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Journal of Policy History 13.4 (2001) 479-483

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Book Review

The Failure of America's Maritime Policy

Richard A. Greenwald

Andrew Gibson and Arthur Donovan, The Abandoned Ocean: A History of United States Maritime Policy (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000). Pp. xiv + 362.

The Abandoned Ocean is an important work of policy history that deserves a wide readership. It is more than merely a history of the American maritime world. It is an effort to bring historical weight to the policy debates regarding the future of American shipping and the maritime industry. It provides a trenchant discussion of the myriad details of federal maritime policy in an effort to educate the reader.

What makes this subject so important? In 1945, the United States had more than one thousand U.S.-owned and -flagged ocean-going ships engaged in foreign trade carrying 60 percent of the world's commerce. Today, our fleet is down to below forty-six and consists manly of older ships with little life left in them. We carry little of our own commerce, relying instead on foreign carriers. Many U.S. companies engaged in foreign trade fly foreign flags to avoid the higher operating and labor costs as well as the heavy governmental restrictions of flying the U.S. flag.

Gibson and Donovan start with a central focusing question: "Why, since the middle of the nineteenth century, has U.S. maritime policy been so strikingly unsuccessful in achieving its stated goal of promoting a commercially viable merchant marine engaged in foreign trade?" (1). Their short answer is the historically confused role that the merchant marine has been asked to play during this past century. It was both a private industry driven by profit as [End Page 479] well as an important component of national security--supplying the armed forces--supported by governmental subsidies and, therefore, heavily regulated. Since 1914, military policies drove maritime policies. However, with the ending of the Cold War and the changing nature of U.S. military concerns, there has come a rethinking of maritime policies. What should the role of the merchant marine be for the twenty-first century? "It is time," write Gibson and Donovan, "U.S. maritime policy move beyond being a hostage to the past" (3).

How exactly did we get to this sorry state of affairs? The goal of this book is to demonstrate that the lessons of history have much to teach policymakers. Tinkering with policies have not worked in the past. Thus a major overhaul is needed--an overhaul informed by history. Gibson and Donovan trace the historical record, showing how and why current policies have failed. There needs to be a serious rethinking of maritime policy according to them, or "in the absence of a truly new departure, of strong leadership and collective commitment to fundamental renovation, extinction is the most likely outcome" (305).

The first section of the book deals with the historical background of the important economic role of the colonial merchants through to the Civil War. One of the first acts of the new nation was a maritime act. It protected American shipbuilding, it established tax breaks for U.S.-built and -operated ships and closed foreign ships out of U.S. coastal trade. These were the glory days of American merchant trades. American ship making and shipping were the most productive and efficient in the world. But this did not last long and soon American shipping was in decline. American shippers were slow to adopt new technologies such as steam power, and as shoreline opportunities rose so did labor costs aboard ships. Clipper captains responded by driving their workers and creating some of the worst conditions in industrializing America.

American shippers have had a unique relationship to the federal government. Even in the 1840s--when the government was a mere "state of courts and parties"--federal policies drove the maritime trades. The first in this series were mail contracts. Starting in 1845, the United States awarded contracts to shipping lines to deliver mail between certain routes. These government subsidies...


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