Mahan- Continued

U.S.S. Olympia- flagship of American fleet during Battle of Manila Bay-1898
In the mid-1880s with the backing of Roosevelt, Mahan started turning his lectures into a book titled The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783.  The book begins by looking at the Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665-1667, the war where the English acquired the Dutch New Netherland colony, and renamed it New York. Mahan’s book was based on the idea that naval strategy overtime was based on a handful concerns. That shipping was important to a nations prosperity, that throughout history it was important that maritime commerce be protected, and that there were six principle conditions for a country to develop sea power capacity. Those six conditions were 1) geographical position 2)physical conformation- which includes national resources and climate 3) extent of territory 4) population size 5) national culture and 6) political structure.  These are ideas which seem quite obvious to us now and they were ideas that were floating around previously, however, it was Mahan it brought them all together into a cohesive framework. Mahan was a great admirer of the British navy and wanted to bring British naval ways to America, his work was to help start the modernization of the United States navy.
In 1892 Mahan was given command of the Chicago, it was to be his last sea deployment.  It was for him a command/ book tour.  He would meet German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had ordered copies of Mahan’s book to be placed on board all German warships. He dined with Queen Victoria and received honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge Universities.  Mahan would leave the navy in 1896.  He would continue his writing career, in 1897 he completed a biography of Horatio Nelson, afterward he began a two-volume history of the naval aspects of the War of 1812.  He would write letters and articles for various publications and maintain a correspondence with Theodore Roosevelt the rest of his life.  In 1902 he was elected president of the American Historical Association.  One of his last books was entitled The Harvest Within, a book in which he examined his religious beliefs. On December 1, 1914 Mahan died after suffering a heart attack and illness. His legacy is one that is hard nail down, to some he has been seen as an imperialist-war monger, to others a realist, an advocate of deterrence who saw the best defense as being prepared and having the ability to use force. There are also those who see in him an advocate for containment and multinational action.  He was a man of contradictions, he had his strengths and weaknesses. It seems certain that the man and his ideas are still very relevant to the world today and in the future and deserve the respect or at least the wisdom of continued to be studied.

Recommended Readings for Mahan: Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters by Robert Seager II, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered by Jon Sumida and a very good chapter on his written by Warren Zimmerman in his First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power


Alfred Thayer Mahan- Strategist

(Wikipedia image)

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.