An Assessment of the Economic Conversion Movement
Presented at the 21st Annual Conference of Concerned Philosophers
for Peace at SUNY Cortland, Cortland, NY October 31, 2008
by Charles J. Guenther, Jr.
Political economists Seymour Melman and Jeff Dumas have argued for decades that increased military spending leads to decreased security by every possible measure, while peace activists have promoted the idea of conversion of military oriented manufacturing and services to peaceful purposes. Although the primary focus of the economic conversion movement has been on re-orienting the private sector, other goals have been a shift of government spending priorities and to encourage socially responsible engineering employment.
The movement has survived the Cold war, the Vietnam war, and wars over energy resources. However. the Cold war has been supplanted by an endless “War on Terror,” as an excuse for continuing what Melman called the “permanent war economy.” Although the economic conversion movement has been largely ignored by politicians, and sometimes co-opted by government bureaucrats, it remains as a moral beacon calling citizens and employees to create some of the conditions pre-requisite for a more peaceful and just society.
Introductory Remarks for Oral Presentation:
I begin by expressing thanks to Concerned Philosophers for Peace for accepting my abstract and inviting me to present here today. My professional background includes careers in electrical engineering and engineering education, not philosophy. However, I have written papers and developed course work concerning the ethics of technology and engineering practice, as well as the philosophy of technical education. My passion for these fields arises from some of the experiences that I will share this morning.
An important practical aspect of peace studies and peace education is the analysis of the impacts of military contracts and expenditures on local communities and individuals, as well as nations. An economic conversion movement dedicated to such analysis remains inspired and informed by political economists, notably Seymour Melman and Jeff Dumas. The movement has manifested itself in local organizations in regions such as St. Louis, where weapon systems and components are manufactured. These organizations, such as the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis, begin with research on the military contracts awarded by the Pentagon to local corporations.
Such research raises important questions such as: What are the long term effects of weapons production in a community? How are the political and economic characteristics of the community affected by military expenditures? How is the demand for such weapons affected by the political power wielded by the contractors? What sorts of dependencies are created by military contracts? How can military workers imagine a future in which there would be no demand for the weapons they work on?
The goal of the economic conversion movement has been to reduce or eliminate the political power that military contractors wield because of the jobs that the contractors provide.
in their communities. The argument is that by simply making plans for alternatives to weapons production, the corporations could demonstrate a willingness to do something else if there is a shift in government priorities. Shifts away from military weapons production and sales might then become more politically palatable.
Appeals for economic conversion planning have been made for at least three decades, spanning the Vietnam war, the Cold War (especially the military buildup of the Reagan Administration), the Gulf war, and the so-called “war on terror. Such appeals have been consistently viewed as “threats” by the vested interests that lobby for business as usual. In November 1989, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers featured a special report on “The Threat of Peace” in its publication, IEEE Spectrum. One article in this issue was titled, “A rising war on terrorists.” The September 2000 report by the Project for a New American Century called for the massive increases in military spending implemented by the George W. Bush Administration stating: “Use of the post cold war ‘peace dividend’ to balance the federal budget has created a ‘defense deficit’ totaling tens of billions of dollars annually.”
Suppose that, prior to the U.S. government embarking on one of its huge military buildups, citizens were engaged in meaningful conversations concerning the premises behind the proposed buildup, questioning the use of their tax monies, and proposing alternative approaches to national security. Imagine that major news media outlets broadcast such conversations. What would have been the result of such broadcasts, say in late 1982, as the Reagan Administration began its campaign to spend $1.5 trillion over a five year period for military weaponry?
Suppose that a major news network (CBS for example) visited a major U.S. city that was heavily dependent on military aircraft production, and spoke with people who could point out the pitfalls of such dependence and had concrete knowledge of human suffering that would result from the skewed priorities of the Reagan Administration. Suppose the network interviewed an engineer who had recently resigned from a secure position at an aerospace corporation in order to end his own dependence on military contracts.
In fact, the aforementioned interviews did take place. CBS Evening news anchor Ray Brady and producer David Gelber visited St. Louis during November 1982 for the stated purpose of investigating the economic impact of military spending in a region where employment was dominated by a large contractor, McDonnell-Douglas Corporation.
On the evening of November 22, the CBS crew recorded an hour long round table discussion by a diverse group of citizens, including teachers, social workers, a minister, community organizers, and a technical employment recruiter. Organized by the St. Louis Economic Conversion Project, the discussion took place at the home of educators Dan Bolef and Regina Birchem. Earlier that afternoon, I was interviewed just outside the corporation’s world headquarters building, stating why I left employment there. I said that McDonnell Douglas workers were unwittingly contributing to the risk of nuclear destruction. CBS also interviewed Cassell Williams, President of District 837 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers representing the factory workers at McDonnell-Douglas.
