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Mahan Defines Security in Terms of Sea Power
Alfred Thayer Mahan
Alfred Thayer Mahan's study of history led him to strongly believe that a nation's sea power determined its economic wealth and international prominence. In 1890, Mahan published his book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. By the end of the 1890s, the United States had embarked on its journey as an imperial power. Read this excerpt from his subsequent book, The Interest of America in Sea Power, to better understand Mahan's theory and how it influenced the development of an American empire.
Questions to Consider
- Name the country that Mahan identified as the one owing her wealth and greatness to sea power.
- What did Mahan say was the main thing the United States lacked in order to make her influence equal to her interests?
- Compare the unique position of the United States to the unique position that Great Britain previously held.
- Despite the nation's lack of preparation, why did Mahan believe that the United States needed to expand its influence?
- Critique Mahan's statement: "What is our protective system but an organized warfare?"
- What implications did Mahan's statements have for the role of the United States as an imperial power?
. . . The interesting and significant feature of this changing attitude is the turning of the eyes outward, instead of inward only, to seek the welfare of the country. To affirm the importance of distant markets, and the relation to them of our own immense powers of production, implies logically the recognition of the link that joins the products and the markets,--that is, the carrying trade; the three together constituting that chain of maritime power to which Great Britain owes her wealth and greatness. Further, is it too much to say that, as two of these links, the shipping and the markets, are exterior to our own borders, the acknowledgment of them carries with it a view of the relations of the United States to the world radically distinct from the simple idea of self-sufficingness? We shall not follow far this line of thought before there will dawn the realization of America's unique position, facing the older worlds of the East and West, her shores washed by the oceans which touch the one or the other, but which are common to her alone. . . .
Despite a certain great original superiority conferred by our geographical nearness and immense resources,--due, in other words, to our natural advantages, and not to our intelligent preparations,--the United States is woefully unready, not only in fact but in purpose to assert in the Caribbean and Central America a weight of influence proportioned to the extent of her interests. We have not the navy, and, what is worse, we are not willing to have the navy, that will weigh seriously in any disputes with those nations whose interests will conflict there with our own. We have not, and we are not anxious to provide, the defence of the seaboard which will leave the navy free for its work at sea. We have not, but many other powers have, positions, either within or on the borders of the Caribbean. . . .
Yet, were our sea frontier as strong as it now is weak, passive self-defence, whether in trade or war, would be but a poor policy, so long as the world continues to be one of struggle and vicissitude. All around us now is strife; "the struggle of life," "the race of life," are phrases so familiar that we do not feel their significance till we stop to think about them. Everywhere nation is arrayed against nation; our own no less than others. What is our protective system but an organized warfare? . . .
Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power
(New York: Harper and Brothers, 1897), pp. 3-27.