American Classics

Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (1897)

The philosophy of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan can be perfectly encapsulated within this quote from his article “The United States Looking Outward” in the December 1890 issue of Atlantic Monthly: “That which I deplore, and which is a sober, just, and reasonable cause of deep national concern, is that the nation neither has nor cares to have its sea frontier so defended, and its navy of such power, as shall suffice, with the advantages of our position, to weigh seriously when inevitable discussions arise.” A prolific writer, Mahan became one of the most famous naval and sea power prophets of the late nineteenth century.  Concerned with the United States’ place in the world, Mahan wrote to influence both policymakers and common Americans.  Although some of his articles and books are less resonant today, they still provide a fascinating glimpse into the state of the world of in the 1890s, shortly before the Spanish-American War, and how it was perceived by many Americans.  While Mahan wrote over one hundred articles, this essay will examine in particular the articles collected in The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future.  These articles were first published between 1890 and 1897 in widely-read magazines.

Born in September 1840 to the famous West Point military theorist and professor Dennis Hart Mahan, Alfred Mahan’s early years seemed to destine him to a life of mediocrity, or, at least, obscurity.  After attending the Naval Academy (Class of 1859), basically against his father’s wishes, Mahan served in the American Civil War, largely on blockade duty.  A dearth of civilian jobs and a rank of Lieutenant Commander (not lightly given up in a military where post-Civil War promotion was scarce) kept Mahan in the navy until his retirement in 1896.  Due to his crusading character (for example, he exposed corruption at the New York Naval Yard, much to the chagrin of some of his superiors), Mahan was stationed on a variety of ever more decrepit ships.

In 1884-85, Mahan was in command of the USS Wachusett off the coast of Chile and Peru to protect American interests during a war between the two nations.  It was here that he received the fated letter that led him from naval obscurity into one of the most well-known and influential naval philosophers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce was in the process of creating the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in order to provide naval officers with high-level strategic training they might not have otherwise received.  Having worked with Mahan in the past, Luce asked Mahan if he would accept a position as professor of naval history.  Mahan agreed, and soon made his way to Rhode Island.  It was here that he became the prolific writer we know today; it was here at the War College where Mahan made his claim to fame.  The publication of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, in 1890, was just the start of Mahan’s work—he followed this with numerous books and articles, influencing some very important people; among them were future president Theodore Roosevelt and many foreign naval officers and political leaders, including the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II.

Some historical context might be necessary for a more complete understanding of Mahan’s influence.  The United States had allowed its navy following the Civil War to undergo a rapid decline.  Mahan knew this very acutely; while commander of the USS Wachusett, he entertained a visit of a French naval officer then in the area.  The officer took one look at the guns aboard the Wachusett (which was a Civil War era ship and certainly not top of the line, but still representative of a good part of the navy) and commented that “we used to have guns like this.”  A stinging blow to the captain of any ship, to be sure.  However, the decline of the navy was only one problem the United States faced; making sure its coasts were protected was another.  The United States had only reached from “sea-to-shining-sea” shortly before the Civil War.  As population boomed and immigration increased, it was now more important than ever to have a real Pacific naval presence.  With the possibility of a Central American canal growing greater with every year, it was imperative for the United States to protect its interests. As we will see, Mahan frequently pointed out that the advent of a canal in Central America would make the Caribbean assume an international importance it had not held since the days of Columbus.  Furthermore, a Central American canal meant that the heretofore distant Pacific shore of the United States would naturally grow in importance and ease of access; Europeans uninterested in the Pacific coast previously might suddenly be interested when they could reach it so easily.  An increase of American commerce in the Pacific (which needed protecting), and Americans clamoring for the annexation of Hawaii, were other problems with which the United States had to deal in the 1890s.

Enter Mahan.  Although Mahan tells us in the preface to The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future, that the articles were written independently of one another, many embody similar themes—or, that is, there are similar themes that can be traced from one article to another.

