Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History
In 1890, Mahan published one of the most important books of the age, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. It was not so much a history book as a book about "sea power," of the naval type, and its "influence" on history. As history books go, there are many chronicles that are better written than Mahan's.
Despite its dry-sounding title, however, Mahan's book instantly became a best seller in the United States. It was reviewed and discussed in every major journal of commentary, news magazine, and newspaper of the time.
Mahan's book struck the highest levels of the governing classes like a bolt of lightning and created a tempest of intellectual upheaval not just within the U.S. Navy, but throughout the broader American (and overseas) political, economic, and industrial system. He had written a book about 200 years of naval history and about what that naval history meant to the rise and relationships of state power in the world.
The themes and arguments of Mahan's work were not entirely novel, having roots in a late 19th-century intellectual school of thought known as "navalism," which focused on advancing state power through the construction and maintenance of -- guess what? -- a powerful navy. Still, the impact of Mahan's book, in its time, was astonishing and entirely unexpected.
The United States was born of British maritime colonies located on the Eastern seacoast. From a maritime standpoint, the sea brought immigrants to the shores of the new nation and served as a base for outward trade with the world at large.
But in the bigger scheme of things, the United States had spent the century previous to Mahan's book expanding westward and inwards, assimilating half of the North American continent into its political union. (Mahan's father, Dennis Hart Mahan, was a well-regarded instructor at a decidedly land-oriented institution named the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.)
The central military conflict for the United States and its people during the 19th century was its Civil War (1861-1865), for the most part a land-based conflict. Aside from blockade duty and riverine operations to support the Army during the Civil War, the historical role of the country's Navy was to protect the coastlines and, to some extent, protect overseas commerce and show the flag on occasion. (This is not to neglect the efforts of the U.S. Navy during the period, but rather to put things into the larger perspective. In particular, Commodore Perry's expedition to Japan in 1854 opened up that nation to the world, and in no small part propelled Japan into its Meiji revolution. Of that, we will speak another time.)