Freedom of the Seas and Our Merchant Marine


FREEDOM of the Seas means the control of a merchant marine by the allied nations of the world, in such wise as not to cripple the operation of the merchant marine of any single nation.

This, in a word, is my conception of the meaning of the phrase to which I am invited to address myself. It has been the dream of my life, and its fulfillment would mean a life’s work accomplished. Wherefore, if I can help, in the smallest degree, to bring about a clear and definite understanding of what I believe to be the right and proper development of the future in the great work of bringing closer the hour when the Brotherhood of Man shall in very truth reach ‘Hands across the Sea,’ then I shall feel that my declining years have been my best years.

For the first time since 1860, our country now has, constructed and under construction, the largest proport ion that it has had for the last fifty years, of the total merchant-marine tonnage of the world.

Unfortunately, of this tonnage not more than fifty per cent will be available as profitable commercial tonnage at the termination of this war.

The important question now is, what should be done,—and what should be done immediately, — to secure the best possible results for the future of our country in this important transportation matter?

I believe with a conviction founded upon a life’s work in the upbuilding of our over-seas service that the freedom of the seas will be realized when a maritime league of nations has been formed, and has behind it the mighty force of an international determination that commerce, industry, and peace shall rule the world.

It is proper that, in the formation of such a league, the United States should take the lead. This country has declared for world-wide democracy, and stands definitely for justice and equity for all people and all nations. We believe that the motto, ‘United we stand, divided we fall,’ is based upon a foundation as firm as the Rock of Gibraltar; and the establishment of a maritime league of nations is a task to which our country could consecrate herself with entire consistency.

The initial step toward the formation of such a league should be taken by the President, who should issue an invitation to all of the maritime powers of the world to send their representatives to an international conference, for the purpose of concerted action to insure the literal freedom of the seas, — by force, if necessary, — and of establishing such a court of arbitration of foreign transportation interests as would be just and fair between all countries.

One of the most important obligations falling upon such a court would be the division of tonnage upon a fair and equitable basis, each nation to share according to its need and condition.

To accomplish this, the United States might have to give up some of its cherished ideals. We could not expect to secure and hold all the business of the maritime world. We should be called upon to remember, as other nations would be called upon to remember, that the life of all is bound up irrevocably in the life of each; and, strange as the suggestion sounds with the roar of battle still echoing in our ears, we and the other participating countries would be reminded that the Golden Rule may still be applied as a sound business principle.

It must be remembered that reciprocity is still the life of trade. There must be no ‘dead bottoms.’ If England has need of the products of Argentina and the United States has not, and if England has as good facilities for exporting to Argentina the things that Argentina requires, then England must be allotted her share, or more, of the Argentina trade, that her bottoms may be filled both ways. Otherwise the United States sends her exports to Argentina, and her ships return empty, because she has no need for the Argentine exports; and Argentina is soon ‘milked dry.’

It should be the duty of the Maritime League of Nations to discuss such complications as arise, to equalize exports, imports, and transports; to direct the placing of ships where they may accomplish the greatest results; to standardize operation, speed, and general conditions existing in the different countries forming the League.

In no sense would I have the League a combination of business interests; nor must it, if it is to attain its splendid ultimate aim, be permitted to displace private enterprise or initiative. The greater the efficiency shown in the operation of the ships by the company or individuals in control, the greater the stimulation and the greater the earnings. Courtesy and consideration for the shipper would lead to certain emulation, and to the strengthening of the tie which would very soon, in my opinion, insolubly bind the League and the public.

Again, in considering the cost of manning the ships, the League would take into consideration the problems of the different nations, together with their laws, rules, and regulations relative to the operation of ships and ports and harbors. In this country, for instance, our tonnage-cost is double that of other nations. Insurance and interest on capital require greater earnings. Our shipping built during the war cost $300 per ton to build, as against about $100 before the war. This difference must be taken care of by taxation, or we cannot compete with other nations which have built at a lower cost. Compensation laws must be passed, to protect the seaman and relieve in every way the burden upon the operator. Wages must be equalized. We must put ourselves in a position to compete with Japan and other nations whose requirements are much less stringent than ours. These are big problems, but they must and can be met. However, they are somewhat beside the argument for the present, and should be treated in a separate article.

To insure the success of this Maritime League, it must have plenty of force behind it. A policeman on a dangerous and unfamiliar beat goes well armed. The League must be closely guarded by the leading naval powers of the world, which must represent the larger part of the naval armament of the world. Force must control the Freedom of the Seas when force is necessary, but it must be a coöperative force, which will be constantly in a position to compel belligerent nations to adjust their differences, or else isolate them from contact with all other countries.

As the League waxed strong, it would gradually become possible to reduce navies and armaments; but pending such a happy result, I would have this country go forward as rapidly as possible with its naval programme, so that our ‘big stick’ may be the more effective, and we may be in a position to give good reason why other countries still outside the protection of the Maritime League should join us. We have already suffered much because of lack of equipment. We must be ready. We must never again find ourselves in the position we occupied during the war just ended, when, without the transports of Great Britain, the day would have been lost.

