Academic journal article Naval War College Review

THE U.S. MERCHANT MARINE: Back to the Future?

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

THE U.S. MERCHANT MARINE: Back to the Future?

Article excerpt

The marketing of our productions will be at the mercy of any nation which has possessed itself exclusively of the means of carrying them; and our policy may be influenced by those who command our commerce.


To the spread of our trade in peace and the defense of our flag in war, a great and prosperous merchant marine is indispensable. We should have ships of our own and seamen of our own to convey our goods to neutral markets, and in case of need, to reinforce our battle line.


To speak plainly we have grossly erred in the way in which we have stunted and hindered the development of our merchant marine. . . . It is necessary for many weighty reasons of national efficiency and development that we should have a great merchant marine. . . . It is high time we repaired our mistakes and resumed our commercial independence on the sea.


The epigraphs that open this article are but three of a vast number of quotes from U.S. presidents, members of Congress, and military leaders calling for support of a U.S.-flag merchant marine.1 Throughout American history, dozens of laws have been proposed and passed that have, in varying degrees, supported the operation of U.S.-flag ships in both coastal and international trade; no law ever passed has called for a reduction in or the elimination of U.S.-flag ships. And yet, despite periods of great growth at various times in U.S. history, the U.S. Merchant Marine, once again, is in serious decline today.

In keeping with so many of our nation's political, military, and maritime leaders throughout American history, this article contends that relying substantially on foreign-flag shipping for either strategic or commercial purposes places the United States in an extremely vulnerable position. Our history has proved this repeatedly through the centuries. Once again today, it is in the interest of the United States to take serious and comprehensive steps to reverse the declining trend of the U.S. Merchant Marine. Through various tax incentives and other innovative promotional programs (notably, not involving additional direct subsidies to the industry), it is possible to do this-and for America's merchant marine, yet again, to regain its position as a leader in maritime commerce.

This article will trace the highlights of America's commercial shipping history and present the reasons why the U.S. Merchant Marine engaged in international trade is in steep decline. It will provide reasons why support for a U.S.-flag merchant marine is still critical to the economic prosperity of the country despite its reliance for the past several decades on foreign-flag shipping. It will also explain the critical role that U.S.-flag shipping plays in America's ability to project military power around the world.

In other words, the article will provide the "why" a U.S.-flag merchant marine is a strategic industry that is crucial to national security. By congressional mandate (the Howard Coble Coast Guard and Marine Transportation Act of 2014), the Maritime Administration is developing a National Maritime Strategy that (at this writing) will be available for review in late 2015 or early 2016. This strategy will provide the "how" to revitalize the U.S. Merchant Marine so that it can, once again, become a healthy and viable commercial industry.


There is little question that the founding fathers of America understood the importance of U.S.-owned, -operated, and -flagged commercial ships. Early U.S. presidents were concerned that a lack of U.S.-flag ships could disrupt America's vital trading economy in times of international conflict. After approval of the Constitution, when the first Congress convened in 1789, one of its first acts was to pass a law that, among other things, provided for a 10 percent reduction in tariffs on imported goods carried aboard U. …

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