Nineteenth-century American courage and resourcefulness carried our merchant flag to the world's harbors and our nation to world prominence. The proud affection of a sea-conscious nation is reflected in our portfolio of ships by artists of three continents. Our essay, by C. Bradford Mitchell, former editor of Steamboat Bill and information director of the Merchant Marine Institute, charts the curious historic twists of public attitude and official policy that have alternately fostered and stunted our merchant navy.
On February 6, 1783, nine weeks after the Revolution ended, a new flag flew in the Thames. It flew, said the London Times, from “the ship Bedford, Captain Mooers, belonging to the Massachusetts [sic].” That oil-laden Nantucket whaler was, the report continued, “the first vessel which displayed the thirteen rebellious stripes of America in any British port.”
Such references to the thirteen-striped flag are commonly taken today as allusions to the red, white, and blue banner authorized by Congress in 1777. What is forgotten is that under Confederation the merchant marine of the United States had its own distinctive version of the national emblem, as does the British merchant fleet to this day. It was a starless flag of red and white stripes, symbolic, like the world’s other merchant flags, of a maritime nation’s pride in, and vast dependence upon, the ships that carry its commerce and bolster its wartime defense. After the Constitution was adopted, Congress never acted to confirm this American merchant flag. Since 1787, therefore, the Stars and Stripes have flown over merchantmen and men-of-war alike, a policy calculated to sharpen the focus of patriotic symbolism but, in long retrospect, prophetic of the submergence of identity and the ultimate decay of the “sister service.”
When the Bedford lay at London there was no question what she and her kind meant to the young republic. American merchant ships and seamen had built the commercial prosperity without which the colonies could never have challenged the mother country. They had furnished the Continental cause what little regular naval power it possessed and, more important, a privateer force of dazzling speed and agility, which harried enemy shipping into the very harbor mouths of England. They were presently to embark on an exploitation of new and old trade routes which, despite Barbary piracy, depredations by both combatants in the Napoleonic Wars, and our own embargoes and nonintercourse acts, would win the United States an honored place among commercial powers and make the American merchant marine known from Copenhagen to Canton. Between 1789 and 1815, as the maritime historian Winthrop Marvin says, “it was dear to the whole country.”
What broke up this love affair between Americans and their ships? Why, since the Civil War, has our average citizen or legislator been conscious of his merchant marine only in time of crisis, and unprotestingly allowed it to shrivel betweentimes? How does history’s largest trading nation, with over 400 million long tons of exports and imports each year, come to have a merchant marine which stands fifth or sixth among the world’s flags; which in terms of average age of its ships is one of the oldest afloat; and which carries only eight out of every hundred tons of our ocean commerce?
There are many answers, none satisfactory. Confederate cruisers are blamed for sinking much of the fleet and driving the rest to foreign flags. But Germany and Japan, almost obliterated at sea by 1945, were back among the ten leading maritime nations before 1960. It is said that we turned our backs on the sea to develop our hinterland (and indeed our patriotic song writers did veer from hymning Columbia, the gem of the ocean, in the nineteenth century to eulogizing amber waves of grain and alabaster cities in the twentieth). Yet Soviet Russia and Communist China, land powers with vast internal preoccupations, are efficiently expanding their merchant fleets while ours declines. It is also pointed out that the gap between American price and wage levels and those of foreign maritime nations has long since widened to the point where it cannot be bridged by any unassisted private shipping enterprise.
If the diagnosis is elusive, the symptoms are painfully apparent. Apart from the sorry statistics just mentioned, perhaps the main observation to be drawn from a thoughtful reading of our maritime past is that somewhere along the way we lost the knack, or the will, to follow through on our technical and commercial initiatives. At some point the native ingenuity and enterprise that had made us a leading seafaring nation were infected with a subtle infirmity of purpose. Thus we were able—with the Savannah in 1819—to give the world steam power at sea but were unable to grasp the benefits of that epoch-making innovation; able to perceive the cost of supplying our country’s shipping needs but too irresolute to pay that cost. Looking back over the past 150 years, we can see this strangely uncharacteristic American trait at work misshaping our maritime destiny.
