James Holmes

Maritime Geography: The Foundation of American Power

“That oceangoing behemoths can reach inland metropolises is a reminder of how geography has blessed North America.”

The Naval Diplomat family is closing out the summer in maritime fashion, at Stone Harbor, our long-time haunt along the Jersey Shore. I hasten to add that this is not the stretch of the Shore inhabited by strange creatures bearing names like Snooki. It's the extreme southern part near Cape May, the Victorian town that, together with its environs, shows why New Jersey merits the nickname Garden State. The gap between Cape May and Lewes, Delaware, constitutes the entryway to Delaware Bay, the gateway for shipping to the Delaware River, and thence to Philadelphia. The region is a microcosm of non-naval nautical pursuits.

For example, few think of Philly as a seafaring town. But it is. The city was home to the nation's first naval shipyard, founded in 1776. Expanded over the centuries, the yard could ultimately dry dock aircraft carriers and battleships. It finally shut down during the 1990s, a victim of base realignment and closure. I got to know South Philly rather intimately during a post-shakedown refit in 1989.

That oceangoing behemoths can reach inland metropolises is a reminder of how geography has blessed North America with inland waterways, from historic bays such as the Chesapeake to rivers like the Delaware and the mighty Mississippi. Geography abetted seagoing commerce, and thus national development, long before canals were dug or railroad track was laid to permit rapid overland transport.

Maritime, then, is an expansive term, encompassing far more than navies dueling on the high seas or blockading enemy shorelines. The U.S. Navy and Marines are largely absent from this arc of the eastern seaboard, while commercial, police, and recreational uses of the sea are everywhere on display. Cape May is an easy ten-mile ride down the Garden State Parkway. The town is a seat of U.S. Coast Guard training. Five cutters police the sea from the Coast Guard station, while recruits undergo boot camp there.

Nor are maritime endeavors the sole province of governments. As I sit here on the deck of my mother-in-law's beachhouse, I can look eastward into the broad Atlantic Ocean or westward into the wetlands separating Seven Mile Island from the mainland. Freighters and other deep-draft merchantmen pass hither and yon along the Atlantic side, bound to or from ports like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Norfolk. Fishing boats and other pleasure craft ply the channels that slice their way through the tall grasses on the inland side. This is all part of the nation's seafaring life.

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There's a vertical dimension to maritime affairs as well. A stately U.S. Army Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress, the bomber on which the U.S. military pinned its hopes for defending the Philippines in 1941-1942, has been cruising the skies just offshore this weekend. So has a B-24 Liberator, an ungainly-looking warplane that boasted sufficient range to patrol Central Atlantic waters for German U-boats from North American airfields. These vintage aircraft are presumably taking part in an airshow over the holiday weekend. Their presence hints at what things must've been like around here seventy years ago, during the decisive year in the Battle of the Atlantic.

One often hears the charge that America (or Great Britain, or India) suffers from "sea-blindness." Peoples, that is, grow so accustomed to free use of the sea that they take it for granted. It's invisible to people living their everyday lives. If so, navies, coast guards, and infrastructure to support commercial enterprises appear largely superfluous. They have a hard time competing for public taxpayer dollars. The challenge before maritime proponents is to make sea power visible to rank-and-file citizens again. Otherwise it may atrophy.