The world of 1890 sunned itself in the Indian summer of the Pax Britannica, that great, liberal century stretching from Waterloo to Sarajevo. A year notable for peace, 1890 was also remarkable for portents, events half-hidden or only dimly apprehended which nevertheless foreshadowed, among other things, the world-wide convulsions of 1914 and 1939, with America's relationship to them. William II, only thirty‑one and barely seated on the German throne, wrote his grandmother at Windsor that Europe was at its "most peaceful for a long time." More prudently, the Marquis of Salisbury, the Tory squire who governed Victoria's realm four times with shrewd negligence, observed "several clouds" ominously on the horizon, seeing fit to caution the Queen that "any day one of them may rise."
It was, however, the Kaiser who first identified one of the omens of that year. This cloud was arising over the United States, which in 1890 signified a return to the sea in force after an absence dating, roughly, from Appomattox. Noting from afar a controversy in Washington over a battleship program, with the Secretary of the Navy proposing the building of twenty and his Policy Board recommending thirty-eight for a navy that had at the moment precisely no battleships, the Emperor scratched out an urgent note to his grandmother. What, he asked, were the Americans up to? Did they intend to become a first-rate Sea Power overnight? Victoria, immersed in dynastic routine, episcopal politics, and her Albertine memories, knew an omen when it was called to her attention, particularly if it related to sea power. Anxiously she passed William's note on to Salisbury. In his p2 desire to soothe his sovereign's alarm the Prime Minister minimized the portent, replying that it would take many years to build so many capital ships, that "many changes of administration" would intervene, and that on the whole the Americans themselves, suspicious of large armaments, could be trusted to veto the ambitions of their navy. Complacently he added that in any case the British "could always catch them up."
When Congress, after a searching debate, rejected both Navy Department recommendations, authorizing only three "sea going, coast line" battleships (the terminology being a sop to the isolationists of 1890, who believed the country could best be defended at the three-mile limit), the Queen was further comforted. Those three ships of the line, the Oregon, the Indiana and the Massachusetts, formed nevertheless the nucleus of the "fighting fleet" which, as much as any factor, projected this country first into the thick of Atlantic affairs, and then into the stormy waters of power politics on a world scale. The United States was not to become a major Sea Power for sixteen years, but in far less time than that it would enter the Anglo-American concert underlying the Atlantic System, establishing a power partnership on the seas that has become one of the most impressive facts of modern times. In that light, the Naval Act of 1890 must be taken as the point of departure for English-speaking collaboration, and it may be doubted if any other happening of that precursory year exerted an equal influence on American life and destiny in the next half-century.
The return of the Americans to blue water had larger significance abroad than at home. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, U. S. N. (by a pertinent coincidence, Mahan gained world-wide authority in 1890 as a military historian and power theorist), might infer that the United States, having subdued the continent and recuperated from the Civil War, was again "looking outward." His was a lone if prophetic voice. Soon a New York newspaper, the Commercial Advertiser, would discover the country standing "on the threshold p3 of new policies as surely as it did in 1803, when Jefferson annexed Louisiana and the United States realized that it must govern it." But at the moment even the big‑navy men in Congress shrank from reading expansionist meanings into their desire for an offensive fleet. There was, as Mahan perceived, "no aggression in our pious souls."
Outside America, the Naval Act was generally taken as evidence of an intention to become a great Sea Power. Robert Louis Stevenson thought the "modern navy of the States" opened a "new epoch in world history." A witness to American colonial disinterestedness in Samoa, where he was waging his losing battle for life, the Scottish author expected America's new power to be exercised benevolently.
Another British poet and novelist, Rudyard Kipling, who saw all power matters in terms of the British Empire, supposed that with a fleet an American "alliance will be worth having — if the alliance of any republic can be relied upon." The poet, fresh from India, was twenty-five. In his American Notes, which were singularly bereft of sympathy, Kipling poured contempt on the state of our defenses. The "big, fat Republic," he wrote, is "as unprotected as a jelly fish. . . . From •five miles out at sea . . . a ship of the power of H. M. S. Collingwood would wipe out any or every town from San Francisco to Long Branch; and three first-class ironclads would account for New York, Bartholdi's statue and all."a Mindful of India's treasure, Kipling gloatingly described the "ransom and loot past the counting of man on [the] seaboard alone," with "neither a navy, nor half a dozen first-class forts to guard the whole." His pitiless exposure of our military weakness, published in 1891, flayed America's self-esteem, but it sank home. The facts were with Kipling. We had no ship that could match a Collingwood.
Afloat, the nation of John Paul Jones, of the Tripoli campaign, of Isaac Hull and the Constitution, of the brothers Perry — Oliver Hazard, who met the British on Lake Erie, and Matthew, opening Japan to the world — of the p4 clippers and of Farragut — that nation had fallen on evil days. A revival of naval interest in the 1880's had provided a small fleet, but it was built around monitors, unwieldy floating forts whose conception dated from Jefferson's day, and fast cruisers, "cavalry of the sea," unprotected and designed only to raid enemy commerce. Strategically we still dwelt in the era of the War of 1812. At the close of the Civil War we had, briefly, the most effective striking force on the seas; in 1890 our navy was at best third-rate.
So also with the merchant marine. In 1861 it included nearly 2,500,000 tons, a fleet second only to Britain's in size and excelling Britain's in speed and efficiency. Of all our ocean-borne commerce, more than three-quarters traveled in American bottoms. But steam and steel had passed us by while the sections fought and the best energies of the country forged westward, and by 1890 we had only a fraction of the prewar registry.
The full story could not be told, however, in merchant tonnages and naval statistics. They were merely the premise; the conclusion was even more disquieting. Although the world marveled at and envied our mushroomlike growth in population, wealth, and industrial capacity, outside the three-mile limit it accorded us little weight as a nation. The taunt of a British military journal that the "scream of the eagle had become no more alarming than that of a parrot" expressed a common European viewpoint.
