Alfred Thayer Mahan

Alfred Thayer Mahan
Alfred Thayer Mahan
Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan
Born September 27, 1840(1840-09-27)
West Point, New York
Died December 1, 1914(1914-12-01) (aged 74)
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch Union Navy
Rank Captain
Rear Admiral (post retirement)
Commands held USS Chicago
Battles/wars American Civil War

Alfred Thayer Mahan (September 27, 1840 – December 1, 1914) was a United States Navy flag officer, geostrategist, and historian, who has been called "the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century."[1] His concept of "sea power" was based on the idea that countries with greater naval power will have greater worldwide impact; it was most famously presented in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (1890). The concept had an enormous influence in shaping the strategic thought of navies across the world, especially in the United States, Germany, Japan and Britain, ultimately causing the World War I naval arms race. His ideas still permeate the U.S. Navy Doctrine.

Several ships were named USS Mahan, including the lead vessel of a class of destroyers.


Early life

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 Episcopal 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 USS Worcester, 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). As commander of the USS Wachusett he was stationed at Callao, Peru, protecting American interests during the final stages of the War of the Pacific.[2][3]

Alfred T. Mahan as a Captain

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. He had an affection for old square-rigged vessels, and did not like smoky, noisy steamships of his time; he tried to avoid active sea duty.[4] On the other hand, the books he wrote ashore made him arguably the most influential naval historian of the period. In pointing out how unlikely his ascent was, Kyle Whitney compared his chances of achieving prominence in the navy to that of "a cheerleader becoming president".[5]

Naval War College and writings

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.[6] There, in 1887, he met and befriended Theodore Roosevelt, then a visiting lecturer, who would later become president of the United States.

Mahan plunged into the library and wrote lectures that drew heavily on standard classics and the ideas of work of Henri Jomini. The lectures became his sea-power studies: The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (1890); The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812 (2 vols., 1892); and Sea Power in Relation to the War of 1812 (2 vols., 1905). The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain (2 vols., 1897) supplemented the series. Mahan stresses the importance of the individual in shaping history, and extols the traditional values of loyalty, courage, and service to the state. Mahan sought to resurrect Horatio Nelson as a national hero in Britain and used the book as a platform for expressing his views on naval strategy and tactics. Criticisms of the work focused on Mahan's handling of Nelson's love affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, but it remains the standard biography. In addition to these works, Mahan wrote more than a hundred articles on international politics and related topics, which were closely read by policy makers.

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'.[7]

Strategic views

Mahan's views were shaped by the seventeenth century conflicts between Holland, England, France and Spain, and by the nineteenth 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 seaborne commerce is 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 emphasis of 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.[8] However, as the Royal Navy's blockade of the German Empire was a critical direct and indirect factor in the eventual German collapse, Mahan's theories were vindicated by the First World War.

In the context of his time, Mahan backed a revival of Manifest Destiny through overseas imperialism. He held that sea power would require the United States to acquire defensive bases in the Caribbean and Pacific as well as take possession of Hawaii. This came at the time when the United States launched a major shipbuilding program to move the United States to the third place amongst worldwide naval powers by 1900.[9]

Sea Power

Mahan used history as a stock of lessons to be learned—or more exactly, as a pool of examples that exemplified his theories. Mahan believed that national greatness was inextricably associated with the sea, with its commercial usage in peace and its control in war. His goal was to discover the laws of history that determined who controlled the seas. His theoretical framework came from Jomini, with an emphasis on strategic locations (such as chokepoints, canals, and coaling stations), as well as quantifiable levels of fighting power in a fleet. The primary mission of a navy was to secure the command of the sea. This not only permitted the maintenance of sea communications for one's own ships while denying their use to the enemy but also, if necessary, provided the means for close supervision of neutral trade. This control of the sea could not be achieved by destruction of commerce but only by destroying or neutralizing the enemy fleet. This called for concentration of naval forces composed of capital ships, not unduly large but numerous, well manned with crews thoroughly trained, and operating under the principle that the best defense is an aggressive offense.[10]

Mahan contended that with command of the sea, even if local and temporary, naval operations in support of land forces can be of decisive importance and that naval supremacy can be exercised by a transnational consortium acting in defense of a multinational system of free trade. His theories—written before the submarine became a factor in warfare against shipping—delayed the introduction of convoys as a defense against German U-Boats in World War I. By the 1930s the U.S. Navy was building long-range submarines to raid Japanese shipping, but the Japanese, still tied to Mahan, designed their submarines as ancillaries to the fleet and failed to attack American supply lines in the Pacific in World War II.[11]

Mahan argued that radical technological change does not eliminate uncertainty from the conduct of war, and therefore a rigorous study of history should be the basis of naval officer education.

