- Nylon and Bombs: DuPont and the March of Modern America
Pap A. Ndiaye teaches history at l'École des Haute Études en sciences sociales in Paris, and Nylon and Bombs appeared originally in French in 2001. Although not substantially updated in Elborg Forster's fluid translation, the book remains fresh because of its innovative approach to the history of DuPont, one of the most studied companies in the world. Moreover, the work carries broader historiographical implications.
Ndiaye combines the history of DuPont's development in the 1930s of an immensely successful consumer product, nylon—the first synthetic fiber—with the company's subsequent role in the making of an even more transformational public product, plutonium for nuclear weapons. The linchpin is DuPont's chemical engineers.
Producing poison gas in World War I enabled America's new, university-trained chemical engineers to demonstrate their skills. Over the next two decades they gradually transformed DuPont from a shop-based powder and explosives business into a science-based mass producer for consumers (less revolutionary consumer items preceded nylon). This shift gave them their [End Page 1279] own methodological identity and helped legitimize their profession through its identification with technological progress.
Meanwhile, DuPont's traditional family leaders feuded politically with the New Deal. Yet the company warily accepted the government's invitation to join the World War II Manhattan Project and produce the plutonium essential to its fruition. Besides being a feat of research in nuclear physics, Manhattan was an industrial program based on DuPont's decades of experience in chemical mass-production techniques. Ndiaye contributes to the literature a significant analysis of how, in the process of building the plants at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, the chemical engineers imposed on the physicists the organizational and methodological ways—the technological culture—they had perfected in developing nylon. The chemical engineers benefitted from an affinity with the project's military engineers that was not only cultural but political, as the DuPont men were more conservative than the left-tending physicists.
In the postwar period, the chemical engineers assumed company leadership positions and, as expert advisors, influenced the policies and management structure of the Atomic Energy Commission. DuPont eventually became part of the military-industrial complex by producing fissile materials for the large-scale manufacture of hydrogen bombs. Yet the company remained heavily engaged in civilian production. Historians, Ndiaye notes, usually dissociate the two types of corporate endeavor, focusing on either the complex's societal and economic consequences or the civilian society's seeming gratification through mass consumption. In treating civilian and military production together, Ndiaye posits a mutual dependence between them, with the chemical engineers forming a vanguard for a public belief in technology as the guarantor of both the nation's prosperity and its security. Beginning in the 1960s, DuPont and the chemical engineers dropped in public esteem as the waning authority of experts, concern with the nuclear arms race, and the environmental movement reduced faith in the technological basis for social progress.
Other scholars have linked consumerism and national security, but usually by focusing on the economic effects of commercial spin-offs from military technology, rather than on an interdependence based on an ideology of technological progress, as Ndiaye does. Because his thought-provoking work examines just one company, it should inspire business, cultural, military, and technology historians to explore the idea further.
Treating DuPont as a sociological entity, Ndiaye usefully adds to the growing revision of Alfred D. Chandler's magisterial yet overly internalist work on the large corporation. Ndiaye's greatest achievement is in demonstrating the significance of the chemical engineers as a professional group, both within DuPont and in their broader role in corporate accommodation to the federal government's increased power. He intriguingly suggests that the chemical engineers, with their conservative esprit de corps, were "a very special group . . . not unlike army officers" (p. 136). Military historians might...