The program which was broadcast on Dan Rather’s CBS Evening News, Friday, December 3, 1982, was a huge disappointment to supporters of the economic conversion project. It had been condensed to a length of only 4 minutes, 40 seconds, and included none of the interviews conducted in St. Louis, except for a brief appearance by Mr. Williams of the Machinists Union stating he “wants a slice of the miliary pie.” David Gelber, who had accepted collect calls from the economic conversion project prior to his visit to St. Louis, was unavailable for comment after the program was aired and never returned our phone calls.
Perhaps news sources outside the U.S. are more free to report opposition to the military industrial complex here. During February 2003, during the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Frank Faulk visited St. Charles, Missouri, home of Boeing Corporation’s missile plant that produced the JDAM (smart bombs) used in the invasion. Mr. Faulk produced a “faith documentary,” that was broadcast on CBC Radio’s series, “The Current,” on February 13, 2003. This program devoted ample time to the views of those opposed to the Iraq invasion..
Faulk interviewed anti-war activists (including my wife and myself), an engineer who worked at the missile plant, as well as a local news reporter who had covered demonstrations at the plant, asking each of them the question: “In a time of impending war, where do you put your faith?” My answer to Faulk’s question was simply that I trust that all human lives are important, and that human suffering has meaning beyond what can be comprehended in a lifetime.
Faulk also interviewed Bob Algoratti, a spokesman for Boeing’s JDAM plant in St. Charles. . He also reported how he was interrogated by local police at his hotel room late at night after his initial drive to the gates of the missile plant in preparation for his interview with Algoratti. (Faulk was not arrested or charged with anything; he was harassed and intimidated.) The next day, Algoratti apparently sabotaged his own interview by demanding that Faulk make no “reference to possible use of the [JDAM] system by our customer.” The quoted words by Algoratti were the only ones included in the broadcast, indicating that he put his faith.in the U.S. government.
How did I make the transition from from aerospace engineer to antiwar activist? The journey was not made overnight! In a 1983 article, Kurt Vonnegut wrote about “weapons junkies,” describing “compulsive preparations for war” as the “worst addiction of them all.” I cannot say I was not forewarned of such an addiction. My engineering education included a mechanics course called “strength of materials.” As an electrical engineering major, I started out with little interest in this course. But professor Anthony Celis was a registered civil engineer who had contributed to the structural design of the Houston Astrodome. His pride in engineering as a profession was contagious. Though I was more interested in designing transistor circuits, I designed a wood floor for my final examination During one class period, he expressed deep regret that most of us would probably go to work for large aerospace corporations (especially McDonnell Aircraft) where we would serve as “technical clerks,” rather than professionals. His prediction was right, of course. The lure of high starting salaries and draft deferments during the Vietnam war drew me and many of my classmates into the military-industrial-complex. In a sense, we too were drafted.
Sixteen days after graduating with a B.S. degree, I began working as an engineer at McDonnell Aircraft Company. Most of this career was spent designing measurement systems for flight testing military aircraft. My first project involved gunfire vibration measurements and bomb drop tests with the F-4E aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, California. In the early 1970s, I designed the electronics for system that measured the air temperature outside the F-15 aircraft within a quarter of a degree Celsius. During the mid-1970s, I worked on automatic test equipment used for avionics maintenance, and designed software to evaluate aircraft stability. My last major project was a U.S. Air Force contracted research and development study, designing a system for airborne acquisition and ground processing of in-flight vibration and acoustic noise data from 144 simultaneous measurement locations (Detmer, et al, 1981).
Throughout my fifteen years at McDonnell-Douglas, I tried to dissociate myself as much as possible from weapons systems and their military applications. By focusing on the technical details of my projects as if with a zoom lens, I avoided the larger context of my work, namely that I was helping to pave the way for more efficient death and destruction.
This escape strategy worked for a while. But in 1974, my four year old son began asking me about my job. He was fascinated by airplanes and he dreamed of becoming an airline pilot. Inquiring about the F-15 aircraft, he asked, “How many passengers does it carry?” Almost apologetically, I explained that it wasn’t designed to carry passengers; it was a warplane. When he asked, “Daddy, what’s war?”, I did not have an answer.
