Pride Of The Seas

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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.

As the active fleet shrank from 1,500 to 1,000 ships and the trade percentage in American ships fell to the levels of fifty years before, industry and government together worked out a plan of comprehensive liner replacement on the eve of the 1960s. This scheme was immediately slowed by the reluctance of successive administrations to budget funds sufficient to make up for the years of neglect. In almost a decade, about one-third of the liners requiring replacement have been replaced. Since these were only about one-third of the entire American-flag fleet, it follows that a great majority of that fleet is obsolescent today.

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.