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The Shipbuilding Program of the U.S. Maritime Commission


The arrival of SS America in New York Harbor, 1940. By Howard French (Object Number 1945.010.0001)

The first federal agency charged with promoting a U.S. merchant marine was the United States Shipping Board of 1916. With America’s entry into World War I in 1917, the Shipping Board constructed a fleet of merchant vessels that later became the nucleus of the U.S. maritime industry in the 1920s and 1930s.  The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 abolished the Shipping Board and created the United States Maritime Commission “to further the development and maintenance of an adequate and well-balanced American merchant marine, to promote the commerce of the United States, (and) to aid in the national defense …”

To that end, the Commission studied the state of America’s aging and obsolete fleet to identify essential trades, replacement requirements, and the need for subsidy programs to compete with foreign shipping. This resulted in an ambitious ten-year long-range shipbuilding program to construct 500 ships.

Although the program focused on cargo ships, the first vessel contracted was the transatlantic liner America.  The Commission intended for the vessel to be a bold statement to the world about the United States’ intention to bolster its maritime industry and presence.  At 723-feet in length, America was the largest passenger ship built in the U.S. at that time.