Churchillian Geopolitics: Mackinder, Mahan and the Preservation of the British Empire.

Author:Sempa, Francis P.


Winston Churchill (1874-1965) as a young man fought in and reported on wars in Cuba, India, and Africa. During the First World War, he served as First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, and War Minister. In the early and mid 1920s, Churchill was Colonial Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He spent most of the 1930s in the political "wilderness," warning his own government and the world in speeches and articles about the growing Nazi threat.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 to begin the European phase of the Second World War, Churchill was brought back to head the Admiralty. On May 10, 1940, the very same day that Germany invaded France and the Low Countries, Churchill was named Prime Minister. He served in that capacity, as well as Minister of Defense, throughout the Second World War.

In 1951, during the early years of the Cold War, Churchill again became Prime Minister, serving in that office until 1955. Churchill was also a writer and historian. He wrote a two-volume biography of his father (Randolph Churchill), a multi-volume biography of his illustrious ancestor John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, a six-volume memoir of the First World War (The World Crisis), a six-volume memoir of the Second World War, a four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and other autobiographical works. He wrote hundreds of articles and delivered thousands of speeches.

Churchill was a geopolitical practitioner, not a geopolitical theorist. He learned his geopolitics from his study of history. "History was the heart of his faith;" wrote J.H. Plumb, "it permeated everything which he touched, and it was the mainspring of his politics and the secret of his immense mastery" (Plumb, 1969). He was, wrote John Lukacs, "a statesman whose mind was steeped in history" (Lukacs, 2002). William Manchester called Churchill an "artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and then distort it to his ends" (Manchester, 1983).

Plumb wrote that Churchill's "sense of history enriched his strategic thinking." "He knew the historical geography of Europe supremely well," Plumb noted (Plumb, 1969). This sense of history informed his writing and his statesmanship.


Churchill's political career coincided with the emergence of global geopolitical thought. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century witnessed the geopolitical writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Churchill's colleague in Parliament, Halford Mackinder. The world, Mackinder noted in 1904, was, in the wake of the Columbian discoveries, "a closed political system," where "[e]very explosion of social forces... will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence" (Mackinder, 1962).

Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) was an American naval officer who became the most influential historian and proponent of sea power. Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890), his two-volume The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire (1892), and his two-volume Life of Nelson (1897) gloried in Britain's use of sea power to defeat potential European continental hegemons. In The Problem of Asia (1901), Mahan foresaw the need for the world's maritime powers to contain Russian land power based in the heart of Asia.

There is direct evidence from Churchill's own writings that he read Mahan's works. For example, in writing about the Battle of Trafalgar in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Churchill wrote: "As the American historian Admiral Mahan has said, 'It was these distant storm-beaten ships upon which the Grand Army never looked which stood between it and the dominion of the world'" (Churchill, 1957). In the first volume of The World Crisis, Churchill noted that when he arrived at the Admiralty he learned that the British Navy "had made no important contribution to Naval Literature. The standard work on Sea Power," Churchill continued, "was written by an American Admiral (Admiral Mahan)" (Churchill, 1923).

One biographer of Mahan also mentioned that while in London during a tour of Europe in November 1912, Mahan spoke with Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty (Puleston, 1939). Mahan wrote to his publisher that Churchill told him that he was about to read Mahan's latest book. Naval Strategy (1911), which had been recommended by one of his Sea Lords (Geissler, 2015).

Mahan's Naval Strategy, which was based on his lectures at the Naval War College, included discussions and analyses of Britain's...

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