Disruptive technologies, strategic plans and the art of comparative history

F. Ben Tipton, The University of Sydney

Katherine C. Epstein Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, Harvard University Press, 2014 (328 pp). ISBN 9-78067472-526-3 (hardcover) RRP $80.99.

In January 1961, Dwight Eisenhower delivered his final televised speech as President of the United States. He warned of excessive government spending, but also of the threat posed by foreign enemies, and therefore of the need for ‘an immense military establishment and a large arms industry’. However, in the phrase that made his Farewell Address famous, he warned that America needed to ‘guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex’. Eisenhower believed the dangerous relationships among industrial firms, government agencies and irresponsible technocratic elites were new, a consequence of the Cold War, and most observers since have agreed. In Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain, Katherine Epstein argues that he was wrong. Rather, it was:

In the late nineteenth century [that] a new paradigm for procuring weapons brought the military-industrial complex into existence. Industrial naval technology was so sophisticated and expensive that traditional methods of building weapons in public-owned factories or purchasing them as finished products from private contractors did not suffice (p. 2).

Instead, governments found themselves driven to collaborate with private firms in the development of new weapons systems. The intersection of public and private interests posed new and difficult questions, notably of the ownership of the resulting intellectual property, but more broadly the impact of technocratic elites on public policy.

The story of the torpedo, says Epstein, broadens out from the history of science and technology to intersect with legal, business, military and, finally, diplomatic history (p. 2). Epstein presents a compelling and frequently witty account of how the governments of Britain and the United States, two countries at different levels in the international pecking order, dealt with issues arising from the acquisition of advanced military technologies in a market economy. There were parallels. Both lied, cheated and stole when they could, and when they could not, they attempted to change the rules in their favour, the fog of war proving especially convenient for this last tactic. There were divergences as well, but Epstein concludes that before 1914 the outlines of the military-industrial complex were already visible in both Britain, the acknowledged hegemonic power, and in a relative weakling such as the United States.

The next section outlines the comparison of the British and American cases. Epstein argues that we need to re-think the outbreak of the First World War, especially with regard to British naval planners. The archives reveal wide gaps between public pronouncements and privately expressed opinions. However, private or internal correspondence also needs to be contextualised; we still may not know what the actors truly thought or wished. The following section suggests that in addition we may want to think about a further comparison, between Britain and Germany, and suggests ways in which that might be done. The final section returns to the notions of the military-industrial complex and technocratic elites, and suggests that the comparison of the world before 1914 with the world in 1961, or with the world of today, may require contextualisation as well.


The conventional account of naval strategy before the First World War runs along well-worn grooves (see, for example, Tipton 2003, pp. 252–254). In 1890 an American naval officer named Alfred Thayer Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660–1783. Mahan argued that global power rested on fleets of heavy battleships that secured trade and supply routes. The book became required reading for aspiring naval officers in all countries, in part because it confirmed what they already knew—that Britain’s global power rested on Britain’s large fleet of heavy battleships. Then in 1906 Britain launched the Dreadnought and raised the stakes to a new level. Existing battleships became instantly obsolete, for Dreadnought’s twelve-inch guns would cripple an enemy before they could close and bring their more rapidly firing secondary batteries into action. All powers believed themselves forced to acquire ‘dreadnoughts’, battleships armed exclusively with heavy guns. They rushed to build themselves when they could, as in Austria (Sondhaus 2001, pp. 211–213), or to build the ships and purchase the guns they could not make, as in Japan (Evans & Peattie 1997), or to purchase both ships and guns when they could make neither, as in Brazil (Sondhaus 2001, p. 216).

The intersection of public and private interests posed new and difficult questions.

News and rumours of construction and purchase of dreadnoughts fuelled competition, for instance in the Mediterranean between Austria and Italy, and in South America among Brazil, Argentina and Chile, but most fatefully of course between Britain and Germany. In Britain John ‘Jacky’ Fisher as head of the Navy, and Winston Churchill his civilian minister, campaigned vociferously for funds to expand Britain’s fleet of dreadnoughts. An apocryphal joke has Churchill saying, ‘We asked for four, Treasury offered two, and we compromised—on eight’. The point, for Britain, was to remain the world leader, and the race to build and to out-build, we are told, contributed directly to the outbreak of war in 1914 (see, for example, Massie 1992, 2004).

