Alfred Thayer Mahan

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Alfred Thayer Mahan
Alfred Thayer Mahan.jpeg
Born (1840-09-27)September 27, 1840
West Point, New York, U.S.
Died December 1, 1914(1914-12-01) (aged 74)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Allegiance

 United States of America

Service/branch

 United States Navy

Years of service 1859–96
Rank Union Navy captain rank insignia (1864-1866).png Captain
USN Rear Admiral rank insignia.jpg Rear admiral (post retirement)
Commands held USS Chicago
Battles/wars American Civil War
Signature Signature of Alfred Thayer Mahan.jpg

Alfred Thayer Mahan [məˈhæn] (September 27, 1840 – December 1, 1914) was a United States naval officer and historian, whom John Keegan called "the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century."[1] His book the The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (1890) won immediate recognition, especially in Europe, and with its successor, The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 (1892), made him world-famous and perhaps the most influential American author of the nineteenth century.[2]

Early life[edit]

Mahan was born on September 27, 1840, at West Point, New York, to Dennis Hart Mahan (a professor at the United States Military Academy) and Mary Helena Okill Mahan (27 February 1815 – 8 March 1893), daughter of John Okill and Mary Jay (daughter of Sir James Jay). Mahan's middle name honors "the father of West Point", Sylvanus Thayer. Mahan 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. Against the better judgment of his father, Mahan then entered the Naval Academy, where he graduated second in his class in 1859.[3]

Early career[edit]

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 US interests during the final stages of the War of the Pacific.[4][5]

Alfred T. Mahan as a Captain

While in actual command of a ship, his skills 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 rather than the smoky, noisy steamships of his time; and he tried to avoid active sea duty.[6]

Naval War College and writings[edit]

In 1885, he was appointed as a 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. During his first year on the faculty, he remained at his home in New York City researching and writing his lectures. Though he was prepared to become a professor in 1886, Luce was given command of the North Atlantic Squadron, and Mahan became President of the Naval War College by default (June 22, 1886 - January 12, 1889, July 22, 1892 - May 10, 1893).[7] There, in 1888, he met and befriended future president Theodore Roosevelt, then a visiting lecturer.[8]

Mahan lectures, based on secondary sources and the military theories of Jomini, 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); Sea Power in Relation to the War of 1812 (2 vols., 1905), and The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain (2 vols., 1897). Mahan stressed the importance of the individual in shaping history and extolled 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 his biography as a platform for expressing his views on naval strategy and tactics. Mahan was criticized for so strongly condemning Nelson's love affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, but it remained the standard biography until the appearance of Carola Oman's Nelson, 50 years later.[9]

Mahan struck up a friendship with pioneering British naval historian Sir John Knox Laughton, the pair maintaining the relationship through correspondence and visits when Mahan was in London. Mahan was later described as a "disciple" of Laughton, but the two were at pains to distinguish between each other's line of work. Laughton saw Mahan as a theorist while Mahan called Laughton 'the historian'.[10]

Origin and limitation of strategic views[edit]

Mahan's views were shaped by 17th-century conflicts between the Dutch Republic, England, France and Spain, and by the nineteenth-century naval wars between France and Great Britain. British naval superiority eventually defeated France, consistently preventing invasion and an effective blockade. Mahan emphasized that naval operations were chiefly to be won by decisive battles and blockades.[11] In the 19th-century United States, emphasis on controlling seaborne commerce was radical, especially in a nation obsessed with western expansion.

