essays

Dec 1, 1980

San Francisco & the Military Complex

“During the interwar period the military services were hampered by a resurgence of “business pacifism.””

“The City and the Sword: San Francisco and the Rise of the Metropolitan-Military Complex, 1919–1941.”Journal of American History 65(March 1979):996–1020.

Since the Farewell Address of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Americans have been conscious of a powerful coalition of business, government and the military, ominously called the “military-industrial complex.” Analyses of this complex have generally focused on national policy and ignored its urban dimension. They have also concentrated on the period since 1940, emphasizing World War II and Cold War anti-communism as causes. A few historians have noted the formation of a national and metropolitan military- civilian coalition as early as World War I. One of the major centers of its activity was the West Coast, where cities competed fiercely for the favor of the military, particularly of the Navy. Prof. Lotchin demonstrates the reality of the urban-military complex between the world wars, concentrating his attention on its operations in one great urban center, San Francisco.

The Civil, Spanish-American, and First World Wars had already endowed San Francisco with impressive military assets, and city leaders were quick to recognize how military spending stimulated the city’s growth. By 1920, however, San Francisco entered upon a critical period of its development. That year’s census revealed the loss of the city’s West Coast preeminence to Los Angeles. Through the thinly disguised rhetoric of “national defense,” San Francisco sought to make use of the military to accelerate its faltering pace of development.

Coincidentally, for much of the period, the Navy found itself in a similarly embarrassing position. The Naval Limitation Treaty froze its strength, while government neglect and hostile public opinion kept it below treaty tonnage. This mutual dilemma of relative decline created ideal conditions for enhancing the Bay Area’s military end, particularly, maritime development.

At a purely public relations level, civilian San Francisco wooed the military and Washington through a series of civic campaigns and military carnivals. By an overwhelming margin, San Franciscans approved a $4 million bond issue for a war memorial to honor the ideals of the services. Army Day, Defense Week, Navy Day, receptions for the fleet, Armistice Day, and especially Harbor Day became occasions for extravagant demonstrations of the city’s support of the military presence in its midst. The Navy responded to this display by fleet open houses, lavish shipboard receptions, marine sham battles, in addition to the launching of the cruiser San Francisco in 1933.

In the military development of the Bay Area, economic rather than strategic considerations took precedence. At both the local and national levels, political leaders looked upon military development primarily as a means of allocating resources and stimulating employment. The Navy itself seemed more preoccupied with the brute expansion of its equipment and personnel than with its efficient deployment. It swamped available facilities with equipment and men. That justified more ample shore facilities which, in turn, required still larger expenditures.

Samuel P. Huntington has argued that, during the interwar period the military services were hampered by a resurgence of “business pacifism.” Prof. Lotchin’s description of San Francisco’s experience justifies the exact reverse of this conclusion. Bay area political and commercial interests provided broad, consistent, though little-noticed support for rearmament as well as valuable public relations for the services. At the same time, the general entanglement of “city and sword” encouraged the unprecedented entrance of the officer corps into the rough-and-tumble of local politics.