The St. Lawrence Seaway and Federal Maritime Policy Under President Eisenhower

The St. Lawrence Seaway and Federal Maritime Policy Under President Eisenhower

September 03, 2020  | Jeff Davis

(Clicking on hyperlinks in the text will take you to original source documents, many of which are from the Eisenhower Library or other National Archives facilities and have never before been available online.)

St. Lawrence Seaway

When President Eisenhower took office, proposals to create a system of locks and dams to allow deep-draft navigation from the Atlantic Ocean to as far inland as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, had been under discussion for over 50 years.

The creation of a seaway had vast long-term importance to the future of the United States, across a variety of policy areas – not just transportation and economic policy (the obvious), but:

  • National defense policy—the Pentagon supported the seaway because it would shorten supply lines to Europe, encourage shipbuilding, and increase the supply of steel for munitions.[1]
  • Energy policy—the Canadian government believed that southern Ottawa was going to run out of electricity by 1957 unless the dam between Ontario and New York State, as part of the Seaway project, was built and put into hydropower generation, under the jurisdiction of the Federal Power Commission.[2]
  • Foreign policy—as a result of all of the above, by the time Eisenhower took office, the Canadian government regarded the Seaway project as “the most important single facet in its relations with the United States.”[3]

The issue had also acquired short-term urgency. After decades of inaction, the Canadian government had decided in 1951 to build the Seaway entirely at its own expense, with all locks entirely on the Canadian side of the border, except for the joint Ontario-New York hydropower dam, which would require binational agreement.[4] A purely Canadian-operated seaway could charge U.S. ships higher tolls than Canadian ships and could (hypothetically) deny U.S. vessels access during a war in which Canada was not a belligerent power.

Candidate Eisenhower was well aware of the problem – as Army Chief of Staff, he had endorsed U.S. participation in the project back in 1946.[5] He later mentioned on the campaign trail that if the project were to move forward, it should do so with U.S. participation.[6] Upon taking office, Eisenhower ordered a quick summary of views of all federal agencies on the project, and a Cabinet meeting on March 27, 1953 reached consensus that the U.S. should participate.[7] (Eisenhower used his Cabinet somewhat more in the British style, as a weekly forum where all members could comment on any subject, though his Cabinet never voted, and the Cabinet Secretary was not allowed institutional power as in the UK. White House chief of staff Sherman Adams later wrote that the “strongest and most influential champion” of the Seaway in the Administration was Treasury Secretary George Humphrey, whose department had no direct concern in the project.[8])

However, in the absence of a Seaway, goods and commodities going between the industrial Midwest and Europe had to be moved by rail to or from East Coast or Gulf Coast ports, meaning that railroad and port interests were implacably opposed to the Seaway. Those two forces, combined with bipartisan concerns about the cost of the project, resulted in significant opposition within Congress.

On March 29, Eisenhower held an off-the-record meeting with railroad lobbyists and executives to discuss their opposition to the Seaway.[9] The next day, Eisenhower told Republican Congressional leaders of the Cabinet’s support for the project and said he wanted to announce public support for the plan.[10] Opposition from the leaders prevailed upon Eisenhower, with Senate Majority Leader Bob Taft (R-OH) walking to the press stakeout after the meeting and announcing that the Administration would not have a recommendation on the Seaway bill.[11]

At the next Cabinet meeting, Eisenhower “expressed the belief that the Administration would have to support the Seaway sooner or later, for the Administration cannot always be on the defensive, but he wishes more of the opposition viewpoint to be presented in the Senate hearings before the Administration should take a stand.”[12]

The Senate hearings began on April 14. At their April 22 meeting, the National Security Council discussed the Seaway issue, and after the weekly meeting with Republican Congressional leaders on April 23, Eisenhower wrote to the Senate sponsor of the Seaway bill and to the head of the Federal Power Commission and announced his support for the project, citing the NSC’s advice.[13]

In his memoirs, Eisenhower wrote that he had come to realize “our principal source of high-grade iron ore, in the Mesabi Range in Minnesota, was starting to run out, and that the United States needed a sure way, in time of any emergency, to ship supplementary high-grade ore up the St. Lawrence from Labrador. To me, this fact was central and overriding.”[14]

