Alfred Thayer Mahan
As has been related, Admiral Luce in founding the War College rendered further service in discovering Mahan. Luce showed no small ability to read character in thus picking out a commander unknown except to his immediate associates and regarded even by them as of rather ordinary powers. Indeed, Mahan himself seems to have been as unsuspecting of his genius and of the distinguished career which lay before him as most of his fellow officers were. Later he characterized himself as follows: "With little constitutional initiative, . . . at forty-five I was drifting on the lines of simple respectability as aimlessly as one very well could."
And yet within less than ten years he was destined to win a fame that reached every nation and to exert an influence that soon reshaped the navies of the great powers. At the age of fifty‑six he retired, but he could not be spared: in an emergency two years later he was recalled by cable from a distance of four thousand miles to active duty in Washington; and his last assignment was not ended till he had reached the age of seventy‑two. It is a unique naval career that is not distinctive until the officer has passed forty-five and then continues for nearly thirty years.
Mahan occupies the supreme position in the American Navy as a writer, and his particular theme is the influence of sea power upon history.
p229 The story of Mahan as a line officer is comparatively uneventful, though he rose to the rank of rear admiral. His father, a graduate of West Point, was on duty there for forty years as professor of engineering, civil and military. At the Military Academy Alfred Thayer Mahan was born; and although he left the parental home while still a boy, he was later to show the influence of his father's studies in military strategy and tactics, a field that few in America had attempted to cultivate.
Mahan, the first of the officers treated in this volume to graduate from the Naval Academy, received an appointment as midshipman in 1856. Studying the academy register, he discovered that an appointee might enter any class for which he could pass the examinations. With his excellent preparation he proposed, by a little preliminary study on points where he was lacking, to omit the fourth class (freshman) altogether and enter the third class. In this he was successful, and he graduated in three years. Although classes at Annapolis have been graduated early, at times when officers have been greatly needed, Mahan is the only midshipman who took the full course and was permitted to omit the fourth-class year. He was graduated second in his class.
The fifties marked the transition from sail to steam, and Mahan was fortunate at the academy and in his first year of sea service in seeing much of the old navy.
Ours was still a navy of single, isolated cruisers following the traditions of 1812; and, as Mahan pointed out, even when we had ships of the line they constituted a paradox: they sailed singly — there was no line. He characterized the Naval Academy of his time as "conservative rather than progressive"; and said again, p230 "My most susceptible years were colored by lingering traditions of the sail period." But it was by no means time ill spent: "For myself personally, when I came to write naval history, long years after, I derived invaluable aid from the principles and the simpler evolutions thus assimilated and remembered."
Mahan's first cruise was made in the frigate Congress to Brazil. The ship was at Montevideo two years later when news came of the firing on Fort Sumter, with orders to return immediately.
In the Civil War Mahan had a fair share of important service without being engaged in any enterprise in which his own assignment was particularly hazardous or thrilling. In November, 1861, when the Atlantic Fleet under Du Pont captured the forts at the entrance to Port Royal, the Pocahontas, with Mahan as first lieutenant, joined in the attack. After this there came two assignments of blockade duty, the first off Charleston and the second off Sabine Pass, Texas. Such duty was dull enough anywhere. South Carolina, however, where a large number of the Union fleet were collected, was characterized by Mahan as "a blooming garden of social refreshment compared with the wilderness of the Texas coast."
Charleston was not very far from the Chesapeake or Delaware, in distance or in time. Supply vessels, which came periodically, and at not very long intervals, arrived with papers not very late, and with fresh provisions not very long slaughtered; but by the time they reached Galveston or Sabine Pass, which was our station, their news was stale, and we got the bottom tier of fresh beef. The ship to which I there belonged was a small steam-corvette, which, with two gunboats, constituted all the social possibilities. Happily for myself, I did not join till midway in the corvette's stay p231 off the port, which lasted in all nearly six months before she was recalled in mercy to New Orleans. I have never seen a body of intelligent men reduced so nearly to imbecility as my shipmates then were.
