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Summer 2014

Alfred Thayer Mahan and the Coming of the First World War

Francis P. Sempa

The American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan called the First World War the “seminal catastrophe of [the twentieth] century.” Between 1914 and 1918, the major powers of Western civilization waged brutal and unrelenting war against each other, resulting in the fall of four empires, the collapse of the religious and monarchical old order of Europe, and its replacement by secularism, relativism, ideological fanaticism, and totalitarian politics. The Concert of Europe, established after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and which had maintained the “general” peace of Europe for a century, gave way to what Raymond Aron called the century of total war.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, few statesmen and observers sensed the gathering storm. The Concert of Europe had survived revolutionary stirrings in 1830 and 1848, the unification of Italy in 1861, the creation of the German Empire in 1871, the scramble for imperial possessions by the great powers, small wars, and minor crises. When events threatened to upset the general balance of power, European statesmen gathered in conferences, such as the Congress of Berlin in 1878, to resolve disputes without resorting to major wars. Indeed, the British historian A. J. P. Taylor called the Congress of Berlin “a watershed in the history of Europe.” It demonstrated, wrote Taylor, that “a new balance of power centered on Germany had come into existence.”

A united Germany was the most important geopolitical development of the second half of the nineteenth century in Europe. The Kingdom of Prussia, under the guiding genius of Otto von Bismarck, waged three short and successful wars between 1864 and 1871 to establish the German Empire in the center of the continent. As Germany’s Chancellor, Bismarck spent the next twenty years using his considerable diplomatic skills to maintain the general peace of Europe. But diplomacy, no matter how skilled, could not overcome geopolitical realities. The soon-to-be British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1871 remarked that the creation of the German Empire was “a greater political event than the French Revolution of the last century. . . . You have a new world. . . . The balance of power has been entirely destroyed.”

One of the few American observers to appreciate the significance of a united, strong, and growing German power in Europe and the threat it posed to the global balance of power in the early twentieth century was Alfred Thayer Mahan. Born in 1840 at the United States Military Academy at West Point where his father was an instructor, Mahan graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served in the Union Navy during the American Civil War. Mahan subsequently taught at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and later served as the college’s president. In 1890, after reading Theodore Mommsen’s multi-volume History of Rome which noted the importance of control of the Mediterranean Sea to Roman predominance, Mahan wrote The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660–1783, a book that earned him international fame as a naval strategist and historian. Three years later, Mahan wrote a two-volume sequel entitled The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire. In that book, Mahan recounted in Thucydidean fashion how the growth of French power in Europe under the Jacobins and later Napoleon caused fear among lesser powers and resulted in the formation of coalitions, supported by British sea power, to prevent French hegemony on the continent. Reflecting on the importance of sea power and the British Navy to containing French ambitions, Mahan wrote that it was “those far distant, storm-beaten ships . . . that stood between [France] and the dominion of the world.”

Mahan also wrote numerous articles on contemporary international events for such influential publications as the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Monthly, the North American Review, Century Magazine, McClure’s Magazine, the British journal National Review, Scribner’s Magazine, and Collier’s Weekly, as well as several books that analyzed the geopolitics of the pre-World War I world, including The Problem of Asia and The Interest of America in International Conditions.

In an article entitled “The Persian Gulf and International Relations,” written twelve years before the outbreak of the First World War, Mahan warned that “the German empire is restlessly intent . . . upon self-assertive aggression with a view to territorial aggrandizement in more than one part of the world.” He perceived that Germany was gaining on Great Britain in economic and commercial matters and speculated that their relative power positions in Europe “may be seriously modified.” It was essential to the European balance of power, he explained, that Germany be in “immediate contact with powerful rivals” on the continent.

In a July 1906 letter to President Theodore Roosevelt (with whom he frequently corresponded), Mahan noted that Germany’s “ambitions threaten us as well as Great Britain.” Mahan’s focus on Germany as a potential threat to the European and world balance of power resulted from an analysis of several factors, including: Russian weakness as manifested in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05; Germany’s central geographic position in Europe and her alliance with Austria-Hungary; Germany’s relative growing population, efficient organization, and industrial power vis-à-vis France; and German assertiveness on the world stage evidenced by her navy’s bombardment of Venezuelan forts in 1903, the Moroccan crisis of 1905, the German-British naval arms race, and Kaiser Wilhelm II’s saber-rattling speeches.

Mahan’s sense of foreboding about a possible great power war in Europe triggered by German ambitions was most evident in his 1910 book The Interest of America in International Conditions. He began the book by reviewing previous challenges to the European balance of power by Spain under Phillip II and Charles V, and by France under Louis XIV and Napoleon. In each instance, Mahan explained:

An overweening power . . . trammeled and affected the internal and international relations of all other states, incited a general alliance among the nations of Europe to withstand the progress of a predominance which already threatened and, if unchecked, might accomplish the dependence of the whole of Europe upon a single state.

After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, no single state posed an immediate threat to the balance of power. Mahan identified as a key factor in that balance “the disunion of the German race, which kept Germany in political and industrial backwardness; making her . . . simply a geographical expression, and denying her as a whole the name of a great Power.” All of that changed in the 1860s. Mahan noted the historical irony that three weeks before the Battle of Waterloo, Bismarck was born.