However, in an era when Congress adjourned for the year around July 31, crucial weeks had been wasted. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not approve the Seaway bill until June 16, and by that point, there were just too many demands on Congress’s limited time. Eisenhower later wrote that at his July 14, 1953 meeting with legislative leaders, “I emphasized that postal-rate increases should take priority over such projects as the St. Lawrence Seaway, vital as they were.”[15] No action was taken in either chamber on the Seaway bill before Congress adjourned for the year on August 3.[16]

In November 1953, Eisenhower made a state visit to Canada, and noted in his memoirs that the government there “was becoming impatient about United States slowness in agreeing to the joint building of the St. Lawrence Seaway. I was fully committed to this effort but was hamstrung until I could obtain the necessary legislation from Congress.”[17]

At the start of the second session, Eisenhower gave the project strong backing in his 1954 State of the Union address, telling them “Both nations now need the St. Lawrence Seaway for security as well as for economic reasons. I urge the Congress promptly to approve our participation in its construction.”[18] William Knowland (R-CA), the new Senate Majority Leader, had the bill on the floor five days later, and it passed the Senate on January 20 by a truly bipartisan vote – 25 Republicans, 25 Democrats, and one Independent in favor; 15 Republicans and 18 Democrats against.

In the House, Eisenhower wrote, “Appeals rained down on congressmen from powerful lobbies – the Association of American Railroads, John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers, coal operators of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and the Port Authorities of New York, Boston, Baltimore, Newark, New Orleans, Houston, Savannah, Wilmington, and Norfolk. Nevertheless, in February the House Committee on Public Works reported favorably on the bill.”[19]

It took two-and-a-half months to convince the House Rules Committee to grant a rule allowing the bill to come forward, but once it did, the House passed the bill, 241 to 158, on May 6. The vote was once again bipartisan – 134 Republicans, 96 Democrats, and the lone House Independent voted “yes,” while 64 Republicans and 94 Democrats voted “no.”

The Senate accepted the minor House changes by voice vote on the following day.[20] President Eisenhower signed the bill into law (68 Stat. 92) on May 13, calling it “the legislative culmination of an effort that has taken 30 years to reach this point. Now work can begin on the great project itself.”[21]

Construction only took five years and six weeks from the time the President signed the bill, and he traveled north again in June 1959 to preside alongside the opening of the Seaway alongside Queen Elizabeth II. Since then, the Seaway has carried more than 2.5 billion tons of cargo valued at over $375 billion.

Merchant marine

However, improved waterways still required ships, and the postwar decline of the U.S.-flagged merchant marine fleet was a consistent concern of the Administration. The last bill Eisenhower signed into law in 1953 (67 Stat. 626) was an overhaul of the “Title XI” shipbuilding loan guarantee program first established in 1938, in an attempt to leverage more private investment into U.S. shipyards.[22] This proved unworkable due to some technicalities,[23] so Congress rewrote the bill the following year, which Eisenhower then signed as the last law of the 1954 session (68 Stat. 1267).

A bipartisan commission on foreign economic policy (the “Randall Commission”) was formed in August 1953 and issued its final report in January 1954. The report recommended that the existing “cargo preference” provisions added to annual appropriations bills that required half of shipping financed by federal loans or grants go by U.S.-flag ship be repealed – instead, “support sufficient to maintain a merchant marine adequate to our national requirements [should] be provided by direct means” (financial subsidies).[24]

In March 1954, Eisenhower then sent Congress a special message on foreign economic policy based on the Randall report, in which Eisenhower expressed support for the principle of using direct subsidies instead of cargo preference laws, but he said that this required “a careful analysis of the means available for providing direct support” and its consequences.[25]

On April 16, Eisenhower wrote to Commerce Secretary Sinclair Weeks asking that a larger study of foreign commerce include “full consideration of the extent to which direct means can be utilized to maintain an adequate merchant marine.”[26] However, this study did not move fast enough for Congress, which began hearings on a cargo preference bill in May. A bill instituting a permanent mandate that all cargo shipped overseas using federal dollars have at least 50 percent of the gross tonnage transported by privately owned U.S.-flag commercial vessels passed each chamber unanimously that summer.

