Once upon a time, Detroit was known as "the arsenal
of Democracy" because the city's big three automakers converted so quickly
from turning out civilian vehicles to producing the tanks and trucks that "helped
win World War II"(and then "lent their technology to aircraft and ship
manufacturing" as well). Now, the same three companies are simply beggars.
Whether they are capable today of transforming themselves, as an Obama administration
might wish, into an "arsenal for a green future" is certainly an open question.
TomDispatch regular Nick Turse, author of the groundbreaking book The
Complex on the militarization of American daily life, recalls a Cold
War era in which many corporations producing the big-ticket items of the consumer
economy turned themselves into literal arsenals, churning out weaponry of every
sort. Now, with that consumer economy on the skids, he wonders whether civilian
companies may again opt to become "arsenals" for the Pentagon. Tom
A Recipe for Corporate Success in Tough Times?
SaladShooters, adult diapers, and tactical ammo
by Nick Turse
Is it possible that one of the Pentagon's contractors
has a tripartite business model for our tough economic times: one division
that specializes in crock-pots, another in adult diapers, and a third in medium
caliber tactical ammunition? Can the maker of the SaladShooter,
a handheld electric shredder/dicer that hacks up and fires out sliced veggies,
really be a tops arms manufacturer? Could a company that produces the Pizzazz
Pizza Oven also be a merchant of death? And could this company be a model for
success in an economy heading for the bottom?
Once upon a time, the military-industrial complex was loaded with household-name
companies like General
Motors, Ford, and Dow Chemical, that produced weapons systems and what
arms expert Eric Prokosch has called "the technology of killing." Over the
years, for economic as well as public relations reasons, many of these firms
got out of the business of creating lethal technologies, even while remaining
Department of Defense (DoD) contractors.
The military-corporate complex of today is still filled with familiar names
from our consumer culture, including defense
contractors like iPod-maker Apple, cocoa giant Nestle, ketchup producer
Heinz, and chocolate bar maker Hershey, not to speak of Tyson Foods, Procter
& Gamble, and the Walt Disney Company. But while they may provide the everyday
products that allow the military to function, make war, and carry out foreign
occupations, most such civilian firms no longer dabble in actual arms manufacture.
Whirlpool: Then and Now
Take the Whirlpool Corporation, which bills itself as "the world's leading
manufacturer and marketer of major home appliances" and boasts annual sales
of more than $19 billion to consumers in more than 170 countries. Whirlpool
was recently recognized
as "one of the World's Most Ethical Companies by the Ethisphere Institute."
The company also professes
a "strong" belief in "ethical values" that dates back almost 100 years to founders
who believed "there is no right way to do a wrong thing."
In the middle of the last century, however – as Prokosch has documented
– Whirlpool was engaged in what many might deem a wrong thing. In 1957,
Whirlpool took over work on flechettes
– razor-sharp darts with fins at the blunt end – for the U.S. military. While
International Harvester, the prior Pentagon contractor producing them, had
managed to pack only 6,265 of these deadly darts into a 90mm canister
round, Whirlpool set to work figuring out a way to cram almost 10,000 flechettes
into the same delivery vehicle. Its goal: to "improve the lethality of the
canisters." (In addition, Whirlpool also reportedly worked on "Sting Ray" –
an Army project involving a projectile filled with flechettes coated in a still-undisclosed
In 1967, an Associated Press report noted that U.S. troops were using new
flechette artillery rounds to "spray thousands of dart-shaped steel shafts
over broad areas of the jungle or open territory" in Vietnam. "I've seen reports
of enemy soldiers actually being nailed to trees by these things," commented
one Army officer.
On a recent trip to Vietnam, I spoke to a Vietnamese witness who had seen
such "pin bullets" employed by U.S. forces many times in those years. In one
case, Bui Van Bac recalled that a woman from his village, spotted by U.S. aircraft
while she was walking in a rice paddy, was gravely wounded by them. Local guerillas
came to the woman's aid and brought her to a hospital where a surgeon found
a number of extremely sharp, three centimeter long "pins" inside her body.
Medically, it was all but hopeless, and the woman died.
A top player in lethal technologies back then, Whirlpool is now among the
tiniest defense contractors. While, in recent years, the company has ignored
requests for information from TomDispatch.com on their dealings with the Pentagon,
records indicate that last year, for example, it received just over $105,000
from the Department of Defense, most of which apparently went toward the purchase
of kitchen appliances and household furnishings.
