Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan

Byron King recounts the life, thoughts, and literary career of Alfred Thayer Mahan, one of the giants of naval military thought.

“Mahan’s book struck the highest levels of the governing classes like a bolt of lightning and created a tempest of intellectual upheaval not just within the U.S. Navy, but throughout the broader American (and overseas) political, economic, and industrial system.”

IN HIS 1948 memoir entitled On Active Service in Peace and War, former U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson recalled “the peculiar psychology of the Navy Dept., which frequently seemed to retire from the realm of logic into a dim religious world in which Neptune was God…and the United States Navy the only true Church.” Did Stimson say “peculiar psychology?” Maybe he was kidding, or making an inside-Washington joke. But if he was serious, that’s just like a non-Navy guy, to get the really important things backward.

There is nothing “peculiar” at all about the phenomenon that Stimson was describing. It is, quite simply, the Navy’s way of accepting and accommodating the way the world works, maybe even the way that the world works best. To the well-trained Navy mind, it is like living with the law of gravity. Hmmm…Imagine if gravity worked other than the way that it does. But I digress.

“Neptune was God,” said Stimson. Well, not quite. The American Navy pays homage to many of the ancient customs and traditions of the sea, but institutionally, it does not now and never has worshipped false idols.

The Navy simply acknowledges and respects the fact that the Almighty chose to cover more than 70% of the surface of the Earth with, on average, two miles of salt water. And it would be several generations after Stimson before God would be forced out of public life in the United States, let alone out of its Navy.

And as to the “prophet” Mahan, that would be Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), rear admiral, U.S. Navy, about whom we write today.

Mahan was commissioned in the U.S. Navy in 1859 (just a few months before Edwin Drake brought in the world’s first commercial oil well at Titusville, Pa., for those of you who have been taking staff rides through history in our previous essays in Whiskey & Gunpowder.

The young Ensign Mahan served on the Union side during the Civil War, learning his naval profession by working on ships that supported the Northern blockade of the Southern ports. After the war, Mahan spent the next two decades making his career in the sea service. In 1886, Mahan, by then a captain, was appointed as an instructor of naval history and tactics at the newly created Naval War College. And the rest is history, if you know it.

Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History

In 1890, Mahan published one of the most important books of the age, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. It was not so much a history book as a book about “sea power,” of the naval type, and its “influence” on history. As history books go, there are many chronicles that are better written than Mahan’s.

Despite its dry-sounding title, however, Mahan’s book instantly became a best seller in the United States. It was reviewed and discussed in every major journal of commentary, news magazine, and newspaper of the time.

Mahan’s book struck the highest levels of the governing classes like a bolt of lightning and created a tempest of intellectual upheaval not just within the U.S. Navy, but throughout the broader American (and overseas) political, economic, and industrial system. He had written a book about 200 years of naval history and about what that naval history meant to the rise and relationships of state power in the world.

The themes and arguments of Mahan’s work were not entirely novel, having roots in a late 19th-century intellectual school of thought known as “navalism,” which focused on advancing state power through the construction and maintenance of — guess what? — a powerful navy. Still, the impact of Mahan’s book, in its time, was astonishing and entirely unexpected.

The United States was born of British maritime colonies located on the Eastern seacoast. From a maritime standpoint, the sea brought immigrants to the shores of the new nation and served as a base for outward trade with the world at large.

But in the bigger scheme of things, the United States had spent the century previous to Mahan’s book expanding westward and inwards, assimilating half of the North American continent into its political union. (Mahan’s father, Dennis Hart Mahan, was a well-regarded instructor at a decidedly land-oriented institution named the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.)

The central military conflict for the United States and its people during the 19th century was its Civil War (1861-1865), for the most part a land-based conflict. Aside from blockade duty and riverine operations to support the Army during the Civil War, the historical role of the country’s Navy was to protect the coastlines and, to some extent, protect overseas commerce and show the flag on occasion. (This is not to neglect the efforts of the U.S. Navy during the period, but rather to put things into the larger perspective. In particular, Commodore Perry’s expedition to Japan in 1854 opened up that nation to the world, and in no small part propelled Japan into its Meiji revolution. Of that, we will speak another time.)

But by 1890, the American frontier was coming to an end, as no less a historian than Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) would note in his groundbreaking analysis published in 1893, The Significance of the Frontier in American History.

Mahan’s book on sea power included his observations on naval issues and his deductions, conclusions, and theories, all of which were so remarkable as to be astonishing. Or one might also say that in 1890, Capt. Mahan told a lot of people exactly what they wanted to hear.

