Tag Archives: Eisenhower

A Fourth Note on the First CEO: The Postwar Provenance

A reader of my posts about the acronym CEO suggests I have a look at the organizational chart for the Manhattan Project to gain a better appreciation for the “American and military” provenance of the term. “I believe during a period of intense collaboration between the military and private sector after WWII,” he writes, “it somehow permeated to corporate use.”

I have wondered about that “somehow,” and wondered, too, if I could be a little more specific about the course this permeation took. Is the acronym CEO — and the idea of the CEO — an outgrowth of the military industrial complex? Does the rise of the CEO to a position of cultural celebrity in the 1970s and 1980s tell us something (we don’t already know) about how the postwar environment shaped American ideas of command, power and leadership, in the private sector and in the public sector?

These are questions worth asking, I think, though I’m not sure the organizational chart for the Manhattan Project is the best place to start. Or at least that chart doesn’t include the term “CEO.” There is an “OCE” — an Office of the Chief of Engineers; the role of “Executive Officer” was assigned to J.B. Lampert. That title was also used in the appointment of Leslie R. Groves (of Now It Can Be Told fame), who in the org chart has the title of Commanding General.

The larger point here still merits consideration: just follow the careers of the engineers and military commanders identified in the Manhattan Project org chart, consider the military industrial development of the 1950s and the American business environment in which COs and XOs and members of the OCE worked closely with the private sector, and in many cases left the military to join the private sector: it’s easy to see how a new vocabulary of command might have emerged during that period, and eventually found its way into ordinary usage.

Still, I want specifics and cases I can point to. To that end, I’ve written to the company historian at General Electric, to ask whether the term CEO was in general use before the era of Jack Welch (who for a variety of reasons — not least for his cultural celebrity — probably deserves the title “The First CEO”). I’m looking for some examples of usage from the days of Ralph J. Cordiner (Chief Executive Officer from 1950-1963), Fred J. Borch (Chief Executive Officer 1963-1972) or Reginald H. Jones, who served from 1972-1981.

ReaganProgressGE seems like an obvious place to start looking. The company that brought us both Jack Welch and Ronald Reagan was, during the war and then in the postwar period, at the very center of military-industrial development; and big American companies like General Electric were never just manufacturing products — or even “progress,” which Reagan used to tout on TV as GE’s “most important product.” They were also designing models of power that persist to this day.

O, The Humanities!

Last week, the National Research Council of the National Academies issued Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security. I came to the report wondering how this august committee of bureaucrats, bigwigs and business people might go about defining the mission of the research university and how they would define “prosperity”; and I wanted to see what sort of future they envision for research that doesn’t immediately yield new machines, products or services, and doesn’t necessarily play well — historically has not played well — with business: namely, the kind of research I do and I value, research into the human world and the human condition.

I’ve noticed that in most national debates over educational policy and funding (which this report is supposed to inform) and in discussions of the R & D Tax Credit (which this report touches on), “research” gets defined way too narrowly. It gets restricted to scientific research and the invention of useful products and machines. As for prosperity, it tends to get confused with economic growth, or reduced to GDP and employment figures. It’s a limited, myopic view in which “research” is valued only insofar as it yields new machines and tools and products to fuel economic growth.

That’s pretty much the view here.

There are gestures throughout this report to find a place for the humanities (along with the social sciences) in the research university centered around science and engineering. The authors consistently maintain that the research university has to be “comprehensive” in scope, “spanning the full spectrum of academic and professional disciplines,” in order “to provide the broad research and education programs required by a knowledge — and innovation — driven global economy.” But there is not much ink spilled here on the value or the purpose or the place of the humanities. The idea that I advanced as a “crazy” idea in previous posts (here and here and here)– that research in the humanities might provide a much-needed critical orientation in an innovation-driven economy (and should therefore be covered by the R & D tax credit) — seems just as crazy as ever.