Similarly, Whirlpool's predecessor in the flechette game, International Harvester,
is now Navistar International Corporation. Navistar Defense, a division of
the company, remains one of the Pentagon's stealth "billion
dollar babies." But while it did more than $1 billion in business with
the DoD last year, Navistar appears to have been building vehicles for the
Pentagon, not creating anti-personnel weaponry. There are, however, companies
that can't seem to say good-bye to lethal technologies.
National Presto Industries
National Presto Industries traces its history to the 1905 founding of the
Northwestern Iron and Steel Works in Eau Claire, Wisc., according to the Business
& Company Resource Center. By 1908, the company was making industrial steam
pressure cookers and, in 1915, began making models for home use. On the eve
of the U.S. entry into World War II, the company entered the arms game when
it scored a multi-million dollar contract to produce artillery fuses. Even
with that deal in hand, it was reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy when its
new president, Lewis Phillips, landed a series of other lucrative military
In the early years of the Cold War, about the time Whirlpool was getting into
the flechette business, National Presto Industries had just introduced "a revolutionary
new concept in electric cooking … a complete line of fully immersible electric
cooking appliances employing a removable heat control" – and was about to launch
"the world's first automatic, submersible stainless steel coffee maker." The
company was also still churning out war materiel.
In 1953, National Presto announced plans to build a multi-million dollar plant
to produce 105mm artillery shells. In 1955, it was awarded millions to make
howitzer shells for the Army, and the next year, millions from the Air Force
for fighter-bomber parts. By 1958, company President Lewis Phillips would declare,
"The future of this company in Eau Claire and hence the security of our jobs
here is now almost wholly dependent upon defense contracts awarded by the U.S.
government." When the Army canceled its contracts with Presto in 1959, Phillips
lamented, "With little or no notice, this government decision has forced us
completely out of the manufacturing business here in Eau Claire."
The tough times didn't last. Soon enough, National Presto returned to the
fray, benefiting from the disastrous American war in Vietnam. From 1966 to
1975, the company manufactured more than 2 million eight-inch howitzer shells
and more than 92 million 105mm artillery shells. In Vietnam, 105mm shells would
kill or maim untold numbers of civilians,
but it was a boom time for National Presto, which took in at least $163 million
in Pentagon contracts in 1970-1971 alone for artillery shell parts. Finally
shuttered in 1980, the company defense plant was kept on government "standby"
into the 1990s, a sweetheart deal that earned Presto $2.5 million annually
for producing nothing at all.
As the Vietnam War wound down, National Presto turned back to the civilian
market with a series of new kitchen gadgets: in 1974, the PrestoBurger, an
electric, single-serving fast broiler for hamburgers; in 1975, the Hot Dogger;
and in 1976, the Fry Baby deep fat fryer. In 1988, the company introduced its
wildly popular SaladShooter, followed in 1991 by its Tater Twister potato peeler.
When sales of its SaladShooters, corn poppers, pressure cookers, deep fryers,
and griddles became sluggish, however, weaponry again proved a savior.
In 2001, National Presto decided to get back into the arms game. Months before
9/11, the company's chairman Melvin Cohen expressed fears that a future war
might mean ruin for the company's kitchen appliance business. As a result,
Presto purchased munitions manufacturer Amtec. In the years since, according
to Securities and Exchange Commission filings,
Presto has also "made other complementary acquisitions in the defense industry."
These have included Amron,
a manufacturer of medium caliber ammunition (20-40mm) cartridge cases and Spectra
Technologies, which is "engaged in the manufacture, distribution, and delivery
of munitions and ordnance-related products for the DoD and DoD prime contractors."
Such types of ammunition are extremely versatile and are fired from ground
vehicles, naval ships, and various types of aircraft – both helicopters and
Additionally, in the months after 9/11, National Presto entered the diapers
trade, setting up that business in its old munitions plant. In 2004, with Melvin
Cohen's daughter MaryJo now at the helm, the company further expanded into
the business of adult-incontinence products. "I spent a couple of days wearing
them," the younger Cohen told
the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time. "They're very comfortable."
In 2005, Presto's Amtec was awarded a five-year deal by the Pentagon for its
40mm family of ammunition rounds. By the end of last year, it had already
received $454 million and was expecting the sum to top out, at contract's end,
above $550 million.
