Rough Waters: Sovereignty and the American Merchant Flag
In Rough Waters, Rodney P. Carlisle studies the emotional symbolism attached to the United States flag and its merchant marine fleet. According to the author, American naval and political figures adhered to an eighteenth century gentleman’s honor code. As a result, the language, rhetoric, and values associated with the gentleman’s honor code frame the government’s approach to national and international politics. Carlisle argues that the United States flag, as an extension of American identity, embodies the emotional, symbolic, and cultural values of the nation. Consequently, the treatment of merchant ships operating under the United States flag abroad is considered a matter of national honor. Merchant vessels occasionally ignite conflict between the United States and other global powers. The appropriate response to the insult of the flag’s honor, as per the gentleman’s honor code regarding duels, is a display of force. Nevertheless, Carlisle argues, since 1939 the United States has avoided participation in a war to defend national honor due to the change in nationality of flags on American-owned merchant vessels.
In his analysis of post-Revolutionary and Antebellum maritime history, Carlisle fails to account for the other contributing political, societal, and economic factors that led to historical maritime events and military confrontations. While the argument regarding the flag and its ties to national honor as instigators of maritime conflict is compelling, the intervention of the American military in the examples used by Carlisle can be described as a nation protecting its economic interests. As is, Carlisle’s exclusion of the numerous political, economic, and societal issues that influenced maritime events and conflicts makes his examination of post-Revolutionary and Antebellum history one-dimensional.
Additionally, Carlisle argues that the United States was able to remain neutral at the beginning of World War II because merchant ships owned by American corporations began to fly foreign flags. As a consequence of the flag change and transfer in registries, the American flag and national honor were not at risk at sea. It was then unnecessary for the United States to interfere when American-owned foreign-flagged ships carrying cargo to the Allies were attacked. Nonetheless, as Carlisle states, there were government officials who saw the transfer of flags and registry of ships transporting cargo for the Allies as a violation of the intent of the neutrality law, and, therefore, dishonorable. The politicians who disagreed with the decision to transfer ship registries to Panama contradict Carlisle’s argument. Thus, the United States’ maritime policies regarding trade with warring nations between 1939 and 1941 betray the gentleman’s code of honor that Carlisle describes.
Despite these weaknesses, Carlisle presents a thought-provoking argument regarding the symbolism and national honor of the American merchant flag in connection to maritime conflicts. The text’s most noteworthy contribution to present scholarly literature is its discussion of maritime law and the “flight” of the flag. Carlisle’s book is a comprehensive analysis of the legal basis for today’s shipping industry and registry system. His discussion of the reasons and timing for the change in national flags onboard American merchant vessels is undoubtedly useful. Rough Waters, although flawed, is a valuable addition to current scholarship dedicated to the legal side of maritime history.
- Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2017
- 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xii + 278 pages
- Photographs, tables, notes, bibliography, index. $31.95
Reviewed by Anna D’Jernes, East Carolina University