The maintenance of a merchant marine is of the utmost importance for national defense and the service of our commerce… Calvin Coolidge


Illustration shows Rip Van Winkle, his beard long and his clothes tattered, asleep near an abandoned ship building yard, an overturned jug labeled "High Protective Tariff" at his side and a sign behind him that states "Prohibitive Cost of Construction"; probably refers to the high cost of American products due to protective tariffs against the importation of less expensive foreign products.

Illustration shows Rip Van Winkle, his beard long and his clothes tattered, asleep near an abandoned ship building yard, an overturned jug labeled “High Protective Tariff” at his side and a sign behind him that states “Prohibitive Cost of Construction”; probably refers to the high cost of American products due to protective tariffs against the importation of less expensive foreign products.

I titled this entry with a quote from Calvin Coolidge because he was a man of such reticence that he is difficult to quote and although most of what he said is well worth considering it is often difficult to locate the Coolidge quote that is apropos an extended argument. To elucidate on the point made by Coolidge I will go back to Ulysses S. Grant,  It is a national humiliation that we are now compelled to pay from twenty to thirty million dollars annually (exclusive of passage money which we should share with vessels of other nations) to foreigners for doing the work which should be done by American vessels, American-built, American-owned and American-manned. This is a direct drain upon the resources of the country of just so much money, equal to casting it into the sea, so far as this nation is concerned. A nation of the vast and ever-increasing interior resources of the United States must one day possess its full share of the commerce of these oceans no matter what the cost. Delay will only increase this cost and enhance the difficulty of attaining the result. I therefore put in an earnest plea for early action in this matter, in a way to secure the desired increase of American commerce. . . . I regard it as of such great importance, affecting every interest of the country to so great an extent, that any method which will gain the end will secure a rich national blessing. Building ships and navigating them utilizes vast capital at home; it employs thousands of workmen in their construction and manning; it creates a home market for the products of the farm and the shop; it diminishes the balance of trade against us precisely to the extent of freights and passage money paid to American vessels, and gives us a supremacy upon the seas of inestimable value in case of foreign wars.

When I first boarded the ss Dick Lykes in 1955 the 8200 gross registered ton freighter had a crew that numbered in the 50’s and carried almost as many passengers in addition to a full load of break bulk cargo. By the time I walked down my last gangway in 1995 from a ship nearly 3 times her size we had a crew of 16, rarely carried a full cargo – in fact the ship was being laid up for lack of cargo and would go from being laid up at the owner’s expense to being laid up at the taxpayer’s expense when it was bought by the Military Sealift Command for part of the ready reserve fleet. To the best of my knowledge she has never had a cargo or a crew since we disembarked.

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The word cabotage comes from the French caboter  meaning to ‘sail along a coast’ and, perhaps,  from Spanish cabo ‘cape, headland’ but in its English meaning the word denotes a restriction of the operation of sea, air, or other transport services within or into a particular country to that country’s own transport services. On the one hand we had a long tradition of a large and prosperous merchant marine that functioned largely on par with other developed nations fleets and did not require the protection of cabotage laws. Then came the depression and with it the Jones Act to keep our own coastwise trade for ourselves. Some foreign aid packages required American tonnage to carry American aid but those were always requirements as honored in the breach as in the observance.

Senate Committee told communists filtering into American Merchant Marine. Joseph P. Ryan, President of the International Longshoreman's Association, an A.F. of L. affiliate, today charged before the Senate Commerce Committee that there is an infiltration of Communists into American Merchant Marine. He alleged that Joseph Curran, President of the Maritime Union, a CIO affiliate, is a member of the Communist Party and is on the payroll of the organization.

Senate Committee told communists filtering into American Merchant Marine. Joseph P. Ryan, President of the International Longshoreman’s Association, an A.F. of L. affiliate, today charged before the Senate Commerce Committee that there is an infiltration of Communists into American Merchant Marine. He alleged that Joseph Curran, President of the Maritime Union, a CIO affiliate, is a member of the Communist Party and is on the payroll of the organization.

After the Second World War there was such a glut of surplus ocean-going tonnage that American shipbuilding began a decline for everything other than defense contracts and inland waterway boats and barges and with the rise of the unions the American seagoing merchant marine priced itself out of the market. Even the government has largely abandoned the need for an American fleet having yet to be abandoned by flags of convenience in an hour of need and finding it cheaper to pay subsidies – just as it is cheaper to pay welfare than it is to educate workers. The net result has been about the same since whether you have a corporation living off of subsidies for not hiring workers or those workers living off welfare for not working you have created a self-perpetuating non productive enterprise and it will require a cataclysmic event to change the status quo.