Perhaps we can expect a bolder stance on the humanities in the forthcoming report on the humanities and social sciences from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences mentioned in the footnotes here. Maybe without that report this group felt unqualified to tackle the subject, or they were simply being deferential to their colleagues. Be that as it may, Research Universities focuses on the humanities in just one place. This is in a chapter about “national goals.” It opens with a jingoistic account of American progress. Cue the bombastic voiceover:

In the course of our history, our nation has set grand goals that have defined us as a nation. And then we accomplished them. We created a republic, defeated totalitarianism, and extended civil rights to our citizens. We joined our coasts with a transcontinental railroad, linked our cities through the interstate highway system, and networked ourselves and the globe through the Internet. We electrified the nation. We sent men to the Moon. We created a large, strong, and dynamic economy, the largest in the world since the 1870s and today comprising one-quarter of nominal global gross domestic product (GDP).

The most muddled word in this historical muddle is, of course, “we.” The pronoun carries a lot of freight here, and it is meant to reduce history to a story of central planning. We set grand goals and we accomplish them: how grand!

At best, this version of American history is nothing more than the committee projecting the fantasy of central planning on to the past. But it’s also an attempt to sanitize history, to scrub off all the blood and dirt from our past and forget our present afflictions and troubles. Civil rights? The creation of a republic? These weren’t grand goals advanced in a planning session, set out in the form of pure ideas and then acted upon, but the very difficult, tough and very real struggles of people to gain and maintain their liberty. In the area of civil rights, some would say we still have a long way to go; in the matter of the republic, some would argue that we are now more than ever at risk of losing it, if we have not already lost it.

The railroad? Think only of Josephson’s account of how the railroads were laid. Or to take a more recent example, consider what was really involved in networking “ourselves and the globe through the Internet” (and don’t forget that networks are not only systems of inclusion, but of exclusion). The Eisenhower Interstate system may have been the closest we ever came to nation-wide military-industrial planning; but even that took a lot of cajoling, a propaganda campaign, and some serious political maneuvering, and given our current car-crazed, oil-dependent, environmentally-weakened, militarized state, it is debatable whether the Interstate system really deserves unqualified accolades.

Of course these questions and considerations were kept out of the discussion here. But I would hasten to add that these are exactly the kinds of questions and considerations that research in the humanities (and social sciences) allow us to ask. These are questions not only about the past, but also about where we are going, what we want, what we need to do, what is the best thing to do, how we should go about doing it, and how we ought to discuss all those questions.

Just as importantly, the humanities allow us to look at the American story and ask who “we” are, and help us recognize that we are a plurality, not reducible to a single historical agency or identity or even a unified, entirely coherent, unimpeachable history. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the humanities – research into a broad domain of language and historical experience, and questions about the role of language in historical experience as well as the incommensurability of language and history – give us at some very basic level an awareness that history is many stories, that we can ask questions about those stories and that doing so creates the option of telling (and living) another story.

You’d think that at least some of this thinking – which is hardly radical or new – would find its way into this report. Or at least that at some point this report would acknowledge that research into language, thought and history is of value to deliberative democracy, and to considerations of American prosperity. But, no – not even a gesture toward the traditional notion of the “liberal arts” (artes liberales) as the arts most befitting a free people – arts of language and understanding that equip a free people to deliberate and exercise their freedom. In fact, when the report turns to “civic life,” the humanities play no role whatsoever in the discussion. Instead, The Council considers research in the humanities under the heading “Enhanced Security.”

Research in the social sciences and humanities has allowed us to better understand other cultures we may be allied or in conflict with so we can adapt strategies to improve diplomatic and military outcomes.

A handmaid to military strategy and diplomacy: that is a pretty poor rationale for the humanities – about as poor as one can imagine. Humanists can help military generals and diplomatic missions “adapt strategies” for dealing with friends and obliterating enemies. The understanding of “other cultures” – which involves complex, enduring, maybe unanswerable questions of interpretation, translation, language arts, anthropology, history – has been placed here in service of the all-powerful State. “We” are no longer the people, in the plural and in all our plurality, with all the uncertainties that entails, but one singular, grand, innovation-driven, militarized, secure State.