A short tour of duty at the Naval Academy near the middle of the Civil War brought Mahan and Luce together, probably for the first time. During the practice cruise of 1863, when Luce in command of the Macedonian took the midshipmen to England, Mahan sailed with him as first lieutenant. The last part of the war found Mahan on the staff of Admiral Dahlgren, and he was at Charleston when Sherman, marching north from Savannah with his army, forced its surrender. He thus witnessed the hoisting of the flag over Fort Sumter by General Robert Anderson, who as Major Anderson had lowered it just four years before. It was made a highly formal occasion, with an address by Henry Ward Beecher.
Mahan as a young naval officer had a love for travel, and an understanding of how to turn his travels to account. In 1867 he set out on the historic Iroquois for a three-year cruise to China and Japan, which he characterized as "the dream of years to me." The Iroquois, going by the West Indies to Rio de Janeiro, sailed to the Cape of Good Hope and visited Cape Town, Madagascar, Aden, Muscat, Bombay, Singapore, Manila, and Hongkong. At the last place, where it remained for some months, Mahan had a chance to inhale what his captain called "the regular China smell."
More interesting to him, however, was the visit to Japan. It was only fourteen years since Perry had made his treaty opening two ports for American trade; and shortly before the coming of the Iroquois, Japan had conceded two more treaty ports, in the Inland Sea — p232 Osaka and Kobe — to be formally opened at the beginning of 1868. The Iroquois, with all the American ships and those of other nations in the vicinity, assembled to add impressiveness to the occasion. Thus Mahan had the opportunity of seeing Japan before she was in any degree modernized, when Americans were just as strange to the Japanese as the people and their country were to the Americans. Ever fond of walking, he found interest in exploring all places within easy reach. Presumably there was a slight element of danger connected with the trips, for at this time the unrest in the country was so great as to verge on civil war, and on more than one occasion the French and other Europeans had to defend themselves from the natives. Soon American officers were ordered to carry heavy navy revolvers on their walks. Mahan was frequently followed by curious mobs as he went to unfrequented spots; but he went alone at every opportunity and was delighted by the picturesque country. A small stream near Kobe, "to memory dear," he speaks of with special enthusiasm:
Following along it one day, and so up the hills, I struck at length, well within the outer range, an exquisite Japanese valley, profound, semicircular, and terraced, closed at either end by a passage so narrow that it might well be called a defile. The suddenness with which it burst upon me, like the South Sea upon Balboa, the feeling of remoteness inspired by its isolation, and its own intrinsic beauty, struck home so forcible a prepossession that it remained a favorite resort, to which I guided several others; for it must be borne in mind that, up to our coming, the hill tracks of Kobe knew not the feet of foreigners, and there was still such a thing as first discovery. Some time afterwards, when I had long returned home, a naval officer told me that the place was known to him and others as Mahan's Valley.
p233 The stay of the Iroquois at Yokohama was marked by the arrival of the first ironclad to be included in the Japanese Navy. It was the Confederate ram Stonewall Jackson, built too late to see any fighting in the Civil War. The Japanese, purchasing her from the United States, entered the contest for naval supremacy.
Mahan's final duty on the Asiatic station was in command of a gunboat which was to be sold at Yokohama. When orders came for his return to the United States, he obtained permission to go by way of Suez and Europe, and took advantage of the opportunity to visit various important cities on the way. On reaching Europe he found a six months' leave awaiting him. Among the opportunities he later prized were a visit to Rome under the papal régime and one to Paris under the empire; both of these cities were to undergo revolution within the year. These studies or pastimes were a bit unusual for a naval officer; but Mahan, like Herodotus of old, by his wanderings was laying the foundation for his historical studies. Not for twenty years was he to give himself seriously to writing. The experience was significant as showing his leanings.
Mahan's further service as line officer at sea was like that of most of his contemporaries, slight and uneventful. In 1873‑1874 he commanded the side-wheel steamer Wasp in the Rio de la Plata; in 1883‑1885 he commanded the steam sloop Wachusett attached to the South Pacific Squadron; and in 1893‑1895 he commanded the cruiser Chicago, on the European station.
