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Militarism, Empire, and Labor Relations: The Case of Brice P. Disque

  • Joshua B. Freeman (a1)

Abstract

Although war and militarization have loomed large in the history of the United States for well over a century, labor historians have only infrequently examined the relationship between American labor and the military. The career of General Brice Pursell Disque suggests the complex flow of ideas and personnel back and forth between labor relations in the military and in the civilian economy. First involved with the management of labor as an officer during the Spanish-American War, Disque went on to serve as a prison warden, the head of an army effort to suppress labor radicalism in the timber industry during the First World War, and in business posts involving collective bargaining. Through Disque we can begin to see the multiple connections between labor relations in the so-called free market of the private sphere and in the decidedly unfree arenas of military and penal life.

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1. Mills, C. Wright exceptionally profiled the military officer corps and explored its role in the national power structure in The Power Elite (New York, 1956), chapters 8 and 9. See also Sherry, Michael S., In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s (New Haven, 1995), and Proxmire, William, Report from Wasteland: America's Military-Industrial Complex (New York, 1970).

2. Howell Harris suggested this point in a January 26, 2000, posting on H-LABOR and pointed out some wonderful examples: Ellis, Howard P., in National Metal Trades Association, Synopsis of Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Convention (New York, 1910), 5; Piez, Charles, in United States Commission on Industrial Relations, Final Report (Washington, DC, 1916), 3179–80, and Business Generalship” [editorial], Iron Age 73 (February 16, 1905): 566–67. See also Murray, R. Emmett, The Lexicon of Labor (New York, 1998), 139, 148 and Taylor, Frederick Winslow, Shop Management (New York and London, 1911), 3035.

3. Cooper, Jerry M. estimated in The Army and Civil Disorder: Federal Military Intervention in Labor Disputes, 1877–1900 (Westport, CT, 1980), 13, that between 1870 and 1900 alone National Guard units were put on active duty to deal with industrial disputes 150 times. As Cooper documents, in a small number of strikes regular Army troops were deployed. Contemporary accounts of quasi-military violence at Homestead are reprinted in David P. Demarest, Jr., “The River Ran Red”: Homestead 1892 (Pittsburgh, 1992). For vivid descriptions of western mining battles, see J. Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble (New York, 1997).

4. See, for example, Dubofsky, Melvyn, “Abortive Reform: The Wilson Administration and Organized Labor, 1913–1920,” in Cronin, James E. and Sirianni, Carmen, Work, Community, and Power: The Experience of Labor in Europe and America, 1900–1925 (Philadelphia, 1983); Lichtenstein, Nelson, Labor's War at Home: The CIO in World War II (Cambridge, Eng., 1982); and Kersten, Andrew E., Labor's Home Front: The American Federation of Labor during World War II (New York, 2006).

5. An important exception is Horowitz, Roger, “It Is 'the Working Class Who Fight All the Battles': Military Service, Patriotism, and the Study of American Workers,” in American Exceptionalism? US Working-Class Formation in an International Context, eds. Halpern, Rick and Morris, Jonathan (London and New York, 1997).

6. On the labor question, see Fraser, Steve, “The 'Labor Question,'” in The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980, eds. Fraser, Steve and Gerstle, Gary (Princeton, 1989), and Lichtenstein, Nelson, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, 2002).

7. Hyman, Harold M., Soldiers and Spruce: Origins of the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumberman (Los Angeles, [1963]); Dubofsky, Melvyn, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (Chicago, 1969). See also Tyler, Robert L., Rebels of the Woods: The I.W.W. in the Pacific Northwest (Eugene, OR, 1967).

8. “Gen. Brice Disque of Army is Dead,” New York Times, March 3, 1960; Brice P. Disque, autobiographical fragment, “biography” folder, box 9, and autobiographical fragment, “biography” folder, box 11; and unlabeled newspaper obituary of Henry J. Disque, October 5, 1935, Disque scrapbooks, box 10, Brice P. Disque Papers, Special Collections, University of Oregon Library, Eugene, OR (hereafter Disque Papers).

