On Mahan and Historical Inevitability
In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan generalized and postulated a number of concepts which he strung together, the culmination of which was his text The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. Arguably the most influential military text of his time, and of the last 190 years since von Clausewitz set his ideas on type in the early 19th century. This book was single-handedly responsible for the ascendance of the United States upon the world stage in a time when American curiosity was beginning to require justification for exploration. It can even be argued that the ideas inside were to blame for World War I, through the naval arms race which was sparked by Mahan’s infectious theories on the importance of navies to project imperial power. Having been made required reading for the officers of the Japanese and German navies, it is no doubt that this could be more than only a small assumption. But the topic treated in this composition is one which solely questions how or why Mahan derived his ideas near the close of the 19th century. Essentially, the argument throughout will be that he derived these notions of naval superiority not only because they were good ideas, or because Mahan has genius, but because his concepts were simultaneously a product of the geo-political situation of his day. The impulse for American expansionism was increasing exponentially at the time, but territorial expansion on the continent into Mexico or Canada was highly unlikely because Americans have never liked considering themselves as conquerors or imperialists in the European sense. Mahan’s doctrine was thus a perfect outlet for the enthusiasm and energy of American imperialism, and furthermore, a product of historical necessity due to the technological and societal conventions of his day.
I. Historical Analysis
Prior to the publication of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, the question had already been critically posed as to whether the new American nation should undertake the construction of major ships, both economic and military, although the emphasis of discourse was placed on economic ships. In order to understand the historic needs of Mahan’s time, the analysis of historical context and therefore historical inevitability must begin in the 1870s. The years after Civil War, years of major rebuilding, drew the attention of many Navalists as an opportunity to call for the expansion of ship-owning among American corporations. This seemed to be a period of opportunity mainly because the American economy was in dire need of restoring its dominance in exportation oversees. To the Navalists, this need to regain commercial dominance on the seas also meant a chance to introduce the revolutionary naval technologies newly exploited by the British commerce and military fleets.
The ensuing debate soon became not whether Americans should own ships, but whether Americans should build ships. The two schools of thought that formed were the Navalists, and those in support of the “free ship” theory. The “free ship” theory stated that it would be in the best interest of our economy to purchase superior quality ships from Britain and other sea-faring countries. This method they argued would allow shipping and ship-owning to increase while allowing the economy to focus on investing in the growth of other vital infrastructure while keeping away from threatening English superiority on the high seas. This concept was soon also coupled with the “free material” theory, which stated that if ships were to be built in America by American labor, that they should be built with materials imported from sea-faring countries. The Navalists on the other hand completely opposed both the “free ship” and “free material” theories completely. They claimed that if the United States was to undertake the development of a large and sophisticated shipping fleet, the U.S. should go as far as developing its interior resources, both natural and industrial, to liberate itself from any dependency on foreign ship production, thus establishing a large infrastructure of ship yards and ship-building components. In regards to The impetus to expand the nation’s commerce fleet eventually yielded yet another question. Does the Navy require expansion in order to protect the interests of the American commerce fleet? After the Civil War, the Navy was left with no more than 60 ships, most of which were only fit for coastal defense. The existence of a blue-water navy was now being contemplated as the scope of our economic interests grew. Throughout the entirety of this debate, the Navalists continuously cited historical references in support of their argument, mainly references from the three largest wars fought by the nation up to that point in time ~ the War of Independence, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Of most importance to them was the lesson to be learned from the War of 1812. According to many American texts in the 1880’s, the growth of American shipping leading up to 1812 provoked the British to begin the practice of impressment and attacks on our commerce ships. For the Navalists, this meant that it expanding the Navy was simply a matter of observing historical precedence, and that the growth of American shipping would only yet again provoke an enemy like Britain to target our commerce. To counter this threat, it would only be common sense (and necessary) to build up a naval force capable of protecting and securing the interests of our foreign commerce. It is in this argument that we begin to see the traces of historical necessity.
After regarding the socio-economic situation at hand, it is clear that Mahan began deriving his concepts in order to meet these demands. But there were other cultural and societal factors deep-rooted in the spirit of the American public that contributed to the origination and success of Mahan’s doctrine. The first was that of the Monroe doctrine, and of the notion that although expansion was welcome, Americans never were and never would become an abusive territorial empire on the continent. The fright that asserted itself with the notion of careful expansionism was twofold: the first being the fear in the presence of a standing army, and the second being the fear of eventually resembling a menacing continental European power.
Although Americans had embraced Manifest Destiny with open arms in the early 19th century, further continental expansion was unpopular, and like European wars of expansion, it would have required large armies, and long, protracted engagements. The West was won by 1880, and enterprises into neighboring Mexico or Canada were beyond feasibility. For this reason, the augmentation of the Navy as opposed to the creation of a standing army was a much more viable medium towards achieving political, territorial, and economic growth during the age of American Imperialism. America had now assumed the right to oversee the actions of its hemispheric neighbors rather than to conquer them. America’s territorial ambitions would take them elsewhere in the world.
As can be seen, Mahan’s doctrine was set down as an outlet for the urges of imperialism and expansionism, a product of historical necessity. This historical necessity states that due to the desire of the nation to expand, the observance of historical precedence combined with society’s culturally imposed moral convictions, development and growth under Mahan’s ideas were inevitable.