But it was not so in the beginning.
From earliest colonial times, much of the creativity and the exploitive energy of the Atlantic seaboard community was channelled into shipbuilding, navigation, and sea trading. Oceanworthy vessels were launched by both English and Dutch groups before 1620. A 400-ton ship—very big for the period—was built by 1645, and between 1674 and 1714 New England alone produced 1,332 vessels, 239 of them for sale abroad.
As American ships became known for their quality and cheapness (to the extent that by 1720 British builders were urging their government to limit the size of ships built in the colonies, and to bar them from all but British trade), they gained increasing fame for speed. The clipper ship was as yet undreamed of, but the Yankee obsession for “going at a good clip” was well developed—partly from the ever-present necessity of outrunning not only pirates and foreign privateers but, as often as not, His Majesty’s own ships, trying to enforce the navigation and trade acts. Speeds of nine or ten knots on commercial voyages seem to have been routine by the 1760s, and it can hardly have surprised the British that, when war did come, these same merchantmen—oversparred and overcanvassed for the occasion—outpaced, outmaneuvered, and frequently outfought the king’s heavier ships.
The fund of commercial stratagem thus acquired was invaluable when the war’s end brought political independence and potential economic ruin. Six months after the Peace of Paris, New York and New England shipping men acted to break the paralysis with which the merchant marine was threatened by the loss of English markets and the aggressive invasion of our transatlantic trade by the other maritime powers of Europe. Their daring departure was to open direct trade with the Far East, heretofore a British preserve.
Around the Cape of Good Hope to Canton went the diminutive Empress of China of New York, departing on Washington’s Birthday, 1784. Close behind came the ex-privateer Grand Turk of Salem, already the first American ship to reach the Cape. In 1787 two small Boston ships, the 213-ton Columbia and the 90-ton Lady Washington, sailed together for the relatively unexplored northwest coast of our continent and successfully inaugurated a commercial cycle that put the China trade on a paying basis: trinkets and “trade goods” were exchanged with the coast Indians for seaotter skins, to be traded at Canton for merchandise worth many times the value of the outward cargo. When she returned to Boston in 1790, having left the Lady Washington on the northwest coast, the Columbia became the first American ship to round Cape Horn and to circumnavigate the globe. On her second voyage, she discovered and named the Columbia River.
These and similar accomplishments in ship creation, ship operation, and mercantile expansion were “whole” achievements, in that they created something new and capitalized on it to the full. As a consequence, between 1789 and 1810 American-flag tonnage in overseas trade increased by seven hundred per cent, to nearly a million tons, and the portion of United States foreign commerce carried in United States-registered ships rose swiftly to the ninety per cent level, despite the extraordinary difficulties and perils then besetting any American ship on the high seas.
Columbia was now seriously challenging the claim of her dowager parent to be mistress of the seas. The thesis of this essay is that she could do so only because she had two sound maritime arms, a right which was brilliantly innovative, and a left which was belligerently executive. Her challenge, a major provocation of the War of 1812, would seem vindicated by the war’s outcome; yet, only four years later came the episode of the Savannah and the first sign of that strange and costly withering of the important left arm.
But first it is necessary to note one more spectacular American invention, which was brilliantly followed up. On a snowy Monday, January 5, 1818, the James Monroe, a somewhat “sharp-built” but otherwise not unusual square-rigged ship of 424 tons, sailed from New York for Liverpool. She was the newest and largest in “a regular succession” of four ships between those ports, as announced by her New York proprietors. Their enterprise is known to history and balladry as the Black Ball Line, and it set the pattern of ship operation that has precedence in the American merchant marine to this day.
What distinguished the James Monroe—and made her voyage such a gamble for her owners—was that she had sailed at a scheduled time, announced over two months before. Moreover, she sailed with a cargo that filled only about three-fourths of her capacity, in a day when “full and down” was the first imperative, no matter how long a ship lay in port awaiting the last ton of cargo. Her passengers had been offered special inducements in the way of accommodation and sustenance, after centuries in which ocean travel had been an ordeal to be avoided. Finally, though her owners could not have known this as she passed Sandy Hook, Captain Watkinson would “drive” his ship to Liverpool in twenty-eight days, twelve days less than the time of most other ships then sailing the route.
