Mahan: The Man and His Letters

Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters. By Robert Seager II. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2017.
Reviewed by Tim Coyle.

ALFRED THAYER MAHAN (1840-1914), the Philosopher of Sea Power, shattered the late 19th Century maritime strategy torpor with his seminal works ‘The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783’, published in 1890, and its 1892 sequel ‘The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812’.

These volumes’ publication coincided with the burgeoning naval technological revolution of large armoured warships with bigger and more accurate armaments as statements of the major powers’ world standing. He was lauded by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany (who ordered his naval officers to read the books) and underpinned Admiral Tirpitz advocating the naval building program against Britain. The Imperial Japanese Navy used Mahan as a foundation for its ‘decisive battle’ strategy against a future confrontation with the USN.

Mahan’s career background as a United States Navy officer might outwardly indicate a solid grounding in practical naval strategy and warfare as a basis for his world acclaimed books. The truth is somewhat removed from the initial impression. Mahan served in the USN from 1861 to 1896 but he lacked practical seamanship and command capabilities; in fact he disliked the USN, had a particular distaste for sea service and was actually frighted of the sea. His experience under fire was for a few minutes during the Civil War in the combined Army-Navy operation against Port Royal, South Carolina, on 7 November 1861. Mahan’s ship, the USS POCAHONTAS, was delayed by weather en-route to the area of operations and was only able to make a couple of passes at Fort Walker, sustaining minor damage. ‘Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters’ explores this personality dichotomy of an arguably ineffective naval line officer with his later development into a world famous maritime strategist.

The author, the late Robert Seager II, exposes Mahan’s foibles, personality defects and strengths and his underwhelming seagoing naval career while analysing his gradual ascension to literary grandeur through the ‘Influence of Sea Power on History’ books and beyond. This edition was first published in 1977 and had been reissued by the Naval Institute Press. The book is a formidable biography of 600 pages with a further 85 pages of notes. It is exhaustive and, some readers may feel, exhausting. Nevertheless it is an important work which serious students of strategic thinkers should consider in understanding their rationale.

Seager mildly satirises Mahan’s seamanship and command inadequacies but documents his uncompromising sense of duty while serving in, and latterly commanding, USN vessels of outstanding decrepitude. Mahan’s shore postings to the Boston and New York navy yards included duties of stultifying drudgery and minutiae which Mahan addressed with determination and even with some zest. Unpopular at Annapolis when he, as an upper classman, insisted on adherence to academy regulations he suffered solitude in ships’ wardrooms as he, as a conservative Christian, eschewed the generally boorish behaviour of his messmates. As a commanding officer he isolated himself in his cabin working at developing his theories which were later to bring him fame.

The book provides a comprehensive profile of the ramshackle state of the post-Civil War USN as regards equipment and management. The service slowly transitioned to a ‘New Nay’ in the 1870s with new ships replacing obsolescent steam aided sailing vessels though to the ‘New New Navy’ (so designated by Seager) which featured pre-dreadnoughts and latterly dreadnoughts.

Mahan developed his strategic thinking from his history lectures at the Navy War College to which he was appointed as a lecturer in 1885. The tortuous inception and off-and-on early existence of this institution figured prominently in Mahan’s professional life. The book describes this period in detail, again illustrating the determined opposition by conventional naval officers to ‘avant guarde’ ideas regarding professional naval education.

