Globalization and Vietnam: Examining Marc Levinson’s Compelling Work On Container Shipping

Globalization and Vietnam: Examining Marc Levinson’s Compelling Work On Container Shipping

Few historians question that globalization occurred in the late twentieth century. What caused this phenomenon, however, is far more controversial. Was it the steady growth of information technology? Or an intense search on the part of companies worldwide for low-wage labor? According to the journalist Marc Levinson, there is a more straightforward answer: the use of container shipping, beginning in the 1970s. Such an adoption by manufacturers dramatically cut transportation costs, thus permitting companies to establish genuinely global supply chains.

            Levinson writes with a seasoned reporter’s precision and narrative style. Yet that sometimes proves costly for the author, for he occasionally pens statements that sound a lot like technological determinism. “The logic of shipping freight in containers was so compelling,” he writes, “the cost savings so enormous, that the container took the world by storm” (276-77). Ironically, such conclusions belie the careful research Levinson clearly undertook for his project. Indeed, one of Levinson’s most salient points is to underscore the profound resistance to containerization. Mining a bevy of records, from periodicals to business documents, Levinson chronicles the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)—two of the most influential unions in the United States in the 1950s. These union members, Levinson shows, registered the great threat containerization presented. As early as 1956, automation was a deeply serious issue for the ILA. After a series of back-and-forth strikes, the Pan-Atlantic fleet agreed to a three-year contract that mandated that employers in New York would have the right to automate in return for protecting longshoremen’s incomes (163-4). Such disputes between employer and employee continued into the 1960s. As Levinson notes, “the longshore unions’ tenacious resistance to automation appeared to establish the principle that long-term workers deserved to be treated humanely” (190). For much of the rest of the US economy, however, that never really became the case. As one former ILWU secretary begrudgingly noted a decade later: “The union gave up more than it should have … it did not get all it was fundamentally entitled to” (191).

            As Levinson compellingly shows, resistance was not limited to union workers. In the 1950s, New York City mayor Robert Wagner Jr. rejected containerization as the road to modernization. For more than a decade—no doubt anxious to get dockworkers’ votes—the mayor funneled cash into dock maintenance (140-2). Tellingly, he did not do the same for container operations. Indeed, in 1955 Wagner declared pier reconstruction one of his main capital priorities. Through the late 1950s, thanks in part to Wagner’s leadership, port spending, as Levinson put it, “took on unprecedent proportions” (144). In 1957, for example, the city’s marine and aviation commissioner Vincent O’Connor envisioned $200 million in waterfront investment—as Levinson conveniently calculates, that amounts to nearly $2 billion in 2015 dollars (145).

Merging international history with the much-neglected field of business history allows Levinson to offer two compelling reasons to explain exactly how containerization finally “took the world by storm”: the Vietnam War and the risk-taking capitalist Malcolm McLean. Levinson paints McLean as possessing an incredible amount of entrepreneurial spirit. Bordering on the reckless, McLean was nevertheless able to realize “that the shipping industry’s business was moving cargo, not ships” (53). The Vietnam War pushed McLean toward commercial success. The U.S. Army, Levinson shows, turned to McLean’s Sea-Land Inc. to aid in the “logistical mess” of getting war materials to soldiers. Such an insight reflects a growing historiography, in which books such as James Sparrow’s Warfare State is a part, that military demands pushed the US economy forward.

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