9. The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol XLVII (Ann Arbor, 1967), 54; Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 28.

10. Greene, Julia, The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal (New York, 2009), 47.

11. Disque, autobiographical fragment, “biography” folder, box 9, Disque Papers.

12. Lichtenstein, Alex, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (London and New York, 1996), 1819.

13. Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 29–31.

14. Disque's time at Jackson coincided with a moment when welfare capitalism was spreading among employers, but there is no direct evidence of its influence on him. See Tone, Andrea, The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in Progressive America (Ithaca and London, 1997).

15. By Disque's account, during the fiscal year after he began his reforms, the prison made a net profit of $156,000 after covering all expenses, including depreciation and correction officers' salaries. Disque came to think of himself as something of an expert on criminology and penology, over the years occasionally speaking and writing on the subject. Under the scheme he proposed in The Atlantic, prisoners would be able to appeal decisions by prison officials about sentences to a jury. Disque, autobiographical fragment, “biography” folder, box 9, Disque Papers; Brice P. Disque, “Prison Progress,” The Atlantic Monthly, March 1922. See also, Disque, “Prison Reform,” box 11, Disque Papers.

16. Disque, autobiographical fragment, “biography” folder, and Brice P. Disque to John Higgins, “201” file, both box 9, Disque Papers.

17. Disque, autobiographical fragment, “biography” folder, box 9, Disque Papers; Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 28, 33.

18. Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 39–40, 43–44; Brice P. Disque, “Spruce Production Division,” 1, in “U.S. Spruce Production Corporation” file, box 7, Disque Papers.

19. Jensen, Vernon H., Lumber and Labor (New York, 1945), 18, 99, 101–2, 106. A half century later, Ken Kesey portrayed individualism as central to Northwest logging culture in his novel Sometimes a Great Notion (New York, 1964).

20. Disque, “Spruce Production Division,” 2.

21. Schwantes, Carlos Arnaldo, Hard Traveling: A Portrait of Work Life in the New Northwest (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1994); Jensen, Lumber and Labor, 106–9; Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 217.

22. Jensen, Lumber and Labor, 119–28; Disque, “Spruce Production Division,” 2.

23. Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 25–27, 33–35.

24. Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 81–84; Dubofsky, We Shall Be All, 411–12; Mandel, Bernard, Samuel Gompers: A Biography (Yellow Springs, OH, 1963), 383.

25. Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 95–105.

26. The SPD was attached to the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 112–25, 131–33; Disque, “Spruce Production Division,” 3–4; Mandel, Gompers, 383–84; Gompers, Samuel to C.O. Young, October 16, 1917, in The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 10: The American Federation of Labor and the Great War, 1917–18 eds. Albert, Peter J. and Palladino, Grace (Urbana, 2007), 245–46. On Frankfurter's wartime activities, see Gerber, Larry G., The Limits of Liberalism: Josephus Daniels, Henry Stimson, Bernard Baruch, Donald Richberg, Felix Frankfurter and the Development of the Modern American Political Economy (New York, 1984), 150–56.

27. War Department, Headquarters Spruce Production Division, Aviation Section, Signal Corps, “Bulletin, Oct. 1, 1917 to Jan. 26,” and “Weekly Bulletin, From May 25 to June 1, 1918,” in “U.S. Spruce Production Corporation” folder, box 7, Disque Papers.

28. Disque, “Spruce Production Division,” 5–6; Spruce Production Division, Aviation Section, Signal Corps, “Bulletin, Oct. 1, 1917 to Jan. 26,” 2; United States Congress. House Select Committee on Expenditures in the War Department, War Expenditures Hearings before Subcommittee No. 1—Aviation, 66th Congress, 1919–20, 1371–72; Gerald W. Williams, “‘And What Did You Do In The Great War Grandpa?' ‘I Cut Spruce For The Army,'” USDA Forest Service, Office of Communication, Washington, DC, January 25, 1999.

29. J.J. Donovan to Col. Brice P. Disque, Jan. 19, 1918, and Jan. 30, 1918, J.J. Donovan folder, box 2, Disque Papers.

30. Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 150, 175–82; Spruce Production Division, Aviation Section, Signal Corps, “Weekly Bulletin,” Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 1918.

31. Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 187–208, 216–17, 232–33.

32. “Colonel Disque and the I. W. W.,” The New Republic, April 6, 1918, 284–85; Woodrow Wilson to Col. Brice P. Disque, Mar. 2, 1918, “201 file,” box 9, Disque Papers; Disque, “Spruce Production Division,” 6–10; Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 232, 246, 255, 307.

33. At the first 4L convention, held in March 1918, the delegates surprised Disque by voting for local secretaries to be elected by the membership, rather than appointed by the SPD, but Disque acquiesced to their decision. Jensen, Lumber and Labor, 132–33; Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 242–245, 255, 253–63.

34. Brice Disque to Samuel Gompers, March 12, 1918, and Gompers to Disque, Aug. 5, 1918, Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 10, 375–76, 503; Samuel Gompers to Colonel Brice P. Disque, April 12, 1918, “201 file,” box 9, Disque Papers; Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 264–65, 272, 278–279, 282–83, 289–90, 298–300; Jensen, Lumber and Labor, 133; Mandel, Gompers, 385–87; Dubofsky, We Shall Be All, 414.

35. Williams, “‘And What Did You Do In The Great War Grandpa?'”; Jensen, Lumber and Labor, 134–37, 145, 151–52, 159, 209; Dubofsky, We Shall Be All, 414.

36. At a congressional hearing, Disque rebutted most of the charges against the SPD, and no action was taken against him. Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 34, 333–34; House Select Committee on Expenditures in the War Department, War Expenditures Hearings before Subcommittee No. 1—Aviation.

37. “Felix Frankfurter” folder, box 3, Disque Papers; House Select Committee on Expenditures in the War Department, War Expenditures Hearings before Subcommittee No. 1—Aviation, 1422–25, 1428; National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. XLVII, 54.

38. Mills, The Power Elite, 212–14. Paul Koistinen, by contrast, argues that the main structures of the postwar military-industrial complex were put in place during the interwar years. See “Toward A Warfare State: Militarization in America during the Period of the World Wars,” in The Militarization of the Western World, ed. John R. Gillis, (New Brunswick and London, 1989), pp. 47–64.

39. National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. XLVII, 54; “Wood Motor Parts Corp.” folder, box 7, Disque Papers; John Dos Passos, U.S.A. (New York, 1937); Passos, John Dos, Midcentury(Boston, 1961), 171–73.

40. Brice P. Disque, “Speech to New York State Coal Merchants Association,” Sept. 20, 1934, “Addresses: 1934-1935-1936-1938,” box 8; and “Brice P. Disque, Jr. College” file, and Brice P. Disque to Ezra Taft Benson, December 6, 1955 (about farm), “Be-Bh” file, box 2, Disque Papers; New York Times, Oct. 19, 1941 (garden club).

41. Brice P. Disque to Walter Newton, August 2, 1930, Presidential Papers—Subject, box 65, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa; “Michael Gallagher” folder, box 3, Disque Papers; National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. XLVII, 54.

42. Dubofsky, Melvyn and Van Tine, Warren, John L. Lewis: A Biography (New York, 1977).

43. Disque, “Speech to New York State Coal Merchants Association.”

44. Brice P. Disque to Editor, New York Herald-Tribune, March 17, 1934, in “correspondence folder,” box 11, Disque Papers.

45. Brice P. Disque, “Our Inheritance from Washington; May His Spirit Guide Our Destiny,” Vital Speeches of the Day, April 1, 1938, 359–63. See also “The Shepherds Feed Themselves,” speech dated “about 1938,” “Addresses 1905–1912–1916–1918–1919,” box 8, Disque Papers; Brice P. Disque to Michael Gallagher, November 26, 1935, “Post-Presidential Individual—Gallagher, Michael, box 64, and Brice P. Disque to Herbert Hoover, Oct. 26, 1937; Disque to Hoover, April 18, 1938; Disque to Hoover May 24, 1940; and Disque to Mr. Ritchey, June 8, 1940, all in “Herbert Hoover, Post-Presidential General,” box 67, “Dircks-Ditmars,” Hoover Papers, Hoover Library. In an unpublished autobiography, Disque called Roosevelt “one of the least qualified, least moral and least reliable men ever to become President.” “Biography” folder, box 9, Disque papers.