But, says Epstein, for minor powers struggling to emerge from semi-colonial status, there was a new option, an emergent technology that might level the playing field or even tilt it the other way. In the 1860s Robert Whitehead, an English engineer working for a manufacturer of marine engines in the Austrian port of Fiume (now Rijeka, in Croatia), developed a device with a motor driven by compressed air that travelled under water and delivered a warhead that could inflict potentially lethal damage on any ship afloat. His ‘torpedo’, a term previously applied only to the static defensive weapons that we would call mines, held a level course at a constant depth through the joint action of a hydrostatic valve and a pendulum, a breakthrough innovation that Whitehead called ‘The Secret’. By 1870 his torpedoes travelled at seven knots (thirteen kilometres per hour) and could hit a target 700 yards (640 metres) away. The Austrian government—Fiume was the location of their naval training facility—was impressed by his prototypes, but baulked at the expense of purchasing exclusive rights. Instead Whitehead began selling in the international market, and Fiume became a Mecca for young technically inclined naval officers.

This, roughly, is where Epstein begins. Torpedoes lay at the cutting edge of technology, and they evolved rapidly. Epstein traces the interlocking development of the torpedo’s components, and one of the book’s pleasures is the combination of precision and humour in the presentation. Improved engines, better depth control, gyroscopes to set and hold a course, ‘superheaters’ that maintained the air pressure for longer; the long list of cumulative improvements meant that by the early years of the twentieth century torpedoes could travel at 45 knots (some 83 kilometres per hour) and had an effective range of 10,000 yards (more than nine kilometres).

However, although on the face of it a torpedo cost infinitely less than the battleship it was aimed at, the decision to adopt this particular new weapon was complicated by the fact that navies confronted a choice of new technologies, all of which required heavy investments. Direct costs, furthermore, sat atop a pyramid of expenditures on research and development, testing and deployment. When to discard an expensive legacy system, when to adopt an even more expensive new system, and how much to spend on potential future systems, became questions that disturbed the sleep of naval planners everywhere. Emergent systems also came entwined with experts—scientists, engineers, technicians and subaltern officers who knew more about them than either their immediate superiors or more distant policy makers. Each system competed with all the others, and so did their advocates, who attempted to influence the policy process to favour their own system, or their version of a new system.

Epstein emphasises in particular the ‘dawning realization’ (p. 215) that government agencies needed to protect their own contributions to the development of new systems. This led in both Britain and the United States to new conceptions of intellectual property, and almost immediately to further conceptions of the sorts of intellectual property that governments should attempt to control. They might claim ownership, attempt to force concealment of what they did not own, or purchase access to what they neither owned nor could classify as secret. Their frequently and sometimes amusingly amateurish efforts were mostly concerned to pay their private sector suppliers as little as possible for their products, and to pay them if possible nothing at all for their intellectual property. However, the novelty of the relationships to non-material property, including the definition for instance of a patentable invention (see pp. 222–223), the extension of the concept of eminent domain (the idea that something, from land to non-material property, could be seized by the state in the public interest) (pp. 141–145), or the superficially incongruous notion of a ‘secret patent’ (pp. 110–111), could and did lead to difficulties—on one occasion all the way to the Law Lords in Britain, and twice to the United States Supreme Court.

Torpedoes lay at the cutting edge of technology, and they evolved rapidly.

What to do? Mahan said fleets of heavy battleships would contend for dominance in decisive engagements. Britain’s two-power doctrine mandated that the British fleet equal those of the two next largest naval powers, and British tradition added the close blockade of enemy ports to choke off shipping. The torpedo, Epstein argues, presented an ‘anomaly’ to this conception, an ‘asymmetrical threat’ to the conventional fleets of heavy battleships (p. 217) and to the tactics of close blockade (p. 206). Strategic logic, as Epstein outlines it, suggests that a weak power, such as the United States then was, would embrace the torpedo, complex to be sure, but still a small, cheap weapon that could potentially destroy the largest heavy battleship. Conversely, a hegemonic power such as Britain would be expected to reject the torpedo and further build on its existing superiority in heavy ships.

