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America's History in the Making

Resource Archive: Search Results

"The Influence of Sea Power Upon History"

The history of Sea Power is largely, though by no means solely, a narrative of contests between nations, of mutual rivalries, of violence frequently culminating in war …

In these three things--production, with the necessity of exchanging products, shipping, whereby the exchange is carried on and colonies, which facilitate and enlarge the operations of shipping and tend to protect it by multiplying points of safety--is to be found the key to much of the history, as well as of the policy of nations bordering upon the sea …

If one [a Central American canal] be made, and fulfill the hopes of its builders, the Caribbean will be changed from a terminus, and place of local traffic, or a best a broken and imperfect line of travel as it now is, into one of the great highways of the world. Along this path great commerce will travel, bringing the interests of the other great nations, the European nations, close along our shores, as they have never been before …

Furthermore, as her distance from the Isthmus, though relatively less, is still considerable, the United States will have to obtain in the Caribbean stations fit for contingent, or secondary, bases of operations; which by their natural advantages, susceptibility of defence, and nearness to the central strategic issue, will enable her fleets to remain as near the scene as any opponent …

--we can live off ourselves indefinitely in 'our little corner,' to use the expression of a French officer to the author. Yet should that little corner be invaded by a new commercial route through the Isthmus, the United States in her turn may have the rude awakening of those who have abandoned their share in the common birthright of all people, the sea …

The government by its policy can favor the natural growth of a people's industries and its tendencies to seek adventure and gain by way of the sea . . . The influence of the government will be felt in its most legitimate manner in maintaining an armed navy, of a size commensurate with the growth of its shipping and the importance of the interests connected with it.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1805 (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1890), 1-5.

Creator Alfred Thayer Mahan
Context Some Americans viewed territorial expansion as an assertion of national power.
Audience The State Department and other government officials who shaped foreign policy
Purpose To argue that naval supremacy determined a nation's power

Historical Significance

During the 1890s, Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan's books shaped American foreign policy by arguing that national power was contingent on control of the seas, allocation of domestic natural resources, and the expansion of foreign markets. He supported the establishment of colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific and joining them by a U.S.-controlled canal through the Central American isthmus. His writings influenced Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and American territorial expansion.

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