Missiles and Magnolias: The South at War

Magazine cover with black and white photo of landscape with large buildings in the background and warplane flying overhead, text reads "Missiles and Magnolias: the South at War"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 30 No. 1/2, "Missiles and Magnolias: The South at War." Find more from that issue here.

On December 8, 1941, the United States rose to the startling news that it was at war. Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and a nation once torn over joining the violent conflagration of Europe’s great powers decided to put differences aside, and unite for battle.

In the outreaches of rural Georgia, residents of the sleepy town of Marietta — a struggling Atlanta satellite — viewed the events of December 1941 with interest. What they couldn’t know is that due to the events of December, they, just like their country, would soon be thrust onto the world stage of conflict.

Washington was scrambling to find a place to mass-produce a “superbomber” that could answer Pearl Harbor, and their eyes soon turned to Marietta. The town boasted a can-do attitude, a large pool of unemployed workers, a union-free business climate — and leaders willing to hand over the local airport to sweeten the deal. So it was with great fanfare that, in January 1942, town officials announced that Marietta had won dibs for Air Force Plant #6, Bell Aircraft Company’s coveted facility to build the B-29 bomber.

Overnight Marietta went from small town to boom town. Plant #6 would put 28,000 Georgians to work, churn out hundreds of aircraft, and create a mammoth manufacturing infrastructure over the next three years. After the war, the factory switched over to Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, but its military ties proved lasting: today, the plant is still a favored source of Pentagon air power, and employs more Georgians than other business in the state.

Of course, Georgia wasn’t the only place to be remade by militarism. Marietta is just one of dozens of Southern cities that saw their fortunes rise with America’s World War II ascendance as a global military power.

Today, more than any other region, the South remains ensnared by the politics, economics and culture of war, reaping the rewards — and shouldering the burdens — of administering a seemingly permanent military-industrial complex. The region hosts more than its share of war business; elects the most hawkish politicians to office; and supplies 42 percent of the nation’s enlistees — all products of the unique relationship with militarism that took root in Marietta and the South half a century ago.


“The Good War”

In 1938, President Roosevelt commissioned the Report on Economic Conditions of the South, and the findings study found, “is a belt of sickness, misery, and unnecessary death.” Upon the study’s release, Roosevelt famously concluded that the U.S. South was “the nation’s number one economic problem.”

Yet only six years later, Donald M. Nelson, Chair of the U.S. War Production Board, found a South that “has rubbed Aladdin’s lamp” and is poised to enter “the vanguard of world industrial progress.”

Separating these warring views of Southern fortunes, of course, was World War II, a watershed moment for the expansion of U.S. geopolitical influence and the rise of Southern economic prowess.

Companies like Bell Bomber, Lockheed Aircraft, and General Dynamics flooded into the South to do wartime business, pumping some $4 billion worth of military production into the Southern economy. This was only 17.6 percent of the national total — lower than the South’s share of population — but far surpassed the region’s industrial capacity entering the war.

Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Southern War Economy

Lockheed Martin, a company with roots in southern California, targeted the U.S. military as its perfect market — and the Sunbelt as its perfect home — from World War II onward. The vast physical space, cheap labor, anti-union climate — and vigorous federal wartime spending to rescue the region from the Depression — were optimal growing conditions for incubating a dominant economic institution.

The three major design and production facilities of Lockheed’s Aeronautics division represent the stunning economic emergence of the Sunbelt in the postwar years. Headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, Aeronautics also has major production facilities in Palmdale, California, and the Atlanta suburb of Marietta.

Lockheed’s fortunes also rose with the political ascendance of New Deal Democrat Lyndon Johnson. As Senate Majority Leader in 1954, Johnson presided over an explosive era of military expansion, and upon succeeding John F. Kennedy to the presidency, Johnson made sure the north Texas aerospace industry was a major beneficiary of the escalating war in Vietnam.

In 2002, with another Texan in the White House, Lockheed Martin and the military-industrial complex — along with the oil industry — again dominate the political system. Former Lockheed senior vice president, Democrat Norman Mineta, joined George W. Bush’s cabinet as secretary of transportation. From 1975 to 1995, Mineta represented California’s Silicon Valley in the House of Representatives, a district where Lockheed businesses pulled in more than $2 billion from the Pentagon last year.

Another Bush cabinet member, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, was senior vice president of Lockheed’s Integrated Solutions division.

It’s not only the executive branch that is locked into the war posture by Lockheed’s military lobby. For years, Lockheed has generously larded the campaign coffers of legislators — both Democrats and Republicans — in Texas, Georgia, and California.