What Britain did, contrary to the conventional logic, was to spend large amounts of money on the acquisition and development of torpedoes. Tactically, the Royal Navy adopted the concept of ‘flotilla defense’, the protection of harbours and coastlines by small ships armed with those torpedoes (p. 219). Strategically, both Fisher and Churchill adopted a pragmatic and flexible approach to the structure of the Royal Navy. Having just won Cabinet approval for four new battleships, Churchill in fact wrote, ‘I immediately resumed my plans for converting two of these ships into a much larger number of smaller vessels. I proposed to treat these dreadnoughts not as Capital Ships but as units of power’ (p. 218). The Navy had adopted the Whitehead torpedo in 1870. In 1890 the Admiralty encouraged Whitehead to establish a second factory in Weymouth, but also began to source components and ultimately complete torpedoes from the Royal Gun Factory, part of the Woolwich Arsenal complex, in an attempt to control and possibly circumvent private firms. Much of the development occurred jointly, and Epstein is particularly good at tracing the resulting disputes over contracts, payment and alleged patent violations, and the consequent complex claims and counterclaims.

The United States Navy (pp. 101–102, 131–132, 205), in contrast, rejected flotilla defence, concentrated on the construction of heavy battleships, and only embraced the torpedo when forced to do so by cost-conscious members of Congress. The Navy at first purchased ‘Howell’ torpedoes from a firm in Providence, Rhode Island, then in 1890, when they proved unsatisfactory, arranged for the Bliss Company of Brooklyn, New York to buy manufacturing rights from Whitehead, and later also developed its own manufacturing plant. Although American policy makers consistently attempted to create and foster a domestic production capability, American torpedo development simply ceased at points from lack of funds. Epstein also uncovers two interesting aspects of the story. First, the United States remained backward; the Bliss firm remained the only American firm capable of producing a torpedo, and when their chief engineer F.M. Leavitt fell ill, production stalled (p. 79). Second, as the weaker and less well funded power, but still with ambitions to achieve both parity and independence, the Americans pressed forward with untried breakthrough technologies, especially a turbine engine that would leapfrog the piston engines of the British and of course free them from the necessity of paying royalties to Whitehead. As Epstein puts it, ‘Given the balance of R&D power, it was in the American interest to try to shift to science-led innovation, where their R&D weakness was less damaging’ (p. 224). However, as Epstein shows, breakthrough technologies entailed their own subordinate, piecemeal, but crucial improvements, and Britain remained in the lead.

Naval historians have frequently criticised the performance of the Royal Navy before 1914, and Epstein takes aim in particular at Arthur Marder’s influential study (Marder 1961; Epstein, pp. 204–205, 292–293, n. 61). The Navy’s tactics, Marder argued, were antiquated. Worse, they formed part of an unrealistic war plan that envisaged close blockade of the North Sea coast and an amphibious assault to seize a base. That is, they concentrated on threats close to home rather than defending the Empire. Marder saw this as evidence of the ‘strategic ineptitude’ of the Navy and blamed the Navy’s conservatism on its failure to develop a planning staff, which explained the Navy’s acquiescence to the ‘continental commitment’ and the long war envisaged by the Army’s recently created General Staff.

Naval historians have frequently criticised the performance of the Royal Navy
before 1914.

Epstein believes the archival evidence shows Marder wrong on several counts. As noted above Fisher was committed to flotilla defence and Churchill to substitution of small craft for large. Navy planners saw that the torpedo made the traditional close blockade ‘suicidal’ (p. 206), and Fisher endorsed the tactical synthesis proposed by John Jellicoe (later the commander of the Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland) that combined traditional heavy battleships with small destroyers, all armed with torpedoes (pp. 204–212). Rather than ignoring the Empire, the Navy advocated ‘economic warfare’. Navy planners believed that ‘modern industrial, capitalist economies could not survive a long war’, but that the British economy could weather such a war better than others. Britain controlled 80 per cent of the world’s shipping and dominated world financial markets, and could deprive enemy powers of both the shipping and the credit required to prosecute a long war (pp. 206–207, citing Lambert 2012).

