The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: Summary

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
This lesson has been designed to provide you with a summary of Alfred Mahan's ''The Influence of Sea Power Upon History'', including its impact modern history and naval thought.

Overview of the Author and Title

What books come to mind when you think of the texts that had the most influence on history? How about The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, the King James version of the Holy Bible or The Republic by Plato? Although not as well known, 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.

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.

Cover of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History
Cover of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History

Influence on the United States and Abroad

Captain Mahan believed in the concept of a 'vigorous foreign policy', an idea put forth by one of his contemporaries, Professor Frederick Jackson Turner. In considering the consequences of westward expansion, Turner suggested that the United States would have to look overseas to find new markets for its commercial and industrial products. To access these overseas markets, the United States would need three things: a merchant fleet to transport the goods, a combat fleet to protect the goods and an international naval base system to fuel and supply both the combat and merchant fleets.

The Influence of Sea Power Upon History made a great impression on several U.S. politicians, including President William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Following the end of the Spanish-American War, McKinley succeeded in annexing Hawaii in 1898, and the U.S. also established naval bases in Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. In the early 1990s, the U.S. leased a naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which is still in existence today.

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