With the founding of the Naval War College in 1885 the career of Mahan may be said to have had its beginning. A letter from Admiral Luce, which found him marking time on the western coast of South p234 America, acquainted him with the project and asked him to join the teaching staff, directing the work in strategy and tactics and also in naval history. The idea at once appealed to him. His father's success at West Point, in going outside the limits of his designated field of engineering and introducing something of tactics, gave Mahan assurance that he might attempt the same for naval military science. Strangely enough, as it seems to us, and undoubtedly as it seemed to him in later years, he wrote, "Naval history gave me more anxiety, and I afterwards found it was that which Luce particularly desired of me." He had already written for Scribner's a small volume, one of a series on the navy in the Civil War, entitled "The Gulf and Inland Waters," by no means badly written, but showing no especial distinction. Temperamentally disposed to underrate his own powers, he said to himself, as he reflected on Luce's offer, that he was profoundly ignorant not only of naval history but of all history and quite incompetent to undertake this phase of the College work. Yet as he thought it over and began reading he was not only drawn toward the idea, he was fascinated. Before long he received a genuine inspiration. The following is the way he describes the genesis of "Sea Power":
The Wachusett was lying at Callao, the seaport of Lima, as dull a coast town as one could dread to see. Lima being but an hour distant, we frequently spent a day there, the English Club extending to us its hospitality. In its library was Mommsen's "History of Rome," which I gave myself to reading, especially the Hannibalic episode. It suddenly struck me, whether by some chance phrase of the author I do not know, how different things might have been could Hannibal have invaded Italy by sea, as the Romans often p235 had Africa, instead of by the long land route; or could he, after arrival, have been in free communication with Carthage by water. This clew, once laid hold of, I followed up in the particular instance. It and the general theory already conceived threw on each other reciprocal illustration; and between the two my plan was formed by the time I reached home, in September, 1885. I would investigate coincidently the general history and naval history of the past two centuries, with a view to demonstrating the influence of the events of the one upon the other.
Because of unsettled conditions in Central American republics, it was nearly a year before the Wachusett could return to San Francisco and Mahan be detached. Though this delayed him in reading and in making immediate preparation for his new task, the time was by no means wasted; since he had not the books necessary for fully informing himself, he gave himself to thinking. In consequence the final work had, in all probability, more originality than if he had been able to follow his plan.
The great classic on military science was "The Art of War," written by Jomini, a Swiss officer on Napoleon's staff. Mahan had become acquainted with Jomini and Hamley through his father, and he began to study them before his return. Early in his study the idea occurred to him of applying to naval warfare the principles they laid down. In naval history next to nothing had yet been written except narratives and anecdotes; that is, there had been no systematic treatment of wars and campaigns, with analysis showing the strength and the weakness of opposing forces and explanation of success or failure. Mahan was impressed by Jomini's dictum, in opposition to the commonly accepted idea, that the statesman and general do not p236 occupy unrelated fields. From a striking phrase of Jomini's, "the sterile glory of fighting battles merely to win them," he deduced a maxim of his own, one which military men he knew often overlooked, "War is not fighting, but business." He also gained some assistance in the method of approaching his subject from a work on the history of the French Navy by Lapeyrouse-Bonfils, published in 1845. It did not amount to much as history; but the author had a quiet, philosophical way of summing up causes and effects in general history as connected with maritime affairs, a method of approach closely related to Mahan's own idea.
In September, 1885, Mahan returned from the cruise in the South Pacific. Then followed interruptions, with a month of severe illness during the winter; but he gave himself unreservedly to preparing for his new work. He still felt his limitations severely and spoke of them in the following, which is important also for giving the keynote of "The Influence of Sea Power upon History" and, indeed, of all his work:
It was with such hasty equipment that I approached my self-assigned task, to show how the control of the sea, commercial and military, had been an object powerful to influence the policies of nations; and equally a mighty factor in the success or failure of those policies. This remained my guiding aim; but incidentally thereto I had by this determined to prepare a critical analysis of the naval campaigns and battles, a decision for which I had to thank Jomini chiefly.
