First gun fired at Naval Weapons Station Dahlgren, Virginia, 1918. CREDIT: <a href="">U.S. Navy/Public Domain</a>
First gun fired at Naval Weapons Station Dahlgren, Virginia, 1918. CREDIT: U.S. Navy/Public Domain

The Living Legacy of WWI: Merchants of Death? The Politics of Defense Contracting, with Christopher Capozzola

May 8, 2018

In the 1930s during the run-up to WWII, many argued that arms manufacturers and bankers--"merchants of death"--had conspired to manipulate the U.S. into entering WWI. What is or should be the role of the profit motive in preparing for war? "This is a debate that is no less important now," says MIT's Christopher Capozzola, "but we are not having it, and we are not including all the people in that debate who need to be participating in it."

REED BONADONNA: I'm Reed Bonadonna. I'm a senior fellow for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and I'm talking from the Carnegie Council building, here on Lexington and 64th in Manhattan. I'm the lead administrator for the Living Legacy of the First World War sponsored by the Council, and I'm going to be talking with one of the nine Fellows who were selected to pursue research topics concerning the experience of the First World War.

Today's interview is with Christopher Capozzola. He is associate professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the author of Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen, and co-curator of "The Volunteers: Americans Join World War I," a traveling exhibition about American civilians in Europe during and after the First World War.

I have some prepared questions. I usually wind up asking some kind of off the cuff just based on our conversation, but before I get started, is there anything else that you would like to say by way of self-introduction? Maybe I should just quickly say that the title of your excellent proposal, which got very high marks from the committee, is "Merchants of Death? The Politics of Defense Contracting Then and Now," "then" I would assume referring to World War I.

Anything else you would like to say to begin the discussion?

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: No. Let's just dive in and talk about the Living Legacy of the First World War.

REED BONADONNA: Very good. Okay. I almost always start off by asking the Fellows how they got started on this particular project, maybe to include if there is any kind of a personal, a familial connection, or maybe also to include if you have forged a more personal interest in the topic as your research has gone forward, but just starting off with what was it about the particular matter of World War I munitions and defense contracting that attracted you?

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: This is a project that I never really expected to be taking on. My first book, which came out of my dissertation, was a history of American politics on the home front during World War I, so how people understood the war, their obligations as citizens, their relationship to the federal government, etc.

In passing I had sort of heard about debates about the economic mobilization for the war, debates that went on into the 1930s and led to congressional investigations. I figured, Oh, someone must have already written a book about that. Then I dug further into it and realized that it had not fully been done.

I also felt like it was a way for me to ask questions about the past that would really directly connect with the present. I think some of that comes maybe from my own experience teaching at MIT and teaching people who are not history majors and who very quickly ask you: "Well, how is this relevant to my life? How am I going to need to know this?"

I think that this is a project that asks some basic fundamental questions about how we organize both our democracy and our economy.

REED BONADONNA: That is interesting. Sometimes the question of historical relevance comes about later or is something that emerges, but you had a sense that there was something particularly relevant about this topic and something very teachable about this topic and relatable to modern students.

Can you drill down on that a little bit more? What was it that struck you from early on, it sounds like, that this was something that students and other contemporary Americans, that it would be kind of a wedge to get them interested in some of these larger issues?

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: To the extent that people have ever heard about this investigation—it is known as the Nye Committee after its lead investigator, Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota—it is something that happened during the run-up to World War II, and the people who are interested in this theory, the "merchants of death" theory, were often dismissed by historians and later commentators as conspiracy theorists or crackpots, and they included some conspiracy theorists and crackpots in their midst, for sure.

But what I wanted to do was to go back to their question, and the question that the congressional committee set for its investigations was: What is the influence of the defense industry on the making of U.S. foreign policy? I cannot think of a more important question for understanding 20th century or 21st century America.

REED BONADONNA: You talk about this quite a bit in your proposal. Maybe I will come back to that.