One weekend, also during the mid 1970’s, I had a conversation with my Grandfather in the basement of my parents home. Grandpa had been drafted for service in the army during World war I. A 29 year old married man, he was shipped to France during the 1918 flu epidemic, and spared from combat by a lengthy quarantine. Since his career had been in sales, I was not too surprised by his question that day: “Is your firm getting enough orders?” I replied, “Oh, yes– I’m busier than ever now these days.” My Grandfather paused, puffed on his pipe, and looked away as he said, “Well, that’s good then.” My thoughts at the time (which I kept to myself) were: ”He’s glad I’m steadily employed, but he also worries about what kind of a world his great-grandchildren will inherit.
These innocent questions asked by my grandfather and my son arose during the political upheaval of Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation. Around the same time, my father retired from a long career as a civilian librarian for the U.S. Air Force.
All of these events helped me to develop an interest in McDonnell-Douglas products and in the U.S. military policies that ensured the uninterrupted flow of contracts that kept me employed. I also began to grapple with the ethical consequences and responsibilities of my work. I realized that the work of my hands and mind had already contributed (albeit in small and indirect ways) to the killing of human beings and was also being used to prepare for nuclear war. I began a struggle for independence from what I began to view as a huge welfare program for the weapons industry.
In 1980, I joined the advisory board of the St. Louis Economic Conversion Project, a group that promotes community-based peace conversion planning for military facilities and contractors (Dumas, 1986). But it was obvious that McDonnell-Douglas Corporation was adamantly opposed to planning for peace, especially given the plans for military “re-armament” (Cypher, 1981) by the Reagan Administration. At the 1979 and 1980 annual meetings, McDonnell-Douglas shareholders followed the recommendations of management by defeating resolutions calling for economic conversion planning.
On my last assignment at McDonnell-Douglas, I got an inkling of how executives in the aerospace industry view the world. In late May 1981, I took a 7:00 a.m. flight on a small company jet to the Patuxent River Naval Base in Maryland. My brief case contained tape recordings of aircraft vibration measurements that I would use for evaluating test procedures on a Hewlett Packard signal analyzer at the McDonnell facility there. I also carried a copy of Daniel Berrigan’s book, The Catonsville Nine, which told the story of a Vietnam era civil disobedience action. I was accompanied on the flight by Henry Katz, manager of the structural dynamics department, and Bill Ross, vice-president of the Laboratory and Flight Development Division of the company. .Under each plane seat was placed a boxed breakfast and a copy of the morning St. Louis Globe-Democrat newspaper. Bill Ross glanced at a front page article about the priorites of the new Reagan Administration, including increases for military expenditures and decreases in social welfare programs. “Those welfare cheaters are finally getting what they deserve,” he exclaimed.. Having nothing polite to say, I said nothing. After landing at Pax River, I headed across the flight ramp towards the hangar building where I would be working for several days. I turned around briefly and watched Bill and Henry carry their golf bags to a waiting Navy limousine. At that moment I felt a degree of satisfaction, because my briefcase also contained the job offer letter that would be my ticket to at least a degree of independence from the largest welfare system of all, the military industrial complex.
On June 19, 1981, I resigned from McDonnell-Douglas, citing reasons of conscience in a certified letter to CEO Sanford McDonnell and other executives including Bill Ross. (Uhlenhuth, 1982). None of the executives responded to my letter; however the company later regularly reproduced my opinion articles and letters published in local newspapers in daily company news briefings distributed to managers. A security guard was assigned to watch me during my only subsequent visit to the company (I attended a shareholder’s meeting to present a shareholder resolution to the directors.)
I spent two years in temporary and part-time work, including organizing for the St. Louis Economic Conversion Project, and teaching electronics and mathematics courses at the Forest Park campus of St. Louis Community College. In August 1983, I received a full-time faculty appointment as an Assistant Professor in the Engineering and Technology Department at the Meramec campus of St. Louis Community College. I retired last year after 24 years.
I am enormously grateful to the founders of the St. Louis Economic Conversion Project ((now known as the Peace Economy Project) for their steadfast work for peace over several decades. Although they were not successful in transforming the military industrial complex, they continue to serve as a moral beacon, reminding the community of the dangers of dependence on military contracts and preparations for war.
Charles J. Guenther, Jr. is Emeritus Professor of Engineering and Technology at the Meramec campus of St. Louis Community College, where he taught for 24 years. He also worked for 15 years as an engineer at McDonnell-Douglas Corporation, and later worked as a researcher and organizer for the St. Louis Economic Conversion Project. His papers have been published by the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, and the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.