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Is Mahan Still Worth Reading?

Alfred Mahan. probably the most famous US strategist of all time

Alfred Mahan. probably the most famous US strategist of all time

Alfred Thayer Mahan is one of the most important strategic naval thinkers in history, who wrote two vitally influential treatises on naval strategy: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783 and The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1893–1912. These two works have come down to us as having effected a revolution in naval strategy, propelled by Mahan's principal contentions: 1)That naval power is vital for national power, influence, growth, and development, and 2) That this naval power is best expressed via battle fleets for pitched fleet battles, rather than through alternate strategies such as a guerre de course, ie. commerce raiding and lighter units. Mahan's work made a huge stir at the time, but the question is: are his works still worth reading? His views certainly will doubtless always deserve consideration: as long as humanity sails on the sea, fights on it, trades on it, we will be faced by alternative choices of fighting battles for it or seeking to attack directly trade and commerce, ignoring pitched fights between fleets. But is Mahan's work itself worth it? My opinion is that Mahan's books are not worth reading for their direct value as historical analyses, but are worth it to give a perspective on the time in which Mahan lived and the impact that he had.

A line of battle: for Mahan, naval war was arbitrated by major naval battles fought by conventional fleets.

A line of battle: for Mahan, naval war was arbitrated by major naval battles fought by conventional fleets.

Mahan's limitations are multifold: his work certainly is a historical piece, but it is fundamentally geared with the intent to mobilize political decisions, almost propagandistic - his aim in writing The Influence of Seapower on History was to encourage the expansion of US naval power, and US naval power in the form of a battle fleet. Any read of Mahan's book will show this, as he constantly references the current state of the US navy and its potential zones of confrontation (for him, Latin America) with European powers, which would require major expansion of the US fleet and a significant improvement of the merchant marine. In order to make this possible, he must show that naval power is a decisive tool in war, and that it is necessary for national prosperity. Mahan is intently biased, and this bias can lead to intellectual blinkering on his part.

One of the key elements of this is underestimating the cost that sea power entailed. For both Britain and France, the spiral of armaments and expenditures from the middle part of the 18th century had disastrous consequences. Britain's massive war debts and the destabilization of power in North America provoked by British "victory" led to the loss of the United States, ending the First British Empire. France's cost was even greater, for while Mahan recognizes that it was a lack of French sea power that led to the destruction of much of the First French Colonial Empire in 1763, he fails to talk much about how the tremendous cost of naval armaments and naval war afterwards, to fight and win the War of American Independence, led to the collapse of the French monarchy and the French Revolution. Britain might have won the resultant Napoleonic wars, but it was only thanks to the presence of strong continental allies that a decisive victory over Napoleon could occur, while only the Industrial Revolution prevented it from being crippled by the vast economic debts and war expenditures that it had incurred during the conflict. Almost all wars between peer powers are not worth their cost, save for the short victorious war - and a short victorious war is almost certainly never a naval war, since a naval war by its very nature entails long term deployment of sea power, full mobilization of naval resources, and massive expenditure in a struggle of power to choke off enemy commerce and destroy their economy - and this inherently is very expensive. More expensive for the power on the receiving end perhaps, but still quite expensive.

The greatest flaw in Mahan's work is its provincialism, both in space and time. Mahan makes some reference to the Romans, but this is brief and a pro forma classical allusion: Mahan's work focuses entirely on the 1660-1783 era, in Western Europe essentially alone. This is then universalized to the entire world or heavily implied as being so (particularly through the statement of universal laws of sea power - which draw as lessons only Western European examples), and assumed to continue on to the present. This is a very specific time period and very specific geography: it came at the birth of the massive world economic system that we know today, integrating the entire world economy into a single cohesive unit, but in a time where land trade lagged badly behind sea trade due to the unequal development of technology. The transportation revolution engineered by the Dutch in the first part of the 17th century had given a massive impetus to oceanic trade, while afterward, railroads would restore mobility and trade to land: Mahan's study of what is, when looked at from the world-scale, the tip of the European peninsula - and an island as well - was bound to come to the conclusion that naval power is of overwhelming importance. The geography of other regions would be very different - consider even Mahan's own United States, a vast cohesive continental land mass, whose sheer mass, internal industry, multiple coastlines, and compact shape and developed internal transport network makes it almost immune to blockade. The need for sea power is far less evident for a country such as the United States, unless if it wishes to (like today) project power on a global level, than for the small, heavily coastal, European countries of the 17th and 18th centuries. Mahan never looks seriously at how geography beyond Europe might make sea power less viable in other contexts, or how it might be applied differently due to different geography. Mahan is a product of the 19th century, with an obsession with universal, positivist, laws - but equally a product of a blinkered and European-centric view and limited historical scope

Most naval battles during the 18th century, such as the Battle of Ushant of 1778, were indecisive, so it raises the question of why Mahan focuses on them so much despite their lack of impact.

