Alfred Thayer Mahan (September 27, 1840 - December
1, 1914) was a United States Navy flag officer, geostrategist, and historian,
who has been called "the most important American strategist of the
nineteenth century." His concept of "sea power" was based on
the idea that the most powerful navy will control the globe; it was most
famously presented in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (1890).
The concept had an enormous influence in shaping the strategic thought of
navies across the world, especially in the United States, Germany, Japan and
Britain. His ideas still permeate the U.S. Navy.
Several ships were named USS Mahan, including the lead vessel of a class of
Born at West Point, New York, to Dennis Hart Mahan (a professor at the United
States Military Academy) and Mary Helena Mahan, he attended Saint James
School, an Episcopal college preparatory academy in western Maryland. He then
studied at Columbia for two years where he was a member of the Philolexian
Society debating club and then, against his parents' wishes, transferred to
the Naval Academy, where he graduated second in his class in 1859.
Commissioned as a Lieutenant in 1861, Mahan served the Union in the American
Civil War as an officer on USS Worcester, Congress, Pocahontas, and James
Adger, and as an instructor at the Naval Academy. In 1865 he was promoted to
Lieutenant Commander, and then to Commander (1872), and Captain (1885). As
commander of the USS Wachusett he was stationed at Callao, Peru, protecting
American interests during the final stages of the War of the Pacific.
Despite his professed success in the Navy, his skills in actual command of a
ship were not exemplary, and a number of vessels under his command were
involved in collisions, with both moving and stationary objects. He had an
affection for old square-rigged vessels, and did not like smoky, noisy
steamships of his time; he tried to avoid active sea duty. On the other hand,
the books he wrote ashore made him arguably the most influential naval
historian of the period. In pointing out how unlikely his ascent was Kyle
Whitney compared his chances of achieving prominence in the navy to that of
"a cheerleader becoming president".
Naval War College and writings:
In 1885, he was appointed lecturer in naval history and tactics at the Naval
War College. Before entering on his duties, College President Rear Admiral
Stephen B. Luce pointed Mahan in the direction of writing his future studies
on the influence of sea power. For his first year on the faculty, he remained
at his home in New York City researching and writing his lectures. Upon
completion of this research period, he was to succeed Luce as President of
the Naval War College from June 22, 1886 to January 12, 1889 and again from
July 22, 1892 to May 10, 1893. There, in 1887, he met and befriended Theodore
Roosevelt, then a visiting lecturer, who would later become president of the
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.
Upon being published, Mahan struck up a friendship with pioneering British
naval historian Sir John Knox Laughton, the pair maintaining this
relationship through correspondence and visits when Mahan was in London.
Mahan was later described as a 'disciple' of Laughton, although the two men
were always at pains to distinguish between each other's line of work,
Laughton seeing Mahan as a theorist while Mahan called Laughton 'the
Mahan's views were shaped by the seventeenth century conflicts between
Holland, England, France and Spain, and by the nineteenth century naval wars
between France and Britain, where British naval superiority eventually
defeated France, consistently preventing invasion and blockade, (see
Napoleonic war: Battle of Trafalgar and Continental System). To a modern
reader, the emphasis on controlling seaborne commerce is a commonplace, but,
in the nineteenth century, the notion was radical, especially in a nation
entirely obsessed with expansion on to the continent's western land. On the
other hand, Mahan's emphasis of sea power as the crucial fact behind
Britain's ascension neglected the well-documented roles of diplomacy and
armies; Mahan's theories could not explain the success of terrestrial
empires, such as Bismarckian Germany. However, as the Royal Navy's blockade
of the German Empire was a critical direct and indirect factor in the
eventual German collapse, Mahan's theories were vindicated by the First World
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 unduly 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 animals 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 principle 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 that 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.
Impact on naval thought:
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 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.
Ideologically, the United States Navy initially opposed replacing its sailing
ships with steam-powered ships after the Civil War; Mahan argued that only a
fleet of armored battleships might be decisive in a modern war. According to
the decisive-battle doctrine, a fleet must not be divided; Mahan's work
encouraged technological improvement in convincing opponents that naval
knowledge and strategy remained necessary, but that domination of the seas
dictated the necessity of the speed and predictability of the steam engine.
His books were greatly acclaimed, and closely studied in Britain and Imperial
Germany, influencing the build up of their forces prior to the First World
War. Mahan influenced the naval portion of the Spanish-American War, and the
battles of Tsushima, Jutland, and the Atlantic. His work influenced the
doctrines of every major navy in the interwar period.
Mahan's concept of sea power extended beyond naval superiority; that in peace
time, states should increase production and shipping capacities, acquire
overseas possessions - either colonies or privileged access to foreign
markets - yet stressed that the number of coal fuel stations and strategic
bases should be few, not to drain too many resources from the mother country.
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
The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660–1783 was translated to Japanese
and used as a textbook in the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). This strongly
affected the IJN's Pacific War conduct, emphasising the "decisive
battle" doctrine - even at the expense of protecting trade.
The IJN's pursuit of the "decisive battle" was such that it
contributed to Imperial Japan's defeat in 1945, and so rendered obsolete the
doctrine of the decisive battle between fleets, because of the development of
the submarine and the aircraft carrier. However, one could argue that the IJN
did not adhere entirely to Mahan's doctrine, as they did divide their main
force from time to time, particularly the extensive division of warships in a
complicated battle plan that led to the disaster at Midway, and as such
sealed their own defeat.
Between 1889 and 1892 Mahan was engaged in special service for the Bureau of
Navigation, and in 1893 he was appointed to command the powerful new
protected cruiser Chicago on a visit to Europe, where he was received and
feted. He returned to lecture at the War College and then, in 1896, he
retired from active service, returning briefly to duty in 1898 to consult on
naval strategy for the Spanish-American War.
Mahan continued to write voluminously and received honorary degrees from
Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, and McGill.
In 1902 Mahan invented the term "Middle East", which he used in the
article "The Persian Gulf and International Relations", published
in September in the National Review.
He became Rear Admiral in 1906 by an act of Congress promoting all retired
captains who had served in the Civil War. At the outbreak of World War I, he
initially engaged in the cause of Great Britain, but an order of President
Woodrow Wilson prohibited all active and retired officers from publishing
comments on the war. Mahan died of heart failure on December 1, 1914.
The United States Naval Academy's Mahan Hall was named in his honor, as was
Mahan Hall at the Naval War College. Mahan Hall at the United States Military
Academy was named for his father, Dennis Hart Mahan.
A.T. Mahan Elementary School and A.T. Mahan High School at Keflavik Naval Air
Station in Iceland, were also named in his honor.
Naval Sea Cadet Corps unit in Albany, New York is honored with his name as
the Mahan Division.
from: wikipedia, the free
encyclopedia (February 2011)