These were the ingredients of the packet—or, as we would say, liner—service born that January 5: departure on schedule, “full or not full”; special attention to passengers and high-value “express” cargo; and unremitting drive for fast passages, with ships designed primarily for carrying payload and only secondarily for speed. The idea caught on, and its rapid adoption and refinement ushered in the palmiest half-century of American shipping. By 1822 there were four separate “lines” operating between New York and Liverpool, and additional lines from New York to Le Havre and from Boston and Philadelphia to Liverpool.
The ships grew larger, faster, and finer. The 6oo-ton mark was topped in 1826 by the Black Baller Britannia, the 800 in 1836 by the Swallowtail liner Pennsylvania, and the 1,000 in 1838 by the Dramatic liner Roscius. The latter, famous for fast passages, belonged to one of the giants of nineteenth-century shipping, Edward Knight Collins. This tonnage crescendo reached its peak in the 2,145-ton Ocean Monarch of 1856. Like her smaller, more famous contemporary, the Dreadnought, she was sometimes called a clipper packet, but the term is relative, not exact. Both were full-built ships, sharpened for speed as much as possible. From first to last, the packet was primarily a carrier; she was a speedster only to the best of her ability—and her master’s. In the true clipper, these values were reversed.
The North Atlantic packet services were a classic case of a “Yankee notion” that was followed up, expanded, and refined into a tremendously profitable enterprise and a national institution. Simultaneously with their advent, the share of U.S. trade carried in our own ships climbed back from its postwar slump almost to the ninety per cent level of the century’s opening years. They introduced, for the first time in the history of the sea, standards of regularity, reliability, and luxury that would be taken for granted after 1900.
Yet at the very start of this exultant half-century, America had already missed the boat—or rather, the steamship. It was a small and not very impressive vessel, true, and anything but a success commercially; but, though few people sensed the fact in 1819, the Savannah embodied an idea as brilliant as that of the men who launched the Black Ball, and more portentous. Moreover, it offered a once-only opportunity, in rejecting which this country lost both the credit and the benefits of exploiting steam power on the oceans—after having already outstripped the rest of the world in applying it to inland navigation.
The steamship as an idea had been advocated for at least thirty years. John Fitch, who ran a steamboat commercially on the Delaware River for several weeks in 1790, said ocean shipping would be the chief beneficiary of his invention. Robert Fulton, who voiced similar views, was working at the time of his death in 1815 on a steamboat for the czar of Russia. Whether she could have made the transatlantic crossing will never be known, for Fulton’s heirs completed her as the Long Island Sound steamer Connecticut.
Meanwhile, it had fallen to Colonel John Stevens of Hoboken, whom Fulton had barely nosed out in the race to produce the first commercially viable steamboat, to be the first to send steam to sea. New York waters being closed to his new Phoenix by Fulton’s monopoly, Stevens in 1809 sent her down the Jersey coast to the Delaware. Her master on this trip was a mariner from Connecticut named Moses Rogers.
Ten years later the same Captain Rogers dropped down the Savannah River bound for Europe in command of his own 320-ton ocean steamship, the Savannah. In the interval he had steadfastly preached steam on the high seas. At Savannah he finally found men willing to back him.
A New York-built full-rigged ship just over one hundred feet long in the hull, the Savannah was closely akin in design to the newly introduced Black Ball packets. Her uniqueness lay in her engine and boilers. Their 72 horsepower drove specially designed sidewheels, which could be dismantled and folded when not in use. A further innovation was her “bent smokestack,” fitted with a slanted and swivelled top section to aim smoke and sparks clear of the sails.