46. National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. XLVII, 54; Brice P. Disque to General [Robert E.] Wood, February 16, 1940, Robert Wood Papers, box 3, “Disque, Brice,” Hoover Library; radio speeches in “Addresses: 1934–1935–1936–1938,” box 8, Disque Papers; New York Times, Sept. 28, 1941.

47. New York Times, Sept. 28, 1941, January 1, 1942, Jan. 26, 1943; unlabeled clippings, scrapbook 8, box 10, and Harold Ickes to Brice P. Disque, Dec., 19, 1941, and April 9, 1943, “SFAW—Correspondence, Personal,” box 4, Disque Papers. On Ickes, see T. H. Watkins, Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874–1952 (New York, 1990); chapter 52 discusses the Office of Solid Fuels Coordination.

48. National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. XLVII, 55. For some examples of Disque's public role in dealing with coal issues, see New York Times, Sept. 13, 1944, May 16, 1946, January 12, 1950, Feb. 16, 1950, and January 18, 1956.

49. New York Times, January 12, 1950, January 18, 1956; New York Herald-Tribune, Jan. 9, 1954, Jan. 21, 1956; Brice P. Disque, “Government Cannot Drive the Industrial Team,” “Manuscripts I,” box 11, Disque Papers.

50. Disque believed that excessive union power, made possible by the federal government, drove up costs for farmers to the extent that they needed subsidies. He saw the ultimate solution to the labor problem in breaking up both unions and industry to end their respective “monopolies.” Brice P. Disque to Ezra Taft Benson, December 6, 1955, “Be-Bh” file, box 2, Disque Papers. On the Bricker Amendment, see Disque to Editor, New York Times, Feb. 1, 1954. On Hoover, see Herbert Hoover to “My dear General [Disque],” October 9, 1951, and Oct, 28, 1952, “Herbert Hoover letters,” box 3, Disque Papers, and Disque to Hoover, Jan. 27, 1952, Jan. 30, 1952, April 28, 1952, October 27, 1952, July 9, 1956, and April 15, 1959, all in “Herbert Hoover, Post-Presidential General,” box 67, “Dircks-Ditmars,” Hoover Papers, Hoover Library. On conservative critiques of US Cold War foreign policy, see R, Ronald, Prophets on the Right: profiles of conservative critics of American globalism (New York, 1975) and Doenecke, Justus D., Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era (Lewisburg, PA, 1979).

51. Handwritten autobiographical fragment, in “Manuscripts I,” box 11, and scrapbook 8, box 10, Disque Papers.

52. Kazin, Michael, Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era (Urbana and Chicago, 1987), 123, 126–27; Jacoby, Sanford M., Modern Manors: welfare capitalism since the New Deal (Princeton, 1997), 4950, 114, 125, 130.

53. Several prominent postwar executives involved in militant anti-union efforts, for example in the airline industry, had military backgrounds, but without further research any generalizations about the attitudes and impact of such business leaders remain impossible.

54. Horowitz, “It Is ‘the Working Class Who Fight All the Battles.’” Jefferson Cowie notes the large presence of Vietnam veterans in Miners for Democracy in Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York, 2010), 33.

55. One example was the adoption by the United States military of container shipping to speed the supply of goods to its forces in Vietnam at a time when many civilian shippers were slow to adopt the new technology. Its success in Vietnam accelerated the general acceptance of containerization, with huge implications for portside labor. Levinson, Marc, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton, 2006), 177–88.

56. Friedberg, Aaron L., In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America's Anti-Statism and Its Cold War Grand Strategy (Princeton, 2000).

57. Eisenhower's most famous statement on this is his farewell address: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960–61 (Washington, DC, 1961), 1035–40.

Militarism, Empire, and Labor Relations: The Case of Brice P. Disque

  • Joshua B. Freeman (a1)

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