The First World War, which ended a century ago Sunday, was supposed to be a hinge-moment in history: a war to end all wars, and a war to end the imperialism that had shaped the West’s interaction with the world for centuries. After the United States joined the war in 1917, President Wilson insisted it be fought in the cause of self-determination.

But despite its massive toll, the war did not end empire, and many of today’s struggles are rooted in that failure, including Americans’ own imperial investments in war.

As the firing ceased on the Western front, conflict continued in a different gear elsewhere. During the war, the British Empire had expanded vastly into the Middle East, the former terrain of the defeated Ottoman Empire. As hostilities ceased in Europe, Britain violently suppressed rebellion in these newly occupied territories, as well as in India, Ireland, and Egypt.

The British government drew on new military technologies, especially airpower, in these post-armistice counter-insurgencies, partly to convince the British public that war really had ended: Then, as now, air warfare meant fewer “boots on the ground” and more “discreet” intervention abroad. Shifting the methods of colonial intervention allowed empire to survive in an increasingly anti-imperial age.

But the mass death of World War I had also shocked many Britons into fresh skepticism of military technology. Many sections of the public attacked the arms industry for having driven humanity to an apocalyptic juncture.

Scandalized by the high wartime profits of arms companies like Vickers—then supplying bombers for aerial counterinsurgency in Iraq—and members of parliament owning shares in such companies, critics discerned a “secret international”: a complex of arms firms, banks, and governments fomenting war out of greed. The Labour MP Hugh Dalton noted that the Ottomans had used Vickers’s guns against the British; he condemned directors of arms firms as “the highest and completest embodiment of capitalist morality.” 

In truth, arms manufacturers had been crucial to the creation of modern capitalism: military contracting for the eighteenth-century wars that established Britain’s global empire helped drive the industrial revolution, though we like to celebrate that transformation as a triumph of Enlightenment values. The British also spread arms around the world, equating their spread with the spread of civilization itself. They were convinced that scruples about who they sold to would merely forfeit profit, prestige, and influence to their rivals, the French and the Dutch.  

In the nineteenth century, when Britain was no longer an empire on the make, the armed “native” became a more threatening figure. The British began to police arms sales in the Middle East and South Asia especially. World War One redoubled this concern: The Middle East expert Mark Sykes worried that enough arms had spread to “arm every black man who wants a rifle.”

In the 1920s and 30s, global arms conventions tried to prohibit arms exports to Africa and the Middle East, but were thwarted by loopholes and vested interests—including the American arms industry. The British themselves, captive to the diehard eighteenth-century logic, subsidized the military strength of two rival powers in the Arabian peninsula, including the Wahhabi-backed House of Saud, which emerged the regional victor in 1925. Some MPs worried that the Saudis would next turn their British arms against Britain as the dominant power in the region.

Certain interwar observers fleetingly recognized the extent of the British economy’s dependence on arms manufacturing. The science-fiction writer H.G. Wells noted that the arms profits accrued not just to companies’ leaders, but also to workers in those industries and to “thousands of persons of all ranks of life, as lesser shareholders.” A 1935 government inquiry into the private manufacture of arms likewise alighted on the truth that war was central to the British economy, concluding that the line between military and civilian manufacturing was so blurry that it was impossible to say who was and wasn’t making or profiting from arms. Arms and their parts were central to industry in general—as they had been since the industrial revolution—intersecting with the automobile industry, civilian aviation, and so on. “Large numbers of people, of all classes…by reason of their employment, their business interests or by the holding of shares,” the commission reported, “may have a financial interest in war or the preparation for war.”  

Shortly after the commission submitted its report, the Germans occupied the Rhineland, and Britain began rearming, with the approval of Labour politicians like Dalton—the First World War had taught the importance of not being adequately prepared as much as it had fomented distrust of arms-makers. As the commissioners had anticipated, intensification of arms-making had an enormous impact on the economy: Rearmament pulled Britain out of the Great Depression.


We live among this geopolitical and moral detritus of the end of the First World War. Seizing the baton of global imperial power, including heavy reliance on airpower, the U.S. has long sealed its partnerships with authoritarian rulers around the world with arms sales. And once again, the Middle East is a key focus of those concerned with the spread of arms. Both Saudi Arabia’s role in the war and famine in Yemen and the Khashoggi affair have provoked renewed public questioning of the Saudi-U.S. partnership in particular. President Trump insists that Saudi arms deals are crucial for American workers and industry—a bogus claim. The military-industrial economy is too old and wide for any one arms deal to matter significantly. As in the past, these deals are about maintaining American influence as much as money. Trump argues that if the U.S. pulls out, Russia and China will profit—echoes of eighteenth-century imperial logic.

