Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), the best known and most influential naval officer of the late 19th century, ironically was born at West Point, the son of Dennis Hart Mahan, a professor of military engineering and dean of faculty at the U.S. Military Academy.
Admiral Mahan was a man of contradictions--an army brat who became a navy officer, a brilliant intellectual who disdained formal study, and a captain who was prone to seasickness and hated sea duty. Despite a less than inspiring career as a naval officer in the quarter-century following his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1856, he was selected by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1883 to write a book for their series, The Navy in the Civil War. Mahan’s volume The Gulf and Inland Waters impressed Captain Stephen Luce prompting the latter to invite Mahan to lecture on naval history at the newly-established U.S. Naval War College.
Mahan became college president in 1886 after Luce’s reassignment, and he published his class lecture notes in 1890 under the title The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, a volume that attributed England’s global influence to the power and scope of the Royal Navy. According to Mahan’s biographer “the book electrified foreign offices and war departments all over the world” and furnished a rationale (unintended by Mahan) for the great naval arms race of the next quarter century. Two years later Mahan followed his blockbuster book with a sequel The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812.
Mahan argued for a modern naval build-up that would protect America’s coasts--Caribbean, Gulf and Pacific--and he espoused an ishmian canal. He did so, however, for security reasons. His expansionism was strategic and defensive. Notwithstanding the limits of Mahan’s proposals, contemporary American imperialists like Theodore Roosevelt, John Hay, and Henry Cabot Lodge used Mahan’s basic thesis to justify a more aggressive and acquisitive American expansionism in emulation of England and other leading European powers.
Mahan retired from active duty in 1895 to write voluminously on the naval, military, and diplomatic issues of his era. Eventually he published twenty-one books and attained the presidency of the American Historical Association. Although his reputation as an imperialist has been overstated, his insistence that the United States must become and remain a sea power is Mahan’s greatest contribution to America’s modern superpower status.
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