When she left Savannah on May 22, 1819, a date now observed as National Maritime Day, the Savannah carried neither passengers nor cargo. No one would risk either life or property in such a craft. Yet her machinery worked smoothly and safely during the approximately one hundred hours, spread over twelve different days, which were all the steaming her fuel supply would permit. She dropped anchor at Liverpool twenty-nine days and four hours later, having run from Tybee Light at the mouth of the Savannah River to Cape Clear on the Irish coast in twenty-three days and twenty-one hours.
Recalling the James Monroe’s twenty-eight-day initial crossing and the entire Black Ball Line’s first-year average of a little under twenty-five days, the Savannah’s running time over a course almost a thousand miles longer should have convinced America of the advantages of steam at sea. Her design and accomplishments were extravagantly praised in England, a nation not much given to praising anything American. She was visited and commended by the President of the United States, the king of Sweden, and the czar of Russia.
But she made no money, whereas the new sailing packets were making quite a bit, even during a minor financial panic. Americans in general scarcely noticed her, her owners could no longer afford her, and the Savannah became a coastwise sailing packet until her loss on Fire Island in November, 1821. Europe, however, and England especially, saw the possibilities. Of about twenty-five steamers that crossed the Atlantic in the next quarter century, virtually all were British-owned or built. And American ocean shipping headed swiftly and prosperously toward a dead end.
The speed and prosperity never seemed greater than in the fifteen years before the Civil War. American ships, both sail and (belatedly) steam, were sweeping all before them. Profits still mounted from the North Atlantic packet and immigrant services and the China trade. New prospects of premium freights and passage money had been opened by the California and Australia gold strikes and by the 1849 repeal of the Navigation Acts, which admitted our ships to London’s hitherto closed trades with India and the Far East. All that seemed to be needed to reap these rich prospects was fast ships, large ships, and more of them.
During this decade and a half, maritime America embarked on two flamboyant and largely unrelated projects, the creation of the clipper ships and the building of a fleet to challenge Britain’s North Atlantic steamship monopoly. Both got under way in the late forties, both succeeded hugely, and both lacked utterly any linkage with the future: the one because it had no future to link to, the other for want of vision and determination on the part of an already divided nation. By 1856 both undertakings—and our merchant marine itself—had collapsed in fact, if not in the consciousness of a frustrated people who would find it more comfortable to blame that collapse on a war still five years in the future.
But for the moment there was glory. The clipper ship was a miracle. She has been rightly called the greatest aesthetic achievement of the American genius, yet her beauty was created for essentially shortsighted purposes, and at its loveliest—in action—was founded on some of the most savagely inhuman hardships man kind has known. Paradoxically, even the men she maimed and killed seem to have shared the nation’s fierce pride in her.
She was not created at any one time or place, or by any one man or group—though the names of great designers like John W. Griffiths and Samuel H. Pook or of great builders like Donald McKay and William H. Webb are inseparable from her legend. The word clipper defined no single rig or hull form. She was simply an end-product of America’s historic quest for speed under sail, combining and refining the fleetest features evolved in two centuries of building and rigging smugglers, slavers, privateers, packets, and “Baltimore clippers.”
The ultimate clipper was larger than any of these. Starting about 1845 with the Houqua, the Rainbow, and the Sea Witch, the tonnage of these sharp-built, lofty-sparred vessels increased from about 600 to the 1,500-2,500 range by the early fifties, with one breathtaking leap to 4,555 in McKay’s monstrous Great Republic. Some 425 such ships were built between 1846 and 1855—120 in 1853 alone. Because of this, plus the construction of numerous large steamships, America’s oceangoing tonnage, after hovering for forty years between 600,000 and 900,000, soared in this nine-year period to 2,348,000.
Clipper ship records, achieved by flawless design and the pitiless “driving” of masters like Josiah Cressy and Philip Dumaresq, still astound those acquainted with the best speeds that even twentieth-century man has attained on the sea. As early as 1849, the Sea Witch made New York from Hong Kong in seventy-four days and fourteen hours. The Flying Cloud and the Andrew Jackson shared honors for the eighty-nine-day record around the Horn to San Francisco. The Witch of the Wave flew from Calcutta to Boston in 1853 and the Sweepstakes from Bombay to New York in 1856 in eighty-one days each. And in 1854, an annus mirabilis of sailing records, the Champion of the Seas travelled 465 miles between noon and noon—more water than all but a small minority of commercial ships afloat in 1967 could traverse in the same time.