Our friends may delight in this technocratic fantasy, but our enemies had better look out.

What Ever Happened to The Three Mile Picture Show?

For the past couple of days, I have been trying to track down a film made in 1915: The Three Mile Picture Show.

Directed by Henry Ostermann, the film was produced in the course of a transcontinental journey along the Lincoln Highway, which was at that time the only automobile route across the country. It is thought to be the first motion picture made of an automobile trip.

It was a big, ambitious first step. Traveling from Times Square in New York City to San Francisco, the film crew shot 16,000 feet of film. Three miles of film! The Picture Show is, at the very least, a fantastic artifact of Manifest Destiny, a gargantuan movie, made on a grand scale to stir a growing, already restless nation.

The film was shown at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, and then in cities across the country as it traveled east, back along the very road it documented. A mechanical traveling circus, the film played the country back to itself.

Until this morning, I had not been able to find a trace of the Three Mile Picture Show – not a frame, not a few feet of film, nothing. Now it appears that a copy of the film may have been among the materials donated to the University of Michigan by Gael Hoag and Henry Ostermann, in 1937. (But Ostermann had died in June of 1920, when his Packard slid off the road and rolled, crushing him.)

This, at least, is the most intriguing vestige of the film I have found: a reference in the University of Michigan archives to correspondence between Walt Disney Productions and the University of Michigan library “regarding several reels of film about the Lincoln Highway.” The correspondence runs from 1957-1958.

I’ve written to the library and I’m waiting for more details about the correspondence. Until I know more, I am working from the assumption that from 1957-1958 Disney was trying to acquire the University’s copy of the film, or rights to it.

Why? At this point I can only speculate. A few points deserve some further investigation and consideration:

The Interstate Highway System was on its way to completion by 1957; maybe Disney planned a movie or a theme park exhibition celebrating the new automobile nation, and wanted to use parts of the Three Mile Picture Show as a back story or foil.

In the late 50s, Disney had a number of projects in the works where this 1915 footage might have found a place. Consider for instance the almost unwatchable propaganda film called America the Beautiful Disney showed at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.  Parts 1 and 2 are both on YouTube. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, the “18 minute spectacle” showed throughout the day in the Circarama Theater – a continuous 360 degree “movie in the round.”

Finally, it’s intriguing to consider that in 1957-58, the President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, had in 1919 traveled the same route as the Three Mile Picture Show, as part of a military motor convoy. (Ostermann led the caravan on that occasion, too.) The Three Mile Picture Show would have played back the President’s youthful itinerary to a nation transformed by Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System.

The real question of course is: What ever happened to that footage? Does it still exist? Where is it? Are all those reels sitting on a shelf at Disney?

Trending Towards The Gray

I’m watching Procter & Gamble stock today, looking for some reaction on the trading floor to the announcement that Robert McDonald will succeed A. G. Lafley as CEO. The market did not exactly raise a huzzah or hurrah at the news yesterday, which ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and on the AP wire. P&G finished slightly down. It was a gray day.

Maybe traders and investors are waiting for today’s official announcement before reacting, but when have you known Wall Street to wait? Maybe McDonald just isn’t seen as an inspired or inspiring choice; but I refuse to believe that. After 29 years at P&G, McDonald now serves as Chief Operating Officer of the sprawling consumer products giant. He has an impressive military background (West Point, 82nd Airborne), and a degree in Engineering. He is a logistics man. In his tenure as COO, McDonald focused on making P&G’s manufacturing and transportation network more efficient. He implemented a monitoring system to track trucks and reduce empty truck miles. And he made efforts to move production to emerging markets – another push for virtuous efficiency (or cheaper labor, depending on your perspective and your politics).

