Mahan, Alfred Thayer

views updated May 23 2018

Mahan, Alfred Thayer



Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914) was an American naval officer who wrote extensively on naval strategy and the history of sea power. From his studies of naval warfare he drew principles of strategy that greatly influenced the development and employment of naval forces during the first half of the twentieth century. As a historian he studied the relations of sea power and history, and he developed a philosophy of history in which the concept of force played a major role.

Mahan was born at West Point, New York, where his father was a professor of military engineering at the United States Military Academy. Mahan chose the navy for his profession and, graduating from the United States Naval Academy in 1859, saw active service in the American Civil War. At its conclusion, he continued his navy career and traveled widely. There was little indication during these years of the intellectual importance he was to attain.

Mahan was selected in 1885 to lecture on naval strategy, tactics, and history at the newly established Naval War College. He probably received the assignment because he wrote “The Gulf and Inland Waters,” a competent volume appearing in 1883 as a part of a larger history of the American Civil War. His duties at the war college forced him to crystallize his thoughts on sea power and history. It was not his intention to do original research but rather to use the best historical works available to investigate his chosen field. From his lectures came the basis for his most important work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783, which appeared in 1890. There followed in 1892 The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire: 1793–1812 and in 1905 Sea Power in its Relations to the War of 1812. He also wrote biographies and biographical sketches, as well as several interpretative articles upon events of his time.

A large number of his professional colleagues in the United States Navy did not recognize the importance of the task Mahan had set for himself. By his own choice, he retired from the navy in 1896 to pursue his literary career. He was a member of the naval war board that provided advice on strategy during the Spanish-American War. As a representative at the First International Conference at The Hague, he spoke against prohibiting poison gas, because he thought it inconsistent with permitting the use of the submarine torpedo. He was also instrumental in persuading American delegates not to sign the convention establishing the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration until a reservation was added safeguarding the traditional position of the United States against European involvement in the Americas and American involvement in Europe.

Concepts of naval strategy . Mahan defined sea power as the ability of a nation to control movement across the sea. He claimed that this control is the most potent factor in national prosperity and in the course of history. The components of a nation’s sea power are geographical factors and national resources, the character of its people and its government, and its diplomatic and naval policies.

From his studies Mahan derived several strategic principles, having to do with the concentration of force, the choice of the correct objective, and the importance of lines of communications. Reduced to more concrete terms these principles mean that a nation should construct a battle fleet that has as its main objective the ability to destroy an enemy battle fleet. French naval history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the American experience during the War of 1812 led him to believe that cruiser warfare and raids against merchant shipping were of secondary importance. Until Mahan, however, such warfare had been the basic naval strategy of the United States.

Mahan’s works appeared at a time when national rivalries were producing the international crises that culminated in World War I and when technological developments made possible the Dreadnought-type battleship which had only big guns. His works were avidly read by the British, the Japanese, and the Germans. In his own nation, he exerted influence in part by his writings and in part by his close friendship with such leaders as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge.

Mahan’s theories of sea power remained cogent in naval strategy until the middle of the twentieth century. After World War II his concepts of sea power required modification. He had studied naval rivalries and fleet actions; consequently, his theories were applicable primarily when two or more powers were contesting the control of the sea. His principles did not easily fit the post-World War II situation in which the United States, controlling the sea, confronted the Soviet Union, controlling a large land mass. Nonetheless, his principles are still valuable in military analyses.

Military power and theory of history . It was perhaps inevitable that Mahan, with his background and professional concerns, should see military force as playing a dominant role in history. To him history was the revelation of the plan of Providence. An integral part of this plan was the use of military force to preserve civilization and to right moral wrongs. It followed, therefore, that a nation could not blindly accept arbitration on all questions, for such arbitration might involve compromises on moral issues. Although Mahan saw history as a plan, he did not deny the individual a role: a military leader or a statesman can, by correct decision and action, shape events, but his power is limited by the materials with which he must work. Mahan, in his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1902, issued a warning against too much research on detail, urging instead a careful grouping of facts and parts that would yield the truth of the whole.

