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Alfred Thayer Mahan

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Alfred Thayer Mahan

Alfred Thayer Mahan (September 27, 1840December 1, 1914) was a United States Navy officer, geostrategist, and educator. His ideas on the importance of sea power influenced navies around the world, and helped prompt naval buildups before World War I. Several ships were named USS Mahan, including the lead vessel of a class of destroyers. His research into naval history led to his most important work, The Influence of Seapower Upon History,1660-1783, published in 1890. Born at West Point, New York to Dennis Hart Mahan (a professor at the United States Military Academy) and Mary Helena Mahan, he attended Saint James School, an Episcopalian college preparatory academy in western Maryland. He then studied at Columbia for two years where he was a member of the Philolexian Society debating club and then, against his parents' wishes, transferred to the Naval Academy, where he graduated second in his class in 1859. Commissioned as a Lieutenant in 1861, Mahan served the Union in the American Civil War as an officer on Congress, Pocahontas, and James Adger, and as an instructor at the Naval Academy. In 1865 he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, and then to Commander (1872), and Captain (1885). Despite his professed success in the Navy, his skills in actual command of a ship were not exemplary, and a number of vessels under his command were involved in collisions, with both moving and stationary objects. Despite his affection for old square-rigged vessels, he did not like smoky, noisy steamships of his times and he tried to avoid active sea duty.[1] On the other hand, the books he wrote ashore made him arguably the most influential naval historian. In 1885, he was appointed lecturer in naval history and tactics at the Naval War College. Before entering on his duties, College President Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce pointed Mahan in the direction of writing his future studies on the influence of sea power. For his first year on the faculty, he remained at his home in New York City researching and writing his lectures. Upon completion of this research period, he was to succeed Luce as president of the Naval War College from June 22, 1886 to January 12, 1889 and again from July 22, 1892 to May 10, 1893.[2] There, in 1887, he met and befriended a young visiting lecturer named Theodore Roosevelt, who would later become president of the United States. During this period Mahan organized his Naval War College lectures into his most influential books, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783, and The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812, published 1890 and 1892, respectively. Upon being published, Mahan struck up a friendship with pioneering British naval historian Sir John Knox Laughton, the pair maintaining this relationship through correspondence and visits when Mahan was in London. Mahan was later described as a 'disciple' of Laughton, although the two men were always at pains to distinguish between each other's line of work, Laughton seeing Mahan as a theorist while Mahan called Laughton 'the historian'.[3]

Strategic views and influence

Mahan believed controlling sea-borne commerce was critical to domination in war. If one combatant could deny the sea to the other, the economy of the second inevitably would collapse, leading to victory — ironically, such a fleet was not composed of commerce raiders, because raiders could not establish command of the sea, but a fleet of warships and battleships could. Mahan's objective was a fleet capable of destroying the enemy's main force in a single, decisive battle. Afterwards, reinforcing a blockade against enemy merchant ships and hunting their remaining lighter ships would be feasible, because, with their heavy ships sunk, the enemy would be incapable of rebuilding. Moreover, the weaker combatant's goal is delaying such a climactic, decisive battle; while his fleet remained a threat, the enemy could not risk dividing forces to close sea trade routes. Thus, the strategy of keeping a navy in port, to threaten rather than act. Mahan's views were shaped by the eighteenth century naval wars between France and Britain, where British naval superiority eventually defeated France, consistently preventing invasion and blockade, (see Napoleonic war: Battle of Trafalgar and Continental System). To a modern reader, the emphasis on controlling sea-borne commerce is a commonplace, but, in the nineteenth century, the notion was radical, especially in a nation entirely obsessed with expansion on to the continent's western land. On the other hand, Mahan's emphasising sea power, as the crucial fact behind Britain's ascension, neglected the well-documented roles of diplomacy and armies; Mahan's theories could not explain the success of terrestrial empires, such as Bismarckian Germany.[3] Ideologically, the United States Navy initially opposed replacing its sail ships with steam engine-powered ships after the Civil War, however, Mahan argued that only a fleet of armoured battleships might be decisive in a modern war. According to the decisive-battle doctrine, a fleet must not be divided; Mahan's work encouraged technological improvement in convincing opponents that naval knowledge and strategy remained necessary, but that domination of the seas dictated the necessity of the speed and predictability of the steam engine. His books were greatly acclaimed, and closely studied in Britain and Imperial Germany, influencing their forces build up before World War I. Mahan influenced the naval portion of the Spanish-American War, and the battles of Tsushima, Jutland, and the Atlantic. His work influenced the doctrines of every major navy in the interwar period; The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1783 was translated to Japanese [4] and used as a textbook in the Imperial Japanese Navy(IJN). This strongly affected the IJN's Pacific War conduct, emphasising the "decisive battle" doctrine — even at the expense of protecting trade. Ironically, the premise that a reserve force is incapable of recovering from an initial, overwhelming defeat was refuted by the U.S. Navy's recovering from the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The IJN's pursuit of the "decisive battle" was such that it contributed to Imperial Japan's defeat in 1945, [5][6] and so rendered obsolete the doctrine of the decisive battle between fleets, because of the development of the submarine and the aircraft carrier. [7] Nevertheless, Mahan's concept of sea power extended beyond naval superiority; that in peace time, states should increase production and shipping capacities, acquire overseas possessions — either colonies or privileged access to foreign markets — [8] yet stressed that the number of coal fuel stations and strategic bases should be few, to not drain too many resources from the mother country. [9]

