Sea Power and the Influence of Mahan, 1890-2012

27 September 1840: Alfred Thayer Mahan is born. Graduates from the Naval Academy and becomes a career officer, but never is truly enamored of the sea. Eventually gets orders for the U.S. Naval War College, in preparation for which duty station he begins to contemplate Sea Power. And a pattern emerges in his head, which he then begins to pursue in a systematic, academic fashion. He digs deeper and begins to write.

The pattern Mahan noticed is one that the British semi-intuitively, semi-institutionally understood, although in typical British fashion no one had ever actually sat down and demonstrated its truth. What the British understood and Mahan laid out on paper is the fact that throughout history, when nations have got cross-ways and one had control of the seas and the other not, the outcome always seemed to favor that power which controlled the seas. Why? 

In 1890 he begins to publish the results of his research, beginning with a book with a rather bulky but self-explanatory title: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660 – 1783. A little over a century, a long, miserable century later, we might add to its title (in the style Mahan himself would have recognized), “; or, American Sea Captain Lays Powder Trail to Magazine and Blows up World”. But wait, the gentle reader murmurs, I’ve never heard of this sea dog or his book. Sort of like the newspaper reporter who couldn’t believe Nixon won in 1972 because, “No one I know voted for him.” But most people have never heard of the benzene ring, either. 

What made Mahan so influential was not what he wrote – the British, as mentioned, had been practicing his precepts as part of their military-cultural DNA for generations. What made Mahan influential was who read him. More to the point, which one specific person read him: a gentleman who, except for his garish moustache and withered left arm, would not have stood out in a crowd . . . well, apart from the Pickelhaube. Wilhelm II of Germany bit down hard on Mahan’s argument and in a case of confirmation bias if ever there was such, found in it a theoretical justification for what he admitted (to the shame of his ministers) he’d wanted ever since he was a child: a nice big shiny battle fleet, just like his grandmother Victoria’s. 

The problem was that Wilhelm was in a position to do something about it, and in a textbook illustration of what happens when the wrong two people get put in a room together, Wilhelm and Alfred Tirpitz (the “von” was added only later), who rose to the top of the Kaiserliche Marine in 1897, brought out the worst in each other and Mahan’s ideas were the glue that held them together. Wilhelm wanted a battle fleet to steam over to visit the relatives. Tirpitz wanted a battle fleet because . . . ummmm, because in building a battle fleet he will cement his position in the hierarchy of the German navy, and transform it from the bastard idiot step-sister of the Army into something that was . . . well, in point of fact, that was both a strategic and a tactical problem that Tirpitz never really successfully addressed. A recent biography of him paints a fairly unflattering picture of a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, maneuvering, back-biting, side-stepping, and intriguing his way around in the circular logic that is the species’s hallmark: I must be master of the Kaiserliche Marine because Germany needs a battle fleet (Mahan hath said) and I must build it; the battle fleet must be built and continually expanded because without building the battle fleet I will have no navy to master. 

Why, you ask, is all this relevant? It is relevant because of what it did to British foreign policy during the not-quite 25 years from 1890 to 1914. As late as 1895 and the start of the third and last Salisbury government, Britain still proudly pursued her Splendid Isolation. In a famous formulation, she had no friends or enemies, but only interests, which she pursued at her discretion. “Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off” read a much-quote headline in The Times. To the extent that Britain looked favorably on anyone, Germany would be it. Their ruling houses were closely connected, their commercial interests in friendly competition, their overseas merchants respectable. And the Germans had kicked the ever-loving snot out of England’s hereditary enemy, France, as recently as 1871. 

Wilhelm’s Kruger Telegram of 1896 was a belch in chapel that rattled the windows all the way up in the clerestory. Wilhelm sent congratulations to the Boers for having fended off the Jamison Raid by themselves, “without the assistance of friendly powers,” thus implying that Germany would have felt herself such a power. Although Britain was profoundly embarrassed by the raid, and in fact had no direct hand in its planning or execution – it was one of the last great and pure filibustering expeditions – it was launched from British territory, British citizens put it together, and it caused a ruckus in what was, after all, part of the British Empire. Wilhelm’s gratuitously intermeddling, and in a manner which strongly implied less than hearty goodwill towards Blighty, introduced an element into relations theretofore missing. 

Tirpitz’s Navy Law of 1898, providing for the construction of a German blue-water battle fleet, changed the direction of relations between the two countries. Even more importantly, the Second Navy Law of 1900, cobbled together by Tirpitz more or less in direct response to the frictions the Boer War generated, was pretty much a direct and explicit challenge to British naval supremacy. For quite a few years Britain had maintained an official policy that her fleet should be superior to the world’s next two most-powerful navies combined. Wilhelm and Tirpitz and their political allies changed all that. 

