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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 715


This is the grave of Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Born in 1840 in West Point, New York, Mahan was military his whole life. His father taught at the Military Academy. He was sent to school in Maryland at an Episcopal prep school. He went to Columbia for two years. His father did not support him going to the Naval Academy, but he did anyway. He finished there in 1859 and was assigned to his first ship. He was on the Pocahontas when it attacked Port Royal in South Carolina during the Civil War. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1861, served on a series of ships, rose to commander in 1872 and captain in 1885. He was commander of the USS Wachusett off the coast of Peru, protecting American interests during the War of the Pacific.

In 1885, Mahan was assigned to teach at the Naval War College. He also became president of the War College in 1886 when Stephen Luce was given command of the North Atlantic Naval Squadron.He was already thinking about the larger issues of naval power over time. He was allowed to spend his first year living at his home in New York and writing up the first drafts of his lectures on global naval history. He was reading Theodore Mommsen’s six-volume History of Rome when he realized that naval power was how a nation could have global dominance. Mahan published his lectures in 1890 as The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783.

This is the most influential military book written in American history. Mahan argued that any great empire must have a strong navy and that this very much included the United States. He rightfully demonstrated that British power was built upon its navy, especially when combined with the major powers of continental Europe having declining naval power. This could be applied to the United States, a nation which by 1890 was a rapidly growing economic power but without the military force to compete in a war with the British if that was ever necessary. Moreover, America’s growing economy required far more exports than it presently had if it was to keep growing. After all, how many goods could Americans buy? So naval and economic power were intertwined. Not surprisingly then, he also was pushing ideas of free trade as the best policy for the nation. For Mahan, the six principles of sea power were geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, size of population, character of the people, and character of government–and he saw the U.S. as having all of these, even if such constructions as “character of people” were obviously filled with all sorts of biases.

Mahan placed a strong emphasis on professionalization and the building of a lot of medium sized ships that could create a fast fighting force to be more offensive than defensive. The book was extremely favorably reviewed by young imperialists such as Theodore Roosevelt. For this ilk, Mahan lit a fire in their insides, dreaming of a big Navy with fueling stations across the world, an expression of American power that could match anything the British or French could offer.

Mahan was also influential globally. Kaiser Wilhelm II read it, loved it, and ordered his naval officers to read it. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz was such a big fan that he used the book to convince the Reichstag to pass a massive naval construction plan. It had a similar impact in Japan and became a textbook for Japanese naval officers. I’ve only ever read the introduction to it, which I assign my students when I teach U.S. Foreign Policy.

Mahan followed this book with The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire in two volumes in 1892, The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain, published in 1897, The Problem of Asia, from 1901, and Sea Power in Relation to the War of 1812, published in 1905, among other books. To my knowledge no one really reads these later books anymore, but I really couldn’t tell you. Perhaps naval experts find them useful.

Mahan also continued to be an active military officer as he was writing and then became famous. In 1893, he was named commander of the new ship Chicago on a trip to Europe. He retired in 1896 but returned briefly in 1898 to consult on naval strategy as the nation entered war with the Spanish.

Although Mahan was tremendously influential to imperialists, he was a bit ambivalent about the acquisition of colonies during the Spanish-American War, especially The Philippines. On the other hand, Mahan, like others of course, had called for a canal across the Isthmus of Panama and that being under U.S. control was a major American implementation of his plan. The naval base at Guantanamo Bay that was unjustly wrested from Cuba was also part of Mahan’s plan. And as early as 1893, he had written in the New York Times about the need to annex Hawaii and establish a naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Mahan continued being a major writer on foreign policy until he died. He popularized (and quite possibly coined) the term “Middle East” to discuss the Arabian Peninsula and surrounding environs when he published an article about the region in 1902. I did not know this until I wrote this post. As the world moved toward World War I, Mahan published material that was openly pro-British, which helped lead Wilson to issue an order that all retired military officers had to stay out of making public statements about the war that would compromise American neutrality. He was also a defender of poison gas based on the principle that it would end wars before too many people died because it was so horrible. Yeah….that one didn’t prove out.

But Mahan didn’t live to see it because he died of heart failure in late 1914, at the age of 74.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mahan’s ideas have influence in China today as it builds toward a global military power.

Alfred Thayer Mahan is buried in Quoque Cemetery, Quogue, New York.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks! I’ve actually been seeing quite a few graves of late, albeit in the northeast since I am not ready to fly yet as we deal (or not) with the pandemic. But I had never actually been out to the Hamptons and now I see why people like to go there, including Mahan. In 1902, Mahan became the president of the American Historical Association. If you would like this series to visit other AHA presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Allan Nevins, the Civil War historians who was AHA president in 1958, is in Valhalla, New York and Worthington C. Ford, AHA president in 1917 and a long-time U.S. government official, is in Scituate, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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