VJ Day: who arms the enemy? War as an opportunity

15 August is VJ Day (Victory over Japan Day) – marking the day in 1945 when Japan surrendered.

Japan, as you will know, was one of the Axis powers, and enemy of the UK and its allies during World War II. Defeat for Japan came hard on the heels of the US dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki causing around 200,000 civilian deaths. The more conventional weapons Japan was stockpiling from 1931 could offer no response to this new and devastating type of warfare.

In the build-up to World War II Japan’s rapid arms, naval and biological chemical expansion could not have taken place without input from abroad because Japan itself lacked many of the basic natural resources required to develop its own chemical manufacturing processes and the highly skilled engineering expertise needed to develop its arms, maritime and aviation production. Expertise in those fields lay in the west.

Witnessing Japan pouring vast fortunes into arming itself so soon after the end of the Great War – the war politicians promised would end all wars – alarmed many western powers. But it was not all bad news. It was very good news for private arms manufacturers, chemical producers and shipbuilders, in the UK. Their agents were quick to sign off deals ahead of their rivals. Deals at any price. Bribes as down-payments would oil the works – grease the palms.

Arms dealers have earned their notoriety as unscrupulous and voracious through their ruthlessness in sealing deals. If it’s called corruption then so be it. The British guns manufacturer Vickers – Armstrong was represented for thirty years by the most famous, infamous, of these agents, Basil Zaharoff, aka the Merchant of Death, Vickers Controller of Overseas Sales. Zaharoff cultivated and associated people who could do him favours, such as the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George.

This Merchant of Death suffered no guilt over supplying both sides in a conflict with arms. He was up to his corrupt neck in the Siemens Scandal of January 1914 which involved a number of arms dealers, including Vickers and the German arms company Siemens AG with the Imperial Japanese Navy. Vickers offered the Japanese navy a better deal than available from the German company to expand their naval programme of battleships.

It was just one more tremendous deal for Britain and British workers arranged by Zaharoff in his campaign to arm the world with the best weaponry available complete with a made in Britain stamp on them (metaphorically speaking – sometimes.) For his services to British industry even when it included arming ‘the enemy’ Zaharoff was awarded the British Order of the Bath and the Order of the British Empire.

The way western companies diced and dealt arms contracts across the globe has been a masterclass in ruthless cartel-building. Yes, there were voices speaking out against such despicable shady trade deals in Britain, the US and Germany but the interests of the profiteers whose contacts in governments did them no harm at all meant opposition was simply ignored.

Zaharoff might have been the most audacious of them all but he was not alone in his ruthless quest for making a private fortune out of death.

On February 25, 1937 Buckingham Palace released an announcement –

The KING has been pleased, by Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the Realm, bearing date the 24th instant, to confer the dignity of a Baron of the United kingdom upon Sir Harry Duncan McGowan, K.B.E., and the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten, by the name, style and title of BARON McGOWAN, of Ardeer, in the County of Ayr.

McGowan was an arms dealer. Henry or Harry McGowan was a Scot, educated at Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow he joined the Nobel Explosives company in Scotland before becoming chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) which was created out of Nobel Industries in 1926.

McGowan was ambitious and as free from guilt over his activities as Zaharoff. I wrote about McGowan in a blog a couple of weeks ago. Here is an extract.

Death Pays a Dividend (would make a good thriller title) is a book about government cronies and arms dealers making a mint out of wars. It was published in 1944 and written by Fenner Brockway and Frederic Mullally. Brockway was a prominent voice in socialist politics through the twentieth century – a member of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and vehemently anti-war and the fraud that always accompanies wars. Mullally was a journalist and novelist.

In essence the book can be summed up as – politicians lie. World War I was going to be the war to end all wars – one helluva big lie. At the end of the war a new era of permanent peace was promised. Absolute lie. Politicians promised troops would come home (the lucky ones) to find homes for heroes; not the slums they were forced to live in before being marched off to the trenches. Of course, that was also largely a lie. No sooner was the armistice signed that the promised and pledges were quietly shelved (exactly comparable to all those empty promises made to Scots if they rejected independence in the 2014 referendum- a pack of lies.)

Wind back a century and when it was asked if the horrific level of deaths among those drafted in to fight the imperialist Great War were sacrificed in vain – the answer came back from government and their arms dealer cronies “No, we won the war.” “No, we won the war” and onto the next one. Pass the port and cigars.


They did not have to wait long for the next world war – a mere twenty years. In between were lots of lucrative wars. War is good for business. Much too good for business ever to stop them. At my last count there were around 60 major manufacturers linked to weaponry and arms in the UK and that does not include parts manufacturers. That’s about half the number of a few years ago and worldwide the numbers are immense. What is not great news for the majority of the world’s citizens is very much what the doctor ordered for Directors and Boards of all of these businesses which are defended by trade unions on grounds of the jobs they create. If that’s the sole argument for being involved in producing weapons that kill mainly civilians across the world then it’s corrupt and union leaders as well as the management of such businesses should be thoroughly ashamed. Not that they ever will be.