Poster for the United States Maritime Service offering training courses to members of the American Merchant Marine.

Poster for the United States Maritime Service offering training courses to members of the American Merchant Marine.

Butler’s book is not new but it provides an interesting capsule of what happened but while it is long on blame it is short on solution. Just as Americans are unwilling – and in a largely unrecognized vicious cycle – increasing unable to pay for goods of American manufacture they are unwilling and increasingly unable to pay for an American sea-going merchant marine. What little Jones Act protection there was is being continuously eroded, there is no longer even a pretense at tying export aid or imports to anything other than the merest token participation and NAFTA and the importation of Mexican truck drivers may soon see the American over the road industry headed in the same direction.

Hoffman Island, merchant marine training center off Staten Island, New York. Boy from Minneapolis training for a job in the merchant marine

Hoffman Island, merchant marine training center off Staten Island, New York. Boy from Minneapolis training for a job in the merchant marine

This has not been the work of a day, or a month or even a year nor has it been the work of a single political party. It has been park of the concentrated effort to dismantle the single largest dynamo of human history and the perpetrators have feasted like carrion for fifty years while whispering the lies  that You can bring prosperity by discouraging thrift, You strengthen the weak by weakening the strong, You can lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer, You can help the poor man by destroying the rich, You can keep out of trouble by spending more than your income, You can further brotherhood by inciting class hatred, You can establish security on borrowed money and You can build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence.

Maritime Commission opens bids for new combination passenger and cargo liner. Taking its first major step toward developing the American Merchant Fleet, the new federal maritime Commission opened bids today for the construction of a combination passenger and cargo liner to replace the S.S. Leviathan in Transatlantic service. The bids were submitted under the  Merchant Marine Act which specifies that plans must include all the latest safety and National defense features. The War and Navy Departments have requested that the Leviathan be retained as a Military Auxiliary. In the photograph, left to right: Commissioner M.M. Taylor; Telfair Knight, Secretary to the Commission; and Rear Admiral H.A. Wiley, Chairman of the Commission.

Maritime Commission opens bids for new combination passenger and cargo liner. Taking its first major step toward developing the American Merchant Fleet, the new federal maritime Commission opened bids today for the construction of a combination passenger and cargo liner to replace the S.S. Leviathan in Transatlantic service. The bids were submitted under the Merchant Marine Act which specifies that plans must include all the latest safety and National defense features. The War and Navy Departments have requested that the Leviathan be retained as a Military Auxiliary. In the photograph, left to right: Commissioner M.M. Taylor; Telfair Knight, Secretary to the Commission; and Rear Admiral H.A. Wiley, Chairman of the Commission.

Sailing on Friday: the perilous voyage of America’s merchant marine Washington: Brassey’s, c 1997 John A. Butler Merchant marine United States History Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xv, 287 p.: ill., maps; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 261-268) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Poster encouraging skilled laborers to sign up at the U.S. Maritime Service, 321 Chestnut St. Philadelphia, Pa., as part of the war effort, showing longshoremen loading tank on ship.

Poster encouraging skilled laborers to sign up at the U.S. Maritime Service, 321 Chestnut St. Philadelphia, Pa., as part of the war effort, showing longshoremen loading tank on ship.

Sailing on Friday recounts the growth and decline of what twice became the world’s most powerful maritime fleet. This is a tale of operatic dimension, peopled with patriots, politicians, industrial geniuses, fearless seamen, and gallant swashbucklers. There are women in the story, and more than one fallen hero whose tri­umphs were lost in tragedy.

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Author John A. Butler includes accounts of little-noted innova­tions that had long-lasting effects, daring ocean rescues, sea battles, the greatest sealift in world history, and financial gam­bles that won or lost millions. Through it all there breathes the salty tang of the sea. the heady scents of cordage and canvas, of coal and oil.  Growing stress among diverse forces of mer­chants, shipowners, seafarers. and federal agencies brings this exciting story to an appalling cli­max. Addressing the need to renew national interest in revitalization of the U.S. merchant marine. Sailing on Friday enables you to relive a glorious maritime past.

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