Monday, May 17, 2010

History Nerdiness Takes a Rabbit Trail...

Last time through my random collection of posts on the evolution of the battleship I found it necessary to discuss Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 and the influence it had upon Great Britain and Japan (and, to a lesser extent, the United States).  Mahan’s system emphasized concentration of power and decisive naval victory, an attitude that fueled Tsushima, eluded the British at Jutland, and influenced Japan’s naval planning in the run-up to World War II.  I also pointed out that it was basically the exact opposite of the largely French Jeune Ecole school, which emphasized lighter, faster, sneakier fleets and commerce raiding.

MTimonen then left this comment:

Might consider the difference between Mahan-capable nations and, well, France, and maybe Germany, as being the difference between naval and maritime nations - maritime nations tend to have a large population which makes a living from the sea, and so has a large pool of potential sailors and ship builders to draw on at need. Naval powers often have impressive navies, but from necessity rather than inclination.

Which started to create an out of control response, so I decided to write a whole damn post on the idea.

First, we need to draw a very specific distinction between continental powers and maritime powers.  Since I feel like writing analogies, I’ll describe things in a goofy way.  A continental power is like a lion, while a maritime power is like a shark.  You don’t want to mess with a bear on land and you don’t want to mess with a shark at sea, but you’ll rarely see them mess with each other.  There’s simply very little incentive for one type of power to go in to the other’s territory.  Meanwhile, they can become the apex predator in their native environment and be quite happy, thankyouverymuch.

The quintessential conflict between lion and shark came during the reign of Napoleon.  Napoleon owned Europe and the British were hopeless to dislodge him.  At Trafalgar the British destroyed any hope Napoleon had of invading the British Isles, but they did not topple Napoleon’s Empire.  The British and French could well have settled down in to a stalemate and held to this day were there no outside forces for the British to muster in to an alliance capable of taking on Napoleon on the continent itself.  Had Napoleon been able to enlist the full support of the Dutch against the British and combined Spanish, Dutch, and French naval forces, the reverse might have been true.

We also see this continental v. maritime dichotomy with the Russo-Japanese War.  The Japanese defeated the Russian fleet in detail and conquered their only warm water port, but the Japanese did not take down the Russian Empire by any stretch of the imagination.  During World War II the Japanese even tried to take on Russia on land.  It did not go over well for the Japanese.

It is, in fact, quite easy to draw parallels between Great Britain and Japan.  Throughout the medieval period the British were mostly content to stay on their island and let geography be their best defense.  During the first century of the Age of Exploration they were almost non-participants.  Then in 1588 the Spanish Armada forced the British to crash-build a navy.  After that victory, the British took to the seas with a vengeance.  The Japanese under the Shoguns were quite content to stay at home, too.  They barred almost all foreign trade and strictly controlled the shores.[1]  Then came Commodore Matthew Perry and the Japanese realized that they could no longer trust that the sea was their friend and protector.  Sixty years later they would shock the world at Tsushima.

The question, then, is of what to make of the United States.

At the time of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s treatise the United States was undeniably a continental power.  It had spent the 19th Century expanding its frontiers westward through the Louisiana Purchase, Mexican-American War, and the waves of settlers that struck out to gain their own parcel of America’s vast hinterland.  Other than the brief flurries of activity around the War of 1812 and Civil War, the United States regarded distance as its greatest defense against foreign adventurism.

Still, the United States had the capability of becoming a maritime power.  The ports of New England engaged in global trade, hauling American goods to every corner of the Earth.  The vast amounts of coastline on the East, Gulf, and West coasts ensured that there were plenty of people who were quite familiar with the sea.  And the United States was always capable of finding competent and eager naval architects and officers.  The rapid expansion of the Union Navy and creativity in finding solutions to vexing problems shown by both sides in the Civil War provide ample proof of this.

When the United States decided to step on to the world stage there wasn’t a single, shocking event like we saw with Great Britain and Japan, however.  The rise of South American naval powers and the Spanish-American War were basically the necessary impetus, but such things were still difficult to sell as clear and present issues to the American taxpayer.  The vast moat of oceans security.  Moreover, your average citizen of Kansas City really didn’t have to worry about the imminent arrival of foreign troops on their doorstep.[2]

American isolationism was, in short, alive and well.  And although the decision was made to create navy that was second to none in 1916, it wasn’t really until Pearl Harbor that Americans got on board with the idea of being able to project power around the world.

So, in a way, there was a single, traumatic event.  It just came long after America had bought in to the idea of sea power.  As the architect of the attack said, a sleeping giant awoke on December 7th, 1941.


[1]I’ve oversimplified things a bit for the sake of comparison.  It cannot be doubted that the British were far less isolationist than the Japanese.  But it must also be remembered that the British were far more continental in origin than the Japanese, haven been conquered and/or settled by waves of Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans.  Also, Britain is a lot closer to Europe than Japan is to Asia.

[2]When I went to Galveston last month it was the first time I’d touched a body of water larger than Lake Michigan.  I’m just sayin’…


MTimonin said...

first, Timonin, with an "i".

second, I think you've addressed my concern - Japan, though isolationist, was able to benefit from Mahan's theories because they were a "shark" power. I would, however, differentiate between continental powers and naval powers. Yes, the bulk of France's military might was focused on the land, but they did HAVE a navy, and it was enough to make England pay attention. I'm trying to come up with a major European power without some sort of navy during this period. I'm thinking the Ottomans, possibly Austria. Continental powers - lions, if you will. You wandered in you analogy a little, and described France as a bear - that actually works a little, since bears do sometimes wander into the water, and might, conceivably, encounter a shark.

Geds said...

Sorry 'bout the name. People in glass houses and all...

And I'm not necessarily saying you have to be a shark or a lion. I actually originally used bears instead of lions. Then I decided to create a broader separation for the sake of the analogy.

I suppose the issue at hand is that an island nation has to look to the sea for any expansion. A continental nation...not so much.

And, for that matter, the island nations don't have to be sharks. Consider the role that the British Army played during the colonial period, Napoleonic wars, and the two World Wars. Perhaps the better analogy is one of crocodiles v. bears...

MTimonin said...

I think the analogy becomes strained when you start trying to accommodate all of the possible variations. The US, as you note, kinda throws the whole thing for a loop - unless you consider the nation as a strange combination of a maritime and a continental power, with the East and West coasts providing the maritime impulse while the middle west providing the continental. Although you then have to consider that most of the army is recruited from the mid south... Dunno. Anyway, my understanding of the naval v. maritime power concept comes from Andrew Lambert's War at Sea in the Age of Sail, 1650-1850. He suggests that maritime powers (England, the Netherlands, the US) tend to try to control the sea (sea control), while naval powers (France, Russia) tend to try to control shipping (sea denial). He also suggests that maritime powers tend to have better navies (combination of ships and sailors) while naval powers might well have better ships (consider, he says, the long standing tradition of the British using captured French ships to excellent effect).

The other difference he suggested was a strategy of construction. England, France, and the Netherlands had limited resources, and so built their ships to last. Russia, by contrast, had abundant resources, and so built ships quickly, and constantly. The US, although rich in resources, tended towards the British model - isolationism may well play a role there.

MTimonin said...

hey, don't know if you were aware of this - the USS Olympia is apparently relatively close to being scrapped or turned into a reef.