In short, Epstein’s analysis of the archival evidence demonstrates that the Royal Navy was not antiquated and rigid, but technologically sophisticated, pragmatic and flexible. However, much of what Epstein reveals was private knowledge, sealed in the archives. Publicly the Royal Navy remained committed to fleets of heavy battleships. As Epstein says, ‘Fisher was happy to let others believe that he believed in battleships’ (pp. 131–132), and Churchill’s notion of battleships as mere units of power remained in his manuscript draft of The World Crisis (p. 294, n. 12).

The discrepancy between public pronouncements and private knowledge arose from the need to justify ever increasing budgets against other claimants. Fisher’s primary goal was to maintain the Navy’s budget. Writing to King Edward VII he said, ‘the English Navy is now four times stronger than the Germany Navy, but we don’t want to parade all this, because if we do so we shall have Parliamentary trouble’ (p. 132). The noisy propaganda supporting the Navy estimates continued and intensified. Thus, although Marder and others have underestimated the foresight of Britain’s naval strategists, Fisher and Churchill remain guilty of exacerbating the tensions that made the First World War more likely, and guilty as well of lying in order to divert resources away from other, arguably more productive uses. The same accusation holds for Navy planners in the United States, who continued to call for heavy battleships even as a penny-pinching Congress dragged them to the table to dine on the thin soup of small torpedo craft and flotilla defence rather than feasting on the fat of high seas fleets. Epstein observes with nice irony, ‘In the US Navy’s eyes, the main argument against flotilla defense was budgetary. Torpedoes and torpedo craft cost less than big guns and battleships and the Navy sought reasons to justify a larger budget, not reasons to cut it’ (p. 101).

Comparing Britain and Germany

However, despite the fascinating aspects of the American story, at the time the United States was a minor power. It was never the United States against which British efforts were directed. The ghost at the feast is Germany. There is no entry for Germany in Epstein’s index, nor is there one for Alfred von Tirpitz, Secretary of State of the Imperial German Naval Office, and the acknowledged father of the German battle fleet. However, Epstein as usual has done her homework, and references through the book make it plain that British leaders ate with one eye at least across the North Sea. It was German trade and German credit against which the Navy’s policy of economic warfare was directed (pp. 206–207), and it was the German battle fleet that the public campaigns portrayed as a risk to Britain’s place in the sun (p. 131).

Sadly, there appears to be no study of Germany that parallels Epstein.

Sadly, there appears to be no study of Germany that parallels Epstein. Eberhard Rössler (1984), whom she cites, focuses on the torpedoes themselves rather than the organisational structures that produced them, and his title indicates that he is more concerned with their ultimate fate as the archetypal weapon of the submarine. The standard account (again, see for example, Tipton 2003, pp. 252–254) portrays Emperor Wilhelm II as a naval enthusiast who doodled pictures of battleships during Crown Council meetings and ordered a copy of Mahan’s book placed in the bridge of every ship in the German Navy. Germany’s constitution made him supreme military commander and gave him absolute power to appoint the Chancellor and all ministers. The Reichstag, although elected by universal manhood suffrage, could not initiate legislation and possessed only the limited right to approve the government’s budget. Any initiative, therefore, required the Emperor’s support, and Tirpitz used his weekly appointment with the Emperor to advocate the expansion of Germany’s battle fleet. Wilhelm agreed, the Germans began to build, and then were forced to build again when Britain responded with the launch of the Dreadnought.