One of my other early-days questions was: You devote a paragraph in your proposal to research. I am not sure how far down the road you are in your research, but I wonder, have you encountered any surprises, any unexpected obstacles, or maybe been given some assistance from some unexpected quarters as you are doing your research? Any discoveries that are worth mentioning at this point in your work?

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: I am part-way through the research. I certainly would not have gotten as far as I did without a branch of the National Archives in Washington called The Center for Legislative Archives. I think we think of the National Archives as a place where old records go to gather dust, but it is really crucial for understanding the past workings of our government in order to understand how we can learn from those and improve in the future. So I am certainly appreciative of their help.

I came across on my most recent trip some great sources, which are letters that ordinary Americans wrote to the Nye Committee in the years between 1934 and 1936. It is a little lopsided. It is clear that they saved the ones that made them look good, so I am reading it with a grain of salt.

But part of what is interesting to me is that high schools, colleges, and private clubs—ladies' clubs and men's clubs—were regularly hosting debates in the 1930s around its questions. I think that just shows how central that question was to America in the 1930s, asking this question, what is the role of the profit motive in preparing for war?

REED BONADONNA: You talk about these topics in your proposal. The two areas that I lit on because I am a military type—I am a retired Marine Corps officer—is the question of civil-military relations, and you have already used this phrase, the "impact of defense industry on policy." Maybe taking those two areas sequentially—and I think they are somewhat distinguishable—what tentatively have you learned about civil-military relations then and now and the impact of the defense industry on policy then and now, the First World War and its legacy in those two areas?

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: Right. I think starting with the question of civil-military relations, what people in the 1930s were asking was how did this mobilization happen for the war that they had just lived through? It happened very quickly, and a lot of it was improvisational. The United States went from a very small standing army with a very loose and sloppy supply chain and managed to mobilize 4 million men into uniform in the space of 18 months and to equip them pretty well, all things considered, although the soldiers themselves and certainly their officers felt they did not have enough stuff fast enough.

But it also raised for Americans a lot of questions about who made the decisions: Who should allocate resources? Who should decide how the money is raised and spent? In some ways this comes down fundamentally to a question of do the people have the final say because it is the nation that is at war, or is that decision-making best left in the hands of military officers, the experts, who understand what is needed to get the job done on the battlefield?

There are pluses and minuses to both sides. On the one side, civilians may not have the expertise to know how much money is needed, what equipment is needed, and so forth, but it is also the case that history shows that military officers generally ask for maybe more than they need, and there is often a logic in which once something is made and acquired that presses for its use. In some ways, what people were trying to figure out in the 1930s is what is the balance between deferring to military expertise and insisting on civilian control, and I think that is a timeless question. That is still the question today, a century later.

REED BONADONNA: I would like to come back to that possibly.

Maybe you would like to tackle the defense industry side of things. The defense industry does not consist of military officers primarily; these are industrialists, these are businessmen who are in the defense business or who convert to the defense business when those times of war come along. What kind of influence do those individuals have on policy? What are some of the questions and maybe again some of the tentative answers to those questions that are coming out of your study at this stage?

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: It is important to remember that it is not simply a story of civilians and the military. The defense industry in some ways is in between those two. It works closely, obviously, with the armed services, and often includes former military personnel who move into civilian roles or even in and out of the Defense Department in civilian capabilities.

Nevertheless, it has its own agendas, its own constituencies in the 20th century and contemporary America. One of those constituencies is its stockholders. Those are organizations that exist in large part to generate returns on investments for those stockholders.

That is going to create different logics of decision-making. There is one set of debates that people had in the 1930s about whether defense companies—what would have been known in the language of the time as "munitions makers," which included everything and not just munitions—should be allowed to make any profit at all, the idea being if there is no profit in it, then they will not let the search for profit distort their decision-making. Or whether profit was not the problem but influence, whether there was a way to build a wall between the foreign policy decision-making—do we prepare for war with Germany versus the industrial side of that question. That becomes a central question of the 1930s. Most people feel in the 1930s that the safeguards were insufficient during World War I, so the question is not whether to have safeguards but which ones to have.

