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Published by EH.NET (February, 2000)

Stuart D. Brandes. Warhogs: A History of War

Profits in America.

Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997. 371 pp. Tables, notes,

bibliography, and index. ISBN 0-8131-2020-9

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.NET by Jacob Vander Meulen,

Jacob@hfx.andara.com, Department of History, Dalhousie

University, Halifax,

Nova Scotia, B3H 3J5.

A new book on wartime profit-making with a title like “Warhogs” might suggest

yet another entry for the “merchants of death” school on the relationship

between private enterprise and the military in America. The

notion that the relation is inherently corrupt, and the idea that the main

beneficiaries of war are contractors, bankers, and market capitalism, have been

widely shared among Americans at least since the Pequot wars of the 1630s when

profiteering gunsmiths scandalized New England (pp. 16-17).

During the twentieth-century that perspective assumed an even more sinister

hue. Not only did merchants of death profit from war, they instigated it at

every opportunity. From the “Warhogs” of World War II to the shadowy figures

dominating the 1990’s worlds of Oliver Stone and The X-Files,

Americans have been more than willing to imagine the worst about those engaged

in war business.

Staurt Brandes’ title, however, is tongue-in-cheek. Warhogs traces

profiteering

and efforts to control it through America’s various wars from the colonial

period to the end of World War Two. The author shows how exaggerated were

common assumptions and constant charges of graft and malfeasance in military

supply. He also shows how basic such suspicions have been to popular

republicanism in America and how that ideology has continuously shaped national

policy on the business of war. Brandes wants to contribute to what he calls the

“New Military History” which, he asserts, offsets ideology and

conspiracy-mindedness by concentrating “less opprobriously on understanding

civil-military relations” (p. 357).

Brandes points to the British Army’s economic impact on early America in

helping foment militant republicanism and the American Revolution. Because

“the Royal Army dripped with corruption” (p. 38), professional standing armies

came to mean patronage, collusion, autocracy and oppression. The equation

formed an essential component of traditional anti-government and

anti-big-business ideology in America. It survived the War of Independence,

despite all George Washington’s efforts to minimize corruption in the

Continental Army. Apart from during the War of 1812, when “left-handed traders”

from New England and New York dealt with Canadian enemies, and during the

Civil War, when members of a “shoddyocracy” seemed in control of Union Army

procurement, minimal hostility for those who dealt in war materiel through the

1800s reflected the relative unimportance of the military in nineteenth-century

society and economy. Turn-of-the-century U.S. imperialism, and especially

World War One, revived the critique.

During the interwar period, Bryanite “neo-Jeffersonians” laid the regulatory

parameters of military contracting and defense-industry profits for World War

Two and into the contemporary period.

Brandes cites numerous

instances of stupendous greed and unconscionable

profiteering, but debunks much more than he confirms and always balances real

corruption and conflict of interest with overall fair

-dealing and dedicated patriotism among businessmen. He points to the

inevitable confusion of rapid war mobilization, the administrative complexity

of determining reasonable costs and profits, and the ever-growing need for

greater and more intimate cooperation between the military and its suppliers

as the technology of warfare became more complex. Warhogs is

particularly strong on war-profit politics during World War One and through

Senator Gerald P. Nye’s investigation of the munitions industry in 193 4-35.

Readers might want to compare Brandes’ dismissal of the Nye Committee’s methods

as “eerily close to the methods of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy” and the Nye

Report as “pure demagoguery” with Matthew Ware Coulter’s recent study.

Nevertheless, Brandes credits the Nye Committee and the Vinson-Trammell Act of

1934 for the general success of excess-profit taxation and renegotiated

contracts during World War Two.

Warhogs is engaging and even-handed and based on impressive research in

both primary and secondary sources. Brandes nicely traces the war-profit

controversy in popular media and literature as well as fiction and cinema.

The book closes with a chapter entitled “War Profits and Cold War Culture”

that is actually about how World War Two profits were perceived during the

immediate post-war years. Brandes does not discuss defense-industry profits

since the Cold War began, how they were regulated, or the degree to which their

legitimacy was problematic for Americans. Some readers might feel left hanging.

What happened to the neo-Jeffersonian critique of profiteering and of the

military-industrial complex during the long and expensive Cold War?