The Wrote the Book on Naval Warfare!: ALFRED THAYER MAHAN

By Jardeen, Jack | Sea Classics, November 2011 | Go to article overview

The Wrote the Book on Naval Warfare!: ALFRED THAYER MAHAN


Jardeen, Jack, Sea Classics


The profound visionary and innovator whose writings reshaped Naval thinking worldwide actually was more at home with a quill pen than on the quarterdeck of a warship

Alfred Thayer Mahan has been called the 19th-Century's "most important American strategist." His well-received explanation of "sea power" was based on the profound principle that countries with greater Naval power will have greater worldwide impact. Outlined in his almost revolutionary treatise, The lnuuence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783(1890), the concept had an enormous worldwide impact in shaping the strategic thought of Navies across the globe, especially in Great Britain, the United States, Germany, and Japan. Even today, a full century later, many scholars accuse him of ultimately causing the World War I Naval arms race. Still others contend that to this day his ideas continue to permeate US Naval doctrine. Yet the strange truth is that although R/Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan achieved the status of a highly respected guru, he neither liked nor felt any kinship with the sea, ships, nor the men who sailed them. After a lifetime in the Navy Mahan personally preferred a sailing frigate to an armored warship and took no personal delight in sea command. Although he exuded a look of pious omnipotence that might have appeared more comfortable in a church pulpit than a ship's bridge, he was in fact only a marginally passable sailor who had graduated next to last in his 1859 class at the US Naval Academy.

THEMAKING OF A PROPHET

Oddly enough, the future admiral was born 27 September 1840 into an army family at West Point, New York, where his father, Dennis Manan, taught at the US Military Academy. As a youth, young Alfred showed an uncanny talent for creative thinking writing full-fledged historical perspectives about the history of Rome while still in grade school. His mother, Mary Helena Mahan, a devout Episcopalian, insisted that her scholarly son attend the Episcopal college preparatory academy in western Maryland. However, restless young Mahan soon tired of the highly disciplined daily routine and transferred to Columbia for twoyears where he became a leading member of the university's debating club. Still unsettled as to the career he might pursue, Alfred knew he clearly preferred books to athletics. Against his parents' wishes, he applied for and was accepted for admission to the US Naval Academy.

With the American Civil War daily making headlines, midshipman Mahan was quickly commissioned a Lieutenant in 1861 and assigned to the insufferably boring blockade duty of Southern ports, where he served as a deck officer aboard the warships USS Congress, USS Pocahontas, USS Worcester, and the James Adger. Seeing only sporadic combat, early in 1865 Mahan's intellectual bent saw him assigned as an instructor at the US Naval Academy, where he flourished as a popular instructor. Later that year, the austere young officer was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, and then to Commander in 1872 , and finally Captain in 1885. As commander of the 1032-ton screw steamer USS Wachusett, Mahan operated out of Callao, Peru, where he protected American interests during the final stages ofthat shortlived Pacific rebellion.

While Mahan was earning something of a reputation as a scholarly officer, his Naval success was marred by several incidents that were to affect his future career. It seems his skills in actual command of a ship were far from exemplary. A number of vessels under his command were involved in embarrassing mishaps and collisions. Then too, his affection for old square-rigged vessels was well known, erroneously marking him as something of a reactionary who made no attempt to conceal his distaste for the hot, smoky, iron steamships of the 1870s. Nor did Mahan make a secret of the fact that he much preferred a shore billet where he could write and be at home with his wife and two unmarried daughters. Soon doing his best to avoid active sea duty all together, Mahan began an ambitious program to have as many of his articles on Naval theory published as quickly as possible. …

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