These are not the actions of an empty suit. McDonald is clearly someone with a deep and hard-earned knowledge of how P&G works and the expectation is he will make a concerted effort to institute new discipline across the company. No small task, given P & G’s size, breadth and depth: the company makes everything from my Braun coffee-grinder to dish soap, Gillette razors, potato chips, AA batteries and cosmetics; even the diapers your child is soiling right now are probably made by P&G. Imagine directing all that traffic, or simply trying to bring the whole thing into focus. The company claims people around the world use its products three billion times a day. By my reckoning, that’s about 35,000 uses every second of every day.

That makes the collective shrug yesterday over McDonald’s appointment all the more puzzling. Or maybe that shrug was the intended effect. P&G certainly could have made a big splash if it wanted to, by choosing Susan Arnold over McDonald. Arnold was often mentioned as a likely successor to Lafley until she left P & G in March of 2009 (motivated, no doubt, by the fact that she’d been passed over. The succession process had been two years in the works; the writing must have been on the wall sometime in 2008). Arnold was a P&G superstar. She started out selling dish soap (a brand assistant), and gained the highest rank of any woman in P & G’s 168-year history. But wait, there’s more: she’s openly gay, according to her profile on Wikipedia. (These are the wages of success: to have one’s sexual preferences detailed on Wikipedia.) Think Carly Fiorina meets Ellen DeGeneres. Think of the cultural capital the company would have reaped: over-the-top praise from big media outlets, eager to portray themselves as socially progressive; the lashing and futile threats of boycotts from the Religious Right. At the very least, it would have been a good day at the circus.

There may be a glass ceiling at P&G, but Arnold came pretty close to shattering it. There’s no questioning her competence, and it’s likely she was passed over not because of some institutionalized sexism or homophobia, but because of the business she was in. She came up through the beauty and cosmetics line (look for institutional sexism there, if you must), a business that flourished under Lafley; but there is a suspicion that in hard times, Cover Girl and Pantene won’t do as well as some of the more essential consumer items. Some investors had begun to question whether the acquisition of Gillette had made the company unwieldy, too big to succeed. The future of the company doesn’t lie in Arnold’s bailiwick. So it might have been as simple as that. The McDonald appointment suggests a new sobriety about the marketplace, a shift in focus or a correction of the Lafley strategy. (Since Lafley will stay on as Chairman, it’s a subtle suggestion, at best.)

But doesn’t the P&G succession story also suggest something larger and more significant? Something about the mood and tone of the country right now? I’m tempted to see in McDonald’s ascent something like the start of a trend — away from the superstar CEO, and towards the nuts and bolts operations guy. Less sizzle, more logistics. A similar restraint seems to have played into the thinking behind the choice of Fritz Henderson to lead GM through its dark days and into Chapter 11. There are doubtless other examples.

It’s sometimes said that the operations-minded are too immersed in the details to see the big picture; but sobriety, details and logistics might be exactly what we’re looking for after the housing bust, the financial crisis, the Madoff affair, the private jets, all the CNBC hype and John Thain’s $1,400 wastebasket. And it may be what we’re looking for, more broadly, in leaders: think of it as a trend toward the gray, more Ike, less Dubya. George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld could never have conceived, let alone plan D-Day; Eisenhower would never have invaded Iraq without a postwar plan. Obama is a rock star, to be sure. But many like him for his sobriety and evenness of temperament; he is unflappable, and he likes to make careful distinctions and discuss things coolly, so much so that before the elections some right-leaning pundits were praising his “conservative” instincts. (That’s over.)

Remember when Ronald Reagan famously told us it was morning in America again? Now, it seems, we’re just happy to hear that it’s a gray day and that nothing too out of the ordinary is happening.

