Mahan: A noted naval author and historian

Published 2:30 pm Saturday, July 2, 2022

Alfred Thayer Mahan (September 27, 1840–December 1, 1914) was a US Navy flag officer, geostrategist, and historian. His most prominent work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, had a widespread impact on navies around the world.

Mahan was the son of a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1859 and went on to serve 40 years of active duty in the United States Navy. He fought in the American Civil War, later served on the staff of Adm. J.A.B. Dahlgren, and was steadily promoted, reaching the rank of captain in 1885. In 1884 he was invited by Stephen Luce, president of the newly established Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, to lecture on naval history and tactics there. Mahan became the college’s president in 1886 and held that post until 1889.

In 1890 Mahan published his college lectures as The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783. In this book he argued for the paramount importance of sea power in national historical supremacy. The book, which came at a time of great technological improvement in warships, won immediate recognition abroad. In his second book, The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire 1812 (1793-1812), Mahan stressed the interdependence of the military and commercial control of the sea and asserted that the control of seaborne commerce can determine the outcome of wars. Both books were avidly read in Great Britain and Germany, where they influenced the buildup of naval forces in the years prior to World War I.

Mahan retired from the U.S. Navy in 1896 but was subsequently recalled serving on the Naval War Board during the Spanish-American War (1898). He served as president of the American Historical Association in 1902. In 1906 Mahan and other naval captains who had served in the Civil War were promoted to the rank of rear admiral.

In The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (1897), Mahan sought to arouse his fellow Americans to a realization of their maritime responsibilities. His other major books included The Life of Nelson (1897) and The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (1913). Before his death in December 1914, Mahan foretold the defeat of the Central Powers and of the German navy in World War I. Mahan’s books inspired the buildup of Great Britain’s sea power, regarded prior to the advent of World War II, as the greatest naval power in the world. Germany also took note of Mahan’s writing, building their navy to rival Great Britain’s. 

Gene Hays is an author and historian. Contact him at rghays47@gmail.com.