Even in the hemisphere we had sworn to protect our word went for naught. In the early 1880's Chile, possessing armor-clads and rifled cannon against our unprotected hulks armed with smoothbores, thumbed her nose at our attempted interventionb in the war that cost Bolivia her seacoast and her nitrate beds. In 1880 President Hayes designated the Panama Isthmus a "part of the coast line of the United States"; in his inaugural in 1881 Garfield declared it our "right and duty" to build a transisthmian ship channel; the House Foreign Affairs Committee that same year termed a foreign-built canal a "violation of the spirit and letter of the Monroe Doctrine," yet we were compelled to sit by in glum impotence p5 as De Lesseps and his Frenchmen undertook the task. It was during this time that Prince Bismarck began referring to the Monroe Doctrine as a piece of "international impudence." In 1890, for a quarter-century we had lacked the means of defending it.
Everywhere we turned, moreover, we encountered British sea power, sometimes constraining, sometimes helpful. However we regarded Great Britain, the United States depended upon the British. The Monroe Doctrine itself was shadowy without the substance of the English fleet, and in the outer world the United States, because it lacked the strength to enforce its will, passed for a ward of Great Britain. When the President of France, Jules Grévy, proposed intervention in the Chile-Bolivia War by his country, England, and the United States, our pride was pricked. Coldly we replied that inasmuch as our "commercial and political interests . . . on this Continent transcend in extent and importance those of any other power," we "must preserve" an independent "position." But official Washington knew in its heart that England's veto rather than ours restrained the French.
A consciousness of weakness in relation to Great Britain and other Powers, including Chile, helped launch the battleship program. Since the Chilean War, the West coast had shivered periodically in fear of raids by the superior Chilean warcraft. "I confess with a sense of shame . . .," said Senator Eugene Hale, chairman of the Naval Committee, ". . . [that] there is nothing whatever to prevent Chile . . . from steaming along the Pacific coast and laying our towns under contribution . . . burning and destroying the metropolis of the Pacific coast." In 1891 a clash with Chile over an attack on American sailors in Valparaiso revived trepidation in Washington and on the West coast,c and prompted Theodore Roosevelt to consider organizing a cavalry troop. The South American republic had one cruiser under construction in Toulon that could sink any ship in our navy; the 1890‑class p6 American battleships were barely laid down. A genuine war scare was only ended with Chile's apology.
There were, naturally, other factors represented in our return to the sea. We could well afford it. The country waxed richer year by year and the Government had a Treasury surplus, although currency trouble lay just ahead. Also we had begun the march across the Pacific that within a decade would place us on the China Sea. Since 1878º we had maintained a naval station at Pago Pago in the Samoa Islands, sharing the oversight of that archipelago with the Germans and the British.d In 1887 Grover Cleveland had acquired exclusive rights to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii as a naval base, staking a claim to American ascendancy in those islands. The Samoan venture brought us grief in 1889 when a hurricane wrecked in the harbor of Apia, Samoa, most of our Pacific naval force, a cruiser and two smaller men-of‑war, with the loss of nearly half a hundred lives. Robert Louis Stevenson, historian of the storm and the civil war preceding it, maintained that the shock of that loss brought about the naval awakening of 1890. In this view he was by no means alone.
As an incident to the hurricane they occurred one of those events attesting what the London Times described — in another connection — as the "native affinity between the American and British fleets." In March, 1889, seven warships rode at anchor in the tiny, unprotected harbor at Apia — a show of strength reflecting the fact that three great countries were grimly interfering in the native affairs of the islands, a set of dots in the South Pacific •nearly 5,000 miles from San Francisco. Three ships were German, three American — the Trenton, flagship of Admiral Kimberly, the Vandalia, and the Nipsic — and one British, the Calliope. They had been assembled there because the Germans, whose commercial interests exceeded those of both other Powers, had provoked native strife by deposing King Laupepa Malietoa and enthroning his rival Tamamese. Whereupon a strong outlying chief, Mataafa, challenged the German choice. Finally, with Mataafa victorious everywhere, the German consul, in violation of treaty, proclaimed martial law and landed Marines. p7 In a night sortie the Germans were repulsed and lost 20 killed, 30 wounded to the Samoans.
The United States bore a special relationship to Samoa. Our treaty, antedating those of the other Powers, created a vague protectorate, which we were loath to acknowledge but which lay nevertheless on our conscience. In exchange for Pago Pago we had agreed to use our good offices on behalf of the Samoans with any third party. The civil war, reported by American correspondents, had aroused American sympathy. There was a report that the flag had been fired on by the Germans. Congress, aroused, had voted $500,000, and President Harrison had ordered Kimberly to Apia.
The hostilities had ceased and Bismarck (who had been under sharp attack in the American press) was in course of recalling his consul, but international tension stood high in the harbor as the hurricane arrived. For forty-eight hours it swept the islands, driving all the German and American ships on reef or beach. The German loss of life was greater than the American. The British escaped unscathed because as the other vessels slowly were being driven ashore the Calliope, Captain Kane, made a run for the sea to escape being fouled by the Nipsic — made a crawl, rather, the ship being unable to advance as much as •a mile an hour. Riding at the harbor's mouth was the Trenton, with 450 men aboard, half-flooded and with her wheel and rudder carried away. As the Calliope inched alongside the Trenton the Americans gathered at the rails. In A Footnote to History Stevenson thus recorded the scene: "From the doomed flagship, the Americans hailed the success of the English with a cheer. It was led by the old Admiral in person, rang out over the storm with holiday vigor and was answered by the Calliope's men with an emotion easily conceived. This ship of their kinsfolk was almost the last external object seen from the Calliope."
Gradually the Trenton was borne toward shore, coming to rest along the beached Vandalia. One man only was lost from the flagship. When the rescued crew had been lined up ashore, Kimberly paraded the ship's band. Into the teeth of the storm they hurled "Hail Columbia." Kane wrote the p8 Admiralty that he and his men had been "much affected." The story ran round the globe, inspiring many editorialists and versifiers, including Charles Roberts, a Canadian poet, who predicted that
The memory of those cheers
Shall ring in English ears
Where'er this English blood and speech extend.
In reply to a letter from Kane, Admiral Kimberly wrote: "We could not have been gladder if it was one of our own ships, for in a time like this, I can say truly with old Admiral Josiah Tattnall that 'blood is thicker than water.' "1
A man of resolution as well as sentiment, Kimberly established a camp on the beach, disposed of his dead, restored peace, and issued a proclamation calling upon the Samoans to "bury war in so deep a grave that it will sleep forever, unseen and forgot." Later that year England, Germany, and the United States negotiated the Act of Berlin, re‑enforcing the condominium and exiling Mataafa.