One of the major themes, perhaps the most important and all-encompassing theme, which runs throughout these articles is the importance of sea power, and, along with it, the importance of possessing adequate naval power.  While the line between sea and naval power is sometimes blurred in Mahan’s account, they are not necessarily the same thing. Whereas sea power simply means control of the seas “along the great lines drawn by national interest or national commerce,” thus contributing to the “merely material elements in the power and prosperity of nations,” naval power is the means to that end.  That is, because we cannot expect international law to protect claims to geographical areas of national interest, we need the capability to protect them ourselves.  Sea power then requires adequate naval power, something that Mahan stresses the United States does not possess.

We can see the importance of this theme quickly and clearly by the titles of four of the eight articles: “Hawaii and Our Future Sea Power,” “The Isthmus and Sea Power,” “The Future in Relation to American Naval Power,” and “Preparedness for Naval War.”  Mahan thought of himself, first and foremost, as an historian.  One of his earliest insights in preparing for his role at the Naval War College was that the course of the Second Punic War would have been changed irrevocably if Hannibal had access to the sea power that the Romans possessed.  More prominently, Mahan recognized that Great Britain’s rise to greatness was due in large part to its overwhelming command of the sea.  While this meteoric ascent could not be attributed solely to the power that its navy provided, such a navy still factored into it; one could argue that without a strong navy, an island nation like Great Britain would not have had the worldwide success that it did.

In many ways, over the course of these articles Mahan establishes Great Britain as a model for the United States to emulate in its growth.  Mahan notes that Britain’s island position had encouraged its development as a first-rate sea power, and suggests that the United States, in an almost analogous position, should develop along the same lines: “they … are so severed geographically from all existing rivals as to be exempt from the burden of great land armies; while, at the same time, they must depend upon the sea, in chief measure, for that intercourse with other members of the body upon which national well-being depends.”  Elsewhere, Mahan writes that both Great Britain and the United States have an abiding interest to maintain “the laws that shall regulate maritime warfare.”

Mahan recognized that historically the United States was protected from European interference by the presence of the Atlantic Ocean (he does not explicitly recognize the fact that British naval power, wielded to be sure in the interests of the Britain, played a key role in keeping the Atlantic sea lanes open and discouraging continental European powers from intervening in the affairs of the New World).  With oceans on the east and west, and with only two relatively small land powers touching the northern and southern borders, the United States was, for all intents and purposes, an island nation itself.  Most of its trade was carried out by sea; for centuries, the sea provided the life-blood of many a New England town; during the Civil War, the Confederacy was squeezed to death by a naval blockade; many of America’s earliest heroes won fame on the naval battlefield. Essentially without rivals to fight on land, the United States should have been aware of the importance of the sea, and Mahan sought, through the preaching of the importance of sea power, to cause the American public to recognize the error of its ways.

As already mentioned, the United States had been for a long time protected from interference from Europe by the presence of the Atlantic Ocean.  But Mahan argued that the policy of the American Founders, especially Jefferson, to ignore the navy in favor of other internal developments was no longer a feasible strategy.  Part of this was due to the coming of new technologies—steam and coal-powered ships, for instance, had made distances shorter and easier to travel than ever before.  Part of it was due to the emergence of the United States as an increasingly global power, and therefore a power with interests to protect in other parts of the world.  And part of it was that the possession of a navy was never something to be so lightly brushed aside, that people who did not favor a navy had always been wrong: “The War of 1812 demonstrated the usefulness of a navy,–not, indeed, by the admirable but utterly unavailing single-ship victories that illustrated its course, but by the prostration into which our seaboard and external communications fell, through the lack of a navy at all proportionate to the country’s needs and exposure.”  If the United States wished to protect itself, if it wished to exert its influence around the world, a powerful and modern navy adequate to those purposes should have been the first thing it looked to create: “while distances have shortened, they remain for us water distances … for political influence they must be traversed in the last resort by a navy, the indispensable instrument by which, when emergencies arise, the nation can project is power beyond its own shore-line.”

