation of the United States.

The essence of Mahan from a naval viewpoint is that a great navy is a mark and prerequisite of national greatness. A great navy is one designed to fight an enemy in fleet engagements in order to win command of the sea, not one designed for commerce raiding or guerre de course. Mahan said strategic principles "remain as though laid on a rock." Geopolitical principles underlying national (and maritime) greatness: Geographic position Physical conformation Extent of territory Number of population Character of the people Character of the government. Tactics were conditioned by changing types of naval armaments. Tactics were aspects of operations occurring after the beginning of combat.

While Mahan recognized clearly that tactics were fluid due to changes in armaments, he did not view strategy in the same way. He did not realize the extent to which technology would affect, for instance, the validity of some of his six elements of sea power. Mahan was strongly influenced, as were most army officers of the period, by the writings of Jomini, a Swiss writer on strategy in Napoleon's campaigns. Jomini's work depended heavily on fixed principles that could be stated with mathematical precision and comprehensiveness.

Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan

Byron King recounts the life, thoughts, and literary career of Alfred Thayer Mahan, one of the giants of naval military thought.

IN HIS 1948 memoir entitled On Active Service in Peace and War, former U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson recalled “the peculiar psychology of the Navy Dept., which frequently seemed to retire from the realm of logic into a dim religious world in which Neptune was God…and the United States Navy the only true Church.” Did Stimson say “peculiar psychology?” Maybe he was kidding, or making an inside-Washington joke. But if he was serious, that’s just like a non-Navy guy, to get the really important things backward.

There is nothing “peculiar” at all about the phenomenon that Stimson was describing. It is, quite simply, the Navy’s way of accepting and accommodating the way the world works, maybe even the way that the world works best. To the well-trained Navy mind, it is like living with the law of gravity. Hmmm…Imagine if gravity worked other than the way that it does. But I digress.

“Neptune was God,” said Stimson. Well, not quite. The American Navy pays homage to many of the ancient customs and traditions of the sea, but institutionally, it does not now and never has worshipped false idols.

The Navy simply acknowledges and respects the fact that the Almighty chose to cover more than 70% of the surface of the Earth with, on average, two miles of salt water. And it would be several generations after Stimson before God would be forced out of public life in the United States, let alone out of its Navy.

And as to the “prophet” Mahan, that would be Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), rear admiral, U.S. Navy, about whom we write today.

Mahan was commissioned in the U.S. Navy in 1859 (just a few months before Edwin Drake brought in the world’s first commercial oil well at Titusville, Pa., for those of you who have been taking staff rides through history in our previous essays in Whiskey & Gunpowder.

The young Ensign Mahan served on the Union side during the Civil War, learning his naval profession by working on ships that supported the Northern blockade of the Southern ports. After the war, Mahan spent the next two decades making his career in the sea service. In 1886, Mahan, by then a captain, was appointed as an instructor of naval history and tactics at the newly created Naval War College. And the rest is history, if you know it.

Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History

In 1890, Mahan published one of the most important books of the age, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. It was not so much a history book as a book about “sea power,” of the naval type, and its “influence” on history. As history books go, there are many chronicles that are better written than Mahan’s.

Despite its dry-sounding title, however, Mahan’s book instantly became a best seller in the United States. It was reviewed and discussed in every major journal of commentary, news magazine, and newspaper of the time.

Mahan’s book struck the highest levels of the governing classes like a bolt of lightning and created a tempest of intellectual upheaval not just within the U.S. Navy, but throughout the broader American (and overseas) political, economic, and industrial system. He had written a book about 200 years of naval history and about what that naval history meant to the rise and relationships of state power in the world.

The themes and arguments of Mahan’s work were not entirely novel, having roots in a late 19th-century intellectual school of thought known as “navalism,” which focused on advancing state power through the construction and maintenance of — guess what? — a powerful navy. Still, the impact of Mahan’s book, in its time, was astonishing and entirely unexpected.

The United States was born of British maritime colonies located on the Eastern seacoast. From a maritime standpoint, the sea brought immigrants to the shores of the new nation and served as a base for outward trade with the world at large.

But in the bigger scheme of things, the United States had spent the century previous to Mahan’s book expanding westward and inwards, assimilating half of the North American continent into its political union. (Mahan’s father, Dennis Hart Mahan, was a well-regarded instructor at a decidedly land-oriented institution named the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.)

The central military conflict for the United States and its people during the 19th century was its Civil War (1861-1865), for the most part a land-based conflict. Aside from blockade duty and riverine operations to support the Army during the Civil War, the historical role of the country’s Navy was to protect the coastlines and, to some extent, protect overseas commerce and show the flag on occasion. (This is not to neglect the efforts of the U.S. Navy during the period, but rather to put things into the larger perspective. In particular, Commodore Perry’s expedition to Japan in 1854 opened up that nation to the world, and in no small part propelled Japan into its Meiji revolution. Of that, we will speak another time.)

But by 1890, the American frontier was coming to an end, as no less a historian than Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) would note in his groundbreaking analysis published in 1893, The Significance of the Frontier in American History.

Mahan’s book on sea power included his observations on naval issues and his deductions, conclusions, and theories, all of which were so remarkable as to be astonishing. Or one might also say that in 1890, Capt. Mahan told a lot of people exactly what they wanted to hear.

Mahan wrote of sea power as a basis for a nation’s fitness to play a great role in world affairs. He came up with compelling, navalist-oriented insights on matters of geography and territory, population and national character, and the soundness of a nation’s governance. Mahan’s book was, in some respects, a window into the soul of nations and their political power and a critical review of the inherent worth of any given people — or more pointedly, their government — to command national power or not.

Mahan’s view of history, as seen through the lens of naval developments (if not his fundamental rooting in Christianity — so much for Stimson’s reference to Neptune…), and his focus on the underlying national prerequisites for effective national sea power both hit a nerve and filled a strategic void.

Mahan demonstrated convincingly that the use of America’s Navy during most of the 19th century as a dispersed, coastal defense force was obsolescent and a dangerous pathway upon which to predicate the defense of the nation in the 20th century. Thus, Mahan drafted an intellectual basis for an entirely new national security strategy, built on and around a Navy structured for projecting force, and not holding to a policy based on a relatively static defense against attack from the sea or upon the nation’s overseas commerce.

Alfred Thayer Mahan: The End of the Inner Frontier

In another way of viewing things, the inner frontier of the United States was coming to a distinct end. Mahan’s book came at just the right time in history for the nation midwifed into existence by George Washington, who had cautioned against “foreign entanglements,” to begin to revise and form new policy and strategy concerning matters far beyond its shores.

This is the root concept of modern U.S. political policy and strategic doctrine of power projection abroad. It is no accident that only eight years after the publication of Mahan’s book, the United States embarked on a war with Spain that staked a claim for U.S. military power and political-economic interests on the far side of the planet.

Among other eager readers of Mahan in the early 1890s was a relatively young, but ambitious and up-and-coming, New Yorker named Theodore Roosevelt, who absorbed the book (as did another man named Roosevelt, many years later). The older Roosevelt and Mahan became close acquaintances and would correspond extensively over the years.

Mahan’s book rapidly circled the globe. Within a year of publication, it was translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Japanese, among other languages. The First Lord of the British Admiralty read Mahan’s book and gave a copy to the king of England, who read it and in turn ordered every officer in the Royal Navy to read it as well.

