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Military-industrial complex? Blame the torpedoes

How a 19th-century technology helped create the national security state

An American Mark VII Bliss-Leavitt torpedo depicted in a 1914 ordnance pamphlet.

An American Mark VII Bliss-Leavitt torpedo depicted in a 1914 ordnance pamphlet.

In today’s debate about America’s pervasive national security apparatus, both historians and the public tend to trace its origins back to the years after World War II—the military buildup and permanent Cold War footing that President Eisenhower warned his fellow citizens about in his 1961 farewell address.

The phrase he popularized to describe the emerging system—the “military-industrial complex”—has since become a watchword, and Eisenhower’s account of its rise has struck most observers as accurate: It was a product of an immense war effort and the new attitudes spawned in the aftermath.

But what if Eisenhower—and others—had the origin story wrong? Although the military-industrial complex unquestionably became far larger and more deeply entrenched as a result of World War II and the Cold War, a closer reading of the history suggests that its essential dynamics were actually decades older. An armaments industry in close collaboration with the military—coping with global and national arms markets, sophisticated technology, intense geopolitical rivalries, and a government prone to expand its power in the name of national security—had its roots in the way geopolitics, industrialization, and globalization collided at the turn of the 20th century. And one key innovation that helped to tip the United States over into the national security regime that we recognize today was, of all things, the torpedo.

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The torpedo didn’t just threaten to change naval warfare. It was a sophisticated new weapon so important to the US Navy that it forced the government to form a novel relationship with industry—and to introduce the trump card of national security as a rationale for demanding secrecy from private companies. The policy that developed along with the torpedo set the terms for the efforts to control information in the name of national security that we’re seeing now. To appreciate just how far back that policy runs—back to a time not of war, but of peace—gives us a new lens on our current struggles over the military-industrial complex, and perhaps a different reason to worry.

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In the late 19th century, what scholars often term the Second Industrial Revolution was transforming societies and economies around the world. The steel, electrical, and chemical industries boomed, and Europe and the United States emerged as competitors to Britain’s original “workshop of the world.” These increasingly industrialized economies became ever more closely linked, thanks chiefly to the real-time flow of information made possible by cables and radio.

Even as they grew more connected and dependent on one another, however, nations engaged in fierce geopolitical competition, both on the European continent and over more distant imperial holdings. Navies built around fast armored ships represented a pinnacle of military might—but they were expensive and menaced by a new and volatile threat: the torpedo.

Torpedoes had been invented in 1866 by Robert Whitehead, a British expatriate based in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Whitehead realized that small, self-powered explosive devices able to sneak up on and injure warships could offer a powerful strategic advantage—not unlike a drone today. Torpedoes’ significance was inversely proportional to their size: They stood to undermine traditional strategies based on blockading enemy ports and fighting battles with big, expensive ships carrying heavy guns.

The torpedo was also an extraordinary piece of technology in itself. Like newfangled steamships, torpedoes were made of metal and ran on engines; but torpedoes were small and cheap enough to be produced in much larger numbers. They were at the cutting edge of the technologically possible. They contained thousands of precisely engineered metal parts, all of which were interdependent: If the propulsion failed, the warhead couldn’t do its job; if the warhead failed, reaching the target didn’t do any good. In other words, torpedoes were not merely systems but what are now called “systems of systems.” By 1910, they could travel six miles through the water, or reach 50 miles per hour—faster than a Model T Ford driving at top speed.

Whitehead sold his torpedoes to navies around the world. The US Navy could have bought them directly from him but chose not to. Instead, it purchased them from an American firm—the E. W. Bliss Co. of Brooklyn, N.Y.—that built them under license from Whitehead. Procuring a design from the global market had the advantage of obviating the need for investment in expensive domestic research and development capabilities. But it also had a major drawback, as the Navy and Bliss came to realize: It meant that their Whitehead torpedoes would be no better than anyone else’s. To get an edge, they would have to design and produce their own.

What neither foresaw was that this goal would require a new kind of relationship between the US government and the private sector. Torpedoes were so technologically complex and expensive that neither the government nor Bliss had the capacity to develop them from start to finish. Instead, the two parties began to collaborate on research and development.

This collaboration raised difficult questions about rights for the intellectual property, or IP. The Navy wanted to establish its ownership of as much of the IP as possible, both to escape payment of royalties and to prevent Bliss from selling sensitive technology on the global arms market. A traditional patent framework seemed inadequate for dealing with the problem—in part because the government could not invent technology for patenting without Bliss’s help, and also because patents broadcast highly sensitive technology to the world.

And so the government developed an approach it still uses today: It claimed that national security was at stake. When Bliss threatened in 1912 to sell its torpedoes abroad, the government sought an injunction—on the grounds that the company was violating not only the government’s IP rights, but also something known as the National Defense Secrets Act of 1911. Congress had passed the National Defense Secrets Act to prevent state-on-state espionage targeting physical assets like forts. But the executive branch saw that it also offered a tool for converting intellectual property into national security information. By persuading the courts to grant its request for an injunction, the government secured the exclusive international rights to Bliss’s torpedo—which it had twice declined to buy at the company’s asking price of $1.5 million.

The 1911 National Defense Secrets Act was the direct precursor to the Espionage Act, originally passed as a wartime measure in 1917 and amended several times since. It is much better known than its predecessor as a measure which the government has used to police national security— Bradley Manning was convicted under it and Edward Snowden indicted under it. But the origins of the secrecy state don’t go back to a wartime security regime: they go back to a time when the United States was nominally at peace.

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The years since Sept. 11, 2001 have reminded many of Eisenhower’s warning. He worried that, thanks to the rise of the military-industrial complex, unelected power elites would manipulate public policy for their own ends and government fiat would erode core liberties like the free market and free intellectual inquiry. Today a soaring Pentagon budget, expensive weapons programs, long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, scandals involving defense contractors, controversial legal practices like rendition, and leaks about government surveillance have occasioned fears that his concerns were all too prescient.

However alarming his vision, at least Eisenhower’s understanding of history offered some hope for relief: A military-industrial complex brought into being by World War II, or the Cold War, or even the War on Terror might be expected to end when the war ended. In this conception, the military-industrial complex, like a particular war, is the exception to the rule of peace.

But as the history of the torpedo shows, the roots of the military-industrial complex lie deeper. Even before World War I, the government and the private sector were entwined: The government investing in defense contractors and guaranteeing a customer for their products; a branch of the private sector depending on the military for growth; and a body of rules growing alongside their collaboration to ensure that scientific and technological information emerging with private-sector input would stay protected, rather than travel like other discoveries.

To see the history of the military-industrial complex this way suggests an even more intractable problem than the one that concerned Eisenhower. World War II and the Cold War changed the scale, but the underlying dynamics already existed. A complex rooted in world historical forces like globalization, geopolitics, and industrialization, transcending any single war, would not end when a war ends. Instead, it would persist, and the United States at peace would become ever more difficult to distinguish from the United States at war.

Katherine C. Epstein is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden. Her book “Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain” was just published by Harvard University Press.
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