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Mahan's book, which Roosevelt devoured in one reading, is at first sight a detailed account of the many battles fought by the British Royal Navy as it rose to become sovereign of the seas. But it is much more than that, for Mahan claimed to have detected the principles that underlay the workings of sea power, and had determined the rise and fall of nations. With great skill, the author showed the intimate relationships among productive industry, flourishing seaborne commerce, strong national finances and enlightened national purpose. Great navies did not arise out of thin air; they had to be built up over time with the most modern warships, well-trained crews and decisive admirals. Ultimately, though, it was the man or the men at the top--those steering the nation through war and peace--who had to understand the great influence that navies could exert on international politics. Sea power, if properly applied by such leaders, was the vital tool for any country aspiring to play on the world stage.
Here was a road map for the rest of T.R.'s life, or at least the part of it that would be focused on foreign affairs. In Roosevelt's future naval policies we see the embodiment of Mahan's larger principles. Moreover, this conjuncture of Mahan the theoretician and Roosevelt the man of action arrived at just the right time in the history of the U.S. Its industries were booming, its commerce thriving and its merchants fighting to gain markets overseas in the face of tough foreign competition. All of that pointed to the need for a strong Navy. And, to be sure, the nation was getting one. The fleet was no longer the dilapidated collection of small warships it had been when Roosevelt wrote his book about the War of 1812. By the late 1890s, it could be reckoned among the top four or five in the world.
But it was Roosevelt, more than anyone else, who turned U.S. sea power into the manifestation of the nation's outward thrust. His first demonstration of that counts among his most famous decisions. By 1897 he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a position in which he could act out his ambitions, especially since the Secretary, John D. Long, was a rather sick man and President William McKinley had no great interest in naval matters. On Feb. 15, 1898, when news arrived of the sinking in Havana harbor of the U.S.S. Maine--the event that effectively set off the Spanish-American War--Roosevelt had his opportunity.
Roosevelt had previously confided in Mahan his belief that the U.S. should push Spain out of not only Cuba but also the Philippines, though at the time acquiring the Philippines was by no means a goal of the McKinley Administration. Ten days after the Maine went down, on a late Friday afternoon when Long was temporarily out of the office, his dynamic assistant cabled instructions to Admiral William T. Sampson in the Caribbean and Commodore George Dewey in Hong Kong to prepare for decisive action. Long, though by his own account somewhat bemused, did nothing later to counter those orders. So when Congress declared war on Spain on April 25, the U.S. squadrons in both theaters had been heavily reinforced. The results--the destruction of the Spanish fleets in Manila Bay and, two months later, off Santiago, Cuba--were decisive. Spain had been reduced to the rank of a minor power, and the deeply troubled lands of Cuba and the Philippines came under U.S. sway.