Repealing the Jones Act is a path to disaster
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A recent opinion piece by Malia Hill, the Policy Director of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, accused those of supporting the Jones Act as believing in alien abductions and the reduction of the U.S. Jones Act fleet akin to “shrinking like a man in a freezer full of porcupines.” While there is no denying her literary flair, I must take issue with some of her statements.

First, she assaults the concept that the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (known as the Jones Act) is for national security.  One only needs to look at the history to determine this to be factual. In 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, the United States possessed only 8 percent of the world merchant fleet.  As British, German, and other European merchant fleets were diverted to support the war effort, American goods sat on the docks and domestic manufacturing and markets clamored for imports.  The saving grace for the United States was the diversion of its domestic coast fleet into the trade routes. In June 1917, two months after entering the conflict the 1st Infantry Division embarked on 14 American merchant ships, all but one was drawn from the coastal fleet. 

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The impetus to ensure that the United States maintained a merchant fleet that carry a portion of its goods, and its use as an auxiliary in time of war, prompted the passage of the Merchant Marine Act in 1920. Supplemented by a further act in 1936, the nation proved better prepared to enter World War II. When the 1st Marine Division landed at Guadalcanal in August 1942, they did so from troopships and freighters drawn from the commercial fleet. During operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, from 2002 to 2011, American merchant ships transported over 51 million measurement tons of cargo and all the crews were drawn from the labor pool provided by the ships in the American merchant marine.

Second, Ms. Hill comments on the drop of the Jones Act fleet since the 1980s.  A look at registry of the 94,169 commercial ships over 100 tons in the world shows that all the great maritime powers of the past have all been diminished. The United Kingdom is now 18th. Other nations have all fallen in similar ways to the United States at 22nd, according to the United Nations’ Review of Maritime Transport 2018. The reason for this has to do with many factors, the growth in the amount of world trade, the establishment of open registries in such countries as Panama, Marshall Islands, and Liberia, and laws that allow incorporation outside national boundaries and creation of international conferences and shipping alliances. Add to it, the ending of differentials in the 1980s by the U.S. government, these all contributed to the decline of national fleets.

Finally, one must ask themselves, if we end the Jones Act, along with the Maritime Security Program, and Cargo Preference, what happens to the American merchant marine? Well, it will probably be reflagged, retired, or go away. But, can the United States survive without a merchant marine?

Looked what happened when Hanjin Marine, one of the top ten container lines in the world, collapsed. American markets clamored for their cargoes as they sat aboard ship. What would happen if the three Mega-alliance decided not to trade with the United States, or if a war came and American goods pile up on the docks and imports cease? 

The United States is not like other nations as it stands as the world’s leading economy, with alliances and military forces stationed and deployed worldwide.  Can a superpower count on a Swiss-based company, with a Panama-flagged ship, with Ukrainian-officers, and Filipino-crew delivering its military equipment to troops waiting for it at an overseas port?  I am not sure, but the Canadians learned a lesson when 10 percent of its Army’s equipment was detained on board GTS Katie, flying the flag of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 2000.  The Canadian military had to seize the ship and sail it into Montreal as the ship was in a financial dispute. 

I do believe that there is a historical and relevant case to be made in maintaining the Jones Act and ensuring that the United States possesses a domestic merchant fleet. The flag of the American merchant marine states “In Peace and War,” and throughout its history, the merchant marine has answered the call with little fanfare or regard. Can the Jones Act be improved? Of course it can, just like every law; but demonizing your opposition and failing to consider the reasoning behind such a quintessential piece of maritime legislation is short sighted and disingenuous.

Mercogliano is Associate Professor of History at Campbell University.