Brockway and Mullally feature a certain Harry McGowan to the extent I became intrigued and wanted to find out more about Lord McGowan. He sounded a charmer. Not. I wikied him. He was a British industrialist (one name for it) and Knight of the British Empire. Don’t know where he was born, suspect Scotland for his name is half Scottish and he went to school and university in Scotland. The man who went on to become Chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) was proud to sell his company’s weapons to anyone and everyone; ally or foe. His focus was purely financial. Interesting isn’t it that such a man who some would and did accuse of being anti-patriotic for supplying the very arms that killed British and allied soldiers received a knighthood. How immoral is that?

A Royal Commission on the Private Manufacture of and Trading in Arms of 1935 quotes McGowan, then Chairman of ICI –

“I have no objection to selling to both sides. I am not a purist in these things.”

Rapacious, unscrupulous, despicable. Such is the morality, immorality, of people who typically pack the red benches in the House of Lords. Business types who judge success solely on extent of wealth. During WW2 British companies were selling arms manufactured by British workers to Japan to be used against British and allied troops, a detail which inspired this question –

“The British Government has recently re-opened the Burma Road so that war material can reach the Chinese armies. What is the use of doing this if British industry is producing war material for the Japanese army?”

I don’t have the response but I suppose there’s a nice symmetry to such practice. And presumably the trade unions didn’t raise objections to British and Allied men and women becoming victims of British arms on the usual grounds that you can’t turn your nose up at jobs. It’s how they justify Trident being retained in Scotland.

“Between 1931 and 1936 the value of Vickers (arms manufacturer) stock rose by £19,704,000.”


The 1930s might have been the hungry thirties for large swathes of people in Britain but this was also a period of an explosion in the weaponization of the world with McGowan and his fellow-cartel war-mongers cashing in on the drive towards the next world war. Germany’s chemical industry employed with such devastating effect in extermination camps in WWII was enhanced through help provided by ICI.

The Royal Commission mentioned above to enquire into the activities of private arms and chemical businesses providing materials and expertise to anyone and everyone with the means to pay them was set up despite the government that resisted it, ignored it and buried its results. People like McGowan are virtually untouchable, so tightly are they enmeshed in the British establishment. Not only the British establishment, it should be said.

As chairman of ICI McGowan set out to have the company monopolise chemical manufacture in Britain and to rationalise chemical manufacture across the world. He was instrumental in Britain becoming a major player in the international arms market and international arms production. The cartel of ICI, Germany’s IG Farben and Du Pont in the United States was a powerful alliance of restrictive interests and insatiable greed.

“We now have arrangements for practically all the remainder of the World America and Mexico have been fixed up, South America is common territory, and mutually satisfactory arrangements have been made for China and Japan.”

As we’ve seen above, Japan was in the early years of the 20th century aggressively pursuing a policy of rapid weapons expansion including biological warfare used in its war with China in the 1930s. Japan could not have manufactured its chemical weapons were it not for the cartel of British, German and American companies cooperating to provide the raw materials necessary. To wheedle its way into the lucrative Asian market ICI reduced its prices for its chemicals, a move well-received by Japanese biochemical industries as it meant it could obtain essential raw materials for very little cash.

Shipbuilding expertise in Britain was also sought by the likes of Japan for its battleships. While arms manufacturers often describe their output in terms of defence we know that the uses their products are put to play no part in determining a contract. They are merchants of death. Their motivation is profit. That their products result in terror, injury and death is an irrelevance to them.

The chemical firm that manufactured mustard gas – that denied it had while continuing to produce it – has no conscience. The chemical firm prepared to supply materials for the production of biological warfare to anyone willing to pay – has no conscience.

ICI’s chairman, McGowan, admitted supplying chemicals to both Japan and China at war with each other. ICI and Vickers were condemned for supplying both sides in the war between Paraguay and Bolivia. Wars for merchants s are money-making opportunities. And they provide jobs for British workers. Even though those same workers might find themselves on the wrong end of their own weapons in a war. Nothing personal, y’understand.

For his sterling services to British industry and exports (not forgetting exports to Japan) Henry McGowan, Harry, was ennobled by the British state to become 1st Baron McGowan.

That’s how the UK system works. At the end of the day there’s the House of Lords where retired merchants of death can retreat into – to live at public expense and continue to influence British ‘democracy.’

The Rise of the Chemical Industries in Japan by Harald von Waldheim, Far Eastern Survey Vol 5. No 19 Sept 9 1936. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3022774

British Armaments and European Industrialization, 1890-1914, Clive Trebilcock,  https://www.jstor.org/stable/2594252

British Rearmament and the “Merchants of Death”: 1935-36 Royal Commission on the Manufacture of and Trade in Armaments, David G. Anderson, https://www.jstor.org/stable/260954

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