Mahan had many enemies who thought that naval officers should not write books nor think too deeply – a sentiment shared with the peerless Royal Navy. Mahan was an anglophile who loved the RN. His two volume ‘Life of Nelson’ was a major undertaking planned while in command of the cruiser USS CHICAGO in 1893-95. Mahan fought tooth and nail to avoid appointment to this ship as he dreaded sea service and believed he had done enough (13 of his more than 40 years USN service were spent at sea). CHICAGO was assigned as the one and only unit of the USN European Station and the cruiser spent the ensuing two years visiting Britain and various European and Mediterranean ports. This command turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Mahan as he was feted magnanimously by the crowned heads of Europe and their acolytes, as a result of the bestselling ‘Influence of Sea Power Upon History’ books, wherever the overtaxed and wheezing boilers of the Chicago were given rest in port (Seager assesses this ‘new navy’ vessel as decidedly second rate). However Mahan had to contend with the European Station flag officer Rear Admiral Henry Erban USN embarked in the CHICAGO. Erban was typical of Mahan’s despised boorish old style naval officers. Erban’s attitude to Mahan and vice versa is exemplified in the following extract:

Henry Erban to Bureau of Navigation (Admiral Francis M. Ramsay – a Mahan ‘bete noir’) as comment on Mahan’s 1893 fitness report:
‘Capt. Mahan always appears to advantage in all that does not appertain to ship life or matters, but in this particular he is lacking in interest, as he has frankly admitted to me. His interests are entirely outside the service, for which, I am satisfied, he cares but little, and is therefore not a good naval officer…In fact Capt. Mahan’s interests lie wholly in the direction of literary work and in no other way connected with the service’.
Mahan to Helen Evans Mahan (daughter) 1894:
‘I am prone now to feel that a navy which has at its disposal the kind of work I have done so well, and can find no better use for me than commanding the Chicago, don’t deserve much interest at my hands’.

The book deals in depth with Mahan’s sea power philosophy and how he developed it. He eschewed technology which was emerging in navies at that time, maintaining that maritime grand strategy was independent of the equipment employed to implement it. He was against the concept of the all-big-gun battleship as exemplified in HMS DREADNOUGHT. He fought and lost this argument in the USN and his parallel argument that many, smaller warships were more useful to sea power than fewer large battleships. He was recalled to service in 1898 during the Spanish-American war to serve on the Naval War Board but was appalled at the indolence and poor command and control by the Board over the fleet. He advocated the establishment of a Chief of Naval Operations and staff to reduce the power of the eight stove-piped Bureaus; in this he was eventually successful.

Seagar sums up Mahan’s sea power philosophy as:
‘What Mahan actually had to say about war, strategy and tactics and about history itself, after studying those subjects for over a quarter of a century and after writing hundreds of thousands of words about them will remain a matter of opinion. Basically, what he seems to have said can be reduced to five abstract “principles”, viz: (1) In states inhabited by genetically aggressive men, constant war is almost inevitable. (2) Since it is constant and inevitable, the study of war is the study of history. (3) The existence and proper use of organized sea power to ensure command of the sea has mightily influenced the course of human history, certainly more than any other single factor. (4) Fleets or armies which situate themselves at geographical positions in or near the “strategic center” of a given war, thus affording themselves the greatest amount of offensive mobility to the greatest measure of defensive flexibility, usually win battles that determine the outcome of the wars that influence the course of history. (5) A fleet or army that, in battle, can manoeuver (concentrate) itself in such a way as to bring for a decisive moment a greater part of its firepower and personnel against lesser parts of the firepower and people of its enemy will invariably win the action’.

Contemporary students of warfare will continue to study Mahan, as they should; however, Seagar (writing in 1977) advises that: ‘…students of the US Navy and its role in the nation’s diplomacy should be wary of efforts to apply quotations from Mahan’s teachings to the strategy and tactics of the Cold War (read ‘new Cold War?) and of the continuing American-Soviet (Russian Federation/China?) military confrontation. Modern-day geo-politicians can “prove” almost anything they wish by citing carefully selected chapters and verses from Mahan’s numerous works’.

In summary ‘Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters’ is a voluminous and intimate biography of a major strategic thinker and he is presented ‘warts and all’ in this comprehensive biography. The book, available at modest cost, is recommended as a holiday read on a beach somewhere. It transports the reader back to the naval world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, redolent with grandeur, pomposity and not a little farce.

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