Among other eager readers of Mahan in the early s was a relatively young, but ambitious and up-and-coming, New Yorker named Theodore Roosevelt, who absorbed the book as did another man named Roosevelt, many years later. The older Roosevelt and Mahan became close acquaintances and would correspond extensively over the years. Within a year of publication, it was translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Japanese, among other languages.
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The theories of Mahan are credited or blamed for providing intellectual and political impetus for a naval armaments race among European powers that contributed, almost a quarter century later, to the outbreak of the Great War. On the far side of the planet, starting in the early s, the Japanese were then in the process of developing rapidly from a feudal society into a first-rank industrial power unlike China, which would not make that leap until a century later.
The Japanese modeled their entire naval strategy and order of battle upon the theories of Mahan.
By , these newly converted but ardent adherents of the American Navy captain from Newport were able to establish in the northwest Pacific the maritime supremacy of the Rising Sun after its defeat their utter annihilation, really of the Russian fleet at Tsushima. This month, May , marks the th anniversary of that epic battle. What was this magic elixir of sea power that Mahan described?
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In essence, Mahan mixed salt water with the concepts of Clausewitz and Jomini, applying their land-based theories of fighting to waging war at sea. Any limitation of, or challenge to, U. Any victory of U. Mahan prompted deep, critical thinking about the ability of any given nation to protect itself from attack from the sea and about how to fight upon and command the oceans, when necessary, distant from home shores.
Mahan reviewed and examined the year history of construction and employment of naval vessels by Britain, Holland, France, Spain, and Portugal. He discussed the rivalries at sea of these nations and their respective quests over two centuries for dominion over far-distant waves and shores.
The Essential A.T. Mahan Collection
From a purely militarily standpoint, Mahan set forth a workable, if not workmanlike, theory of naval war fighting. Yes, I know what you are probably thinking…but just try to command the seas with a little fleet composed of small ships armed with small guns. The doctrine calls for a fleet to move forward to meet the opponent and, when circumstances dictate, to use defensive naval operations as the basis for offense.
But if Mahan had merely presented a better way for naval fleets to fight it out with other naval fleets, to blast away at each other and wage violent battles upon the water for absolute sea control, his book would not have had the monumental success that it did. Mahan offered something else to his worldwide readership.
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Mahan looked at what was required within a nation, its economy, its politics, and its people to support naval power. In his book, Mahan identified specific social and industrial policies that a nation required in order to be successful at sea and, by extension, to earn and keep its place in the world. Mahan illustrated his central point by explaining what happened to Portugal and Spain.
The Essential A.T. Mahan Collection by Alfred Thayer Mahan
Both nations rose to prominence by virtue of their explorations of the seas and were powerful naval states in the 16th and 17th centuries, with significant military capabilities. This was the seed of their eventual decline and downfall. Rather than use the gold and silver that was flowing into their coffers from the New World to build up their own national economies, these two nations spent their wealth abroad and purchased what they needed from others only too willing to sell it to them.
Both Britain and Holland built factories to supply goods to Portugal and Spain, and the former expanded shipyards to produce merchant ships capable of importing raw materials and exporting finished goods to the latter. And the next step, according to Mahan, for was Britain and Holland to build powerful navies to protect their merchant ships.
So according to Mahan, sea power goes hand in hand with commerce and trade. Here, then, is the essence of what drew presidents, prime ministers and kings to the famous book by then-Capt. In the course of writing about naval history and its related military affairs, of sea battles long ago, with broadsides blazing and cannonballs whistling between wind-powered men-of-war, the American naval officer had articulated a political and economic theory for the modern age. Within each nation, industrialists constructed their empires of business. Coal, steel, railroads, refining, heavy machinery, chemicals, food processing, and more became distinct industrial features of emerging modern economies.
Mahan and his theories provided the governing classes of these emerging industrial nations with a national security requirement to justify harnessing these empires of business. Here was a modern justification, rooted in principles of state security, for bringing these empires of business into a politically controlled, military-industrial system that would support the business of empire.
So the story of Mahan is not just one of his writing about naval history, interesting as it is, nor the development of naval technology, fascinating as that may be. The central part of this story is about an influential Navy man who created and popularized a theory of economy and industry that formed the foundation for much of what now passes for modern political governance.
That is: basic production within a nation supports manufacturing. International commerce is the basis for a nation protecting its interests overseas.
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Mahan described a formula for national power, if not greatness, but it was and remains a formula that must be followed. The modern U. But to focus on the trade imbalance as an accounting issue is not to view the problem from a height sufficient to take its proper measure.
Mahan made a profound point of describing what happens to a nation that fails, for whatever reason, to nurture its basic productive sectors. Instead of exporting those precious metals, today the United States exports dollars. But dollars are at root mere debt instruments, an elastic currency created in inflationary excess by the Federal Reserve, which is institutionally captive of its interest-rate paradigms and unshackled by any real, let alone external and independent, mechanism to restrain the growth of the U.
The modern United States, fundamentally through its monetary mismanagement, has moved away from, if not forgotten, the underlying lessons of Mahan. Having shrugged off, if not forgotten, the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the United States sails slowly, but steadily, on a path to monetary ruin and inexorable decline. Mahan Collection.
The Essential A.T. Mahan Collection
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