In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan published his magnum opus, The Influence of Seapower Upon History. Thayer was a geopolitical strategist and an admiral in the United States navy, and he argued that throughout history great empires had flourished not by controlling large land areas, but by ruling the seas. America, Mahan wrote, should build up its fleet and seize islands that could function as naval coaling stations around the world. The book had a huge influence on policymakers in Washington D.C. and the world over--which would eventually prove fatal to a jug-eared Spokane teen named John R. Monaghan.
Monaghan’s father James was an early settler of the region who made a fortune in mining and railroads. He sent his son to Gonzaga College, where John was in the first graduating class of 18 students. As ambitious as he was privileged, young Johnny went east to the Naval Academy, the first person from Washington State to attend that institution. Fueled by the admiral’s writings, the great age of American Imperialism was underway, and Monaghan was its eager instrument.
The U.S. Navy of the 1890s was the cutting edge of empire. Aboard the battleship Olympia, Monaghan saw service across the wide Pacific. He took part in naval shows of force in China and Japan. He participated in the ceremonies marking the forced annexation of Hawaii into the American domain in 1898. He helped intimidate Nicaragua, where America was considering building a canal to link the seas. It was heady work for a young naval officer from Spokane.
Monaghan’s luck ran out the next year, in Samoa. Since the 1880s the islands had been caught in an imperial tug-or war between the United States, Britain and Germany--none of whom thought the Samoans themselves had a particularly strong claim to their homelands. In 1899 the USS Philadelphia, with Ensign Monaghan on board, was dispatched to quell the pesky natives.