Beyond Great Men & Great Wars

Finding Wisdom in the Spaces in Between


In the 1840s, Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

This statement is a summary of the sharply criticized and deeply problematic Great Man Theory which nonetheless continues to pervade how we teach, and therefore understand, history. Simplistic as the theory is, and despite falling from favor among historians after World War II, history is still largely taught by jumping from great man to great man, major event to major event. AP US History students are shepherded through the dawn of the 20th century, World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II as the highlights of a single historical period (beware, link contains comic sans).

What could be called a military corollary to the Great Man Theory was recently explored by Angry Staff Officer, who used the language of land navigation to note that “when the Army, and by definition those in it, looks at its history, it tends to reflect on its own significant terrain features, i.e., wars.”

The problem, though, is that history does not stop between wars. Indeed, sometimes what wins wars are the reforms that take place in inter-war periods. While it is sometimes tempting to skip over the boring periods, those often contain gems that can help us relate to our own time.

Between major terrain features—great men and great wars—hide the driving forces of history. Angry Staff Officer discovered surprisingly relevant gems on leadership, budgets, and force reductions in “an edition of the now-defunct “Coast Artillery Journal,” of the even more defunct Coast Artillery Corps.”

I once came across an gem in an otherwise “boring” interwar area—1930s congressional committees and hearings—which has only become more interesting with time.

Trick question: What congressional special committee held over 90 hearings, calling more than 200 witnesses, over a two year period, and found very little hard evidence of an actual conspiracy?

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Nope, not #Benghazi.

While it seems that the Benghazi hearings will never end, modern Congressional Republicans have not entirely eclipsed the dirt-digging of the 1930s. In May 2014, Politico lamented that the “wide-ranging probe,” a series of investigations by several different House and Senate committees, “has already spanned 13 hearings, 25,000 pages of documents and 50 briefings.”

The 1934–36 Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, better known as the Nye Committee (named so after its chairman, Republican Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota) consisted of over 90 hearings conducted over two years, calling on more than 200 witnesses including J. P. Morgan, Jr. and Pierre du Pont. The investigation, which focused on the munitions industry, bidding on government shipbuilding contracts, war profits and the eventual US entry into World War I, ended abruptly in early 1936 when Nye stepped out of bounds and suggested that President Woodrow Wilson had withheld information from Congress as it considered the 1917 declaration of war against Germany.

Although the committee fell short of its aim to nationalize (and thereby reign-in) the arms industry, it fundamentally inspired the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939 which delayed American entry into World War II and is largely cited as a core reason the US was unprepared for the war.

In 1961, President Eisenhower summarized the military-industrial complex in his farewell address. Eisenhower, in a powerful and meaningful speech, said that “until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry” and that the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” was new to the American experience. He was somewhat wrong. While the arms industry by the 1960s vastly outpaced any period before, as did the the overt participation of the government in arms development, a noting of complex interrelationship between technological progress, the arms industry, and the American military machine can be seen much earlier in the pages of the Nye Committee’s 1936 report.

The report goes beyond merely accusing munitions companies of bribery to note that

…the very quality which in civilian life tends to lead toward progressive civilization, namely the improvements of machinery, has been used by the munitions makers to scare nations into a continued frantic expenditure for the latest improvements in devices of warfare. The constant message of the traveling salesman of the munitions companies to the rest of the world has been that they now had available for sale something new, more dangerous and more deadly than ever before and that the potential enemy was or would be buying it.

The Nye Report paints a complex picture depicting the interplay between war, politics, and business that Eisenhower later called attention to. Eisenhower certainly said it best, but he did not say it first.

Nye Report, 1936“The committee finds, further, that the constant availability of munitions companies with competitive bribes ready in outstretched hands does not create a situation where the officials involved can, in the nature of things, be as much interested in peace and measures to secure peace as they are in increased armaments.”

Eisenhower, 1961“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

“…it seems to me that any study of the Munitions Investigation requires first of all a real comprehension of the tempers, tone, spirit of the country at the time…”

 Dorthy Detzer, peace activist and ironically, given the large defense industry lobby today, a lobbyist.

Dorthy Detzer, peace activist and ironically, given the large defense industry lobby today, a lobbyist.

Writing about the Nye Committee in 2009 as an undergraduate history student, I became fascinated by a quote from Dorothy Detzer in a letter to historian John E. Wiltz. Detzer, a peace activist rarely mentioned in textbooks alongside the committee was the behind-the-scenes driving force in its creation and ultimate direction. In a 1960 letter to Wiltz, Detzer wrote that “…it seems to me that any study of the Munitions Investigation requires first of all a real comprehension of the tempers, tone, spirit of the country at the time…”

The first World War, at the time called simply the Great War, ended 16 years before the investigation. It was an immediate memory for the American public, who had lived through the war, and served as the temporal grounding point for the investigation. In addition, the Great Depression engendered a broad anti-business sentiment in the public sphere. The Great War and the Great Depression marked the temper and tone of the time, and the spirit was born from the outrage of peace activists and machinations of isolationist politicians who suspected that those who profited from war could very well be interested in it occurring more frequently.

The spirit of 1934 is a small ghost wandering the pages of interwar history, a forgotten child of the “Great War” and the Great Depression. She reminds us that history is not only a cast of great men conducting a series of great wars, but also a multitude of bit parts, played by dickering politicians, lobbyists, and a public swayed by time and temper.

Angry Staff Officer concluded that “it might behoove leaders and historians alike to look away from the dramatic terrain features of history and instead examine some of the paths less trodden.”

He couldn't be more right. You’d be surprised what can be found by looking into defunct journals and old committee reports, and astounded by the lessons we can learn by peering into the shadows of great men and great wars.


Catherine (Katie) Putz is the special projects editor at The Diplomat. She studied American conflict & diplomatic history and then ran off to Kentucky to study international security. She writes about foreign policy, national security, and countries that end in -stan, among other things.


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