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Photo of William Kimball found online at Submarine Pioneers

A few weeks ago, my friend and Proceedings colleague LCDR Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong posted an important thread on the USNI Blog revealing the challenges that the 2014 Current Strategy Forum. In predictable fashion, many participants at the Forum asked the age-old, paradoxical question, what would Mahan do? It would seem Mahanian legend is firmly embedded within our policy planners’ imagination. When faced with the revision of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21), instead of asking how Mahan would handle the next century of naval warfare, the War College should be asking “what should our junior officers do?”

I assert that our strategy in naval warfare still permeates from the Zeitgeist of Mahan, when it should be more focused on the explosive energy that many of our junior officers possess. Rather than look to an individual who merely conveyed the ideas of others, continue to foster outlets – like the Naval War College – that allow our junior officers to create, build, test, and revise their ideas.

How did Mahan gain so much notoriety?

As he matured his theories of sea power, drawing from the selective histories he provided the world, Mahan became more and more interested in the actual application and implementation of policy. In “Preparedness for Naval War,” an article published in Harper’s in 1897, he argued that America was “to all intents an insular power, like Great Britain.” As a result, every “danger of a military character to which the United States is exposed can be met best outsider her own territory at sea.” Offensive capabilities would be in the function of a sea-going Navy – battleships, cruisers, and torpedo boats, capable of accompanying a fleet, but not impending its movements – which could uphold an adaptive Monroe Doctrine.1

Mahan was delighted when his friend Theodore Roosevelt was appointed Secretary of the Navy, for he knew the effects this could have on the financially-strapped Navy. He immediately wrote Roosevelt and called attention to Japan’s naval program and urged annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. “Do nothing unrighteous,” he told Roosevelt, but “as regards the problem, take the islands first and solve the problems afterwards.” In response to the danger from Japan, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy replied that no strong nation “should be allowed to gain a foothold in the Western Hemisphere.” As the year continued, Mahan’s imperialist visions grew deeper. He had become the definitive voice in the political-navy arena with the support of sympathetic spirits like John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry Cabot Lodge, but also with a gradually convinced public opinion.2

Technological improvements, especially in regard to photoengraving and printing, enabled Mahan to reach phenomenal popularity. The introduction of the Merganthaler Linotype machine changed the face of publishing and the character of periodicals. Allowing users to print quickly and cheaply and to use real pictures, publishers attracted a mass market, especially by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Magazines at every level began competing for the American literary market. Captain Mahan had a wide audience both among the intellectuals and in popular magazines and newspapers. In November 1897, Little, Brown, and Company published a small volume entitled, The Interest of America in Sea Power: Present and Future, which included nine of Mahan’s most important articles. The articles provided an easily understood, broad perspective in understanding the problems facing America’s organic fleet. These immediately enlarged Mahan’s following and at the same time provided his influential supporters with verses to convert the non-believers.3

The Importance of the Naval War College

Established in 1884 and only a decade in existence, the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, was already preparing unrestricted line officers intellectually and strategically. As former Secretary of the Navy William Chandler put it, “the constant changes in the methods of conducting naval warfare imposed by the introduction of armored ships, swift cruisers, rams, sea-going torpedo boats, and high-power guns. . . render imperative the establishment of a school where our officers may be enable to keep abreast of the improvements going on in every navy in the world.” When the Cuban insurrection broke out in 1895, the officers in charge at the Naval War College thought it necessary to undertake a study of a possible Spanish-American conflict. They gave the class of 1895 a “special problem” concerning a war with Spain where the objective was to secure independence for Cuba and called for an early joint operations again Havana. The U.S. fleet, based out of Key West, would intercept any Spanish expedition attempting to reinforce the defenders in Cuba. In 1896, the Office of Naval Intelligence submitted Lieutenant William Kimball’s plan, which would later win an audience in Newport, Rhode Island.4

After graduating the Naval Academy in 1869, William Kimball entered a post-Civil War navy of obsoleted warships, outdated organizational structures, and few opportunities for promotion. Kimball looked the part of a quintessential officer; he was well groomed, he kept his mustache pointed on both sides, and he parted his brown hair down the center. While at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1885, he met John P. Holland – the inventor of the new submarine boat – and formed an immediate friendship. Kimball helped Holland secure navy contracts for the submarine and contributed in the later development of the torpedo boat, then went on an extended intelligence-gathering trip through the Isthmus of Panama in 1885. His experiences in the Central Americas would eventually result in a special intelligence report on a possible canal route.5

Between 1894 and 1897, Kimball served in the Office of Naval Intelligence and developed an inner circle around the assistant secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. During that time, he assembled information for his plan “War with Spain, 1896,” which would later serve as the blueprint in case of war and offered ‘Mahanian’ objectives. Supporting attacks against Manila and the Spanish coast would, as he believed, further induce Spain to negotiate an end to the conflict. After an attack on the Philippines, Kimball proposed a war plan that depended on a stringent naval blockade of Cuba as the primary means of persuading Spain to release control of her colony. Although this plan was heavily scrutinized, both at the War College and the Bureau of Navigation, it would later become the outline for future naval operations.6

