Throughout history nations have had to defend themselves from their neighboring countries constant desire to expand and dominate, all the while eyeing their own possible growth at the expense of these very same nations. The ebb and flow of these kingdoms over time have given rise to giant empires and great conquests, but nearly always these struggles have been between two warring nations in which the victor received the spoils and the loser achieves nothing more than just a footnote in the annals of time.
History is replete with such kingdoms that would grow to immense proportions until the burden of governing itself lead to its eventual downfall, almost always coinciding with a neighboring regime’s rise to prominence quite often over the same exact territory and the same people. These dynasties date back as far as recorded history can go and even before then. But again, nearly every war, every battle, every conquest and every defeat came at the hands of two nations in a do-or-die, winner-take-all, epic struggle that could last for decades up to 100 years and beyond.
According to the Peace Pledge Union, the arms trade, as we know it today, can be traced back to the Middle Ages. It began in the 14th century, when gunpowder was introduced in Europe.
The market for powder-charged weapons grew quickly. Kings and knights wanted cannons to demolish previously impregnable battlements. Far-sighted warlords began arming their troops with portable firearms: old-style pikemen and archers, or mounted knights in armor, were no match for the new guns. It was the beginning of that great and dangerous competition later to be called an ‘arms race’.
Big demand for the latest weapons created a thriving industry. Originally most weapons were manufactured for local users, but some entrepreneurs sold them throughout Europe to anyone who had the money to pay for them. The first steps towards the creation of an ‘international’ arms trade had been taken.
The arms industry first developed in Liège in Belgium. Iron and coal were in plentiful supply there, and the roads and rivers were more than adequate to transport both materials and finished weapons efficiently. The industry soon spread: up the Rhine to Solingen, eastwards to Prague in Bohemia, south into France (St Etienne and Bayonne), Italy (Turin, Milan, Florence, Brescia and Pistoia) and Spain (Seville and Toledo) and westwards across the channel to England (London and Birmingham). These towns and areas are still centers of the European arms industry.
By the time the 19th Century rolled around most fertile battlegrounds had already been blood-stained killing fields many times over. The great disparity in military might that promulgated empires and dynasties in the past no longer existed. In one last attempt at establishing world dominance, several European nations put their mightiest foot forward and promptly had it squashed by their neighbors. It had become apparent to all that going it alone was no longer a viable option. Cooperation between the various groups had become a necessity in order to preserve what they’ve already gained as well as to fend off the collective attempts of other nation groups in the region. . Instead of individual nations conquering their next-door neighbors, groups of nations began forming in a loose-knit alliance that basically proclaimed, "You watch my back and I’ll watch yours."
By the middle of the 19th century a truly international arms trade had been established. It bred its own rogue elements. For example, unscrupulous salesmen knowingly sold defective weapons. Others were happy to follow the long-ago example of Liége by selling arms to both sides in a war: their loyalty was to money-making.
It is said that at the Paris Exhibition in 1881, a man told Hiram Maxim, an American, that if he wanted to make a fortune, he should invent a machine that would help these Europeans kill each other. He did and sold his machine guns to European countries on the eve of World War One, and changed the nature of war. He founded the Maxim Gun Company in Britain to produce his new weapon and licensed it to the British Army and later to the Austrian, German, Italian, Swiss, and Russian armies as well. Maxim died on November 24, 1916, only days before the Battle of the Somme, during which over a million soldiers were killed – many advancing over and over into the machine gun's fire.
The 20th Century saw this rise in group dominance put to its severest tests This fragile fraternal assemblage of countries found their first major application in 1914 when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Serbia. Serbia refused to extradite the murderer to Austria-Hungary and the fight was on. Austria-Hungary, Germany, Ottoman Empire, on the one side squared up against Russia, Great Britain, Italy and France on the other side with Serbia. Along with the major European nations declaring their allegiances, their colonies were obliged to follow suit. The first real world war was on and it raged for four years. This was the first time that groups of countries fought other groups of countries on different fronts around the globe.
But it would take a second world war for countries to start giving arms to each other. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the world was ill-prepared for the chaos and destruction that followed and no one could have predicted the final outcome in early August, 1945, with the dropping of the first ever atomic bombs: Little Boy on Hiroshima and Fat Man on Nagasaki. In between those two events, unparalleled destruction destroyed over 80% of the production capabilities of most European nations, thus precluding them from being able to manufacture their own military hardware even for purely defensive purposes. For the first time in history major players on the world’s stage were forced to purchase their military armament from another country.
In 1940 the United States of America passed legislation allowing the sale or transfer of military equipment to anyone it chose. The US arms industry grew prodigiously, supplying Britain, France, and the Soviet Union with huge quantities of armaments to fight the Second World War. When that war was over, former allies engaged in a ‘cold war’ between Western capitalist countries and the communist Soviet Union. The Cold War did not officially end until 1991. The USA supplied weapons to any state which opposed the Soviet Union, which also armed its own supporters. Many developing countries were flooded with weapons, with appalling consequences which are still being felt.
Following World War II many of the factories that had been devoted to military production during the fighting were converted back to their prewar, civilian uses. However, the cessation of fighting in Europe and Asia was not greeted—as the end of World War I had been—with a wave of revulsion against American arms makers. Instead, the nation's military industries were widely viewed as a major pillar of American military strength and an important source of technological innovation. Thus, when the Cold War began in earnest, most members of Congress were prepared to support a new round of arms transfers along the lines of the lend-lease program.
The resumption of U.S. arms aid to friendly powers abroad did not occur without prodding from the White House, however. With World War II barely concluded, many in Congress were at first reluctant to authorize significant military aid to the European powers—fearing, as had their counterparts in the 1920s and 1930s, that this would eventually lead to U.S. military involvement in overseas conflicts. To overcome this resistance, President Harry S. Truman and his close advisers, including Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and George C. Marshall, sought to portray the expansion of Soviet power in eastern Europe and the Mediterranean as a vital threat to the Western democracies and, by extension, to U.S. national security.
The first significant test of U.S. attitudes on this issue came in early 1947, when Great Britain announced that it could no longer afford to support the royalist government in Greece—which at that time was under attack from a communist backed insurgency. Fearing that the loss of Greece to the communists would invite Soviet aggression in neighboring countries, including Turkey, President Truman concluded that it was essential for the United States to provide arms and military training to the Greek military. On 12 March 1947, Truman appeared before a joint session of Congress to request funding for this purpose. In what became known as the Truman Doctrine, the president articulated a new guiding principle for American foreign policy: "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."
As noted by many historians since then, this speech shaped U.S. security doctrine for the next several decades. Henceforth it would be the unquestionable obligation of the United States to provide economic, political, and especially military assistance to any nation threatened by Soviet (or Soviet-backed) forces. As the first expression of this principle, Congress voted $400 million in military assistance for Greece and Turkey on 15 May 1947; this was soon followed by the appropriation of even larger amounts for these two countries and for many others in Europe and Asia.