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In 1890 Alfred Thayer Mahan published a book that transformed naval theory—and unleashed the world’s great fleets.

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.