Monday, August 7, 2017
Alfred Mahan's Masterpiece: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1899
ALFRED T. MAHAN, INTERPRETER OF NAVAL HISTORY, article in the The American Monthly Review of Reviews 1899
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There are several distinct reasons why the people of the United States must congratulate themselves on the presence of Captain Mahan, the naval strategist and scholar, in the commission to the peace congress. In the first place, it is very necessary that there should be members of this congress who have, in a broad sense, actual technical knowledge, and it is needless to say that Captain Mahan is probably the most eminent living expert in naval strategy. Then Captain Mahan has consistently advocated strong navies and preparedness for war with a special reference to their influence in making for peace. The temperamental rhythm and the scope of Captain Mahan‘s intellect, his unusual ability to grasp quickly and accurately a broad problem, complete the qualities which make him an ideal representative at The Hague.
To this summing up of Captain Mahan’s equipment as a diplomat in the delicate and complex task before the peace commission might be added his experience as a public man during the past few years, when he has been feted by the world as the first great exponent of the philosophy of sea power. We say few years, because it was in 1890, after thirty years of service in our navy, that his first book of international importance, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History,” was published in Boston and made the author known all over the globe.
Captain Mahan had worked steadily and patiently through the necessarily slow stages of a United States naval officer‘s career. He was born in New York City, and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1859 when he was twenty-nine years of age. He came from duty in Brazilian waters when the Civil War broke out, and served on the Congress and the Pocahontas, gaining his lieutenancy in 1861, acting as instructor at the Naval Academy for a year, and then continuing his sea duty on the Seminole and the James Adger until the close of the war, which brought him promotion to the grade of lieutenant-commander. In the years succeeding the war Captain Mahan saw a vast amount of routine service in varied fields; in the Gulf squadron, the Asiatic fleet, the south Atlantic fleet, the vessels of the Pacific station, shore duty at the New York Navy Yard, the Boston Navy Yard, and the Naval Academy at Annapolis. In 1885 he was appointed captain, and next year was made president of the Naval War College. After acting as president of the commission for selecting the site for a navy yard on the northwest coast, doing special duty for the Bureau of Navigation from 1889 to 1892, and presiding for another year over the Naval War College at Newport, Captain Mahan was in 1893 placed in command of the Chicago, of the European squadron. After forty years of service he was retired in 1896 at his own request, in order that he might devote himself to the literary productions which, it was then clear, would constitute his great life-work. In May last he returned to the naval board of strategy at his country’s call until peace was made with Spain.
These detailed items in the long road to a naval captaincy are very interesting in a consideration of Captain Mahan’s final significant work for his profession. It may seem somewhat strange that over thirty years of assiduous attention to such duties as those of a ship officer in time of peace should leave a mind so fresh to evolve a new philosophy of naval history. The long training seems to have merely added a calm and orderly method and a valuable technical experience to Captain Mahan's equipment, without dulling in the least his strong initiative faculties.
“The Influence of Sea Power Upon History" was not the beginning of Captain Mahan‘s literary career. He had written, at the suggestion of a publishing firm, a volume on the navy in the Civil War and a “Life of Admiral Farragut," both comparatively perfunctory tasks. He himself has told the world how it was that he came into the greater work; how, when reading Mommsen in the English club at Lima, he was struck with the historian's failure to recognize the all-important influence of sea power on Hannibal's career. He wrote out the whole outline of “The Influence of Sea Power," discussed it with Admiral Luce, and then set to work with the most painstaking method. He selected the term "sea power" with the deliberate purpose of challenging attention. “Purists, I said to myself, may criticise me for marrying a Teutonic word to one of Latin origin, but I deliberately discarded the adjective ‘maritime,’ being too smooth to arrest men's attention or stick in their minds. I do not know how far this is usually the case with phrases that obtain currency; my impression is that the originator is himself generally surprised at their taking hold. I was not surprised in that sense. The effect produced was that which I fully purposed; but I was surprised at the extent of my success. ‘Sea power,‘ in English at least, seems to have come to stay, in the sense I used it. ‘The sea powers’ were often spoken of before, but in an entirely different manner—not to express, as I meant to, at once an abstract conception and a concrete fact." At first there was difficulty in finding a publisher, but Messrs. Little, Brown & Co. had the acumen to see the force of the work, and “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History" came out in 1890, to an instant success. Two years later appeared “The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire;” in the spring of 1897 "The Life of Nelson, the Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain;” and in December of the same year Captain Mahan's latest work to be published in book form, “The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future.”
Just after “The Life of Nelson” appeared in London, Harold Frederic cabled that the reviewers of the London dailies sat up all night with the advance copies of the work and rushed into print the next morning long reviews, in every case almost extravagantly eulogistic. As a sample of the commentary, the Times said . “Captain Mahan's work will become one of the greatest of English classics "—surely a good deal for the Times to say of an American captain writing on the English Nelson and his navy. The English publishers had frequently to cable their American connections for further supplies of the book. The American publishers alone have sold more than 50,000 copies of his books— an extraordinary number for works of that class. The “sea-power” volumes have been translated into French, German, and Japanese. Degrees came to the author from Oxford and Cambridge, and he is an LL.D. of Harvard and Yale. But merely a category of the honors won by the sailor-scholar would be too extensive for a brief sketch. Captain Mahan protests that he does not understand the magnitude of his success. Personally he is a reserved man of polished manners, with a scholarly, almost academic, dignity, which curiously distinguishes him from the traditional character of the bluff and rugged sea-captain.
[The _The Influence of Sea Power Upon History_ arguments influenced naval policies of governments for decades. In the United States, it encouraged Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt to support a greater navy; Mahan and Roosevelt became friends after Roosevelt published his own naval histories in the 1880s. It also motivated the U.S. government to project American power through its navy, thus contributing to American Imperialism. The treatise's influence was not limited to the United States. Mahan's work encouraged enlargement of the German and Japanese navies (Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered a copy aboard every ship of the Imperial German Navy) contributing to the naval arms race between Britain and Germany. The resulting tension was a major factor in the development of World War I.]
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