The clipper ship was going nowhere from the start—except, of course, to one of the brightest pages in the history of the sea. Perhaps this was enough. But the nagging question, unanswerable 110 years later, is where the American merchant marine might be today if half the genius, effort, and money the clipper absorbed had been channelled in the direction plainly indicated in 1819 by the Savannah’s crooked smokestack.
Ocean steam had not, however, been a completely dead issue. Also in that year the exposed New York-New Orleans route was successfully plied by the Robert Fulton, whose owners briefly contemplated sending her across the Atlantic. With the introduction of a practicable screw propeller, Boston shipowner R. B. Forbes in 1844 and 1845 fitted the device to three ships, one of which, the Massachusetts, made two undistinguished packet runs to Liverpool before going to the government for the Mexican War.
Meanwhile, since 1838 the British had introduced on the North Atlantic a score of steamships, including the subsidized Cunard fleet. Finally alarmed by this evident competitive threat, Congress early in 1845 authorized mail subsidies for American steamships.
Contracts were let to three companies: the Ocean Steam Navigation Company (the Bremen Line), the New York & Havre Steam Navigation Company, and the New York & Liverpool U.S. Mail Steamship Company (the Collins Line). The Bremen Line was first to get a ship in the water, its 1,640-ton man-of-war-built Washington, which sailed for Europe on June 1, 1847. She broke no records and was in fact soundly beaten by Cunard’s seven-year-old Britannia. The Havre Line did not get under way until mid-1850.
But the Collins Line was to be the heart of the experiment, the focus of popular attention, and the first casualty of that vacillation and fumbling which have marred our merchant marine policy ever since. However, when its first ship, the 2,845-ton Atlantic, departed on April 27, 1850, the mood was one of high optimism. To the crowd that cheered her down the bay, Collins was a popular name, identified with recordbreaking packet ships. Moreover, Collins was meeting Cunard on its own racecourse.
The Atlantic made good the challenge. On her first two voyages she twice lowered the westbound record, only to be beaten in September by her sister Pacific. Two years later the Baltic crossed in nine days and thirteen and a half hours and became the last American-flag liner to win the Atlantic “blue riband” for precisely one hundred years. Punch quipped that
Like the clippers, Collins’ wooden side-wheelers were costly to build and costly to operate. Though they carried sails (and sometimes needed them, as when the Atlantic broke her shaft in mid-ocean and had to ride the wind back to England), they had an essentially “modern” look. They eschewed clipper bows and bowsprits; their straight stems and massive funnels spoke power as well as speed.
As record succeeded record and as passengers flocked to them, public enthusiasm reached a pitch almost equal to that generated by the extreme clippers. Speed and luxury—also the cardinal virtues of packet ships-came naturally to Collins, and, anyway, there was no question that they were what Congress and the public wanted for their money. So the steamers were driven as hard as the clippers, with high maintenance costs and low safety margins. Double catastrophe resulted.
On September 27, 1854, in a Grand Banks fog, the Arctic crashed almost head-on into the little French screw steamer Vesta. It was David and Goliath. The Vesta’s iron hull and watertight bulkheads kept her afloat; the Arctic sank with more than 300 people, including most of Collins’ own family. Sixteen months later the Pacific, racing across the winter ocean to maintain her laurels against the new iron Cunarder Persia, disappeared with 186 on board. Since the Persia herself reported glancing off an iceberg, it seems clear that the Pacific met the same fate that later befell the Titanic.
Collins was broken, personally and financially. “Economy” and sectionalism in Congress killed the Atlantic mail subsidies, and the panic of 1857 removed any remote chance of the three lines’ surviving without them. Most of the subsidized liners themselves rendered useful service to the Union cause. But not for almost four decades was another major American passenger ship built for Atlantic service.
