Alfred Thayer Mahan
Alfred Thayer Mahan (Sept. 27, 1840 -Dec. 1, 1914), was the leading military historian in the world in the era before World War I. His concept of "sea power" had an enormous influence in shaping the strategic thought of naval officials across the world, especially in the United States, Germany, Japan and Britain. His ideas still permeate the U.S. Navy.
Mahan was born in West Point, New York; his father, Denis Mahan was an influential professor of military tactics at West Point, where he taught many of the generals who commanded in the Civil War. After attending Columbia College in New York, the son entered the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1859, second in a class of twenty. His career as a line officer on blockade duty during the Civil War was uneventful. Mahan was considered below par for seamanship; he became commander in 1872 and captain in 1885, and with that rank retired in 1896 after forty years of service. A decade later he was promoted to rear admiral on the retired list, but signed his many books and articles, "Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan." By the 1890s he had achieved international acclaim, particularly in Britain, where he had been given honorary degrees by Oxford and Cambridge. American recognition followed, with honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth. He was called from retirement to serve as a member of the Naval War Board for the Spanish-American War, as a delegate to the first Peace Conference at The Hague, as an occasional lecturer at the Naval War College, and as witness before several congressional committees. He was well known in military and naval circles, and was a friend and advisor of fellow naval historian President Theodore Roosevelt.
The turning point in Mahan's career came when Superintendent Stephen B. Luce (1827-1917) called him in 1884 to lecture in naval history and strategy at the newly established Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Mahan plunged into the library and wrote lectures that drew heavily on standard classics and the ideas of work of Henri Jomini. The lectures became his sea-power studies: The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890); The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 (2 vols., 1892); and Sea Power in Relation to the War of 1812 (2 vols., 1905). The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain (2 vols., 1897) supplemented the series. Mahan stresses the importance of the individual in shaping history, and extols the traditional values of loyalty, courage, and service to the state. Mahan sought to resurrect Horatio Nelson as a national hero in Britain and used the book as a platform for expressing his views on naval strategy and tactics. Criticisms of the work focused on Mahan's handling of Nelson's love affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, but it remains the standard biography. In addition to these works, Mahan wrote more than a hundred articles on international politics and related topics, which were closely read by policy makers.
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 overly 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 principal of controlling strategic points.
Mahan was a frequent commentator on world naval, strategic and diplomatic affairs. In the 1890s he argues 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 U.S. at the first international conference on arms control 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.
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 of navalists across the world. Sea power supported the the new colonialism which was asserting itself in Africa and Asia. Given the very rapid technological changes underway in propulsion (from coal to oil, from boilers to turbines), ordnance (with better fire directors, and new high explosives) and armor and emergence of new craft such as destroyers and submarines, Mahan's emphasis on the capital ship and the command of the sea came at an opportune moment.
Mahan's name became a household word in the German navy, as Kaiser William II ordered his officers to read Mahan, and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930) used Mahan's reputation to finance a powerful surface fleet.
Between 1890 and 1915, Mahan and British admiral John Fisher (1841-1920) 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.
The French were less susceptible to 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. 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.
Although Mahan's influence on foreign powers has been generally recognized, only rather recently 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. He died in Washington a few months after the outbreak of World War I.
- Kenneth Bourne, and Carl Boyd, "Captain Mahan's 'War' with Great Britain." U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 1968 94(7): 71-78. Issn: 0041-798x
- Jon Tetsuro Sumida, "Geography, Technology, and British Naval Strategy in the Dreadnought Era." Naval War College Review 2006 59(3): 89-102. Issn: 0028-1484 Fulltext: Ebsco
- Martin Motte, "L'epreuve des Faits: ou la Pensee Navale Française face a la Grande Guerre ," Revue Historique Des Armées 1996 (2): 97-106. Issn: 0035-3299