That is again another set of enduring questions. In some ways, we are a democratic society, but we are also a capitalist society. It is sort of fundamental to our structures of government, so we have generally been reluctant to say the profit motive has no place in American public life. It would be almost a little weird to imagine no place for the market in our defense industry. But we are right to be worried about whether too much profit-seeking might actually distort our foreign policy actions and thereby undermine our national interest.

REED BONADONNA: Maybe inevitably, but I wrote in the margin of your proposal as I was reading it, I think right in the first paragraph, the phrase "military-industrial complex." This is a phrase that was coined by Eisenhower for his farewell address to the nation when he was leaving office in 1961. Eisenhower, of course, had been a serving officer, although he had not gone overseas, but he was a Regular Army officer in the First World War and, of course, the commander of all the European forces on the Allied side in World War II.

I think of George C. Marshall, too, another product of the First World War, who served as a junior officer part of the time on Pershing's staff in the First World War, and then Army chief in the Second. These were both officers who seemed to—although both of them consummate professionals in the military sense—also had a sensitivity to other concerns, to the perceptions of the rest of America, to how civilians, in some cases the parents and relatives of the soldiers going off to the war and so on, were viewing things and sort of playing fair with them.

I wonder how much you have picked up on that this was an educational experience for the armed forces as well as for the country at large, that officers like Marshall and Eisenhower of their generation learned some valuable lessons from their experience in the First World War which they tried to put into practice. I wonder if it was reflected in the army educational system at the War College, in correspondence, anything else you have been able to find about the instructive value for American officers because of perhaps the shortcomings of this system in the First World War?

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: I have only a preliminary answer to that question so far. It is certainly the case that from all the armed services' perspectives they looked at the First World War as a very rushed job of playing catch-up in terms of developing equipment, moving it around, and all the rest. There was definitely an effort to learn from that and to make it more efficient after the war in preparation for the Second.

Certainly the industrial mobilization of the Second World War was smoother than it was in the First. There was also somewhat more of a run-up for Americans in terms of industrial preparation for the war, so that helped.

One thing that I think the military did not learn until after World War II was the importance of public relations (PR). In the 1930s the merchants-of-death theory was widely circulated by elite scholarly journals and popular magazines. It was widely held actually across the political spectrum in some surprising corners of the right and the left. It was not just in the United States but really in all of the Allied powers and even in postwar Germany.

REED BONADONNA: These strong peace movements on the Allied side in particular were flourishing.

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: It was advocated by peace movements and by journalists who were doing exposés of the contracting system in World War I and some of the irregularities that were in it. To my understanding so far in my research—I have not dug deep enough to know this for sure—I have not really seen the armed services fighting back in the realm of public opinion as the defense companies do.

DuPont, for example, was one of the villains in a lot of the merchants-of-death theories, and they very quickly learned that they need an ad campaign, they need PR advisors, as does the Morgan banking family. So the companies learn this, I think, faster than the military does, although after World War II and in the Cold War period and certainly since the introduction of the all-volunteer force in 1973, I think we can say that that has changed.

REED BONADONNA: Maybe somewhat unfortunately. There was a tradition on the old armed forces, the very small pre-World War I and intra-war armed forces of staying very much apart from politics. George C. Marshall never voted, and he made a point of staying scrupulously away from partisan politics. There was still that reticence probably going back to an Anglo-Saxon tradition of the army keeping out of politics and not going the route of Oliver Cromwell or something like that.

Actually, it just occurred to me, answering my own question about this, one manifestation of some of the heightened awareness of some of these issues in the armed forces was they did found a joint War College, that is, a top-level military school which officers from all services could attend at the time, and it still exists, called the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy. So there was this perception that there has to be greater attention paid to how the resources of the nation are mobilized in wartime.

According to the reading that I have done, the World War I munitions experience and defense-contracting experience was not only unfair in the sense that you could say it profited a few at the expense of the suffering and deaths of many, it was actually fairly inefficient and even incompetent, although some allowance can be made perhaps for the very short duration of the involvement of America in the First World War. Some historians call America and its defense industry to task, for example, the fact that almost all of the artillery, the heavy equipment, the airplanes, even down to the level of the automatic rifles that were carried by American soldiers, were of foreign design and manufacture, I am fairly sure.

