I was preparing a speech that I'll be delivering later this week and happened again on old accounts of the incredible debate right here in Wisconsin over our decision to enter World War I.
Wisconsin's senior U.S. senator at the time, Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette, was the country's leading opponent of getting involved in that war. He insisted that the United States had no interest in this European fight and questioned why American boys should be sent to fight and die in a war that he viewed as a squabble among a bunch of imperialistic governments.
He believed that the only beneficiaries would be the American corporations that would supply the munitions and equipment to our military and at one point he tried to get the U.S. Senate to pass a law making it illegal to profit from war. If there would be no profits, he reasoned, there'd be no war. His position created an uproar not only in Washington, but here as well.
University students hanged him in effigy and many, including Madison's two newspapers at the time, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Madison Democrat, accused him of being a traitor to his country.
Fighting Bob lost that battle, but there are some who believe that had he won it, the world would have been a much different place today. Our entry in that war set the stage for an entirely new U.S. role in world affairs that has escalated since. Some insist that had the Europeans been left to settle their own affairs, the conditions that evolved to produce an Adolf Hitler and led to World War II would have never occurred.
That's all conjecture, of course, but the reality that corporations profit from war continues to this day. The Capital Times, which was founded at the height of the La Follette controversy, regularly printed the amount of excess profits that local businesses realized from the first world war. That was a day when corporate income tax returns were public and the profiteering was easy to see. Many businesses here in Madison made huge bucks from the war. Their owners, of course, had been leaders of the anti-La Follette faction before the war. (It wasn't long before the corporate interests got the Legislature to close income tax returns from public scrutiny.)
And, of course, the profiteering goes on today. Exactly how much isn't as easy to document as it was back in Fighting Bob's time, but since most are publicly traded companies, we can get an idea like Halliburton's bottom line climbing 284 percent in one quarter shortly after the firm was handed the job to provide logistical support to our military in Iraq.
Although the profits haven't soared quite that much with other defense contractors, they've been more than impressive at companies like General Dynamics and Aegis and the war in Iraq hasn't hurt the already obscenely profitable Exxon Mobil and Chevron.
As La Follette thundered back in those dark days before World War I, take away the profits and you just might take away the war.
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