A Farewell to American Shipping
Recently, Wonder Wife and I talked about cruising to Alaska. How nice to sit on the fantail of a sturdy American vessel watching Old Glory fluttering in the breeze.
Then, it occurred to me there are no American ships anymore. Since World War II, we have systematically destroyed our American merchant marine industry. As we end the 20th Century, passengers and goods move on ships flying the flags of much lesser nations.
We became a great power because of a vital maritime industry backed by what was the greatest navy on Earth. Indeed, at the end of World War II, the United States surpassed Great Britain as the greatest naval power the world has ever seen. Ironically, we about to give the Panama Canal to the Panamanians who just signed a contract with a Red Chinese company to operate the Canal for them. I don’t think that is what President Jimmy Carter had in mind.
As part of the demobilization that follows every war, thousands of ships were converted to scrap or mothballed. American maritime power literally sank until President Ronald Reagan built a 600-ship US Navy that called the Soviet’s bluff. But, today, under Clinton, our Navy is down to about 300 under-staffed ships --many so short of sailors they cannot go to sea.
On the merchant marine side, our decline is even worse. Due to outlandish demands by Big Labor and due to stifling over-regulation by the U.S. Government, our maritime shipping industry is gone. Visit any U.S. port today and you will see virtually every sea-going vessel is flying a foreign flag. American shipping companies simply cannot afford the labor costs and the costs of compliance with the regulations that now govern ships flying the American Flag.
While aircraft do move a certain amount of cargo, it is still the ship that transports the vast majority of the world’s commercial and military goods. During World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the Balkan War build-up, it took tons and tons of shipping to get the needed tanks, ammunition, fuels and rations into position. That is why those build-ups took so long.
Yes, we can drop an airborne division most anywhere in the world in a few days. But airmobile troops cannot stay in the fight for long. It takes heavy lifting by ships to enable us to fight over the long term and prevail.
In the wake of the Kennedy air crash tragedy, we may see a similar tightening of the regulatory noose around the neck of our aviation industry. Well-meaning, but uninformed, activists are pressuring Congress to enact new laws -- none of which will keep individual pilots from exercising bad judgment. But they will have the cumulative effect of increasing the costs of our aviation industry.
The Europeans have regulated their general aviation industry virtually out of business. In 1973, I helped start a flying club on a military base in Germany. By 1974, we had to shut it down because of excessive regulation and the resulting costs.
Somehow, in all the hysteria over the Kennedy plane crash, the fact that travel by air is overwhelmingly safer than travel by car got lost in the media shuffle. The sad reality is that every newscast tells us of yet another batch of traffic accidents claiming thousands of lives and the public takes little notice. But let one celebrity pilot make a series of judgment errors and take himself and two others to a watery grave and you would think the Wright Brothers should be exhumed from their graves and tried for war crimes against humankind.
Today, the United States enjoys the world’s finest air transportation system. Granted, we can use more and better airports. But our system of aircraft manufacture, periodic safety inspections, pilot training and air traffic control is the envy of the free world. Hopefully, the most recent Kennedy tragedy won’t lead us to do to general aviation what we have done to our shipping industry.
William Hamilton is a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today.