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany “devoured” the work, as he later recalled, and ordered a copy to be placed in every wardroom of every ship in the German fleet. Further to the east, the tsar of Russia read Mahan’s work and sent copies to every admiral and captain in his Imperial Navy.

Mahan’s book was read and studied in the wardrooms and war colleges and in the chancelleries and foreign ministries of France, Italy, Austro-Hungary, Sweden, Greece, Turkey, and many other nations.

The theories of Mahan are credited (or blamed) for providing intellectual and political impetus for a naval armaments race among European powers that contributed, almost a quarter century later, to the outbreak of the Great War.

On the far side of the planet, starting in the early 1890s, the Japanese were then in the process of developing rapidly from a feudal society into a first-rank industrial power (unlike China, which would not make that leap until a century later). The Japanese modeled their entire naval strategy and order of battle upon the theories of Mahan. By 1905, these newly converted but ardent adherents of the American Navy captain from Newport were able to establish in the northwest Pacific the maritime supremacy of the Rising Sun after its defeat (their utter annihilation, really) of the Russian fleet at Tsushima. (This month, May 2005, marks the 100th anniversary of that epic battle. You can read about it here in Whiskey & Gunpowder, in an article scheduled for publication in about two weeks.)

What was this magic elixir of sea power that Mahan described? In terms of naval combat power, of seagoing operations and tactics, it was a distillation and naval application of the theories of war that had been developed earlier in the 19th century by the Prussian Carl Clausewitz (1780-1831) and the Swiss military thinker Henri Jomini (1779-1869). Very simply stated, the precepts of military strategy and operations of these two Germanic theorists involve massing force and applying it at a decisive point, or “center of gravity.”

In essence, Mahan mixed salt water with the concepts of Clausewitz and Jomini, applying their land-based theories of fighting to waging war at sea. Using a concept central to Clausewitz, Mahan viewed the sea as a “center of gravity,” a vital strategic interest of the United States. Any limitation of, or challenge to, U.S. military power, particularly if it came from the sea, would constrain the nation and harm its national interests. Any victory of U.S. arms upon the sea would give the nation the luxury of independent action in pursuing its interests.

Mahan prompted deep, critical thinking about the ability of any given nation to protect itself from attack from the sea and about how to fight upon and command the oceans, when necessary, distant from home shores. Mahan reviewed and examined the 200-year history of construction and employment of naval vessels by Britain, Holland, France, Spain, and Portugal.

He discussed the rivalries at sea of these nations and their respective quests over two centuries for dominion over far-distant waves and shores. Not surprisingly, much of Mahan’s narrative concerns the respective rivalries of the European states to establish their interests in the New World, with extensive coverage devoted to the Seven Years’ War and to the War for American Independence.

From a purely militarily standpoint, Mahan set forth a workable, if not workmanlike, theory of naval war fighting. Mahan’s theory called for nations to construct and maintain large fleets, composed of big ships armed with big guns. (Yes, I know what you are probably thinking…but just try to command the seas with a little fleet composed of small ships armed with small guns.) Mahan’s theories further called for concentrating fleets into powerful, oceangoing combat forces.

Thus armed and ready, a concentrated fleet would be in a position to project a nation’s combat power and seize control of the oceans from an adversary where and when necessary, in furtherance of a nation’s international political interests and military goals. The doctrine calls for a fleet to move forward to meet the opponent and, when circumstances dictate, to use defensive naval operations as the basis for offense.

But if Mahan had merely presented a better way for naval fleets to fight it out with other naval fleets, to blast away at each other and wage violent battles upon the water for absolute sea control, his book would not have had the monumental success that it did. Mahan offered something else to his worldwide readership.

Mahan looked at what was required within a nation, its economy, its politics, and its people to support naval power. In his book, Mahan identified specific social and industrial policies that a nation required in order to be successful at sea and, by extension, to earn and keep its place in the world. (Mahan’s fundamentalist Christian worldview may have had something to do with his perspective, but that is another discussion entirely).

That is, Mahan does not simply set forth a theory of naval warfare, but uses a nation’s distinctive and circumstantial requirement for naval power to lay out the plan for what we might call today a national industrial policy.

Mahan illustrated his central point by explaining what happened to Portugal and Spain. Both nations rose to prominence by virtue of their explorations of the seas and were powerful naval states in the 16th and 17th centuries, with significant military capabilities.

However, according to Mahan, the treasure that these nations’ explorers and conquerors plundered and returned to Europe from the New World only encouraged Portugal and Spain to buy manufactured goods from other countries, including their rivals Britain and Holland. This was the seed of their eventual decline and downfall.

Mahan stated the following: “The mines of Brazil were the ruin of Portugal, as those of Mexico and Peru had been of Spain: All manufactures fell into insane contempt.”

Rather than use the gold and silver that was flowing into their coffers from the New World to build up their own national economies, these two nations spent their wealth abroad and purchased what they needed from others only too willing to sell it to them.

But note for the moment that Mahan the historian does not just say that domestic manufacturing fell into “contempt,” but characterizes it as “insane contempt.” To that point we will return.

Mahan further explains that as a result of their sale of goods to the Iberian countries, British and Dutch manufacturing grew: “The tendency to trade, involving of necessity the production of something to trade with, is the national characteristic most important to the development of sea power.”

Both Britain and Holland built factories to supply goods to Portugal and Spain, and the former expanded shipyards to produce merchant ships capable of importing raw materials and exporting finished goods to the latter. And the next step, according to Mahan, for was Britain and Holland to build powerful navies to protect their merchant ships.

So according to Mahan, sea power goes hand in hand with commerce and trade.

  • Commerce and trade should provide, and must support, a nation and its economy with the ability to produce goods and to make things that others in the world want to obtain.
  • With the ability to produce goods for trade comes the need and the ability to produce the vessels necessary to carry that trade.
  • Finally comes the national ability to create naval sea power to protect that trade and export a nation’s influence to the far corners of the world.

But Mahan also provides a cautionary note: “Where the revenues and industries of a country can be concentrated into a few treasure ships, like the flota of Spanish galleons, the sinew of war may perhaps be cut at a stroke but when its wealth is scattered in thousands of going and coming ships, when the roots of the system spread wide and far, and strike deep, it can stand many a cruel shock and lose many a goodly bough without the life being touched.”

Here, then, is the essence of what drew presidents, prime ministers and kings to the famous book by then-Capt. Mahan. In the course of writing about naval history and its related military affairs, of sea battles long ago, with broadsides blazing and cannonballs whistling between wind-powered men-of-war, the American naval officer had articulated a political and economic theory for the modern age.

By the 1890s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in North America, Europe, Russia, and Japan. Within each nation, industrialists constructed their empires of business.

Coal, steel, railroads, refining, heavy machinery, chemicals, food processing, and more became distinct industrial features of emerging modern economies.

Mahan and his theories provided the governing classes of these emerging industrial nations with a national security requirement to justify harnessing these empires of business.

Here was a modern justification, rooted in principles of state security, for bringing these empires of business into a politically controlled, military-industrial system that would support the business of empire.

So the story of Mahan is not just one of his writing about naval history, interesting as it is, nor the development of naval technology, fascinating as that may be.

Alfred Thayer Mahan: A Theory of Economy and Industry

The central part of this story is about an influential Navy man who created and popularized a theory of economy and industry that formed the foundation for much of what now passes for modern political governance.

That is: basic production within a nation supports manufacturing.

Manufacturing supports trade, domestic and foreign.

Trade supports international commerce.

