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
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
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?