Today’s tech moguls emphasize the importance of defense contracts. Amazon spent millions this year lobbying for contracts for its facial recognition technology, cloud computing services, and other products. “If big tech companies are going to turn their backs on the Department of Defense, we are in big trouble,” said Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently. Lockheed Martin’s sales in Saudi Arabia for 2019 and 2020, meanwhile, are in the range of $900 million. Government departments likewise consider “industry outreach” and relationships with potential contractors “standard” practices. History shows that contracting has long been a mainstay of industrial growth.

But some segments of American labor are increasingly uneasy about military contracts. Within Amazon, workers are deeply concerned that the company’s facial recognition technology may be used by ICE to track illegal immigrants. Hundreds have written to Bezos expressing their refusal to build a platform for government surveillance that violates human rights. Similar dynamics are unfolding at Microsoft and Google. Google employees have successfully stymied renewal of the company’s controversial contract to provide artificial intelligence for analyzing drone footage.

The gun control debate also fuels such moral reckoning within major companies. Blackstone and JP Morgan, which pulled out of “Davos in the Desert” after the Khashoggi affair, also tried to distance themselves from firearms manufacturers after the Parkland shooting. These moves have enhanced their brand appeal among many, though it’s doubtful they have affected the gun industry as a whole. Still, they signify a search for a new “capitalist morality,” echoed by Silicon Valley investors belatedly cringing at the flow of Saudi money that provided tech companies with crucial liquidity in recent years.

Venky Ganesan, a partner at the technology investor Menlo Ventures, told The Washington Post last month that he sees acceptance of such money as a “real moral challenge” going forward. Ro Khanna, Silicon Valley’s Congressman, is calling on the valley to acknowledge that Saudi activities are a “slap in the face” of the “Enlightenment ideals” at the heart of its work. (Here, again , the notion that pacific Enlightenment values drive innovation obscures the historic role of defense contracts, even in the growth of Silicon Valley.)


In the Middle East, the struggle since World War I has been to shake off Western power. But in the West, the Khashoggi affair has prompted calls for fresh intervention against Saudi Arabia—a shift in one way, but still perpetuating the post-World War One sense of imperial prerogative in the region. To rethink the place of arms-making in our economy is to reinvent that foreign policy, to envision a different postcolonial world.

Much like the arms critics that emerged a century ago from the wreckage of World War I, the gun control movement and the recent criticism of America’s enabling of Saudi horrors are asking us to try again to navigate towards a different economic morality. If government contracts remain essential to industry, might we reach for a world in which governments contract for something other than surveillance and military technologies?

Major arms contractors of the past—Remington, Le Creuzot, Vickers—at some point also manufactured other goods: typewriters, farm implements, electric shavers, bicycles, sewing machines, speedboats, rail material. After World War One, defeat forced the German arms-maker Krupp to turn “swords into ploughshares” by making typewriters, surgical instruments, household pipes, and cinematograph machines. As we face environmental devastation, welfare rather than warfare contracts might offer a way forward; ploughshares are actually more crucial to “security” than arms.

It may not be possible to moralize capitalism without changing it into something else, and there’s no guarantee of an easy solution. When guilt compelled the fictional arms-maker Tony Stark to quit arms-making, he wound up weaponizing himself, giving us Ironman. But what kind of story would it be if Tony Stark had done nothing at all? The first step towards change is always to try to imagine another way forward.

The Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith gave us the mythic ideal of pacific economic transformation. He also offered advice on managing the moral qualms of modern capitalism: He prescribed restraint in sympathy, blocking out of “miseries we never saw,” limiting our sympathies to the immediate, visible effects of capitalism, lest our guilt become paralyzing. Yemen has long remained beyond many Americans’ moral awareness. But Khashoggi, who wrote for The Washington Post—owned  by Jeff Bezos--was not. His killing broke the Smithian dam against American empathy for victims of the American-backed Saudi regime. Front-page features on the Saudi horrors in Yemen have followed.

The 1935 Royal Commission explored the idea of nationalizing the arms industry, to neutralize it. Ultimately, the commission concluded it wasn’t possible: the arms industry was so interconnected to other industries that it would mean nationalizing the entire economy. The reality was that British society as a whole was implicated in arms production, despite critics’ focus on the villainy of directors of arms firms. As we commemorate the end of the First World War, more aware of our collective complicity in violence, we might try to more effectively revisit the lost causes embraced by those grieving survivors: the end of war and empire, and the end of the arms-manufacturing that gives life to both.