Sea power without purpose—or for a purpose as ambiguous as international influence—would be entirely pointless, however.  As mentioned previously, Mahan particularly had in mind the protection of American interests in the Caribbean.  The creation of a Central American canal (not yet built at this point) would impart new importance to the region; after all, as Mahan was at pains to point out, easy sea access to Asia and the Pacific had been a European dream since at least the days of Columbus.  With such easy access to the Pacific, and with what would be increased amounts of sea traffic along all the shorelines of America, Mahan stressed the importance of American control of the canal and, essentially, the whole region—especially because the isthmus would take on international commercial and military interest on a scale it had never previously possessed.  The canal would be of particular importance to the United States, which possessed coastlines on both oceans, and this importance necessitated American control of both the entrance to the Caribbean and transit across it.  This is most clear in the essay “The Strategic Features of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea” from the October 1897 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.  Here, Mahan identifies the most important geographic and strategic points within the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean region – those points and passages that are important for the United States to control if it wishes to protect its coasts and its interests.  For Mahan, control of the Caribbean was essential to control of the canal, which was essential for the protection of all three coastlines of the United States.

As an essentially “island” nation, it was of the utmost importance that the United States protect its coastline and its interests with a powerful navy. In the ”Isthmus and Sea Power”, from the September 1893 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Mahan points out that control of the canal depends upon sea power.  Control of the isthmus is only possible through naval control of the region, and naval control of the region requires naval predominance.  Naval predominance will not be obtained unless Washington becomes serious about upgrading its naval material and personnel.  “The United States has asserted a special interest” in the Isthmus, Mahan writes, and “In the present she can maintain her claim, and in the future perform her duty, only by the creation of that sea power upon which predominance in the Caribbean must ever depend.”  And until Washington takes seriously its own naval prerogatives it cannot expect other nations to take it seriously.

Without the canal, the United States could ignore its naval prerogative in the Caribbean; as Mahan says, the United States could afford to be weak in the past.  But when the Europeans suddenly find themselves interested in the area, Washington cannot afford to appear weak to its rivals.  While it might be acceptable if Great Britain (a country with which, as we shall see, Mahan suggests fostering stronger ties) were to control the canal, ultimately we cannot count on such an occurrence.  The canal in the wrong foreign hands would be a disaster for the United States, and the only way to fully avert disaster will be for the United States itself to take control of the canal.  Washington cannot count on international law to protect its interests in the region, especially in the face of stronger powers.  In order for the United States to take control of the canal and the region, he looks to the ways Great Britain, another island nation, had previously used its own sea power in order to exert influence or protect its interests.  America, he writes, could learn a lot from Great Britain’s past success.

Inherent in the idea of naval control of a region of the world is the idea that America could no longer be “isolated” from it.  To protect one’s interests, one needs to take an actual interest in and take upon oneself a role in the world.  For Mahan, the “isolation” that George Washington supposedly advised in his Farewell Address was no longer a feasible geopolitical strategy when considering all of the above factors at play in the 1890s.  Americans needed to lose their disposition to isolation while the various nations of Europe were out in the world looking for greatness.  And even if Americans wanted to remain isolated in the world, the creation of the canal would forcibly end it: “this isolation will pass away, and with it the indifference of foreign nations.  From wheresoever they come and whithersoever they afterward go, all ships that use the canal will pass through the Caribbean.”  Those who refuse to look towards the rest of the world and focus solely on internal developments forget that “no nation, as no man, can live to itself or die to itself.”  Importantly, and perhaps bitingly, Mahan comments,

Those who hold that our political interests are confined to matters within our own borders, and are unwilling to admit that circumstances may compel us in the future to political action without them, look with dislike and suspicion upon the growth of a body [the navy] whose very existence indicates that nations have international duties as well as international rights, and that international complications will arise from which we can no more escape than the states which have preceded us in history, or those contemporary with us.

