For most of the 1930s, Vickers Armstrong, one of the biggest defense contractors and naval shipbuilders in the world at the time, was in the doghouse following revelations of the huge web of corruption it had funded through its chief arms salesman, Sir Basil Zaharoff, before World War I.
The major arms companies of Britain and other countries were even accused of masterminding the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to ensure their continued profits. And they were routinely described in the British Parliament and popular press as “merchants of death.” A famous novel was even written about them on this theme: “A Gun for Sale” by Graham Greene. It was later made into a highly successful Hollywood movie starring Alan Ladd.
However, Vickers in the late 1930s was also developing a remarkable -- and beautiful -- new heavily armed, high-speed, single-wing, monoplane as a proposed interceptor fighter for the Royal Air Force. This was widely believed to be a waste of time. The leading air war theorists in the world, Lord Trenchard in Britain and Gen. Giulio Douhet of Italy, had decried that the bomber would always get through -- an attitude shared by leaders of the infant U.S. Army Air Corps, which was investing in long-range, four-engine heavy bombers, primarily the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, not in small, fast fighters.
Britain's greatest science fiction writer H.G. Wells taught the same lesson in his futuristic novel "The Shape of Things to Come," published in 1933, and the breathtaking movie "Things to Come," based on it, in 1936.
British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin felt the same way. Defense against fleets of bombers was believed to be as impossible as fast interceptor defense against ballistic missiles was thought to be until a few years ago.
However, Baldwin's successor as British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, disagreed. He and his Minister of Supply Sir Thomas Inskip, unjustly and unfairly ridiculed by Winston Churchill at the time, focused their limited financial resources on modernizing Britain‘s fighter defenses -- in the teeth of opposition from their own air marshals who wanted all the money spent on their beloved bombers instead.
So the Hawker Hurricane got built -- and so did Vickers' beautiful new fighter plane developed by its Supermarine division, previously best known for its championship-winning racing seaplanes. The world came to know it as the Spitfire.
Senior U.S. defense consultants may face a season of piercing investigations and popular contempt in the years ahead: After all, it has happened before.
But if ground-based mid-course interceptors, Patriot PAC-3s, Standard Missile-3s and other ballistic missile interceptors have to be fired in defense of American cities, or if high-tech wonder weapons are called on yet again to hold the line and fight crucial battles in wars that no one currently dreams are possible, it will be remarkable how the big, bad defense contractors are once more transformed overnight into national heroes.
As U.S. President Harry Truman liked to say, there is nothing new in the world except for the history you don’t already know.