Mahan was detailed to the War College in October, 1885, while Admiral Luce was still its president, but he did not take up his residence there until the following August. He spent the intervening time in working on "Sea Power," originally prepared as lectures to the College. Luce appreciated the formidable character of p237 the task Mahan was grappling with, and himself attended to duty assigned to the latter so that Mahan might work on uninterruptedly through the spring and summer. It was an instance of generous assistance and splendid coördination. Mahan waited until the last of May before he began to write; but so fully had he thought out his subject that in September he had the whole on paper in lecture form — excellent speed considering how much of it was pioneer work. Large maps were required. These he drew, assisted by Lieutenant William McCarty Little. Proper equipment was not to be had, so that often they used the floor as their table. Also twenty or more battle plans were needed, and these Mahan prepared by cutting cardboard vessels of different colors to represent the contending forces. He saw the advantage in mobility possessed by his cardboard squadrons, and would move them about at will so as to test the account of a battle; when he was sure of the correctness of position he would paste the ships in place.
As narrated in the last chapter, the War College had a precarious existence during its early years; but although the officers attending it may at first have been skeptical of its value, they were strongly impressed by the originality and force of Mahan's lectures, and it was this success that lured Mahan on to his still greater field as writer.
Reading extensively in history and other subjects during the years following, Mahan revised his lectures of 1886, added more battle narratives as examples, and published them in 1890. This, his first great work, "The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660‑1783," awakened world-wide attention. In England, especially, the comments and reviews were extremely favorable.
p238 A review thirty‑two pages in length appeared in the Edinburgh Review, written by Sir John Laughton, professor of modern history in King's College University of London, and lecturer on naval history at the Royal Naval College. A long review, discriminating and enthusiastic, appeared in the London Times. Lord Roberts, the veteran soldier, publicly announced that the book had given him more pleasure than any other he had read for many years, and Gladstone is said to have regarded it as one of the greatest of modern works. Our own Roosevelt, then civil service commissioner in Washington, wrote a few days after its appearance:
During the last two days I have spent half my time, busy as I am, in reading your book. That I found it interesting is shown by the fact that, having taken it up, I have gone straight through and finished it. . . . It is a very good book — admirable; and I am greatly in error if it does not become a classic.
Among naval officers appreciative and enthusiastic letters came from Admirals Luce, Goodrich, Sampson, and Schley of the American Navy and equally laudatory letters from Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornley (Admiral of the Fleet), and other only less distinguished officers of the Royal Navy.
It was translated into various foreign languages of Europe and also into Japanese, and in no country did it leave a deeper and more lasting impression than in Japan.
It had been difficult to find a publisher, and the one who accepted it had to be guaranteed against loss. No one was more surprised by the its success than the modest, unassuming author.
p239 It is interesting to read in "From Sail to Steam" (Mahan's autobiography) his own statement as to the conscious effort he made in all his early writing to attain excellence of style, believing that "style is the man." He writes:
I have never purposely attempted to imitate the style of any writer, though I unconsciously plagiarize an apt expression. But gradually, and almost unconsciously, I formed a habit of closely scrutinizing the construction of sentences by others; generally, a fault-finding habit. As I progressed, I worked out a theory for myself, just as I had the theory of the influence of sea power.
He quotes from Dr. Johnson a maxim that had guided him: "Do not exact from yourself at one effort of excogitation, propriety of thought and elegance of expression. Invent first and then embellish."
The habit of closely observing the successes and failures of others and of holding tenaciously to right working principles is sure to bring improvement in writing. For Mahan it certainly did. He found much to correct in his manuscripts and proof sheets, but he kept uncompromisingly at the task. Later he remarked that his writing at times had suffered from his "besetting anxiety" to be exact and lucid; that is, he tended to be overcautious, and at time overtaxed the reader by the accumulation of clauses in his aim that "the whole should be at once apprehended." It is undoubtedly true that one who is fagged or unwilling to put forth his full powers will commonly leave Mahan's substantial volumes on the shelves; but he who makes the effort never fails to gain a rich and stimulating return.
The years 1890 and 1891, when there was no session of the War College and its existence was hanging as by a thread, were in truth very favorable to Mahan. He p240 was continued at the War College, but without any assigned duties. Even before his first successful book had been published he had been reading extensively, and in the period of leisure he set himself diligently to writing "The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire." This was submitted to the test of use as lectures before publication.
