Merchants of Death



As a result of the war, a million new springs of wealth will be developed.—Frank A. Vanderlip.
A corporation cannot live on patriotism.  Our stockholders must have dividends.—George D. Baldwin.

WHEN the World War began in 1914, the President of the United States advised his fellow countrymen to remain neutral even in thought.1  When the armistice was signed in 1918, there were 21,000 new American millionaires, Du Pont stock had gone from $20 to $1,000 a share, and J.P. Morgan was said to have made more money in two years than the elder Morgan made in all his life.

At the outset, Europe was convinced that the war would not last long and that it would be able to supply its own ammunition for the duration of the conflict.  For almost a year Europe did manage to fill most of its needs from its reserves.  When it became evident, however, that a long war was probable, new sources of supply were eagerly sought.

The one great power which had remained neutral was the United States.  Theoretically, according to international law and the Hague Convention of 1907, both sides in the conflict were permitted to buy from a neutral, and the neutral was privileged to sell.  It was not a new situation.  In many wars the neutrals had sold to both sides.

Now, however, a new factor entered the picture.  Germany was blockaded, at least in theory, and the Allies would not permit neutral commerce to pass the blockade.  The list of contraband articles was extended until an absolute blockade existed, and, despite the irritation of the United States, the Allies persisted in this policy.  In reality, therefore, the United States was arming and supplying only the Allies.

There was no great and important buying of war materials in the United States by the Allies until the second half of 1915.  Then the traffic began in earnest.  The Allies established a central purchasing bureau in the States which soon spent on the average of $10,000,000 a day.  Between August, 1914 and February, 1917 more than $10,500,000,000 worth of goods were shipped out of America.2

Munitions played a prominent part in this traffic.  In 1914, exports amounted to $40,000,000, in 1915, they totaled $330,000,000, and in 1916 they pyramided to $1,290,000,000.  From 1914 to 1918 the Allies bought $4,000,000,000 worth of munitions in the United States.  But munitions were by no means the only item of commerce.  In a long list of exports, the following are included :  Iron and steel, explosives, cotton and cotton manufactures, wheat, copper, brass, leather, chemicals, firearms, automobiles, wheat flour, metal-working machinery, corn, horses, wire manufactures, shoes, railway cars, mules, barley, wool manufactures, tires, airplanes, motor cycles, etc.3

The war year 1916 was by far the most prosperous in the entire history of American industry and finance.  The enormous volume of foreign trade created something like a shortage at home, and as a result domestic prices began to skyrocket.  The golden harvest reaped from American pocketbooks far outweighed the profits from the traffic with the Allies.4

There was only one cloud on the horizon :  the war might end.  Every time there was talk of peace, munitions stocks went down from 5 to 40 per cent.  War had brought prosperity, peace threatened to bring calamity.  Gradually other worries began to trouble American industry and finance.  Suppose the Germans won-what then? No, that could never happen.  We have the word of A. D. Noyes, financial editor of the New York Times, that Wall Street picked the Allies to win at the very start and never wavered in this firm belief.5

Still, one could never tell.  The Germans were making an astonishing stand and in many ways they had a decided military advantage.  Suppose the war should end in a stalemate suppose a “peace without victory” should be concluded? Thoughts like that made Wall Street shudder.  American finance had placed its bet on the Allied horse, and if that should fail to reach the post first, the stakes were so enormous that none dared even think of what might happen.

The terrible years wore on.  The seas were crowded with vessels rushing supplies of all kinds to the Allies.  Then another nightmare began to trouble Wall Street.  How were the Allies to pay for these goods? The credit of the Allies was virtually exhausted.  The United States had grown from a debtor nation to one of the greatest creditors of the world.  At the beginning of 1917 the Allies had little more to offer than their IOU’s.  Some of the vast loans already made had virtually been unsecured and the announcement was actually made that henceforth

Allied loans would have to be wholly unsecured.  No wonder Wall Street was worrying.  All the beautifully embossed notes which it held might turn out to be just so many “scraps of paper.” The year 1916 had taken American business and finance to the dizziest peaks.  Would 1917 find them shattered and broken at the bottom of the abyss?