Publicly, successive Navy Bills announced Germany’s accelerating construction. Within government circles, Tirpitz argued that Germany needed only sufficient heavy battleships to pose a ‘risk’ to Britain, a risk that would force British leaders to accede to German wishes around the world. German historians argue over his true intentions regarding the ultimate size of the fleet, and over its purpose (the list is a long one; Kelly 2011, ch. 1, gives a good summary). Briefly, conservative historians accept Bismarck’s principle of the primary importance of foreign policy, and blame Germany’s diplomats for not predicting the British response and for not pursuing a more cautious policy during the dangerous period before the German fleet became large enough to protect German interests. Left-leaning historians, in contrast, have argued that the battle fleet’s primary purpose was not to improve Germany’s international position, but rather to stabilise its precarious internal political situation. To combat the threatening rise of the socialist labour movement, the fleet was intended to facilitate an alliance among industrial capitalists who benefited from naval construction, agrarian aristocrats who benefited from tariffs on grains, and a socially conservative Catholic Centre Party.

What about torpedoes? Like Fisher, Tirpitz advanced his career through strenuous advocacy of new technologies, beginning with torpedoes. He visited the Whitehead plant in Fiume in 1877, where he met representatives from several other navies (Kelly 2011, p. 48). He returned to head the German Navy’s new torpedo division for twelve years. Epstein notes that, beginning in 1873, the German Navy purchased torpedoes from a firm in Berlin that had almost certainly stolen plans from Whitehead. The Berlin firm was the Berliner Maschinenbau Aktiengesellschaft or BMAG, but was referred to as the Schwartzkopff Company after its founder. ‘Happily for the punnish (and Hunnish) historian’, Epstein observes, ‘Schwartzkopff sounds nearly like Schwarzkopf, which means ‘Blackhead’—the perfect name for Whitehead’s competitor’ (p. 241, n. 14).

Tirpitz’s new division developed a working model by 1879, but he believed that even under ideal experimental conditions it would only hit its target half of the time (p. 8, citing Rössler 1984). His frustration, we can infer, reflected the same difficulties encountered by the British and Americans. From the mid-1880s onward the German Navy obtained all its torpedoes from state-owned factories (p. 8, citing Rössler 1984). Tirpitz defended his section against all comers for a decade, and got his chance for the all-important personal contact with his ruler when he ferried the soon-to-be Emperor Wilhelm to his Grandmother Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887, in a small torpedo ship. His section was dissolved by the new Emperor in 1890, but Tirpitz himself survived and rose to the position of dominance he occupied for the next twenty years (Kelly 2011).

Tirpitz advanced his career through strenuous advocacy of new technologies, beginning with torpedoes.

As a feature of Tirpitz’s early career, the torpedo sinks from view, but it must have continued running under the surface. At least some of Wilhelm’s doodles portrayed ships armed exclusively with torpedoes (Epstein, p. 7, 241, n. 10, citing Lambi 1984, p. 375), so the Emperor was certainly aware of their potential. Further, we can be certain that the German Navy spent at least as much as the British on the subsequent development of the torpedoes themselves, simply because they must have faced all of the same technical difficulties. Epstein concludes, ‘German torpedoes (which also possessed steam superheaters and angled gyroscopes) were roughly equivalent to British torpedoes at this time, and it is suggestive, though not conclusive, to note that German capital ships carried several more torpedo tubes than their British counterparts’ (p. 210, citing Rössler 1984). Epstein also notes that German tactical thinking has not been well studied, but well-practised evasive manoeuvres such as the abrupt ‘battle about turn’ that saved the Germans at Jutland (see Campbell 1998; Massie 2004) could not have been so highly developed without Tirpitz’s blessing and support.

There are parallels. In general, it appears that in Germany, as in Britain and the United States, government officials confronted the owner of a technology they desperately wanted, and moved first to establish domestic sources of supply, and then to develop their own manufacturing capabilities. More specifically, Patrick Kelly, Tirpitz’s latest biographer, confronted by the inconsistency of his policies and his later rationalisations, concludes that he pursued ‘rational’ actions within his frame of reference, but that his frame was limited, first by the shared desires of Navy officers for expansion and consequently increased opportunities for promotion, and second by the need to compete with other agencies for funding (Kelly 2011, pp. 10–11). Kelly confirms that Tirpitz emphasised construction of heavy battleships, which we can add were armed, as all including Dreadnought itself were, with torpedoes in addition to their guns. Tirpitz neglected the cruisers that could have defended Germany’s colonies and the submarines that might have threatened Britain’s coastlines more effectively than the battle fleet, which remained in harbour after Jutland. Germany possessed only 37 submarines, only six of which might be on station at once, when the decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare was taken in 1917 (Tipton 2003, pp. 281–282).