Sumida (2000) argues Mahan believed that good political and naval leadership was no less important than geography when it came to the development of sea power. Second, his unit of political analysis insofar as sea power was concerned was a transnational consortium rather than the single nation-state. Third, his economic ideal was free trade rather than autarchy. Fourth, his recognition of the influence of geography on strategy was tempered by a strong appreciation of the power of contingency to affect outcomes.[11]

Mahan prepared a secret contingency plan of 1890 in case war should break out between Britain and the United States. Mahan concluded that the British would attempt to blockade the eastern ports, so the American Navy should be concentrated in one of these ports, preferably New York with its two widely separated exits, while torpedo boats should defend the other harbors. This concentration of the U.S. fleet would force the British to tie down such a large proportion of their navy to watch the New York exits that the other American ports would be relatively safe. Detached American cruisers should wage "constant offensive action" against the enemy's exposed positions, and if the British were to weaken their blockade force off New York to attack another American port, the concentrated U.S. fleet should seize the opportunity to escort an invasion fleet to capture the British coaling ports in Nova Scotia, thereby seriously weakening the British ability to engage in naval operations off the American coast. This contingency plan is a clear example of the application of Mahan's principles of naval war, with a clear reliance on Jomini's principle of controlling strategic points.[12]

Mahan was a frequent commentator on world naval, strategic and diplomatic affairs. In the 1890s he argued that the United States should concentrate its naval fleet and obtain Hawaii as a hedge against Japanese eastward expansion and that the U.S. should help maintain a balance of power in the region in order to advance the principle of the Open Door policy both commercially and culturally. Mahan represented the U.S. at the first international conference on arms control that was initiated by Russia in 1899. Russia sought a "freeze" to keep from falling behind in Europe's arms race. Other countries attended in order to mollify various peace groups. No significant arms limitations agreements were reached. A proposal on neutral trade rights was debated but ruled out of order by the Russians. The only significant result of the conference was the establishment of an ineffective Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.

Impact on naval thought

Timeliness contributed no small part to the widespread acceptance and resultant influence of Mahan's views. Although his history was relatively thin (he relied on secondary sources), the vigorous style and clear theory won widespread acceptance of navalists across the world. Sea power supported the new colonialism which was asserting itself in Africa and Asia. Given the very rapid technological changes underway in propulsion (from coal to oil, from boilers to turbines), ordnance (with better fire directors, and new high explosives) and armor and emergence of new craft such as destroyers and submarines, Mahan's emphasis on the capital ship and the command of the sea came at an opportune moment.[10]

Mahan's name became a household word in the German navy, as Kaiser William II ordered his officers to read Mahan, and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849–1930) used Mahan's reputation to finance a powerful surface fleet.

Between 1890 and 1915, Mahan and British admiral John Fisher (1841–1920) faced the problem of how to dominate home waters and distant seas with naval forces not strong enough to do both. Mahan argued for a universal principle of concentration of powerful ships in home waters and minimized strength in distant seas, while Fisher reversed Mahan by utilizing technological change to propose submarines for defense of home waters and mobile battle cruisers for protection of distant imperial interests.[13]

The French were less susceptible to Mahan's theories. French naval doctrine in 1914 was dominated by Mahan's theory of sea power and therefore geared toward winning decisive battles and gaining mastery of the seas. But the course of World War I changed ideas about the place of the navy, as the refusal of the German fleet to engage in a decisive battle, the Dardanelles expedition of 1915, the development of submarine warfare, and the organization of convoys all showed the navy's new role in combined operations with the army. The navy's part in securing victory was not fully understood by French public opinion in 1918, but a synthesis of old and new ideas arose from the lessons of the war, especially by admiral Raoul Castex (1878–1968), from 1927 to 1935, who synthesized in his five-volume Théories Stratégiques the classical and materialist schools of naval theory. He reversed Mahan's theory that command of the sea precedes maritime communications and foresaw the enlarged roles of aircraft and submarines in naval warfare. Castex enlarged strategic theory to include nonmilitary factors (policy, geography, coalitions, public opinion, and constraints) and internal factors (economy of force, offense and defense, communications, operational plans, morale, and command) to conceive a general strategy to attain final victory.[14]

Ideologically, the United States Navy initially opposed replacing its sailing ships with steam-powered ships after the Civil War; Mahan argued that only a fleet of armored 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 the build up of their forces prior to the First World War. 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.