With its “newfound” strength, the United States should be out staking its claims in the world, protecting its international interests, rather than staying home, wringing its hands, or ignoring the rest of the world.  The United States could no longer internationally isolate itself; if anything, the demands of commerce and trade by the 1890s called for the United States to bring its attention to bear on the international realm.

In relation to isolation and sea power is Mahan’s discussion of the Monroe Doctrine.  While all of Mahan’s views on sea power are compatible with the Monroe Doctrine—“reduced to its barest statement, and stripped of all deductions, natural or forced, the Monroe Doctrine, if it were not a mere political abstraction, formulated an idea to which in the last resort effect could be given only through the instrumentality of a navy”—he argues that Washington is not doing the doctrine justice so long as it remains at home.  The Monroe Doctrine must be vigorously defended if the United States is serious about its interests; otherwise, “the Monroe Doctrine as popularly apprehended and indorsed, is a rather nebulous generality, which has condensed about the Isthmus into a faint point of more defined luminosity.”  While he refrains from saying “how far the Monroe Doctrine itself would logically carry us, or how far it may be developed,” he accepts the Doctrine’s enunciation as fact related to a “great national interest” because “it voiced an enduring principle of necessary self-interest.”  In short, as popular as the Monroe Doctrine is among Americans, it can only be perpetuated in a world of shorter distances by the vigorous maintenance of sea power.

Connected with his push for a new look at the importance of sea power was Mahan’s belief that the calls for permanent peace in the world were misguided.  In particular, Mahan derided those who believed that the creation or expansion of a military would necessarily lead to war: “That the organization of military strength involves provocation to war is a fallacy, which the experience of each succeeding year now refutes.  The immense armaments of Europe are onerous; but nevertheless, by the mutual respect and caution they enforce, they present a cheap alternative, certainly in misery, probably in money, to the frequent devastating wars which preceded the era of general military preparation.”  Further, Mahan points out that “war is simply a violent and tumultuous political incident” (how much Mahan was influenced by or knowledgeable of Clausewitz is not entirely known).  That is to say, for Mahan the push for permanent, arbitrated peace in the world was misguided because sometimes war is waged for legitimate means: “in public disputes … there is not uncommonly on both sides an element of right … which prevents either party from yielding, and that it is better for men to fight than, for the sake of peace, to refuse to support their convictions of justice.”  The United States simply could not afford to ignore the possibility of war, and thus had to be prepared for it.  Americans pushing for isolation or disarmament may have been guided by noble goals, but for Mahan they were wrong in how they pursued those goals.  Peace could be obtained, but not artificially.  No, peace can only be obtained through legitimate, organic means—sometimes through force, sometimes through the show of force.  By “showing the flag”, the United States would make a better attempt at preserving the peace than by simply discarding its military power wholesale.

Developed also by Mahan over the course of these essays is the relationship that the United States should have with Great Britain (see, for instance, “Possibilities of an Anglo-American Reunion” in the November 1894 issue of The North American Review).  Mahan argues that Britain could be the biggest problem the United States might face in the coming years, not least because of its already established sea power: “Britain is undoubtedly the most formidable of our possible enemies, both by her great navy and by the strong positions she holds near our coasts.”  However, in Mahan’s eyes, this problem was mitigated by a number of factors—for instance, “both, also, are controlled by a sense of law and justice, drawn from the same sources, and deep-rooted in their instincts.”  While he believed that the United States could not force a formal alliance with its colonial forebears, he argued that “a cordial recognition of the similarity of character and ideas will give birth to sympathy, which in turn will facilitate a co-operation beneficial to both; for if sentimentality is weak, sentiment is strong.”  What luck, of course, that what Mahan believed was America’s greatest rival was also the nation with which America shared such a common root—and the apple had certainly not fallen far from the tree, despite the differences exhibited by both nations in America’s earliest years of nationhood.  By fostering such similarities, by recognizing this common root, Great Britain and the United States would be able to overcome most, if not all, of their differences.  And while such recognition might not be capable of being created actively, Mahan urged Washington not to make the mistake of impeding the organic creation of ever-stronger ties.

