Conditions Determining the Naval Expansion of the United States

by Alfred Thayer Mahan

[Excerpted From A. T. Mahan, Retrospect and Prospect: Studies in International Relations Naval and Political (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1902), pp. 39-56]

At this time, while naval manceuvres are attracting attention among the people of the United States, it is pertinent to point out that it is commonly, but mistakenly, supposed that the present necessity for naval enlargement rests upon the acquisition of oversea territories, as a consequence of the war with Spain. The error is natural, for undoubtedly the war convinced the American people of the advantage-nay, the necessity-of a great navy, and so led to the increase we are witnessing; but the necessity was approaching unobserved, and would have come upon the nation unawares and unprepared, but for the fortunate intervention of the war, and its demonstration of the usefulness of navies.

We have the highest military authority for saying that the best and only sure form of defence is to take the offensive, or at least to be evidently ready so to do at brief notice. The navy is essentially and pre-eminently a force that thus acts, in virtue of the mobility which is its prime quality; and it is scarcely necessary to argue that the more wide-spread the interests open to attack, the more valuable in this sense the navy is, and the more numerous and powerful must it be. So long as the United States had no external possessions, it was comparatively easy to blind people to the usefulness of a navy, or to the necessity for it. A navy for coast defence only was then a plausible, though deceitful, cry; and it was a very easy further step to say that fortifications, stationary land defences, were cheaper and more effective. On the narrow ground of passive defence, that is true; therefore, ignorance of military principles being characteristic of mankind generally, and of Americans perhaps particularly, the need of a mobile force to act offensively could not obtain recognition.

It is not the least of the advantages derived from the new possessions that this condition of the public mind can exist no longer. It was very soundly argued, by the American opponents of the expansion which has been realized in the last decade of the nineteenth century, that transmarine acquisitions would be so many new exposed points, to be supported by sea only, not by land, as the continental territory can. They were very right, and this is very true; the flaw in their argument, as well as the beam in the eye of the American public, which prevented it from seeing clearly, was the failure to note that, even when not possessing a square foot of territory without its borders, there were manifold interests abroad, assailable by a superior navy, and only to be protected by such display of force as should make it not worth while to arouse the nation to action.

The argument of the opponents of territorial expansion, even within moderate limits, and with due regard to locality and consequent utility in the positions acquired, was thus plausible, and was deplorably successful; but it was fallacious. It adduced a sound military reason,-the increased exposure,-but wholly ignored qualifying considerations of the most serious character, reversive of conclusions. It may with much more certainty be now alleged, and the assertion can be supported to the point of demonstration, that the acquisitions of recent years, despite the additional requirement of their defence imposed upon the United States, have not necessitated any increase of naval force beyond that which would have been imperatively demanded at the present time, had they never passed into American hands. More still, they have lessened the burden of purely naval increase, which but for them would have been necessary; for by the tenure of them, and due development of their resources, the navy itself receives an accession of strength, an augmented facility of movement, by resting upon strong positions for equipment and repair,-upon bases, to use the military term,-in several parts of the world where national interests demand naval protection of the kind already mentioned; namely, readiness to take the offensive instantly.

Facilities of this character add a percentage of value to a given mobile force, military or naval, for they by so much increase its power and its mobility. This percentage may be difficult of precise definition as to amount, but it none the less exists. That coal can be obtained near at hand, plentifully, and with certainty; that ships can remain in readiness, and in security, near the possible scene of operations; that they can be repaired there, instead of returning to the United States; all these conditions, which the new possessions will afford, enable the work on the spot to be done by fewer ships. Furthermore, by their storage facilities, by their accumulated and natural resources, they diminish the immediate dependence upon home by a long chain of communications, which is the great drain on all military operations.

