Skip to main content

Two if by Sea

By Henry Mattox

There were, however, glimmerings of something more than a time-serving careerist. As early as 1879 Mahan published an article in the Naval Institute Proceedings and in 1883, while assigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he brought out a workmanlike history of Civil War naval operations. These publications were in no sense precursors of his sea power thesis, but the latter writing effort led to his selection for duty as a lecturer on strategy and tactics at the newly-established Naval War College. The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-17831 was an outgrowth of his study and research for those lectures.

The gist of Mahan’s famed idea (for which he made no exclusive claim to originality) is that national potency depends on unobstructed access to sea lanes for international trade. Sea power in his interpretation was not , however, simply big fleets of war ships, but rather “the sum total of forces and factors, tools and geographical circumstances, which operated to gain command of the sea, to secure its use for oneself and to deny that use to an enemy.2 The thesis is explicitly imperialistic. Sea power in his formulation includes domestic production, shipping, and colonies for the support of maritime transport. The very title of the first of many articles Mahan was to prepare for the popular press is indicative; appearing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1890, some six months after his noted book came out — “The United States Looking Outward” — called for a large combat navy with coaling stations abroad, a coastal defense system, and the vigorous commercial penetration of foreign markets. In short, he argued that America for its own self-protection should enter the arena of international competition as a major power.

The publication of Mahan’s thesis proved timely. He articulated his ideas on the nature and importance of sea power and, more fundamentally, the implicit desirability of an expansionist philosophy for great nation in a period that saw the last great scramble of industrialized countries for territorial possessions abroad. France, Britain, and Italy were involved and Germany and Japan were to become active. America was at the point of running out of continental frontier, and if further expansion were to come (ruling out Canada and Mexico) it would have to be overseas. Captain Mahan could not have chosen a better time to publish.

Without doubt, Mahan had an influence on American expansionist inclinations, at least in providing a conceptual framework for those who already favored a more active and competitive international role for the United States. Parts of Mahan’s thesis—his proposals for a large navy and strong coastal defenses—paradoxically even suited proponents of an essentially isolationist stance for America. (And those proponents were numerous; not all Americans by any means were convinced, or came to be convinced, that a policy of expansionism abroad was in the country’s best interests.)

How many national opinion leaders were swung over to imperialist great power views by Mahan is a question perhaps impossible of definitive answer. To no one’s surprise, historians differ on the point, at least one holding that his great influence was still felt a half a century later and another taking the position that his importance was primarily that of a publicist or rationalizer of imperial power politics.3 One author points out that Mahan more often than not lagged behind the currently proposed expansionist plans of his time.4 Until 1898 and Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt and others simply took Mahan’s intellectual lead and ran slightly away with his imperialist thesis. With the outbreak of the war, American journals and newspapers, and indeed the reading public, enthusiastically began to recognize Mahan as a prophet.

Whatever the precise measure of Mahan’s influence on the American imperialist thrust at the turn of the century, he cannot be shown to be responsible for the movement to modernize and expand the Navy. The U.S. Navy’s decline into a state of advanced decrepitude led as early as 1880 to action in the U.S. Congress and the executive branch to begin a gradual building program, an effort that lead by the mid-1890s to appropriations for twenty-five modern vessels, including three battleships, in one year. Mahan’s great-nation sea power thesis of 1890, of course, fit in well with these developments, and the author as a career officer clearly was interested in a strong navy, but his influence can be most convincingly demonstrated in providing a conceptual focus for the big navy advocates already at work.

Mahan did have an impact on the debate over technology and strategy by making a compelling case for capital ships, as opposed to commerce-destroying cruisers, and for the principle of keeping the fleet concentrated. His ideas in the field soon became outmoded, however; he opposed, on tactical grounds, the development of the British-designed all-big-gun Dreadnought class of large battleships, which proved to be the wave of the future.

We can give short shrift to some of Mahan’s views on the writing of history. In his presidential address before the American Historical Association in 1902, the captain set forth a methodology he called “subordination” in history, that is, the arrangement of historical data so as to present a central, preconceived idea for didactic purposes. This somewhat deterministic formulation strikes me as the ex post facto interpretation of a gifted writer and synthesizer whose untutored approach to history writing happened to be well received, even given that Mahan elsewhere explicitly recognized the complexities of history.

There is one area of American history in which Captain Mahan may well be considered an intellectual pathfinder, however. In elaboration of his sea power theme in an Atlantic Monthly article of December 1890, he made specific note of the need for the energetic promotion of markets abroad to solve the problem of industrial overproduction in the United States. His partially economic focus on America’s imperial world role thus can be considered the grandfather of subsequent interpretations by historians, including Brooks Adams and Charles A. Beard, who wrote in 1900 and 1914, respectively, of the need to dispose abroad surplus domestic production to further American expansionism. Historian William Appleman Williams reintroduced the theme with added emphasis in more recent times, thus setting off years of renewed research and scholarly controversy.

To paraphrase Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Mahan if by land and Mackinder if by sea,” when formulating an overarching design for great power status in the early twentieth century. Mahan and Mackinder each published elements of a convincing, if not incontrovertible, theory based on broad strategic concepts, as different as they were. So now we have covered the waterfront. For an interesting relatively recent examination of Mahan’s ideas, see John Tetsuro Sumida, Inventing Games – Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (Washington, DC: 1997). And, of course, it always pays to go to the source—the three-volume Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan (Annapolis, 1975).  Editor Henry Mattox

~ The Editor



1. Boston, 1890. William E. Livesey notes that the volume went through fifteen editions in eight years. See his Mahan on Sea Power (Norman, OK: 1947, 1980), p. 51n. On pages 301-311 he includes a complete list of Mahan’s publications.

2. Ibid., p. 277. See also Robert Seager II, Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and his Letters (Annapolis: 1977).

3. These are the judgments respectively of Seager and Livezey.

4. Seager, Mahan, p. 494.



Comments are closed.