International commerce is the basis for a nation protecting its interests overseas.

And that requirement to protect its interests, coupled with a nation’s economic power, is the foundation and driving engine of national military power.

Mahan described a formula for national power, if not greatness, but it was and remains a formula that must be followed. Hence, according to Mahan’s theories, it is not just worrisome, but dangerous to national security, that the modern U.S. economy has strayed so far from his fundamental industrial-economic construct, on which more than 100 years of American power has rested and found jurisdiction, if not justification. Intentionally or stupidly, perhaps without realizing it, the governing classes of the United States have, over several generations, turned Mahan’s ambrosia into a rancid and poisonous broth.

The modern U.S. economy imports all manner of basic commodities and manufactured goods produced elsewhere, in containers fabricated elsewhere, in ships constructed elsewhere, powered by fuel produced elsewhere.

The current rush to the national exits, the relentless effort by which domestic manufacturers (and now many service industries) are moving offshore, recalls Mahan’s comment on the “insane contempt” in which manufacturing was held in Portugal and Spain, a precursor to their respective declines.

“But,” notes the critic, “Mahan lived in an era of the gold standard, when international accounts were settled in gold.” Hence, goes the argument, the demise of gold as a form of backing for a nation’s currency in this modern era diminishes to some extent Mahan’s theories as they pertain to trade between nations.

Thus, today we no longer characterize what is going on in the field of the declining national manufacturing base as a reflection of “insane contempt.” In polite company and educated society, the characterization of the modern economy of the United States is that it has reached a “postindustrial state,” or that it is a “service economy.”

But to focus on the trade imbalance as an accounting issue is not to view the problem from a height sufficient to take its proper measure. Mahan made a profound point of describing what happens to a nation that fails, for whatever reason, to nurture its basic productive sectors.

In one passage, Mahan describes the plight of Portugal: “After their gold, the Portuguese abandoned their very soil the vineyards of Oporto were finally bought by the English with Brazilian gold, which had passed through Portugal to be spread throughout England.”

Mahan called this, in a remarkably prescient critique in the manner of the Austrian School of economics, “a striking example of the difference between real and fictitious wealth.”

Whether in yellow metal or in fiat currency, Mahan’s point remains valid about the long-term prospects for decline of a nation that abandons basic production and manufacture as a part of its economy.

With an annual trade deficit well over $700 billion, the modern United States is like Portugal or Spain of old, but without the gold and silver.

Instead of exporting those precious metals, today the United States exports dollars.

But dollars are at root mere debt instruments, an elastic currency created in inflationary excess by the Federal Reserve, which is institutionally captive of its interest-rate paradigms and unshackled by any real, let alone external and independent, mechanism to restrain the growth of the U.S. money supply.

This is the deadly trap of the “fictitious wealth” of which Mahan wrote.

The modern United States, fundamentally through its monetary mismanagement, has moved away from, if not forgotten, the underlying lessons of Mahan.

The modern U.S. economy is fast losing its ability to create and maintain its basic, productive economic strength, the sine qua non of Mahan’s foundation for national power.

Having shrugged off, if not forgotten, the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the United States sails slowly, but steadily, on a path to monetary ruin and inexorable decline.

If this is what former War Secretary Stimson meant when he characterized certain people as having that “peculiar psychology of the Navy Dept.,” then my hope is that it is contagious.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
May 12, 2005

P.S. The U.S. Navy has named four ships after Alfred Thayer Mahan. The first Mahan was a First World War-era destroyer (DD-102) that served from 1918-1930 in the Atlantic and Caribbean. The second vessel to bear the name was also a destroyer (DD-364) serving from 1936-1944 and earning five battle stars in World War II before being sunk by Japanese kamikaze aircraft. The third Mahan was a guided missile destroyer (DLG-11/DDG 42), serving from 1960-1993, earning 12 battle stars during the Vietnam conflict and later sailing off the coasts of, among other places, Lebanon and Libya. The current Mahan is a guided missile destroyer (DDG-72) commissioned in 1996 and presently home-ported in Norfolk, Va., from which it sails in support of worldwide U.S. Navy operations.

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Alfred Thayer Mahan: Proponent of American Naval Power - History

Under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States emerged from the nineteenth century with ambitious designs on global power through military might, territorial expansion, and economic influence. Though the Spanish-American War had begun under the administration of William McKinley, Roosevelt, the hero of San Juan Hill, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Vice-President, and President, was arguably the most visible and influential proponent of American imperialism at the turn of the century. Roosevelt’s emphasis on developing the American navy, and on Latin America as a key strategic area of U.S. foreign policy, would have long-term consequences.

In return for Roosevelt’s support of the Republican nominee, William McKinley, in the 1896 presidential election, McKinley appointed Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The head of the department, John Long, had a competent but lackadaisical managerial style that allowed Roosevelt a great deal of freedom that Roosevelt used to network with such luminaries as military theorists Alfred Thayer Mahan and naval officer George Dewey and politicians such as Henry Cabot Lodge and William Howard Taft. During his tenure he oversaw the construction of new battleships, the implementation of new technology, and laid the groundwork for new shipyards, all with the goal of projecting America’s power across the oceans. Roosevelt wanted to expand American influence. For instance, he advocated for the annexation of Hawaii for several reasons: it was within the American sphere of influence, it would deny Japanese expansion and limit potential threats to the West Coast, it had an excellent port for battleships at Pearl Harbor, and it would act as a fueling station on the way to pivotal markets in Asia.

Teddy Roosevelt, a politician turned soldier, gained fame (and perhaps infamy) after he and his “Rough Riders” took San Juan Hill. Images like the poster praised Roosevelt and the battle as Americans celebrated this “splendid little war.” “William H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee,” 1899. Wikimedia.

Roosevelt, after winning headlines in the war, ran as Vice President under McKinley and rose to the presidency after McKinley’s assassination by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901. Among his many interventions in American life, Roosevelt acted with vigor to expand the military, naval power especially, to protect and promote American interests abroad. This included the construction of eleven battleships between 1904 and 1907. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s naval theories, described in his The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, influenced Roosevelt a great deal. In contrast to theories that advocated for commerce raiding, coastal defense and small “brown water” ships, the imperative to control the sea required battleships and a “blue water” navy that could engage and win decisive battles with rival fleets. As president, Roosevelt continued the policies he established as Assistant Naval Secretary and expanded the U.S. fleet. The mission of the Great White Fleet, sixteen all-white battleships that sailed around the word between 1907 and 1909, exemplified America’s new power.

Roosevelt insisted that the “big stick” and the persuasive power of the U.S. military could assure U.S. hegemony over strategically important regions in the Western Hemisphere. The United States used military intervention in various circumstances to further its objectives, but it did not have the ability nor the inclination to militarily impose its will on the entirety of South and Central America. The United States therefore more often used informal methods of empire, such as so-called “dollar diplomacy,” to assert dominance over the hemisphere.

The United States actively intervened again and again in Latin America. Throughout his time in office, Roosevelt exerted U.S. control over Cuba (even after it gained formal independence in 1902) and Puerto Rico, and he deployed naval forces to ensure Panama’s independence from Colombia in 1901 in order to acquire a U.S. Canal Zone. Furthermore, Roosevelt pronounced the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904, proclaiming U.S. police power in the Caribbean. As articulated by President James Monroe in his annual address to Congress in 1823, the United States would treat any military intervention in Latin America by a European power as a threat to American security. Roosevelt reaffirmed the Monroe Doctrine and expanded it by declaring that the U.S. had the right to preemptive action through intervention in any Latin American nation in order to correct administrative and fiscal deficiencies.

