The Crown Family, General Dynamics, and the US War Machine

Introduction 

A January 27, 2021 press release from the University of Chicago announced an historically large donation to the School of Social Service Administration. The $75-million-dollar donation, the largest ever to a social work school, came with the requisite celebrations of the gift’s largess, and peons to all the good it would do in addressing the challenges of inequality and advancing a more humane and just society. Capping the press release was a quotation from the donor, James Crown: “We are honored to make this investment in understanding and addressing profound societal challenges on both a local and global scale.” The press release conveniently omits the role of James Crown and his family’s holdings in causing profound social challenges on a global scale. The truly obscene wealth that has allowed his family to be major philanthropists has its origins in producing weapons and munitions that reign down death and destruction on people all over the world: the wealth of the Crown family is derived from their 10% ownership stake in General Dynamics, where James Crown is the lead director. General Dynamics (GD) is the fifth largest weapons contractor in the US and sixth in the world. 

General Dynamics and Yemen 

The war waged on Yemen by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and its Gulf states allies has now been raging for six years, plunging the masses of Yemeni people into a state of desperation. In addition to the lives lost to the devastating Saudi air campaign (carried out with US technical assistance), which some estimate is as high as 100,000, the infrastructure devastation and naval blockade have left the Yemeni people desperate. Without access to food or fuel imports, more than 2 million children in Yemen are expected to suffer acute malnutrition, according to the UN. In a neat bit of doublespeak, Joe Biden has said that the US would end ‘offensive’ support to the Saudi campaign of devastation in Yemen. However, as professor and anti-war activist Shireen Al-Adeimi has pointed out, the US always framed its support of the Saudi campaign as ‘defensive’ (including when the war began while Biden was Vice President). US apologists for the war never seem to explain how subjecting a poor war-torn country to mass starvation and cholera is ‘defensive’. The fundamental fact of the Yemen war is that without weapons, technical assistance, and international diplomatic and political support from the US, the Saudi-led war on Yemen would not have been possible. 

General Dynamics is a major supplier of arms to the Saudi-US war on Yemen through its long term contracts with Saudi Arabia (estimated at $1.3 billion), a ten-billion-dollar contract with Saudi Arabia facilitated through the Canadian government, and arms deals with the US Department of Defense, in addition to arms sales to major Saudi ally the United Arab Emirates. A 2018 Code Pink report on the role of defense contractors illustrates some of the human toll of the General Dynamics arms sales:

Fragments of General Dynamics’ MK-84 bombs have been found at the site of many coalition airstrikes in Yemen that human rights groups have identified as causing indiscriminate and foreseeably disproportionate loss of civilian life, and therefore to constitute violations of the laws of war.

MK-84 bomb fragments were found at the site of a March 15, 2016 attack that killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children. Investigators found remnants of both a GBU-31 bomb, a MK-84 bomb mated with a JDAM satellite guidance kit, and another MK-84 with a Paveway laser guidance kit. These two bombs hit a crowded market in the village of Mastaba in northwestern Yemen. The first bomb landed directly in front of some shops and a restaurant. The second struck at the entrance to the market, where it killed and wounded people trying to escape or to help the wounded. The attack prompted Human Rights Watch to call for a thorough investigation into these prima facie war crimes and for a suspension of weapons sales to coalition countries.

General Dynamics and Palestine 

Since the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, that government has served as a crucial outpost of US empire in the region, and thus received incalculable amounts of military aid for its ongoing occupation of Palestine and campaign of removal and murder against the Palestinians.  Consequently, Palestinians have been denied every right afforded to them by international law and the United Nations and are increasingly concentrated into the Gaza strip and small sections of the West Bank, with the most desirable land snatched by extremist settlers, a condition reminiscent of apartheid South Africa’s Bantustans. Gaza in particular has been blockaded since 2007, with all movement of people and goods subject to the discretion of the Israeli occupation government, and importation of essentials severely reduced as the population of 1.85 million people concentrated in 141 square miles suffers from economic devastation and a lack of access to medicines and clean drinking water. Exasperating the desperate humanitarian situation are regular Israeli military incursions in the form of bombings, assassinations, and drone killings; Israeli government officials refer to these regular atrocities as “mowing the lawn.” 

