Between 1874 and 1936, diverse federal legislation supported maritime training through school ships, internships at sea, and other methods. A disastrous fire in 1934 aboard the passenger ship SS Morro Castle, in which 134 lives were lost, convinced the U.S. Congress that direct federal involvement in efficient and standardized training was needed.
Originally—and in cooperation with the State of New York (which donated the land)—the U.S. government planned to establish a large-scale Merchant Marine Academy at Fort Schuyler, New York; nothing came of these plans.
Congress passed the landmark Merchant Marine Act in 1936, and two years later, the U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps was established. In that year, the USTS Nantucket (ex-USS Ranger) was transferred from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy to Kings Point and renamed the USTS Emory Rice. The first training was given at temporary facilities until the academy's permanent site in Kings Point, New York was acquired in early 1942. The Kings Point campus was originally Walter Chrysler's twelve-acre waterfront estate, named "Forker House" (now known as the USMMA's Wiley Hall). Construction of the academy began immediately, and 15 months later the task was virtually completed. The academy was dedicated on 30 September 1943, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who noted "the Academy serves the Merchant Marine as West Point serves the Army and Annapolis the Navy."
World War II required the academy to forgo its normal operation and to devote all of its resources toward meeting the emergency need for Merchant Marine officers. Its enrollment rose to 2,700 men, and the planned course of instruction was reduced in length from four years to 18 months. To meet the wartime needs for qualified merchant marine officers two additional merchant marine cadet training school sites were established, one located in Pass Christian, Mississippi, and the other in San Mateo, California. (The San Mateo location was closed in September 1947, and the students transferred to Kings Point. The location in Pass Christian was similarly closed in 1950.) In spite of the war, shipboard training continued to be an integral part of the academy curriculum, and midshipmen served at sea in combat zones the world over. One hundred and forty-two midshipmen gave their lives in service to their country, and many others survived torpedo and aerial attacks. From 1942 to 1945, the academy graduated 6,895 officers. As the war drew to a close, plans were made to convert the academy's wartime curriculum to a four-year, college-level program to meet the peacetime requirements of the merchant marine. In 1948, such a course was instituted.
Authorization for awarding the degree of bachelor of science to graduates was granted by Congress in 1949. The academy became fully accredited as a degree-granting institution in the same year. It was made a permanent institution by an Act of Congress in 1956. The academy accelerated graduating classes during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It was involved in such programs as training U.S. officers for the nuclear-powered merchant ship, the NS Savannah.
Admission requirements were amended in 1974, and this Academy became the first federal service academy to enroll female students, two years before the Military, Naval, Air Force, and Coast Guard Academies.
During the Persian Gulf War in early 1991, and for many months prior to the war, both Academy graduates and midshipmen played important roles in the large sealift of military supplies to the Middle East. Midshipmen training at sea also participated in the humanitarian sealift to Somalia during Operation Restore Hope.