Most naval battles during the 18th century, such as the Battle of Ushant of 1778, were indecisive, so it raises the question of why Mahan focuses on them so much despite their lack of impact.

Mahan locates the naval struggle too much in battles, when it is economics and endurance that define i: the fleets of Louis XIV as an example, could be quickly restored to a size even greater than before the great defeat of the Battle of Barfleur and La Hoague. Mahan's work is focused principally around battles - so that tactical descriptions of how they progressed are the centerstone of his work. The clear defining feature of the era is that naval battles were generally not decisive, and that even dramatically bad defeats could most often be readily enough made good again. Instead, it was economic and total national resiliency that would decide the victory in a naval war. Decisive battles like Trafalgar were few and far between, and even Trafalgar only ended the threat of an immediate invasion of Britain - the Napoleonic Wars would drag on another 10 years.

There are other limitations in Mahan's works. The lack of focus on diplomacy is a key one, since war in the 17th century and particularly in the 18th century was defined by diplomacy. The intense diplomatic maneuverings which saved much of the vital key strategic interests of France from loss in 1763 after defeat in the Seven Year's War are next to nil, and instead the book focuses on simplistic elements of desires on the part of William Pitt in England. This also leads to undervaluing the land army side of affairs: part of the reason for why peace was won at relatively light, even if they were still significant costs, for France and Spain, was due to the British weariness over the continuing war in Germany against France. The American Revolution is the most egregious example, since Mahan devotes little attention to exploring why the French entered into the war and what they hoped to achieve: Of course, the work is much later, but The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy by Jonathan Dull is an excellent example of a work which puts diplomacy at the center, showing that the French sought to achieve a weakening of British power through American independence in order, paradoxically, to achieve a closer and more friendly, more equal, relationship with Britain like had existed at the beginning of the 18th century. This objective would define both French naval operations and desires, since in the end the French objective was fundamentally defensive, even if it involved an offensive war against Britain - and this would do much to improve Mahan's perception of it. Ignoring diplomacy is a critical failing which prevents a fuller understanding of the era.

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Technology is something which Mahan simply does not concern himself with. Perhaps, writing in the late 19th century, in the period of the fastest technological advancement which the world had - or perhaps has, for in my opinion the 19th century's technological advancement was even more rapid than today's - ever known, the relatively glacial speed of technological advancement in the 17th and 18th century appeared irrelevant. After all, the period began with wooden sailing ships of the line, armed with muzzle loaded cannons firing solid shot or canister weighing up to at most 36 pounds in most circumstances, provisioned with salt talk, grog, and rum - and ended with all of these characteristics being the same more than a century later. Broad technical details of ships do not look dramatically different at the beginning, or at the end, of this period. And yet, there were definite major advances in naval ship design, in coppering (which does admittedly, get some mention from Mahan), above all else in navigation, and doubtless in many other characteristics of fleets. The fleets of the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars could achieve feats of endurance that were incredible, crossing the Atlantic and back, travelling to India, truly global campaigns. Compared to this, the fleets of the 17th century were clearly far more limited, much less capable of operations at a far distance from their bases, far from being the world ranging fleets which were found at the end of the 18th century. The lack of analysis of the technical advancement of fleets means that there is little understanding of the way which naval power changed in its applicability over time - even for vital aspects such as blockades, with truly all-weather, year-round blockades, only becoming feasible in the latter half of the 18th century.

The Santisima Trinidad, the largest ship of the line in the world in the late 18th century, and a testament to the importance of the Spanish navy.

The Santisima Trinidad, the largest ship of the line in the world in the late 18th century, and a testament to the importance of the Spanish navy.