Roosevelt’s policy justified numerous and repeated police actions in “dysfunctional” Caribbean and Latin American countries by U.S. marines and naval forces and enabled the founding of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This approach is sometimes referred to as “gunboat diplomacy,” wherein naval forces and marines land in a national capital to protect American and Western personnel, temporarily seize control of the government, and dictate policies friendly to American business, such as the repayment of foreign loans. For example, in 1905 Roosevelt sent the marines to occupy the Dominican Republic and established financial supervision over the Dominican government. Imperialists often framed such actions as almost humanitarian. They celebrated white Anglo-Saxon societies such as found in the United States and the British Empire as advanced practitioners of nation-building and civilization, helping to uplift debtor nations in Latin America that lacked the manly qualities of discipline and self-control. Roosevelt, for instance, preached that it was the “manly duty” of the United States to exercise an international police power in the Caribbean and to spread the benefits of Anglo-Saxon civilization to inferior states populated by inferior peoples. The president’s language, for instance, contrasted debtor nation’s “impotence” with the United States’ civilizing influence, belying new ideas that associated self-restraint and social stability with Anglo-Saxon manliness.

Dollar diplomacy offered a less costly method of empire and avoided the troubles of military occupation. Washington worked with bankers to provide loans to Latin American nations in exchange for some level of control over their national fiscal affairs. Roosevelt first implemented dollar diplomacy on a vast scale, while Presidents Taft and Wilson continued the practice in various forms during their own administrations. All confronted instability in Latin America. Rising debts to European and American bankers allowed for the inroads of modern life but destabilized much of the region. Bankers, beginning with financial houses in London and New York, saw Latin America as prime opportunities for investment. Lenders took advantage of the region’s newly formed governments’ need for cash and exacted punishing interest rates on massive loans, which were then sold off in pieces on the secondary bond market. American economic interests were now closely aligned with the region, but also further undermined by the chronic instability of the region’s newly formed governments, which were often plagued by mismanagement, civil wars, and military coups in the decades following their independence. Turnover in regimes interfered with the repayment of loans, as new governments would often repudiate the national debt or force a renegotiation with suddenly powerless lenders.

Creditors could not force settlements of loans until they successfully lobbied their own governments to get involved and forcibly collect debts. The Roosevelt administration did not want to deny the Europeans’ rightful demands of repayment of debt, but it also did not want to encourage European policies of conquest in the hemisphere as part of that debt collection. U.S. policy makers and military strategists within the Roosevelt administration determined that this European practice of military intervention posed a serious threat to American interests in the region. Roosevelt reasoned that the U.S. must create and maintain fiscal and political stability within strategically important nations in Latin America, particularly those affecting routes to and from the proposed Panama Canal. As a result, U.S. policy makers considered intervention in places like Cuba and the Dominican Republic a necessity to insure security around the region.

The Monroe Doctrine provided the Roosevelt administration with a diplomatic and international legal tradition through which it could assert a U.S. right and obligation to intervene in the hemisphere. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine asserted that the United States wished to promote stable, prosperous states in Latin America that could live up to their political and financial obligations. Roosevelt declared that “wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may finally require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the United States cannot ignore this duty.” President Monroe declared what Europeans could not do in the Western Hemisphere Roosevelt inverted his doctrine to legitimize direct U.S. intervention in the region.

Though aggressive and bellicose, Roosevelt did not necessarily advocate expansion by military force. In fact, the president insisted that in dealings with the Latin American nations, he did not seek national glory or expansion of territory and believed that war or intervention should be a last resort when resolving conflicts with problematic governments. According to Roosevelt, such actions were necessary to maintain “order and civilization.” Then again, Roosevelt certainly believed in using military power to protect national interests and spheres of influence when absolutely necessary. He also believed that American sphere included not only Hawaii and the Caribbean, but also much of the Pacific. When Japanese victories over Russia threatened the regional balance of power he sponsored peace talks between Russian and Japanese leaders, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.

Alfred Thayer Mahan - Sea Power

Mahan used history as a stock of lessons to be learned—or more exactly, as a pool of examples that exemplified his theories. Mahan believed that national greatness was inextricably associated with the sea, with its commercial usage in peace and its control in war. His goal was to discover the laws of history that determined who controlled the seas. His theoretical framework came from Jomini, with an emphasis on strategic locations (such as chokepoints, canals, and coaling stations), as well as quantifiable levels of fighting power in a fleet. The primary mission of a navy was to secure the command of the sea. This not only permitted the maintenance of sea communications for one's own ships while denying their use to the enemy but also, if necessary, provided the means for close supervision of neutral trade. This control of the sea could not be achieved by destruction of commerce but only by destroying or neutralizing the enemy fleet. This called for concentration of naval forces composed of capital ships, not unduly large but numerous, well manned with crews thoroughly trained, and operating under the principle that the best defense is an aggressive offense.

Mahan contended that with command of the sea, even if local and temporary, naval operations in support of land forces can be of decisive importance and that naval supremacy can be exercised by a transnational consortium acting in defense of a multinational system of free trade. His theories—written before the submarine became a factor in warfare against shipping—delayed the introduction of convoys as a defense against German U-Boats in World War I. By the 1930s the U.S. Navy was building long-range submarines to raid Japanese shipping, but the Japanese, still tied to Mahan, designed their submarines as ancillaries to the fleet and failed to attack American supply lines in the Pacific in World War II.

Mahan argued that radical technological change does not eliminate uncertainty from the conduct of war, and therefore a rigorous study of history should be the basis of naval officer education.

Sumida (2000) argues Mahan believed that good political and naval leadership was no less important than geography when it came to the development of sea power. Second, his unit of political analysis insofar as sea power was concerned was a transnational consortium rather than the single nation-state. Third, his economic ideal was free trade rather than autarchy. Fourth, his recognition of the influence of geography on strategy was tempered by a strong appreciation of the power of contingency to affect outcomes.

Mahan prepared a secret contingency plan of 1890 in case war should break out between Britain and the United States. Mahan concluded that the British would attempt to blockade the eastern ports, so the American Navy should be concentrated in one of these ports, preferably New York with its two widely separated exits, while torpedo boats should defend the other harbors. This concentration of the U.S. fleet would force the British to tie down such a large proportion of their navy to watch the New York exits that the other American ports would be relatively safe. Detached American cruisers should wage "constant offensive action" against the enemy's exposed positions, and if the British were to weaken their blockade force off New York to attack another American port, the concentrated U.S. fleet should seize the opportunity to escort an invasion fleet to capture the British coaling ports in Nova Scotia, thereby seriously weakening the British ability to engage in naval operations off the American coast. This contingency plan is a clear example of the application of Mahan's principles of naval war, with a clear reliance on Jomini's principle of controlling strategic points.

Mahan was a frequent commentator on world naval, strategic and diplomatic affairs. In the 1890s he argued that the United States should concentrate its naval fleet and obtain Hawaii as a hedge against Japanese eastward expansion and that the U.S. should help maintain a balance of power in the region in order to advance the principle of the Open Door policy both commercially and culturally. Mahan represented the United States at the first international conference on arms control that was initiated by Russia in 1899. Russia sought a "freeze" to keep from falling behind in Europe's arms race. Other countries attended in order to mollify various peace groups. No significant arms limitations agreements were reached. A proposal on neutral trade rights was debated but ruled out of order by the Russians. The only significant result of the conference was the establishment of an ineffective Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.

