How Big a Merchant Marine Do We Want?

Back in the days before the Civil War, before the chance for great fortunes drew American youth, to the railroads and the factories, the call of the sea was one of the strongest calls to American boys. Thousands of them became experienced seamen virtually in childhood. Hundreds were ship captains almost before they were old enough to vote. In those days of staunch and sturdy square-riggers and sleek, record-smashing clipper ships, the United States was one of the world’s greatest maritime powers. Later we fell behind England, Germany, Norway, and other smaller nations. But during World War I we were forced to become a great maritime nation again. During the last war, we built and manned the largest and fastest merchant fleet in world history.

Today, as a hundred years ago, American shipping once more dominates the seven seas. Will we remain a great maritime nation now that the war is over? Will the sea once again beckon to American youth? Will it offer rich opportunities for fortune and a lusty life? Right now we have the ships for a great merchant fleet. We have the men to run the ships. We have the cargo with which to load them, the markets to which to deliver the cargo. How long will these conditions last? The pressure of war transportation is past. What now?

Is the decision important?

The United States must soon decide this question: Do we want to remain a great maritime nation in peacetime? Or will we prefer to let foreign nations carry the bulk of our trade the way they did for almost a century up to 1940?

The answer to this won’t be so easy as it looks. It will be a tough decision to make. But one thing is certainly clear. Whatever we decide to do with our huge merchant fleet will affect our postwar economy in all sorts of ways. The decision will have a great bearing on the vitality of our industry and trade. It will affect the number of jobs that will be available on land and sea, the types of jobs that will be open to American veterans returning from every branch of the service and ever- theater of the war.

What we do with our wartime merchant fleet concerns everyone. And not only in the United States.

We might get pushed around!

A lot of people in the United States are going to have a great deal to say about what to do with our huge merchant fleet. That is a good thing in a democracy. We don’t want to decide anything in secret.

Some of these people know that the future of the American merchant marine is not altogether an American problem. They know that the best postwar use of our merchant fleet will depend on conditions all over the world: on the production of coffee in Brazil, rubber in the East Indies, silk in China, wine in France, as well as on the production of machinery, home appliances, automobiles, and airplanes in the United States. These people know that, after all, a fleet only has use when there is lots of trade and that there can be lots of trade only when world industry and agriculture are going full blast. These people will look upon the postwar-uses of our merchant fleet from a -long-term, world-wide point of view.

Others, however, are going to look at our gigantic merchant fleet selfishly, narrowly, on a short-term basis. These people know that the United States came out of the war as one of the greatest powers in history. They will think that we can do what we like when we like and to whom we like and make it stick. Such people will quickly find, however, that there are forces operating in the world that might easily push around even the most powerful country the world ever saw.

Who’ll do the pushing?

Look at it this way. We decide, let us say, to keep our present gigantic merchant fleet intact. We decide, furthermore, to keep our ships on the sea at all cost. If Britain or Holland or Greece or anyone else can build and run ships cheaper than we can, then we’ll run ours, let us say, at a loss in order to beat the competition. Something like this was done before the war, when the government, by giving subsidies to the ship operators in essential trades, helped to save them from loss. Well, suppose we do this. It looks good on the face of it. Apparently, the more ships we can keep in operation, the more Americans will have jobs at sea.

This sounds good. It might even be good. But look at the other side of it. If we-outrival maritime nations like Britain, Holland, Norway, or Greece, it may mean that these nations might find it difficult to get cargo for their ships. Their shipping industries would then decline; many of their shipyards would close down. Men in those countries would be thrown out of work. They would be able to buy fewer goods than before.

A depression might come to such countries. We would still have most of the ships and most of the trade. But if Britain or Holland or Norway or Greece or anyone else couldn’t buy many of our goods, or couldn’t buy from each other, we wouldn’t have so much to carry in our huge fleet. We would doubtless have to lay up some ships. We would certainly heave to stop building new ones. Our own shipping workers would be out of jobs. A depression might begin here too. Unemployment could easily spread to other industries. Apparently a situation or policy which looked very promising from the point of view of jobs for American workers and American veterans might thus actually result in a much darker employment picture.

Thus to attempt to keep all our ships full and busy may well be a policy we couldn’t make stick no matter how powerful we may, be. This picture is a simplified one. As stated, it needn’t happen. But it could easily happen—even to the United States.

Take another case

So could this: Suppose we decide to sell some of our ships abroad—to Britain, Holland; Greece, Norway, or any other maritime nation whose fleet was destroyed or crippled by the war. If we decide to sell, we have to name a price. After all, it might be argued, this great merchant fleet of ours cost over 15 billion dollars. We can’t just give it away. The American people paid a lot in taxes and sweat to produce this fleet. It ought to bring some return. So we name a minimum price, but a pretty good one.

The only trouble is, European nations, where labor is cheap, might produce new and better ships for a lot less than our minimum price. They might say: “America, keep your ships. We’ll build our own; we’ll build them and run them so cheaply that yours will have to tie up and rust at their piers.”

These nations could do this. They did it before the war, though not quite to the extent indicated here. We could introduce further subsidies from our great wealth to combat this. But we’ve seen where such a policy might get us.

Obviously no one will be pushing us around; no one we could actually put our finger on. But just sheer economics might push us around. The whole problem of the merchant marine is far more complicated than it looks on the surface. We’re letting you in easy. We’ll get to the tough parts step by step.

The U.S. Merchant Fleet Dec. 1939

Self-Propelled Vessels over 2,000 Gross Tons

Type of Vessel
No. of Vessels
Gross Tons
Combined Freight
and Passenger