Lockheed’s economic hold on Georgia — where it is the state’s largest employer — was greatly assisted over the last decade by Newt Gingrich, Republican Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999, whose district included Marietta. During the 1997-1998 election cycle, Lockheed spent $906,487 — mainly directed towards Gingrich’s Republican majority in Congress — to nurture its market dominance.

In the 1999-2000 election cycle, the following legislators received top campaign contributions of $10,000 from Lockheed: Representatives Barton, Bonilla, Edwards, Frost, Granger, and Turner of Texas; Representatives Barr and Chambliss of Georgia; and Representative Lewis of California.

In the same cycle, Lockheed gave $8,000 to Democratic Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, a member of the Armed Forces Committee, as well as significant contributions to Trent Lott, then Republican Senate Majority Leader from Mississippi; Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, also a member of the Armed Forces Committee; and Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

The investment paid off handsomely. Last October, the Pentagon awarded the Joint Strike Fighter contract — worth $200 billion over 20 years — to Lockheed, the most lucrative military payout in history. The first payout to Lockheed’s aeronautics HQ in Fort Worth immediately made the north Texas city the most defense-rich metropolitan area in the nation.

The escalating war in the Middle East has also padded Lockheed’s revenues nicely. On December 20, 2001, following weeks of incursions by the Israeli military into the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza — including bombings condemned by the United Nations — Lockheed won a contract to sell Israel 52 F-16 fighter jets, made in Fort Worth.

On the domestic front, Lockheed Martin has faced a steady stream of criticism from African-American workers, who attempted to file a class-action lawsuit in December 2000, which was stymied by the federal courts’ refusal to hear their case. Bush’s Defense Department displayed its contempt for Representative Cynthia McKinney’s (D-Decatur) suggestion that contracts to Lockheed could be suspended, by awarding the company $818 million following the progressive legislator’s statements on the floor of the House.

— Jordan Green

Thousands flocked to the shipyards from Norfolk, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina, to Houston and Orange, Texas, and the aircraft plants that sprang up in Dallas/Fort Worth and Marietta, Georgia, with assembly plants in Dallas, New Orleans, Nashville, Birmingham and Miami. By 1945, the wartime duo of ships and planes combined as the South’s second biggest employer, second only to the stalwart textile industry — itself surging to clothe the war effort.

The wartime boost was felt everywhere: every Southern state had an ordnance plant producing explosives. Half of the nation’s synthetic rubber came from refineries in Louisiana and Texas. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, made its mark by processing uranium for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.

But the war provided more than just an economic boost. Of the 12 million wartime servicemen, over a third were stationed in the South, leading historian George Tindall to argue “the South remained more campground than arsenal.” New Deal investment also loosened the grip of the Old South elite and gave rise to a new political class of “business progressives” who welcomed federal defense and research dollars, but turned away federal aid to the poor and resisted challenges to the color line.

War also set the tone for the South’s future development. Prosperity was not evenly distributed, as historian Bruce J. Schulman argues in Cottonbelt to Sunbelt: “New industry concentrated in predominantly white areas, restricting opportunities for black southerners. In the nonmetropolitan South, heavily black counties suffered employment declines in the 1950s and 1960s.”

The war boom also concentrated in sectors, like aerospace, that were too young to be significantly unionized. Shortly afterwards, the 1948 Taft-Hartley Act and the anti-communism of the McCarthy era paralyzed new labor organizing, so the region was able to maintain its “favorable business climate” and lure even more defense companies south.

The South’s permanent war economy — and the region’s dependence on the military dollar — was born.


Where the Hawks Roost

War is still good business in the South, the result of a powerful marriage between hawkish politicians and a defense industry unafraid to flex its political muscle.

Every region of the country has expanded its defense base since 1996, but the South has led the way with an 83 percent increase, followed by the West with gains of 62 percent. In contrast, Northeastern states saw contract increases of only 9 percent, and the Midwest and Central Plains states expanded by only 21 percent.

While defense hubs like California, Connecticut, and Washington are holding their own, the military industry is shifting towards the states of the old Confederacy, with defense contracts doubling in Virginia and Florida and skyrocketing 216 percent in Texas in the past five years.

Greasing the way for Southern military contracts is the Southern congressional delegation, which has developed a reputation for unfailing loyalty to the defense industry.

Five of the top 10 congressional recipients of military dollars in the 2001-2002 election cycle are Southerners, including Alabama Senators Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby, both Republicans; Republican Senator Thad Cochrane of Mississippi; Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia; and Representative James Moran Jr., who represents the 8th district of northern Virginia.