But this hour of darkness was also the beginning of the dawn.  On April 6, 1917, the United States entered the conflict, and the heart-beats of the war traffickers became normal again.  It is not contended here that the United States fought in the World War solely because of its armament makers and their financiers.  There were many other factors in the situation.  Yet the question of Hamilton Fish, Jr., is more pertinent than is generally admitted :  “Is it not a fact that the World War was started by the shipment of munitions ?...  Was not the cause of the war our continued shipping of munitions abroad?”6  American commitments with the Allies were so enormous that only our entry into the war saved the country from a major economic collapse.

In 1917 on the floor of Congress it was charged that as early as March, 1915, the Morgan interests had organized and financed a huge propaganda machine, including 12 influential publishers and 197 newspapers, for the purpose of “persuading” the American people to join the Allies.  Furthermore, the French historian and politician, Gabriel Hanotaux, tells in his history of the war that in 1914 he and a member of the Morgan firm had drawn up plans for a great war-scare campaign in the United States in order to embroil the country in war.  He adds that France was ready for peace in 1914, but that the Morgan partner dissuaded French leaders from talking peace at that time.7

When war was actually in the offing, the war traffickers rejoiced.  President Wilson had just made his war address to Congress and Wall Street replied.  “It was exactly right,” said Judge Gary of the Steel Trust.  “It was 100 per cent American,” said Frank Vanderlip of the National City Bank.  “The speech breathes the true spirit of the American people,” said Martin Carey of the Standard Oil Company.  “The President’s address was magnificent,” said James Wallace, head of the Guaranty Trust Company.

Wait a few days for the break in diplomatic relations.  Hardly had the news reached Wall Street, when, according to the New York Times, “Wall Street was bright with the Stars and Stripes floating from banks and brokerage houses.  Figuratively, the street gave a concerted sigh of relief.”  On the Produce Exchange 300 brokers sang The Star-Spangled Banner.  And stocks went up immediately.

The United States was in the war from April 7, 1917 to November 11, 1918.  During this period it spent $22,625,52,843 and advanced another $9,455,014,125 to the Allies.  Just as important for Wall Street was the absolute guarantee of Allied credit by the American government.  All the reckless financing of the war years was now saved and, above all, the United States had now joined the Allies in placing war orders.

It is really impossible to get an adequate picture of what 22,000,000,000 means.  It required two heavy volumes for the Director of Munitions merely to outline the colossal buying of the American government in 1917 and 1918.  Spending like this cannot be paid for by a single generation.  Nor were these government orders the only factors in the situation.  To this $22,000,000,000 must be added the rise in prices of all goods and commodities.  Wheat reached $3.25, most of which went to others than the farmer, who was paid only 1.30 a bushel for that crop.  Cotton touched the highest point in forty-five years.  It was the same story with everything that was sold throughout the country.

Exactly what the profits of the American arms merchants and their allies and financiers were in the war will never be accurately known.  They realized very shortly that it would never do to let even the approximate amounts of their net gains be known.  The Federal Trade Commission characterized the business methods of these groups as “inordinate greed and barefaced fraud.” It “exposed many tricks of bookkeeping by the great corporations...  Costs were fictitiously enhanced by account juggling.  Officers’ salaries were increased.  The item of depreciation was padded.  Interest on investment was included in cost.  Fictitious valuations of raw materials were resorted to.  Inventories were manipulated.”

Despite all this, the profits reported were simply colossal.  Du Pont paid a dividend of 100 per cent on its common stock in 1916.  The earnings of the United States Steel Corporation for 1917 exceeded by many millions the face value of its common stock, which was largely water.  In 1916 this same company reported earnings greater by $70,000,000 than the combined earnings of 1911, 1912, and 1913.  Bethlehem Steel paid a stock dividend of 200 per cent in 1917.  U.S. Treasury figures show that during the war period 69,000 men made more than $3,000,000,000 over and above their normal income.

Almost immediately the cry of profiteering went up.  The Federal Trade Commission was put to work to investigate, but the minute it began to reveal damaging facts it was called off.  It did publish a 20 page report which suggests what a rich mine this was for an able and fearless investigator to work, but it never even scratched the surface.8  Later some Senate committees went to work, but they, too, proved abortive.  The technique of “whitewashing” consisted in asking the Attorney General to take over the investigation and to make a report.