Read more about this topic: Alfred Thayer Mahan

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The Prophet of Sea Power

Democracies are good at war for many of the same reasons they are good at capitalism and at the enhancement of the human spirit. They encourage innovation, self-reliance and free thought, while also allowing some leeway for error and defeat. Dependent upon the popular will, they breed loyalty and devotion.

And yet the idea of a large standing military raises the hackles of a democracy. Its very nature—an absolute command structure, in which decisions are not put to a vote but ordered the settling of all issues ultimately by force of arms the limitation of individual rights each soldier must accept— cuts against the grain of a free society.

This has been especially true for Americans: As a people, we have long been suspicious of big government, particularly the federal government, even when we’ve accepted it. Right up until World War II we also remained suspicious that a large, permanent and professional military might serve primarily as the enforcing arm of such a government. At the same time, as America grew, so did its interactions with the rest of the world. A United States that spanned a continent and boasted the world’s largest economy by the 1880s could no longer live in splendid isolation. It could no longer depend upon its usual brilliant amateurism in all matters military, nor could it rely upon the kindness of strangers to protect American commerce and interests around the world.

Much of the debate over just how the United States would grow up and take its proper place in the greater world revolved around a pair of extraordinary American thinkers: Colonel Emory Upton, from the Army, and Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, from the Navy. Both were endowed with all the virtues and the limitations of their age. Stunningly ambitious, industrious, prolific, disciplined, patriotic, observant and innovative, they were also jealous, intolerant, tone-deaf, neurasthenic and religious to the point of priggishness. What they proposed would influence American military strategy and tactics for decades to follow. But just as significant as their actual ideas was the fact that they were military men, and that they would make their mark not only in the United States but also on the world’s stage.

Military History will explore Upton’s philosophy in a future issue. Here we focus on Mahan.

Alfred Thayer Mahan’s rise from obscure sea captain to international acclaim in the space of four years was improbable to say the least historian Kyle Whitney termed the naval theoretician’s leap the equivalent of “a cheerleader becoming president.”

Mahan became a worldwide celebrity almost overnight— and has remained one. His bald, goateed head stares gravely— almost menacingly—out at us from a thousand history texts. He was, according to one historian or another, “the prophet of sea power in the late 19th century,” “that apostle of navalism and imperialism,” “a naval Mohammed.” The diplomatic historian Sir Charles Webster called him one of the causes of World War I. President Woodrow Wilson more or less concurred, blaming the war in part on the sort of navalism Mahan espoused.

No prophet had less likely beginnings. Indeed, his whole career might be seen as an act of Freudian revenge. Mahan was born at West Point, N.Y., the son of the head of the engineering department at the U.S. Military Academy. Young Alfred started his academic career at Columbia University, then transferred to Annapolis against his parents’ wishes. There, he finished second in his class (1859) but “was unpopular and isolated at the naval academy because of his rigid belief in discipline,” according to historian Barry M. Gough.

Bright, ambitious and quietly vain, Mahan was an austere 6-footer who was socially awkward and had trouble showing affection. Relieved to marry the former Ellen Lyle Evans—against her father’s express wishes—the 31-year-old commander turned over to her the management of the household and their eventual three children, along with his monthly paycheck. A tall, heavy-set, intelligent and determined woman 11 years his junior, Ellen proved nearly as thrifty and punctilious as her husband, typing nearly all of his manuscripts herself rather than spending anything on a professional secretary.

While man and wife got on famously, it was a different story between Mahan and his fellow officers and men aboard ship. The exacting officer found regular seamen dirty, unkempt and unlettered they found him a cold, unfeeling martinet. Superiors considered him something of a nuisance.

Mahan was always at sea at sea. He never saw action, only the tedium of blockade duty during the Civil War. He was constantly seasick, and the ships he commanded had a tendency to collide with stationary objects, such as reefs, and moving ones, such as other ships. Given to headaches so terrible he feared he was losing his mind, he spent most of his off-duty hours alone in his cabin, drinking heavily and reading history books. He preferred land-based assignments—such as one he had at the New York Navy Yard, counting stitches in bunting to prove that hand-sewn flags were better than those produced by sewing machines.

Mahan’s attitude toward the Navy of his day is understandable. Historian Louis M. Hacker describes his “long, humdrum years of unchanging service in the curious ships of the old American Navy: in full-rigged frigates that carried their guns in broadside as they did in the days of Drake, in little steam corvettes with full complements of sail, in iron double-ender paddle steamers, steam sloops with iron-plated sides, in river gunboats.” This aging flotilla perfunctorily circled the world again and again, protecting American commerce in waters already made perfectly safe by Britain’s Royal Navy. Its greater struggle was simply staying afloat. By 1883 Mahan was commanding USS Wachusett, a Civil War-era steam sloop-of-war. He was dismayed by its lack of armor, its unseaworthiness and its very limited range. Nearly as bad was its mission, hovering about the west coast of South America for two years to protect any American nationals who might fall afoul of the War of the Pacific, a four-year conflict over saltpeter.

An isolationist and social Darwinist at heart, Mahan feared the United States might join the worldwide European competition for overseas possessions. “I dread outlying colonies or interests,” he wrote a friend, “to maintain which large military establishments are necessary”—not to mention more such assignments.

Mahan, though, was not a man without resources. What Gough calls his “endless politicking” secured at last for him an appointment in 1884 to lecture on naval history at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Still moldering off Peru aboard Wachusett, Mahan put ashore at Lima and hastened to the town’s English Club to read up on his history. It was there he discovered a translation of Theodor Mommsen’s History of Rome. Everything clicked into place.

A few years earlier, when a parsimonious U.S. Congress had sold another warship out from under him, Mahan was forced to return from the Far East on his own, booking passage through British colonial outposts. A humiliating experience for any self-respecting American naval officer, it nonetheless gave him the chance to study the British empire at its vital joints.

Adding Mommsen’s study of the Roman Republic to his own observations, Mahan suddenly had a thesis: Control of the seas was the key historical factor in the rise and fall of empires and even whole civilizations. Tearing through New York’s Astor Library and Lyceum of Natural History en route to Newport, he put together a pair of lectures for the Naval War College. By 1890 he had a book: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783. It would be one of the most influential tomes ever published in America.

“The light dawned first on my inner consciousness I owed it to no other man,” he maintained, though he acknowledged the influence of Mommsen, Antoine-Henri Jomini, British contemporaries Sir John Knox Laughton and Sir John Robert Seeley, and a host of other historians. What Mahan claimed for himself was “not to any breadth or thoroughness of historical knowledge but a certain aptitude to seize on salient features of an era— salient either by action or nonaction, by presence or absence.”

The bulk of Mahan’s work traces, in the dense, formal prose of his day, the rise of Britain as a great power through nearly 150 years of naval wars with Spain, Holland and France. Its much sexier central idea—that dawning light— he unfolds in its first two introductory chapters. It revolves around a quote from Thomas Arnold’s history of Rome that Mahan put on the very first page of his preface:

Twice in history has there been witnessed the struggle of the highest individual genius against the resources and institutions of a great nation, and in both cases the nation has been victorious. For 17 years Hannibal strove against Rome for 16 years [Napoléon] Bonaparte strove against England: The efforts of the first ended in Zama those of the second in Waterloo.

