In the years following World War II, the merchant marine of the United States went from being the greatest in the world to its present virtual nonexistence. From 1935 through World War II, the United States built some 6,500 merchant ships. When the guns ceased firing, the United States owned the largest merchant fleet in the world. Even in the mid-1950’s, we had more than 40 major operating companies. But in the years that followed the war we quickly lost our merchant fleet; we scrapped many ships and sold others. Today there remain only about 370 active ships, plus another 100 inactive but still useful. There are only eight operating companies, of which several are clinging to life by a thread. Although some of the old ships are still afloat, the remainder of the war fleet is no longer physically or economically useful. We have practically no viable reserve fleet. Of the 15 maritime nations, we rank 14th.

There have been estimable but abortive efforts to revive the merchant marine, and well-intentioned promises by Democrats and Republicans alike, including Michael Dukakis and Richard Nixon, not to mention desperate struggles by private entities, but this decline has continued. Despite the fact that we are the world’s largest trading nation, producing over 60 percent of the goods passing through our ports, we move only 4 percent of this cargo in our own ships.

To people in the field, it is apparent that a viable and active merchant marine would provide us with both an improved economy and enhanced military safety. Unfortunately, the public at large is too preoccupied with more immediate pressures to think about the merchant marine, while Congress and whatever administration is in office have neglected their duty to reverse our decline in shipping.

Scholarly investigations of other nations’ maintenance of merchant fleets testify to the benefits. The Atlantic Council of the US has found that “The Soviet merchant marine and fishing fleet make substantial contributions to the Soviet economy, as well as providing significant opportunities to influence the economic growth and political affiliation of Third World countries.” These are serious matters affecting all of us, not merely shipbuilders, operators, and special cadres of labor. Of all the world’s seafaring nations, the United States is alone in neglecting its merchant fleet. All by itself, this should warn us that something is amiss. It is damaging to our economy to leave the movement of cargo to foreign nations, and we would be unable to supply our fighting men if an enemy attacked us.

The United States undertook emergency construction of merchant fleets on two occasions preceding and during the world wars. Although we may be rightfully proud of our ability to produce ships under pressure, it is important to realize that these efforts were expensive. Also, as is not so well known, the vessels produced were technologically behind the times. That was to be expected considering the circumstances—the ships were strictly “war babies,” intended only for war and built in a hurry. An orderly production of a merchant fleet would seem to be a more logical and economical process.

In 1985, Congress established a Commission on the Merchant Marine and Defense to study and report on its problems as they affect the nation’s economy and national defense. However, the Bennett Commission, as it is commonly known, was only another study group, and its findings will only reach a dusty shelf in a dusty library. But others are interested. In recent years, the sorry condition of our merchant marine has attracted the attention of people like Paula J. Petarino at Georgetown’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, the late Samuel E. Morison of Harvard, Leo J. Donovan of Booz, Allen, and Hamilton, and Rep. Helen D. Bentley. This matter has even been brought up by the novelist Tom Clancy, who had some harsh words about our negligence in Red Storm Rising.

“Another use for U.S.-flag ships would be to provide U.S. aid ‘in kind’ rather than in cash,” Rear Admiral J.J. Ekelund, president of California Maritime Academy, has written. “For example: We give dollars to Egypt, and Egypt buys grain from Argentina. We could, instead, provide grain to Egypt, and ship it in.U.S.-flag ships.” Clinton Whitehurst of Clemson University has maintained that “any more major [ship]yard closures will impose an unacceptable risk to national security. . . . In my opinion, the present support programs are not adequate to the task. If this assessment is accepted, then an expanded program to ensure the viability of the presently existing shipyard industry must be put in place now.”

Shipbuilding has been a major activity on our shores, lakes, and rivers since colonial days. Modern shipyards are assembly plants dependent upon hundreds of organizations all over the country that research, mine, and manufacture the myriad items that go into making a ship. Today we have only 22 shipyards that are capable of building large, seagoing ships. Since 1965, 55 yards have closed up shop (among them Grace Line, United Fruit Co., Weyerhauser S.S. Co., Prudential Line, Lockheed Shipbuilding Co., and General Dynamics).

