I have had some topics over time that I return to again and again as I study and look at history. One of them involves strategists and thinkers. Particularly those who have given great thought to diplomatic and military affairs. One who fascinates me is Alfred Thayer Mahan, who I first ran into in a sustained way when I was working on my bachelor’s degree. He is also one of those strategists who just returns to the headlines over and over. It really makes no sense in a way. There was nothing particular special about him, yet his ideas still attract attention. Most recently articles on The National Interest blog and his writings are required reading in the Chinese Navy today. Mahan was a naval officer who won no major military encounters, became disillusioned with the navy so much that in his later years he actively campaigned not to be sent to sea. Preferring instead to hold teaching positions and to do research. Over time his writing would shape not only how the United States, but how the rest of the world prepared and understood war. He was to receive acclaim from both Theodore Roosevelt and the German Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Today I want to give some background on the early life of Mahan and how it would later influence his writing and views. Mahan is known particularly for his book The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1783 that was originally published in 1890. He was born West Point, New York in 1840. The son of a United States Military Academy instructor, Dennis Hart Mahan, who in his decades at the academy would teach most of the notable generals of the civil war- both north and south. His family had wanted him to become a minister and early on he did pursue this path, studying at Columbia University for two years. There while reading the tales of James Fenimore Cooper he yearned to go to sea. Mahan’s father helped secure him a post at the United States Naval Academy where he graduated in 1859.
He would spend the Civil War doing blockade duty of the coast of the south. After the war he was on voyages that took him to Japan, through Europe and to see the Suez Canal. In 1875 he was assigned to the Boston Navy Yard. There he was appalled at what he saw, the worlds most powerful navy during the Civil War, with rampant corruption and a navy a shell of its former self. Mahan was spend time also at the Brooklyn Naval Yard until 1883 when he was given command of the Wachusett and was sent to monitor a border war between Chile and Peru. It was in Lima, Peru that the ideas that would make Mahan influential would start to form. He was to later state that it was reading Theodor Mommsen’s History of Rome that catapulted him to start thinking about the history of naval matters. He started wondering: what if Hannibal had a navy strong enough that he could have attacked Rome directly?
Another man at this time was also starting to think and appreciate naval history in ways not thought of before, Commodore Stephen Luce, who in response would urge the navy to establish the Navy War College. Luce would appoint Mahan to start teaching at the new school. Mahan would focus his lectures on the War of 1812. While there he reached out to a New York legislator who had just written his own book on the subject, Theodore Roosevelt. With Luce and Roosevelt’s encouragement Mahan would start to write his most influential book.