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Learn about shipbuilding in the United States during the 20th century.

Detail view of ship repair work
Detail view of ship repair work

From the years following the Civil War to the early 20th century, the U.S. shipping and shipbuilding industries declined dramatically. The small amount of trade that occurred was concentrated in the Great Lakes and coastal regions of the United States. The majority of the foreign trade market was left to the highly experienced and organized countries of Germany and Great Britain. From a military standpoint, the U.S. preferred to maintain small armed force units and remain uninvolved in foreign affairs and had little desire to establish a fleet of ships as part of national security.

Expansion of overseas markets lead to the Navy Act of 1883, which called for construction of steel cruisers and lead to the construction of the first armored ships of the U. S. Navy. However, the U. S. still embraced a defensive, nearshore strategy with little thought of a strong presence in distant water, hence a limited navy. Most ocean trade was carried by foreign vessels and the merchant marine remained small.

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In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, serving at the Naval War College, published The Influence of Seapower Upon History (1660-1783). This book transformed the naval thinking of the U. S. by arguing that great empires, as the United States was beginning to see itself after a century of concentrating on settling its huge continental interior, require overseas naval stations and strong military and merchant navies. In 1890, a Navy Act passed authorizing the construction of three modern battleships, and in 1891, the Ocean Mail Subsidy Act was passed, which increased the federal subsidies for ocean-going mail in order to encourage shipbuilding.

In 1898, with the coming of the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of overseas territories, Congress further expanded the Navy and by the first years of the new century, the U.S. ranked as an oceanic power. However, the world in the early years of the new century found itself in a naval arms race as major world powers constructed newer and larger battleships with which to challenge each other on the high seas.

Shipbuilding at Southwest Marine Terminal
Shipbuilding at Southwest Marine Terminal
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Lost in the U.S. naval expansion was the merchant fleet. With the start of World War I, however, the U.S. quickly recognized its vulnerability to loss of foreign trade when both Germany and Great Britain withdrew their merchant fleets from transatlantic service. In 1914, only 2% of vessels involved in the foreign trade market were of U.S. registry. To strengthen the U.S. economically and militarily, Congress passed two acts authorizing swift construction of a maritime and wartime fleet in 1916 and 1917, respectively.

The government shipping program prompted the formation of several new shipbuilding companies throughout the nation that soon assembled a massive fleet of ships, the most ever produced in the world until that time. In October 1918 alone, the shipyards delivered 391,000 tons of vessels.

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