The U.S. military’s operations are only possible through a sophisticated network of government, corporate, and academic institutions. A multitude of actors are involved in the research & development, manufacture, testing, and deployment of military technologies. The government relies heavily on private contractors for weaponry and other materials. In 2017 alone, the Department of Defense spent $320 billion on private contractors, over $74 billion just between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
The missiles, bombs, and drones that the U.S. military uses to kill and maim all over the world do not grow on trees: they are manufactured, financed, and sold by the private arms industry. In order to understand the private actors involved in the military-industrial complex, we will examine the story of Materion Corporation and its cash cow: beryllium.
Materion originally formed in the 1930s as Brush Beryllium Company in Cleveland, Ohio. At the onset of World War II, the U.S. government took an interest in Brush, who had become the country’s lead beryllium supplier. Beryllium is known for its combination of light weight and high strength. It began to be used in aircraft engines and Naval marine propulsion.1 The US military also used beryllium in their efforts to build the first atom bomb. Beryllium continues to be used in the production of nuclear weapons, though this is omitted from Materion’s website.2 Brush reaped millions of dollars in profit from operations that led to the atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the second half of the 20th century, the U.S. military continued to find use for Brush Beryllium in its operations:
Because of its unique properties, beryllium was especially useful in making heat shields for missiles, satellites, and other aerospace applications, but it was with beryllium-copper alloys that Brush enjoyed the most profits in the early 1960s. This material was used in such common applications as automobile parts, welding electrodes, circuit breakers, switches, bearings, gears, valves, casting molds for plastic, dies, and tools that do not spark.3
Brush’s capital and technological expertise gained through military contracts allowed them to expand into other markets and ventures. This displays the central role military operations play in the development of the economy of an imperialist country like the United States.4 Even with an expanded customer base, war continued to be a profitable venture for Brush. From 1964 to 1968 Brush’s revenues grew by 58 percent, to $35.3 million. Notably, 1965 was the year the U.S. invaded Vietnam. This correlation continued as US war efforts slowed. Brush’s business fell off as the US military began to withdraw from Vietnam in the early 1970s. Brush pulled in millions of dollars from operations that ended the lives of hundreds of thousands and ruined the lives of millions.
Like any capitalist firm with a depleted market, Brush was forced to find new spaces for investment after the Vietnam War. In the late 70s and early 80s, Brush acquired several microelectronics corporations. Brush reunited with its longtime customer when the Reagan administration ramped up U.S. military operations in Latin America:
With the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States, military spending grew dramatically, increasing the demand for metallic beryllium. Moreover, Brush’s only competitor in this line discontinued production, allowing Brush to raise the price for pure beryllium by 30 percent, a change that did not dissuade the U.S. government from awarding the company a major contract to upgrade the U.S. beryllium metals stockpile.5
Monopoly capitalism and militarism, is a combination as American as peanut butter and jelly. But with the end of the Cold War and the shift from mainframe to personal computers, Brush’s profitability took a dip to the point that they canned their chairman, president, and CEO, Raymond A. Foos, in January 1990.
The 1990s were a tough time for Brush. In addition to their slump in profitability, former employees started suing the company for the beryllium disease they contracted while working for Brush. A 1999 investigation by the Toledo Blade uncovered that both Brush and the U.S. government had known about the risks of beryllium exposure since the 1940s. Despite this, they failed to ensure sufficiently safe work conditions. At least 39 of Brush’s Ohio workers contracted the disease, and six of them died. Brush’s concern for profits and the U.S. government’s concern for fueling its war machine was far more important than the well being of Brush’s workers, and the health of the surrounding community of Elmore Ohio.
Protection of the industry has reached all the way to the White House cabinet, where in the 1970s President Carter’s Defense and Energy secretaries helped kill a safety plan. They feared the plan would cut off beryllium supplies for weapons, and that would “significantly and adversely affect our national defense,” U.S. Energy Secretary James Schlesinger wrote to two cabinet members at the time.6
In short, Brush allowed its workers to suffer and die for the same reason that they engendered suffering and death abroad: profit.
Today, Materion Corporation (renamed in 2011 after another series of mergers & acquisitions) plods along at its Lorain, Ohio operation. It continues to provide support for the military: Materion’s beryllium is now used in laser-guided ammunition, and other military applications. In December 2019, Materion and the Canadian firm Ucore Rare Metals Inc. announced a joint bid for a defense contract for a new rare earth metal processing plant.
When the U.S. war machine is well-oiled and chugging along, Materion is happy and bringing in the big bucks. Stretching all the way back to World War II, the executives, investors, and managers involved in Materion’s operations have made a pretty penny from mass death and political turmoil in East Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.
This is a core point of our critique of capitalism: that the suffering and immiseration of the oppressed across the world is a direct consequence of the profit-seeking measures of domestic capitalist firms. Every extravagant vacation, every yacht, every fat corporate bonus check “comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”7
4: The African Marxist Walter Rodney referred to this phenomenon as the “spinoff effect,” in which military-focused enterprises sent a ripple of innovation and growth through their own economy.
7: Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Ch. 31