Sea power, to Mahan, was the key to ultimate victory—an insight neither properly appreciated nor addressed before. Even the greatest generals and most formidable land powers were ultimately helpless without control of the world’s major waterways. Mahan’s study might concern the great Age of Sail or the rowed galleys of the ancient world. But there remained, he claimed, “general principles of maritime war, notwithstanding the great changes that have been brought about in naval weapons by the scientific advances of the past half century and by the introduction of steam as the motive power.”

Mahan outlined six such principles: “Geographical Position” (of a nation) “Physical Conformation” (the shape of a nation’s coast and the ease with which it can move ships about its waterways, as well as its “natural productions and climate”) “Extent of Territory” “Number of Population” “Character of the People” (how prepared they are to trade, take risks and plant colonies) and “Character of the Government” (namely, its foresight in maintaining a strong navy and merchant marine).

Not surprising, for this incorrigible Anglophile and white supremacist, Mahan’s “general principles” read like a description of Great Britain, but at the time Americans still possessed the admirable habit of studying closely what worked in other nations and learning from it. What’s more, it was difficult to argue with success. England, after all, had come to dominate the world’s seas much as Rome had dominated the Mediterranean.

From Britain’s experience Mahan gleaned certain strategic doctrines to support his general principles. Great powers maintained great navies, using them to protect commercial shipping, maintain vital sea-based communications and, above all, guard important sea-lanes, which with regard to national defense were every bit as valuable as critical roads and mountain passes.

Fleets best comprised primarily great capital ships, to be closely concentrated, kept ready to deploy in force and used to overwhelm the enemy in pitched battles (mere raids on commerce were of secondary importance and never decisive). Colonies were vital not only as sources of raw industrial materials, but also as strategic sanctuaries, points of refueling and repair, and choke points against enemy shipping and operations. Such were the strategic British outposts Mahan had traversed after losing his ship—from Hong Kong and Singapore to India, Aden, Suez, Cyprus, Malta and Gibraltar, linking the empire around the world.

The Influence of Sea Power on History, in Hacker’s estimation, “in its way and its place was to have as profound an effect on the world as had Darwin’s Origin of Species.” The book went through 50 editions and was translated into six languages. Above all, it was read by a similar-minded set of national leaders, naval officers and expansionists in key nations around the globe.

Harvard-educated Japanese Count Kaneko Kentaro read it with “something akin to a burst of Zen enlightenment,” according to historian Roger Dingman. Kentaro brought it home and translated it into a textbook for the Imperial Japanese Navy. Soon to follow was a Japanese translation of Mahan’s The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future—tellingly retitled On the Sea Power in the Pacific.

Kaiser Wilhelm II famously wired an American friend in 1894: I AM JUST NOW NOT READING BUT DEVOURING CAPTAIN MAHAN’S BOOK AND AM TRYING TO LEARN IT BY HEART. IT IS A FIRSTCLASS BOOK AND CLASSICAL ON ALL POINTS. The kaiser kept a heavily annotated translation by his bedside, ordered all his naval officers to read it and put a copy in the wardroom of every German navy ship.

An inspired Wilhelm then sparked a naval arms race with a Great Britain that felt obliged to maintain its “safety margin” of a navy greater than the two next strongest naval powers combined. Battleships—then “dreadnoughts”—grew rapidly bigger, faster, more powerful. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill built a “Fast Division” of five battleships, each with 75,000 horsepower and a top speed of 25 knots, even while carrying 15-inch guns and 13-inch armor. The only way to attain such speed and such power was to switch the entire fleet to oil under the direction of Admiral Sir John Fisher, the “Oil Maniac.” Oil had vast advantages over coal —it could be transferred even at sea from one ship to another with relative ease, and piling it on didn’t exhaust half the crew during an extended pursuit—and Fisher decided that, for purposes of security, the Royal Navy must have its own oilfield. The Brits soon found one—in Iran, under a 1913 agreement with the Anglo-Persian Oil Co.

Back in America, Mahan’s writings became the gospel of sometime naval historian and Naval War College lecturer Theodore Roosevelt. TR befriended Mahan and plugged him into the influential coterie of eager imperialists historian Evan Thomas would later characterize as “the War Lovers”: Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, John Hay, William Howard Taft, Commodore George Dewey, philosopher Brooks Adams and New York Sun editor Charles A. Dana, lunching together at New York’s toney Metropolitan Club as they dreamed of annexing Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines and cutting a canal through Central America. In remarkably little time—with the backing of an opportunistic jingoist named William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper empire—they would get everything they wanted.

Considering this panoply of historic figures—and the nations they would lead and choices they would make—it seems impossible to overstate Mahan’s influence. But in truth, even before he put pen to paper, the world’s powers were expanding their navies and looking to project their power around the globe. In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm had already jettisoned Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the major obstacle to a naval arms race, and was casting jealous eyes at Britain’s fleets and colonies. And even before Wilhelm reached the throne in 1888, the German empire had snatched up concessions in China and colonies in Africa, the Pacific and even the Caribbean. In Japan, Admiral Marquis Saigo Tsugumichi and other naval expansionists were already installed in the Navy Ministry, where they meticulously studied everything to do with Great Britain and the Royal Navy.

Even the United States had begun to replace the leaky old tubs Mahan had served in, commissioning a series of five partially armored “protected cruisers” for its “New Navy” in the 1880s. These included USS Chicago, flagship of the White Squadron, which Mahan would command in triumph to Europe in 1894. There he would be feted like a head of state and received by the kaiser and by Queen Victoria, who was said also to have read his book. World famous, an intimate of royalty, the seasick captain was now wealthy enough to buy a house in Manhattan and another in the Hamptons.

What Mahan did to earn all this was to provide not a new direction but a “scientific” justification for where the great nations of the day already wanted to go. In an age increasingly enthralled by grand unified theories—Darwinism, social Darwinism, Freudianism, Marxism—his ideas had immediate appeal.

Leading imperialists everywhere agreed. The places where Mahan’s appeal was greatest—the British, German and Japanese empires, the United States—were all relatively new political constructions, led by proud, dynamic peoples especially attuned to the industrial revolution of their time. They were bursting at the seams to expand their influence, their territories, their markets—to show what they could do on the world stage.

Mahan gave them a well-reasoned, well-documented argument for doing exactly that—for becoming “splendid.” It only became evident later that he had helped lead them into a trap.

Of course, there was no question about Mahan’s role in changing how the world would come to conceive of sea power and how it would view the strategic role of sea-lanes, navies, colonies and commerce.

The admiral would bustle about in his newfound glory until his sudden death of a heart attack on Dec. 1, 1914, churning out 20 books, 160 peer-reviewed journal articles, and more than 100 newspaper pieces on naval history and strategy. None of them anticipated the vast changes in military technology about to transform war at sea or some of the changes that had already taken place.

Mahan, for instance, grossly underestimated the potential of submarines, and his disciples in Germany (much to the relief of the Allies in World War I) and Japan (much to the relief of the United States in World War II) did so as well. Yet this weapon was able to raid commerce to the point of deciding a war, something Mahan in all his philosophies never anticipated. Nor—understandably—did he foresee the rise of airpower and rocketry and the extent to which they would alter the nature of war at sea. Mahan’s great, concentrated navies of capital ships lumbered out for exactly one epic battle, between England and Germany at Jutland, within a few years of his death. There, after fighting to a standstill, the German navy retreated to its port for the rest of the war, ending an era.

