Theses Doctoral

Corporatizing Defense: Management Expertise and the Transformation of the Cold War U.S. Military

Murphy, A.J.

With the Second World War, the U.S. defense establishment attained a scale and permanence it never had before. The new strategic blueprint of the Cold War dictated constant readiness for military confrontation, but it was also clear that the country could not keep up wartime levels of total economic mobilization. Faced with the problem of managing this military behemoth, leaders in the defense bureaucracy looked to private industry for expertise to help them run the emerging national security state. The result was a remaking of defense administration in the image of the post-war corporation. This dissertation explains how and why reformers placed their faith in models of business enterprise, an approach that was neither self-evident nor readily accepted across the military leadership. In the decades after World War II, the reorganization of the defense bureaucracy around values of efficiency and productivity shaped U.S. military operations and affected millions of people around the world.
In concrete terms, this dissertation tracks how managerial science changed the ways the military kept accounts, disciplined labor, trained officers, and handled government assets. Interest in improving military management exploded after 1950. In the realm of budgeting and finance, reformers set up transactions between units to imitate buyer-seller relationships, requiring officers to express their needs for supplies and labor in dollar terms. Drawing analogies between military and private industry, defense establishment reformers embraced methods like Taylorist work measurement, which they used to control work ranging from filing to the production of massive weapons systems. Borrowing directly from Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program, defense leaders established schools to train high-ranking military officers in the latest trends of business management.
While these business-inspired reforms gained traction in many parts of the military bureaucracy, they were not accepted without controversy. After the Vietnam War, many military leaders questioned the dominance of “managerialism” and denounced it in favor of traditional concepts of command and leadership. By the 1970s, however, the language and values of management had become thoroughly embedded in the institutional structure of the military. I argue that the reorganization of the defense bureaucracy in the image of the profit-seeking firm changed the experience of work in the military, redefined what it meant to be an officer, and facilitated the privatization of many of the defense establishment’s functions. Further, I aim to show that understanding how the military governed and produced can reframe key historiographic debates about 20th century American political economy.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2024-06-15.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Blackmar, Elizabeth
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 28, 2019