Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (27 September 1840 - 1 December 1914) was a United States Navy officer, naval strategist, and educator, widely consider the foremost theorist of sea power.

Born at West Point, New York to Dennis Hart Mahan (a professor at the United States Military Academy) and Mary Helena Mahan, he went to Columbia University for two years, then against his parents' wishes, transferred to the Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1859, second in his class. He was soon serving on various ships during the American Civil War.

He was appointed commander of the new United States Naval War College in 1886, where in 1887 he met and befriended a young Theodore Roosevelt who had come to lecture there. During this period Mahan organized his lectures into his most influential books, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, and The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812, published 1890 and 1892, respectively.

The books' premise was simple, namely that in the contests between France and England in the 18th century, domination of the sea via naval power was the deciding factor in the outcome, and that control of seaborne commerce was critical to domination. Although at the beginning of the 21st century this may seem obvious, it having been demonstrated repeatedy, the notion was much more radical in Mahan's time, especially in a nation entirely obsessed with landward expansion to the west.

His books were received with great acclaim, and closely studied in Great Britain and Germany, influencing their buildup of forces in the years prior to World War I. Mahan himself was appointed to command the powerful new protected cruiser Chicago on a visit to Europe, where he was received and feted.

He returned to lecture at the War College for another couple of years, then retired in 1896; at which point he wrote voluminously and received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, and McGill.

He became Rear Admiral in 1906 by an act of Congress promoting all retired captains who had served in the Civil War.