Mahan wrote of sea power as a basis for a nation’s fitness to play a great role in world affairs. He came up with compelling, navalist-oriented insights on matters of geography and territory, population and national character, and the soundness of a nation’s governance. Mahan’s book was, in some respects, a window into the soul of nations and their political power and a critical review of the inherent worth of any given people — or more pointedly, their government — to command national power or not.

Mahan’s view of history, as seen through the lens of naval developments (if not his fundamental rooting in Christianity — so much for Stimson’s reference to Neptune…), and his focus on the underlying national prerequisites for effective national sea power both hit a nerve and filled a strategic void.

Mahan demonstrated convincingly that the use of America’s Navy during most of the 19th century as a dispersed, coastal defense force was obsolescent and a dangerous pathway upon which to predicate the defense of the nation in the 20th century. Thus, Mahan drafted an intellectual basis for an entirely new national security strategy, built on and around a Navy structured for projecting force, and not holding to a policy based on a relatively static defense against attack from the sea or upon the nation’s overseas commerce.

Alfred Thayer Mahan: The End of the Inner Frontier 

In another way of viewing things, the inner frontier of the United States was coming to a distinct end. Mahan’s book came at just the right time in history for the nation midwifed into existence by George Washington, who had cautioned against “foreign entanglements,” to begin to revise and form new policy and strategy concerning matters far beyond its shores.

This is the root concept of modern U.S. political policy and strategic doctrine of power projection abroad. It is no accident that only eight years after the publication of Mahan’s book, the United States embarked on a war with Spain that staked a claim for U.S. military power and political-economic interests on the far side of the planet.

Among other eager readers of Mahan in the early 1890s was a relatively young, but ambitious and up-and-coming, New Yorker named Theodore Roosevelt, who absorbed the book (as did another man named Roosevelt, many years later). The older Roosevelt and Mahan became close acquaintances and would correspond extensively over the years.

Mahan’s book rapidly circled the globe. Within a year of publication, it was translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Japanese, among other languages. The First Lord of the British Admiralty read Mahan’s book and gave a copy to the king of England, who read it and in turn ordered every officer in the Royal Navy to read it as well.

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany “devoured” the work, as he later recalled, and ordered a copy to be placed in every wardroom of every ship in the German fleet. Further to the east, the tsar of Russia read Mahan’s work and sent copies to every admiral and captain in his Imperial Navy.

Mahan’s book was read and studied in the wardrooms and war colleges and in the chancelleries and foreign ministries of France, Italy, Austro-Hungary, Sweden, Greece, Turkey, and many other nations.

The theories of Mahan are credited (or blamed) for providing intellectual and political impetus for a naval armaments race among European powers that contributed, almost a quarter century later, to the outbreak of the Great War.

On the far side of the planet, starting in the early 1890s, the Japanese were then in the process of developing rapidly from a feudal society into a first-rank industrial power (unlike China, which would not make that leap until a century later). The Japanese modeled their entire naval strategy and order of battle upon the theories of Mahan. By 1905, these newly converted but ardent adherents of the American Navy captain from Newport were able to establish in the northwest Pacific the maritime supremacy of the Rising Sun after its defeat (their utter annihilation, really) of the Russian fleet at Tsushima. (This month, May 2005, marks the 100th anniversary of that epic battle. You can read about it here in Whiskey & Gunpowder, in an article scheduled for publication in about two weeks.)

What was this magic elixir of sea power that Mahan described? In terms of naval combat power, of seagoing operations and tactics, it was a distillation and naval application of the theories of war that had been developed earlier in the 19th century by the Prussian Carl Clausewitz (1780-1831) and the Swiss military thinker Henri Jomini (1779-1869). Very simply stated, the precepts of military strategy and operations of these two Germanic theorists involve massing force and applying it at a decisive point, or “center of gravity.”

In essence, Mahan mixed salt water with the concepts of Clausewitz and Jomini, applying their land-based theories of fighting to waging war at sea. Using a concept central to Clausewitz, Mahan viewed the sea as a “center of gravity,” a vital strategic interest of the United States. Any limitation of, or challenge to, U.S. military power, particularly if it came from the sea, would constrain the nation and harm its national interests. Any victory of U.S. arms upon the sea would give the nation the luxury of independent action in pursuing its interests.

Mahan prompted deep, critical thinking about the ability of any given nation to protect itself from attack from the sea and about how to fight upon and command the oceans, when necessary, distant from home shores. Mahan reviewed and examined the 200-year history of construction and employment of naval vessels by Britain, Holland, France, Spain, and Portugal.

He discussed the rivalries at sea of these nations and their respective quests over two centuries for dominion over far-distant waves and shores. Not surprisingly, much of Mahan’s narrative concerns the respective rivalries of the European states to establish their interests in the New World, with extensive coverage devoted to the Seven Years’ War and to the War for American Independence.


