Profiles in History: Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man Who Understood Sea Power

Profiles in History: Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man Who Understood Sea Power
Rear-admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, impressed upon the world the importance of sea power. (Public Domain)
Dustin Bass
1/21/2023
Updated:
1/21/2023

Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914) was born in West Point, New York, and was the son of a professor of civil and military engineering at the U.S. Military Academy. Despite his proximity to the military academy, it was the Navy that transfixed the young Mahan. After attending Columbia College in New York City, he was recommended for an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland by Jefferson Davis.

Mahan enjoyed a 40-year career in the U.S. Navy that would see his involvement in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, but those involvements paled in comparison to his involvements in the lecture halls of naval academies and his global influence on the view of sea power.

Growing up in a scholarly military household, Mahan was introduced to military and naval strategy at an early age. His studies of naval power extended from the ancient Greeks and Romans into the modern era. His extensive studies on the naval powers of the 17th to 19th centuries resulted in works that established him as the strategist of his generation, if not his century. In all, he would write 20 books dealing with the subject of sea power. His first, “The Influence of Sea Power upon History,” would prove his most influential and would change the way the world looked at the high seas.
Mahan established a land-to-sea concept that was sequential and based upon the demands of a nation’s population. In his 1910 book “The Interest of America in International Conditions,” he mapped out the sequence as “industry, markets, control [of overseas territories], navy, bases.” His belief that a growing population would inevitably lead to industrial growth and supply and demand increases, would result in the necessity for extending trade outside of one’s borders (that is, global trade) and the creation of naval bases to protect those trade routes and those moving capital assets.

His views were influenced by the naval dominance of the British Empire; but he, along with other geopolitical commentators, believed the Empire was on the decline. For Mahan, America was the next imperial power that should invest in its naval capabilities. These views were subscribed to by leading politicians of the early 20th century, including Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt.

In 1906, 16 years after his first and most influential work, he retired from the Navy to spend the next eight years of his life dedicated to studying naval history, as well as modern global maritime affairs. Before his retirement, he was awarded honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, and McGill. The Royal United Services Institute honored him with the Chesney Gold Medal for his scholarship on the British Empire, and in 1902, he was elected president of the American Historical Association.

According to the British war historian John Keegan, Mahan was “the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century.” The Naval History and Heritage Command, which manages the official history of the United States Navy, noted that Mahan’s “works have had tremendous influence all over the world, especially those directly concerning seapower.”

In honor of Mahan, and as a nod to his strategic thinking and his influence on modern naval affairs, the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, where he once taught, established the Alfred Thayer Mahan Professor of Grand Strategy in the Strategy and Policy Department.

Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.