Whatever effect the Samoa shipwreck, with its collateral gallantry, had in preparing the American mind for a modern navy, there can be little doubt where the credit for reaching Congress rested. The man uniquely behind the battleship program was Captain Mahan. As professor of history, strategy, and tactics at the Naval War College since its foundation in 1884, Mahan had formulated for the navy the thesis of the "fighting fleet," putting into systematic form for the officers of the Naval Policy Board the arms used in their report. Benjamin F. Tracy, the Secretary of the Navy, who leaned on Mahan's didactical skill, paraphrased him in his request for battleships. Mahan wrote that war, "however defensive in character, must be waged aggressively if it is to hope for success," and again that "no purely defensive attitude can be successfully maintained." In Tracy's report he asserted that "a war, although defensive in principle, may be conducted p9 most effectively by being offensive in its operations." Truisms now, those utterances were widely challenged in 1890, not only by an uninformed public, but in the United States Navy itself.
In asking for a force capable not only of beating off an enemy but of also threatening his shores, Tracy shivered the timbers of conservatism. The Naval Policy Board's recommendation of battleships able "to attack points on the other side of the Atlantic" drove retired admirals and fresh-water Senators into indignant tremors. Versed only in commerce-raiding and blockade tactics, they saw naval warfare still in terms of hit-and‑run engagements between single antagonists. As for defending the coast, they relied on shooting it out at the mouth of the harbor. It was Mahan who taught (a lesson not yet comprehended by large sections of the public) that war should be fought in the enemy's waters and ports — not in one's own. Mahan and like-minded officers, such as Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, a great sea power theorist who founded the Naval War College and discovered Mahan, permeated the navy with the "heretical" doctrine that the best defense (navally) is offense. It remained for Mahan to reduce technical jargon to crackling phrases that penetrated lay indifference, in Congress and out. "There must be," he reiterated at Newport and in his writings, "the power to strike, as well as to shield." Never since Andrew Jackson in his 1837 inaugural demanded a fleet that could "reach and annoy the enemy" had the matter been put more trenchantly.
The rise of Mahan into international influence was without doubt one of the major happenings of 1890. Its import was far‑reaching in time and space. Accepted at once as a prophet, Mahan undertook without delay to propagate his doctrines. These included American strategical expansion and Anglo-American solidarity at sea. To Mahan command of the seas was a prerequisite of world power, and his gospel therefore had its fullest sway in England and in the three p10 countries which in 1890 put forth signs of future greatness on the sea — Germany, Japan, and the United States. None was a Naval Power in that year.
Mahan came of a background both bookish and military. His father Dennis, the son of Irish immigrants, taught at West Point for a generation. A scholar and a mathematician, not a soldier, he instructed Grant, Lee, and most of the other Civil War generals in tactics.
In 1884 Mahan, then forty-four, was idling up the west coast of South America in command of the U. S. S. Wachusett, a wooden man-of‑war forced by the decrepitude of its engine, to rely on sail power — one of the units in what the Army and Navy Journal had called a "heterogeneous collection of naval trash." He had written a thorough but uninspired account of his service in the Gulf of Mexico during the Civil War. Sufficient it was, however, to recommended his scholarship and grasp to Admiral Luce, just now organizing his Naval War College, who telegraphed the offer of the first professorship. Accepting, Mahan found the study more to his liking than the quarterdeck. Six years later publication of his first great work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660‑1783, brought him into world-wide notice. He was a thoughtful, rather somber officer, Spartan as to duty, pious, with a formidable literary equipment consisting of a capacity for sweeping historical synthesis and convincing exposition. His words were repeated in imperial courts, chancelleries both royal and republican, the universities, and wherever men handled and thought about fighting ships.
The British Prime Minister however, may be forgiven if he overlooked the dynamic import of Mahan. There were more obvious omens in 1890, nearer at hand. Prince Bismarck (the New York Herald's "grim demigod of Europe") fell in March, an event of evil significance to the British Empire, and secondarily to the United States. The Iron Chancellor stamped out of the Schloss in Berlin muttering about the "psychiatric questions" that rose to mind whenever he saw the young Emperor, leaving the Empire's tiller to yaw with every Hohenzollern gust. Within a few years the Kaiser would p11 prophesy fatefully to a German audience that "Germany's future lies on the water."
Halfway around the world at Yokohama impressed diplomats for the first time saw the fleet which in 1894 would destroy the Chinese at Yalu, bringing into being a new Naval Power. At Washington, by passing the stiffly protectionist McKinley tariff act, Congress soured the ascending industrial class in Germany, and inspired a campaign of contempt in the German press against all things American. The act distorted German understanding of this country and prompted the Kaiser in 1897 to solicit the Czar's help in forming a Continental league aimed at the "yellow races" and America because, on our part, we had "declared hostilities against Europe" by our tariff policies.
Of more remote consequence, a band of minor intellectuals (to the mystic number of seven) organized at Frankfort‑on‑the‑Main a racial cult to be known as the Pan‑German League, the teachings of which partially prefigured the Gothic broodings of Berchtesgaden. In refreshing contrast the year likewise witnessed the foundation of the Pan‑American Union, an inclusive association, hemisphere-wide, linking Latin and Anglo-Saxon civilizations in the New World. A Pan‑American Congress, through which James G. Blaine, as Secretary of State, helped to effectuate the vision of Bolivar, established in Washington a permanent secretariat for the American republics. A half-century later these antipodal abstractions, clothed in power, would confront each other across the Atlantic.
A further circumstance of 1890 casting its shadow before was the extreme preoccupation manifested in America with England and in England with America. Each country was engaged, not always happily, in discovering the other. The North American Review, for example, with a shrewd sense of the topical, published a symposium under the title "Do Americans Hate England?" The answers were equivocal. p12 Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote that while "common motherhood was too strong a tie to permit of anything like hatred . . . Americans of the purest English descent must admit that the mother country has been a . . . stern parent." A general worked off a string of epithets against the "insulting, domineering, aggressive policies of the British Government and the supercilious and patronizing airs" of the upper classes. General Horace Porter, who had been Grant's aide and secretary, put a better face on the matter, referring to England's literature and gallant deeds, "in which Americans justly feel they have a common heritage, for it is only bastards who manifest no regard for their parents."
