MERCHANTS OF DEATH

CHAPTER XV
THE MENACE OF DISARMAMENT



I will challenge anybody to say that any representatives of the Bethlehem Steel Company have ever been in Washington attempting to influence legislation as to size of naval or military programmes.  That is not our business.  Our business is to serve the U.S. Government. . . . We are here to serve you when you have decided what you want.  Please do not cast any such reflections on us.  It is unfair.
—EUGENE GRACE, before the House Naval Affairs Committee, March 22, 1916.


ON the graph of human affairs two lines converged in the year 1927 :  one the red, wide band of war, the emblem of the arms merchants, rising intermittently from the days when the Liégeois armed the Duke of Alva to the time when Sir Basil arrived in Athens, then ascending steeply to the last decade ;  the other a mere thread of the serene blue of peace, indistinctly wavering from the earliest times, curving upward with the founding of the Hague Peace Palace and finally reaching its highest point in another edifice on the shores of Lake Geneva.

There in 1927 gathered the Naval Disarmament Conference in which Great Britain, the United States and Japan participated.  The friends of peace were present in the persons of Lord Robert Cecil—tall, distinguished, the flower of British Conservatism, a staunch advocate of disarmament—and of Hugh Gibson, American diplomat of long standing, voicing the desires of the American people for peace and smaller armaments.  The Japanese shared politely and enigmatically in the proceedings.  There were others—stern blue-coated men like Lord Jellicoe and Admiral Sir Frederick Field and a group of American sea-dogs who were reluctant to see any more scrappings of battleships.  But there was another person in Geneva at that time, wholly dissimilar to Lord Robert or Mr. Gibson, and unattired in the professional blue of the navy, yet on most congenial terms with the latter.1

Mr. William Baldwin Shearer might have served as a model for Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt—expansive, good-natured, cordial to all, back-slapping, hand-shaking, a true salesman type.  Another super-salesmen of death ?  Well hardly in the tradition of the famous Greek.  There was mystery about him, but mystery of a rather Gilbertian nature.  Who could tremble before a man who flourished credentials from the Native Sons of the Golden West and the Daughters of the American Revolution ?  And who, especially if he were an American newspaperman, could withstand this genial personality when he extended an invitation to dinner—“ a real American dinner ”—at his sumptuous home not far from the League of Nations palace ?2

American he surely was.  Did he not answer a “ Who’s Who ” enquiry with the statement, “ I am a Protestant and nationalist ” ?  But he had a record abroad.  He claimed that he had introduced the first night club into England and that he had been interested in prize-fight promoting and dramatic productions.  He bet on horse-races and in this connection he had some trouble.  To a question, “ Were you ever arrested in connection with it ” ?  Mr. Shearer answered, “ I was taken in Paris on the charge of the British Embassy and then returned £125 and that was the end of it.” I n the United States, he admitted that he was “ taken ” in connection with a liquor charge and forfeited a $500 bond.

As the Geneva conference in 1927 drew near, Mr. Shearer was prepared for it.  He had already performed some publicity work in connection with an earlier conference, and his views on the danger of naval armament reduction and the menace of the British navy were pronounced.  These patriotic views seemed to interest three American gentlemen—Mr. Bardo, president of the New York Shipbuilding Company, Mr. Wakeman of the Bethlehem Steel Company, and Mr. Palen, vice-president of the Newport News Shipbuilding Company.  After some preliminaries Mr. Shearer was hired by these men to go to Geneva ;  according to his own story, to see that the United States should “ get out their side of the story,” at the conference, to obtain a treaty of parity, if possible, but failing that—no treaty at all.

The consideration was $25,000 a year, and with some of this money Mr. Shearer went to the capital of the League of Nations, took a flat in the exclusive Champal quarter and set to work.  He betrayed a most unusual modesty about the identity of his backers, and referred only to the Daughters of the American Revolution and other patriotic organisations.  The New York Times correspondent present, Mr. Wythe Williams, said, “ He was silent as to his sources of revenue.”  But his credentials must have carried no little prestige, for, according to Mr. Williams, “ The first day of the conference when the proposals of the three powers were first submitted for public consideration, Mr. Shearer managed to obtain a seat in the famous glass room of the League secretariat where the meeting was held—no mean feat—where he was able to make copious notes of the session.”