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— yet stressed that the number of coal fuel stations and strategic bases should be few, not to drain too many resources from the mother country.[15]

Although Mahan's influence on foreign powers has been generally recognized, only rather recently have scholars called attention to his role as significant in the growth of American overseas possessions, the rise of the new American navy, and the adoption of the strategic principles upon which it operated. He died in Washington a few months after the outbreak of World War I.


The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660–1783 was translated to Japanese[16] 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.

The IJN's pursuit of the "decisive battle" was such that it contributed to Imperial Japan's defeat in 1945,[17][18] and so rendered obsolete the doctrine of the decisive battle between fleets, because of the development of the submarine and the aircraft carrier.[19] However, one could argue that the IJN did not adhere entirely to Mahan's doctrine, as they did divide their main force from time to time, particularly the extensive division of warships in a complicated battle plan that led to the disaster at Midway, and as such sealed their own defeat.

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.[20]

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 from publishing comments on the war. Mahan died of heart failure on December 1, 1914.


Mahan Hall at the United States Naval Academy, named after Admiral Mahan.


See also


  1. ^ Keegan, John. The American Civil War New York: Knopf, 2009. p.272
  2. ^ See "The Ambiguous Relationship: Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan" by Richard W. Turk; Greenwood Press, 1987. 183 pgs. page 10
  3. ^ See Larrie D. Ferreiro 'Mahan and the "English Club” of Lima, Peru: The Genesis of The Influence of Sea Power upon History', The Journal of Military History – Volume 72, Number 3, July 2008, pp. 901–906
  4. ^ Paret, Peter (1986). Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. pp. 445. 
  5. ^ Seager, Robert (1977). Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and his Letters. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. pp. 360. 
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ 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 April 3, 2007
  8. ^ Paret, Peter (1986). Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. pp. 453–455. 
  9. ^ Brinkley, Alan (2010). "19: From Crisis to Empire". The Unfinished Nation. Columbia University: McGrawHill. pp. 499. 
  10. ^ a b Philip A. Crowl, "Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian," in Paret, Peter, Gordon A. Craig, and Felix Gilbert, eds. Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (1986), ch 16
  11. ^ a b Jon Tetsuro Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan (2000)
  12. ^ Kenneth Bourne, and Carl Boyd, "Captain Mahan's 'War' with Great Britain." U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 1968 94(7): 71–78. Issn: 0041-798x
  13. ^ Jon Tetsuro Sumida, "Geography, Technology, and British Naval Strategy in the Dreadnought Era." Naval War College Review 2006 59(3): 89–102.
  14. ^ Martin Motte, "L'epreuve des Faits: ou la Pensee Navale Française face a la Grande Guerre ," Revue Historique Des Armées 1996 (2): 97–106. Issn: 0035-3299
  15. ^ Crowl, "Alfred Thayer Mahan: pages 451, 460
  16. ^ Mark Peattie & David Evans, Kaigun (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1997)
  17. ^ Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon, The Pearl Harbor Papers (Brassey's, 1993)
  18. ^ Marc Parillo, The Japanese Merchant Marine in WW2 (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1993)
  19. ^ Crowl, "Alfred Thayer Mahan: pp 474–77
  20. ^ 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
  21. ^ Ebarb, Matthew A. "Midshipmen Learn Lessons from the Fleet" (story number NNS071020-04),, October 20, 2007.


Primary sources

  • Works by Alfred Thayer Mahan at Project Gutenberg
  • Seager II, Robert, ed. Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan (3 vol 1975) v. 1. 1847–1889.--v. 2. 1890–1901.--v. 3. 1902–1914
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (1890) online edition
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812 (2 vols., 1892) online edition
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer. Sea Power in Relation to the War of 1812 (2 vols., 1905). online edition
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer., Reflections, Historic and Other, Suggested by the Battle of the Japan Sea. By Captain A. T. Mahan, U.S. Navy. US Naval Proceedings magazine, June 1906, Volume XXXVI, No. 2 United States Naval Institute.
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain (2 vols., 1897) online edition
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer. Mahan on Naval Strategy: selections from the writings of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan ed by John B. Hattendorf (1991)