Alfred Thayer Mahan: Big Ships with Big Guns

From a purely militarily standpoint, Mahan set forth a workable, if not workmanlike, theory of naval war fighting. Mahan’s theory called for nations to construct and maintain large fleets, composed of big ships armed with big guns. (Yes, I know what you are probably thinking…but just try to command the seas with a little fleet composed of small ships armed with small guns.) Mahan’s theories further called for concentrating fleets into powerful, oceangoing combat forces.

Thus armed and ready, a concentrated fleet would be in a position to project a nation’s combat power and seize control of the oceans from an adversary where and when necessary, in furtherance of a nation’s international political interests and military goals. The doctrine calls for a fleet to move forward to meet the opponent and, when circumstances dictate, to use defensive naval operations as the basis for offense.

But if Mahan had merely presented a better way for naval fleets to fight it out with other naval fleets, to blast away at each other and wage violent battles upon the water for absolute sea control, his book would not have had the monumental success that it did. Mahan offered something else to his worldwide readership.

BY PLACING THE need for a powerful Navy at the center of national interest, Mahan merged naval operations and political and economic destiny.

Mahan looked at what was required within a nation, its economy, its politics, and its people to support naval power. In his book, Mahan identified specific social and industrial policies that a nation required in order to be successful at sea and, by extension, to earn and keep its place in the world. (Mahan’s fundamentalist Christian worldview may have had something to do with his perspective, but that is another discussion entirely).

That is, Mahan does not simply set forth a theory of naval warfare, but uses a nation’s distinctive and circumstantial requirement for naval power to lay out the plan for what we might call today a national industrial policy.

Mahan illustrated his central point by explaining what happened to Portugal and Spain. Both nations rose to prominence by virtue of their explorations of the seas and were powerful naval states in the 16th and 17th centuries, with significant military capabilities.

However, according to Mahan, the treasure that these nations’ explorers and conquerors plundered and returned to Europe from the New World only encouraged Portugal and Spain to buy manufactured goods from other countries, including their rivals Britain and Holland. This was the seed of their eventual decline and downfall.

Mahan stated the following: “The mines of Brazil were the ruin of Portugal, as those of Mexico and Peru had been of Spain: All manufactures fell into insane contempt.”

Rather than use the gold and silver that was flowing into their coffers from the New World to build up their own national economies, these two nations spent their wealth abroad and purchased what they needed from others only too willing to sell it to them.

But note for the moment that Mahan the historian does not just say that domestic manufacturing fell into “contempt,” but characterizes it as “insane contempt.” To that point we will return.

Mahan further explains that as a result of their sale of goods to the Iberian countries, British and Dutch manufacturing grew: “The tendency to trade, involving of necessity the production of something to trade with, is the national characteristic most important to the development of sea power.”

Both Britain and Holland built factories to supply goods to Portugal and Spain, and the former expanded shipyards to produce merchant ships capable of importing raw materials and exporting finished goods to the latter. And the next step, according to Mahan, for was Britain and Holland to build powerful navies to protect their merchant ships.

So according to Mahan, sea power goes hand in hand with commerce and trade.

  • Commerce and trade should provide, and must support, a nation and its economy with the ability to produce goods and to make things that others in the world want to obtain.
  • With the ability to produce goods for trade comes the need and the ability to produce the vessels necessary to carry that trade.
  • Finally comes the national ability to create naval sea power to protect that trade and export a nation’s influence to the far corners of the world.

But Mahan also provides a cautionary note: “Where the revenues and industries of a country can be concentrated into a few treasure ships, like the flota of Spanish galleons, the sinew of war may perhaps be cut at a stroke; but when its wealth is scattered in thousands of going and coming ships, when the roots of the system spread wide and far, and strike deep, it can stand many a cruel shock and lose many a goodly bough without the life being touched.”

Here, then, is the essence of what drew presidents, prime ministers and kings to the famous book by then-Capt. Mahan. In the course of writing about naval history and its related military affairs, of sea battles long ago, with broadsides blazing and cannonballs whistling between wind-powered men-of-war, the American naval officer had articulated a political and economic theory for the modern age.

By the 1890s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in North America, Europe, Russia, and Japan. Within each nation, industrialists constructed their empires of business.

Coal, steel, railroads, refining, heavy machinery, chemicals, food processing, and more became distinct industrial features of emerging modern economies.

Mahan and his theories provided the governing classes of these emerging industrial nations with a national security requirement to justify harnessing these empires of business.

Here was a modern justification, rooted in principles of state security, for bringing these empires of business into a politically controlled, military-industrial system that would support the business of empire.

