Alfred Mahan on National Self-Interests

Alfred Thayer Mahan was a United States Admiral, naval strategist, and historian who’s books, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (1890) and The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812 (1892), made him world-famous and perhaps the most influential American author of the nineteenth century.

In 1893, during the American overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Admiral Mahan advocated that these islands be annexed upon the ground that the United States had a predominant interest in them because of their position on the Pacific trade routes and naval approaches.

Mahan also pointed to the parallels between the expansion of England through sea power and the inevitability of America’s pursuing the same course. With his characteristic frankness and boldness of expression, Mahan wrote:

If a plea of the world’s welfare seems suspiciously like a cloak for national self-interest, let the latter be frankly accepted as the adequate motive which it assuredly is; let us not shrink from pitting a broad self-interest against the narrow self-interest to which some would restrict us. The demands of our three great seaboards, the Atlantic, the Gulf, and the Pacific — each for itself, and all for the strength that comes from drawing closer the ties between them — are calling for the extension, through the Isthmian Canal, of that broad sea common along which, and along which alone, in all the ages prosperity has moved. … Corporate interests, rigorous in that power of concentration which is the strength of armies and of minorities, may here withstand for a while the ill-organized striving of the multitude, only dimly conscious of its wants, yet the latter, however temporarily opposed and baffled, is sure at last, like the blind forces of nature, to overwhelm all that stands in the way of its necessary progress. So the Isthmian Canal is an inevitable part in the future of the United States yet one that cannot be separated from other necessary incidents of a policy dependent upon it, whose details cannot be foreseen exactly. But because the precise steps that hereafter may be opportune or necessary cannot yet be foretold certainly, is not a reason the less, but a reason the more, for establishing a principle of action which may serve to guide as opportunities arise. Let us start from the fundamental truth, warranted by history, that the control of the seas, and especially along the great lines drawn by national interest or national commerce, is the chief among the merely material elements in the power and prosperity of nations. It is so because the sea is the world’s great medium of circulation. From this necessarily follows the principle that, as subsidiary to such control, it is imperative to take possession, when it can righteously be done, of such maritime positions as contribute to secure command. If this principle be adopted there will be no hesitation about taking the positions — and they are many — upon the approaches to the Isthmus, whose interests incline them to seek us.

Sea Power: A Journal of Information and Comment Concerning Naval Affairs

Mahan would later give us the bold truth about governments and national interests:

The first law of states, as of men, is self-preservation – a term which cannot be narrowed to the bare tenure of a stationary round of existence.

Self-interest if not only a legitimate, but fundamental cause for national policy; one which needs no cloak of hypocrisy. As a principle it does not require justification in general statement,

Not every saying of Washington is as true now as it was when uttered, and some have been misapplied; but it is just as true now as ever that it is vain to expect governments to act continuously on any other ground then national interest. They have no right to do so, being agents and not principles

The Problem of Asia and Its Effect Upon International Policies

Mahan applied the idea of national interests to commerce and naval warefare:

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. The profound influence of sea commerce upon the wealth and strength of countries was clearly seen long before the true principles which governed its growth and prosperity were detected. To secure one’s own people a disproportionate share of such benefits, every effort was made to exclude others, either by peaceful legislative methods of monopoly or prohibitory regulations, or, when these failed, by direct violence. The clash of interests, the angry feeling roused by conflicting attempts thus to appropriate the larger share, if not the whole, of the advantages of commerce, and of distant unsettled commercial regions, led to wars.

Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783

Mahan continued:

The armaments of Europe are now not so much for protection against conquest as to secure themselves the utmost possible share of the unexploited or imperfectly exploited regions of the world — the outlying markets, or storehouses of raw materials, which under national control shall minister to national emolument.

Armaments and Arbitration

What can we do, with a navy “for defense only,” in the military sense of the word “defense”? … defense means not merely defense of our territory, but defense of our just national interests, whatever they be and where ever they are.

For this reason, again, a “navy for defense only” is a wholly misleading phrase, unless defense be construed to include all national interests, and not only the national territory; and further, unless it be understood that the best defense of one’s own interests is power to injure those of the enemy.

Lessons of the War with Spain and Other Articles

Mahan’s philosophy was officially accepted by the Navy Department and substantially incorporated in a declaration of naval policy. In 1926, the House of Representatives Committee on Naval Affairs stated that the fundamental naval policy of the United States is as follows:

The Navy of the United States should be maintained in sufficient strength to support its policies and its commerce, and to guard its continental and overseas possessions.

Read the United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Volume 55, January 1929, Notes on International Affairs, General Naval Policy:

To make strength of the navy for exercising ocean-wide control of the sea, with particular reference to the protection of American interests and overseas and coastwise commerce, next in importance.

To support in every possible way American interests, especially in the expansion and development of American foreign commerce and American merchant marine.

Read the The United States Navy in Peace Time, The Navy in Its Relation to the Industrial, Scientific, Economic, and Political Development of the Nation, 1931:

The Navy must more and more come to be recognized as an economic agency – as a basic factor in the country’s business upon which the livelihood and prosperity of our citizenry depend.

Any questions?

Thanks for reading,


Sea Power: A Journal of Information and Comment Concerning Naval Affairs, Merchant Marine, and America Overseas, Volume 7, September, 1919, p. 123:

The Problem of Asia and Its Effect Upon International Policies, A. T. Mahan, Harper and Brothers, 1900, pp 29, 97, 187:

The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, Alfred Thayer Mahan, 1890, p. 1:

Armaments and Arbitration, Alfred Thayer Mahan, 1912, p. 113:

Lessons of the War with Spain and Other Articles, Alfred Thayer Mahan, 1899, p. 298:

The United States Navy in Peace Time, 1931, p. 4:

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