You can still read the letters along the length of her bow, but they’re browned by rust now.
They popped when she was new; crisp white against a raven black hull. Seventy thousand came out to cheer them when the ship was unveiled at a Virginia drydock. They read, simply: United States.
It’s an audacious thing to name an ocean liner after a great nation. But the SS United States backed it up in every way. When the American passenger ship entered service in 1952, the British magazine Punch grudgingly wrote of her, “After the loud and fantastic claims made in advance for the liner United States, it comes as something of a disappointment to find them all true.”
Indeed, on her first transatlantic voyage the United States, at a length 100 feet greater than the RMS Titanic, beat the previously existing speed record set by the Great Britain’s RMS Queen Mary – by 10 hours. She still holds the transatlantic Blue Riband record, in both directions, 65 years later, having achieved trial speeds as high as 38.32 knots (44 mph) and average speeds across the Atlantic in her maiden voyage of 35.59 knots (40.96 mph).
Today, America’s flagship – the very symbol of American industrial power and innovation once – is motionless, save her rocking in the waves of the Delaware River in Philadelphia where she rusts in dock.
The symbolic significance of America’s flagship in decline is inescapable. Those faded letters spell out the immense challenges our country faces economically and spiritually. Mostly spiritually. A nation divided cannot stand; a nation that fails to preserve its treasured icons is a transient power.
Those the ship speaks to can do something: The SS United States Conservancy just launched an inspirational campaign to save the great ship, and possibly much more in the process. The “We are the United States” crowdsourcing campaign is asking deeply divided Americans to come together to save a piece of our common heritage from the scrapheap. The idea is unite and rally a fractured nation around our once proud flagship. The goal is to raise $500,000 between now and Independence Day to preserve the ship until a proper repurposing of it can be planned. Several ideas have been proposed, including turning the United States into a floating museum.
There would be plenty to see and remember: Four U.S. presidents crossed the Atlantic via the United States: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton as a young man – three Democrats and one Republican. (“The destruction of the United States would be tantamount to destroying other national monuments like the Liberty Bell or the Statue of Liberty,” Clinton would later remark.)
Virtually every big celebrity of the immediate post-war era graced her staterooms; elegant figures like Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Coco Chanel and Sean Connery. Joan Crawford and Bob Hope sailed the United States, as did the duke and duchess of Windsor, the king and queen of Greece, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. Built with U.S. government funds so it could be converted to a troopship in the event of war, it was our peacetime ambassador to the world.
My mother sailed the United States, too. So did my grandfather. He suffered a fatal stroke aboard her returning from Europe in 1958, later dying at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan.
Walter Cronkite also sailed the United States. Before he passed in 2009, this is what he had to say about her forlorn condition: “This is a crime against shipbuilding – a crime against history … let such a ship die such a miserable death.”
The “We are the United States” campaign comes at a frightening time for our nation. Americans of all political opinions must wish it Godspeed.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.