Building on History

We’ve written about the Emergency Shipbuilding Program that President Roosevelt authorized in preparation for our entry into World War II, but there were earlier shipbuilding programs that guaranteed an immediate ending to unemployment and the Great Depression.

Following the passage of the Two Ocean Navy Act, the wartime Naval Expansion Program was begun in 1940, but earlier, in 1937, the U.S. Maritime Commission established the Long Range Shipbuilding Program as part of the mandate of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. That Act stated that:

“United States shall have a merchant marine (a) sufficient to carry its domestic-water-borne commerce and a substantial portion of the water-borne export and import foreign commerce of the United States and to provide shipping service on all routes essential for maintaining the flow of such domestic and foreign water-borne commerce at all times, (b) capable of serving as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency, (c) owned and operated under the United States flag by citizens of the United States insofar as may be practicable, and (d) composed of the best-equipped, safest, and most suitable types of vessels, constructed in the United States and manned with a trained and efficient citizen personnel. It is hereby declared to be the official policy of the United States to foster the development and encourage the maintenance of such a merchant marine.”

By the end of the war more than 50 shipyards were building vessels for the Maritime Commission, and many of the yards which built for the Long Range Program continued to operate in the post war years. Because the nearly 6,000 vessels built for the Maritime Commission provided a surplus for both U.S. and foreign owners, there was a drastic cutback in new merchant vessel construction in post war years and it wasn’t until the 1950s that a new, but abbreviated, shipbuilding program was undertaken by the U.S. Maritime Administration, the successor to the Maritime Commission.

The names of some of the vessel types are recalled by those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II years. Naval and maritime records narrate the achievements of Liberty Ships (“Ugly Ducklings”), Victory Ships, C-1s, C-2s and C-3s, probably the most familiar of the many cargo designs built in U.S. yards, but dozens and dozens of different types were actually turned out during those years. Maybe a hundred or more. Who knows. Those many and diverse types of cargo vessels – and warships – were built and delivered by U.S. shipyards that sprung up almost overnight, and that massive and miraculous shipbuilding effort took place in about a half-dozen years. Our single, simple, patented container ships, on the other hand, could be punched out “like cupcakes” in existing yards, in an “emergency program” that would create about 50 million new jobs and end our economic tailspin. In that scenario everyone would come out smelling like a rose.

Employed Americans are the master link in the international supply chain, but unemployment has disabled that chain. Everything is shutting down and history shows that similar periods of destitution have produced tragic events. In those scenarios everyone would come out smelling.