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Mahan, Choke Points, and the Panama Canal

The recent blockage of the Suez Canal by the container ship Ever Given is a reminder of the importance of maritime choke points as they concern international commerce and national security. Choke points are primarily the effect of natural geography, which is one of the critical dimensions of strategy. In some cases, however, human agency, especially technology, can affect the strategic importance of natural geographic features and relationships. The shift from sail to steam, then from coal to oil-fired ships. From roads to railways. From horses to internal combustion engines. From the ground to the skies — aircraft to ballistic missiles, to drones, and hypersonic vehicles. Another human agency is the construction of canals in a way that significantly alters the geopolitical terrain.

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Instructions to Commodore Matthew Perry on the Opening to Japan (1851-1852)

“It is the President's opinion that steps should be taken at once to enable our enterprising merchants to supply the last link in that great chain which unites all nations of the world, by the early establishment of a line of steamers from California to China.”  So begins a letter of instructions from Secretary of State Daniel Webster to Commodore John Aulick in June of 1851 on the subject of “opening” Japan to the outside world.

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U.S. Naval (Maritime) Strategy: Then (1889) and Now

The U.S. sea services, under the auspices of the Department of the Navy, have released a new maritime strategy, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready.” The strategy attempts to account for changes in the global security environment, new strategic guidance, and a changed fiscal environment. The document revises that of the 2007 iteration, and includes a new function called "all domain access" which underscores the challenges forces face in accessing and operating in contested environments.  The new strategy has two particular emphases: the need to operate forward and to strengthen alliances and partnerships, especially in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

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Benjamin F. Tracy, Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy (1889)

In March 1889, a hurricane destroyed or disabled three American warships in the Samoan harbor of Apia, where they had been deployed to support the United States in a political dispute with Britain and Germany over the status of the islands.   The accident left the United States without any effective naval force in the Pacific and revealed the weaknesses of the existing fleet, as the old warships had been unable to get to sea and ride out the storm.  Advocates of a more assertive American foreign policy, to be underwritten by an expanded modern navy, seized upon the incident.  A perfect political storm did seem to favor their cause.  The new President, Benjamin Harrison, was a big-navy advocate, and for the first time since 1875, the Republican Party enjoyed clear majorities in both Houses of Congress.  U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was completing his landmark book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783, and his arguments were already circulating among such influential and would-be influential figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Harrison’s Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Franklin Tracy.

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