In the American history books circulated by high schools and colleges, the period of the 1930s is one overwhelmingly dominated by story of the Great Depression. If one is lucky enough to find a more global edition, perhaps the rise of fascism will be given a two-to-three page spread. For the majority of American history classes, however, the narrative flows ever-easily from the end of the ‘roaring 20s’ to the Great Depression to World War Two, compacting ten years of controversial history to two or three paragraphs—with relatively simplistic story-telling devoid of complete truth.
There is little-to-no focus on the great legislative battles fought against Roosevelt’s New Deal and the constant Constitutional debates, or even the drafting of four separate Neutrality acts over a span of four years while Europe destroyed itself in war. The remnants of the arguments of statesmen of those years are instead delegated to the archives of the Library of Congress, left for skeptical historians rather then for the mass public in the form of popular history.
If Americans were to become aware of the great events and debates which defined this decade—as were lived rather than selectively taught—they would most assuredly be using the lessons then established to reevaluate the behavior of their government today.
One of the most important movements to emerge at this time was a growing reluctance to intervene in yet another series of European conflicts. After the tragedy of the Great War, in which nearly 10 million men lost their lives, the prevailing American political idea was that of non-intervention, calling for a residual neutrality and independence from entangling alliances, as advised by President George Washington in his farewell speech. This movement, labeled isolationism by its detractors, readily acknowledged the outright destruction and annihilation of world war, and sought to steer American blood and treasure away from the increasingly hostile military confrontations engulfing the European continent.
Far from concerning itself solely with future conflict, the movement of non-intervention also called into question the entire justification for American involvement in the previous Great War, in which nearly half a million American men had lost their lives while a number of privileged war-industrialists reaped the benefits of mass tragedy. According to the record of the United States Senate, there began an uncovering of the “widespread reports that manufacturers of armaments had unduly influenced the American decision to enter the war in 1917”, prompting many prominent Senators to call for investigations into the matter. Thus inspired North Dakota Republican Senator Gerald Nye, a staunch advocate of non-intervention, to take the lead on investigating those claims.
What resulted was the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, formed in 1934, nicknamed the Nye Committee, after its chairman. The committee consisted of Senators Homer T. Bone (D-WA), James P. Pope (D-ID), Bennett Champ Clark (D-MO), Walter F. George (D-GA), W. Warren Barbour (R-NJ), and Arthur H. Vandenberg (R-MI), with Gerald Nye (R-ND) serving as the spearhead. These men looked to investigate several aspects of the government’s relationship to armament industries, focusing on four main points:
- The munitions industry
- Bidding on Government contracts in the shipbuilding industry
- War profits
- The background leading up to U.S. entry into World War I.
Never before had such a committee been held. Never before had the people’s representatives gathered to question the aims and practices of those contracted to supply the nation’s weapons and supplies in a time of war. Never before had the thought been posited that certain industries would lobby the government to commit to mass destruction and killing for the sake of increasing their overall profitability. This proved to be a resurgence of healthy democracy, lost after the centralized efforts of the beginning of the progressive era. The feverish hearings took much information and guidance directly from studies and books on the same subject, particularly one which was repeatedly cited in the course of testimony: The Merchants of Death, written by conservative authors H.C. Engelbrecht and F.C. Hanighen.
For 18 months, the committee held 93 hearings and questioned over 200 witnesses, including banker J.P. Morgan and chemical company owner Pierre du Pont (today called DuPont).
The findings of the report were astonishing. Apart from individually naming the companies and corporations who had profited directly from the war, General Electric, mainly General Motors, DuPont, Westinghouse, and more, it provided rigorous details on the influence they enjoyed on American military purchasers, as well as their willingness to circumvent embargoes in order to sell weapons to countries which were considered hostile to the United States of America:
The committee finds, further, that any close associations between munitions and supply companies on the one hand and the service departments on the other hand, of the kind which existed in Germany before the World War, constitutes an unhealthy alliance in that it brings into being a self-interested political power which operates in the name of patriotism and satisfies interests which are, in large part, purely selfish, and that such associations are an inevitable part of militarism, and are to be avoided in peacetime at all costs.
Though the Great War was sold to the American people as a battle between Good and Evil, the Nye Committee revealed it instead to be a commercial venture driven primarily as a means to expand the power and influence of certain industries, with government as the legitimizing force. The autocratic government of Germany, in essence, was fighting a power not too different from itself, with the politicians and the industries working in tandem to secure their control, sustain their power, and elevate the state above the individual.
The legacy of the Nye Committee allowed the United States to stay out of war for the rest of decade, as well as inspiring four neutrality acts until 1941, when the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor drew the country into conflict. Though the entire merit of the Pearl Harbor attack is another issue–discussed at length on this site, as well as by Senator Robert Taft in his book–the Nye Committee provided great clarity and reassessment for the United States of America after a mistaken intervention and a misleading sacrifice. While the politicians sold millions of men on the idea of saving Europe, the bankers and bomb-makers pushed their influence and lined their pockets, a lesson all too necessary for the critical thinkers of today.
As for 2011, what would a new Nye Committee investigation yield? The current defense budget stands at nearly $700 billion, providing an endless stream of corporate welfare for defense contractors and weapons manufacturers. The deficit-and-debt talks in Washington consistently leave the military budget “untouched” while social spending receives a blow from a blunt ax. How would the American people feel, knowing that billions of dollars of profits are enjoyed at their expense while the pockets of the few are constantly lined with public money? How would they feel knowing that companies enjoy no-bid contracts that sustain their business and practically guarantee war, conflict, and destruction for the next 20 years? How would they feel knowing that the very politicians they send to Washington to protect their interests are, in fact, merely stooges for the status quo, where the military-industrial complex reigns supreme?
The time for another Nye Committee is now. America can no longer wait.