Andrew Carnegie, the "Star-Spangled Scot," conceded a general ill will in America toward the British, laying it to ultrapatriotic schoolbooks. "The masses of the English people," on the contrary, "cordially loved and admired America." Carnegie ended with a warning which would not prove too wide of the mark a generation hence: "woe betide the race that attempts to go too far against one branch of the English race or the other."
The truth was that England stood low in American esteem as we entered the last decade of the nineteenth century. James Bryce, writing his monumental The American Commonwealth in 1888, thought American animosity considerably diminished from the "venomous hatred" against Britannia discovered by De Tocqueville in the 1830's. But Kipling, reminiscing in Something of Myself, published in 1937, recalled that England in those years was "still the dark and fearful enemy, to be feared and guarded against." Nor were Americans, including those who would bear a part in the coming rapprochement, backward about speaking their pieces. Theodore Roosevelt, who as President played power politics hand in hand with Downing Street to a degree unsurpassed by any President before or after, was then railing at "feeble folk" who betrayed "Anglo-maniac tendencies."
New and revived grievances fanned the ancient grudge. Canadian seal fishermen encroached on the American monopoly in the Bering Sea, losing their ships in a Sitka prize p13 court for their temerity. On the East coast the Canadians were again hampering New Englanders fishing the Grand Banks, in retaliation against discriminatory tariffs, with Maine and New Brunswick squabbling lengthily over Passamaquoddy Bay. Under all Anglo-American relations, of course, ran a fierce drumfire of antagonism from the transplanted Irish Nationalists, who followed the fortunes of Parnell far more avidly than the major politics of their adopted land. Moreover, literate folk with tender memories were finding in Kipling's caricatures of American life unpleasant reminders of Charles Dickens and Mrs. Trollope.
These, however, were pinpricks. The underlying motives were fear and a sense of frustration. Since 1783 the United States had obtained title to a considerable wedge of this continent; yet as long as Great Britain encircled us with military and naval power we could not feel wholly at ease. Canada stretched to the north, a potential base of operations, however lightly we might try to dismiss its menace, while in seas around us the British maintained eleven naval bases and thirty-three coaling stations. Always the Admiralty had greater strength in American waters than we could muster. At Halifax and Bermuda, it was suspected, were guns and stores with which to arm transatlantic liners speedily for blockade and raiding duty. Against whom were these bases to be used? There was only one answer, an answer readily given in the battleship debate of 1890. Senators, such as M. C. Butler, and Representatives, typified by Henry Cabot Lodge, the young Massachusetts scholar, politician, and disciple of Mahan, repeatedly called the country's attention to Britain's overweening naval strength off our shores. Secretary Tracy in his 1819 report likewise gave that fact its due.
A group of alarmed Senators proposed to Chairman Hale that a deal be attempted: England to dismantle the great bases at Halifax, Bermuda, Jamaica, and Esquimault on the British Columbia coast in exchange for abandonment of our battleship projects. Hale dismissed the suggestion as worthless, being confident that England would not trade.
Nor was that all. The Esquimault base had been recently p14 equipped with twenty eighty‑ton Armstrong guns. This base threatened our route to the Orient. Why, asked a despairing Congressman, had we gone to the expense of building transcontinental railways if our Pacific trade lanes were to lie in the shadow of another Power? The rapid completion of the Canadian Pacific and the enlargement of the Welland Canal were viewed by big‑navy members of Congress with suspicion, the Army and Navy Journal regarding that railway as "only a military creation."
Small-navy men might decry such alarms, cheerfully maintaining that Britain's investments in this country, the difficulty of defending Canada, and fear of Russia in her rear protected us from British aggressiveness. But prestige as well as security was at issue. With Britain present in superior force, the United States, for all its size and riches, was not master on this continent. Moreover, with England regnant on both shores her command of the Atlantic was indisputable.
In 1890 President Benjamin Harrison made a fresh attempt to mediate a long-standing boundary dispute between British Guiana and Venezuela. Robert Todd Lincoln, United States Minister in London, approached Lord Salisbury as to a triangular conference of England, Venezuela, and the United States with a view to agreeing on a formula. The Prime Minister, chronically dilatory, wore out Lincoln. Blaine threatened direct intervention. Harrison expressed anxiety over the "appearance of encroachment" on an American republic and sent the North Atlantic squadron into Venezuelan waters on receipt of erroneous word that the British meditated forcible persuasion at Caracas. Yet in the end Harrison fell back before Salisbury's passive resistance.
The quarrel, vexing Anglo-American relations for well over a decade, turned on yellowed Dutch and Spanish maps and Britain's steadfast refusal to submit their definition to any but her own judgment. Venezuela had sought a settlement early in the 1880's. Failing in London, she appealed to Washington. Lord Granville, Gladstone's Foreign Secretary, accepted President Grover Cleveland's good offices in 1885, but Gladstone fell before a preliminary convention could be p15 drafted. On returning to power, Salisbury repudiated the accord. Thereafter in Cleveland's first term the Foreign Office, abetted by Edward J. Phelps, the American Minister and previously a Yale law professor, successfully skirted the question. Phelps, doubting that we had a legitimate interest in a piece of "jungle, bush and water" near the equator, took the liberty of pocketing one of the President's notes. He would not be the last legal scholar to misunderstand this country's preoccupation with the Venezuelan border.
Still another problem troubled Anglo-American relations. In general this referred to this country's long-time desire for a transisthmian canal, specifically to the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. That treaty, negotiated in 1850, neutralized Central America, binding the United States and Great Britain not to acquire territory there and not to dig a canal separately. In effect, the treaty inhibited both countries from undertaking the canal. This was especially irksome to the United States, which had contemplated the project since the 1820's. The treaty grew out of a state of tension that followed that discovery of gold in California and the Mexican War. The gold rush had again focused attention on the isthmian passage (we obtained from Nicaragua in 1849 a treaty ceding canal rights) and the war, setting its sanction on the acquisition of Texas, California, and the Southwest, alarmed Britain as to our further intentions toward the south. For our part, we were fearful of British encroachments on Nicaragua and Honduras. British power was paramount in the , incidents affecting American trade and shipping multiplied, and John M. Clayton, Secretary of State, negotiated the convention with Sir Henry Bulwer, the British Minister, in momentary dread of a "collision."