Thus, according to the particular conditions, one ship may do the work of two, or three ships of five, or perhaps nine of ten; but, be the proportion more or less, the gain in efficiency means, as such gain always does, smaller numbers and therefore less expense. When a battleship in war time runs upon an uncharted rock, as the Oregon did a year ago in the China Seas, it makes an immense difference to an admiral, and to the operations in hand, whether she can be repaired at a distance of five hundred miles, or of five thou
sand. The case is the same with minor repairs, and with the renewal of coal, one of the greatest of naval anxieties. For instance, it would be difficult to exaggerate the value of Guantanamo, only fifty miles from Santiago de Cuba, to the American fleet off the latter port, which otherwise had to coal in the open, or depend upon a base many hundred miles away.

It may be advisable here to notice passingly an argument at times maintained, and often advanced during recent discussions concerning the annexation of the Philippines, that, while such bases of naval action are intrinsically advantageous, there attaches to them no expediency of holding adjacent territory in political tenure. The United States therefore, so it was urged, for the security of her naval situation in eastern waters would require in the Philippines no more than a navy yard. From the military point of view this is wholly inaccurate. Any military permanent station, land fortress or naval arsenal, gains immeasurably in strength from the support of a friendly region in which it is situated, because of the contribution to its resources and the distance at which attack is held. The impressiveness of the word "isolation," which we all instinctively feel, testifies to this condition. Nor is it conclusive against the military argument that the friendliness be of a passive or reluctant character, as of a population subjected to military control. This consideration is indeed material to the general conduct of a war, for the force thus engaged in insuring submission is withdrawn from that available for other operations; but so long as it is effective in compelling or inducing the co-operation of the inhabitants, either as peaceful workmen and agriculturists, or more positively in the field, the particular fortress, land or sea, is far stronger than it could be if surrounded by territory under alien government, even though neutral.

Extent of territory is a real factor in military strength, and for this reason a small island is decisively less valuable than a large one. It is a distinct weakness to Gibraltar that it is backed by a country wholly foreign, though probably not belligerent; and Malta, if severed from a predominant navy, would find its intrinsic power inadequate to prolonged endurance. On the other hand, places on the coast of the United States, or of Australia, or New Zealand, though individually weak from a purely military standpoint, derive great increase of resistant force, and still more of productive energy,-a large element in military offensive efficiency,-because in the midst of a friendly and industrious community. The questions of resources and of support, both very important factors in military vigor, turn largely upon this one consideration.

This is not, in itself, an argument for large annexations, or indefinite territorial expansion. These, if desirable, rest upon reasons other than military. We are dealing here with a purely military consideration, and supporting it by military argument, which, however, cannot be pressed to the extent of supporting an action political in origin. The military argument amounts simply to this: that a moderate number of such bases, suitably chosen in view of their position and resources, strengthen a military or naval situation, and thereby enable fewer men or fewer ships to do the necessary work; but it must be at once qualified by the other perfectly familiar military maxim, that the multiplication of such bases, as soon as you pass the limits of reasonable necessity, becomes a source of weakness, multiplying exposed points, and entailing division of force. It is not even a matter of indifference that you have too many; it is a positive injury. Consequently, the necessity of naval bases to efficient naval action cannot by itself be made into an argument for indefinite expansion.

Such oversea expansion as the United States has so far made has not been primarily for military purposes. Incidentally, it has contributed to naval power, and it has not as yet transcended the limit of utility to that end. What has been already gained is useful, either directly or indirectly; the increase of exposure, as yet, does not equal the increase in strength. It is, of course, very possible that considerations of political or commercial expediency, or even necessity, might lead to acquisitions, the exposure and burden of which would find no compensation in increase of naval strength, or of general national military security. The justification of such measures, if taken, must rest on other than military or naval reasons, and would not concern this argument; but in fact no such undue expansion has yet occurred.

The march of events, not in the United States only, but over the world at large, not of military or naval events chiefly, but of political events, events economical and commercial, has brought about a necessity for large navies; for navies much increased over the standard of twenty years ago. This is now universally recognized. Of this course of events in those two decades, and their result to-day, the war with Spain, which led directly or indirectly to the acquisition of every foot of insular territory possessed by the United States, is simply one incident; and that an incident rather disconnected, something of a side issue, though one most timely for the welfare of the nation.