Tirpitz said in August 1914, ‘We must have a fleet equally strong as England’s. This natural and single aim could not, however, be announced during the past two decades’ (Tipton 2003, p. 253, citing Steinberg 1965). However, there is no archival evidence before 1914, says Kelly, that Tirpitz pursued some overarching plan to save the German Empire from internal collapse, or some distant view of world hegemony, or even any particular size for the German fleet. Rather, he feared three things: a Reichstag that might take each new vessel as an opportunity for debate, the Emperor’s well-known instability and temporary enthusiasms, and random ideas that might percolate up from the Navy itself to influence either Reichstag deputies or his master the Emperor. Therefore Tirpitz pushed for settled, legislative approval for a constant tempo of new construction. Of course there needed to be some justification. One of Tirpitz’s aides said, in private, ‘The life elixir of our fleet is the rivalry with England. Without this [our fleet] loses its reason for existence’ (Kelly 2011, p. 343).


It seems clear, then, that within their different institutional constraints, naval authorities in in Britain, the United States and Germany pursued recognisably similar policies. Their motives were simple; to achieve the largest possible budget and to seek out and acquire the latest technologies. It is also worth noting that they had no conception of what was to come; German planners shared the conviction of their British rivals that the complexities of modern economies made a long war impossible (Tipton 2003, p. 284). But, did they belong to a single elite, did they exercise the power the term implies, and did they ‘invent’ a military-industrial complex?

The past is a different country, and the world before 1914 cannot be compared too quickly with ours.

We might ask about Epstein’s statement quoted above. The research has not yet been done, especially in Epstein’s key area of intellectual property, but if Germany was able to develop and produce torpedoes in state-owned factories, then the expense and the high level of technological expertise required did not, in and of themselves, necessarily lead to a new paradigm. In their relative independence from parliamentary constraints, and in relying on state-owned enterprises, Germany and Austria appear rather similar. In 1910 Rudolf Montecuccoli, chief of the Austrian Navy, ordered construction of two dreadnoughts, armed with torpedoes as well as guns. He did so without authorisation in the aftermath of a budget crisis, but received retrospective approval, along with an additional two, and had plans for four more when the war broke out in 1914 (Sondhaus 2001, pp. 211–213). A four-cornered comparison therefore might show that the outcomes reflected pre-existing institutional differences, not the emergence of a new uniform set of relationships defining a new sort of military-industrial complex.

The past is a different country, and the world before 1914 cannot be compared too quickly with ours. Nationalism certainly powered naval rivalries, but the vertical lines separating our ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson 1991) from one another had not become the unbridgeable clefts that we think we see when we peer across national boundaries. Ruling elites existed in 1914, but they were not technocratic. Although the development of a new technology such as the torpedo clearly influenced tactical thinking and therefore had a potential impact on strategy, Epstein’s torpedo experts never determined policy. Further, though they were international, they were not united. Whitehead, the Bliss Company, and we also suspect the Schwartzkopff Company, all depended on their respective naval authorities, but as Epstein shows, as least in the United States and Britain, that relationship was frequently hostile, and when members of the torpedo industry met, it was usually in court.

In most countries, it was not technocrats but aristocrats who ruled, and where they did not, those who possessed wealth attempted to ally themselves with those who possessed pedigree. Churchill’s mother Jennie Jerome was American, and her marriage to Lord Randolph Churchill was delayed for months as the families argued over the financial details. Whitehead’s torpedoes made him wealthy. One of his daughters married into the Hungarian nobility, and her daughter Marguerite became the wife of Herbert von Bismarck, eldest son of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (Steinberg 2011, p. 455). Whitehead also left a substantial fortune to another granddaughter, Agathe. In 1911 she married Georg Ludwig von Trapp, an aristocratic Austrian naval officer who distinguished himself as a submarine commander in the First World War. They had seven children, and after her death and Trapp’s marriage to his second wife Maria, these seven and three further children became the Trapp Family Singers, immortalised in The Sound of Music. They needed to sing, Trapp having lost Agathe’s fortune in the Depression. However, they did not flee in the night. Rather, when Trapp, who feared repercussions after he refused the offer of a commission from the Nazi German government, decided to leave Austria, they could simply take a train to Fiume, because the collapse of the Austrian empire meant they were now Italian citizens (Trapp 1949).