Rear Admiral Francis Ramsay, chief of the influential Bureau of Navigation –and Mahan’s nemesis from the Naval Academy – had long been an opponent of the War College, and it is likely he was the one who persuaded Secretary of the Navy Hilary Herbert to convene a board in the summer of 1896 to draw up a separate plan for war with Spain. Like the Kimball plan, the Ramsay Board focused on the naval blockade, but added the deep-water ports of Puerto Rick and those of Cuba. Although the strength of the Navy in 1896 was sufficient to meet and defat a fleet arriving from Spain, the board called for the purchase of a number of small, fast steamers to enforce the blockade. The destruction of crops in Cuba led the Board to believe the Spanish garrison needed to import food to survive, hence the reasoning behind acquiring more ports. Some members of the board dissented, stating that large operation in Spanish waters were “too dangerous,” and a naval blockade would not be sufficient to subdue the Spanish forces in Cuba. A later board, called together by Rear Admiral Montgomery Sicard, in June 1897, accepted the Kimball Plan as the primary means of fighting Spanish forces. The plan called for the reduction and garrisoning of principal ports and recommended the idea of using the Asiatic Squadron against the Spaniards.7

President McKinley regarded Teddy Roosevelt’s views as effective and used Roosevelt as an expert adviser on naval strategy and America’s preparations for defense. But they weren’t actually Roosevelt’s ideas – they were Kimball’s. On September 21, 1897, Roosevelt conferred with the President over dinner and the two men continued their conservations the next while horseback riding. During their meetings, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy gave McKinley a thorough summary of the war plan, which constituted official Navy Department policy at the time. Additionally, he discussed with the president the location of every US warship, the availability of other ships for purchase, and gave an endorsement of the major assumptions of attack made by Kimball. If the president still did not know the location of the Philippines, as he claimed in early comments once war broke out, he certainly knew that the Philippines was one of the Navy’s first targets commanded by his appointee, Commodore George Dewey.8

Although the correspondence between Roosevelt and key policy planners have historically been used to justify Roosevelt’s impulsive and imperialist philosophies, they should actually be viewed as a lens in understanding his political strength. Kimball’s plan – not Roosevelt’s rhetoric or penmanship – was the decisive catalyst and elusive first cause of the American victory in the Spanish-American War.9

One Final Thought

Americans, particularly seagoing junior naval officers, who by 1900 were one of the most educated singular bodies in the world, were more active and were ready to move from the shadows of geographical isolationism into a world that would eventually have to accept America as a global power. In that regard, perhaps there is no finer example of blossoming, contemporary Americanism, then within our junior officer ranks.10


  1. Allen Westcott, Ed., Mahan on Naval Warfare: Selections from the Writings of Rear Admiral Alfred T. Mahan (Boston, 1918), 130-131. 

  2. Elting E. Morison, The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt (Cambridge, 1951), 718-719; The Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan, 1890-1901 (Annapolis, 1975), 592. 

  3. John W. Oliver, History of American Technology (New York, 1956), 442-448; Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines (5 vols.; Cambridge, 1968), IV, 153-54. 

  4. John Davis Long, The New American Navy (New York, 1904), 75-76; Ronald Spector, Professors of War: The Naval War College and the Development of the Naval Professionalism (Newport, 1977), 89-90; David Trask, The War with Spain in 1898 (New York, 1981), 73-74. 

  5. Jeffrey M. Dorwart, “Kimball, William Wirt”: http://www.anb.org.proxygw.wrlc.org /06/06-00340.html; American National Biography Online (Feb. 2000); On Kimball, see Peter Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (1972); Richard D. Challener, Admirals, Generals, and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1914 (1973). 

  6. Jeffrey M. Dorwart, “Kimball, William Wirt”: http://www.anb.org.proxygw.wrlc.org /06/06-00340.html; American National Biography Online (Feb. 2000); On Kimball, see Peter Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (1972); Richard D. Challener, Admirals, Generals, and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1914 (1973). 

  7. Report of the Ramsay Board, contained in Grenville, American Naval Preparations, 38-41. 

  8. Theodore Roosevelt to Henry Cabot Lodge, September 21, 1897, in Elting E. Morison, Ed, The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt (Cambridge, 1951), 685-686. 

  9. Elting E. Morison, Ed, The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951), 716-717 

  10. Photoengraving and lithography helped disseminate a preponderance of academic theories. Most people would know about Mahan’s battleships and Roosevelt’s colorful exploits, especially with Andrew Carnegie’s gift of public libraries throughout the country; James A. Field, “American Imperialism: The Worst Chapter in Any Book,” American Historical Review, no. 83 (1978), 644-683. 




Posted by LT Alex Smith in Navy


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