“All that” changed because naval supremacy was to the British not just a matter of keeping up with the Joneses (or the Hohenzollerns, or the Habsburgs, or the Romanovs, or the Meiji). It really, honestly, no kidding was an issue of life or death to their empire. You can ignore a puffing and strutting Kaiser, especially when doesn’t have a combat fleet to speak of. As was famously said of the fleet (I think it was in connection with the 1897 Diamond Jubilee naval review), all one need do was open the sea-cocks on those capital ships and within a few hours the British Empire would dissolve. Challenge her at sea, in other words, and all other bets were off. 

All bets were suddenly off. By 1904 Britain had squared matters with France, in Africa and in the Mediterranean. Later things went so far that Britain denuded her Mediterranean fleet of its most powerful units to bring them home, and France shifted her major naval power to the inland sea. In other words, each put vital sea lines of communication and supply in the effective guardianship of the other. To put some historical perspective on this, England and France had been at each other’s throats since at least the 1340s (the Crimean War was a brief and, as one looking back from 1895 would have thought, transitory exception). The Kaiserliche Marine was the proximate cause of an about-face in nearly seven centuries of mutual hostility. When HMS Dreadnought hit the water in 1906, the race was well and truly on. Britain and Germany just came right on out and admitted that each was building against the other. 

Britain and France sought out each other, each to assist in their respective protection against Germany. Britain even snuggled up with the Tsar, much to the outrage of the ruling Liberals’ constituents who wanted no truck with tyranny. The financial stresses of the naval arms race brought about the “People’s Budget” crisis of 1909 in Britain, and the following constitutional crisis of 1910-11, which resulted in the emasculation of the House of Lords as an active participant in British government. 

By 1910 Germany was encircled in fact and not just in the Kaiser’s periodic fulminations. 

In point of fact it was the building of the German battle fleet (which a few hours’ contemplation of a chart of the North Sea could – and did – reveal to the thoughtful examiner to be without strategic use or even function, Mahan’s “fleet in being” concept notwithstanding) which prompted the creation of one side of those alliances which ensured that a major blow-up in Eastern Europe would not be contained within the Balkans or wherever else; that it would spread to Western Europe; and, that – critically, from the perspective of the war’s duration and strategic development – it would involve Britain and her fleet. 

In September, 1914 the Germans were stopped at the Marne, and they were stopped, just barely, because the left flank of the French army was not in the air, but was tethered, however imperfectly, to the British Expeditionary Force and the remnants of its six decimated, dog-tired divisions of “Old Contemptibles” (itself an expression playing on what the Germans had intended a slur on Britain’s “contemptible” little army; the Germans just never did get what Americans of that generation knew as moxy).

 The war was not to be won on the six-week timetable envisioned by Count von Schlieffen. It was not, in fact, to be won by the Germans at all. Long wars produce results “fundamental and astounding” (to borrow Lincoln’s description from his Second Inaugural) that short wars do not. The Great War ushered in the most calamitous century of human history thus far. Our present century may yet make up the difference; we’re not even 14 years into it, after all. But the fact of strategic stalemate on the Western Front, a fact created by Britain’s belligerence, was the cauldron from which spilled revolution, fratricide, genocide, famines on untold scales, and glimpses into the wickedness of human nature which really I think we’d have been better off not being vouchsafed. Some things it’s better not to know are there, however much you may suspect them. 

Irony of ironies, it was the British fleet which starved Germany into submission in the end. Her armies were falling back, true, in part because of American manpower pouring into France at the rate of a quarter-million untrained Doughboys a month (that sealift itself a product of mastery of the oceans). But they were not broken by any means, and it was only the infection of defeatism permeating the army, as well as simple human hunger for something other than turnips (part of what stopped Ludendorff’s spring, 1918 offensives was the ordinary soldiers’ stopping to eat, just to get a damned bite of real food in the captured Allied positions after months of ersatz this-that-and-the-other, all with a good dollop of turnip and sawdust mixed in), that lead the generals to tell the Kaiser in early November, 1918 that they could no longer guarantee the army’s loyalty. In addition to their own suffering, lack of supplies, lack of food, that defeatism was in no small measure a function of the soldiers’ knowing what was going on at home. Their families were starving, literally starving to death by the tens of thousands a year. 

They starved because Britain had command of the seas. Just like Alfred Thayer Mahan, born on this date in 1840, would have predicted. 

All of which has to make Mahan one of the most influential single individuals in modern human history, easily on par with Marx, Einstein, or Darwin. Were it not for the turmoils unleashed by Mahan’s most unfortunate fan-boy, Marx’s ideas would likely never have got a trial run. Einstein’s insights into the nature of matter would have likely remained the stuff of laboratory technicians (no Manhattan Project without a target for the bomb, eh wot?). Darwin’s insight into the biological aspects of the human species would compete with a commonly accepted understanding of human moral nature not forever poisoned by the knowledge of what we humans did to each other over the course of a century that by rights should have seen material and moral progress limited only by the 24 hours in each day. 

For a tremendously good read on Mahan’s legacy, I can’t recommend any better than Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War.


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