A World of Weapons: Historians Shape Scholarship on Arms Trading
During his first trip abroad as president of the United States, Donald Trump made a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Trump, of course, is just one among a long list of presidents who have brokered arms deals with foreign powers on behalf of American manufacturers. And the United States has long been the world’s largest arms exporter—it accounted for more than half of all arms-transfer agreements in the world as recently as 2015. But historians interested in the subject will struggle to find relevant historiography. As Brian DeLay (Univ. of California, Berkeley) says, “the US arms trade, either domestically or more specifically internationally, is something that has been shockingly understudied by historians.”
Emerging work, by DeLay and others, seeks to lay to rest the idea that large-scale arms trading in the United States and elsewhere is a recent phenomenon, originating in the post–World War II military-industrial complex. The trade in small arms and ammunition, these historians argue, has been a key feature of domestic and international commerce and politics since at least the early 17th century. Although military production and trading would soar with World War II and the Cold War, the sale of complicated air and naval systems isn’t where this history begins.
Long before early 19th-century industrialization transformed arms manufacturing in the United States, the continent was flush with guns. According to David Silverman (George Washington Univ.), the earliest trade in firearms developed between European colonial powers and indigenous nations. His book Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America (2016) shows that once the Dutch flintlock musket was introduced in the 1630s, Iroquois League nations began trading for them, becoming “the preeminent military power of the Northeast and Great Lakes regions.” The threat posed by armed Iroquois peoples set off an arms race that spread to the Pacific Northwest by the 18th century. A great deal of weapons trading and stockpiling, Silverman writes, took place in Quebec, Jamestown, and Plymouth, before settlers even arrived in other colonies, such as Pennsylvania and Georgia.
Emerging work seeks to lay to rest the idea that large-scale arms trading is a recent phenomenon. It’s been part of commerce and politics since at least the early 17th century.
The fact that indigenous nations had steady access to firearms markets and used guns in warfare contradicts a major tenet of Jared Diamond’s “guns, germs, and steel” theory: that disease and technological superiority were behind the European conquest of the Americas. “There’s a widespread assumption that Native people were subjugated by European Americans because of a disadvantage in arms, and that’s just not true,” says Silverman. “They routinely got the very best of firearms technology and used those guns more effectively than white settlers. And white governments routinely struggled to control the trade in arms to Native people.” In his book, Silverman points to Crazy Horse’s surrender of more than 200 firearms to US troops in 1877 and notes, “Clearly, a lack of weapons had nothing to do with the Lakotas’ capitulation to the Americans.”
Instead, Silverman argues, other factors contributed to the eventual undoing of Native military resistance: starvation, “war weariness,” intertribal conflict, and decline in population compared to settlers, who benefited from high birth rates and migration. In fact, if it hadn’t been for their adoption of firearms and participation in arms trading, Silverman notes, indigenous nations would not have been able to sustain resistance for as long as they did.
The ability to trade in firearms was similarly crucial to other resistance efforts, such as the American Revolution, on the continent. When the colonies began rebelling in 1765, they lacked the ability to manufacture significant quantities of firearms or gunpowder. Britain also forbade arms exports to the colonies; in 1775, for example, the colonial militia ran out of ammunition at the Battle of Bunker Hill and had to withdraw, despite inflicting severe damage on British forces. Only when the French began supplying the colonists with munitions did the tide of war shift.
As DeLay says, “What happens during the American Revolution is supremely important for the history of the arms trade.” In research for a coming book, Shoot the State, he found that after the revolution, “the governing classes in the new United States agree across partisan lines that in order to endure and to grow in a world that is dominated by mighty empires, the United States has to rapidly become self-sufficient in firearms and war materiel.” The federal government thus established state-run gun arsenals such as the one in Harper’s Ferry and awarded contracts and tariff breaks to private manufacturers. This soon made the country autonomous with regard to arms manufacturing. Andrew Fagal (Princeton Univ.), who is writing a monograph on the development of the arms manufacturing industry, says that the United States went from being “largely dependent upon foreign sources for arms and ammunitions to a country that by the War of 1812 was largely self-sufficient and a net exporter of weapons.”