Enough Shovels

Its exact provenance remains a mystery, but over the past month or so the phrase “shovels in the ground” has become a touchstone of the political vocabulary. “If we’re going to really make infrastructure work,” Governor Ed Rendell said at the National Governors Conference in November, “we have to have shovels in the ground quickly.” In Colorado, Bill Ritter has “100-plus projects that we could have shovels in the ground in 90 days.” Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, too, wants to “put shovels in the ground and paychecks in workers’ pockets.”

When politicians start handing out shovels, there’s usually a pile of horse manure nearby.

Taking their cues from President-Elect Obama, who has promised “the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” governors are touting infrastructure investment by the federal government as a quick fix to their states’ woes, an engine of job creation, and a way to jumpstart economic recovery. Talking about “shovels in the ground” helps them conjure a scene right out of WPA propaganda: sturdy American workmen stand at the ready, shovels in hand, dutifully awaiting the go-ahead from their Governors. Everybody is ready to start digging our way out of this mess, right away.

Obama himself said over the weekend on Meet the Press that the top priority of his plan would be “shovel-ready” projects. Put aside for the moment the question whether this is the right priority: it is certainly expedient, given the political pressures from the states. My concern is whether in responding to the economic emergency and to all those shovel-wielding governors, the President-elect will miss the bigger picture or overlook the longer-term benefits that history suggests can be derived from wise infrastructure investment.

To get a sense of how an investment in our nation’s infrastructure can have long term payoff – as well as unintended consequences – just look at the development of the Internet. Better yet, consider a story that apparently is, or at least ought to be, very much on Mr. Obama’s mind these days, and to which he made passing reference in last Saturday’s YouTube address: the story of President Eisenhower’s Interstate project.

The project took shape in Ike’s mind long before he took office. In 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower joined a military vehicle convoy that traveled from the Zero Milestone marker in Washington, D.C. to California’s Golden Gate. The Transcontinental Motor Convoy’s journey “through darkest America” at a time when there was no national network of roads, and in some places no roads to speak of, was rough going. But it gave Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower a political education and a feel for the whole country, and helped persuade him that America needed a national highway system. This conviction only grew after General Eisenhower saw firsthand what the Germans had accomplished with the Autobahn system.

After the war, Ike became the political architect of our federally-funded, multi-lane, interstate highway system. A Highway Trust Fund was established to finance the system from Federal gas and motor vehicle taxes, so it would be self-financing and its ongoing development and expansion would not contribute to the Federal deficit. The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways had an important strategic military purpose, but it also promised to relieve congestion in towns and cities and improve farm-to market commerce. By the 1970s, the Interstate had changed the country even more profoundly than the railroad, creating new and more efficient ways to move people and goods, transforming industries and work habits, and determining where and how people lived. Along with television, it made us less regionally diverse, more homogeneous; and it revolutionized how we imagine our freedom. Think Jack Kerouac, or Thelma & Louise.

When President Eisenhower warned the nation against the military industrial complex, he couldn’t have foreseen that the Interstate system he built would give rise to so many of the problems we face today. On a visit to the United States, Khrushchev drew Ike’s attention to what we now know as suburban sprawl; since then, the Interstate has altered forever our landscape and cityscapes. We depend every day on an expensive, dirty, inefficient means of transportation. Now we’ve driven ourselves into a foreign oil rut — which Obama’s National Security Advisor, General James Jones, has rightly characterized as a major national security threat. The Cold War system originally intended to keep us safe now leaves us vulnerable, easily manipulated and exposed.

Rahm Emanuel is right: our current crisis gives us a great opportunity — to think big, and to think strategically. That’s why General Jones has urged us to approach our dependence on foreign oil “with the same degree of seriousness as when General Eisenhower said, ‘let’s build a highway system.’” Seriousness of this order demands more than filling potholes and fixing bridges.

There are a number of proposals already on the table. Building a Smart Grid – using information technology to create a more responsive, resilient and reliable power grid — will help us move energy more efficiently and securely, and lay the groundwork for delivery of alternative energy sources. An Infrastructure Bank could do more than the Highway Trust Fund ever could, especially if it allowed for new combinations of public and private financing. More broadly, we need to fund research, encourage innovators, and provide incentives for new business development. That, in turn, will spur real economic growth and job creation.