That a maritime international league is not an iridescent dream, but a practical possibility has already been demonstrated in the amalgamation of steamship interests, both north and south, in the so-called Continental Pool, into which melting-pot was poured, not only tonnage, but everything pertaining to the requirements of the participating companies — rates, regulations, and what not?

The result was the most satisfactory working out of the problems and complications which had arisen between the several companies represented in the pool. After an investigation the British Parliament decided that it would be unwise to destroy the agreements, as they were beneficial to all the interests concerned. The opinion of our own investigating committee, headed by Honorable Joshua W. Alexander, was that, properly regulated, such an arrangement would be of advantage to shippers and receivers of cargoes and to passenger facilities alike. If a privately conducted experiment proved so successful, may we not reasonably look for complete success under international espionage?

For the maintenance of a successful merchant marine we must have a sufficient tonnage of a class to compete with the rest of the world. This I believe to be the most important reconstruction question to be considered, and one that should be taken up immediately, and acted upon promptly.

We must build a class of ships which can be operated economically. The ship of the future, for successful operation, must be built of steel, must be of at least 10,000 tons dead-weight capacity, and must develop a speed of sixteen knots. In fairness and justice, contracts for the construction of all other ships falling below these minimum requirements should be immediately canceled.


Now let us look at the question, fairly and justly, without bias, of our own position in the world’s merchant marine. At the end of 1919, if the present construction of large, profitable merchant ships is continued, we shall have a very large percentage of the facilities for controlling foreign water-borne commerce, not only of our own country, but of a large part of the world.

Let us not deceive ourselves, but look frankly at the question whether we, as citizens of the United States, are in a position to man and equip a very large percentage of the facilities of water-transportation. A large proportion of the population of the United States is not in any sense, or by natural affiliations, maritime-loving. Our vast interior territory, with its opportunities for development, especially those which will come as the results of reconstruction to follow the war, will occupy our labor elements fully and profitably, and at far better compensation than could possibly be had on the sea.

The coast-line of our country, while very long, contains but a small percentage of our total population. A large proportion live and carry on their profitable occupations many miles from the coast-line. It is absolutely necessary that the toilers of the sea should know the sea, be associated with it, and live within the sound of the waves. Now we do not occupy this position.

The American boy is apt to find some position far inland, which offers him more in immediate return and future prospects than life before the mast; and yet, if he could be imbued with the vision; if he could be stirred with the lust of travel and adventure; if he could see the wide spaces and learn to love the call of the vast; if he could be made to see the romance of it all and the joy that comes from carrying his country’s flag to be planted at the crossroads of the world, there would be no trouble in filling the ranks.

This will be a process of education, but first of all the service must be made attractive. Compensation, and opportunities for advancement and development, must be increased. The Royal Naval Reserve of Great Britain, which recognizes efficiency, pensions its officers, and permits enlisted men to attain rank up to that of sub-lieutenant, is good as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough for the American boy. The fact remains that we are to be a maritime nation at last, and the sooner the American boy of the country turns his eyes toward the sea and its possibilities, the sooner will he begin to realize upon this hitherto unrealized asset.

The triumph of the sea means more than the mere manning of ships. The trade is no longer that of the old ‘A.B.’ No longer do our ships come and go under sail, handmaidens of the vagrant winds. From a sentimental point of view, the old chanties of the seas are no more.

In place of these conditions of bygone days we have mechanical perfection; and the boy who is learning the seaman’s trade is afforded a wonderful opportunity of acquiring a diversified education of great value. He is taught mechanics more thoroughly than is possible on land, for at sea there is no corner garage or genius of the forge at every hand. The heavens, too, are called upon to give up their astronomical secrets to this new tradesman of our coming merchant marine.

He no longer sings his ‘heave ho!’ as the sail is hoisted. Instead, he has at his command the most complete and intricate mechanism by means of which the ship is operated. There is a wide field, of construction, navigation, and operation before the young man who elects the sea for his alma mater: a field not limited to the old divisions of power, but open to the application of almost every possible electrical appliance.

The study of refrigeration is an attractive field for many, and the practicability of supplying at sea and in the tropics perishable goods heretofore absolutely unavailable is a favorite subject for inventor and student.

In a word, I am trying to point the way for the American youth to a new, delightful, and all but unexplored world. He cannot serve but to his own ultimate good. He travels and sees the world under happy auspices; he becomes acquainted with the ways and customs of other people, an education in itself; and yet, while acquiring this education, he is becoming expert in one or more of the master trades and familiar with world-conditions.

Better citizenship, a broader and more catholic outlook upon life, a furthering of the welfare of the world, an education unobtainable anywhere else — these and many other things should make their appeal to the intelligent, ambitious, progressive American youth of to-morrow when the call comes for the manning of our merchant marine.

