USS Iowa. First truly seagoing U.S. Navy battleship, but its 12-inch main armament was behind the standards of the time, and Iowa rapidly became obsolete. Participated in Battle of Santiago, 3 July 1898.
Only a modern industrial navy could preserve and promote expanding American overseas interests, and only an Isthmian canal could guarantee the shuffling of fleet units from one ocean to the other that would ensure a rapid response to hemispheric and Pacific crises. Mahan became almost morbidly preoccupied with the strategic importance of the Isthmus and its Caribbean and Pacific approaches. At the time he wrote it seemed that the Colombian government would grant France the right to complete de Lesseps’s project. From an Isthmian base France or any nation that might ally with it would threaten America’s Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River, the nation’s great internal highway. Mahan also articulated a more vague fear that an unforeseen war with a European power would expose America’s large, completely defenseless coastal cities to a possibly devastating naval attack either by bombardment or by outright invasion. The British burning of the Capitol and White House was only seventy-six years in the past when Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power, and young Theodore Roosevelt’s recent naval history of the War of 1812 had reminded American readers of its horror. In 1898 panic would sweep the cities of the eastern seaboard when it was learned that the Spanish fleet had sailed westward from home waters, its destination unknown. Might not Cervera mount a naval bombardment of Boston, New York, or Charleston on his way to Cuban waters?
Mahan clearly set forth the rationale for a powerful defensive fleet. The main thrust of his argument, however, involved expansion. In the modern world of powerful industrial states managing extensive overseas empires a nation could not remain strong if it did not join the global scramble for colonies. And if a nation did not remain strong, it would inevitably become prey to those that were. Did this mean that the United States had to build a big navy to use as its own aggressive expression of national interest? Navy secretary Benjamin Tracy seemed to suggest so when he enthusiastically accepted the findings of the 1889 policy board that the nation should, in effect, put aside its military isolation for a forward strategy. Rather than waiting for an enemy to approach U.S. shores where he or they would be presumably repulsed by a combination of a coastal defense force and onshore forts, the navy should take the fight to the enemy with extended battle-fleet operations in foreign waters. But a closer look at the “new,” still numerically small steel-clad, steam-driven navy that began to emerge from American shipyards after 1883 raises some serious doubts.
In contrast to the global sailing fleet of the immediate pre–Civil War era, the new navy seemed “a defensive answer to European developments.” Overwhelmingly concentrated on the East Coast, the fleet “reflected a shrunken rather than an enlarged strategic perimeter”; its orientation was toward protecting the great cities of the Atlantic seaboard and secondarily the Caribbean and eastern Pacific (that is, Hawaiian) sea approaches to the Isthmus. The “‘search for bases’” that preoccupied much public debate was in fact a search for a few rented “coal piles” in two or three Asian and Pacific ports (Yokohama, Pago Pago, and Honolulu) in contrast to the earlier days, when Washington had maintained naval agents and storekeepers in London, Marseilles, La Spezia, Buenos Aires, Saint Thomas, Rio de Janeiro, Lima, Valparaiso, Honolulu, Macao, and Shanghai.
America’s first three new battleships that came into service after 1890 were deliberately designed and built as smaller, less powerful, and shorter-range versions of their most up-to-date European counterparts and were used in effect as coastal-defense ships. Only a few protected cruisers such as those found with George Dewey at Manila Bay were given the enormous fuel capacity to conduct the historic mission of a weaker navy—the guerre de course. In the beginning, not even Mahan could reverse the trend. As the first new short-range battleships came into service in the midnineties, the Naval War College continued to restrict its studies to Atlantic trade routes, “the strategic geography” of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, the defense of Hawaii, “and the maintenance of the neutrality of an isthmian canal.” Soon after his book appeared, Mahan was ordered by the Navy Department to Washington, D.C., “to draw up contingency plans for hostilities with Great Britain or Spain.” But the world’s chief philosopher of expansive navalism was given the task of drawing plans for a defensive war in the Western Hemisphere rather than the eastern Atlantic, North Sea, or Mediterranean. Among his responsibilities, Mahan was directed to ponder the possibility of a sudden German naval assault against Dutch possessions in the Caribbean. Thus the surge to imperialism that overtook the United States in 1898 came not as a powerfully gathering force before that year but as a sudden eruption in that year, largely the result of Dewey’s spectacular and wholly unanticipated victory in the Philippines.