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Case study 3: The Arms Trade

In order to understand the arguments over the nature and function of the arms industry between the two world wars, you need to also consider the wider economic, social and political situation at that time.

The ten documents reproduced here relate to the debate over the regulation, profitability and morality of the arms trade, but also reflect wider issues such as the strength of the pacifist movement after the slaughter of the First World War, the effect of the economic depression on trade and society, the growth of isolationist economic and foreign policy ideas in the U.S.A., the rise of extremist or militarist regimes in Europe and the Far East (for example in Germany, Italy and Japan) and the subsequent move towards re-armament, the debate over free trade versus government control, and, as Western governments started to provide more comprehensive schemes of social welfare, the argument over whether defence or social spending should have greater priority.

 

Looking at the documents:

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Document 1

'Armaments expenditure of the world', 19 October 1929

'Armaments expenditure of the world', 19 October 1929

Special 'Armaments Supplement' produced by The Economist. It looks at national expenditure on armaments by key countries (including France, Germany, Britain, Italy, the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A.) over the previous 20 years, and considers the question of limitation of armaments expenditure through agreements arranged through the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations).

[Included in a file on war and rearmament, from the archive of the Union of Post Office Workers; document reference: MSS.148/UCW/6/15/2]

 

Document 2

'Waste on war preparations' and 'Economic methods of securing peace', 1933

'Waste on war preparations' and 'Economic methods of securing peace', 1933

Notes compiled by the Union of Post Office Workers on the differences between national expenditure on defence and education, and the possibility of securing peace through international economic management by the League of Nations. The union lobbied strongly for pacifist policies during the 1920s and 1930s.

[Included in a file on war and rearmament, from the archive of the Union of Post Office Workers; document reference: MSS.148/UCW/6/15/2]

 

Document 3

'Insecurity in arms', 1933

'Insecurity in arms', 1933

National Peace Council leaflet written by C.E.M. Joad. The author condemns the growing international arms race and the profits of arms dealers "not troubled by patriotic scruples", and expresses fears that the next war will see unprecendented slaughter of civilians behind the front lines.

[From a file on 'National Defence: Rearmament', included in the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/882/4]

 

Document 4

'A Souvenir of the Great Empire Air Day of 1934'

'A Souvenir of the Great Empire Air Day of 1934'

Leaflet issued by the Union of Democratic Control to coincide with the first Empire Air Day. It employs heavy sarcasm to attack re-armament and the profits made by aeroplane manufacturers due to the "disturbed Political state of the world". The Empire Air Day took place on 'Empire Day' (24 May 1934) and was organised by the Air League of the British Empire. A news reel of the event is available online at the British Pathé website.

[From the archives of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians; document reference: MSS.78/5/14/159]

 

Document 5

'Hawkers of Death: The private manufacture and trade in arms', January 1934

'Hawkers of Death: The private manufacture and trade in arms', January 1934

Pamphlet written by the politician Philip Noel Baker, and published by the Labour Party. The section linked to here relates to 'The Advantages of the Total Abolition of Private Manufacture'; other chapters are on 'The evil effects of private manufacture of war munitions', 'Public opinion and the evils of private manufacture', 'How to get rid of private profit: control or abolition?', 'The advantages of the total abolition of private manufacture', 'How abolition of private manufacture can be carried through', and 'Unemployment and the abolition of private manufacture'.

[From a file on defence, included in the archives of the Transport and General Workers' Union; document reference: MSS.126/TG/RES/X/1002D/1]

 

Document 6

'The Munitions Investigation', 1935

'The Munitions Investigation', 1935

Text of a speech given by the U.S. Senator Gerald P. Nye, published by the National Council for the Prevention of War, Washington D.C. Nye was chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, which sat between 1934-1936. He was an advocate of U.S. isolationism, and strongly attacked government expenditure on munitions and the trade (and profits) of arms companies.

[From a file on defence, included in the archives of the Transport and General Workers' Union; document reference: MSS.126/TG/RES/X/1002D/1]

 

Document 7

Statement to the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the Private Manufacture of and Trading in Arms, May 1935

Statement to the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the Private Manufacture of and Trading in Arms, May 1935

Written evidence submitted by the National Peace Council. They argue that there are "grave objections" to allowing private companies to manufacture and deal in armaments - in particular the concern that manufacturers will attempt to expand the market for their products by fomenting international unrest and "playing off one country against another".

[From a file on private manufacture of armaments, included in the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/882/3]

 

Document 8

Memorandum on the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the Private Manufacture of and Trading in Arms, June 1935

Memorandum on the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the Private Manufacture of and Trading in Arms, June 1935

Internal memorandum produced for the Finance and General Purposes Committee of the Trades Union Congress. It argues that it would be impractical, for both economic and political reasons, for the British Government to take over manufacture of armaments from private companies.

[From a file on private manufacture of armaments, included in the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/882/3]

 

Document 9

The disadvantages of supplying the government with arms, c.1935

The disadvantages of supplying the government with arms, c.1935

Notes about the growth of the Birmingham Small Arms Co. Ltd as a business, and its need to diversify into other areas of manufacture to remain profitable; together with extracts from evidence by witnesses to the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the Private Manufacture of and Trading in Arms, with added comments regarding the situation of BSA as a manufacturer of armaments.

[Included in the archives of the Birmingham Small Arms Co. Ltd; document references: MSS.19A/3/3/16 and MSS.19A/3/3/27]

The disadvantages of supplying the government with arms, c.1935

 

Document 10

'The Defence Programme: Industry and prices', 1936

'The Defence Programme: Industry and prices', 1936

Article by David Alexander Bremner, reprinted from the internal journal of the British Engineers' Association. The author attacks the British government's previous policy of disarmament as "foolish and reckless", and argues that private arms companies need "legitimate profit earning" to finance investment.

[From a file on 'National Defence: Rearmament', included in the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/882/4]