The first challenge the nascent United States faced was the problem of the Barbary Pirates, who operated from a collection of city-states along the north coast of Africa. They demanded tribute from all who would ply those waters, and woe unto the vessels bearing the flag of a nation that did not pay the Danegeld.
The youthful United States paid the tribute at first, but beginning with the administration of Thomas Jefferson, that changes. Instead of sending gold, he sent wood and iron and canvas — and men. The United States Navy accepted the challenge of the Barbary Pirates, and crossed the Atlantic to face them down. And it was then that the United States Marine Corps won the battles that are celebrated in the second line of the Marine Hymn: “…to the shores of Tripoli.”
Unfortunately, the peace was not a lasting one. Ten years later, the U.S. had to return and remind the Barbary Pirates that the United States was not to be trifled with. In the aftermath, the European nations — who were not currently distracted by fighting among themselves — chose to follow America’s example and assert their own strength.
Piracy fell on hard times for a while, especially through World War II. The Royal Navy was absolute death on pirates, and the Union Jack was feared by those who followed the Jolly Roger. And as other nations’ navies grew and other nations’ empires spread around the world, the German, Japanese, Dutch, and even American flags helped maintain the peace on the high seas — as pirates were declared the enemies of all nations, and all warships regardless of origin were obligated to fight them.
In the aftermath of World War II, the high seas became a somewhat less hostile environment for pirates. The Royal Navy, while triumphant, began a long, slow contraction from its prior status as the preeminent navy in the world. The Japanese Navy was no more. The Dutch Navy was seriously impaired. The Italian Navy was devastated. The German Navy — which had been nearly wiped out during World War I — was, for all intents and purposes, destroyed. The only flag that truly commanded the seven seas was the Stars and Stripes — and even then would not last for long.
In the heady days after the end of World War II, the United States Navy rapidly decommissioned a huge percentage of the fleet it had built — mostly during the war. Then, as our attention was drawn to the threat of the Soviet Union, we rebuilt the fleet once more — but this time, in reaction to the nature of that threat, in a different form. Our ships were bigger, more expensive, more advanced, and far more lethal than any in history.
And, consequently, far fewer.
In 1945, 70% of the world’s warships displacing over 1,000 tons flew the Stars and Stripes. We had built literally thousands of warships between 1933 and 1945, and within a few years after that had sent the majority of them to mothballs or the scrap yards. So while American power on the high seas was greater than ever, it was concentrated on fewer ships — meaning that we simply didn’t have the hulls to “show the flag” in as many places.
That pattern continued into the 1980’s, when President Reagan oversaw the rebuilding of the Navy with a proclaimed goal of 600 ships. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the decline resumed, until today the United States has barely 200 warships in commission.
And yet we still are the only true naval superpower. Measured in tonnage, 70% of the world’s warships are American.
As navies have contracted, the return of pirates has gone 0n — with few paying much attention. One group that has made it its role to keep an eye on things is the Interational Maritime Bureau, who serve as a clearinghouse for reports of pirate attacks. And their map of pirate attacks for just this year alone is deeply troubling.
Today’s pirates don’t sail mighty ships. They don’t wield cutlasses and muskets. And they don’t fly the Jolly Roger. Instead, they largely use small, fast boats and are armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. And they are far, far removed from Jack Sparrow and other romantic images of pirates we hold.
This is not going unnoticed by the traditional enemies of pirates. The United States Navy has fought pirates on several occasions off the eastern coast of Africa, and just last week the Royal Navy fought and defeated a group of pirates.
The threat of piracy is small, but it is growing. And there is no concerted international effort to do a damned thing about it. What is needed, more than anything else, is numbers — not high-tech whiz ships that can do anything and everything, but enough small combatants that can be cheap enough to deploy in large numbers to the corners of the globe where pirates are growing the most bold — such as off the coasts of Africa and around Indonesia.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. It appears that we need to learn once again the lessons of the Barbary Pirates, 200 years later.