Revisiting Most Influential Work on Naval Strategy

Revisiting Most Influential Work on Naval Strategy
Navy via AP)

In 1885, Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American naval officer, joined the faculty at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. His lectures were popular among students, and the school’s administrators recognized his gifts for research and writing. One year later, he was promoted to captain and family and friends encouraged him to transform his lectures into a book. The result, published 130 years ago in 1890, was The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, a book that is still in print and still studied by the world’s navies.

Mahan was born on Sept. 27, 1840, on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where his father, Dennis Hart Mahan, was a professor. Alfred attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating shortly before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Mahan served in the Union Navy during the war, mostly on blockade duty. After the war, he served on several warships, but his interests were intellectual and scholarly. He loved history, especially military history. He read Antoine-Henri Jomini’s The Art of War, William Napier’s History of the War in the Peninsula, and most importantly, Theodor Mommsen’s multi-volume History of Rome. The latter work taught him that sea power in its broadest sense was the key to prosperity and national greatness.

In 1883, his first book, The Gulf and Inland Waters, was published as part of Scribner’s series “The Navy in the Civil War.” It was this book, writes biographer Robert Seager, that established Mahan as “a competent naval historian” and led to his assignment to the Naval War College two years later. It was his second book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, however, that brought Mahan national and international recognition and fame. Historian Warren Zimmerman called the book “probably the most influential work on naval strategy ever written.”

Mahan wanted to 'influence the policies of nations'

In his autobiography entitled From Sail to Steam (1907), Mahan recalled that his goal in writing The Influence of Sea Power Upon History was “to show how the control of the sea, commercial and military, had been an object powerful to influence the policies of nations; and equally a mighty factor in the success or failure of those policies.” He accomplished this by historical analysis—of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67); the Anglo-French war against the United Provinces (1672-74); France’s war against a European coalition (1674-78); the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-97); the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13); Great Britain’s war against Spain (1715-39); the War of the Austrian Succession (1740); the Seven Years’ War (1756-63); and the maritime wars in Europe, the East Indies, the West Indies, and North America (1778-83).

He presented the philosophical and strategic insights gleaned from two centuries of wars and statecraft in the Introduction and Chapter 1. “The history of Sea Power,” he wrote, “is largely, though by no means solely, a narrative of contests between nations, of mutual rivalries, of violence frequently culminating in war.” “War,” he explained, “has principles; their existence is detected by the study of the past, which reveals them in successes and in failures, the same from age to age.”

Statesmen and strategists must always look to the “teachings of history” because “[t]he battles of the past succeeded or failed according as they were fought in conformity with the principles of war.”

Naval commanders must first consider broad “strategic questions” and then shape tactics accordingly. Mahan referenced the Second Punic War, Actium and Lepanto, the Nile and Trafalgar. In each great contest, control of the sea was decisive.

Viewing the sea as 'a great highway'

Perhaps the most famous and widely quoted part of the book was the chapter entitled “Discussion of the Elements of Sea Power.” There, Mahan described the sea as a “great highway,” and a “wide common.” He identified production, shipping, and colonies as the “key[s] to much of the history, as well as of the policies” of sea powers. He then listed and explained the six elements of sea power: geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, number of population, character of the people, and character of the government. The first three elements were broadly geographical in nature, while the latter three elements focused on people and their characters.

Great sea powers required great navies, but Mahan worried whether democratic governments “will have the foresight, the keen sensitiveness to national position and credit, [and] the willingness to insure its prosperity by adequate outpouring of money in times of peace.

“Popular governments,” he lamented, “are not generally favorable to military expenditure, however necessary.” The government of a great maritime power, he suggested, must foster among its people an interest in sea power.

After The Influence of Sea Power Upon History appeared, reviewers immediately proclaimed the book a classic. Theodore Roosevelt, then a civil service commissioner, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that, “Captain Mahan has written distinctly the best and most important, and also by far the most interesting book on naval history which has been produced on either side of the water for many a long year.” In a personal note to Mahan, the future Assistant Secretary of the Navy and President of the United States, called it a “very good book — admirable; and I am greatly in error if it does not become a naval classic.” Admiral Stephen B. Luce, the first President of the Naval War College, called the book “an altogether exceptional work . . . masterful in construction, and scholarly in execution.”

The Chicago Times wrote that Mahan showed that “control of the sea has throughout history been the prime factor in deciding the leadership, the prosperity, and often the existence of nations.” The Chicago Tribune praised Mahan’s “great theme of naval strategy and tactics.” A British reviewer called Mahan “one of the highest intellects in the naval world.” Other British reviewers sensed that Mahan’s work signaled the end of American isolationism. The famous British naval historian Julian S. Corbett praised Mahan for placing naval history “on a philosophical basis.”

“The ears of statesmen and publicists,” he remarked, “were opened [by the book], and a new note began to sound in world politics.”

Book became textbook in Japan

The book was soon translated into several foreign languages, and was especially well received in Japan and Germany, two of the world’s emerging naval powers. Japan’s naval and military academies adopted The Influence of Sea Power Upon History as a textbook. Historian William Livezey suggested that Japan used Mahan’s work to “prepare for Tsushima” (the famous naval victory over Russia in 1905) “and lay the foundations of her so-called ‘Co-prosperity Sphere’” prior to and during World War II.

Meanwhile, in May 1894, Kaiser Wilhelm II wrote that he was “devouring Captain Mahan’s book,” and described it as a “first-class work” that is “on board all my ships and constantly quoted by my captains and officers.” Through the Kaiser and naval strategists such as Baron von Luttwitz and Alfred von Tirpitz, Mahan’s book, Livezey writes, “had a profound and far-reaching influence upon the German state.” And it was Germany’s growing naval power, which Britain rightly saw as a potential existential threat, that contributed to the outbreak of the First World War.

Mahan’s book reinforced Great Britain’s strategic outlook and set the intellectual stage for the United States becoming a global power. Eight years after the book’s publication, the United States Navy won a smashing victory over Spain in Manila Bay, resulting in the acquisition of the Philippine Islands and the beginning of America’s entanglement in East Asian affairs. The United States annexed Hawaii, seized Guam, gained control of Puerto Rico, and established itself as the enforcer of the Monroe Doctrine. Soon, the United States under President Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership was constructing an isthmian canal in Panama, arbitrating a peace settlement between Japan and Russia, and constructing a blue water navy (the so-called “Great White Fleet”) which Roosevelt showed the world in 1907-08.

Two years later, Mahan wrote a two-volume sequel to his famous book: The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire 1793-1812. This was probably Mahan’s finest historical work. He showed how Great Britain’s “command of the seas” enabled her to contain and ultimately defeat France under the Revolutionary regime and later under Napoleon Bonaparte. His description and analysis of the Battle of Trafalgar is unmatched. He concisely stated the global geopolitical value of sea power when he wrote about “Those far distant, storm-beaten ships . . . that stood between [France] and the dominion of the world.”

Mahan's books still relevant

In all, Mahan wrote 20 books and numerous articles—on sea power, international relations, geopolitics, naval strategy, biographies of naval commanders, and even a book about his strong Christian Faith. His books The Problem of Asia and The Interest of America in International Conditions anticipated both the First World War and the Cold War. Mahan died on December 1, 1914, a few months after the outbreak of the First World War, and long before the United States entered the war. His friend and admirer Theodore Roosevelt publicly eulogized him as a “great public servant” and “one of the greatest and most useful influences in American life.”

More than a century after the publication of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, Naval War College professors Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes wrote a fascinating and important book entitled Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century: The Turn to Mahan. One hundred and thirty years later, Mahan’s ideas continue to influence the world’s great sea powers.

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