He lost no time in fraternising with that most gregarious of creatures, the American newspaper man.  Technical data on gun elevations or diameters were naturally rather difficult for these scribes to understand.  Mr. Shearer was able to provide “ handouts ” for the press on these questions, and few of the correspondents were inclined to refuse to consult these papers which clarified matters thoroughly.  According to Mr. Williams, he prepared a “ tremendous amount of elaborate data,” and he also prepared and gave to correspondents weekly brochures under his own signature which were, Mr. Williams said, “ violently and tactlessly anti-British.”

It was no wonder that Mr. Shearer was better informed about such details than the inexpert members of the Fourth Estate.  According to his own statement, he had secured from the U.S. Navy Department, under official aegis, a more or less confidential document dealing with naval statistics.  He conversed, he claimed, with about a dozen admirals, as many captains and every commander and lieutenant commander in the Navy Department before he went over to Geneva.  No wonder that he could assert that he talked with all of the American naval delegation at Geneva with the exception of Admiral Jones.  No surprise then that, when he took a trip to Rome, the Naval Intelligence office thought so much of him that a telegram was sent to the Ambassador at Rome heralding the great man’s approach.  When he arrived, Ambassador Fletcher and the naval attaché received him and discussed the Mediterranean situation with him.  He could well assert that he had worked vigorously and well at this famous tri-power conference.  Mr. Pearson testified, “ I frequently saw Shearer around the lounge of the hotel with members of the delegations.”  In his sumptuous residence, with the aid of his wife, he entertained newspaper men, and from one of these we obtain a picture of him—“ in precise staccato tones, he dictated clearly and thoroughly an opinion on the disadvantages for the United States if British terms were accepted.”3

The world knows now that the conference of that year was a failure.  The armament interests had a worthy agent.  Shearer was indeed the lion of the conference.  He was known among European journalists as “ the man who broke up the conference,” and when a newspaper item painted him in these flattering colours, he took the trouble to clip it and send it home to his backers.4

Flushed with victory, the hero returned, but he was not to rest idly on his laurels.  He received no testimonial to his valuable success from his late backers, but the fact that Mr. Wilder, of the Brown Boveri Company, controlling the New York Shipbuilding Company, hired him, in 1928, for more publicity was evidence that he had made no little impression.  As a statistician and entertainer he had done well ;  now he turned to literature.  Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler had criticised Herbert Hoover’s speech of acceptance, especially the portion dealing with the navy and merchant marine.  Mr. Shearer, in the pay of shipbuilders, wrote a reply to Dr. Butler and prepared other propaganda papers which the publicity bureau of the Republican National Committee accommodatingly sent out.  These releases were well inflated with demands for a big navy and merchant marine ;  they cast reflections on the patriotism and intelligence of peace advocates, and they were admirably conceived to catch the Irish vote by denunciations of perfidious Albion—to use Mr. Shearer’s own words, “ to fool the simple Irish.”

Success again attended Mr. Shearer’s efforts, but not for long.  His candidate was elected, but the evil poison of peace propaganda had infected Mr. Hoover ;  so Mr. Shearer was again engaged for publicity on the 15 cruiser bill in Washington in 1929.  And another gentleman, unrelated to the shipbuilding interests, but as resoundingly patriotic as the hero of Geneva, was now exercised about the evils of disarmament and such dangerous proceedings as the League and the World Court.  Mr. Hearst engaged Mr. Shearer for publicity along the line which Hearst newspapers have long made familiar to their readers.5

Now, at a salary of $2,000 a month, he launched strong attacks on the League of Nations and the World Court ;  his duties included writing articles, speaking and organising patriotic societies.  But he had other allies than the Hearst organisation in this congenial work.  His pleasant manner and bristling knowledge of naval facts led him into the welcome sanctums of the American Legion.  He assisted Commander McNutt in preparing a speech which voiced the Legion’s approval of the construction of more cruisers.6

Mr. Shearer became well known as an adviser and writer on patriotic topics, but his experience with the methods of the Fourth Estate had given him wisdom about the fearsome libel laws.  So while he dealt rather charily with the word “ treason,” he was not averse to careful innuendo.  Advocates of peace and disarmament, he believed, were menaces to the safety of the United States, and he was not at all hesitant about lumping them with communists, anarchists and other dangerous characters.  One of his finest flights of belles-lettres was entitled The Cloak of Benedict Arnold.  It sought to discredit individuals and societies which favoured the League, the World Court, and the limitation of arms.  Imperialistic for Peace was another pamphlet from his hand, nicely calculated to place in one category all enemies of a big navy, a strong army and national isolation.


