The American and the Snob?

John T Kuehn's picture

June Handgrenade 2020


John T. Kuehn

The American and the Snob?


            A common canard I see in student papers on sea power theory is that A.T. Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett were “rivals.”   My own view is that this is a post facto construct of later historians and their students, particularly those who disliked Mahan like Philip Crowl, Peter Karsten, and Robert Seager (until recently his most referenced biographer).  In fact, Seager’s biography would be analogous to having Beelzebub write a biography of Christ.   I digress (as I usually do).

The evidence is simply not there that Mahan regarded Corbett as a rival.  Here is some prima facie evidence:

“…so far as they stand the test, my own lectures, form a desirable preparation for works such as those of Corbett…” A.T. Mahan 1911, from Naval Strategy

I’ve read Mahan’s letters to Corbett—in the volumes published by the Naval Institute Press and edited by Beezlebub…I mean Seager.  Mahan was polite and solicitous.  Not sure if Corbett reciprocated the feeling.  In fact I suspect Corbett put Mahan off, the presumptuous American cad whose biography of Nelson caused the officers of the Royal Navy to have ALL the wrong ideas about naval leadership and operations.  However this is a mere hypothesis, although I have emails to Mahan scholars outstanding, so who knows…?  Two have responded and they have generally confirmed my hypothesis based on their own scholarship.

But let us put it in Downton Abby terms, shall we, Mahan was a mere tradesman, a technician, while Corbett was from the “better sort,” a better class, a gentleman.--as if leisure inferred insight.

Hopefully this will get more of a bang.  

Thanks for alerting us to this kerfuffle within the Naval subculture. Two questions: did the Royal Navy have a more devoted cheerleader than Alfred Thayer Mahan? And might this not be simply a case of the Mother Country's reflexive snobbery toward us shabby Colonials?

While I neither know nor care much about the relations between Messrs. Mahan and Corbett I can comment on the social aspects. The English gentry was a relatively flexible institution by the C19 and C20. In essence, if you had the manner and speech of the gentry (allowing for fairly wide regional variation) and could afford to keep the style of the gentleman then you could win wide acceptance of your claim to gentle status. To be sure the Clergy, the Army, and the Law were recognized as the traditional occupations of the gentry, but by the mid-1800s a latest, almost any occupation that provided you with the necessary income would do. Even the Navy. For the Navy had not traditionally been a gentle occupation, and came to be accepted as such fairly slowly. And even well into the C20, it was generally true that the sons of the upper class went into the Army and not the Navy, certainly the first sons.

After transatlantic steamship service became established in the 1800s, America gradually ceased to be terra incognita to the English gentry and nobility. Sons sailed west to make their fortunes or expiate their sins. And it was certainly not only in Henry James novels that American heiresses became an established item of transatlantic commerce.

This is not to say that there was never any ambiguity about precisely where a Yankee might fit into the English social system. "Just where is Mr. Brown to be seated at dinner?" That sort of thing. But there never was a moment in the entire history of the American Republic when a commission in its armed forces did not automatically entitle its holder to gentle status, to rank with his nearest equivalent in British service.

Now Corbett didn't have a particularly distinguished familial background but he had family money, which in my experience generally makes men feel entitled and superior, and especially was liable to have that effect in his time. Mahan nevertheless was a good deal older and not lacking for a certain distinction in his own family background. In any event, by the time Corbett turned from romantic novels of no great distinction to naval history Mahan was already world renowned and quite rich — and lionized by many important people in Britain. Surely any claims of social or intellectual superiority Corbett might have felt tempted to assert would not have been cashed by very many.

Ralph, I am not sure what you mean by "cheerleader." If you mean what we now call navalists, the UK had them in abundance. And not just the unthinking kind (although there were not a few of those, Kaiser Wilhelm comes to mind).
Here are some: Sir John Jacky Fisher, Pollard, Prince Louis of Battenburg (later Mountbatten), Sir John Jellicoe, Admiral Ernle Chatfield, and on and on, one might even include Winston Churchill, although he was more a chauvinist on that score at the beginning but his understanding that sea power underwrote British greatness was very firm.

As for naval subculture, I assume you refer to those of us whose domain is more than 2/3rds of the surface of the planet and the air and space above it and the deeps underneath it? My point, obliquely stated in the previous sentence, is that military historians regard the sea as some strange alien domain, and this would be okay if we lived in Africa and Eurasia...but English speaking military historians? I find it odd how "sea blind" they sometimes are.

Halford Mackinder was wrong, railroads (and later trucking) have not made transport of trade via the sea obsolete, it is only moreso, much moreso, today. And 3 D printers won't change this current factI either.

Mahan was more correct in his chapter one discussion of his little history book than even he knew. A subculture with that kind of impact on every day human life in the 21st century is probably a subculture that one should no longer regard as some sort of superstitious and murky guild. It should probably be a major component of the culture that resides on the continental island that the United States essentially is. But, sadly, it is not.

Yeah you touched a nerve--but I think the this outburst necessary, e pluribus Unum and all that.
Some questions: when was the last time the United States fought a war that was NOT overseas?
Another question, what is the value of import/export trade that comes into and out of the USA on shipping?
Final question, how do tanks get to Iraq???

One caveat, aircraft and spacecraft constitute sea power as well, if it flies or orbits over the is sea power.

All best wishes, Neo-Navalist John {T. Kuehn}
[[please forgive the following restated bona fides]]

Fleet Admiral Ernest King Professor of Maritime History (currently)
U.S. Naval War College

Emeritus Major General William Stofft Chair of Historical Research (2013-2016)
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College

Certainly Andrew Lambert and Jack Widden are more able to answer this point more fully than I, but I will add what I can. Corbett's attitude towards Mahan, at least professionally, appears to have been one of respect and appreciation. In the correspondence between himself and the places where he reviewed Mahan's work, as well as in public speeches such as he made in 1916 at the opening of the Laughton Library of Naval History on October 4th 1916 he attributes the Americans work to being an important part of the revival of naval history being an important part of preparing strategic thinkers for contemporary policy making. As well, the fact that Corbett was a great believer in the need for an Anglo-American maritime alliance to protect and expand the power of both nations made him intellectually receptive to the American navalists thoughts, as did the appreciation of empire in both men. The points raised earlier about the acclaim award Mahan for his work not only in Britain but in Europe, applauded by Kaisers and Kings alike, awarded keys to various cities, and widely acknowledged as an important part of the "new" American imperial thinking. Here Palston's biography of Mahan is particularly good. So while it is possible that the conflicting views of Americans always present in the English may have been a part of Corbett's perception of Mahan as a person and of his work the two needed to be separated. On the professional side I do not read think the case would have been one of arrogance and distance required to fulfil the title of snob on the part of Corbett, who, it seems to me, appreciated the work and thought of a fellow traveller on the road to try and educate high policy makers of maritime power's proper place in strategic thinking regarding the world's affairs.