Beyond these measures, and I would say above all, we need research that challenges science and engineering, and helps us understand how the decisions we make now might affect our lives, our livelihoods and our liberties in the future.

If, as I believe, Mr. Obama is ready to lead, and not just break ground with the governors, this is the national conversation he needs to start right now. There are plenty of shovels to go around.

Finding the right model

Finally, instead of talking about FDR and the New Deal, as so much of the press and even his own advisors have, Obama seems to have found the right model for his “economic recovery plan”: Eisenhower.

In his Saturday radio address, Obama says he won’t do things “the old Washington way,” but clearly he’s got one old story from Washington in clear view.

“We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” said the President elect.

“We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money.”

Watching and listening, I wonder how many Americans know the story of how the Federal Highway System was created? Not only how it was funded and the engineering that went into it, but how the project was conceived, and what it took to build consensus around it? And consider, too, how it transformed the country and changed the American landscape, the way we live, even the way we imagine our freedom.

It’s not just about filling potholes and fixing bridges (and I can’t tell you how many times I heard the tiresome phrase “shovels in the ground” last week). If he’s true to his word and he does it right, the Obama plan could do for early 21st-century America what Eisenhowers Interstate project did for the late 20th — change the very structure of our national life, from the physical to the cultural landscape.

Resilience and Renewal

At the start of the month, the Financial Times reported that UBS had raised more than $1.5 billion dollars for a long-term infrastructure investment fund. The bank has plans to raise even more in a second round.

The fund is targeting a relatively high internal rate of return of between 10 and 13 per cent a year and says it is currently returning 13 per cent.
Its investments will focus on established infrastructure in stable, well-developed countries, which often operate as virtual monopolies and generate a lot of free cash flow.

Steve Jacobs, head of infrastructure asset management at UBS, says the new fund will make direct investments in companies and projects; the fund, he tells the Financial Times, has already taken stakes in Northern Star Generation, a US power generation business, UK-based Southern Water and Saubermacher, a European waste management company.

The move, according to the UBS press release, “underlines the sector’s relative resilience to the financial crisis.”

It will be interesting to see whether new hybrid forms of public and private investment in infrastructure emerge over the next couple of years.

Are we really headed for a “new New Deal”– or for something more ad hoc?

China enters the Eisenhower Era

To alleviate the strain placed on its economy by the world financial crisis, China is planning an “infrastructure spending spree,” according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The $586 billion stimulus package unveiled this week will go mostly toward building highways, railroads and airports — to connect rural areas with cities, make industry operate more efficiently and help farmers bring goods to market. The plan will give China 53,000 miles of highways; the U.S. Interstate system developed by Eisenhower and realized in the last half of the last century stretches 47,000 miles. The Chinese plan sounds distinctly 20th century, designed to stimulate the economy without too much regard for the environmental impact.

Meanwhile, here in 21st century America, our political leaders and their economic advisers are also touting infrastructure investment as a way to shore up our failing economy. It remains to be seen whether there will be enough pressure on our leaders to make smart choices and the right investments, to convert our existing, inefficient infrastructure to more energy-efficient, sustainable purposes.

Now Al Gore is Channeling Eisenhower

In today’s New York Times , Al Gore lays out a five point plan for addressing climate change.

His ambitious plan, he says, will enable Americans to produce “100 percent of our electricity from carbon-free sources in 10 years.” The second of Gore’s five points calls for “the planning and construction of a unified national smart grid for the transport of renewable electricity from the rural places where it is mostly generated to the cities where it is mostly used” — something that is simply not possible with our “balkanized and antiquated electricity lines”.

The whole editorial deserves a careful read. It highlights, again, the urgency of changing the national conversation about energy.