The half-century from 1865 to 1915 was one of. deepening eclipse for the merchant marine. When the Confederate cruisers struck their colors, the 2.5 million tons of 1861 had been reduced to 1.5 million. By 1900 this had been almost halved: 816,000 tons. The portion of U.S. trade carried in U.S. ships slumped from 65.2 per cent in 1861 to 27.7 per cent in 1865 to 9.3 per cent in 1900. Of course, these figures pertain to ships in foreign trade—the only ones with which this article is specifically concerned. Our coastal shipping in domestic trade, protected by law against foreign competition, expanded after 1861.
Unquestionably the foremost ocean shipping enterprise of this period under the American flag was the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. A product of the same body of mail-subsidy legislation that produced the Collins Line, it survived, in name, until 1925, becoming the longest-lived ocean carrier in our history.
Under the leadership of William H. Aspinwall, Pacific Mail contracted to carry the mails from California and Oregon to Panama, there connecting overland with ships of the similarly subsidized U.S. Mail Steamship Company, bound for New York. Its first vessel, the 1,000-ton paddler California, was en route from New York to the Pacific via the Straits of Magellan when news of the California gold discovery reached the East. Arriving at Panama on January 17, 1849, she found 726 forty-niners who had left New York weeks after her departure waiting to storm her 250 passenger accommodations!
With greatness thus thrust upon it by one of history’s more improbable coincidences, the Pacific Mail, originally a precarious lifeline to the nation’s recently acquired Pacific outposts, suddenly found itself a key instrument in the commercial growth of the far West. By 1867 it was ready to extend its services across the Pacific to Japan and China, a route for which it built the world’s largest wooden side-wheelers: the China, the Great Republic, the Japan, and the America. Though already as anachronistic as the clippers of the previous decade, these 4,000-tonners, with their distinctively American “walking beams” rocking majestically between rakish paddle boxes, established our flag on the Pacific in the very decades when it was being forgotten on the Atlantic.
Though Pacific Mail later fell on somewhat seamy times, becoming a financial pawn of rail interests and at one time the vortex of a subsidy scandal, it remained the foremost name in Pacific shipping until the First World War. It replaced its paddlers with the largest iron steamships yet built in this country, the City of Peking and the City of Tokio, and in 1903 and 1904 launched the 13,000-ton Manchuria and Mongolia, mammoths for their day, both of which long outlived the company itself.
By any standard, the Pacific Mail was a major shipping achievement. In contrast, our two most ambitious efforts in the Atlantic during the century’s last three decades were characteristically barren of lasting results, although they produced a handful of proud ships.
Meanwhile, Congress had at last acknowledged the dismal condition of the merchant marine. New “postal aid” measures were passed, under the general terms of which the American owners of the new Cities obtained their admission to U.S. registry in 1892, on condition that two equivalent ships be ordered from American yards. The latter entered service in 1895 as the St. Louis and the St. Paul, 11,000-ton twin-stacked ships and the first truly first-class American-built tonnage on tlhe North Atlantic since 1858. With the handsome three-funnelled New York and Paris, as the naturalized ships were renamed, these were commissioned as armed naval cruisers during the Spanish-American War—the New York and the Paris being temporarily renamed the Harvard and the Yale—before settling down to two decades of service on the Atlantic shuttle.
These new postal-aid measures were a plain instance of too little, too late. No resurgence of the merchant fleet followed in the wake of the St. Louis and the St. Paul. Rather, all the indicators continued their descent, and from 1900 through 1914, foreign ships carried over ninety per cent of American trade.
Since these opening years, the century has been marked by a few signs that the American public realized the gravity and importance of their merchant marine problem, and by serious, if sporadic, legislative attempts to revitalize the maritime establishment. But the overriding phenomena have been two world wars. To win them, heroic ship-construction efforts were expended, but these miracles simply left aggravated problems in their wake. The possibility of solutions has been made increasingly remote by the expanding cost-of-living gap between this country and its maritime competitors, and by the emergence of labor as a powerful fourth factor in the already intricate industry-government-public equation. Above all, we have continued to demonstrate our by now historic indisposition to follow up maritime starts well made, and our boundless capacity to forget lessons learned.