Mahan's emphasis on sea power as the crucial fact behind Britain's ascension neglected the well-documented roles of diplomacy and armies. Furthermore, Mahan's theories did not explain the success of terrestrial empires, such as Bismarckian Germany.[12]

Sea power[edit]

Mahan believed that national greatness was inextricably associated with the sea, with its commercial usage in peace and its control in war; and he used history as a stock of examples to exemplify his theories, arguing that the education of naval officers should be based on a rigorous study of history. Mahan's framework derived from Antoine-Henri Jomini, and emphasized strategic locations (such as choke points, canals, and coaling stations), as well as quantifiable levels of fighting power in a fleet. Mahan also believed that in peacetime, states should increase production and shipping capacities and acquire overseas possessions, though he stressed that the number of coal fueling stations and strategic bases should be limited to avoid draining too many resources from the mother country.[13]

The primary mission of a navy was to secure the command of the sea, which would permit the maintenance of sea communications for one's own ships while denying their use to the enemy and, if necessary, closely supervise neutral trade. Control of the sea could be achieved not by destruction of commerce but only by destroying or neutralizing the enemy fleet. Such a strategy called for the concentration of naval forces composed of capital ships, not too large but numerous, well-manned with crews thoroughly trained, and operating under the principle that the best defense is an aggressive offense.[14]

Mahan contended that with a command of the sea, even if local and temporary, naval operations in support of land forces could be of decisive importance. He also believed that naval supremacy could be exercised by a transnational consortium acting in defense of a multinational system of free trade. His theories, expounded before the submarine became a serious factor in warfare, delayed the introduction of convoys as a defense against German U-boats during World War I. By the 1930s, the US Navy had built long-range submarines to raid Japanese shipping; but in World War II, the Japanese, still tied to Mahan, designed their submarines as ancillaries to the fleet and failed to attack American supply lines in the Pacific.

Mahan believed first, that good political and naval leadership was no less important than geography when it came to the development of sea power. Second, Mahan's unit of political analysis insofar as sea power was concerned was a transnational consortium, rather than a 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.[15]

In 1890 Mahan prepared a secret contingency plan for war between Britain and the United States. Mahan believed that if the British blockaded the eastern ports, the US Navy should be concentrated in one of them, preferably New York, with its two widely separated exits, and employ torpedo boats to defend the other harbors. This concentration of the US fleet would force the British to tie down such a large proportion of their navy to watch the New York exits that 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 US fleet could capture British coaling ports in Nova Scotia, thereby seriously weakening British ability to engage in naval operations off the American coast. This contingency plan was a clear example Mahan's application of his principles of naval war, with a clear reliance on Jomini's principle of controlling strategic points.[16]

Impact[edit]

Timeliness contributed no small part to the widespread acceptance of Mahan's theories. Although his history was relatively thin, based as it was on secondary sources, his vigorous style and clear theory won widespread acceptance of navalists and supporters of the New Imperialism in Africa and Asia.

Given the rapid technological changes underway in propulsion (from coal to oil and from boilers to turbines), ordnance (with better fire directors, and new high explosives), and armor and the 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.[14]

Germany[edit]

Mahan's name became a household word in the German navy after Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered his officers to read Mahan, and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849–1930) used Mahan's reputation to finance a powerful surface fleet.[17] Tirpitz, an intense navalist who believed ardently in Mahan's dictum that whatever power rules the sea also ruled the world, had The Influence of Sea Power Upon History translated into German in 1898 and had 8000 copies distributed for free as a way of pressuring the Reichstag to vote for the First Navy Bill.[18]

Tirpitz used Mahan not only as a way of winning over German public opinion but also as a guide to strategic thinking.[19] Before 1914, Tirpitz completely rejected commerce raiding as a strategy and instead embraced Mahan's ideal of a decisive battle of annihilation between two fleets as the way to win command of the seas.[18] Tirpitz always planned for the German High Seas Fleet to win the Entscheidungsschlacht (battle of annihilation) against the British Royal Navy somewhere in "the waters between Helgoland and the Thames", a strategy he based on his reading of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.[18]

Great Britain[edit]

Mahan and British admiral John Fisher (1841–1920) both addressed the problem of how to dominate home waters and distant seas with naval forces unable to do both. Mahan argued for a universal principle of concentration of powerful ships in home waters with minimized strength in distant seas. Fisher instead decided to use submarines to defend home waters and mobile battle cruisers to protect imperial interests.[20]

