November 2019 Handgrenade
What was Mahan really saying?
John T. Kuehn, US Army Command and General Staff College
If we wish to understand what Mahan himself meant by his emphasis upon the necessity of acquiring “command” [of the sea] we shall do better not to turn to his well known great historical works, but to those lesser studies which, almost completely forgotten to-day, offer an infinitely more illuminating insight into his thoughts than his more comprehensive publication.
Herbert Rosinki, 1939, Newport Rhode Island
Despite this rather startling statement by a noted German naval theorist of sea power, we will indeed turn to one of A.T. Mahan’s “well known great historical works” to understand what it has to offer those interested in Mahan’s approach to what has come to be called “grand strategy” and, secondly, how his first work relates to professional military education—in his own day and in ours. In any event, Mahan is misunderstood. Thankfully, historian Jon Tetsuro Sumida has revisited the pervasive misunderstanding of Mahan’s strategic thinking. This understanding had been promulgated for years by a variety of interpreters and historians. According to Sumida this “seriously flawed” view attributes to Mahan:
…that naval supremacy was the prerequisite to economic prosperity and international political preeminence. The second [argument] was that naval supremacy could be achieved only through the possession of large numbers of battleships, which were always to be kept together in order to be able to contain or destroy enemy battleship fleets.
Sumida instead argues that Mahan’s works represent two distinct lines of strategic thinking—one that had to do with grand strategy and the other that had more to do with the relationship of the study of history to the development of strategic leadership. For the purposes of this handgrenade the term “grand strategy” is defined as that level of strategy formulated at the highest political levels of the state and that addresses strategic application of all the elements of national power. One must investigate Mahan on his own merits--in his own words--regarding grand strategy from the first chapter of his most famous book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783.
For the remainder of my argument H-Warriors are directed to the published version of this essay (public domain) here:
One more thing, one must understand that the view of Mahan that became popular in the mid-20th Century was shaped by Mahan’s biographer and co-organizer of his published papers by the Naval Institute Press, Robert Seager, II. Never was an individual more poorly served by a biographer, it would be as if Jesus Christ’s biography was written by the High Priest Caiaphas.
Fortunately Suzanne Geissler has corrected the great injustices (plural) that Seager committed against Mahan, killing him after he was dead as it were, in her excellent book on Mahan, God and Seapower, which I commend to anyone who is really serious about understanding Mahan.
The edited anthology by Commander B. J. Armstrong, 21st Century Mahan, is also a very useful work to avoid the thin, zero-dimensional understandings that pass for “knowing” about Mahan as well.
John T. Kuehn
 Herbert Rosinski, The Developments of Naval Thought: essays by Herbert Rosinski, ed. B. Mitchell Simpson, III (Newport R.I.: Naval War College Press, 1977), 1.
 Philip A. Crowl, Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian,” in Makers of Modern Strategy ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 444 – 447. Crowl’s essay is perhaps the most ubiquitous “standard” interpretation of Mahan. For a more recent critique of Mahan that is sympathetic to the standard interpretation see H.P. Willmott, The Battle of Leyte Gulf (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 1-2. Willmott condemns Mahan’s influence on naval officers as “pernicious.”
 Jon Tetsuro Sumida, “Geography, Technology, and British Naval Strategy in the Dreadnought Era,” Naval War College Review 59 No. 3 (Summer 2006), 89. For Sumida’s interpretation of the critical elements of Mahan’s thought see Jon Tetsuro Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1997); (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1997).
 Sumida, 7.
 Suzanne Geissler, God and Seapower: The Influence of Religion on Alfred Thayer Mahan (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015); B. J. Armstrong, editor, 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013).