Although the treaty met a need of the weaker Sea Power, it had never been popular in this country. James Buchanan, Clayton's predecessor and soon to be President, thought Bulwer "deserved a peerage" for what he had obtained, while Stephen A. Douglas charged the Secretary of State with "truckling to the British." Repeated attempts, the most recent by James G. Blaine as Secretary of State, had failed to p16 lift the yoke. The Frenchmen came and went from Panama, and by 1890 the question of an all‑American canal was by no means academic. With a show of bravado, Congress actually chartered a company to build a canal across Nicaragua, but that act did not abrogate the treaty. In January, 1891, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee resolved that the United States was no longer bound in law and morality to uphold the treaty, which should now be declared null and void. Although only a committee pronouncement, this reflected a widespread exasperation, as did Senator John Sherman's protest against the possibility of an English canal. Such a development, said Sherman, would create a zone "more formidable than Gibraltar and more troublesome than Canada." England had made no move in that direction; the Senator merely included that among the evils capable of flowing from the treaty.
Out of mingled wrath, pride, and impotence there swelled a boldly recurrent demand for the expulsion of Great Britain from this continent. The annexation of Canada was perennially mooted in the press. Lodge, coming from Boston, a focus of Anglophobia, epitomized the "on to Canada" mood by urging the United States to be "as insolent and overbearing and ready to show fight as the others" (meaning England), to the end that "from the Rio Grande to the Arctic Ocean there shall be but one flag, and one country." To the New York Sun it seemed there could be "no middle place for Canada. For us, she must be either incorporated with our own union or be deemed a foreign country. It is for the Canadians to say whether they choose to be treated as brothers or strangers."
The agitation gave the British some concern, as it provoked a steady controversy in Canada itself. A writer in the London Fortnightly Review took note of a widespread belief in England that the Bering Sea disputes were but "precursors of the annexation of Canada to the United States." Sir Charles Dilke's challenging book, The Problem of Greater Britain, which recommended imperial federation, came out in 1890. Reviewing it in the North American Review, p17 the Marquis of Lorne remarked on the "prevailing belief in the States . . . [that] ultimately all the Anglo-Saxons in North America will range themselves under the banner of one huge republic."
On both sides of the Atlantic the unhealthy state of Anglo-American relations caused alarm, strong voices being raised in behalf of closer ties. There was even ill-timed talk of alliance or federation, Carnegie and Cecil Rhodes advocating English-speaking union. The steelmaster, however, rubbed salt into whatever wounds existed on that side, advising the English to ship the royal family "back to Germany" and apply for entrance into the American republic as a regional subdivision of eight states, the capital to remain at Washington. Said Carnegie: "The only course for Britain seems to be reunion with her giant child, or sure decline to a secondary place, and then to comparative insignificance in the English-speaking race." Carnegie saw power in terms of industrial productivity, not in naval tonnage and bases. His reflections appeared in a book, A Look Ahead, which gave rise to protracted discussion in the press of both countries. Rhodes took a more moderate line, the other eminent precursor of Union Now suggesting that the capital alternate between London and Washington. Where Carnegie appealed to "race patriotism," Rhodes preferred "imperial patriotism," the American seeing the future in republican terms, the South African builder envisaging, as did Dilke, a magnified empire.
The prevailing note of English comment on America was one of pained surprise, in the vein of the London Telegraph's reproach that "American diplomacy still seems to be affected with a curious dislike of England, while every Englishman now feels a kind of family pride in the strength of America." A writer in the Fortnightly Review might call it a "pity that . . . inflation and boastfulness, arising partly . . . p18 from a sense of their own deficiency, should be so rife amongst Americans, for it is unnecessary"; but Lord Lorne, in the review before mentioned, saluted the "noble American nation, of whom it is our proudest boast that they have sprung from the same ancestry and are working out a kindred future of good to all mankind." And Viscount Wolseley, in a letter to a Baltimore friend published in the American press, fervently declared that "the closer the bonds uniting England to the United States, the better for both countries and for the whole civilized world. A war between the two countries . . . [would] afford a triumph to the foes of the Anglo-Saxon race."
These were not utterances to be dismissed lightly, coming as they did from the topmost drawer of the aristocracy and the army. Lord Lorne (later the Duke of Argyll), who had been Governor-General of Canada from 1878 to 1883, was a son-in‑law of Victoria's, having married her fourth daughter, Princess Louise. Wolseley, Dublin-born, likewise knew this continent, having served as an observer with the Confederate armies in 1862 and commanded the Red River expedition that suppressed the Riel Rebellion in 1870. A great soldier and military commentator, Lord Wolseley was commander in chief in Ireland in 1890.
It was in such powerful circles that Mahan appeared as the most realistic, authoritative, and congenial American protagonist of collaboration. The naval officer's first book had struck the British — in the words of the New York Post — with the "force of revelation." Impressively, Mahan confirmed Sir Walter Raleigh's syllogism that world power rested on sea power and commerce. He rationalized every Englishman's instinctive certainty that England's might lay on the sea, and elaborated brilliantly John Adams's terse generalization of 1802 that "the trident of Neptune is the sceptre of the world." Tracing that course of empire during which the British swept Holland and France from the seas, acquiring India and Canada by the way, Mahan protested (as the Literary Digest reviewer pointed out) the "tendency of the p19 closet historians to deal almost entirely with the phenomena of land movements . . . and of armies."
The British felt that much could be forgiven a man who reasoned thus cogently, even his declarations that America must prevail in her own part of the world. On any subject Mahan was heard with respect. When in his first published counsel in 1890 he avowed a "cordial understanding with Britain" to be "one of the first of our external interests," the British ruling class reacted approvingly. He penetrated their indifference by describing the British Empire baldly as "our greatest potential enemy." That circumstance, based upon encirclement, need not, however, stand against a "cordial recognition of the similarity of character and ideas" existing between the two countries.
Unemotional as a gun turret, Mahan assumed that "both nations . . . properly seek their own interest." It was "as true now as when Washington penned the words, and will always be true, that it is vain to expect nations to act . . . from any motive other than that of interest." Furthermore, false expectations should not be aroused, for "sentiment, although powerful in nations, is excessively undependable." Others might drape Anglo-American comity with garlands. Mahan, his name, his character, and his reasoning as rugged as the silhouette of a battle wagon, placed it on practical grounds.