Before the last-named work appeared Mahan was ordered to sea. He regarded himself as more useful in his literary and historical capacity at the College, and sympathetic fellow officers urged this view upon the Department; but the Bureau of Navigation thought differently, and Mahan sailed as captain of the new armored cruiser Chicago.
He already had in mind his next work, in continuation of the history of sea power, — its relation to the War of 1812, — and he planned to do extensive reading and also some writing at sea. But in both plans he was disappointed. The interruptions were too frequent, "Neither a ship nor a book" he writes, "is patient of a rival, and I soon ceased the effort to serve both."
Before the cruise was completed his interest had turned to Nelson, and a biography of the English admiral was his next work. Into this he threw himself with marked enthusiasm and produced one of the greatest naval biographies yet written, perhaps the greatest.
After an interruption of nine years he resumed work on the War of 1812. It was not with the keenest enthusiasm, for he admitted that as a whole the treatment "must be flat in interest as well as laborious in execution." This period in our history forms a book, parts of which do not glow with vigor or patriotism. In suggesting his difficulties Mahan alludes to a Chinese portrait painter who answers a dissatisfied patron, p241 "How can pretty face make, when pretty face no have got?" However, he had resolved on the completion of his Sea Power series; and though it required three years of labor, he gave to the last volumes scholarship and thoroughness even beyond that of the earlier ones. For his data he went to original documents in Washington, Ottawa, and London, and he added to what was known of the period, both in material and in interpretation.
Meanwhile he had been frequently contributing to magazines articles on naval history and strategy. The best of those that appeared in the nineties were collected in a volume and published under the name "The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future." The titles of the different papers included in this — "Hawaii and our Future Sea Power" (which originally appeared in 1893), "The Isthmus and Sea Power" (1893), "Possibilities of an Anglo-American Reunion" (1894), "Preparedness for Naval War" (1897), and "Strategic Features of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico" (1897) — all show how keenly alive Mahan was to questions which few people then regarded as vital, but which after a lapse of ten, twenty, or thirty years still seem modern and important for discussion. To suggest how clear and farsighted his vision was, just one fragment will be cited, from "The United States Looking Outward," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1890:
Coincident with these signs of change in our own policy there is a restlessness in the world at large which is deeply significant, if not ominous. . . . The incident of the Samoan Islands, trivial apparently, was nevertheless eminently suggestive of European ambitions. . . . all over the world German commercial and colonial push is coming into collision with other nations.
p242 Had Mahan attempted to write on the causes and antecedent events of the World War twenty-four years later, he could not have introduced anything more direct and illuminating.
Mahan occupies the first place as a naval historian, not only in America but in the whole world. He was the first to discover philosophy in naval affairs. He made a study not merely of events but of events in their relation to the affairs and the progress of nations. Enough has been written to suggest that his books made an impression. It now remains to consider his influence on national and international affairs.
Although Mahan has by no means been without honor in our country, it must be admitted that with the exception of a comparatively small and select group — men like Luce, Goodrich, and Roosevelt — followed by an equally small reading public, this country did not recognize the soundness of his ideas until several foreign nations had enthusiastically hailed him as one of the great thinkers and writers of the present age.
England first appreciated the value of his work, and it is easy to see why. In much of his early writings he had turned for illustrations to English history; he cited England as the best example of a nation possessing sea power because of geographical position; and he presented a lesson that England quickly saw was applicable to her, as he stressed the influence of sea power upon history — from the past divining the future. In 1893‑1894, when his ship, the Chicago, was visiting English ports, he was overwhelmed by invitations from distinguished naval officers and statesmen, including two dinners given by Queen Victoria. At this time, too, he had conferred upon him the honorary degree p243 of D. C. L. by Oxford and LL. D. by Cambridge. Favorable reviews of his books, and articles in discussion of his ideas, were constantly appearing in the magazines and newspapers. They made a strong impression upon the British public and when the navies of Germany and Japan, stimulated in large part by Mahan's teachings, took on new life, the British Royal Navy entered upon a policy of reform, thoroughgoing and fundamental, which required a decade for accomplishment.
Taylor, in his biography of Mahan, relates that naval authorities in Cape Town, Africa, cabled to the British Admiralty asking what books they could best buy for their new naval library. "Buy Mahan," ticked the answer. And when they sent a further inquiry, remarking that they already had secured several of his works, there came a second cable, "Buy more Mahan."