“In Germany,” wrote Mahan four years before the outbreak of war, “. . . is now to be found the beginnings and potentiality of an overshadowing concentrated power.” Germany had a “great preponderance of power” in the military sphere as well as “in organization of every kind.” He perceived in Germany a “restless need for self-assertion and expansion” and noted “the subordination of the individual to the state.” The German government, he explained, directed national activity “to an extent and with a success not approached elsewhere,” which produced “ a massing of forces . . . in industrial and commercial life . . . [and] in military combinations.”

Germany also occupied a central geographic position in Europe enabling a “concentration of position” along “interior lines.” Presciently envisioning a future conflict between Germany/Austria-Hungary and France, Russia, and Great Britain, Mahan wrote that “in the one scale is power concentrated in mass . . . ; in the other, power disseminated, and with no necessary element of cohesion except that of counter-balancing a preponderance otherwise irresistible.”

Mahan noted further that Germany’s population was greater than any other European state, except Russia, and was growing at the fastest rate on the continent. It had the best-armed and most effective army in Europe, and was challenging Great Britain at sea. This posed a danger not only to Britain but also to the United States and the world. “A German navy, supreme by the fall of Great Britain,” Mahan wrote, “with a supreme German army able to spare readily a large expeditionary force for over-sea operations, is one of the possibilities of the future.” “The rivalry between Germany and Great Britain to-day,” he further explained, “is the danger point, not only of European politics, but of world politics as well.”

A year later, in his book Naval Strategy, Mahan bluntly asserted that “[t]he Balance of Power no longer exists . . .” He explained that, “Austria and Germany form a substantially united body, extending from . . . the North Sea to the Adriatic, wielding military power against which, on the land, no combination can stand.” Meanwhile, German naval power was growing, posing a direct threat to British supremacy at sea. “[S]hould a naval disaster befall Great Britain,” Mahan warned, “leaving Germany master of the naval situation, the world may see again a predominant fleet backed by a predominant army, and in the hands, not of a state satiated with colonial possessions, as Great Britain is, but one of whose late entry into world conditions leaves her without any such possessions at all of any great value.”

In 1912, in Armaments and Arbitration, Mahan urged policymakers to fasten their attention on the fact that Germany “will shortly possess a navy . . . which Great Britain herself must take grave account in all matters of external policy.” “The German Empire,” he wrote, is “equipped with great military force,” is “the most aggressive of the large European states,” and “frankly and expressly avows the supremacy of force as the means of securing vital interests and of maintaining national honor.”

Three years before the war, Mahan engaged in a literary joust with Norman Angell, the author of The Great Illusion, a book which posited that the civilized nations of Europe had passed out of that stage of development in which conflicts were settled by military means. Mahan retorted that Angell’s argument was “itself an illusion based upon a profound misreading of human action.” Nations, Mahan emphasized, still struggled for power and privilege, and at times used military force to attain their objectives. The maintenance of the balance of power, not the alleged progressive advance of the human race, was the most prudent method of preventing war and countering the ambitions of potential hegemons.

Events proved Mahan right. In early August 1914, the storm broke over Europe as Germany invaded neutral Belgium and France, hoping to defeat the French army quickly before turning east against Russia in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan, and Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia to avenge the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne. Great Britain, as she had done in the past, anchored a coalition of powers opposed to the potential hegemon—in this instance, Germany.

In an interview with the New York Evening Post in August 1914, Mahan foresaw two possible outcomes to the war: either Germany would swiftly defeat France and Russia on land and then build up equal or superior sea power to overcome Great Britain; or the German attack would prove indecisive, resulting in a prolonged stalemate where British sea power and financial resources could tip the balance against Germany. Mahan’s latter suggestion was closer to the actual outcome of the war, except that it was the United States, not Great Britain, which tipped the balance against Germany.

Mahan, considered one of the nation’s most distinguished and prolific military strategists and analysts, contracted with several publications to write about the war, but President Woodrow Wilson, wanting no official talk of war and exhibiting totalitarian instincts that would become only too common once the United States entered the war, ordered Mahan (who by then was an Admiral on the retired list) silenced. All officers, “whether active or retired,” Wilson instructed the Navy Secretary, were to “refrain from public comment of any kind upon the military or political situation on the other side of the water.” It was “highly unwise and improper,” Wilson continued, “that officers of the Navy and Army of the United States should make any public utterances to which any color of political or military criticism can be given where other nations are involved.”

On December 1, 1914, as the armies of Europe huddled in their trenches, which by then stretched from the North Sea to Switzerland, Alfred Thayer Mahan died at the age of 74. He had been one of the few observers to foreshadow the coming of war based on his reading of history and his understanding of how nations act in the global arena.  

Francis P. Sempa is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books), and the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Washington Times, and other publications. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.

Posted: June 29, 2014 in Essays.

Any healthy society requires an enduring contest between its permanence and its progression. We cannot live without continuity, and we cannot live without prudent change.

Russell Kirk

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