Later career

Between 1889 and 1892 Mahan was engaged in special service for the Bureau of Navigation, and in 1893 he was appointed to command the powerful new protected cruiser Chicago on a visit to Europe, where he was received and feted. He returned to lecture at the War College and then, in 1896, he retired from active service, returning briefly to duty in 1898 to consult on naval strategy for the Spanish-American War.

Mahan continued to write voluminously and received honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, and McGill.

In 1902 Mahan invented the term "Middle East", which he used in the article "The Persian Gulf and International Relations", published in September in the National Review.[4] He became Rear Admiral in 1906 by an act of Congress promoting all retired captains who had served in the Civil War. At the outbreak of World War I, he initially engaged in the cause of Great Britain, but an order of President Woodrow Wilson prohibited all active and retired officers to publish comments on the war. Mahan died of heart failure on December 1, 1914.


The United States Naval Academy has Mahan Hall named in his honor.


  • The Gulf and Inland Waters (1883)

  • The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (1890)

  • The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 (1892)

  • Admiral Farragut (1892)

  • The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain (1897)

  • The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (1897)

  • Lessons of the War with Spain, and Other Articles (1899)

  • The Problem of Asia and Its Effect Upon International Policies (1900)

  • Story of the War in South Africa 1899-1900 (1900)

  • Types of Naval Officers Drawn from the History of the British Navy (1901)

  • Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812 (1905)

  • Naval Administration and Warfare: Some General Principles, with Other Essays (1908)

  • The Harvest Within: Thoughts on the Life of the Christian (1909)

  • Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land (1911)

  • Armaments and Arbitration; or, The Place of Force in the International Relations of States (1912)

  • The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (1913)

  • The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1805 (abridged ed, 1980)

Further Reading

  • The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (1890)

  • The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain (1897)

    • The Life of Nelson, Volume 1 (of 2) by A. T. Mahan at Project Gutenberg

    • The Life of Nelson, Volume 2 (of 2) by A. T. Mahan at Project Gutenberg

  • The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (1897)

  • Story of the War in South Africa 1899-1900 (1900)

  • Types of Naval Officers Drawn from the History of the British Navy (1901)

  • The Harvest Within: Thoughts on the Life of the Christian (1909)

  • The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (1913)


  1. ^ Paret, Peter (1986). Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 445. 

  2. ^

  3. ^ Knight, Roger (2000) The Foundations of Naval History: John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy and the Historical Profession, Review of book by Professor Andrew Lambert in the Institute for Historical Research's Reviews in History series. (London: Institute for Historical Research) - URL last accessed 3 April 2007

  4. ^ Adelson, Roger. London and the Invention of the Middle East: Money, Power, and War, 1902-1922. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-300-06094-7 p. 22-23

See also

United States Navy portal


  • Charles Carlisle Taylor, The Life of Admiral Mahan, 1920, London.

  • William E. Livezey, Mahan on Sea Power (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, reprinted 1981)

  • W. D. Puleston, Mahan: The Life and Work of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939)

  • Robert Seager, Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1977)

  • John B. Hattendorf and Lynn C. Hattendorf, comps. Bibliography of the Writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan (1986)

  • Philip A. Crowl, "Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian" in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)

  • Eugene L. Rasor, English/British Naval History to 1815. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004,, pp. 43-44.

  • John B. Hattendorf, Mahan on Naval Strategy: selections from the writings of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1991)

  • Benjamin Apt, "Mahan's Forebears: The Debate over Maritime Strategy, 1868-1883." Naval War College Review (Summer 1997). Online. Naval War College. 24 September 2004

  • Mark R. Shulman, Navalism and the Emergence of American Sea Powers, 1882-1893 (1995)

  • Jon Tetsuro Sumida, Inventing grand strategy and teaching command: the classic works of Alfred Thayer Mahan reconsidered (1997)

  • Biographical article

  • Works by Alfred Thayer Mahan at Project Gutenberg

External links

Wikisource has original works written by or about:

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:

Alfred Thayer Mahan

  • Past Presidents of the Naval War College - from the Naval War College website

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