Mahan would have simply argued that while naval weaponry and tactics had changed once more, his general principles remained. In the narrowest military sense he would have been right. Sea-lanes and transoceanic commerce remain vital to this day, even in the age of air travel.

Yet in the wider strategic realm—where Mahan with his grand unified theories had dared to venture—there was a fatal flaw. Mahan’s theories, by their very nature, demanded aggressive, externalized action that placed an enormous cost upon all those who would live by them.

Establishing and administering colonies and choke points may have seemed a simple enterprise to Mahan. In fact, as Bismarck perceived, most colonies never paid their own freight. Taking them meant the exploitation and suppression of foreign peoples and the corruption of one’s own humanity. The pressing need to control sea-lanes and ensure access to natural resources were two of the leading factors that helped imperial Japan convince itself that it “had” to conquer about half the globe if it were to “survive.” Joining the colony competition led America to some of the most ignoble enterprises in its history. After our “splendid little war” freeing the Philippines and Cuba from Spain, we ran a long, brutal campaign that killed up to a fifth of all Filipinos and allowed Cuba to be turned into a mob-run brothel before facing a nuclear confrontation over the latter that nearly ended civilization. And the aggressive action mandated by Mahan’s theories did indeed help justify the mad naval arms race between the British and German empires that contributed so much to the tensions that brought us World War I—and thus World War II and all of the ancillary conflicts and genocidal rampages of the 20th century.

As noted earlier, Mahan can hardly take the rap for most of this. Yet a more expansive theory of sea power would have perceived that even its general principles had changed by the end of the 19th century. They had changed because nations and industries had changed. The most receptive soil on which Mahan’s theories fell—the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan—had at the time he wrote no real arguments with one another. They had no vast philosophical differences, did not covet each other’s home territories. They faced no serious threat from anyone but each other. They constituted the three greatest economies in the world and one rapidly on the rise. But the wealth of these nations depended not upon particular raw materials but on their mastery of modern industry—that is, not what we might find, but what we can make. This change would make their economies —as they were already proving—virtually indomitable.

In this context Mahan’s theories made as much sense as looking at Hannibal’s campaigns in the Punic Wars and advocating that every nation build up its stock of elephant feed. They served as quasi-scientific justifications for pitting nations that—for the first time in human history—had little to gain from warring on each other in a foolish, costly and open-ended competition motivated by nothing more than chauvinism, false pride and hysteria. They would succeed only in unleashing real threats, real monsters and real insecurities, at an incalculable cost.

For further reading Kevin Baker recommends Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660– 1783, as well as Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters, by Robert Seager.

Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.

Alfred Thayer Mahan: Proponent of American Naval Power - History

Alfred Thayer Mahan: The United States Looking Outward

From The Atlantic Magazine, December 1890

Navy Captain Alfred T. Mahan was sent by the Navy to found the United States Naval War College in 1873. As President of the College he began writing books and articles extolling the value of sea power as a key to national greatness. Going all the way back to the time of Alexander the Great, he argued that those nations which had built a powerful maritime force, including both merchant and naval fleets, had been the most enduring. The greatest historic requisite for national power, Mahan claimed, was sea power, which had made a small nation such as England a world power. Mahan was, naturally, widely admired among the British. Mahan's most famous work was The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (1890), which became one of the most influential books on strategy and foreign policy ever written. By that time his ideas were well known, and he argued widely and publicly that the time had come for the United States to begin to look outward and use its position as a maritime nation to strengthen its position in the world. Implicit in his thinking was the notion that a nation needed overseas possessions, or at least controls and assets, that would enable it to project its power into distant areas. Thus Mahan's ideas formed much of the basis for American imperialism.

Mahan influenced not only American strategists such as future president Theodore Roosevelt, who was strongly influenced by Mahan's work, but other international leaders as well, including Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who set out to build “a navy second to none,” placing him in direct conflict with Great Britain. The Kaiser was the grandson of Queen Victoria Edward VII was the Kaiser's uncle, and Wilhelm despised him, gloating openly at Edward's funeral in 1910. Thus Mahan's work to a certain extent underlay the conflicts that led to the First World War.

Alfred T. Mahan, "The United States Looking Outward," Atlantic Monthly, LXVI (December, 1890), 816-24.

Indications are not wanting of an approaching change in the thoughts and policy of Americans as to their relations with the world outside their own borders. For the past quarter of a century, the predominant idea, which has successfully asserted itself at the polls and shaped the course of the government, has been to preserve the home market for the home industries. The employer and the workman have alike been taught to look at the various economical measures proposed from this point of view, to regard with hostility any step favoring the intrusion of the foreign producer upon their own domain, and rather to demand increasingly rigorous measures of exclusion than to acquiesce in any loosening of the chain that binds the consumer to them. The inevitable consequence has followed, as in all cases when the mind or the eye is exclusively fixed in one direction, that the danger of loss or the prospect of advantage in another quarter has been overlooke.

For nearly the lifetime of a generation, therefore, American industries have been thus protected, until the practice has assumed the force of a tradition, and is clothed in the mail of conservatism. In their mutual relations, these industries resemble the activities of a modem ironclad that has heavy armor, but an inferior engine and no guns mighty for defense, weak for offense. Within, the home market is secured but outside, beyond the broad seas, there are the markets of the world, that can be entered and controlled only by a vigorous contest, to which the habit of trusting to protection by statute does not conduce.

At bottom, however, the temperament of the American people is essentially alien to such a sluggish attitude. Independently of all bias for or against protection, it is safe to predict that, when the opportunities for gain abroad are understood, the course of American enterprise will cleave a channel by which to reach them. .

The interesting and significant feature of this changing attitude is the turning of the eyes outward, instead of inward only, to seek the welfare of the country. To affirm the importance of distant markets, and the relation to them of our own immense powers of production, implies logically the recognition of the link that joins the products and the markets,-that is, the carrying trade the three together constituting that chain of maritime power to which Great Britain owes her wealth and greatness.

Coincident with these signs of change in our own policy there is a restlessness in the world at large which is deeply significant, if not ominous. It is beside our purpose to dwell upon the internal state of Europe, whence, if disturbances arise, the effect upon us may be but partial and indirect. But the great seaboard powers there do not only stand on guard against their continental rivals they cherish also aspirations for commercial extension, for colonies, and for influence in distant regions, which may bring, and, even under our present contracted policy, have already brought them into collision with ourselves. . All over the world German commercial and colonial push is coming into collision with other nations. .

There is no sound reason for believing that the world has passed into a period of assured peace outside the limits of Europe. Unsettled political conditions, such as exist in Haiti, Central America, and many of the Pacific islands, especially the Hawaiian group, when combined with great military or commercial importance, as is the case with most of these positions, involve, now as always, dangerous germs of quarrel, against which it is at least prudent to be prepared. Undoubtedly, the general temper of nations is more averse from war than it was of old. If no less selfish and grasping than our predecessors, we feel more dislike to the discomforts and sufferings attendant upon a breach of peace but to retain that highly valued repose and the undisturbed enjoyment of the returns of commerce, it is necessary to argue upon somewhat equal terms of strength with an adversary. It is the preparedness of the enemy, and not acquiescence in the existing state of things, that now holds back the armies of Europe.