In spite of all, it would be possible to fill scores of pages with statistics showing the enormous profits of the arms merchants, the war contractors, and the bankers in the war years.  The following table of net profits is suggestive.

Net War Profits of the U.S. Armament Industry9
U.S. Steel
Du Pont
Bethlehem Steel
Anaconda Copper
Utah Copper
American Smelting and Refining Co.
Republic Iron and Steel Co.
International Mercantile Marine
Atlas Powder Co.
American and British Manufacturing
Canadian Car and Foundry
Crocker Wheeler Co.
Hercules Powder Co.
Niles-Bement Pond
Scovill Mfg. Co.
General Motors
Last four peace years
  Four war years


So much for the picture as a whole.  Of the individual arms companies and their activities during the war period, a number of significant incidents can be told.  Du Pont manufactured 40 per cent of the ammunition used by the Allies during the war, and it continued to be the chief source of supply for military explosives for the United States government.10  Its employees increased from 5,000 to 100,000.11  In 1914 it produced 2,265,000 pounds of powder; in 1915 contracts from the Allies began to appear and the company produced 105,000,000 pounds of powder; this figure rose to 287,000,000 in 1916 ;  and when the United States entered the war, in 1917, production jumped to 387,000,000 pounds for that year and 399,000,000 pounds for 1918.  A few years later a Congressional committee showed that the government had paid about 49 cents a pound for powder while the cost of production was estimated at 36 cents.  No wonder Du Pont stock increased 5,000 per cent in the war period.12

The war also brought a red-letter day to Du Pont, such as few companies ever see.  It had been selling Russian orders and one day there came to the company a check.  They looked at it and smiled.  It was made out for $60,000,000, one of the largest checks ever written.13

Du Pont did very well during the war.  Winchester Repeating Arms Company, manufacturers of rifles, bayonets, and ammunition, could hardly complain of bad business.  In its 1921 Catalogue, the company reports on its war work.14  During the war period it sold almost 2,000,000,000 separate units made up of guns, rifles, bayonets, shells, and cartridges.

“ In addition, Winchester Arms produced large quantities of spare parts and accessories, many millions of shot shells and small caliber rifle cartridges and many guns of sporting models for the use of the Home Guards and in training camps, gallery practice, and protection of life and property all over the country.”
        “ Not a single lot of Winchester products was rejected by the United States government during the World War.  Including cartridges made for foreign governments before the United States entered the war, there was an uninterrupted flow of 700,000,000 cartridges produced without rejection of a lot.”

The company’s own estimate of its war work is then added :

“ This bare summary of the war activity of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company is given here simply to show cause why we believe we have kept the faith in time of stress and as a merited acknowledgement of the patriotic services rendered to the country and to us by our nearly 22,000 employees during the war period.”

There is no mention of war profits or of the rise of Winchester stock.

The poison gas industry also prospered in the United States during the war.  Since poison gas had been introduced upto the war, the Americans manufactured it also.  Before the war ended, American chemists had evolved 63 different kinds of poison gas and eight more were ready to be put to use.  The arsenal at Edgewood, Md., and its tributaries manufactured 8l0 tons of poison gas every week.  This was a larger output than that of any other nation.  France, for instance, showed a weekly production of only 385 tons, Great Britain produced 410 tons, while Germany lagged far behind with only 210 tons a week.

For the Americans this 810 tons was really only a beginning.  Just before the war ended they were ready to increase production to 3,000 tons a week.  The government had appropriated $100,000,000 for chemical warfare and 48,000 men ere to be employed in this undertaking.  But before the world could be given this convincing demonstration of American efficiency, the armistice was signed.15

An exciting story with many ramifications, nationally and internationally, is that of the advertisement which the Cleveland Automatic Machine Company carried in the American Machinist of May 6, 1915.  This company had a shrapnel making machine which it was anxious to sell.  The death dealing qualities of the shrapnel manufactured by this machine apparently surpassed those of any other, for it was a poison gas shrapnel which would cause death within four hours “in terrible agony.” The ad which was published in the American Machinist read as follows :