France[edit]

Though in 1914 French naval doctrine was dominated by Mahan's theory of sea power, the course of World War I changed ideas about the place of the navy. 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) 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.[21]

Japan[edit]

The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660–1783 was translated into Japanese[22] and was used as a textbook in the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). That usage strongly affected the IJN's plan to end Russian naval expansion in the far east, which culminated in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).[23] It has been argued that the IJN's pursuit of the "decisive battle" contributed to Imperial Japan's defeat in World War II.[24][25] because the development of the submarine and the aircraft carrier, combined with advances in technology, largely rendered obsolete the doctrine of the decisive battle between fleets.[26] Nevertheless, the IJN did not adhere strictly to Mahanian doctrine because its forces were often tactically divided, particularly during the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway.

United States[edit]

Mahan believed that if the United States were to build an isthmian canal, it would become a Pacific power, and therefore it should take possession of Hawaii to protect the West Coast.[27] Nevertheless, his support for American imperialism was more ambivalent than is often stated, and he remained lukewarm about American annexation of the Philippines.[28]

Later career[edit]

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 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 during the Spanish–American War.

Mahan continued to write, and he received honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, and McGill. In 1902, Mahan popularized the term "Middle East," which he used in the article "The Persian Gulf and International Relations," published in September in the National Review.[29]

In 1902 Mahan was elected president of the American Historical Association, and his address, "Subordination in Historical Treatment," is his most explicit explanation of his philosophy of history.[30]

In 1906, Mahan became rear admiral by an act of Congress that promoted all retired captains who had served in the American Civil War. At the outbreak of World War I, he published statements favorable to the cause of Great Britain, but in an attempt to enforce American neutrality, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that all active and retired officers refrain from publicly commenting on the war.[31]

Religious life[edit]

Mahan was reared as an Episcopalian and became a devout churchman with High Church sympathies. For instance, late in life he strongly opposed revision of the Book of Common Prayer.[32] Nevertheless, Mahan also appears to have undergone a conversion experience about 1871, when he realized that he could experience God’s favor, not through his own merits, but only through “trust in the completed work of Christ on the cross.”[33] Geissler called one of his religious addresses almost “evangelical, albeit of the dignified stiff-upper-lip variety.”[34] And Mahan never mentioned a conversion experience in his autobiography.

In later life, Mahan often spoke to Episcopal parishes. In 1899, at Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, Mahan emphasized his own religious experience and declared that one needed a personal relationship with God given through the work of the Holy Spirit.[35] In 1909, Mahan published The Harvest Within: Thoughts on the Life of the Christian, which was "part personal testimony, part biblical analysis, part expository sermon."[36]

Death and commemoration[edit]

The Mahan Hall at the United States Naval Academy is named for Mahan.

Mahan died in Washington, D.C., of heart failure on December 1, 1914, a few months after the outbreak of World War I.

Family[edit]

Alfred Thayer Mahan married Ellen Lyle Evans in June 1872. They had 2 daughters and one son.

Dates of rank[edit]

  • Acting midshipman – 30 September 1856
  • Midshipman – 9 June 1859
  • Lieutenant – 31 August 1861
  • Lieutenant commander – 7 June 1865
  • Commander – 20 November 1872
  • Captain – 23 September 1885
  • Retired list – 17 November 1896
  • Rear Admiral on the retired list – 1906

Awards[edit]

Works[edit]

In fiction[edit]

In 1901, an alternate history by Robert Conroy, the main character is a young United States Army officer named Patrick Mahan, a fictitious nephew of Admiral Mahan, who himself appears briefly in the story as well.

