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In 1890, US Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote a landmark book entitled, ‘The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783.’ The book had great impact on navies around the world, and its influence can still be seen in military defense today.

The Age of Imperialism

The late 19th century has often been called the Age of Imperialism.

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Occurring sometime between 1850 and 1920, it was a time when powerful nations believed it was in their best interest to take over smaller nations as a means of protecting their homelands, fostering trade, and providing coaling stations for their large navies. The most common naval vessel of the day was known as a dreadnought battleship, a type of warship ran on steam and required large quantities of coal; the famous USS Maine that was blown up in Havana harbor and is often blamed for starting the Spanish-American War, was this type of ship. The range of these ships was limited and thus required a resupply of coal from worldwide locations, like Hawaii and its naval base, Pearl Harbor.

Unfortunately, there were racially-motivated considerations for colonization as well, which were embodied by the famous poem and phrase of the time, The White Man’s Burden, written by the famed author, Sir Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book. This phrase fostered the idea that it was the ‘burden’ of European and other similar nations to take the white man’s culture and civilization to ‘savage’ tribes in Africa and elsewhere. It was in this kind of environment that Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a Navy captain turned instructor, wrote and released his works.

Mahan’s Monumental Work

Although Captain Mahan had command experience in the US Navy, his record of service would hardly be considered exemplary. Records show that ships under his command would collide with other vessels or stationary objects. As a lieutenant in the US Civil War (1861-1865), he did have some combat experience, but it was limited. However, after his promotion to captain in 1885, with command of the USS Wachusett, his career shifted from naval commander to teacher, when he accepted a post at the US Naval War College in the same year.

He taught Naval War History and by all accounts appeared to be an excellent instructor. The commanding officer of the War College, Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, asked him to research and write a series of articles on the influence of sea power on history. Mahan later took Admiral Luce’s place as the college’s first superintendent on October 16, 1885. It was this series of articles that formed the basis for Mahan’s famous book released in 1890, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783. Basing his book on momentous naval events, such as the War of 1812, the Napoleonic Wars, and the American Revolution, Mahan insisted that it was naval sea power that made the difference in these conflicts.Even though the term was not common at the time, Mahan’s book insisted that in order for a nation to claim the title of superpower, they had to have control of the seas.

This meant that nations had to engage in a massive naval buildup in order to project power overseas. Some have called it a rebirth of the famous American historical mandate known as Manifest Destiny, the concept that America had to conquer the entire North American continent in order to fulfill its destiny as a great nation.

Sea Power’s Impact

Almost immediately after the book was released, it caused a sensation among the world’s great powers. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the monarchical ruler of Germany, ordered all of his senior naval officers to read Mahan’s book. The famed German Admiral, Alfred von Tirpitz, read the book and embraced it, using it as a basis for a massive naval buildup in the German Navy. The book was translated into Japanese and became a standard textbook within the Japanese Imperial Navy, after which they also began a naval buildup based on Mahan’s findings. Some even blame the book for partially influencing the start of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), as Japan grew wary of Russia’s naval power.

In the United States, the book’s impact fostered more emphasis on technical improvements rather than a massive naval buildup. Improvements in steam-powered vessels were seen as more important than projecting power unnecessarily. France, Britain, and other smaller nations also embraced either part or all of Mahan’s ideas. There can be little doubt that although Mahan’s career as a US naval officer was less than stellar, his book has made its mark on history, and his ideas are still taught today at places like his alma mater, the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Lesson Summary

Even though US naval officer Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan experienced a less-than-stellar naval career, he changed the world by writing and publishing The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.

An outgrowth of the Age of Imperialism, the book was embraced by Germany’s ruler Kaiser Wilhelm II and others. When you apply this to the current world scene, it appears that Mahan’s ideas are still in force. Example: the US leads the world in the number of aircraft carriers in current service: 10. The nearest competitor after that is India, which has two.

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