Just as 105mm shells of the sort produced by Presto were a nightmare for the
people of Vietnam, so too has 40mm ammunition spelled doom for civilians in
Iraq and Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the BBC reported on a typical joint
U.S./UK attack on a home in Iraq in which insurgents had taken shelter. After
exchanging ground fire, coalition forces called in an air strike. According
to the BBC, "The
aircraft fired 40mm cannon rounds at the two houses, finally dropping a bomb
on one of them. It collapsed. The other house was set on fire. The two insurgents
in the house were buried but so were a number of women and children." Similarly,
in August, news reports tell us, U.S. troops called in an air strike by an
AC-130 – which packs 40mm cannons – that helped kill approximately 90 civilians
in the village of Azizabad in Afghanistan, according
to investigations by the Afghan government and the United Nations.
As in the past, war time has been a boom-time for Presto. In 2000, before
the start of the Global War on Terror, National Presto's annual sales clocked
in at $116.6 million. In 2007, they totaled $420.7 million, with more than
50 percent of that coming from arms manufacturing. Earlier this year, Presto
nabbed another 40mm ammunition contract
(a $97.5 million supplemental award) set to be delivered in 2009 and 2010.
According to official DoD figures, from 2001 through 2008 National Presto received
more than $531 million, while Amtec has taken home another $171 million-plus.
Their combined grand total, while hardly putting Presto in the top tier of
Pentagon weapons contractors, is still a relatively staggering $702.8 million
– not bad for a company known for slicing and dicing vegetables.
Death Is Our Business and Business Is Good
These days, most civilian defense contractors aren't like Presto. General
Tire and Rubber Company, for example, once lorded it over a business empire
that produced not only car tires, but antipersonnel mines and deadly cluster
bombs. Today, the company seems to have left its days of supplying the U.S.
military with lethal technologies behind.
Dow Chemical classically drew ire from protesters during the Vietnam War for
making the incendiary agent napalm that clung to and burned off the flesh of
Dow got out
of the napalm business long before the war ended, but, due to widespread
protests at the time, the company is still living down the legacy today.
At a 2006 Ethics and Compliance Conference, Dow's President, CEO, and Chairman
Andrew Liveris recalled, "Believe me, we have had our share of ethical challenges,
most of them very public … starting with the manufacture of Napalm during the
Vietnam War … when suddenly we went from being a company that made Saran Wrap
to keep food fresh to a kind of war machine … at least, according the characterizations
of the time." While Dow is still a defense contractor, its DoD contracts appear
not to include the manufacture of weapons of any type. Instead, such companies
have largely ceded the field to dedicated "merchants of death" – weapons-industry
like Alliant Techsystems (ATK), Lockheed Martin, and Boeing.
Right now, National Presto Industries may look like a throwback to an earlier
era when companies regularly made both innocuous household items and heavy
weapons. In a new hard-times economy, however, in which taxpayer dollars are
likely to continue to pour into the Pentagon, could it instead be a harbinger
of the future? Having proved that outfitting real shooters is even more lucrative
than making SaladShooters, Presto has gotten rich in the Bush war years. It
has, in fact, greatly outperformed the big guns of the weapons business. While
the stocks of top defense contractors Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop
Grumman have all lost significant value in the last year – down 29.3 percent,
55.3 percent, and 50.1 percent, respectively – National Presto's stock price
was up 28.1 percent as of mid-December.
It isn't hard to imagine more civilian firms, especially ones that are already
Pentagon contractors, getting into (or back into) the weapons game. After all,
when the Big Three Detroit automakers were scrounging around for a bailout
just a few weeks ago, they used America's persistent involvement in armed conflict
as one argument in their favor. For example, Robert Nardelli, Chrysler's chief
the Senate that the failure of the auto industry "would undermine our nation's
ability to respond to military challenges and would threaten our national security."
While that argument was roundly dismissed by retired Army Lt. Gen. John Caldwell,
chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association's combat vehicles division,
it probably wouldn't have been if the automakers made more weapons systems.
Will Presto be the back-to-the-future model for Pentagon contractors in the
lean times ahead? Only time will tell. At the very least, it seems that, as
long as Americans allow the country to wage wars abroad, require their salads
to be shot, and have bladder issues, National Presto Industries has a future.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. His work has appeared
in many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the
These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. His first book, The
Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, an exploration
of the new military-corporate complex in America, was recently published by
Metropolitan Books. His Web site is NickTurse.com.
Copyright 2008 Nick Turse