Arms, Money and Politics
Our Depleted Society
Here are two very different books on what is surely one of the most important and frightening subjects in the world—the American “defense” economy. One is mild-mannered, one passionate; one anecdotal, one analytic; one essentially written from the viewpoint of the establishment, the other from that of the disestablishment. Yet for all their different emphases, the books complement and confirm each other to a large degree. For both are concerned with the same phenomenon—the interpenetration of the military, political, and economic interests of the nation—and both report the same conclusion—that the activities of this military-political-industrial complex make it difficult not to classify America among the more morally corrupt, politically irresponsible, and socially callous nations on earth. These are my words, however, not theirs, but they point up a final note of similarity between both diagnoses. Neither quite faces squarely the implication of its own argument—a fact that does not impair the very great usefulness of these works in other respects.
Written in a flat newspaper style, Mr. Duscha’s work largely consists of a series of “stories” that he learned about as a political and economic reporter for the Washington Post. The stories are not new—at one time or another they have all been in the papers—but here they appear as a virtually unrelieved parade of mismanagement, moral turpitude, and cynicism, the effect of which is to call to mind—and then to dismiss as trivial in scale and importance—such gamy episodes in American history as the transcontinental railroad land deals or the depredations of the Harding Administration.
Item: In 1952 the Navy ordered a fast jet seaplane from the Glenn L. Martin Company. The design, dreamed up by Martin and accepted by the Navy, was not exactly free of bugs. To begin with, the Martin engineers had made mistakes in translating wing tunnel data into actual configurations. Perhaps as a result of this, the wings were too heavy, and spray from the fuselage kept putting out the engines upon takeoff and landing. This was just as well since the engines were placed so close to the fuselage that they scorched the skin of the plane, raising it three times above its maximum permissible temperature. Two of these incredible airplanes were actually built. Both crashed. The entire program, finally discontinued in 1959, cost $445 million. The Martin Company was not penalized for its performance, or lack of it.
Item: In 1956 the Navy sold Congress on a plan to put up $20 million to build a huge moveable grid, 600 feet in diameter, in the hills of West Virginia. This “Big Dish” was to have been the largest moveable object man ever made, intended, or so the public was told, to be a great adventure in astronomy. Its actual purpose was to eavesdrop on Russian radio communication by catching the echoes off the moon. Within a year cost estimates were up to $52 million, then to $79 million. Meanwhile orders were placed for enormous steel structures, like 550 ton bearings—unfortunately…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.