Eisenhower signed the bill into law on August 26, 1954 (68 Stat. 832), but he issued a signing statement that was critical of some of the provisions of the bill. He expressed his hope that, if Commerce’s ongoing study recommended some way to use direct subsidies instead of cargo preference to accomplish the overall goal, that he might recommend future changes to the law.[27] Nevertheless, the 1954 cargo preference law is still in force today, almost completely unchanged since its 1954 enactment.

As part of the overall agreement to keep a private merchant marine viable, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce entered into a memorandum of understanding in October 1954 (the “Wilson-Weeks agreement”) constraining the size of the cargo fleet owned by the Defense Department, an agreement that is still in place today.[28]

NS SAVANNAH

No discussion of Eisenhower’s maritime policy would be complete without mentioning the NS SAVANNAH. In April 1955, the President gave a speech in New York City where he announced plans to build an atomic-powered merchant ship, as part of his “Atoms for Peace” initiative: “Visiting the ports of the world, it will demonstrate to people everywhere this peacetime use of atomic energy, harnessed for the improvement of human living.”[29]

However, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy rejected the proposed $21 million line item for building the merchant vessel’s nuclear reactor as part of the Atomic Energy Commission reauthorization bill because, in the words of its chairman, “the suggested means of carrying out the President’s basic idea was not as practical as the amount of money involved should require.”[30] An amendment on the Senate floor to add back the item failed, by one vote (41 yeas to 42 nays) on June 29, 1955.[31]

The authorization law (69 Stat. 291) that did not include the nuclear merchant ship was signed by Eisenhower on July 11, 1955 – but in Congress, if at first you don’t succeed by petitioning one committee, you can always try another. In this instance, the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee on July 12 reported an authorization bill for the nuclear merchant ship after the Atomic Energy Committee had denied it, then the House passed that bill on July 18 by voice (a recorded vote was refused, which usually meant that the leaders of both parties had agreed to pass the bill without putting members “on the spot”).[32]

In the Senate, haggling between the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee and the Atomic Energy Committee delayed the bill until summer 1956, but the Senate was finally able to pass its own bill on June 20 of that year. The main difference between the House and Senate bills was the House mandate that the ship be a passenger vessel. The final bill left it up to the AEC and the Commerce Department whether the ship should be “a tanker, as has been suggested, a cargo ship, or a passenger and cargo vessel.”[33]

The President signed the bill into law (70 Stat. 731) on July 30, 1956, $47 million was soon appropriated, and the keel was laid down in May 1958. An Army friend of Eisenhower’s suggested the name SAVANNAH, after the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic, and Eisenhower concurred.[34] The NS SAVANNAH became the first nuclear-powered merchantman at sea in March 1962.

However, Congress’s indecision on whether or not the SAVANNAH was to be a passenger ship or a cargo ship was reflected in the final design – she was both, having enough staterooms and facilities to carry 100 passengers in air-conditioned comfort, along with 8,500 tons of freight. This turned out not to be enough passengers to make money as a passenger vessel, nor enough freight to make money as a cargo vessel. When her extra operating costs were factored in along with the then-cheap fuel oil used by her competitors, after the novelty wore off, the SAVANNAH only operated at sea for less than a decade before being sidelined in 1970 and eventually de-fueled.


[1] Letter from Acting Secretary of Defense William C. Foster to Sen. Tom Connally, February 25, 1952. DDE’s Records as President, Official File, Box 696, OF 155-D-1 1952-1953 (1); Eisenhower Library.

[2] Letter from Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs L.B. Pearson to U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, March 24, 1953. DDE’s Papers as President, Administration Series, Box 32, St. Lawrence Seaway; Eisenhower Library.

[3] Memorandum from Acting Secretary of State Walter Bedell Smith to White House Chief of Staff Sherman Adams, April 20, 1953. DDE’s Records as President, Official File, Box 696, OF 155-D-1 1952-1953 (4); Eisenhower Library.

[4] See chapter 24 of the Acts of the Fifth Session of the Twenty-first Parliament of Canada 15–16, George VI (assented to December 21, 1951).

[5] Memorandum from Army Chief of Staff Dwight D. Eisenhower to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, March 23, 1946. Reprinted in The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower (Edited by Alfred D. Chandler Jr., Stephen E. Ambrose, Louis Galambos, Daun van Ee, Joseph P. Hobbs, Elizabeth S. Hughes, and others; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970-2003), volume 7, document 802 beginning on page 954.

