The US Military as an Economic Institution since World War II

AHA Session 266
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Delaware Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Katherine C. Epstein, Rutgers University at Camden
The Audience

Session Abstract

At various points in the 20th century, the U.S. military was the world’s largest employer, landlord, retailer, owner of industrial equipment, and accounting operation. This session presents new research on the Cold War U.S. military’s economic dimensions, from its claims on resources and workers to its relationship with private business and its role in regional economic development and decline. Complementing research about the materiality of America’s military empire around the world, this panel looks at some of the myriad domestic economic functions that underpinned its combat capability. Together, the panelists offer a view of how the military governed and produced, presenting the defense apparatus as both a fully articulated branch of the state and an important industry in its own right.

Revising our understanding of how the military-industrial complex really worked, Mark Wilson investigates the political process of military acquisitions decisions. Contrary to the most cynical accounts of the “iron triangle,” Wilson finds that Congress was often at odds with the military bureaucracy and that its power in choosing the investments the military made in major weapon systems increased significantly over time. Turning to the consequences of defense production decisions, Michael Brenes places the military at the center of his narrative of industrial decline in the Midwest. Brenes follows the aircraft industry to show how changes in the military’s technological and regulatory requirements shaped the economy and political culture of what we now know as the “Rustbelt.” Lisa Furchtgott takes us to the shop-floor level of defense production to explore the military’s role as an employer of manufacturing workers in New England. Furchtgott analyzes management studies of airplane engine and electronics factories and finds that managers structured their strategies for labor control around ideas of gendered motivation and the unique features of military production. Looking at another side of what it meant to manage the military, A.J. Murphy examines financial systems within the defense bureaucracy. Murphy tracks changes in how the military accounted for its property and labor, focusing on business-inspired accounting reforms that tried to simulate competitive market exchange among bureaucratic units.

For students of American political history, this panel offers a look into a core part of the state that is too often viewed as an inaccessible world of discipline and violence governed by its own sui generis hierarchy and rules. While recentering the state in the military, we also aim to bring it back in by arguing for its strong role in shaping U.S. political economy. Historians of capitalism in the 20th century U.S. will be interested in the ways that the military and its industrial base were constitutive of broader trends of deindustrialization, financialization, and privatization.

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