“ The material is high in tensile strength and VERY SPECIAL and has a tendency to fracture into small pieces upon the explosion of the shell.  The timing of the fuse for this shell is similar to the shrapnel shell, but it differs in that two explosive acids are used to explode the shell in the large cavity.  The combination of these two acids causes a terrific explosion, having more power than anything of its kind yet used.  Fragments become coated with the acids in exploding and wounds caused by them mean death in terrible agony within four hours if not attended to immediately.”
        From what we are able to learn of conditions in the trenches, it is not possible to get medical assistance to anyone in time to prevent fatal results.  It is necessary to cauterize the wound immediately, if in the body or head, or to amputate if in the limbs, as there seems to be no antidote that will counteract the poison.
        “It can be seen from this that this shell is more effective than the regular shrapnel, since the wounds caused by shrapnel balls and fragments in the muscle are not as dangerous, as they have no poisonous element making prompt attention necessary.”

This advertisement attracted immediate attention.  It was roundly denounced in many circles and the American Machinist was severely criticized for publishing it.  Among those who censured the journal was the Secretary of Commerce, Redfield.16

This advertisement was promptly forwarded to Germany and became widely known there.  A copy of it was placed on the desk of every member of the Reichstag and a bitter discussion ensued.  The American ambassador in Berlin, Mr. Gerard, reported the incident to the State Department and added his own surmise that the ad was a clumsy forgery designed for anti-American propaganda.  But the ad was authentic enough, even though it furnished excellent material to German agitators.

When all this stir was made about this ad, the Cleveland Automatic Machine Company finally got round to “explaining.” It was all a mistake, a misunderstanding.  The company had sent to the journal, along with its copy for the ad, an article on shrapnel machines, a topic which then frequently appeared in the American Machinist.  Part of the article had through some error been included in the advertisement and this unfortunate substitution had caused all the uproar.  The New York Times and various other journals took up the case and valiantly defended the advertiser and the journal with a dozen evasive arguments.  That all of these found little credence is readily understood, particularly since the responsible officials in Washington rebuked the journal for publishing the ad.

A more successful use of the press was that of the Bethlehem Steel Company.  This company was one of the Big Three which had for years supplied armor plate to the U.S. navy.  There had long been dissatisfaction with the price charged for armor plate.  Perhaps the high price was partly the government’s own fault.  For under the “Father of the American navy,” Theodore Roosevelt, a deliberate policy of virtual subsidizing had been followed in regard to armor plate.  For some years the Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company had underbid its competitors in this field, but it had not been able to get the government contracts until its prices were identical with those of the other armor plate manufacturers.  Midvale finally “learned the ropes” and discontinued underbidding its competitors.  After that it shared armor plate orders with Carnegie Steel and Bethlehem Steel.  The whole procedure appears to have been an attempt by the government to aid and foster a native armor plate industry in the country.17

The belief that the government was being heavily overcharged grew to such proportions that Congress decided to build a government armor plant.  It appointed a committee to investigate the costs and it proposed to spend $11,000,000 to circumvent the “armor plate ring.”

Consternation reigned among the armor plate makers.  What could they do ?  If the government built its own plant, they would lose much of their business, and on top of that they would probably have to reduce their prices.  They protested in Washington, but Congress persisted in its undertaking.  Then Bethlehem Steel remembered the power of the press.  It inserted paid adds in 3,257 newspapers setting forth the “folly” of the government’s plans.  These adds were followed up by 26 bulletins spread in millions of copies throughout the country.

Bethlehem declared that the action contemplated by Congress interfered with business.  It was pure waste, because armor plants already existed in the country.  It was very expensive, because the government could never produce as well and as economically as private manufacturers.  Finally, it was a threat to national security, because the government could never expect to keep informed on the latest developments in the field, and thus the American navy would be built of inferior materials.

The press was not slow to see the point.  Before long, Bethlehem Steel was able to quote a long series of editorial comments from all parts of the country which all agreed that the government’s plans for an armor plant were very bad and an outrageous waste of the people’s money.18

In its press campaign Bethlehem Steel also undertook to answer the charge of gouging and profiteering.  Since 1887 it had supplied to the government 95,072 tons of armor plate at an average price of $432.62 a ton ;  that is, its government business had amounted to about $42,000,000.  During that same period it had sold 5,331 tons of armor plate to other countries, about two-thirds at higher prices than in the United States, and about one-third at lower prices.  Now it was ready to furnish armor plate to the government at the lowest prices it had ever asked.  Why should the Congress waste the people’s money and build a government armor plant ?

