The Influence of Sea Power On History: Mahan's Impact on Naval Strategy

Source: Wikipedia

Some argue that the US Navy owes part of its dominance to Alfred Thayer Mahan. Find out why this military strategist had such a huge influence on naval combat.

Alfred Thayer Mahan has a well-developed reputation as the father of modern naval strategy. The son of the famous pre-Civil War West Point lecturer, Dennis Hart Mahan, Alfred Thayer Mahan spent most of his life steeped in military history and tactics. But unlike his father, Mahan's ultimate interest was in the Navy. While he served in the Civil War and subsequently aboard ship, Mahan's career quickly stalled.

In the postwar US Navy, there were many officers with combat experience, but few ships to command. For many, this was a strong incentive to leave the service and pursue other careers. But Mahan, perhaps trading on his father's reputation as a distinguished lecturer and theoretician, instead pursued a career as a lecturer at the US Navy War College. Mahan would ultimately derive his fame not from his time at sea, but from the lectures he authored at the War College that would be condensed into his most famous book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Within its pages, Mahan would describe in detail his recipe for success as a global sea power.

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Going Beyond the Classroom

Professor Alfred Thayer Mahan
Professor Alfred Thayer Mahan

As a lecturer at the War College, Mahan developed a strong theory about the use of history, which would inform not only his teaching methods, but also his writings and theories on strategy. For Mahan, history was an important tool in teaching officers the rigors of command and leadership. Then, as today, much of an officer's career was spent learning the technical aspects of his job. Mathematics, geometry, physics, engineering, ship and weapons design, seamanship, and a whole host of other skills were critical in maintaining ship readiness. Within the Navy, officers and men honed these skills with years of study both in the classroom and at sea. And this kind of training was critical to the success of the US Navy. Its crews knew their ships instinctively, kept them in excellent condition, and used them to great effect in all of the United States naval engagements.

However, Mahan believed that these skills were insufficient in honing a great officer, especially one training to become an admiral and a leader of the US Navy. No matter how much an admiral knew about what his ships and crew were capable of, none of this would answer the more difficult questions of when he might have to use his vessel or why force might be necessary.

These were questions of judgment, and that was something that most people couldn't learn in a classroom. Most people tended to build better judgment through direct experience. That is, they learned by doing. Many admirals, especially in the United States, where the Naval War College was only beginning its program of modernization, thus could only learn their craft on the job. But this presented an obvious problem: how were peacetime officers, such as Mahan and his contemporaries in the Post-Civil War Navy supposed to train the intangible qualities of command and policymaking?

Learning From History

Otto von Bismarck, a contemporary of Mahan, was once quoted as saying, "Fools say that they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by others' experience." Mahan's theory of history precisely followed Bismarck's dictum. Mahan believed, and taught, that history was the ultimate laboratory with which to explore the qualities of judgment, command, and leadership. When a student placed themselves in the shoes of a historical actor, they recreated, in a mental laboratory, the challenges and choices available to that actor. They could think about a problem, say that of Nelson at Trafalgar, and consider the problem from many different aspects.

The Battle of Trafalgar. Source: Trafalgar Group
The Battle of Trafalgar. Source: Trafalgar Group

First, they could think about the problem technically, asking themselves what gave the British an advantage in the battle. They could also examine the command and leadership qualities of both sides. What gave Nelson an edge that Villeneuve apparently lacked? But most importantly, the student would be forced to consider what information was available to Nelson on the eve of the battle, how that shaped his strategy, and how Nelson overcame uncertainty and ambiguity.

On an even larger scale, Mahan also saw history as a useful tool in explaining how large-scale forces affected the rise and fall of nations and empires. His famous volume tackles this very problem, exploring why the Royal Navy and Britain became the dominant force at sea and around the world. Here the history could provide more tangible evidence as to what factors led to the rise of what Mahan considered to be the great powers of history. But even in this case, this was aimed to teach a lesson to officers and policymakers.

It taught them what conditions could facilitate the United States' own rise to greatness in the late-19th century. But even more importantly, it taught lessons about what forces really drove national growth, what threats really faced nations, and how the global system could be manipulated by shrewd leaders to the nations benefit. Here, Mahan was not just teaching the basic skills of command and combat judgment. He was teaching something new in western thought. He was teaching grand strategy, global dynamics, and how the US Navy and its sea power might influence the current of global history to its advantage.

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.