In 1890, an obscure naval officer from a third-rate naval power published a book which shaped the course of the 19th and early 20th century arms race and naval strategy. The book carried the grand title The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783 and its author was a shy United States naval officer-turned war college professor named Alfred Thayer Mahan. In the forward to his book, Mahan set forth his purpose to examine “…the general history of Europe and America with particular reference to the effect of sea power upon the course of that history.” The book evolved from a series of lectures to indifferent young lieutenants at the naval war college, and became the last word on naval strategy and thought for admirals, ministers and heads of state. Mahan was strongly influenced about the importance of sea power while reading the history of the Roman Empire, and ironically, several of Mahan’s maxims of sea power appeared in some form within young Theodore Roosevelt’s well-received The Naval War of 1812. By the time he published his sequel in 1892, The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire 1793-1812, Mahan had become an international celebrity and sought-after advisor by heads of state. Naval-minded Roosevelt first as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and then President, counted him as a friend and close advisor. Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany ordered Mahan’s books to be translated and stocked on board his navy’s ships. Mahan was cited by many for fueling the great naval race between Germany and Great Britain, but the charge was speculative.
Mahan’s treatise was that trade is the source of national power, and a strong, blue-water navy was essential to a stable trade. Protecting ports and sea lines of communication, and extending state power, required ocean going fleets rather than coastal defense forces. The ultimate expression of naval power was Entscheidungsschlacht, or the grand battle (or its threat) as the perfect employment of fleets. The Kaiser and his naval minister Tirpitz embraced Mahan’s thesis because it showed how a numerically inferior fleet could overcome a stronger fleet like England’s, even in a stronger enemy’s home waters.
At his death in 1914, at the outbreak of the Great War, Mahan’s theories dominated naval thinking. But Mahan did not live to observe that naval warfare would evolve from one-dimensional surface conflicts between massive dreadnoughts dueling within sight of one another, to three-dimensional war between unseen antagonists in the air, on the surface and below the sea. But while the tactical aspects of sea warfare underwent a fundamental change after the Mahanian era, his basic doctrine of control of the sea was validated in World War II. The struggle for control of the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic and the Pacific, won by Great Britain and the United States, proved essential in defeating the Axis powers.