This was, in its own way, pure ambrosia to the proponents of expanding national industrial, economic, and military power and political control.

So the story of Mahan is not just one of his writing about naval history, interesting as it is, nor the development of naval technology, fascinating as that may be.

Alfred Thayer Mahan: A Theory of Economy and Industry

The central part of this story is about an influential Navy man who created and popularized a theory of economy and industry that formed the foundation for much of what now passes for modern political governance.

That is: basic production within a nation supports manufacturing.

Manufacturing supports trade, domestic and foreign.

Trade supports international commerce.

International commerce is the basis for a nation protecting its interests overseas.

 And that requirement to protect its interests, coupled with a nation’s economic power, is the foundation and driving engine of national military power.

Mahan described a formula for national power, if not greatness, but it was and remains a formula that must be followed. Hence, according to Mahan’s theories, it is not just worrisome, but dangerous to national security, that the modern U.S. economy has strayed so far from his fundamental industrial-economic construct, on which more than 100 years of American power has rested and found jurisdiction, if not justification. Intentionally or stupidly, perhaps without realizing it, the governing classes of the United States have, over several generations, turned Mahan’s ambrosia into a rancid and poisonous broth.

The modern U.S. economy imports all manner of basic commodities and manufactured goods produced elsewhere, in containers fabricated elsewhere, in ships constructed elsewhere, powered by fuel produced elsewhere.

The current rush to the national exits, the relentless effort by which domestic manufacturers (and now many service industries) are moving offshore, recalls Mahan’s comment on the “insane contempt” in which manufacturing was held in Portugal and Spain, a precursor to their respective declines.

“But,” notes the critic, “Mahan lived in an era of the gold standard, when international accounts were settled in gold.” Hence, goes the argument, the demise of gold as a form of backing for a nation’s currency in this modern era diminishes to some extent Mahan’s theories as they pertain to trade between nations.

Thus, today we no longer characterize what is going on in the field of the declining national manufacturing base as a reflection of “insane contempt.” In polite company and educated society, the characterization of the modern economy of the United States is that it has reached a “postindustrial state,” or that it is a “service economy.”

But to focus on the trade imbalance as an accounting issue is not to view the problem from a height sufficient to take its proper measure. Mahan made a profound point of describing what happens to a nation that fails, for whatever reason, to nurture its basic productive sectors.

In one passage, Mahan describes the plight of Portugal: “After their gold, the Portuguese abandoned their very soil; the vineyards of Oporto were finally bought by the English with Brazilian gold, which had passed through Portugal to be spread throughout England.”

Mahan called this, in a remarkably prescient critique in the manner of the Austrian School of economics, “a striking example of the difference between real and fictitious wealth.”

Whether in yellow metal or in fiat currency, Mahan’s point remains valid about the long-term prospects for decline of a nation that abandons basic production and manufacture as a part of its economy.

With an annual trade deficit well over $700 billion, the modern United States is like Portugal or Spain of old, but without the gold and silver.

Instead of exporting those precious metals, today the United States exports dollars.

But dollars are at root mere debt instruments, an elastic currency created in inflationary excess by the Federal Reserve, which is institutionally captive of its interest-rate paradigms and unshackled by any real, let alone external and independent, mechanism to restrain the growth of the U.S. money supply.

This is the deadly trap of the “fictitious wealth” of which Mahan wrote.

The modern United States, fundamentally through its monetary mismanagement, has moved away from, if not forgotten, the underlying lessons of Mahan.

The modern U.S. economy is fast losing its ability to create and maintain its basic, productive economic strength, the sine qua non of Mahan’s foundation for national power.

Having shrugged off, if not forgotten, the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the United States sails slowly, but steadily, on a path to monetary ruin and inexorable decline.

If this is what former War Secretary Stimson meant when he characterized certain people as having that “peculiar psychology of the Navy Dept.,” then my hope is that it is contagious.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
May 12, 2005 


P.S. The U.S. Navy has named four ships after Alfred Thayer Mahan. The first Mahan was a First World War-era destroyer (DD-102) that served from 1918-1930 in the Atlantic and Caribbean. The second vessel to bear the name was also a destroyer (DD-364) serving from 1936-1944 and earning five battle stars in World War II before being sunk by Japanese kamikaze aircraft. The third Mahan was a guided missile destroyer (DLG-11/DDG 42), serving from 1960-1993, earning 12 battle stars during the Vietnam conflict and later sailing off the coasts of, among other places, Lebanon and Libya. The current Mahan is a guided missile destroyer (DDG-72) commissioned in 1996 and presently home-ported in Norfolk, Va., from which it sails in support of worldwide U.S. Navy operations.

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