by Captain W. D. Puleston
[Yale University Press, $4.00]
THE contributors to a recent symposium placed Das Kapital first on a list of books that have influcnccd the history of the last fifty years; but The Influence of Sea Power upon History ran it a good second, and in the abstract it would seem rather odd that the author of the latter. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S.N., should have to wait till twenty-five years after his death for a biographical inquiry into the genesis of his ideas. Captain Puleston implies that the reasons are two, the more compelling being Mahan’s own modesty: ‘He generously attributed his success to Napier, Mommsen, Jomini, Luce and many writers on naval history, in fact to almost everyone except himself.’ The other reason, also implied, is that Mahan wrote without any special grace of style, his works compelling acceptance only when the apposition of events made necessary an examination of their ideological content.
In support of the latter there are certainly the facts that Mahan’s most famous book fell at a moment critical to the naval policy of Germany, England, and the United States, and that none of his other concepts attained the success of the first. (In fact, this biography is a good job it for no other reason than to remind us that Malian had other ideas-a deep-rooted distrust of ‘the freedom of the seas,’for instance, and a contemptuous disbelief in the humanitarianism of outlawing poison gas.)
Yet in the long run neither of Puleston explanations explains. Marx’s partner Engels was an English version of the retiring thinker Mahan expressed in American, yet has attracted the attention of numerous biographers, modesty and all. The point seems rather that there is now no Mahan doctrine as there is a Marxian doctrine.
The entire validity of the latter is doubted by many intelligent persons, and its details are the subject of argument even among the faithful; but what was once the Mahan doctrine has been universally accepted, has become a ‘truth.'
This in itself makes the task of a biographer extraordinarily difficult. To explain the full importance of his subject he must begin by conjuring up an intellectual atmosphere in which this truth did not exist and into which it comes as an exciting discovery. Captain Puleston does not always achieve this feat. He criticizes Mahan with reference to Mahan, even when commenting on the curious fact that so late as the great strategist’s appointment to the nascent Naval War College he still believed in the old American doctrine that national defense could be achieved by coastprotective measures combined with raids on an enemy’s commerce. He apparently does not realize that this doctrine was an inevitable product of the possibility of that third war with England which occupied all American military thought down to the coming of Mahan; or that the acceptance of Mahan’s ideas on both sides of the Atlantic was itself a proof that the ancient grudge had been buried. But the physical facts of Mahan’s career are all here, for the first time and well told. It is not unimportant to the memory of our greatest sailor that he should have found for a biographer a man patient in research, painstaking in accuracy, and with special personal knowledge of the background.