Sea Power: Abstraction or Asset?

THE Korean war, the intensified effort of rearmament to which it has led and the attendant "great debate" over policy and strategy have alike compelled a reappraisal of the significance of "sea power" in American defense planning. Mr. Hoover's proposal that the United States should retire behind its oceans and Senator Taft's more moderate variant--suggesting that the United States should confine its contribution for the common defense mainly to its "sea power" and "air power," leaving the "land power" to the Europeans or the Chinese Nationalists--both reveal a new awareness of sea power in the total political-military equation. And both seem to suffer from the many misconceptions which have grown up in the course of years around the whole "sea power" concept.

It is at least a question whether the celebrated thesis of Alfred Thayer Mahan, however stimulating in its day, has not outlived its usefulness. According to a witticism of Philip Guedalla's, if Mahan "discovered nothing in particular he discovered it very well." Modern sailors might be tempted to think that he discovered it, if anything, rather too well. In calling attention to the fact that the operations of war vessels, unseen in their desolate element, had often had an influence on war and history quite disproportionate to that usually accorded them he was introducing a valuable corrective. It was true and important to remember that "power" could be exercised by armed ships--through commerce destruction, blockade, the denial of water routes of attack to an enemy and the opening of such routes to one's own forces--quite as well as by land armies utilizing their normal methods of invasion, physical conquest and occupation. In emphasizing this, however, the Mahan doctrine tended to give to "sea power" an appearance of independent reality and influence which it could in fact claim only rarely. The phrase "sea power," if not quite a misnomer, was at best misleading.

It clouded what should be obvious: that the ocean wastes were significant only in relation to land;

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