Vital Signs

Reviving the Merchant Marine

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...

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