Mahan & The Influence of Sea Power Upon History

From 1865 to 1885, commerce raiding and coastal defense were the accepted strategies of the U.S. Navy. In an age of technological change, these ideas began to seem obsolete to an influential group of American naval leaders. RADM Stephen B. Luce established the Naval War College in 1884. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was assigned there. Mahan's lecture notes become the basis for his book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, published in 1890. The book brought Mahan fame in his lifetime and ever since.

In the context of late 19th Century during times of peace as well as war. This had understandable appeal to industrialists, merchants interested in overseas trade, investors, nationalists, and imperialists, and peacetime America. Mahan provided a powerful argument for achieving and preserving sea power.

The decline of the U.S. Navy ended about 1880, and by 1890, a renaissance was in full swing. The dominant evidence was Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan's book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660- 1763 (1890). Equally significant were the new battleships utilizing Mahan's strategy of command of the sea and clearly displaying the industrial maturation of the United States.

The essence of Mahan from a naval viewpoint is that a great navy is a mark and prerequisite of national greatness. A great navy is one designed to fight an enemy in fleet engagements in order to win command of the sea, not one designed for commerce raiding or guerre de course. Mahan said strategic principles "remain as though laid on a rock." Geopolitical principles underlying national (and maritime) greatness: Geographic position; Physical conformation; Extent of territory; Number of population; Character of the people; Character of the government. Tactics were conditioned by changing types of naval armaments. Tactics were aspects of operations occurring after the beginning of combat.

While Mahan recognized clearly that tactics were fluid due to changes in armaments, he did not view strategy in the same way. He did not realize the extent to which technology would affect, for instance, the validity of some of his six elements of sea power. Mahan was strongly influenced, as were most army officers of the period, by the writings of Jomini, a Swiss writer on strategy in Napoleon's campaigns. Jomini's work depended heavily on fixed principles that could be stated with mathematical precision and comprehensiveness.

Mahan identifies some important "strategic questions": What are navies' functions? What are their objectives? Answer: "To command the seas" How should navies be concentrated? Answer: In battle fleets. Where should the coaling stations needed to support them be established? Answer: At geographic "choke points" (e.g. Capetown, Hawaii). What is the value of commerce destruction, and should this be a primary or secondary goal of naval action? Answer: It cannot win wars, e.g., the C.S.S. Alabama; it can only be a secondary goal of naval action.

Mahan perceived colonies as valuable locations for coaling stations for a steam-driven battleship Navy. Mahan viewed the possibility of an isthmus passage (later to be realized in the form of Panama Canal) as necessary for U.S. naval power, since this would become by definition a critical maritime "choke-point" -- the U.S. Navy is a "two-ocean" Navy.

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