GIBBS: Restoring pride in the SS United States

Nation’s flagship needs our help

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With the U.S. Olympic Committee caught red-faced earlier this month for dressing our nation’s athletes in uniforms made in China, one harkens back to the day when “Made in America” was more than a nostalgic slogan. It is a sad commentary on the state of our nation that the USOC apparently didn’t think it would be at all embarrassing to shun American manufacturers when preparing Team USA to go for the gold.

Standing aboard the deck of the SS United States, however, one remembers what “Made in America” once meant to our nation and the world. Sixty years ago this month, America’s flagship shattered the trans-Atlantic speed record and became one of the great engineering achievements of her time. Back in 1952, people from every walk of life and firms from every state in the nation helped design, build and outfit the fastest and safest ship ever conceived. Her record has never been broken.

Larger than the Titanic, the SS United States was a military powerhouse disguised as a modern luxury liner. With a double hull nearly a thousand feet long, she could be quickly converted to carry 15,000 troops 10,000 miles without refueling. While only once placed on high alert, she never saw battle. Instead, she transported more than a million passengers, including four U.S. presidents, diplomats, military personnel, students, immigrants, movie stars and business moguls.

Sixty years ago, the American dream and our national pride was powerfully and beautifully rendered in red, white and blue and in steel and aluminum. When the SS United States shattered the speed record, it was as if the whole country went along for the ride. She cut through the water with the force of a rising world power, united against communism and a beacon of hope for war-torn Europe and those still struggling against authoritarian rule.

When the ship sailed into foreign ports of call, she garnered a sense of excitement, awe, anticipation and visions of what life was like in the land of the free. She represented the most advanced, the safest, the fastest, the biggest and the best — a majestic symbol of a diverse, free and dynamic society.

My grandfather, the designer of the SS United States, maintained that the ship represented “the strength of a free society and individual initiative [and] a tribute to the American system.”

Perhaps Ralph Lauren and the USOC should take note.

Today, as companies and consumers place less value on American-made goods, the SS United States sits idle and in a state of disrepair, a metaphor for our nation’s challenges and — some would say — decline. Solid and stately as she floats at a Philadelphia pier, the paint on her massive red, white and blue funnels is now fading and peeling.

It will be up to the power of individuals throughout the land to make her shine again and likewise spearhead a renewed push for American goods.

Like our nation, the SS United States needs the renewed vision, energy and power of her people. A new campaign at SavetheUnitedStates.org is leveraging social media and digital technology in an unprecedented way to encourage people from across the country to unite around preserving and celebrating our common history.

The campaign’s goal is to restore the exterior of this symbol of American pride, passion and ingenuity. A shipboard museum will celebrate and showcase the rich tapestry of American culture, technology and innovation. Visitors will learn about the nation’s proud post-war period when America’s ingenuity helped rebuild a war-torn world. Some of the ship’s 500,000 square feet of interior space will support retail, hospitality and entertainment uses and create a dynamic 21st century economic opportunity.

We are all part of the great tradition of “Made in America.” It wasn’t that long ago that people in this country came together to build great things. Both our nation and our flagship are stewards of an extraordinary people and powerful history.

Sometimes it can be something as simple as a limestone monument, a Main Street parade or the high notes of a ball park anthem to rekindle a sense of national pride and purpose. Or it can be an awe-inspiring all-American ocean liner that bears a great name that makes people realize how strong we are as a nation and how we must work together to ensure “Made in the USA” means something to all of us again.

Susan Gibbs is the executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, the ship’s designer.

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