Had that war not occurred, there is no reason to believe that the mighty events which have transpired in Africa, Egypt, the Levant, and China, would not have happened; still less that there would not have been the immense commercial developments, which, if less striking, are even more momentous, and more influential at this moment upon the policy of nations. Issues and conditions which are moving the world would have been as they are had the distress of Cuba never compelled intervention. The difference now would have been that the United States would be without Porto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines; without reserved rights in Cuba, the key of the West Indies and Gulf of Mexico; and that she would not have received the impulse, which the war and its consequent acquisitions most timely gave, to the building of the navy towards a point necessary to meet the demands of a political and commercial future, which in any case would have arrived, and, but for that war, have found the nation unprepared.

The general strenuous impulse of the great civilized states of the world, to find and to establish markets and commercial relations outside their own borders and their own people, has led to multifold annexations, and to commercial and naval aggressions. In these the United States has had no part, but they have constituted a political situation that immensely increases her political and commercial anxieties, and consequently her naval responsibilities; for, as interests of this kind are outside the North American continent, it is upon the navy that their support rests. This external impulse of the commercial nations is of two-fold character. First, there is the perfectly legitimate and unobjectionable form of commercial competition, in open field and without favor; but there is, besides, the effort to extend and sustain commercial advantage by the extension of political power, either by controlling influence or by actual annexation, under cover of either of which the commercial system of the particular country obtains favored conditions, injurious to others, from special privilege all the way up to a practically exclusive market. The history of the past twenty or thirty years abounds in such instances, reversive of the course of trade, even to the destruction at times of a well-established commerce.

Much of this politico-commercial movement has occurred in regions where the United States has been compelled, by her recognized traditional policy, to abstain from intervention, or even remonstrance. The politics are none of our business, and the resultant commercial inconvenience, if it touch us, has to be accepted. -This applies to Europe generally; to Africa, which, both by position and now by annexation, is an appendage of Europe; and probably also to those parts of Asia commonly known as the Levant, which by juxtaposition are European in interest. The case is very different in South America, in Eastern Asia, and in the Pacific. From interest in none of these is the United States excluded by the Monroe Doctrine and its corollaries, by which she simply defines her policy to be hands-off in matters of purely European concern; while by express declaration political interference in South America, of a character to intrude European political control, will be resented as directly injurious to American security.

As regards the Pacific and China, the movement there, and especially in the latter, has been lately so much before the public that it is unnecessary to recall details. It is obvious, however, that where the commercial interests at stake are so great, and political conditions so uncertain, the desire to secure commercial opportunity will lead countries that possess force into a dangerous temptation to use it for the extension of their influence. Therefore, unless prepared to maintain the national rights, either singly or in combination with others, backed by force at hand, the United States may find her people excluded, more or less, by the encroachment of rivals.

The case in South America is even more serious; for political interference there not only may injure the nation commercially, but would certainly dishonor it, in face of its clearly avowed policy. It must be remembered that this extension of commerce by political pressure is a leading element in the spirit of the times; and, when such a spirit is looking watchfully for a field in which to act, one so fruitful and so promising as South America can secure exemption only by a display of power to resist, which South America itself does not possess, and which the United States alone can supply.

These are among the leading conditions which necessitate the creation of a powerful navy by the United States, and they are quite independent of her relatively small external possessions, most valuable though these are from the naval point of view. She is confronted, in short, by a general movement of the nations resting upon a spirit spread among their peoples, which seeks to secure commercial advantages in all quarters of the world; peaceably, if may be, but, if not, by pressure. In this collision of interests, force will have a determining part, as it has in all periods of the world's history; and force, in such remote localities, means necessarily naval force. It is upon the spread of this spirit and the action ensuing from it, that the necessity for a great navy rests, and not upon the fact of having assumed oversea charges. Porto Rico, Hawaii, the Philippines, and if there be any other acquisition at present, have not created the necessity; on the contrary, they have reduced the weight of the burden, by contributing to support it.