II. Historical Inevitability
The concept of historical necessity, or historical inevitability, requires in this case some clarification. To many historical philosophers, this concept may coincide with historical determinism, however it is vital to understand that the idea of historical inevitability is not in this context synonymous with determinism. We could better understand it through Hannah Arendt’s definition, which is addressed in her book On Revolution. In this text, Arendt argued that many events in history, revolutions included, are simply inevitable and are driven by societal forces which attain a momentum far beyond our control. Political revolutions are a prime example of historical necessity, but she explains that events which in nature are revolutionary or in essence innovative are also guided by this theory of inevitability, in that the impetus for these events to occur is sparked by societal forces and catalysts far beyond the sphere of human influence. The very astronomical connotation, arguably the first connotation of the word revolution, speaks of the words likeness to the idea of irresistibility. According to Arendt, “the notion of irresistibility, the fact that the revolving motion of the stars follows a preordained path and is removed from all influence of human power” (Arendt, page 37) provides the word with its strength and magnitude. The unfolding of revolutionary events is in fact irrevocable, but its removal “from all influence of human power” does not mean that events occur naturally or by means of metaphysical intervention. This removal from human influence refers to the idea that things will occur regardless of intent or desire. Therefore, it is clear that with the study of historical irresistability, it can be derived that even if Mahan was not to publish his theories in 1890, he would have done it eventually, and rather sooner than later. Or in another sense, if he was not the one to do it, someone would have. Just as the forces and angers of revolution ferment and eventually reach their breaking point through the manifestation of violence, the society in which Mahan lived emitted forces and attitudes which made the canonization of his doctrine inevitable.
III. Societal Analysis
Having now fully explained the concept of historical necessity, it is easier to understand how the forces of society shaped Mahan’s ideas. Beyond the strict historical analysis of Mahan’s era pertaining to the story of the Navalist and Free-Ship theories, it is also important to come to grips with the fundamentals of what societal qualities allowed America to venture for naval supremacy. It is clear that if Mahan had not identified these very qualities within the spirit and people of his own country, his enthusiasm to labor for the publication of his principles would perhaps be non-existent. In this regard, we see the work of the deep-rooted societal qualities which spurred Mahan onward.
Mahan identified elementary characteristics common among naval powers, and addressed their existence in the United States as sure justification for the growth of American sea control. The first of these characteristics is that of geography. With the conquest of the West, the United States now possessed vast coastlines on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Most importantly however, the United States was comfortably distant from the turbulence and insecurity of European diplomacy. As identified by Clark G. Reynolds in his book Command of the Sea, “maritime nations have two important social advantages over continental powers, stemming from the natural accident of their geographic location” (Reynolds, page 5). These two advantages are national privacy, and the value placed on the worth of the individual.
National privacy is perhaps the absolute foundation for the development of a true naval power. As Reynolds explains “with no unfriendly powers poised on her borders, these [maritime] people enjoy something which continental people do not have ~ no large standing army or psychosis of impending attack” (Reynolds, page 5). This mere psychological advantage translates into a precious commodity ~ time. These maritime nations are separated by the space which is the sea, and thus are allotted more time and freedom for the development of their basic institutions. Institutions concerning the function of government, economy, and culture do not only develop more fully, but also tend to be fairly more democratic than their continental counterparts, and it is no coincidence. With so much emphasis placed on the constant defense of its borders, the continental society depends on the disciplining, training and mobilization of its manpower, which has generally tended to favor the formation of an authoritarian or totalitarian government. The landed ruling class, much more preoccupied with maintaining the status quo of their society has no time for nautical enterprises. This national privacy clearly allows for intellectual, technological, and cultural development at a pace which no other continental power can match. Essentially, the institutions which are embedded in these maritime societies soon become not only a part of the nation’s sea-going spirit, but in fact superior and more resilient in comparison to the institutions of continental powers. As an example, the English constitutional democracy has virtually survived 400 years, simply because while being untouched by outsiders, it was allowed to exercise its muscle, and its weaknesses and shortcomings were identified over time.
Simultaneously, maritime nations also enjoy the value placed upon the individual being, the creativity and energy which he brings not only to the democratic and economic processes of his country, but to the armed forces as well. Since long ago, navies have been an organization reliant not only upon the unity of its personnel, but also upon the ingenuity and determination of individuals in adverse situations, improvising when short on time, material, and/or doctrine. Mahan identifies that the qualities inherent in the blood of an ocean-going people are coincidentally the qualities of a fledging democratic society as well as a powerful navy. Maritime excursions, through their hazards and trials demand from individuals the very qualities which shape a great people. As identified by Reynolds much later, they are “discipline, creativity, and a high degree of practical intelligence” (Reynolds, page 6). To Mahan, the essence of thalassocratic individualism easily resembled the individualistic spirit which had become the cornerstone of the American Dream. The idea that one could choose his own destiny through hard work and determination regardless of their original social status excited and motivated Americans and foreigners alike. Just like the British who valued the ingenuity and relentless work ethic of the rugged individual, Mahan concluded that the American people possessed this same impulse for the rise of meritocracy and individuality. Navies, being institutions which espoused a rugged individualism seemed to Mahan to be the perfect institution through which the American work force could concentrate its energies.
The two advantages of American society thus aforementioned show how morally prepared America was to seek out naval power. The drive of the individual will however is particularly connected to the notion of historical irresistibility. The will to produce, and gain, and grow could not be bottled up much longer, and had reached a point where Mahan could identify it and thus postulate his theories because he deemed them now possible or achievable.
To Be Continued...