The military-industrial complex is not the same as it was in 1914.

At these rarefied levels, then, national boundaries were permeable, and the higher the level, the more permeable they became. The links among European royal families were well known; Wilhelm II and George V were cousins. Along with the complexity of modern industry and trade, such connections reassured many, for instance Norman Angell in his widely read The Great Illusion (1909), that war between the great powers was unlikely or even unthinkable. If we lower our view again to the leaders of firms that supplied military hardware to governments, and project forward half a century from Whitehead’s time, we might consider for a moment the Polaris, a submarine-launched missile with a nuclear warhead developed between 1956 and 1960, just before Eisenhower warned of the power of the military-industrial complex. Now consider the likelihood of two hypothetical granddaughters of the Chairman of the Board of Lockheed Corporation, the prime contractor for this cutting edge military technology, marrying, first, the eldest son of Nikita Khrushchev, and second, an up and coming officer in the Chinese submarine service. The ludicrousness of the suggestion is an indication of one of the ways in which the world has changed. Aristocracies no longer constitute a world apart, nor are national boundaries easily crossed by those with sufficiently distinguished ancestors.

Down at the level where most of us live today, the world has also changed. In his Farewell Address, Eisenhower said ‘only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry’ could prevent the military-industrial complex from subverting the freedoms that the defence establishment had been created to protect. We may regret the more rigid definition of nationhood, but within their boundaries our more genuinely ‘national’ states are, generally, much more genuinely democratic. Women could not vote in the United States, Britain or Germany before 1914, and, as noted above, the votes of the enfranchised men of Germany had little influence. In consequence, governments today are more generally open. Policy then was the prerogative of the elite, who considered it proper that the now infamous treaties that divided Europe into camps in 1914 all were secret. Today something like an insufficiently generous clause in a new Free Trade Agreement can easily become a serious election liability and cost the unfortunate negotiator their job.

There are continuities. A feature of Epstein’s story is the tendency of government agencies to defend themselves—and their budgets—by throwing a veil of secrecy over their actions, in defence of what they claimed to be the national interest. The desire for ever-expanding allocations, the gap between public statements and private knowledge, and the techniques of justification through appeals to specialist knowledge or to national security, have all continued. In Eisenhower’s era the central concern of national security lay with nuclear weapons, but the extension of secrecy over the nuclear power industry could and did lead to concealment of pollution and potential threats from meltdowns (Cooke 2009). The dangers of domestic nuclear accidents pale before the image of failures of military command and control systems, again concealed until well after the fact (Schlosser 2013; Shapin 2013). Today, the public and private spheres appear nearly continuous within, for instance, the American National Security Agency (see Der Derian 2014). I am not persuaded the military-industrial complex is the same as it was in 1914, but this is not to say that it does not exist, or that it is not dangerous; it does and it is, as many have said (see, for example, Johnson 2004). Even if the lines connecting 1914 with 1961 and 2014 are not as thick or as direct as Epstein believes, for anyone concerned about these issues, this lively and deeply serious book is a very good a place to start.


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Frank B. (Ben) Tipton was educated at Stanford and Harvard, where he studied with economic historian David S. Landes and Nobel Prize winning economist Simon Kuznets. He is Professor Emeritus in International Business at The University of Sydney Business School. His books include A History of Modern Germany since 1815 (Bloomsbury 2003) and Asian Firms: History, Institutions, Management (Edward Elgar 2007). Ben’s academic research and consulting concentrate on comparative international management and the intersection of public and private sector governance. He is currently working on a series of crime novels set in Melbourne, where he lives part-time and supports Collingwood.