The Influence of Sea Power upon History: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power Upon History was a huge success in both America and overseas. His core argument was that sea power was the key to empire-building.

The Impact of Mahan's Work

Alfred Thayer's Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power Upon History was a two-volume work that argued that sea power was the key to military and economic expansion. Published in 1890 and 1892, the book was an instant classic that proved highly influential in both American and foreign circles.

Alfred Thayer Mahan
Alfred Thayer Mahan

The Man Behind the Book

Alfred Thayer Mahan was born in 1840 in New York. His father taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but Mahan graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1859. He served in the Union navy during the Civil War, and afterward, he twice served as president of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

His lectures at the academy made up the substance of his book. A prolific writer, Mahan wrote more than a hundred articles and a dozen books. In 1899, he was part of an American delegation to the Hague Convention which was a multi-national meeting to codify the rules of war. His book made Mahan an instant celebrity in naval circles.

Context of New Naval Thinking

Mahan's book was very timely. The 1880s became the great age of modernization in the American navy as the U.S. built steel battleships. Also, because of territorial expansion, the U.S. now stretched from coast to coast and needed a two-ocean navy. Lastly, the U.S. economy became the world's largest in the 1870s, and increasingly looked overseas to expand its markets.

Fourth from the left: Alfred Thayer Mahan at the 1899 Hague Convention
Alfred Thayer Mahan Hague Convention

The Influence of Sea Power Upon History

The first book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, focused on the age of sail to the end of the American Revolution. His second book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812, focused on the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. These were rooted in his belief that, 'The study of history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.'

Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island
Naval War College

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 largely, 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.

Alfred Thayer Mahan
Alfred Thayer Mahan

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 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.

Title Page from The Influence of Sea Power Upon History
The Influence of Sea Power Upon History

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