[6] Recalled by the President in Letter from President Dwight Eisenhower to Senator Alexander Wiley, February 6, 1953. DDE’s Records as President, Official File, Box 696, OF 155-D-1 1952-1953 (3); Eisenhower Library.

[7] Recalled by President Eisenhower in “Memorandum for Legislative Meeting, Monday, March 30, 1953. Subject: St. Lawrence Seaway.” DDE’s Papers as President, Administration Series, Box 32, St. Lawrence Seaway; Eisenhower Library.

[8] Sherman Adams. First-Hand Report: The Story of the Eisenhower Administration. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961 p. 5.

[9] “The President’s Appointments – Sunday, March 29, 1953.” Retrieved online from the Eisenhower Library August 29, 2020 at https://www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/research/online-documents/presidential-appointment-books/1953/march-1953.pdf

[10] Memorandum for Legislative Meeting, Monday, March 30, 1953. Subject: St. Lawrence Seaway.

[11] The New York Times, “Seaway Issue Left Open; White House Rests the Decision With Congress – Hearings Set,” March 31, 1953 p. 23.

[12] “Minutes of Cabinet Meeting – April 3, 1953.” Located in DDE’s Papers as President, Ann Whitman File, Cabinet Series, Box 2, “Cabinet meeting of April 3, 1953” folder; Eisenhower Library.

[13] Letter from President Eisenhower to Senator Alexander Wiley, April 23, 1953. DDE’s Records as President, Official File, Box 696, OF 155-D-1 1952-1953 (4); Eisenhower Library.

[14] Dwight D. Eisenhower, The White House Years: Mandate for Change, 1953-1956. Garden City: Doubleday, 1963 p. 301.

[15] Dwight D. Eisenhower, The White House Years: Mandate for Change, 1953-1956, p. 200.

[16] See, in general, “St. Lawrence Seaway.” In CQ Almanac 1953, 9th ed., 09-411-09-413. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1954.

[17] Dwight D. Eisenhower, The White House Years: Mandate for Change, 1953-1956, p. 241.

[18] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union, January 7, 1954. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954. (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960.) Document 3 beginning on p. 6.

[19] Dwight D. Eisenhower, The White House Years: Mandate for Change, 1953-1956, p. 302.

[20] See, in general, “St. Lawrence Seaway Authorized.” In CQ Almanac 1954, 10th ed., 09-490-09-494. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1955.

[21] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Remarks Upon Signing the St. Lawrence Seaway Bill, May 13, 1954. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954. Document 110 on p. 479.

[22] 67 Stat. 626.

[23] For a discussion of the flaws of the 1953 law, see Congressional Record (bound edition), August 18, 1954 pp. 14996-14997.

[24] U.S. Commission on Foreign Economic Policy. Report to the President and the Congress. Washington: GPO, 1954 p. 69.

[25] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Special Message to the Congress on Foreign Economic Policy, March 30, 1954. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954. Document 67 beginning on p. 352 (quote from p. 360).

[26] Untitled memorandum from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Sinclair Weeks, April 16, 1954. Reprinted in The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, volume 15, as document 834 on page 1024.

[27] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Statement by the President Upon Signing Bill Amending the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, August 26, 1954. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954. Document 213 beginning on p. 761.

[28] John Frittelli, “Cargo Preferences for U.S.-Flag Shipping.” Congressional Research Service, October 29, 2015 p. 4.

[29] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Address at the Annual Luncheon of the Associated Press, New York City, April 25, 1955. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1955. Document 79 beginning on p. 416 (quotation on p. 417).

[30] Remarks of Rep. William S. Cole, Congressional Record (bound edition), June 27, 1955 p. 9284.

[31] Congressional Record (bound edition), June 28, 1955 p. 9361.

[32] Congressional Record (bound edition), July 18, 1955 p. 10814.

[33] Remarks of Sen. Warren Magnuson, Congressional Record (bound edition), July 23, 1956 p. 13965.

[34] Letter from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Sinclair Weeks, August 15, 1957. Reprinted in The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, volume 18, as document293 beginning on p. 376.

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