The first lesson came when war broke out in Europe in 1914, and the United States found itself with practically no ships in foreign trade. The alien ships we had corne to employ as our carriers (Robert Albion notes that in 1913 only 119 of 1,855 “departures foreign” from New York were made by U.S.-flag ships) had disappeared overnight. Our imports were cut off, and our export cargoes backed up in a stupendous traffic jam all the way to the Mississippi Valley. Desperate measures were called for, and for the first time in this century a shaken nation vowed never to neglect the merchant marine again.
By rifling the domestic fleet, building what we could, and admitting foreign-built ships to U.S. registry, we weathered the neutral years; but as actual belligerency approached, it was clear that a vast ship and shipyard building program was inevitable. We were, as in most other things, unprepared. Yet under the newly created United States Shipping Board and its construction arm, the Emergency Fleet Corporation, the yards were constructed (notably the huge one at Hog Island, below Philadelphia), labor and materials were obtained, and a total of 2,300 ships were delivered (mostly after Germany’s unexpected collapse in 1918). It was history’s largest shipbuilding program to date, and it cost more than three billion dollars.
The new fleet included about seven hundred large steel ships usable to make up our tonnage deficit; they were primarily of two standard cargo types, the 7,800-ton, square-lined “Hog Islander” and an 8,500-ton class bearing names starting with West. There were also twenty-six transports, a sturdy if unglamorous nucleus for our postwar passenger fleets on both oceans.
Also on hand when we entered the war were thirty seized German vessels, one of which was the mighty Leviathan. Originally built as the Vaterland, she became one of the best-loved ships (and still the largest) ever to fly the stars and stripes during two decades as troop transport and United States Lines flagship.
The Shipping Board’s immediate postwar mission was to get all these ships into private hands or to operate them itself, as the nation’s commercial interest might dictate. In doing this, it took a century-old leaf from the book of the Black Ball Line. By 1914, the cargo liner—a freighter operating “full or not full” on a fixed schedule over a fixed route—dominated world shipping. Now the board and Congress evolved the concept of “essential trade routes” and the principle that government tonnage be disposed of to private operators who would maintain liner service on specified essential routes for five years. By 1933, twenty-seven passenger ships and 218 freighters had been thus sold to twenty-one companies.
During this period—in 1916, 1920, and 1928—Congress enacted a series of comprehensive laws to stimulate, aid, and regulate the merchant marine. Despite past experience, it retained mail subsidies as the chief form of assistance offered, even adding a mileage formula that proved intricate, probably unreliable, and certainly unworkable. Senate realization of this led to the celebrated hearings held by future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in 1933 and 1934. While these disclosed few irregularities so serious as to warrant contract termination, they did bring the mail subsidies into disrepute, and Black’s committee recommended scrapping the entire system.
The 1920 and 1928 acts also sought to avert the worst consequence of any crash shipbuilding program, “block obsolescence,” by setting up construction loan funds to encourage replacement of ships before the entire war-built fleet wore out at once. While this fell far short of its objective, it did bring into being a series of two-stacked passenger liners, notably the Manhattan and the Washington, the first crack U.S.-built Atlantic liners since 1895; the President Hoover and the President Coolidge, America’s largest Pacific liners; and the Panama Pacific triplets, the California, the Pennsylvania, and the Virginia.
The 1930s brought depression and, for the merchant marine, ominous signs of its customary slide toward public oblivion. But for once an alert administration and Congress countered the trend with what is still the century’s landmark shipping law, the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. Dropping the euphemisms of mail pay and construction loans, they faced up to the fact that the chief burden for American shipowners and shipbuilders was the cost differential (chiefly wages) between operation and construction here and abroad. The act frankly provided for direct subsidy payments in the amount of this differential to owners and builders. Operating subsidy was also tied to the essential-trade-route concept, creating primarily another liner-assistance act. A Maritime Commission was created to administer the new arrangements.