He proposed a partnership, but one with limited liability. He wished no federation, dreading the irksome "bondage of the letter." Countries, he held, should not bind their action permanently because they had been drawn together in a specific crisis; mutual undertakings should be confined to matters of mutual interest. At other times each country should "stand clear of the other," realizing that "misplaced meddling separates the closest friends." His rationalism did not altogether exclude "sentimental" reasons for Anglo-American cohesion. Mahan's paternal grandparents came from the south of Ireland, his maternal grandparents being of Huguenot and English stock. Himself, he was uncompromisingly American. The intangible case for Anglo-American p20 affinity he placed less on grounds of race than on those of a shared civilization, saying that
play with words and facts as we may, assert the composite character of the population of the United States, which none will deny, the truth remains that the strength of our people, as of Great Britain — herself a congeries of races — rests in a common political and legal tradition, preserved and intensified under conditions of separation nothing less than insular, which both have inherited from the old home, where the forefathers of the one race dwelt when history first knew them.
A publicist as well as a historian, writing often for the periodical press here and in England, Mahan saw that our expansion in the Caribbean would have to be primarily at the expense of the British. As much as any American he brought the British to agree that such a sacrifice might well be compensated by the existence of a strong, satisfied, and friendly Power at their rear and on Canada's flank. More than any other single emollient, it may be supposed, Mahan's cool arguments soothed the pain of Britain's Tories and sea dogs over the successive amputations through which they were to retire peaceably from the Caribbean and from their prospective partnership in an isthmian canal, at length sharing their treasured sovereignty of the seas.
On this side of the Atlantic also Mahan, certainly as influentially as any American, helped shape the new orientation. Many of the Americans and the Britons who were to form their country's external policies in the crucial years figuratively went to school to the shy, spare, silent naval officer. His counsel, moreover, would extend into the great wars of the twentieth century. His text in the matter of Anglo-American relations never varied. Neither country, he held, need fear the other, once the points of friction in this continent had been removed; once England recognized our command of our hemispheric waters. We would build the canal, and automatically the Caribbean must become our sphere. Elsewhere our strategic requirements were complementary.
p21 In his measured prose, beating with the cadence of his lifetime love, Mahan disclosed the unifying factor, the common denominator, that bound Anglo-American interests — Anglo-Saxon supremacy on the seas. For him the sea was the "nursing mother" of America as well as of England — our shield of security, our means of hemispheric prestige, and our road to destiny. In his first work he welcomed the "not far distant day when the people of the United States must again betake themselves to the sea and to external action, as did their forefathers, alike in their old home and in the new." Upon that theme he played many variations. The Anglo-Saxon Powers, confronting each other across the Atlantic, must keep that ocean under their command at all costs. That was the core of Mahan's reasoning, as it became the basis for the collaboration he so devoutly preached.
In 1886 Mahan asked Theodore Roosevelt to lecture at Newport. Out of that occasion grew a firm friendship. Upon reading the first sea‑power book Roosevelt hailed it as a "naval classic" and vowed that he had passed the better part of two days absorbing it. He reviewed the book for the Atlantic, Lodge for the North American Review. In the 1890's Mahan served also as "philosophical mentor" to John Hay, the gifted journalist, author, and statesman who had been Lincoln's secretary; to Henry White, the diplomatist; to successive Secretaries of the Navy and members of Congress.
Walter Hines Page, one of the first magazine editors to solicit contributions from Mahan, as Ambassador to England in the First World War, foresaw the necessity of American participation if command of the Atlantic were not to pass. A naval enthusiast, steeped in Mahan's history, biography, and commentary, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Admiral's last few months in Washington. There were many other followers. No naval debates for many years but rang with Mahan's precepts.
On Mahan's first visit to England in 1894 he found himself regarded not only as a man of letters, a historian, and the world's leading authority on sea power — a field wherein p22 the British acknowledged some proficiency — but also as a personal pledge of Anglo-American amity. No other American ever won so swiftly the respect of another nation; no other American intellectual, unless it was Emerson, obtained so firm a hold on British thought. The prime reason, naturally, was that Mahan wrote expertly on Britain's vital interest, seagoing. His findings both explained and justified the method by which England had gained imperial domination. As Mahan was a politico-military historian, moreover, and not a social critic, he dealt only with the techniques by which power was acquired and maintained, ignoring considerations of the wisdom of its use.
He was overwhelmed by Britons who wished, in addition to honoring him, to obtain further enlightenment on England's chief preoccupation. The demands for his time exceeded the supply. As his stay neared its end Lord Rosebery, the Liberal Prime Minister, sent word: "I write in the forlorn hope of being able to persuade you to dine with me quietly . . . when we might have a conversation less interrupted than was possible the other night; but I know it is a forlorn hope." Lord Salisbury, who was out of power, had better luck, carrying Mahan off to Hatfield, the famous country seat of the Cecils, for a long week end.
The Prince of Wales, having dined him on the royal yacht at Cowes, commanded Mahan's presence at a levee at St. James' palace so that they might protract their discussion of sea power. Another of Victoria's sons, the Duke of Connaught, a serious military theorist, dropped in on Mahan unannounced aboard the cruiser Chicago, which Mahan was commanding on the European station, and thereafter sought other opportunities for informal talk. His interviewers included Lord Roberts, the hero of Kandahar, Lord Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, who declared roundly that the American had turned "sea power" into a household word.
In accepting degrees from Oxford and Cambridge within one week Mahan was, Rosebery wrote him, "setting a record." At Cambridge the public orator, welcoming him in p23 the ritualistic Latin, "thoroughly appreciated that we are of the same blood, the same language, and the same glorious history," stretching "forth across the sea, which happily separates us no longer, our right hand in a bond of friendship which we hope is destined to be for all time." The implication, of course, was that Mahan had bridged the Atlantic for the Anglo-Saxons. He was seriously sounded on a project to provide him with a chair of history at Oxford. In the London press, daily and periodical, which had hailed his first two books (the Edinburgh Review used thirty‑two pages to describe the first), the visit called for superlatives. None excelled the Times, to which Mahan was another Copernicus, his new, if mundane, system being based on sea power.