“ From October 1914, the weight of internationalism and communism was developed, the members of which, pacifists, defeatists, radicals of many hues, and foreign agents, communists, I.W.W. and socialists, included in this merger, and a dozen or more organisations with impressive names designed to fool patriotic Americans and lend aid to the enemy.  Associated with these agents and organisations of these anti-American bodies were statesmen, Senators, bankers, lawyers, actors, directors, and writers, men and women of American birth who were used to fight the existing government of the United States. . . All names, records, cheques from prominent people in this country, instructions from Moscow, speeches, theses, questionnaires, indeed the workings of the underground organisation, working secretly through ‘ legal ’ bodies in labour circles, in society, in professional groups, in the Army and Navy, in Congress, in the schools and colleges of the country, in banks and business concerns, among the farmers, in the motion-picture industry, in fact in nearly every walk of life—this information and authentic documentary proof of a colossal conspiracy against the United States were seized by Federal officials and are in possession of the authorities.”7

This particular composition was sent out when Mr. Shearer was still on the pay-roll of the shipbuilders.  But so far as its readers were concerned, its author might conceivably be just another fussy old patriot, perhaps a sympathiser with the D.A.R., or even a Native Son of the Golden West.  If it was suspected that he was in the pay of Mr. Hearst, there was nothing much to be said against that either—for had not Mr. Hearst by this time almost the sanctity of an institution ?

In the summer of 1929 Mr. Shearer appeared in the newspapers in another rôle—that of a worker demanding his just wages.  There must have been some confusion in the agreement which Shearer had with his industrial subsidisers preceding his embarkation for Geneva.  He claimed that while he had demanded $25,000 for ten years, they had refused, but had promised that he would “ be taken care of.”  Inasmuch as he had worked diligently at the Geneva conference, thus insuring a chance for more shipbuilding, and had made great success in the 15 cruiser fight, Shearer could well claim success in gaining, as he declared, in the prodigious speed of two years, all the objectives which his employers had estimated would take ten years.  He felt that he was entitled to $250,000, and when the shipbuilders declined to make out a cheque for this amount he sued for payment.

The public now became interested to know more about this strange alliance of patriotism and business.  Senators and representatives and, most important of all, President Hoover, who had suffered from vitriolic attacks for his negotiations for disarmament, displayed curiosity.  Senatorial investigation was decreed.  It called Mr. Palen and Mr. Bardo, and Mr. Wilder, and Mr. Grace of the Bethlehem Steel Company and Mr. Grace’s superior Mr. Charles A. Schwab—and it did not have to summon Mr. Shearer.  He appeared voluntarily, eagerly, and insisted that he be heard.

A strange spectacle followed.  It was odd, indeed, to observe how these titans of American industry sought to portray themselves as bungling, inefficient executives, as innocent but stupid employers.  It was extraordinary to observe how readily they admitted that they had employed a man about whom they knew nothing ;  and how they had sent him to Geneva for a task about the nature of which they had only the faintest idea—and that they had paid out $25,000 for this nebulous enterprise.

Mr. Bardo was particularly vague as to why he had consented to the hiring of Mr. Shearer.  He admitted that he knew nothing about the man, and conceded that by so doing he had violated one of the principal rules which he had always followed as an employer.  He was equally obscure in his understanding of the objective which this strange employee was to work for.  According to this president of the New York Shipbuilding Company, Shearer was sent to Geneva simply as an observer to report the “ trend ” of the conference so that the shipbuilders would have more information than was available in the newspapers.  The results of the conference, he declared, did not possess interest for him ;  the “trend,” not the “result” was what he was interested in—whether the conference ended in an agreement or not.


SENATOR ROBINSON of Arkansas (questioning Mr. Bardo) :  It (a failure) might aid you, and yet you are interested in the trend but not the result.

MR. BARDO :  But not in a disagreement.  Please do not get those two terms confused.  We were interested in the trend but not in a disagreement.

SENATOR ROBINSON :  You have made a distinction which I confess my poor mind is not able to grasp, but perhaps you will make the effort to explain just why you were interested in tending toward disagreement, but in no wise interested in disagreement itself.

MR. BARDO :  Because one indicated a trend, the other indicated a result.


Mr. Bardo tenaciously held to this somewhat dialectical view, but one of his associates, Mr. Palen of the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, was a bit more definite, after much long cross-examination.


SENATOR ALLEN :  You really did want something more than plain observing done ?

MR. PALEN :  Yes. . . .


As to Mr. Shearer’s credentials, all admitted that they had neglected to ask for them.


SENATOR ROBINSON :  You made no inquiry concerning Mr. Shearer whatever when you employed him and sent him on a confidential mission for your company ?