Further reading

  • Apt, Benjamin. "Mahan's Forebears: The Debate over Maritime Strategy, 1868–1883." Naval War College Review (Summer 1997). Online. Naval War College. September 24, 2004
  • Bowling, Roland Alfred. "The Negative Influence of Mahan on the Protection of Shipping in Wartime: The Convoy Controversy in the Twentieth Century." PhD dissertation U. of Maine 1980. 689 pp. DAI 1980 41(5): 2241-A. 8024828 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Crowl, Philip A. "Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian" in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)
  • Hattendorf, John B., ed. The Influence of History on Mahan. Naval War College Press, 1991. 208 pp.
  • Karsten, Peter. "The Nature of 'Influence': Roosevelt, Mahan and the Concept of Sea Power." American Quarterly 1971 23(4): 585–600. in Jstor
  • LaFeber, Walter. "A Note on the "Mercantilistic Imperialism" of Alfred Thayer Mahan," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Mar., 1962), pp. 674–685 online at JSTOR
  • Livezey, William E. Mahan on Sea Power (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, reprinted 1981)
  • Puleston, W. D. Mahan: The Life and Work of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S.N 1939 online edition
  • St. John, Ronald B. "European Naval Expansion and Mahan, 1889–1906." Naval War College Review 1971 23(7): 74–83. Issn: 0028-1484. Argues that key Europeans were already set to expand their navies and that Mahan crystallized their ideas and generate broad support.
  • Schluter, Randall Craig. "Looking Outward for America: An Ideological Criticism of the Rhetoric of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, USN, in American Magazines of the 1890s." PhD dissertation U. of Iowa 1995. 261 pp. DAI 1995 56(6): 2045-A. DA9536247 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Seager, Robert. Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1977), the standard biography
  • Shulman, Mark Russell. "The Influence of Mahan upon Sea Power." Reviews in American History 1991 19(4): 522–527. in Jstor
  • Shulman, Mark Russell. Navalism and the Emergence of American Sea Powers, 1882–1893 (1995)
  • Sumida, Jon Tetsuro. Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan (2000) 184 pages excerpt and online search from
  • Turk, Richard W. The Ambiguous Relationship: Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan (1987) online edition
  • Zimmermann, Warren. First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power. (2002). 562 pp., chapter on Mahan

External links

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  • Alfred Thayer Mahan — Alfred T. Mahan, 1904. Alfred Thayer Mahan (* 27. September 1840 in West Point, New York; † 1. Dezember 1914 in Washington D. C.) war ein Konteradmiral der US Navy, Marineschriftsteller und stratege. Sein bekanntestes Werk ist …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Alfred Thayer Mahan — Alfred Mahan Alfred Mahan en 1904 Alfred Thayer Mahan, plus connu sous le nom d Alfred Mahan ou celui d Alfred T. Mahan, né le 27 septembre 1840 à West Point (État de New York), mort le 1er décembre 1914) …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Alfred Thayer Mahan — noun United States naval officer and historian (1840 1914) • Syn: ↑Mahan • Instance Hypernyms: ↑naval officer, ↑historian, ↑historiographer …   Useful english dictionary

  • Alfred T. Mahan — Alfred Mahan Alfred Mahan en 1904 Alfred Thayer Mahan, plus connu sous le nom d Alfred Mahan ou celui d Alfred T. Mahan, né le 27 septembre 1840 à West Point (État de New York), mort le 1er décembre 1914) …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Alfred T Mahan — Alfred Mahan Alfred Mahan en 1904 Alfred Thayer Mahan, plus connu sous le nom d Alfred Mahan ou celui d Alfred T. Mahan, né le 27 septembre 1840 à West Point (État de New York), mort le 1er décembre 1914) …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer — born Sept. 27, 1840, West Point, N.Y., U.S. died Dec. 1, 1914, Quogue, N.Y. U.S. naval officer and historian. He studied at the U.S. Naval Academy, and his nearly 40 years of active naval duty included fighting in the American Civil War. He was… …   Universalium

  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer — (1840–1914)    A U.S. naval officer known for his histories of British naval power. He attended Columbia and the U.S. Naval Academy before being commissioned into the U.S. Navy at the beginning of the American Civil War. He was president of the U …   Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914

  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer — (27 sep. 1840, West Point, N.Y., EE.UU.–1 dic. 1914, Quogue, N.Y.). Oficial naval e historiador estadounidense. Estudió en la Academia naval de EE.UU., y sus casi 40 años de servicio naval activo incluyeron combate en la guerra de Secesión. Fue… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Mahan,Alfred Thayer — Ma·han (mə hănʹ), Alfred Thayer. 1840 1914. American naval officer and historian whose written works, such as The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660 1783 (1890), prompted a worldwide buildup of naval strength prior to World War I. * * * …   Universalium

  • Alfred Mahan — Alfred T. Mahan, 1904. Alfred Thayer Mahan (* 27. September 1840 in West Point, New York; † 1. Dezember 1914 in Washington D. C.) war ein Konteradmiral der US Navy, Marineschriftsteller und stratege …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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