Skip Navigation Links

The alarming decline of the American Merchant Fleet

WHY is the U.S. merchant fleet deteriorating at such an alarming rate?
Why — while the USSR is fast becoming the world's No. 1 sea power?
Where is this ominous trend leading?
What does it portend for America's future — and for your personal way of life?


THE security of America is at stake. President Nixon is alarmed. The reason: the American merchant marine is faltering. Ships flying the American flag carry but a paltry six percent of the U.S. import-export trade!

Even more alarmingly, 66 of the 76 raw materials recognized as strategic must be imported by the U.S. from overseas areas. Only four percent of the total volume of these strategic materials arrives at American ports in American ships. Ninety-six percent arrive in ships flying flags of other nations!

These facts are shocking — frightening!

Not only is America dependent on foreign nations for raw materials, but we are even dependent on the ships of other nations to bring these critical resources to our shores.


The Lifelines of America

For many decades the U.S. produced more raw materials than its growing industrial complex could consume. But this is no longer true. It is a harsh but unavoidable fact of life that America is no longer self-sufficient. Almost half of the free-world mineral production is channeled to the needs of the American industrial machine.

America today is a nation deficient in raw materials — and dependent upon shipping to bring these materials to her.

Though he probably doesn't give it much thought, the average American is literally surrounded with goods and services which use materials that have been imported by ship. If you are an American, here is a small sampling of the imported materials you use in your everyday life:

The chromate for your toaster's heater element, nearly half of the 38 raw materials in your telephone, the morning coffee, cobalt for quality steel in your car, tin for your toothpaste tube, bauxite to make aluminum for pots and pans, copper and mica for your radio and TV receivers, tungsten for electric light bulbs — and the list goes on and on.

And this is to say nothing of the needs in making American military hardware — the missiles, rockets, jets and other sophisticated weapons of modern warfare.

If the supply of critical imported materials were impeded or stopped, the American economy would be shattered and our industry would grind to a chaotic halt. Our defense posture would be radically altered and our national security would be in jeopardy.

The sea lanes are the very lifelines of America!

Yet the American ships transporting critical materials through these lifelines are pitifully few and shamefully obsolete. Will an inadequate merchant fleet slowly but surely force the nation to turn the control of these lifelines over to others?


A Fleet of "Rust-buckets"

President Nixon has said, "Our merchant marine has been allowed to deteriorate. Now there are grave doubts that it is capable of adequate response to emergency security needs. The United States has drifted down from first place to sixth place in the world in the size of its merchant fleet."

From a fleet of some 5,000 ships totaling 50 million deadweight tons at the end of World War II, the U.S. merchant fleet has deteriorated to about 1,000 ships aggregating less than 15 million deadweight tons.

And even more shocking, some 80 percent of the ships in the American fleet are 25-year-old obsolete "rust-buckets"!

Because of high operating and maintenance costs and the inability to compete against modern, fast, foreign-flag vessels, most of these ships must be scrapped or laid up in the next four or five years.

The American Great Lakes fleet is in even worse shape. The average age of the more than 150 bulk carriers in this fleet exceeds 45 years!

What will happen when almost the entire American merchant fleet becomes inoperable in just a few years?

The American shipbuilding program will not supply the need — at least not the way it is going now.

It is a shameful fact that the U.S. — the world's richest nation — now ranks twelfth in the world in the construction of new merchant ships! Even tiny Denmark is ahead of the U.S.

Listen! "The United States, which emerged from World War II as the supreme maritime power, in terms of merchant ships, shipyards, skilled manpower — seagoing and shore-side — has sunk to an ignominious position," states Mr. Edwin M. Hood, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America.


The Russians, Meanwhile. . .

But while America has been allowing its merchant fleet to deteriorate, Russia has been striving to become the world's dominant sea power.

Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, USN, Chief of Naval Operations, said: "In a mere ten years, the Soviet Union with a dedication of purpose, huge outlays of funds, and with priorities equivalent to or even surpassing their space program, has transformed itself from a maritime nonentity to a major sea power."

And again quoting Edwin M. Hood of the Shipbuilders Council of America: "If one were to assess worldwide maritime developments of recent years, the phenomenal growth of Russia's merchant fleet would take top honors as the most notable achievement. And, if one were to designate the greatest maritime calamity of the same period, the dubious award would have to go to the United States — in accurate recognition of the steady decline of the American merchant marine to a third-rate status."

Look at what the Russians have done:

In 1950 the Russian merchant fleet consisted of only 432 ships (1,000 tons or over) totaling 1.8 million deadweight tons. Most of these vessels were relatively small, slow and old. In fact, the best vessels in this fleet were the 100 or so Libertys, tankers and other ships which the U.S. donated to the USSR as a part of the Lend-Lease Program.

By 1958 the Soviet fleet had doubled to 3.6 million tons. This same year, however, the Russians embarked on an ambitious shipbuilding program. This program has been so successful that by 1970 the Soviet Union will have a merchant fleet of more than 1500 vessels totaling about 14 million deadweight tons. And by 1975, according to the Leningrad Marine Transport Institute, the Soviet fleet will total 18 million tons.

Looking at it another way, between 1950 and 1966 the Soviet Union added 8.6 million deadweight tons and nearly 1,000 vessels to its fleet. During the same period the U.S. active fleet suffered a loss of more than 800 ships of a total 7 million tons. Small wonder the Russian merchant fleet today outnumbers the active U.S. fleet!

But far more significant than mere numbers alone, about 80 percent of the Russian fleet is less than ten years old. In sharp contrast, some 80 percent of the American merchant fleet is about 25 years old!

In recent years the Russians have been spending between $600 million and $750 million annually in building ships. The U.S., on the other hand, has been geared to a program in which the Federal Government spends about $100 million annually. This is why the Russians have been and are taking delivery of seven or eight ships for everyone the U.S. delivers.

But why are the Russians so interested in sea power? What do they hope to gain?