In 1890, a book was published that would forever change the way naval strategy was orchestrated. The author, Alfred Thayer Mahan, was a United States Naval officer and the son of the esteemed West Point professor Dennis Hart Mahan. The younger Mahan had seen combat during the Civil War before being appointed a lecturer at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. He rose to the rank of Captain and took command of the USS Wachusett, that deployed to Peru to oversee American interests in the War of the Pacific between Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. During his deployment, Mahan studied naval history, which would later go on to shape his lectures at the US Naval Academy. Following his duty aboard the USS Wachusett, Mahan returned to the US Naval Academy to pursue lecturing duties on naval history and naval strategy. It was during this period he assembled the material to write his influential The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783.
Mahan’s book became an instant success in military circles in the United States and around the world. While naval power was seen as influential for a nation, most countries utilized their strength in ground forces. The British had established a strong navy, if not the strongest, and Mahan argued that this helped propel the small island nation to the status of superpower. While armies were important for land warfare, the proper utilization of a blockade could effectively destroy the army’s ability to conduct operations. Mahan had witnessed this first hand during the Civil War when the Union Navy had blockaded Confederate ports and kept the south from receiving goods from overseas. While the Confederates were still able to wage war for four years, their eventual defeat could be partially attributed to their lack of material goods to supply the war effort.
The influence of the book would help shape American foreign policy, as well as guide other foreign nations to pursue a strategy of naval dominance. With the guiding influence of Mahan, the US began efforts to expand its influence around the globe. With victory in the Spanish-American War, the US gained territorial holdings in the Pacific as well as the island of Puerto Rico. Using the naval dominance theory, an arms race erupted in Europe between the United Kingdom and the German Empire as both sides vied to possess the most powerful navy in Europe. The Japanese used the naval dominance theory to build up a strong navy that it used to dominate the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, and would continue to abide by the theory until the end of World War II.
Look for more information regarding the history of Mahan’s naval strategic theories in the upcoming World at War issue #44 with the article “Did Mahan’s Dead Hand Guide Pacific Strategy, 1941-1945?” and join the conversation on Facebook!