MR. BARDO :  We made no——

SENATOR ROBINSON :  No inquiry concerning Mr. Shearer ;  no investigation of him ?

MR. BARDO :  I did not.

SENATOR ROBINSON :  Is that usual ?

MR. BARDO :  Not ordinarily.

SENATOR ROBINSON :  Why did you depart from the usual practice in this case ?

MR. BARDO :  Well, in the first place we did not have time.  (Here Bardo referred to the fact that Shearer had reservations to sail for Geneva within a few days.)


Mr. Bardo admitted that his business judgment had been disarmed by Mr. Shearer’s “ apparent familiarity and knowledge of the question.”  Mr. Wakeman admitted “ I was jazzed off my feet on that proposition, if you want to know.  I do not like to make the acknowledgment.”8

The head of the Bethlehem Steel Company, Mr. Charles M. Schwab, made many noble statements such as the following :

“ I was interested in a way that I wanted to see peace come to the world and especially to this own great country of ours ;  no entanglements of war.  Not only was I interested as a patriotic American citizen, but I may say that I was selfishly interested from a prosperity point of view of this great country, particularly as an industrial country under peaceful conditions.”

As to naval work, he said :

“ We do not care whether we ever do any of that work in the future.”

Yet Mr. Schwab’s right-hand-man—“ his boy ” he called him—Mr. Eugene Grace, only remarked that it had been “ unwise.”9

The defendants in the suit Shearer v. Bethlehem Shipbuilding Company, et al, were vigorously critical of Mr. Shearer’s accomplishments ;  yet while the latter was giving out releases and sending propaganda to America against limitation of naval armament, none of them took steps to stop him.  Nor did they, after presumably condemning his anti-peace propaganda, visit their wrath on him by denying him employment thereafter.  For in 1928, as we have seen, Mr. Shearer was employed by one of them in his merchant marine legislation, and in 1929 in lobbying for the 15 cruiser bill.

Indeed, Mr. Bardo, who was so contemptuous of Mr. Shearer’s abilities, was party to another affair which involved lobbying, this time by means of a Congressman.  Together with another of Mr. Shearer’s late employers, Mr. Wilder, he was interested in a land and shipping enterprise to develop Montauk Point, Long Island, as a seaport, the terminus of a line of four-day vessels across the Atlantic.  One of the firms sponsoring the venture, The Montauk Point Development Corporation, had a stockholder in the person of Hon. Fred Albert Britten, Chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs.  Mr. Britten also owned some land at Montauk Point.  In order to show that the new port was capable of admitting large vessels and proving a good harbour, the representative of the people promised to have one of the U.S. naval fleets use it.  And he made good.  In the following year, vessels of the navy anchored off the Point.  But the officers and men objected to the place as a base, and their dissatisfaction was communicated to the New York papers in whose columns Mr. Britten became the object of much irony.  It was hinted that the fleet had been brought to this place solely to help out a money-making enterprise.

Mr. Britten declared in rebuttal that the Navy Department had ordered the fleet to Montauk without “ the slightest pressure or suggestion from me or anyone else,” and he gave an inspired and lyrical reason as to why the fleet had really been brought to this point.  It seems, according to Mr. Britten, that Mr. F.J. Libby of the National Council for the Prevention of War had made some pacifist speeches on Long Island, and that “ one of the main objects of bringing the fleet was to counteract the propaganda.”10

The activities of individuals like Mr. Shearer illustrate the lengths to which armament companies will go in trying to further their business.  They have perceived that the burden of armaments is growing rapidly, that this alone is sufficient to move governments to take drastic measures—to curtail naval building programmes, to cut appropriations and to join disarmament conferences.  This threat to the armament manufacturers’ business is growing, and, while these powerful interests will hesitate to repeat the performance at Geneva in 1927, it seems unlikely that they will refrain from assisting “ big navy ” publicity in the future.




1 English Review, Vol. 45, pp. 256-263.

2 U.S. (Senate) Naval Affairs Committee Hearings, Alleged Activities at the Geneva Conference. 71 : 1-2, pp. 437-438 656-657.

3 Ibid., pp. 400 ;  498-499; 529; 538.

4 Ibid., p. 551.

5 Ibid., p. 540.

6 Ibid., p. 539.

7 Ibid., pp. 599-600.

8 Ibid., pp. 29 f. and p. 149.

9 Ibid., pp. 90, 94, III, 473, 652.

10 Nation, September 2, 1931.