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The Shipping Bottleneck

I. The Size of the Problem

THE GREAT DAY arrives. “I christen thee Western Light!” the woman cries. The glass shatters against the hull, the blocks are pulled out; there is a cry from the crowd as the towering mass glides away, gathering speed until it rolls up the water, rocking until it comes to rest, a ship on the sea.

From Bath and South Portland, Delta and Norfolk, Richmond, California, and Portland, Oregon, the ships are passing down the ways; 8,000,000 tons in 1942, 15,000,000 in 1943; thanks to the government's plan and to the genius of a few great builders such as Henry Kaiser of Richmond and Andrew Jackson Higgins of New Orleans, the program is on schedule. But it is a program for the future, and we are still losing more ships than we are building. The success of our entire war effort, the opening of a second front on which the hopes of all the world wait, depend upon the full utilization now of the ships that we possess. 

As our entire nation turns to war production, what terrific pressure is put upon the only means of bringing this production to the front lines! As the Western Light, fitted out and manned, steams toward the ocean for her trial run, how many eager eyes are upon her! The army needs her to carry the equipment for a task force sailing for the South Pacific. The navy wants her to take dredging machinery for a new harbor in the Middle East. She may bear a shipment of dried milk to Britain, and so the Department of Agriculture is after her. She may carry canned vegetables to Chile for the men who, in infertile mountains, are mining copper and nitrates for American arms factories; so the WPB and the Board of Economic Warfare have an equal interest in her. And when she reaches her destination, and is ready to return, what is she to bring? The army wants her back in a hurry to accompany the next outgoing division; the WPB wants her to go on to pick up a cargo of badly needed ore, a thousand more miles away; the Board of Economic Warfare insists that unless the stocks of a rare drug in a neutral port are cleared at once the Germans may get them; the intelligence and routing sections of the navy report that considerations of convoying demand that she is to proceed in an altogether different direction; all four departments are unanimous in asserting that at least the Western Light must not be misused in bringing back to America an unimportant cargo of cocoa from Latin America; but here the State Department and the Office of the Coordinator on Inter-American Affairs intervene with the shipowners to say that our friendly relations with Latin America make it imperative that the cocoa be purchased and taken away.

To reconcile these differences, which represent not confusion in government but differing national interests, the President, on February 17, created the War Shipping Administration under Admiral Land. But for all of Admiral Land's real efforts to find a way out of his dilemma, the WSA is suffering today from the weaknesses which plagued the OPM six months ago.

The issuance of clear directives to any shipping administration demands an overall plan for the use of available ships. It means principally a thoroughgoing system of export and import control.

Export control first began in the State Department. It drifted to the War Department after the declaration of war and then wandered until it came to rest in the new Board of Economic Warfare. There is still no policy-making body which can evaluate the needs for outgoing shipping space, nor is there yet a priorities list on which to base a system of licensing exports.

Import control, which to be effective must be allied with export control, has grown up in an altogether different agency, the stockpiles and shipping branch, under William Yandell Elliott. On the basis of estimates of the future output, Elliott was able to draw up priority ratings for improved raw materials and was aided by an InterDepartmental Priorities Committee. But in the absence of any well defined directives to the Maritime Commission, which the committee was not empowered to issue, tobacco and rugs continued to flow in from Turkey when chrome and medicinal opium were needed, and perfumes and tapioca arrived from the East when we were lacking rubber and tung oil. Our imports of bananas in 1941 were well over one million tons. Today a substantial United Fruit fleet is still engaged in bringing bananas—from the Caribbean, despite the total elimination of bananas from the priorities list. To right this situation the President provided, in the executive order creating the WSA, that “the Administrator shall be guided by schedules submitted to him by the chairman of the War Production Board.” But “guided” is a weak word, and in the absence of a responsible agency to run foreign trade, the lack of guidance remains.

The second requirement of a good shipping program is that when directives are issued, a single agency exists to act upon them.

In the first phase of the war the directives of the government suffered principally at the hands of the private shipowners who retained full control of their ships. The owners were used to operating the most profitable runs; they were choked with well paying civilian contracts; they were subject to little supervision, and the chartering of their ships by the government was a long and expensive process. The owners kept many ships out of the heart of the defense program, just as many factory owners refused to convert.