There is also a clear national bias against Spain. Spain is consistently portrayed as weak and on the verge of collapse, far from a match for the Royal Navy - and yet it was the Spanish navy that won the War of Jenkin's Ear, fighting against a much larger foe and managing to fight the British to a draw, with a rollback of English trading privileges coming soon thereafter. Spain's fleet by the 1780s was the second largest in the world: its role in providing a huge component of the fleet of the American Revolutionary War is rarely stated. Spain deserves much better than Mahan writes about them, and it is a terrible travesty that he portrays them in such consistently negative terms and unlike France, Britain, or the Netherlands, never makes any serious effort to understand them.

Mahan's ideas on strategy are of course, the most controversial. Here, there is little that can be said: there has already been vast amounts of ink which have been spilled by many a naval historian, strategist, writer, propounding the idea of whether Mahan's ideas of battlefleets proved to be correct, or whether instead seapower should be based on alternate philosophies, from sea denial, to commerce raiding, to any number of other strategies. But what seems clear is that Mahan, in writing his book as in essence a pamphlet of what he believed should be done for the US navy, ignored naval circumstances that were less than ideal. What should be done for a nation in need of providing for naval power when it has not had the time, or exercised the attention; to build up a battle fleet? Evidently, commerce raiding and guerrilla warfare on the high seas is better than nothing - and yet Mahan never discusses this, and only thinks in terms of the idea, of his battle fleet strategy. Mahan's work is inseparable from his hopes for the United States navy and its future.

What value does Mahan have then, after these litany of eras? For one, Mahan is a fascinating window onto a time, into the wage of navalism, and what led to even near land-locked states such as Austria-Hungary pursuing naval armaments and battleships, due to the arguments of Mahan. Mahan's arguments would define an era at sea, and so he deserves reading for his huge impact on history itself: without him, the race of battleships, dreadnoughts, and naval armaments might have been very different indeed. Mahan has passed from being a historian to being a historical figure in his own right. He is also fascinating for representing some of the ways of thought of the late 19th century, with a focus on racial and ethnic differences between nations and people, and how they impacted actions and behavior. This is a tremendously difficult, and today, rather controversial subject, but was par for the course in the late 19th and early 20th century, where racial characteristics were held in high regards for how they impacted different nations. Mahan's perceptions of the frugal, industrious, but overly cautious French, or the excessively parsimonious Dutch, or the British with their focus on sailing and the French on fighting - these are all questionable ideas as innate racial characteristics, and indeed even Mahan also notes government types as being vital - but nevertheless his key importance for racial characteristics is a crucial argument of his, Mahan's arguments for racial characteristics need not, indeed shouldn't, be taken at first glance, but instead serve as a valuable tool to examine the mentality of his times.

While Mahan's conclusions might be questionable to apply outside of the era and place which he studied, Western Europe in 1660-1783, and he is excessively dismissive of alternate naval strategies required by different circumstances, he is still a valuable source to understand naval tactics during the Age of Sail period. His writing style might be difficult to understand to a modern audience at times, but he still provides a good understanding of the influence of winds (although not so much currents) on naval battles during the period, unlike general purpose history books which can glance over this crucial aspect of motive power of sailing navies. Mahan gives a very strong look at how tactical battles happened in the Age of Sail, their difficulties, leadership, and what the crucial battles were. Mahan's observations might not apply nearly as universally, nor on the same level of time as he likes to pretend, but there are still cogent and effective principles for the period in which he studied.

Mahan probably isn't worth to be read purely for his own historical analysis anymore. The progress of a century has led to books which cover Mahan's blind spots, which better integrate many of the factors which he hardly, if at all, considered, which give more holistic understandings of seapower beyond its role in battles alone. If one is trying to read Mahan as a purely historical source, one will lack the historical context and depth which one would gain from other works. Mahan instead exists as something which is a compelling tribute to his power as a historian: he is to be read as a window onto his time, its thoughts, and to understand his influence on the world, to understand his strategy and ideas of strategy which dictated naval operations for decades after his death. Mahan is worth the read, but not for his work: he is worth the read to understand himself.


MG Singh emge from Singapore on November 18, 2020:

A very nice article about a naval strategist of the 19/20 century. He died in 1914. Mahan's views were shaped by 17th-century conflicts between the Dutch Republic, England, France, and Spain, and by the nineteenth-century naval wars between France and Great Britain.You have written an interestig article.

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