The United States is in the presence of a wonderful opportunity to assist profitably in the reconstruction work which must be done throughout Europe, and in supplying the materials necessary to bring about the rehabilitation. These opportunities will not increase our desire to take up seafaring. The result may well be, that we, having in our control an enormous amount of tonnage, acquired at such cost that the question of its operation will be far more complex than in a country developing its tonnage on a peace-time basis, may find it impossible to compete profitably with other nations, which, by environment and breeding, are far better fitted for a maritime life.

The question of insurance, depreciation, and, above all, the high wage-cost of manning and operating the ships, will make it practically impossible without government assistance by way of subsidies to compete successfully with many other countries and their merchant marines; yet we should at all times keep in operation a sufficient amount of tonnage under our own flag to give to our navy and army an auxiliary reserve of both men and tonnage of sufficient magnitude to meet any emergency.

But if such assistance is granted in the operation of our ships in competition with other nations, how long will it be before other countries will adopt the same policy? Result: a mad scramble and bitter competition for the carrying of the foreign commerce of the world. This will go on indefinitely and lead, as it has led in the past, to a decline of the merchant tonnage of the country least well equipped with ships to operate successfully in competition.

Now, by the formation and operation of a maritime league of nations, such as I have outlined, a division of tonnage — a fair and just division — among the nations of the world would prevent a situation of this kind, and cheat chaos of fresh victims. If the Maritime League of Nations, by agreement, equalizes any differences in the cost of operation and manning of ships controlled by the nations composing the League, and also agrees upon all laws and regulations governing maritime matters, the ghost is laid, and the commerce of the world is saved.

There should be from each nation represented in the Maritime League one member representing labor interests. Without labor, the whole structure would collapse and our motto, ‘United we stand, divided we fall,’ would be as a tinkling cymbal.

It is my firm belief that the creation of such a maritime league of nations would do more to prevent future wars than any other step that can be taken at this or at any time. The Freedom of the Seas! What a glorious consummation of our dreams! And if this country stands in the position of a naval power of the first class, fortified by agreement with other countries for the joint coöperation of all naval forces, the future peace of the world, and the Freedom of the Seas, would be absolutely controlled, and the hand of the blindfolded Goddess of Justice would be raised in benediction upon all the world.

In 1916, at the request of the Administration, I prepared a brochure under the title of Ships. This little book was sent to every member of Congress, and also to every member of the Administration in Washington. I cannot do better at this time than to quote from the opinions expressed in 1916: —

‘There is one concluding idea which I feel impelled to submit. It is a proposal which, in my judgment, promises an enduring peace, not alone for us, but for all the nations of the world. I realize, of course, that this is a consummation upon which the greatest minds of all peoples have dwelt. It has been the dream of centuries. It has been the supreme aspiration of mankind. And yet, the most appalling war of all time is now raging. It is with a measure of diffidence, therefore, that I suggest a peace-plan, when the failure of all that has gone before is so manifest. However, if in time of peace we should prepare for war, certainly in time of war we should prepare for peace.

‘It is my firm belief that future wars can be prevented by absolute control of the world’s foreign commerce; and by that is meant the world’s waterborne commerce. It can be controlled only by two or more nations equipped with merchant and naval fleets powerful enough to force war-inclined nations to acceptarbitration of their differences.

‘All international peace-movements of the past have centred about a system of arbitration. They have been built upon the same theory as that on which rests the system of jurisprudence in effect wherever civil law is respected. The theory is sound. It is unassailable. It is the expression of right and justice between man and man, and should be applied with equal force between nation and nation.

‘Unfortunately, this plan which we have so eloquently preached has failed in practice. And the failure, as every man knows, lies in the fact that the force necessary to make it effective has been lacking. There has been no means of compelling belligerent nations to submit their differences to a court of arbitration, and no power to compel them to accept the judgment of that court.

‘Such power can be acquired only through control of the seas. It can be demonstrated only by command of maritime transportation, by the ability to isolate from the rest of the world any nation that may resort to arms.

‘I believe that, when we have resumed our place as a great sea-power, we can join with any other powers and form a union which will give us control of the ocean highways. When that end is achieved, and the confederated nations are irrevocably pledged to peace, the hope of all men will have become a reality.

‘Since writing these lines, I have become more firmly convinced than ever that the present time, when the nations of the world are thoroughly awakened to the necessity of preventing a recurrence of such a horrible calamity as a world-war, affords the great opportunity for bringing about this result. The end of the war will see the control of commerce in the hands of the Allied nations. This, if properly safeguarded, will mean control for all time of the destinies of the world and the prevention of future wars. World-wars in the past have been mainly for the acquisition of territory or for the privilege of commercial control in certain regions. This war is no exception.

‘The development of our merchant marine for war-time needs will afford us the necessary instrument for carrying out a programme for the prevention of future wars. To carry out this programme, the President should at once appoint a committee of men to lay the foundations for a maritime league of nations, which shall control an international mercantile marine. France, England, and Italy, have been engaging in shipbuilding on an extensive scale. These merchant fleets will be ready at hand after the war. If some plan of international coöperation could be worked out now, the danger of a great commercial war to follow the present military conflict would also be averted.’

These lines, written nearly three years ago, now need no change, and are even more vital and important at the present time.