The climax of Mahan's pragmatic apostolate came on the Queen's birthday, May 24, 1894, when princes of the blood and Cabinet Ministers honored him at a banquet. A large banner proclaiming "Blood Is Thicker Than Water" draped one end of the hall. Lord George Hamilton, the chairman, who had been and again would be First Lord of the Admiralty, feelingly toasted Anglo-American reunion: "England and the United States are not two nations, but one; for they are bound together by Heaven's act of Parliament and the everlasting law of nature and fact."
Mahan, his power doctrines and his visit, inspired a brief and unrealistic movement toward an alliance of the English-speaking Powers based on sea power. The premature movement, important because it was the first sprouting of a concept that would show a sturdy growth a generation later, was unrealistic because an important issue of ascendancy in the New World still had to be settled between the two Powers; it was brief because that issue would soon obtrude itself on their relations.
Carnegie's inflated proposal had stimulated dinner talk, but few Britons were as yet ready to take a back seat to the Americans, especially if that meant exiling the Widow of Windsor. Sir George Clarke (later Lord Sydenham), finding Carnegie's projected federation "too remote to appeal to the practical mind of either nation," suggested a substitute p24 based on common sense. Since the Americans intended becoming a Sea Power, why not, asked Sir George, form an English-speaking "naval league" for defense and peace? Sir George was an English Mahanite, a friend with whom the American naval officer carried on correspondence.
The Clarke formula gained its greatest triumphs in the service journals. A flight into prophecy by the Army and Navy Gazette foretold a day when the allied navies would "give peace to the world through that predominance of race, which is as strong in action as it is close-knitted in kinship." And the Admiralty and Horse Guards Gazette, preferring a "practical" and limited seagoing alliance, felt sure that the United States would "take up arms in our defense" were the "continental powers to attack the British empire." A wide hearing was given the idea in the periodicals, and a novel — Blood Is Thicker than Water by Geoffrey Danvers — forecast a "naval union," placing its consummation at the beginning of this century. By coincidence a British squadron visited Boston late in May, and its commander, Admiral Sir John Hopkins, predicted for the press a coming "federation" of British and American sea power.
Mahan joined the public discussion that fall, taking part with Lord Charles Beresford in a friendly debate — "Possible Anglo-American Reunion" — in the North American Review. Both seafaring men favored an informal naval accord; neither thought the time ripe for an alliance — if, in truth, the time ever would be ripe for hard-and‑fast political unity. Mahan opposed a forced growth, wishing to await the processes of democracy in any case, saying: "When, if ever, an Anglo-American alliance, naval or otherwise, does come, may it be rather as a yielding to an irresistible popular impulse than as a scheme, however ingenuously wrought, imposed by the adroitness of statesmen." In conclusion, he urged that the "two nations should act together cordially on the seas."
Unfortunately for the British and, as it transpired, for the Americans also, the great sea tracts of Mahan were conned elsewhere than in the English-speaking countries. Translated into other tongues, they became standard fare for all the Naval Powers, including Japan and Russia. The French, observing that Mahan respected their major authorities, paid him intellectual compliments. The Kaiser paid him the deference of pupil to master. In Germany Mahan became required reading for statesmen and bureaucrats as well as navy men.
In the Kaiser's study at the New Palace in Potsdam, copies of Mahan in English could be seen, their margins annotated. After the second work, The Influence of Sea Power on the French Revolution and the French Empire, came from the presses, William telegraphed his American friend Poultney Bigelow that he was "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 parts . . . constantly quoted by my captains and officers." The major lessons of the first two books for an ambitious ruler lay in Mahan's explanation of the loss of Louis XIV's empire to the British, and of the eventual defeat of Napoleon. That these lessons struck home at Potsdam may be deduced from the Kaiser's subsequent naval policy. Rejecting the advice of his great Minister Colbert, Louis XIV fatefully turned his back on the sea, as Mahan pointed out. As for Napoleon:
On the land, State after State went down before the great soldier who wielded the armies of France. . . . Victory after victory graced his eagles, city after city and province after province were embodied in his empire, peace after peace was wrested from the conquered; but one enemy remained ever erect, unsubdued, defiant; and on the ocean there was neither peace nor truce, until the day when he himself fell under a host of foes, aroused by his vain attempt to overthrow . . . the power that rested upon the sea.
p26 And again, a bit of prose that has become famous: "Those far‑distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and domination of the world."
It may be assumed that the vivid, egocentric William II wished to avoid the common fate of the Sun King and the Corsican — defeat at the water's edge. His desire for a challenging navy, a desire that came to consume him, had however to be deferred. His almost landlocked people could not be brought at once to the sea. His Ministers lagged also. Count von Caprivi, Bismarck's successor, and still under his spell, opposed naval expansion until he too fell in 1894. With Caprivi "the only naval question was how small our fleet can be, not how big." Prince von Hohenlohe, Caprivi's successor, a kinsman of Victoria's and a cynic with his major estates in Russia, understood that the Germans had a besetting fault, as Tacitus had divined — envy; but he did not understand sea power. It was only when in 1898 the Kaiser got as Chancellor the supple-minded Count (later Prince) von Bülow — "my Bismarck" — that the naval race with Britain would begin.
The next year, 1899, when William by doubling his naval estimates contributed to the inevitability of 1914, Mahan attended the First Hague Conference as a delegate from America. Alongside Mahan's name on the cabled list the Kaiser penciled, in what must have been a flash of clairvoyance: "Our greatest and most dangerous foe." A corresponding footnote from Salisbury would have its own historical interest.
A measured judgment on Mahan cannot be passed with too much confidence. His sea‑power dogmas, confirmed as they have been in every trial, are again being tested in the most decisive of ordeals. Mahan was much more than a naval expert, however, or than a protagonist of expansion, a prose Whitman calling for "passage to more than India," bidding Americans "Sail forth, steer for the deep water only!" Theodore Roosevelt, who at various times hailed him "master" p27 and "genius," in a more definitive moment ascribed to him the "mind of a first-class statesman."
A statesman Mahan undoubtedly was. He defined for the United States a foreign policy consisting of four principles of action: (1) supremacy in the Caribbean; (2) co‑operation in the Orient; (3) abstention from European affairs; and (4) collaboration with Great Britain. As this narrative progresses it will be seen how closely we have hewed to the Mahan line. It was in realms of high strategy, the disposition of the power of the state, that Mahan most influenced events. He understood not only the external relations, but the internal structure of the state, being always aware that in a "nation of more complex organization . . . the wills of the citizens have to be brought not to submission merely, but to accord."
