The Influence of Sea Power upon History


The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783′ is a history of naval warfare written in 1890 by US Navy flag officer Alfred Thayer Mahan. It details the role of sea power throughout history and discusses the various factors needed to support and achieve sea power, with emphasis on having the largest and most powerful fleet.

Scholars consider it the single most influential book in naval strategy; its policies were quickly adopted by most major navies, ultimately causing the World War I naval arms race. Mahan formulated his concept of sea power while reading a history book in Lima, Peru. The book was published by Mahan while he was President of the US Naval War College, and was a culmination of his ideas regarding naval warfare.

Mahan began the book with an examination of what factors lead to a supremacy of the seas, especially how Britain was able to rise to its near dominance. He identifies such features as geography, population, and government, and expands the definition of sea power as comprising a strong navy and commercial fleet. Mahan also promotes the belief that any army would succumb to a strong naval blockade. Recently scholars have called attention to his role as significant in the growth of American overseas possessions, the rise of the new American navy, and the adoption of the strategic principles upon which it operated. The book then goes on to describe a series of European and American wars and how naval power was used in each.

Timeliness contributed no small part to the widespread acceptance and resultant influence of Mahan’s views. Although his history was relatively thin (he relied on secondary sources), the vigorous style and clear theory won widespread acceptance of navalists across the world. Sea power supported the new colonialism which was asserting itself in Africa and Asia. Given the very rapid technological changes underway in propulsion (from coal to oil, from reciprocating engines to steam turbines), ordnance (with better fire directors, and new high explosives) and armor (hardened steel), the emergence of new craft such as destroyers and submarines, and the development of radio, Mahan’s emphasis on the capital ship and the command of the sea came at an opportune moment. Mahan’s name became a household word in the German navy, as Kaiser William II ordered his officers to read Mahan, and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz used Mahan’s reputation to finance a powerful surface fleet. His ideas decisively shaped Japanese naval doctrine, especially in the fleet actions of World War II.

Between 1890 and 1915, Mahan and British admiral Jackie Fisher faced the problem of how to dominate home waters and distant seas with naval forces not strong enough to do both. Mahan argued for a universal principle of concentration of powerful ships in home waters and minimized strength in distant seas, while Fisher reversed Mahan by utilizing technological change to propose submarines for defense of home waters and mobile battle cruisers for protection of distant imperial interests.

The French at first adopted Mahan’s theories. French naval doctrine in 1914 was dominated by Mahan’s theory of sea power and therefore geared toward winning decisive battles and gaining mastery of the seas. But the course of World War I changed ideas about the place of the navy, as the refusal of the German fleet to engage in a decisive battle, the Dardanelles expedition of 1915, the development of submarine warfare, and the organization of convoys all showed the navy’s new role in combined operations with the army.

The navy’s part in securing victory was not fully understood by French public opinion in 1918, but a synthesis of old and new ideas arose from the lessons of the war, especially by admiral Raoul Castex, from 1927 to 1935, who synthesized in his five-volume ‘Théories Stratégiques’ the classical and materialist schools of naval theory. He reversed Mahan’s theory that command of the sea precedes maritime communications and foresaw the enlarged roles of aircraft and submarines in naval warfare. Castex enlarged strategic theory to include nonmilitary factors (policy, geography, coalitions, public opinion, and constraints) and internal factors (economy of force, offense and defense, communications, operational plans, morale, and command) to conceive a general strategy to attain final victory.


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