A.T. Mahan & The Influence of Sea Power Upon History

A.T. Mahan
A.T.Mahan

The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, written by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan and published in 1890, was a groundbreaking study that explained how the British Empire rose to power. An expert and lecturer in the field, Mahan was also the President of the U.S. Naval War College. His book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, proved influential not only because of what it said but also because of the impression it made on leaders ranging from American presidents to the German Kaiser.


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 the 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.
US Naval Fleet during WW2
US Naval Fleet during WW2

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 the 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":
USS Ohio (BB 12)  passing the Cucaracha Slide,  while transiting the Panama Canal
USS Ohio (BB 12)
passing the Cucaracha Slide,
while transiting the Panama Canal

⇛ 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 need 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.

Key Points
As one of the top naval warfare experts in the United States, Mahan understood just how much technological change had occurred in the naval world over time. To make his points, he focused primarily on the period of 1660 to 1783, a time of comparatively little change in technology, but great change in naval power. 
According to Mahan, Great Britain's economic, military and political strength was the direct result of its naval strength: Great Britain maintained both a combat fleet and a merchant fleet. In fact, the merchant capabilities were just as important, as they provided wealth and means of supply. To illustrate that a country was only as powerful as its sea forces, especially in regard to colonialism, Mahan discussed some of the major maritime wars that took place in the Caribbean, Europe, and North America.

Captain Mahan also cited some of the key factors associated with sea power, including a country's geography, government, national character, and population. Communication and concentration of a fleet were also important to naval strength. Additionally, Mahan emphasized how naval strategies of the past could be used in the present. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History not only helped to inspire America's naval renaissance and our nation's foreign policy, but also an international naval race.

Mahan's Vision
Mahan's core argument was that a great navy was essential for national prosperity through military and economic expansion. Mahan saw sea power as thoroughly intertwined with war. He wrote: 'The history of sea power is large, though by no means solely, a narrative of contests between nations, of mutual rivalries, of violence frequently culminating in war.'

His book pulled largely from European history to demonstrate his point. His vision called for a string of worldwide naval bases and coaling stations to patrol the seas. He particularly argued for the concentration of strategic 'choke points' or places where the U.S. could have a concentration of naval strength and supply stations.

As part of his strategy, he argued for a Central American canal and supported the annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines. He also argued that naval battles would be decided by 'decisive battles' between large-scale surface ships such as battleships. One limitation of Mahan's is that he did not foresee the eventual role that submarines and aircraft carriers would play in naval contests.

Mahan's Six Elements
Mahan put great faith in a military buildup. He wrote: 'Organized force alone enables the quiet and the weak to go about their business and sleep securely in their beds, safe from the violent without or within.'
Mahan's vision did not simply rest with naval ships. He argued that there were six elements of naval warfare. 
  • First, is the geographical location, or a nation's proximity to the sea. 
  • Second, is physical conformation, or its access to the ocean through rivers, lakes, harbors, and ports. 
  • Third, is the physical layout of its coastline. 
  • Fourth, is the size of a nation's population. 
  • Fifth is the national character of its people and its attitude toward commerce and trade. Lastly, is the character of the government and its relationship with the military. Mahan's point was that naval success was rooted in physical and non-physical factors and required more than mere ships.