Ship operation has proven to be a marked casualty of the decline in the merchant marine. Competition from foreign lines and other forms of internal transportation have resulted in the demise of most of the old-line companies. In the past ten years, more than 60,000 seagoing jobs have vanished, and about 35,O0O jobs in shipbuilding were also lost in this same period. If the present rate of loss continues, another 35,000 will go by the board in the 90’s. The disruption to our economy has been enormous, especially when we consider the loss to widely dispersed machinery and equipment manufacturers. Not to be forgotten either is the serious loss of skills when workmen abandon so precarious a trade.

Ports of the United States are facing a leveling or loss of revenue. This is a result of severe competition among themselves, overbuilding of facilities, and reduction in federal assistance. But of all segments of the industry, the ports are least affected by the reduction of United States shipping because they still accommodate foreign ships.

With all the facts before it, our government can do no more than stumble over its feet. During President Nixon’s administration, a cargo preference bill was proposed to Congress. (Cargo preference, somehmes called cabotage law, requires that a given percentage of goods originating in the United States must be transported in United States ships.) Congress failed to pass the legislation when certain elements within and without the industry vigorously opposed it. In the Ford administration, a somewhat revised cargo preference bill was again introduced, and this time Congress passed it only to have President Ford veto the bill.

Other nations encourage their people to build and operate ships by providing outright financial subsidies and also indirectly, by means of tax benefits, low interest rates on loans, advantageous accounting practices, contracts for carrying mail, and cabotage laws. The reason for this encouragement is, again, that shipping directly and indirectly improves a nation’s economy. Funds that are generated for an economy by shipping more than pay for the cost of building and running the ships. That is why England, Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Holland, the Soviet Union, Poland, France, Italy, China, Israel, Greece, Norway, Sweden, Australia, and many other nations have fleets of ships. Our federal government might well adopt this same course to its own eventual benefit. The returns would be far greater than the expense.

Consider also the much-discussed imbalance of foreign trade, by which cost of imports far exceeds the income of exports. In an effort to alleviate the foreign trade deficit, the government has devalued our money (to little effect). If we operated sufficient shipping to move a much greater quantity of our produce, we would be taking a big step forward to correct this imbalance. Legislation has been passed that requires us to transport 50 percent of United States-produced goods in our native-built and -manned ships, but we have failed to implement these laws.

Finally, in terms of national defense, history has shown that ships cannot be built overnight. Most of us are not old enough to remember that not one ship of the emergency fleet built for World War I was completed on time to sail with war goods. The invasion of Europe in World War II was delayed a year for lack of supply ships, even though we had a going merchant fleet at the time. Not until a cargo fleet of sufficient size was assembled could we assure our soldiers that they would have all the ammunition, food, gasoline, and other supplies they needed to avoid being left high and dry on the beaches of Normandy. Many lives would have been saved and the war could have ended a year earlier if we had the ships on time to support the troops.

As for the present, we completed only eight major new merchant ships in 1986 and 1987. No orders for new cargo ships have been placed since 1984, though there may be a few orders in 1989. Even with respect to only transporting military cargos, our operational fleet is dangerously small. In the event of an emergency, we would be woefully unprepared to move men and supplies. Our reserve fleet is useless for this task and is fit only for scrap. Putting soldiers, crew, and cargo in these relics to send them overseas in time of emergency is unthinkable. We have no right, morally or logically, to depend on what is left of these decrepit reserve fleet ships; they are too few, too slow, too inefficient, and too worn.

Should we become involved in another major conflict, we will again be caught without the ships essential to fight a war unless adequate preparations are made in advance. In the past, we built ships in a hurry and paid at least twice the price they would have cost normally. In spite of the difficulties, we managed the job. But there may no’t be a third chance. As former CNO Admiral Thomas Hayward succinctly remarked about the next conflict, “It will be a come-as-you-are war!”