Does the Nye Committee talk about this failure, if I am describing it correctly? Is it going to be part of your project?

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: It was an area of interest for some members of the committee. It was also something that a lot of observers of the committee were aware of.

For some people, the failure of World War I defense mobilization was that because it was inefficient, the argument was that it was not protecting the soldiers because it was not getting them what they needed fast enough and in good enough quality. That argument was made even during World War I, and it is something that defense contractors are very concerned about then and now, making sure that they get people the best stuff at the best prices.

One thing that I found really striking and that I definitely want to look into more as I go along with this is that the Nye Committee's investigation into how the United States mobilized for World War I turned out to be quite useful to the military, or the War Department in particular, in World War II. When they had to do it again, it helped that they had done these very intense investigations about the last war.

For me, one of the lessons of that is that congressional oversight is a good thing. Having Congress asking tough questions, whether of the armed services or of defense contractors, is ultimately not just in our national interest, but it is also in the interests of the armed services and those companies. It will force them to do better.

That is a tentative conclusion. Maybe I will change that by the end, but certainly that has been a remarkable finding for me so far.

REED BONADONNA: For example, George C. Marshall and the way he operated as Army chief would suggest that he felt the same way. He invited scrutiny from Congress and was very careful in the way that he briefed them and kept them informed and got their feedback.

I have been variously a history major and an English major, mostly an English major, especially for grad school. I am wondering if you ever read or have seen performed—there is even a movie versionMajor Barbara by George Bernard Shaw?

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: I know it, not super-well, but yes, definitely.

REED BONADONNA: One of the main characters is a man named Undershaft, who is a munitions maker. When the Major Barbara of the title, who is a major in the Salvation Army, finds out that Undershaft, who is a munitions maker, a merchant of death, is making big contributions to the Salvation Army, she is scandalized, she wants to give the money back, and he makes an argument about the importance of the work he does, which is a little dubious.

George Bernard Shaw seems to side with him. He gets the last word and some of the best speeches in parts of the play. That is part of the picture, too, I guess. The play was written [and first performed] in 1905. It is pre-World War I. I just thought it might be interesting for you to look at the play as part of the cultural background of the image of the munitions maker and how he is perceived and how George Bernard Shaw makes comic and dramatic hay out of the reputation of arms makers in the early 20th century.

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: I think it is in that, but I think it is actually in a bunch of different cultural sources, novels and films. This is an aspect of the book that I definitely want to explore, although I have not gotten too deep into that yet.

The journalistic exposés are also informing what people are doing in other places. Charlie Chaplin, of course, who was very much an anti-war sort of filmmaker, picks up on this to some extent, and the film The Big Parade also traces this, which tells the story from 1925—it is actually from the silent film era—about a World War I soldier which includes figures of the munitions maker.

I think it is important to remember—and this is buried in the middle of The Great Gatsby—how Jay Gatsby got rich, which is that he was wheeling and dealing in the munitions trade during the war. There are cultural figures like that in the popular culture of the 1920s and 1930s, and I definitely want to look at that to try to understand as people were holding these congressional hearings what were the images they had in their minds?

REED BONADONNA: Interesting. One of the other historians who has been interviewed by the Carnegie Council—I was not in on this one, but I have heard it quoted—says that if you want a sense of what the American Revolution was like, the smell of whiskey and onions is important to keep in mind because this is probably what to a considerable degree the American Army smelled like when it was in camp and so on.

I wonder if you have any sensory perceptions of the times and the events that you are talking about. With industrialists and senators, I am picturing maybe cigar smoke and private railway cars. But you have been doing the research, and I just wonder if you have gotten a whiff of these earlier times—sight, sound, feel, smell—from your research.

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: To some extent. I think that for me, and this is something that I come back to a lot with the First World War in general, my goal is to help us imagine it in color instead of in black and white.


CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: To the extent that we think about World War I at all, it is in the very grainy black-and-white film images. But that is not how people lived it. It was a high-tech war, it was a mass media war, it was a very modern war, cutting edge in every sense. If we can recover the war—which sometimes means looking at color images but sometimes means using our imagination—in color, then its questions and its concerns suddenly look alive to us again.

REED BONADONNA: That is great. I have been asking that question a lot, and that is probably the best answer I have heard yet.

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: I have no idea what it smells like.


CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: It can't have been good.

REED BONADONNA: No. Probably not. A lot of sweaty wool uniforms.


REED BONADONNA: I wore a wool uniform for four years as a cadet, and when they get wet, when they get sweaty, they smell horrible. That must have been part of the experience. I am sure those uniforms were extremely uncomfortable. They were still wearing high-collar uniforms in the field, and it was a crazy way to fight. Nice answer.

Maybe we are getting close to the end of summing it up. The import of this period of time, of the munitions effort in the First World War, the Nye Committee's response, the relevance today, what is it that we—Americans, people, members of the electorate—need to keep in mind if you are willing to try to boil it down for us at this fairly early stage now?

When they see this in color, apart from a visual representation, what concept or understanding do they bring away along with maybe a heightened sense of the humanity of—I have a sepia black-and-white picture of an ancestor of mine who was in a Marine brigade in the First World War. It is a very clear, very sharp-outlined photo, but black and white, obviously staged, standing there in uniform, putting on a mean face, what Marines have to do for a camera. I am going to try to go back and look at that picture and imagine it in color the next time I see it. It is up in my office.

Anyway, trying to sum up tentatively maybe the relevance and the import of the work that you are doing now.

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: I think if I have one goal with this project, it is sort of different from most books. I am not necessarily trying to convince you of my answer, I am trying to convince you to ask the question with me, to think about what is the causal relationship historically or in the present between the wars that we fight and the profits that we make. Are we better off for including the profit motive into that system, or is profit an obstacle to peace, and if so, how would you manage that relationship?

That is a debate that I think was at its most vibrant between 1934 and 1937, or even really up to the war in 1941. It is a debate that is no less important now, but we are not having it, and we are not including all the people in that debate who need to be participating in it.

In that sense, what I want people—I do not necessarily want people all to agree, and I know that they won't, but I do want them all to be informed and for us to have places where we can have that conversation.

REED BONADONNA: That is another great answer. I always try to get in the fact that this is the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and it seems to me what you are describing is an ethical, moral debate at bottom: Is it proper for people to profit from getting involved in something that is as wicked as war, often mistaken and fought for the wrong causes, but the best war in history has been—whichever war that one might be—has been a mess in its own way. They are all bad. Service members and veterans like me hope that maybe it is worthwhile.

It is a very big question. I hope you go on asking those questions and maybe trying to guide us toward some answers. Maybe better controls are necessary, maybe more civilian review is called for, a greater sense of responsibility for these things on the part of the military.

Okay. Christopher Capozzola, what haven't I asked, or is there a point on which you would like to end, wrapping things up, or maybe opening things up for further discussions that we might be having?

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: No. I think part of what is exciting to me about this project is also where it connects to the broader Carnegie project on the Living Legacy of the First World War, and I really like that the different Fellows in the program are coming from all different fields, from law, from art and literature and culture, from politics, looking at the United States and other countries. I think that collectively we will do a lot to bring that story of World War I from black and white to color so that we can see how it is still very much alive with us today.

REED BONADONNA: We are going to try to get the Fellows together maybe in a couple of different locations going into the late summer, early fall, and I think that will lead to some really interesting conversations and contact with other colleagues.

I will just finish by saying that as the administrator for this project and Billy Pickett, the program assistant, we are here to help if we can to answer questions, to overcome whatever obstacles are within our sight or that we might be able to take onboard. Anyway, we will continue to try to support you and your work in any way that we can, and we would love to hear from you.

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: All right. I will definitely be keeping in touch.

REED BONADONNA: Okay. I guess we are ready to wrap things up. Have a great day, and thank you for your great answers to these questions.

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: All right. Thank you.

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