The hint of what the influence of Mahan was to be on Germany is afforded by a private telegram sent 26 May, 1894, by the Kaiser to Poultney Bigelow:
I am just now not reading but devouring Captain Mahan's book; and am trying to learn it by heart. It is a first-class work and classical in all points. It is on board all my ships and constantly quoted by my captains and officers.
William, I. and R.
To educate the people to the realization of the necessity of a large navy, the German government ordered Mahan's books to be translated into German and copies to be sent to schools and libraries, and a complete set to be placed on every German warship. Shortly after this, began the great expansion of the German Navy.
p244 In no country has there been a keener interest in Mahan's works than in Japan, and all his important writings have been translated into Japanese and published. In 1897 the Oriental Association of Tokyo, comprising thirteen hundred ministers of state, members of the Diet, civil and military officers, teachers, editors, bankers, and merchants, wrote to Mahan saying that they were publishing a translation of "The Influence of Sea Power upon History":
The chief aim of the association is to investigate various questions of policy and diplomacy, both historical and contemporary. . . . Translation of your valuable book we adopted as one of our honourable transactions. Our purpose was, indeed, to give to our countrymen the knowledge of naval affairs, at present the most important knowledge in this part of the world. The facts show that our humble purpose is realized, The Japanese edition of your valuable work attracted the attention of our public; the Naval and Military Colleges have adopted it as their textbook.
We presented a volume to each of Their Majesties, the Emperor and Crown Prince of Japan, and received an honor of Their Majesties' approval. Subsequently the Imperial Household Department bought from us 300 volumes in accordance with the royal purpose of subscribing to every middle, higher middle, and military school in Japan. To tell the truth, several thousand volumes were sold in a day or two.
Thus Japan prepared for Tsu‑shima.
Nor has the influence of Mahan in Japan been limited to a few years. In a recent report of the Japanese Naval Academy at Edajima the statement is made that students read Mahan in the original in order to learn English.
Finally, Mahan has had his influence in American naval history. There is a wide gulf between the first half p245 of the eighties, when the United States had not a single ship that could be classed as modern, whether battleships, armored cruisers, protected cruisers, or any other type, and the late nineties, when our navy had risen to third place and possibly to second among the navies of the world. Two officers who were responsible for this more than any others were Luce and Mahan. It was for Luce to lead the way to a better organization of the navy, and to provide means for educating officers and men so that they could carry on this organization, and it was for Mahan to awaken the public to the need of a navy and the necessity of supporting it. Roosevelt in his forceful way says of the latter: "In the vitally important task of convincing the masters of all of us — the people as a whole — of the importance of a true understanding of naval needs, Mahan stood alone. There was no one else in his class, or anywhere near it."
What the government thought of him in 1898 at the beginning of the Spanish-American War is evidenced by the fact that although he was on the retired list and in Italy, he was promptly recalled by cable in order that he might serve with Admiral Sicard and Captain Crowninshield on the Naval War Board. Then for fourteen years following he was given further assignments in Washington, at the Naval War College, and at the Hague Peace Conference.
Mahan was not brilliant as a line officer; he was scarcely above the average. Indeed, his father, analyzing his powers, told him early in life that he was better adapted to a civilian pursuit than to a naval career. In later years Mahan, realizing how distasteful matters of discipline had always been to him, agreed with his father's opinion. Perhaps he was right; but p246 on the other hand we must not lose sight of the fact that his brilliant historical work required for its foundation a thorough knowledge of the sea, such as only practical experience in the navy could afford. Fortunately there were a hundred others who were eager to do the work of line officer, for which he felt disinclination. His great service to the navy and to the nation was in writing; and though he preached most effectively the value of sea power, he himself exemplified the adage (adapted) "The pen is mightier than the ship."
What was Mahan's contribution to the American Navy? Before a critical period in our history he showed the supreme importance of sea power. If Luce taught the navy to think, Mahan taught it to study and write. Practically none had written before his time; but a multitude of officers have followed him, some of them with distinguished success.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 26 Apr 13