From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Although Rear Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan died at his home in Washington, D.C., more than 100 years ago, debate still swirls around the legendary admiral and his collective writings – a total of 20 books and 160 articles, chief among them The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. That book alone, published in 1890, has been translated into French, German, Russian and Japanese, just to name a few.
From the time the book was published, Mahan “has been much challenged, but he is never ignored, or if so, at their peril,” stated Barry M. Gough, a Canadian and maritime historian in his essay “Influence of History on Mahan” during a 1990 conference at the Naval War College. “Mahan is etched in time. He was the principal philosopher of sea power of the late nineteenth century, a naval Mohammed. He was a journeyman historian in research and writing skills, besides being a capable synthesis of secondary historical works, who conceived of a series of books explaining the role that naval affairs at sea had played in the shaping of the world to his time of writing.”
Naval officer, historian and strategist – Mahan was most likely a bit of each, and each area influenced the others.
“He wasn’t the first naval historian, but he was the first to conceptualize the role of sea power in the human affairs of his time, rescuing from the forgotten historical record the relevant details of how victory at sea was arrived and what benefits devolved to the victor at sea,” Gough said.
His books came out during a period of time called Social Darwinism, when many persons in numerous branches of intellectual inquiry were seeking scientific explanations of human behavior. It played a strong role in the shaping of American and British political thought at the time, Gough said.
“Charles Darwin, who wrote the other major profoundly influential book of the mid-nineteenth century, Origin of Species, was seeking a more general theory of mutation and evolution. This was an era of extraordinary historical theorizing. Important theories were being expounded concerning historical development and philosophical understanding, by historians Jacob Burckhardt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sir John Robert Seeley and J.B. Bury.”
Historian, theorist or simply a strategist, whatever can be said about Mahan, he certainly was not as black and white as some of his theories.
He was born at West Point, N.Y., home of the U.S. Military Academy where his father, Dennis Hart Mahan, was a distinguished professor of Civil and Military Engineering. Mahan’s own middle name, Thayer, was a nod to the “father of West Point,” Sylvanus Thayer. After attending St. James, a boarding school near Hagerstown, Md., Mahan entered Columbia College in New York City.
Bucking his parents’ wishes, Mahan went to then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, himself a West Point alumni, to obtain an appointment to the Naval Academy. By special arrangement (the only occasion on record of that concession being made), Mahan entered the Third Class on Oct. 7, 1856. He graduated from the Academy, second in his class of 20, in 1859. During the Civil War, Mahan served on a variety of ships, but apparently the ships under Mahan’s command had a woeful habit of running into either stationary or moving objects. He did, however, suggest a number of ideas, such as outfitting a “mystery” ship to decoy Confederate blockade runners.
While Mahan extolled the virtues of the sea-service, actual sea-service wasn’t his thing, just one more aspect of this complex man.
“We know that he was bright, extraordinarily vain, though he tried to hide it. He was unpopular and isolated at the Naval Academy because of his rigid belief in discipline. He admired the Royal Navy and sought to emulate its discipline in the U.S. Navy. He was socially awkward with women and apparently as isolated from them as he was from the men in the Navy,” Gough’s essay pointed out. “His love of the sea was not strong, and if his biographers are to be believed, he hated ship-board life. Somehow in Stephen B. Luce he found a patron, and had he not had that opportunity, it seems probably that he would not have taken to the task of becoming a first-rate historian.”
During Mahan’s sea-faring days, he was in the Orient where he was present at the opening of the treaty ports of Kobe and Osaka, Japan, in 1867; served on China Station in 1869. After a visit to Europe, Mahan was ordered to the SS Worcester, chartered by the Navy Department as a relief ship to carry foodstuffs to the French people who had been reported in dire need.
He was detached from that duty on Aug. 3, 1871 and in December 1872 assumed his first command, USS Wasp, of the South Atlantic Squadron. He continued in that command until January 1875, when he was ordered to return to the United States, and home to await further orders.
In August 1876, he was designated as a member of the Board of Examiners at the Naval Academy, and during his period of duty there he won third prize in 1878 in the Naval Institute’s contest for the best essay on “Naval Education for Officers and Men.” This was his first published article. In the summer of 1880 he was ordered to the Navigation Department, New York Navy Yard, and on Sept. 9, 1883, he assumed command of Wachusett at Callao, Peru. In the Wachusett he visited ports on the west coast of South America.
In October 1885 he was assigned duty as Lecturer on Naval Tactics and History at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. President Stephen B. Luce allowed Mahan to study and read history for a year. And it was while reading The History of Rome by Theodor Mommsen that Mahan realized there was virtually no recognition given to Roman sea power during the Rome Republics’ battles with Carthaginian Gen. Hannibal Barca during the Second Punic Wars.
“He grasped the single insight that so revolutionized the study of naval history,” Gough said. “His masterpiece set forth three considerations on which maritime dominance could rest: instruments of war (including bases), seaborne commerce, and colonies.”
At his own request, Mahan was retired Nov. 17, 1896, after 40 years of active service, in order to devote his full time to writing on naval subjects. He returned to active duty at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, and in May 1898 was appointed to the Naval Board of Strategy. In 1899 he served as one of the American delegates at the First Peace Conference at The Hague, The Netherlands.
During the years to follow, he was recalled to active service as Member of the Board of Visitors, Naval Academy, (May 1903); with the Senate Commission on Merchant Marine (November 1904); to report on studies and conclusions of the Naval War Board during the War with Spain (July 1906); as a Member of the Committee on Documentary Historical Publications under the Committee on Departmental Methods (October 1908); as a Member of the Commission to Report on Re-organization of the Navy Department (February 1909); and to lecture at the Naval War College.
While abroad as Commanding Officer of the USS Chicago in 1894, he was awarded honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Later Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth and McGill similarly honored him. The Royal United Service Institute awarded him its Chesney Gold Medal in recognition of his literary work bearing on the welfare of the British Empire, in 1900; and in 1902 he was made President of the American Historical Society. He was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral on the Retired List, with date of rank June 29, 1906.
During the period 1884 until his death in 1914, Rear Adm. Mahan studied and wrote on Naval historical and biographical subjects. His works have had tremendous influence all over the world, especially those directly concerning sea power, and have been translated into many different languages.
Despite being written 124 years ago, Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power Upon History still has lasting value, Gough concluded.
“This is so not because he was right, because he was not always so, and it is useful because he was sometimes wrong,” he wrote in his essay. “He is the touchstone. He enlarges our world. He is a prism through which we view the changing colors of a much larger spectrum than he could ever perceive from his limited vantage point in the late 1880s and after. He was aware of the need for highly educated, disciplined and strategically-oriented naval officers. He was mindful, too, of the momentous changes that were occurring in naval technology, in weapons and propulsion especially. He was mindful, moreover, of the growing role that the United States was playing in world affairs.”