This shift was monumental not just for the United States but for the entire Western Hemisphere, says DeLay: “For the first time, there was in the Western Hemisphere an independent republic that was under no obligation to other colonial powers, in terms of treaties and alliances, to restrain its own merchants.” What developed was trade in firearms and munitions, both licit and illicit, which played a major role in decolonization efforts throughout the Americas. Fagal writes in his dissertation that by 1805, New York City merchants trading in guns and munitions were engaged in such brisk business throughout Latin America that French generals complained that it allowed Haitian revolutionaries easy access to firearms and the ability to keep up their struggle. Spain’s fate in the Americas was also complicated by the arms trade: despite its efforts to control commerce at its Spanish American ports, DeLay notes, US merchants’ illicit arms trading played a “critical role” in the success of the Spanish American wars of independence in the early 19th century.
The early history of firearms trading and manufacturing is thus transnational and complex, involving European imperial powers, anti-imperial revolutionary forces throughout the Americas, indigenous nations, private arms dealers and manufacturers, and other actors. But the early American republic wasn’t an isolated arena for growth in arms trading; guns helped foster empire and spur the global political economy in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
“There’s a widespread assumption that Native people were subjugated by European Americans because of a disadvantage in arms, and that’s just not true.”
Priya Satia (Stanford Univ.), who is writing a book titled Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution, says that arms manufacturing and trading were not only major drivers of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, they were also what allowed “British armies, navies, mercenaries, traders, settlers, and adventurers to conquer an immense share of the globe.” Pointing out that Britain was in a state of “continuous war” during the height of the Industrial Revolution, she says that nearly every industry in the country at the time “was in some way contributing to war.” Britain “knew arms manufacture was triggering industrial revolution at home” and therefore quashed local arms-manufacturing industries in its colonies, such as those in South Asia. At the same time, the country “permitted voluminous gun sales” to them. Paralleling Silverman’s thesis about indigenous nations, Satia concludes, “the conquest of India is not about British technological superiority.” This progression from perpetual war to economic growth through arms trading sounds similar to the modern concept of the military-industrial complex. But in a subtle variation, Satia refers to 18th-century Britain as a “military-industrial society”: every sector of the political, social, and industrial world was affected by weapons.
Despite this rich, expansive history, these scholars see little interest in it within the academic history community. Books, documentaries, and entertainment about warfare, firearms, and the military are in high demand among popular audiences, but according to Silverman, scholarship on these subjects lags. “Effectively, since World War II, and especially since the 1960s,” he says, “academics have drifted away from those topics.” DeLay also notes that the transnational nature of arms trading “doesn’t fit easily alongside most of the established research priorities” in the discipline, which, he says, still organize “historical knowledge around nation states.” Furthermore, as Satia notes, the illicit nature of much of the early trade in firearms makes it hard for historians to find sources, discouraging them from undertaking research on the topic.
Satia, however, sounds a call to historians: arms trading matters. In leaving the writing of the history of guns and the gun trade to those interested mainly in firearms’ value as collectors’ objects or in “celebrating the old American gun culture,” she says, historians have ceded it to gun enthusiasts. Arms trading, she says, can tell historians much about “state economy and culture, society, international relations, and so on, that’s lost in the fetishization of the particularities of old guns.”
DeLay agrees. In addition to contributing to knowledge about foreign relations, “the arms trade also speaks to the history of capitalism” and state making in “pretty urgent and fascinating ways,” he says. Finally, DeLay argues, studying the arms trade can help historians understand power relations: “If we reflect upon the power asymmetries and the patterns of domination and resistance and the inequalities within the United States and between the United States and other parts of the world, you’ll see that guns are everywhere in those relationships, structuring those relationships.” As the United States hurtles inevitably to more arms deals, it would be remiss for historians not to dig deeper.
Kritika Agarwal is associate editor, publications at the AHA. She tweets @kritikaldesi.
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