Maybe We Should Reinvent Our Merchant Marine Fleet

THE packet containing the details of my college class' 25-year reunion arrived at my home last week, within days of the news story that had hit me like a hard slap:

"A cost-cutting commission headed by Vice President Al Gore is expected to recommend that the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point be phased out by 1998 to help reduce federal spending," that article began.

"A recommendation to close the 50-year-old college on the shore of Long Island Sound appears in a draft report prepared by the National Performance Review commission."

The final report did not call for closure, but recommended half federal subsidy and half tuition to reduce costs. A final decision on the academy has not yet been made.

Few Americans even know of Kings Point, the academy's informal name drawn from its location on a beautiful bluff overlooking the waterway that separates eastern Long Island from teeming New York City. But for someone like me who was rooted in Cape Cod, Mass., the academy was the Harvard of seagoing people, a college without peer in training young men (women were admitted in 1974) to become officers aboard the ocean-going ships that plied the world's trade routes.

The promise of a first-rate education at federal expense in return for a few years at sea - a romantic obligation, I thought - proved irresistible to me and to thousands of others who have won congressional appointments to attend Kings Point over the past half-century.

Despite the school's closely held reputation, overshadowed as it is by West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, Kings Pointers have forged a reputation that provides ample reason for pride. During World War II, more Kings Pointers, midshipmen and graduates alike, were killed during enemy action than alumni from any other academy.

Its reputation within the maritime industry is, perhaps predictably, unparalleled. Academy alumni, called "ring knockers" because of the heavy class rings many wear, dominate the major shipping companies, the nation's port operations departments and admiralty law firms.

And the school's graduates have even established themselves beyond the seagoing fleet. A recent Standard & Poor's ranking of the colleges attended by senior managers of the nation's Fortune 500 companies placed Kings Point 16th nationally, putting it in the elite company of Ivy League schools, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cal Tech, Stanford, the University of Chicago and other prestigious colleges.

No other federal academy made the top 25 list.

All these assets are being marshaled now in the fight by my fellow grads and boosters to save our academy from the Clinton administration's attempt to "redefine government." I, however, find myself terribly torn.

I shrink from contemplating the thought of becoming an alumnus of a college that no longer exists. It would be as if a part of my past - a formative and beloved part - had simply been erased and judged irrelevant.

Yet I also shrink from rising in opposition to the recommendation, knowing the hypocrisy of those who demand continued cuts in federal spending while insisting that those cuts only be made to the other guy's programs.

The commission, in its early draft, has made a hard case that Kings Point is fast becoming a $37 million-a-year anachronism, if it isn't one already. It may well turn out the best ships' officers in the nation, if not the world. But its graduates are entering an industry, the U.S. merchant marine, that is not just lame, but dying.

And therein lies the tragedy, the real issue that Vice President Gore ought to be looking at. Americans naturally think of ourselves as a world sea power. Our traditions, our literature, our national pride brim with nautical lore.

Yankee clipper ships, the greyhounds of the oceans, enabled a young United States to dominate trade across the Pacific Ocean. Our whalers were immortalized in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."

During World War II, American shipyards pushed snub-nosed Liberty ships into service at the rate of about one every six hours, knowing that if they made a single voyage without getting sunk by Nazi U-boats or planes they would have done their part for democracy.

The S.S. United States, with its red, white and blue stacks, was the pride of the merchant fleet. Even today the "Big `U' " holds the speed record for a transatlantic crossing for passenger ships, a mark set in 1952.

No more. The record holder has been scrapped. Not a single passenger ship anywhere flies the American flag. A fleet of nearly 1,500 ships when I graduated from Kings Point has been reduced to 394.

The United States today ranks 16th among the world's merchant fleets, behind such barely viable nations as Liberia, the Bahamas, Singapore, Malta, Panama and the British territories. The final humiliation came in 1991, when war erupted in the Persian Gulf and 500,000 American soldiers hurried to the region. For the first time in our history, there weren't enough American-flag ships to carry their supplies.

The Pentagon chartered ships from the Soviet Union and other countries to support our war effort. Sad.

The decline of the fleet has, of course, affected Kings Point. For the past decade or so, only about a third of each graduating class has been able to find a billet on a ship. The others, after absorbing a federal investment valued at about $80,000 each, have gone into the armed forces, into shipping offices ashore or simply drifted away.

Vice President Gore's commission, in search of places to trim, naturally homed in on the academy. I can't fault the panel for that.

But before it renders a final decision, the administration should address the larger question involved:

Will Americans be content with being a third-rate sea power, dependent upon the fleets of former enemies and unstable countries to move our military and carry our world trade?

As President Clinton sets off to re-invent government, I for one hope he begins by re-inventing our merchant marine.

Tom Fiedler is political editor of the Miami Herald.