In Harry Turtledove's Southern Victory, another alternate history, Mahan is frequently mentioned but never appears. He is spoken of as having been President of the United States from 1889 to 1897, and the Mahan Bedroom is a famous room in the Powel House in Philadelphia, analogous to the actual Lincoln Bedroom in the White House.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Keegan, John. The American Civil War Knopf, 2009, 272.
  2. ^ Suzanne Geisler, God and Sea Power: The Influence of Religion on Alfred Thayer Mahan (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 1.
  3. ^ Geissler, 24-26.
  4. ^ Richard W. Turk, The Ambiguous Relationship: Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan (Greenwood Press, 19870, 10.
  5. ^ Larrie D. Ferreiro, 'Mahan and the "English Club" of Lima, Peru: The Genesis of The Influence of Sea Power upon History', The Journal of Military History72: 3 (July 2008), 901–906.
  6. ^ Paret, Peter (1986). Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 445. 
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ Geissler, 99-100.
  9. ^ ODNB entry for Carola Oman: Retrieved 8 July 2012. Pay-walled. (subscription required)
  10. ^ Knight, Roger (2000). "The Foundations of Naval History: John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy and the Historical Profession, Review of book by Professor Andrew Lambert". London: Institute for Historical Research. Retrieved April 3, 2007. 
  11. ^ Vego, Dr. Milan (2009). "Naval Classical Thinkers and Operational Art". Naval War College: 4. Retrieved December 12, 2016. 
  12. ^ Paret, Peter (1986). Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. pp. 453–455. 
  13. ^ Crowl, Alfred Thayer Mahan, 451, 460.
  14. ^ a b Philip A. Crowl, "Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian," in Paret, Peter, Gordon A. Craig, and Felix Gilbert, eds. Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (1986), ch. 16.
  15. ^ Jon Tetsuro Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).
  16. ^ Kenneth Bourne and Carl Boyd, "Captain Mahan's 'War' with Great Britain," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 94:7 (1968), 71–78. ISSN 0041-798X
  17. ^ Holger Herwig,"The Failure of German Sea Power, 1914-1945: Mahan, Tirpitz, and Raeder Reconsidered", The International History Review, 10:1 (February 1988), 72-73.
  18. ^ a b c Herwig, 69-105.
  19. ^ Herwig, 72-73.
  20. ^ Jon Tetsuro Sumida, "Geography, Technology, and British Naval Strategy in the Dreadnought Era." Naval War College Review 2006 59(3): 89–102.
  21. ^ Martin Motte, "L'epreuve des Faits: ou la Pensee Navale Française face a la Grande Guerre," Revue Historique Des Armées 1996 (2): 97–106. ISSN 0035-3299.
  22. ^ Mark Peattie & David Evans, Kaigun (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1997).
  23. ^ Mahan, Proceedings article 1906.
  24. ^ Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon, The Pearl Harbor Papers (Brassey's, 1993)
  25. ^ Marc Parillo, The Japanese Merchant Marine in WW2 (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1993)
  26. ^ Crowl, "Alfred Thayer Mahan: pp. 474–77.
  27. ^ Brinkley, Alan (2010). "19: From Crisis to Empire". The Unfinished Nation. Columbia University: McGrawHill. p. 499. 
  28. ^ Geissler, 134-35.
  29. ^ Adelson, Roger. London and the Invention of the Middle East: Money, Power, and War, 1902–1922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 22-23.
  30. ^ Geissler, 151-52;"Subordination in Historical Treatment."
  31. ^ Giessler, 189. Mahan unsuccessfully appealed the order to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, arguing that retired officers were no different from private citizens and should not be "silenced".
  32. ^ Geissler, 178-185.
  33. ^ Geissler, 78.
  34. ^ Geissler, 149.
  35. ^ Geissler, 149. He concluded with "the reiteration of my sure and joyful confidence, that I have tried God these many years and found Him ever faithful...that all I have, all that I am, all that have accomplished, has been of Him and through Him."
  36. ^ Geissler, 167.
  37. ^ Ebarb, Matthew A. "Midshipmen Learn Lessons from the Fleet" (story number NNS071020-04), Navy.mil, October 20, 2007.
  38. ^ Geissler, 1
  39. ^ Mahan Division website.