In turn, Southern politicians have established a pro-military voting record that ensures military investment in the region. According to Peace Action, in 2000, fully 62 percent of senators from the South voted 100 percent for expanding military operations, while only 53 percent of their colleagues in other regions of the nation did so. The delegations from Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi were unanimous in their pro-defense commitments.

No state has nurtured the relationship between military money and political power like Texas. In 1948, Lyndon B. Johnson’s run for the U.S. Senate was largely backed by a Texas construction company, Brown & Root. When Johnson deployed troops to Vietnam, Brown & Root received millions in contracts to build roads, military bases, landing strips and harbors.

Three decades later, Brown & Root had become a subsidiary of Dallas-based Halliburton Co., the world’s largest oil services company, and headed by future vice president Dick Cheney. The revolving door of Halliburton’s corporate structure is peopled by the architects of the United States’ foreign policy, most directly through Cheney’s conducting of the Gulf War as the first President Bush’s secretary of defense. Halliburton director Lawrence Eagleburger was deputy secretary of state in the same administration.

In 2001, Halliburton again revealed its clout when it won a virtually unlimited nine-year contract from the Pentagon to build infrastructure for troop deployments through the duration of the current “anti-terrorist” war.


The Business of War

While defense dollars have touched every comer of the South, certain areas have come into their own as favored centers of military might.

The northern Virginia suburbs of Washington with Internet technology and outsourced defense intelligence operations; the Cape Canaveral area of Florida with global positioning and communication technology; Huntsville, Alabama, with its missile production and Fortune 500 companies clustered around the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Cummings Research Park; and Fort Worth, with the massive production facilities of Lockheed Martin Aerospace — all continue to flourish with defense stimulus.

The sprawling Hampton Roads area of Virginia and Atlanta have garnered some of the largest contracts: $6.6 billion and $4.1 billion respectively, in 2001. Hampton Roads’ Northrop Grumman- Newport News Shipbuilding, like Marietta, Georgia’s Air Force Plant #6, is the largest private employer in the state.

Yet in other areas, the military economy is more fragile. Fort Bragg, located near Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Fort Campbell, near Clarksville, Tennessee, are major employers and sustain an insecure retail economy, but don’t account for the enormous expenditures doled out for aerospace and technology. Military bases’ primary economic impact is in construction and food service contracts, which are often awarded to out-of-state companies.

Gun for Hire DynCorp: The Leading U.S. Mercenary Contractor

This past January, the Pentagon awarded DynCorp a $120 million contract to establish base operations to support the U.S. aerial counter-drug surveillance mission in Aruba, Curacao, and Ecuador.

DynCorp is an employee-owned company seen by many critics as a cutout for covert Pentagon and CIA operations. Most DynCorp employees are retired military personnel with security clearance. Here’s what the company is up to:

■ Aerial fumigation of coca crops in Colombia, an operation that has devastated subsistence farmers and surrounding ecosystems;

■ Providing military police for the United Nations mission in the Balkans. A Texas employee of DynCorp International who serviced U.S. military aircraft in Bosnia has filed a lawsuit alleging that the company condoned a child prostitution ring;

■ Servicing military aircraft at Patrick AFB in Florida, Maxwell AFB in Alabama, Columbus AFB in Mississippi, and maintaining war supplies at Shaw AFB in South Carolina; and

■ Maintaining (through a joint venture with Britain’s Porton International Ltd.) the Defense Department’s vaccine stockpile for anthrax and smallpox.

In a bizarre development, a company spun off of DynCorp last November called DynTek has reaped contracts for child support services in three North Carolina counties (New Hanover, Onslow, and Beaufort) and has contracted with the Arkansas Health and Human Services Department to implement that state’s welfare-to-work transition.

— Jordan Green

Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi — also owned by Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman — continues to be the state’s largest private employer, but its fortunes have dimmed. Mississippi’s defense contract allotment has declined by 42 percent in the past five years.

And then there are states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas, which have maintained a durable independence from the war economy. Notable exceptions to this rule are contracts to General Electric Aircraft Engines in Madisonville, Kentucky, and to Lockheed Martin Missile & Fire Control in Camden, Arkansas. West Virginia received only one prime defense contract in 2001, for less than $9 million.


Breaking with Militarism

Before World War II, Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota held congressional hearings to investigate ties between the Navy, War Department and major arms manufacturers. Nye’s office concluded that war profiteering had manipulated the democratic process.

Such debate seems unimaginable today, yet militarism’s persistent inertia — for bigger and more expensive weapons systems, more dangerous and more questionable troop deployments — continues to tighten its grip on the South. A permanent war culture has not only diverted away the resources of social development, but created a self-sustaining logic that ensures the inevitability of war.

As President Eisenhower’s warned before leaving office in 1961, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”