Like Clausewitz, Mahan regarded force as an attribute of statecraft to be employed on all appropriate occasions and not reserved for crises. War to him also was a continuation of policy "by other means." "The surest way to maintain peace," he held, "is to occupy a position of menace." He regarded war as an evil too vast to be trifled with, the preservation of peace as a task requiring all the experience, skill, and hard sense available. A clear understanding of the country's strategic position; the full utilization of offensive and defensive association with countries whose interests tallied with ours; just and honorable dealings with the weak as well as the strong outside our borders; the will to resist aggression wherever offered, and the arms suitable for that task — that might be submitted as Mahan's prescription for peace.
Mahan foresaw in the 1890's, before the dreadnought, the submarine, air power, and even the wireless, the larger magnitudes into which war was evolving. The United States, between its two oceans and the two "old worlds," was "to all intents an insular power like Great Britain." (Japan had not then risen to a position of potential enmity.) Since America was insular, Mahan taught, "every danger . . . to which the United States may be exposed can be met best outside p28 her own territories." To Mahan the ocean was not a barrier but a highway, not a huge, inert bastion, but a broad, smooth plain over which an enemy, unless hindered, might move more swiftly than over broken ground.
With the piercing of the isthmus, a "historical imperative," we would become committed to the protection of a great sea gate. From being an abstraction that we had felt ourselves powerless to defend, the Monroe Doctrine would become a genuine necessity for our own continental security. Woven through his thought was the implicit belief that prudence dictated sharing our enlarging defense burdens with our neighbor and kinsman, the mightiest Sea Power.
The shadow cast by Mahan over the twentieth century was to exceed that of any other military or naval man of the nineteenth century — surpassing, also, perhaps, that of any political thinker, with the possible exception of Karl Marx. Certainly no one can assess with exactitude how much his teachings prompted the Kaiser to challenge British sea power in the years before 1914, or to what degree his precepts influenced the Anglo-American sea‑power coalition of 1917 and 1941. Upon his death in 1914 the Paris Figaro said of Mahan that he had "called a new age into being" and that "as the "supreme philosopher of history . . . he profoundly modified the history of the age in which he lived." The appraisal may be suspect as rhetoric, yet there can be no doubt that Mahan, both as exponent of sea power and as prophet of Anglo-American collaboration, greatly modified the power equations of the last half-century.
Our first Ambassador to England,2 Thomas F. Bayard, wrote the State Department in 1894: "The United States is the last nation on earth with whom the British people or p29 rulers desire to quarrel; and of this I have new proofs every day in my intercourse with them." Bayard's note, no doubt wholly truthful, came nevertheless in the midst of a fresh Caribbean incident, a British intervention in Nicaragua that paraded again before American eyes the bogey of encirclement.
For more than a century Great Britain had maintained a protectorate, sometimes legal, sometimes implied, over the Mosquito Indians of Nicaragua's Mosquito coast. In 1860, responding to representations from Washington, the British surrendered suzerainty by the Treaty of Managua. Friction persisted, however, and in 1881 the Emperor Francis Joseph, called in as arbitrator under the terms of the treaty, deprived the Nicaraguans of most of their sovereignty over the Mosquito coast. Thereafter the British, with the moral support of the Americans on that coast, virtually governed the Reservation in the name of the Indian King of the Mosquitos. The British consular officers presumed to act on behalf of the King because his $5,000 annuity from Nicaragua was in arrears although American banana interests predominated in the Reservation and in the city of Bluefields.
In 1893, a new Nicaraguan dictator, José Santos Zelaya, arose. He was soon at war with Honduras and, proclaiming it a war measure, he sent troops into the Reservation. The troops took over, and when the British consuls protested they locked up a vice-consul. Americans and British alike welcomed the British man-of‑war Cleopatra when she arrived in March, landing marines and Gatling guns, driving out the Nicaraguan troops, restoring order — and the consular regime. A minor colonial brush to the Foreign Office, which levied a demand for $75,000 in damages from Zelaya, the incident annoyed the United States Government, especially as the British were now stipulating with Zelaya that no representative of another American state could sit in on the adjudication.
Furthermore, the Mosquito coast contained the eastern terminus of any Nicaraguan canal, and the Bluefields incident p30 re‑enforced American feeling that the British were poaching in the neighborhood of the prospective canal. Therefore Cleveland instituted diplomatic inquiries through Ambassador Bayard. The President considered that somehow we were being trampled upon.
1 Tattnall, flag officer of the Asiatic station, violated neutrality in 1857 by fighting his ships with the British in a difficult assault on the forts at Taku, below Tientsin. The phrase was his excuse before a General Board, which him.
2 In 1893 the Administration "smuggled" through an isolationist Congress an act raising the rank of our envoys to the principal Powers to that of Ambassador.
a Kipling's view must be discounted a notch, first because it's Kipling; then for belonging to a long tradition of English naval truculence: witness for example the dyspeptic 18c novelist Tobias Smollett, in just one set of letters, Travels through France and Italy, successively arraying the British navy, as a sort of thought experiment, against Genoa (26), papal Rome (30), and even the ancient Roman empire (32).
b A tendentious reading of the facts. The United States offered mediation, which was accepted by all parties to the conflict. The arbitration conference was held in October, 1880 at Arica, a Peruvian port under Chilean control; it produced a negotiated territorial settlement, but failed over the Chilean refusal to accept Peruvian and Bolivian preconditions for peace. (Galdames, History of Chile, tr. Cox, p333).
c The Baltimore Affair was nominally caused by an attack on American sailors from the U. S. S. Baltimore by a Chilean mob on October 16, 1891; but ultimately caused by Chilean rage at the Itata incident, May thru October of that year, in which in fact the United States forced the Chilean naval ship Itata to obey neutrality laws and surrender to a United States marshal — although the result was admittedly not achieved by American naval prowess, but by negotiation. The Baltimore Affair came to an end with Chile backing down to a threat of war by the United States (Galdames, History of Chile, tr. Cox, pp403‑404). The story of both incidents is told in detail in "The Itata Incident" (Hispanic American Historical Review, V.195‑226).
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
The Atlantic System
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: 8 Oct 16