Thus it went on in endless variation, citing the press, denying lobbying activities, emphasizing its patriotism.  Only two things remain to be added :  The government armor plant was never built and, when naval contracts were awarded in 1916, the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Company, a subsidiary of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, received orders for 85 destroyers at a cost of $134,000,000.19

Remington Arms was also very busy during the war.  Its great expansion at this time is described by an enthusiastic chronicler :

“ Early in 1914, the two plants at Ilion and Bridgeport employed about 3,700 workers in peace-time operations.  Then demands came rushing in from England, France, Russia, and Servia for rifles, small arms, ammunition, bayonets and large shells such as the famous French ‘seventy-fives.’ Existing plants were enlarged with emergency buildings, a huge new armory added at Bridgeport for Russian rifle production, a 12-story factory erected at Hoboken, New Jersey, for making Russian cartridges and bullets, and a plant at Swanton, Vermont, was taken over for the manufacture of French rifle cartridges.”20

When the United States entered the war, “figures for firearms soared from thousands to millions; for ammunition from millions to billions.  The plants turned out amazing quantities of Browning machine guns, Model 1917 Service Rifles,.45 caliber automatic pistols, bayonets, and trench warfare materials.”21  At the height of war activities the Remington factories were producing in half a day materials which would have required four months’ work in peace times.

A curious sidelight on the international activities of the American arms industry is shed by the story of the Enfield rifles.  Remington Arms had received orders from the British for a huge consignment of Enfield rifles; it delivered 700,000 of these to the British during the war.  Now the Enfield rifle was by no means the best rifle known in the war period.  The American Springfield, which had been evolved after much experimentation, was considered a much better gun.  The British Enfield was in fact a sort of transition gun; that is, the British themselves in 1914 were not satisfied with it and were seeking to displace it.  They retained it only because their experimental work with a new gun had not yet been completed.

When Remington (and Winchester) received the British orders for Enfields, they found it necessary to spend some months in reorganizing their workshops, adjusting their machinery and introducing new machines.  When the United States entered the war, it tried to place huge orders for its own Springfield rifle with these great small-arms factories.  Very shortly it was discovered that so much time would be lost in again reorganizing the shops and readjusting the machinery that months would pass before the government would receive its Springfields.  The only way out was for the American forces to accept the inferior British Enfield gun which the American factories were prepared to manufacture on short notice.  This was done and American soldiers fought in the World War with both the Springfield and the Enfield rifles.  This incident was used by a Congressional committee to refute the arguments of the arms makers that foreign orders “kept them in practice” for an American emergency.  In this case, foreign orders crippled the equipment of the American army.22

Another arms company which prospered in the war was the United States Cartridge Company.  It never did better business than during these war years.  To supply cartridges to the Allies, a new auxiliary plant was built at South Lowell, and when the United States entered the war, the huge Bigelow carpet plant in the heart of Lowell, which had been idle for some years, was quickly converted into an up-to-date cartridge factory.  The personnel grew from 1,200 in 1914 to 15,000, and the rate of production was stepped up enormously.  From 1915 to 1919 the company filled cartridge orders for the British, the Russian, the Dutch, the Italian, the French and the United States governments.  Its total output reached the remarkable figure of 2,262,671,000 units in war material.23

Over against all these “successes” of the arms makers and the war contractors must be placed a certain number of dismal failures.  They are summarized in a letter of President Harding, dated August 29, 1921.  The President wrote in part :

“ Our government... expended between five and six billion dollars for the manufacture of aircraft, artillery, and artillery ammunition.  To show for this expenditure, it has been officially testified that less than 200 American-made airplanes or 200 American-made cannon ever went into action on the fighting front of the war, while not more than one per cent of the ammunition expended by American artillery was, according to the same testimony, of American manufacture.  Approximately $3,500,000,000 has been poured out under the direction of the Shipping Board, yet I have from the War Department the curious bit of information that only one vessel built by the Shipping Board ever carried any American troops to fight in Europe.  This was a cargo boat, the Liberty, which, according to War Department records, in October, 1917, carried approximately fifty soldiers to Europe.”24

The great failures were particularly in artillery, in aircraft, and in shipping.  This is readily understood.  The American arms industry has always been outstanding for its small arms and ammunition.  In these it excelled in the war.  It was also efficient in producing small mobile artillery and it turned out successfully large orders for the French ’75’s.  Heavy artillery had never been its forte and it could rely or the Allies for these materials, meanwhile using all available shipping for the transport of troops.