Mahan spends a good deal of time concerned with the Hawaiian Islands as well (see especially “Hawaii and Our Future Sea Power”, in the Forum, March 1893).  Again, this is yet another theme connected back to the overall importance of sea power.  Mahan is concerned with Hawaii for a variety of reasons.  For instance, he knows that possession of Hawaii by the United States would disrupt the ring of naval bases and commercial facilities that Great Britain had busied itself building around the western Pacific.  But Mahan was not only concerned with checking Great Britain—no, Mahan was worried that China or Japan could expand to Hawaii and in Mahan’s eyes, such an expansion would be devastating.  Additionally, in a furthering of his sea power thesis, Mahan argues that the military value of a naval position depends upon its situation (location), strength, and resources, with situation being the most important factor. Hawaii possesses one of the best situations in the entire Pacific, he argues, “equidistant from San Francisco, Samoa, and the Marquesas, and an important post on our lines of communication with both Australia and China.”  Its situation fulfills Mahan’s dictate that no foreign power control important points within 3000 miles of San Francisco.  And, moreover, its situation also connects back to control of the new Central American canal—any power looking to pass to China or Japan through the canal will have to go by Hawaii; therefore, possession of Hawaii reinforces American control of the Caribbean and Canal.  In short, by pushing for control of Hawaii, Mahan was aiming for two objectives: (1) a foothold for control of the Pacific and (2) a reinforcement of American control of the Caribbean and Central American canal.

There are a number of other themes that we can find within these articles by Mahan—among them, some arguments in favor of empire (again connected with the importance of sea power) and discussion of an “East vs. West” dichotomy (and Mahan’s own views, many of which would not be accepted today, about the nature of the East and the conflict itself).  However, in pursuit of brevity this essay will not touch on either one of these themes; a topic for another time, especially when we consider the common (and likely correct) argument that Mahan was an imperialist of the first order.

Instead, a conclusion.  Concerned that the United States was not reaching its full potential, Mahan sought through his writings to rectify that evil.  The overriding argument was the importance of sea power, and from it a number of other themes emerged, including the importance of control of Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the soon-to-be Panama Canal.  And connected further still to the protection of American interests was Mahan’s view that the United States needed to emerge once and for all from self-imposed isolation, that it needed to ignore the misguided calls for artificial (and therefore short-term) peace, and that it was imperative that it strengthen its ancestral bond with Great Britain.  Although some of his arguments might be outdated over a century later, Mahan provides an acute look at the thought process of late nineteenth century policymakers and he opens an intellectual window into what became the rapid expansion of American power and international influence.



For Further Reading

(a note on suggestions.  Most works on Mahan deal with either his major works or cover his common themes—useful when read in conjunction with his articles)

Crowl, Philip A. “Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian.” In Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, edited by Peter Paret, 444-477.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

LaFeber, Walter.  “A Note on the ‘Mercantilistic Imperialism’ of Alfred Thayer Mahan.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 48, no. 4 (1962): 675-685.

Moll, Kenneth L. “A.T. Mahan, American Historian.” Military Affairs 27, no. 3 (1964): 131-140.

Rofe, J. Simon.  “’Under the Influence of Mahan’: Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Their

Understanding of American National Interest.” Diplomacy & Statecraft 19 (2008): 732-745.

Russell, Greg.  “Alfred Thayer Mahan and American Geopolitics: The Conservatism and Realism of an Imperialist.” Geopolitics 11 (2006): 119-140.

West, Richard S.  Admirals of American Empire.  Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1948.

Zimmerman, Warren.  First Great Triumph.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

For the text of The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future see