On December 8, pressure was brought to bear upon the Maritime Commission to requisition all merchant ships. Months later when the opposition of some former shipowners within the Commission had been overcome, the ships were requisitioned. But the war precipitated also the requisitioning by the army of a quarter of the entire merchant fleet for use as army transports. A second independent shipping pool was created by naval requisitioning. Yet the army in particular is not trained in the loading and the routing of ships. Because the army is concerned with one main aspect of troop transportation, stories have arisen of army ships returning to America in ballast when they might have been loaded with vital materials. Although he WSA has improved the coordination among these three pools, and the fourth pool of unused private shipping, there are still duplication and delay.

The third requirement of a successful shipping program is that the directives which are accepted are effectively carried out. Today the WSA is not fully equipped to do this.

The Maritime Commission, out of which the WSA grew, was until shortly before the war a promotional organization. Its purpose was to give out helpful mail contracts, to aid in the construction of a liner, to keep alive a small and struggling merchant marine. The Commission has tackled the immense task of building a twenty-five-million-ton merchant fleet with great energy. But for the operation of ships the WSA, in size alone, is inadequate. It has no plotting room, for instance; it cannot tell where all of its ships are. And although Admiral Land has created a planning division within the WSA, under the able Lewis Douglas, the division is not yet fully recognized but he men in the Commission in charge of operating the ships.

These men, under H. Harris Robson, an official of the United Fruit Company, who is Director of Operations, are chosen, quite naturally, it has been difficult for them to face the job of ripping out the narrow decks of the boats of their own banana fleet, so that these boats may carry sugar and thus free the heavier sugar boats to bring ore from South America. Quite naturally, they have been reluctant to send an Isthmian Line ship on a Red Sea run when the Red Sea run, to all shipowners, is the unquestioned province of the American Export Lines. Quite naturally, they may have been reluctant to requisition their own ships, and alter the labor relations of their own crews. But far more important, they are today reluctant to overhaul the worldwide shipping system that they have established and replace men who represent them as shipowners in every port with men who represent them as government officials. Such a transfer of a authority seems superfluous and it seems to bear sinister implications for the future. So today the WSA, which is responsible for the loading of ships in foreign ports, has almost no personnel abroad and relies upon loading instructions given by American shipping companies to their agents.

In peacetime this was good enough; in war it is not. The Western Light—to return to her—has completed her trial run. She has carried a shipment of cement-mixing machinery, planes and light artillery to Akyab in Burma. As she reaches port the Japanese are threatening to capture Akyab. A government official would strip Akyab of everything of value to the Japanese, irrespective of its worth, and load it onto the Western Light. But is it fair to put the agent of a private line, who has thought always in purely commercial terms, to the test? The Western Light is waiting in the harbor.

There is a more serious fault in this method. In New York, Homer Spence of, say, the Red Star Line, receives a wire from his local Red Star agent that their chartered ship, the Western Light, is lying in Akyab. He checks with the WSA on what should be loaded and is referred to the priorities list. To his local agent he cables: “Load manganese, mahogany, cocoa if available.” In Akyab, the local agent, unused to accepting such responsibility, wires back, “Could load two-thirds manganese, fill with mahogany, cocoa, sisal at your approval.” A cable is sent to the local agent to proceed.

But a few hundred miles off Akyab a Nazi raider or a Japanese submarine is lying. The wireless operator hands a message to the commander. “So the Western Light is sailing for America with manganese, mahogany, cocoa and sisal,” he says. “Well, well, we'll see!” Two nights later the Western Light is torpedoed and sinks with her crew and cargo.

Of course this is not an actual case, and may never have happened. Yet secrecy ins airtime demands the tightest possible controls.

So we need first, to establish one agency with control over foreign trade. It must receive a clear statement of needs from the WPB and the other agencies whose interests it must arbitrate, and it must give clear directives to a shipping administration. It must have its own representatives in foreign countries, used to government responsibility and having access to secret government codes, to purchase and clear our needs. This agency can only be the Board of Economic Warfare, whose functions today are still obscure.

Closely connected with this central agency, we need one shipping administration. It is no criticism of Admiral Land to say that this agency must be independent of the Maritime Commission; just as there is a sharp line between the shipbuilding and shipping industries, so there should be in the government agencies which build and operate ships.

Given these changes, we can reverse the film. The Western Light is not lying on the floor of the Indian Ocean; she is sailing in a great convoy to Europe, first to form a bridge with our bases in England; then to create a bridgehead between these bases and Europe. Just as, two years ago, every conceivable ship was sent to carry the fighters of democracy from Europe, after Dunkirk, so now our task is by better organization to free every conceivable ship to carry those fighters back.

This article appeared in the May 25, 1942 issue of the magazine.