The commission promptly entered into operating-subsidy contracts with a number of lines serving essential trade routes. Its architects developed a series of standard designs, notably the C1, C2, and C3 types, dry-cargo ships graduated in size up to 10,000 deadweight tons. Operators were urged to begin renewing their fleets with these types. But before this program could get well under way, Europe was at war, and despite our neutrality acts, the United States was clearly headed for a shipping and shipbuilding crisis that would dwarf anything that had gone before.
Under its chairman, Emory S. Land, the Maritime Commission began expanding the nation’s shipyard capacity, and had production well under way several months before Pearl Harbor. It was none too soon. The art of ship-slaughter by submarine reached its peak in 1942, and there were times that year when the collapse of the Allied supply system was avoided only by the infinitesimally widening margin between German sinkings and American launchings.
At first the emphasis was on the Liberty ship, a standardized 10,000-ton vessel propelled by already old-fashioned triple-expansion steam engines at ten knots, barely fast enough for convoy operation. More than 2,700 of these were built. Later came about 400 Victory ships, also an emergency type, but with turbines and speeds of sixteen knots. Some 700 fast 16,000-ton T2 tankers were of vital strategic value. Through it all, with a foresight unknown in earlier regimes, the Maritime Commission continued its “long-range” program and completed 540 C-type ships, the only ones that would be modern and sophisticated enough to meet postwar liner requirements. In all, just under 5,800 merchant ships were delivered, at a cost upwards of fifteen billion dollars.
With the largest merchant tonnage in our history, carrying seventy per cent or better of our foreign trade, we were perfectly poised for another long glide to block obsolescence—unless someone remembered. No one did, apparently, and for fifteen years American merchant ship construction stopped, apart from some tankers and a few superb passenger liners. Among the latter was the United States of 1952, the largest American-built liner in history, and the first since Collins' Baltic to reclaim the transatlantic speed record, with a run of three days and ten and a half hours. She is still the flagship of the merchant marine, but her proposed sister has never been built, and in the space age her record seems secure.
Faced with prospects darker than at any time in this century, the White House, Capitol Hill, maritime labor, and steamship management are agreed that a sweeping corrective program is needed. Unhappily, agreement stops at that point, even within the several groups. The trouble stems partly from policies which for fifty years have fostered liner shipping but have offered little real encouragement to bulk and tramp carriers or to domestic shipping (all but extinct since 1945). Be that as it may, the ironic picture in 1967 is of a worried administration willing to press for a positive new program but stymied by disagreement within the merchant marine itself as to the shape of that program. With this impasse, it is cold solace to possess about two hundred of the finest ships afloat and more twenty-knot freighters than the rest of the world in toto.
So, this essay into our maritime history, a history that has given us some of our most stirring accomplishments and no small part of the very foundations of American power and prosperity, ends, appropriately, with a question: Which part of that history will repeat itself? It seemed that we had come full circle when the administration announced early this year its intention of withdrawing the nuclear ship Savannah. Built, like her namesake, to demonstrate the efficacy and safety of a revolutionary new power source for ocean commerce, this beautiful passenger-cargo ship had indeed performed that initial mission in her five years of service. But, as with the first Savannah, there is more to do, unless the fruits of pioneering are to be turned over to others to enjoy and exploit. Germany is already building a nuclear ship; other countries are planning them. Our government’s plan would have surrendered the initiative in commercial nuclear power application as surely as the scrapping of the first Savannah’s engine placed the initiative of the steam age in British hands.
But, amazingly, something happened which has not happened in Columbia’s ocean world since that blunder of 1819. America rebelled. Shipping men, seamen, newspapermen, and a surprising number of plain citizens loudly protested the Savannah’s lay-up. And the government, heeding the protest, announced that she would be kept in service for at least another year. This of course does not assure her survival, or the continued nuclear primacy of the United States. But it has not happened before. Perhaps, for those who are too readily pessimistic, it is a hopeful straw in the sea wind.