References[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

  • Seager II, Robert, ed. Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan (3 vol 1975) v. 1. 1847–1889.--v. 2. 1890–1901.--v. 3. 1902–1914
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (1890) online edition
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812 (2 vols., 1892) online edition
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer. Sea Power in Relation to the War of 1812 (2 vols., 1905). online edition
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer., Reflections, Historic and Other, Suggested by the Battle of the Japan Sea. By Captain A. T. Mahan, U.S. Navy. US Naval Proceedings magazine, June 1906, Volume XXXVI, No. 2 United States Naval Institute.
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain (2 vols., 1897) online edition
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer. Mahan on Naval Strategy: selections from the writings of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan ed by John B. Hattendorf (1991)
  • The Negotiations at Ghent in 1814, A. T. Mahan, The American Historical Review, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Oct., 1905), pp. 68–87, Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the American Historical Association Article Stable URL: JSTOR 1832365

Further reading[edit]

  • Apt, Benjamin. "Mahan's Forebears: The Debate over Maritime Strategy, 1868–1883." Naval War College Review (Summer 1997). Online. Naval War College. September 24, 2004
  • Bowling, Roland Alfred. "The Negative Influence of Mahan on the Protection of Shipping in Wartime: The Convoy Controversy in the Twentieth Century." PhD dissertation U. of Maine 1980. 689 pp. DAI 1980 41(5): 2241-A. 8024828 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Crowl, Philip A. "Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian" in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)
  • Hattendorf, John B., ed. The Influence of History on Mahan. Naval War College Press, 1991. 208 pp.
  • Holmes, James R., Strategic Features of the South China Sea: A Tough Neighborhood for Hegemons, Naval War College Review, Spring 2014, Volume 67, Number 2, pp. 30–51.
  • Karsten, Peter. "The Nature of 'Influence': Roosevelt, Mahan and the Concept of Sea Power." American Quarterly 1971 23(4): 585–600. in Jstor
  • LaFeber, Walter. "A Note on the "Mercantilistic Imperialism" of Alfred Thayer Mahan," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Mar., 1962), pp. 674–685 online at JSTOR
  • Livezey, William E. Mahan on Sea Power (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, reprinted 1981)
  • Puleston, W. D. Mahan: The Life and Work of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S.N 1939 online edition
  • St. John, Ronald B. "European Naval Expansion and Mahan, 1889–1906." Naval War College Review 1971 23(7): 74–83. ISSN 0028-1484. Argues that key Europeans were already set to expand their navies and that Mahan crystallized their ideas and generate broad support.
  • Schluter, Randall Craig. "Looking Outward for America: An Ideological Criticism of the Rhetoric of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, USN, in American Magazines of the 1890s." PhD dissertation U. of Iowa 1995. 261 pp. DAI 1995 56(6): 2045-A. DA9536247 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Seager, Robert. Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1977), the standard biography
  • Shulman, Mark Russell. "The Influence of Mahan upon Sea Power." Reviews in American History 1991 19(4): 522–527. in Jstor
  • Shulman, Mark Russell. Navalism and the Emergence of American Sea Powers, 1882–1893 (1995)
  • Sumida, Jon Tetsuro. Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan (2000) 184 pages excerpt and online search from Amazon.com
  • Turk, Richard W. The Ambiguous Relationship: Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan (1987) online edition
  • Varacalli, Thomas F.X. "National Interest and Moral Responsibility in the Political Thought of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan" Naval War College Review, Vol. 69, no. 2 (Spring 2016), 108-127
  • Zimmermann, Warren. First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power. (2002). 562 pp., chapter on Mahan

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Stephen Luce
President of the Naval War College
1886–1889
Succeeded by
Caspar F. Goodrich
Preceded by
Caspar F. Goodrich
President of the Naval War College
1892–1893
Succeeded by
Charles Herbert Stockton