As for aircraft, the explanation of failure lies with inexperience, bad judgment, and possibly graft.  The airplane was still in its infancy and, while the Allies had made rapid progress, the Americans continued to make the crude De Haviland 4s, which the fliers called “flaming coffins,” because they caused battle fatalities three times as great as those of other planes.  Over a billion dollars was expended on aviation up to June 30, 1919, yet not one American-built pursuit or combat plane or one American-built bombing plane reached the front.25  As for shipping, the cause for failure was largely the lack of time.  Americans are fair enough shipbuilders, but the rush of events was so rapid that the Shipping Board only began to deliver when the war was over.

Many other similar matters were examined in detail by the Graham Committee on War Expenditures some years after the peace conference.  These voluminous reports are a veritable mine of important information as to the conduct of the war.  Of one thing there can be no doubt :  it was profitable for the arms makers.

1 Presidential Proclamation, August 14, 1914.

2 C. Hartley Grattan, Why We Fought, chap. 3 ; John Kenneth Turner, Shall It Be Again ? pp. 274ss.

3 Grattan, op. cit., p. 136.

4 Turner, op. cit., pp. 275ss.

5 Noyes, The War Period of American Finance, 1908-1925.

6 U.S. (House) Foreign Affairs Committee, 10th Congress, 1st Session, Exportation of Arms, Munitions, and Implements of War to Belligerent Nations, p. 97.

7 Turner, op. cit., pp. 256ss.

8 U. S. Federal Trade Commission, Profiteering. Document No. 248. 65th Congress, 2d Session, 1918.

9 Moody's Analysis of Investments. Public Utilities and Industries, 1912-1919.

10 Du Pont de Nemours and Co., E. I.," Encyclopaedia Britannica. (14th ed.)

11 Arthur Warner, Delaware. The Ward of a Feudal Family (in Gruening, These United States), p. 130.

12 William T. Stone, " International Traffic in Arms and Ammunition," Foreign Policy Reports, Vol. IX, No. 12, Aug. 16, 1933, p. 136.

13 Clifton Johnson, The Rise of an American Inventor, p. 192.

14 Op. cit., p. 4.

15 Arthur Ponsonby, Falsehood in War Time, p. 147.

16 See the pamphlet " Worth Knowing." The Story of an Advertisement, or The Explosion of a Poisonous Shell.--Vital Issue Booklets No. 7 (1915).

17 U.S. (House) 63d Congress, 3d Session, Document No. 1620, Report of the Committee to Investigate the Cost of an Armour Plant for the United States (1915).

18 These materials have been collected under the title, The Bethlehem Steel Company appeals to the People against the Proposal to expend $11,ooo,ooo of the People's Money for a Government Armour Plant. The press comments on its advertising campaign were published separately in What Congress Has Done Concerning a Government Armour Plant and What the People are Thinking about it. One widely distributed bulletin was entitled, A Proposed Waste of $11,000,000 to Build a Government Armour Plant.

19 William T. Stone, op. cit., p. 135.

20 Anonymous, " Arms and Two Men," Du Pont Magazine, May, 1932, pp. 5-7s.

21 Ibid., p. 24.

22 Crowell and Wilson, The Armies of Industry, pp. 225-237 ; U.S. (House) Foreign Affairs Committee, 10th Congress, 1st Session, Exportation of Arms, Munitions, or Implements of War to Belligerent Nations (March, 1928), pp. 79ss.

23 Brooks Darlington, "The Ketridge Shop," Du Pont Magazine, Vol. 26 (8-9) Summer, 1932, pp. 1, 2, 23, 24.

24 Turner, Shall It Be Again ? p. 3o8.

25 Seymour Waldman, Death and Profits, pp. 74-82.