This dispute [between the United States and Canada>, seemingly paltry, yet really serious, sudden in its appearance, and dependent for its issue upon other considerations than its own merits, may serve to convince us of many latent and yet unforeseen dangers to the peace of the western hemisphere, attendant upon the opening of a canal through the Central American Isthmus. . In case of war, the United States will unquestionably command the Canadian Railroad, despite the deterrent force of operations by the hostile navy upon our seaboard but no less unquestionably will she be impotent, as against any of the great maritime powers, to control the Central American canal. Militarily speaking, the piercing of the Isthmus is nothing but a disaster to the United States, in the present state of her military and naval preparation. It is especially dangerous to the Pacific coast but the increased exposure of one part of our seaboard reacts unfavorably upon the whole military situation. Despite a certain great original superiority conferred by our geographical nearness and immense resources, due, in other words, to our natural advantages, and not to our intelligent preparations, the United States is woefully unready, not only in fact, but in purpose, to assert in the Caribbean and Central America a weight of influence proportioned to the extent of her interests. We have not the navy, and, what is worse, we are not willing to have the navy, that will weigh seriously in any disputes with those nations whose interests will there conflict with our own.

We have not, and we are not anxious to provide, the defense of the seaboard which will leave the navy free for its work at sea. We have not, but many other powers have, positions, either within or on the borders of the Caribbean, which not only possess great natural advantages for the control of that sea, but have received and are receiving that artificial strength of fortification and armament which will make them practically inexpugnable. On the contrary, we have not on the Gulf of Mexico even the beginning of a navy yard which could serve as the base of our operations. . That which I deplore, and which is a sober, just, and reasonable cause of deep national concern, is that the nation neither has nor cares to have its sea frontier so defended, and its navy of such power, as shall suffice, with the advantages of our position, to weigh seriously when inevitable discussions arise. .

It is perfectly reasonable and legitimate, in estimating our needs of military preparation, to take into account the remoteness of the chief naval and military nations from our shores, and the consequent difficulty of maintaining operations at such a distance. It is equally proper, in framing our policy, to consider the jealousies of the European family of states, and their consequent unwillingness to incur the enmity of a people so strong as ourselves their dread of our revenge in the future, as well as their inability to detach more than a certain part of their forces to our shores without losing much of their own weight in the councils of Europe. In truth, a careful determination of the force that Great Britain or France could probably spare for operations against our coasts, if the latter were suitably defended, without weakening their European position or unduly exposing their colonies and commerce, is the starting-point from which to calculate the strength of our own navy. If the latter be superior to the force that can thus be sent against it, and the coast be so defended as to leave the navy free to strike where it will, we can maintain our rights not merely the rights which international law concedes, and which the moral sense of nations now supports, but also those equally real rights which, though not conferred by law, depend upon a clear preponderance of interest, upon obviously necessary policy, upon self-preservation, either total or partial.

Our self-imposed isolation in the matter of markets, and the decline of our shipping interest in the last thirty years, have coincided singularly with an actual remoteness of this continent from the life of the rest of the world. .

When the Isthmus is pierced this isolation will pass away, and with it the indifference of foreign nations. From wheresoever they come and whithersoever they afterward go, all ships that use the canal will pass through the Caribbean. Whatever the effect produced upon the prosperity of the adjacent continent and islands by the thousand wants attendant upon maritime activity, around such a focus of trade will centre large commercial and political interests. To protect and develop its own, each nation will seek points of support and means of influence in a quarter where the United States has always been jealously sensitive to the intrusion of European powers. The precise value of the Monroe doctrine is very loosely understood by most Americans, but the effect of the familiar phrase has been to develop a national sensitiveness, which is a more frequent cause of war than material interests and over disputes caused by such feelings there will preside none of the calming influence due to the moral authority of international law, with its recognized principles, for the points in dispute will be of policy, of interest, not of conceded right. Already France and England are giving to ports held by them a degree of artificial strength uncalled for by their present importance. They look to the near future. Among the islands and on the mainland there are many positions of great importance, held now by weak or unstable states. Is the United States willing to see them sold to a powerful rival? But what right will she invoke against the transfer? She can allege but one-that of her reasonable policy supported by her might.

Whether they will or no, Americans must now begin to look outward. The growing production of the country demands it. An increasing volume of public sentiment demands it. The position of the United States, between the two Old Worlds and the two great oceans, makes the same claim, which will soon be strengthened by the creation of the new link joining the Atlantic and Pacific. The tendency will be maintained and increased by the growth of the European colonies in the Pacific, by the advancing civilization of Japan, and by the rapid peopling of our Pacific States with men who have all the aggressive spirit of the advanced line of national progress. Nowhere does a vigorous foreign policy find more favor than among the people west of the Rocky Mountains.

It has been said that, in our present state of unpreparedness, a trans-isthmian canal will be a military disaster to the United States, and especially to the Pacific coast. When the canal is finished the Atlantic seaboard will be neither more nor less exposed than it now is it will merely share with the country at large the increased danger of foreign complications with inadequate means to meet them. The danger of the Pacific coast will be greater by so much as the way between it and Europe is shortened through a passage which the stronger maritime power can control. The danger lies not merely in the greater facility for dispatching a hostile squadron from Europe, but also in the fact that a more powerful fleet than formerly can be maintained on that coast by a European power, because it can be so much more promptly called home in case of need. The greatest weakness of the Pacific ports, however, if wisely met by our government, will go far to insure our naval superiority there.

The military needs of the Pacific States, as well as their supreme importance to the whole country, are yet a matter of the future, but of a future so near that provision should immediately begin. To weigh their importance, consider what influence in the Pacific would be attributed to a nation comprising only the States of Washington, Oregon, and California, when filled with such men as now people them and are still pouring in, and controlling such maritime centres as San Francisco, Puget Sound, and the Columbia River. Can it be counted less because they are bound by the ties of blood and close political union to the great communities of the East? But such influence, to work without jar and friction, requires underlying military readiness, like the proverbial iron hand under the velvet glove. To provide this, three things are needful: First, protection of the chief harbors by fortifications and coast-defense ships, which gives defensive strength, provides security to the community within, and supplies the bases necessary to all military operations. Secondly, naval force, the arm of offensive power, which alone enables a country to extend its influence outward. Thirdly, it should be an inviolable resolution of our national policy that no European state should henceforth acquire a coaling position within three thousand miles of San Francisco-a distance which includes the Sandwich and Galapagos islands and the coast of Central America. For fuel is the life of modern naval war it is the food of the ship without it the modem monsters of the deep die of inanition. Around it, therefore, cluster some of the most important considerations of naval strategy. In the Caribbean and the Atlantic we are confronted with many a foreign coal depot, and perhaps it is not an unmitigated misfortune that we, like Rome, find Carthage at our gates bidding us stand to our arms but let us not acquiesce in an addition to our dangers, a further diversion of our strength, by being forestalled in the North Pacific.

In conclusion, while Great Britain is undoubtedly the most formidable of our possible enemies, both by her great navy and the strong positions she holds near our coasts, it must be added that a cordial understanding with that country is one of the first of our external interests. Both nations, doubtless, and properly, seek their own advantage but both, also, are controlled by a sense of law and justice drawn from the same sources, and deep-rooted in their instincts. Whatever temporary aberration may occur, a return to mutual standards of right will certainly follow. Formal alliance between the two is out of the question, but a cordial recognition of the similarity of character and ideas will give birth to sympathy, which in turn will facilitate a cooperation beneficial to both for, if sentimentality is weak, sentiment is strong.

Watch the video: The Naval Strategy of Alfred Thayer Mahan (May 2022).