“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”
—Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket (1935)*
The costs of the Great War were staggering. An estimated 41 million people were wounded or lost their lives, and from 1914 – 1918, the Allied and Central Powers poured over 185 billion dollars into waging war. Adjusted for inflation, the amount today would exceed 4.3 trillion dollars.**
Before the United States became involved in the global conflict, many Americans wanted nothing to do with the war and hoped to remain neutral. Others, however, seized war-time opportunities to aggressively pursue profits. In 1916, at a Washington, D.C. mass meeting of protest against the war, Grace Isabel Colbron gave a public reading of her poem “The Ballad of Bethlehem Steel.”***
The Ballad of Bethlehem Steel or “The Need For Preparedness”
A Tale of the Ticker
A fort is taken, the papers say,
Five thousand dead in the murderous deal.
A victory? No, just another grim day.
But—up to five hundred goes Bethlehem Steel.
|The Masses, July 1916|
Cartoon depicting Uncle Sam as war profiteer
A sigh, a prayer from a torn heart rent—
A murmur of Peace on the death-laden air—
But—Bethlehem Steel drops thirty per cent.
“We’ll fight to the death” the diplomats cry.
“We’ll fight to the death,” sigh the weary men.
As the battle roars to the shuddering sky—
And Bethlehem Steel has a rise of ten.
What matters the loss of a million men?
What matters the waste of blossoming lands?
The children’s cry or the women’s pain?
If—Bethlehem Steel at six hundred stands?
And so we must join in the slaughter-mill,
We must arm ourselves for a senseless hate,
We must waste our youths in the murder drill—
That Bethlehem Steel may hold its state.†
—Grace Isabel Colbron
The upbeat rhythm and rhymes of the poem mimic the callously optimistic mood of those who profited from the war. Celebrating those profits in May of 1916, Charles Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel, addressed the executives of the American Iron and Steel Institute: “Boys, we are in a period of great prosperity. I wonder if any of us ever expected, anticipated or dreamed that we should ever see any such state of affairs as we see today….Boys, may this prosperity continue.”††
Just how prosperous was Bethlehem Steel? In the months before war was declared in Europe, the company struggled, operating at only 60% capacity and reducing workers’ hours. But after securing military contracts from Russia, Britain and France, Bethlehem Steel emerged as the leading supplier of Allied ships, munitions, and ordnance. By end of 1917, “orders on hand at Bethlehem Steel were twenty times as great as at the end of 1913,” and stock prices had risen from $30 to $600 a share.°
Charges of war profiteering were not unique to America. Companies in nearly every industrialized country sought to benefit from the war: Krupps (Germany) Renault (France), and Vickers (Britain) are some of the better-known examples. The war-time ideal of sacrifice was challenged when not everyone seemed to accept an equal share of the sacrifice.
In 1935, fearing the prospect of yet another world war, Smedley Butler spoke out against the capitalist motives that might support such a war. A retired Major General with the U.S. Marines, Butler condemned war profiteers in his book War is a Racket:
“At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.
How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried the bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?”
Butler concluded, “Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die. This was the ‘war to end wars.’ This was the ‘war to make the world safe for democracy.’ No one told them that dollars and cents were the real reason. No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going and their dying would mean huge war profits.”°°
Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy in 2001.
* Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket, Round Table Press, 1935, p. 1.
**“World War I casualties,” Wikipedia and “Financial Cost of the First World War,” Spartacus Educational.
***“To Read Original Poem: Miss Colbron Writes Ballad for Meeting Against Preparedness.” Washington Evening Star, 29 Jan. 1916, p. 10. Colbron was a translator, author, and activist in both the pacifist and suffragist movements. A tribute written after her death in 1943 described her as “a social idealist to the depths of her soul, she was ready at any time to give of her best for any worthwhile project for social reform” (W.L, “In Memoriam: Grace Isabel Colbron. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 3, No. 1, Oct. 1943, p. 114).
†First published in The Public: A Journal of Democracy (10 Dec. 1915), the version included in this post appeared in Seamen’s Journal, Vol. 29, 22 Dec. 1916, p. 11. Punctuation varies among published editions of the poem; in the Presbyterian Survey (Oct. 1916), the last word of the poem reads “rate”; other versions read “state.”
††Kenneth Warren, Bethlehem Steel: Builder and Arsenal of America, University of Pittsburgh, 2008, p. 105.
°Warren, Bethlehem Steel, pp. 103-106.
°°Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket, pp. 2, 33.