Mahan was widely read in his own day. His emphasis on the role of the military and his call for expansion found resonance in the nationalism and imperialism of his time. While the basis of his philosophy was an orthodox, and even fundamentalist, Protestantism, the results of his thoughts were acceptable to the evolutionists of “the survival of the fittest” school. Historians feel that Mahan overstressed sea power and neglected the importance of other factors, but Mahan’s contributions have not been erased. The strategic value of his principles has declined with the advent of the missile age and the nuclear weapon. Yet as both a historian and a strategist, Mahan influenced his own age and left a legacy of value to the future.

Francis Duncan

[For discussion of the subsequent development of Mahan’s ideas, see Military Policyand Strategy; and the biography of Douhet.]


1883 The Navy in the Civil War. Volume 3: The Gulf and Inland Waters. New York: Scribner.

(1890) 1963 The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783. New York: Hill & Wang.

(1892) 1898 The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire: 1793–1812. 10th ed. Boston: Little.

(1897) 1899 The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain. 2d ed., rev. Boston: Little.

(1897) 1918 The Interest of America in Sea Power: Present and Future. Boston: Little.

1899 Lessons of the War With Spain, and Other Articles. Boston: Little.

(1900) 1905 The Problem of Asia and Its Effect Upon International Policies. Boston: Little.

1902 Retrospect and Prospect: Studies in International Relations, Naval and Political. Boston: Little.

(1905) 1919 Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812. Boston: Little.

1907 From Sail to Steam: Recollections of Naval Life. New York: Harper.

1909 The Harvest Within: Thoughts on the Life of the Christian. Boston: Little.

(1910) 1919 The Interest of America in International Conditions. Boston: Little.

1912 Armaments and Arbitration: Or, the Place of Force in the International Relations of States. New York: Harper.


Duncan, Francis 1957 Mahan: Historian With a Purpose. United States Naval Institute, Proceedings 83: 498-503.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1954 National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy. United States Naval Institute, Proceedings 80:483–493.

Livezey, William E. 1947 Mahan on Sea Power. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press. ⊒ Contains a comprehensive bibliography.

Alfred Thayer Mahan

views updated May 23 2018

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), American naval historian and strategist, provided the intellectual and historical foundations for American imperial expansion.

Alfred Thayer Mahan was born on Sept. 27, 1840. His father was an officer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a professor of civil and military engineering. Young Mahan evidently intended a military career from the beginning. After 2 years at Columbia College he entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1856, graduating second in his class in 1859.

During the Civil War, Mahan spent most of his time on blockade duty and in the years after the war received a variety of assignments. He became increasingly interested in writing and in 1883 published his first book, The Gulf and Inland Waters, part of the naval history of the Civil War.

Almost immediately thereafter occurred what was probably the decisive event of Mahan's life. He was invited in 1884 to lecture on naval tactics and history at the newly established Naval War College. In outlining his lectures he first formulated the ideas that became the basis of The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890). Up to this point in his life, Mahan had believed that the United States should avoid international involvement and concentrate solely on defense. But his study of the influence of sea power changed his views, and he came to the conclusion that strong naval power was essential to maintain national strength. His book attracted favorable attention and established him as an important military thinker. His other major work was The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 (2 vols., 1892).

Mahan retired in 1896, but during the Spanish-American War he was called to serve on the Naval War Board, an informal advisory body to the secretary of the Navy. After the war he was one of the American representatives to the Hague Disarmament Conference.

Mahan's major influence came from his association with such politicians as John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt, all of whom were committed to American imperial expansion. In his writings Mahan argued that expansion was a military necessity for the United States. It was largely on the basis of Mahan's ideas, for instance, that President Theodore Roosevelt took steps to acquire the Panama Canal for the United States.

In 1912 Mahan accepted a position at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. He died on Dec. 1, 1914.

Further Reading

Mahan's autobiography, From Sail to Steam: Recollections of Naval Life (1907), is essential. The basic biography of Mahan is William D. Puleston, Mahan: The Life and Work of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan (1939). The author, however, is a Navy captain, and his exclusively naval viewpoint should be supplemented with William E. Livezey, Mahan on Sea Power(1947), which contains the essential biographical information while placing Mahan's ideas more correctly in the context of the times.

Additional Sources

Mahan, A. T. (Alfred Thayer), Letters and papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1975.

Seager, Robert, Alfred Thayer Mahan: the man and his letters, Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1977.

Turk, Richard W., The ambiguous relationship: Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan, New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. □