The existence of such an industry scandalized Americans in the interwar period, and there was one treatise that led the way in helping to foment the ourage. In fact, it was a bestseller book in 1934 with the title Merchants of Death. (Here is the PDF and here it is in hard copy.)
We are justified in calling it the first mega-selling conservative book of the 20th century. Why conservative? The lead author was H.C. Engelbrecht, and, most importantly, its co-author was Frank C. Hanighen, who would later become the founder of Human Events, which was the most important weekly publication on the right in the 1940s and 1950s. In other words, the phrase Merchants of Death did not originate on the left but on the right, during the New Deal period when the people later called conservatives became alarmed about the union between big corporations and big government.
This book is not a typical left-wing style attacks on commerce as the essence of war. In fact, it argues the opposite. "The arms industry did not create the war system. On the contrary, the war system created the arms industry."
The blame, then, lies not with the private sector that makes the weapons. "All constitutions in the world vest the war-making power in the government or in the representatives of the people. The root of the trouble, therefore, goes far deeper than the arms industry. It lies in the prevailing temper of peoples toward nationalism, militarism, and war, in the civilization which forms this temper and prevents any drastic and radical change. Only when this underlying basis of the war system is altered, will war and its concomitant, the arms industry, pass out of existence."
The book holds up as a marvelous analysis of how the merchants of death profited from World War I, a fact that the public found riveting and help solidify a strong antiwar temperament in the electorate during those years. This raised consciousness led to a broader insight about the nature of the warfare state: namely, that they only way to restrain it was to keep centralized power of all sorts at bay. The leading spokesmen for the ideal here was later called the Old Right by Murray Rothbard.
How it came to be that the Old Right cause would later be taken up by the New Left, while the New Right came to embrace the warmongering creed of the Old Left – well, let's just say it was a complicated maneuver accomplished in a brief period of time in the late 1950s. Murray Rothbard was there and he chronicled the transition blow by blow. His book is called The Betrayal of the American Right. Sure enough, checking the book, on page 58, we find a nice discussion of Human Events, Frank Hanighen, and the problem of the Merchants of Death.
~ Jeffrey Tucker, "Iron Man and the Merchants of Death," LewRockwell.com, May 7, 2008