(Centennial Fellow Bill Moloney writes from Venice) In 1890 an obscure Naval War College Professor -Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914)- published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. An instant classic the book had an electrifying effect on two willful and belligerent contemporaries- Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941). Both men told intimates it profoundly changed the way they thought about the World.
When Roosevelt became the most popular President in modern history he energetically committed his country to a two ocean Navy and when he sent the Great White Fleet around the World in 1907 it was a dramatic demonstration of the United States’ arrival as a Global Power.
When the Kaiser- ruler of the world’s greatest military power- committed Germany to challenging the Naval Supremacy of Great Britain, the world’s greatest maritime power, he unleashed forces which led to the Titanic Clash between those two nations in World War I- the gravest self-inflicted wound in the History of Western Civilization and an event which ominously shaped the human catastrophes of the Century that followed.
These reflections are occasioned by a stimulating week in Venice, a city unique both in its peculiar island structure and its remarkable place in World History. It is also a prime exemplar of Mahan’s thesis concerning the dynamic interaction of wealth, sea power, and National Destiny.
At the head of the Adriatic Sea Venice is a lagoon of small islands tightly laced together by artificial means over centuries. For the peoples who arrived here in the 6th century fleeing rampaging barbarians the Sea was first a refuge then a source of great fortune as the city they built was strategically located on the great East-West trade routes that linked Medieval Europe to the Orient.
The same ingenuity that allowed Venetians to build their peculiar city also made them great ship-builders, sailors, and traders. The vast wealth they amassed in becoming the World’s leading commercial and naval power extended their influence throughout the known world including China. By the 14th century this tiny city -smaller than New York’s Central Park- was not only the richest in Europe, but the second most populous- 180,000 inhabitants- after Paris.
For over a thousand years the Republic of Venice- modeled on that of Rome- was ruled by an oligarchy headed by an elected noble called the Doge. They managed to thrive in a chaotic world of rising and falling empires- eg. Byzantines, Ottomans, Spaniards, French- by augmenting their wealth and naval prowess with skillful diplomacy that artfully played rivals off against each other.
It was the Age of Discovery led by Portugal and Spain and later the Dutch and English that would end Venice’s supremacy over East-West trade. In the 17th and 18th century Venice turned inward. Commercial activity, population, and naval power atrophied, while the still wealthy city became better known for its decadent living than its political clout.
The Thousand year Republic ended ingloriously in 1797 when Napoleon seized the city and cavalierly awarded it to Hapsburg Austria as a consolation prize in his reordering of the New Europe turned upside down by the French Revolution.
Writing from the twenty-one year old American Republic Thomas Jefferson noted the disappearance of Venetian independence lamenting “a sad ending to a once bright story. Would-be Republics should heed that story well.”
In his last years Mahan spoke frequently at West Point where a young Dwight Eisenhower was among his attentive listeners. By then Mahan’s doctrines had become central to American strategic thinking.
As president, decades later, Eisenhower was reflecting Mahan when he wrote, “American economic might is the indispensable foundation of American military might and the essential element in our ability to project a stabilizing power worldwide.” In fact it was America’s prodigious economic productivity that decided both World Wars and ultimately the Cold War as well.
Just as Mahan studied History to formulate his strategic thinking, so too have other nations studied Mahan as a Key to understanding the American experience. He is particularly admired in China which has quadrupled the size of its navy since 1980 and is now applying Mahan’s classic principle of “choke point” in the South China Sea.
Mahan is still taught in U.S. military circles, but has apparently been totally forgotten in the Congress which by virtue of the lamentably bi-partisan “Sequester” has reduced our army to 1940 levels and our navy to that of 1930. “Sic Transit Gloria”.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.