General Dynamics is a long-time supplier of weapons to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and an eager participant in Israeli atrocities. In 2007, a $65-million-dollar deal bought 3,500 bombs for the IDF from General Dynamics; in 2012, $647-million worth of GD bombs were sold to Israel; and in 2015 the US State Department approved a $1.8-billion-dollar sale from GD to the IDF. A UN commission on the 2014 assault on Gaza reported on the devastation cause by those General Dynamics bombs:

Israeli forces attacked the Al-Hajj family’s home with one of General Dynamics’ bombs at 2 a.m. on July 10, 2014. The bomb killed all 8 members of the sleeping family, including two children and three women. The bomb appeared to be an MK-82 500-pound bomb fitted with JDAM technology. The blast completely destroyed the Al Hajj home and damaged twenty neighboring homes, injuring 20 other people, including 7 women and 4 children. The home was in a residential area and was not used in any military activity.

General Dynamics and the Border

Not content with the devastation of human life internationally, General Dynamics is also a major player in deploying surveillance technologies at the US-Mexico border as an integral part of the US policies rounding up migrants and separating children from families. The US southern border has long been a source of consternation and conflict for political and economic elites in the US, who attempt to balance the need for cheap immigrant labor with a perceived need to ‘secure’ the border, usually by whipping up jingoistic fervor against migrants. While the outright racism of Donald Trump brought the issue of migration and family separation to the forefront of political life, many of Trump’s policies had their roots in decades of cruel border control. The idea of some kind of physical barrier goes back at least to Bill Clinton and had bi-partisan support for decades, while Barack Obama’s administration began the policy of family separation, child detention and mass deportations, earning Obama the moniker “deporter-in-chief’ from immigrant rights activists. While Trump’s vengeful racist rants targeted Mexican migrants, migration at the southern border in recent years has largely been from Central America, especially the nations devastated by decades of US imperialist intervention and structural adjustment programs. Young migrants have been separated from their families and kept in inhumane conditions, while new barriers and increased surveillance have forced many migrants into the hands of human traffickers or to cross in physically dangerous locations. Xenophobic rhetoric and policies have generated new waves of racist vigilantes who patrol parts of the southern border on their own (in cooperation with ICE and the Border Patrol), and journalists have exposed that many Border Patrol agents are part of right-wing extremist Facebook groups, sharing memes and jokes about dead migrants, up to and including children. 

Those same CBP agents collaborating with vigilantes and sharing memes about dead migrants are often wielding General Dynamic gear. As of 2017, a General Dynamics subsidiary was providing the CBP with a remote video surveillance system across 68 sites to “detect, track, identify, and classify” migrants and refugees. A General Dynamics subsidiary, General Dynamics Information Technology, has received over $4 billion dollars from the US Office of Refugee Resettlement, providing staffing and support to the detention of immigrant children. 

General Dynamics and the Crown Family

General Dynamics as a modern defense contractor emerged during the boom in munitions production during the Cold War, and as the result of several mergers and divestitures. In 1959, Chicago industrialist Henry Crown merged his Material Service Corporation into General Dynamics and became the largest shareholder in General Dynamics. Today the Crown family owns 10% of General Dynamics and James Crown serves as the lead director of General Dynamics. Outside of the business of death, the Crown family has holdings in Rockefeller Center, the Chicago Bulls, and New York Yankees. Forbes magazine says that they are worth $10.2 billion and are the 34th wealthiest family in the US. The core of their wealth and power and their ability to finance political campaigns and philanthropic efforts is the money raised by selling weapons for imperial wars. 

The Crown Family and Politics 

The Crown family has put their blood-soaked money to good use, donating lavishly to politicians who ensure the maintenance of the US war machine is a top priority, and ensuring the smooth flow of contracts back to General Dynamics. One particularly revealing fact about the functioning of the US ruling elite is that the vast majority of Crown contributions have gone to politicians of the Democratic Party (although like any good gambler, they are known to hedge their bets and support Republicans as well). Just through publicly available records (and not taking into account ‘dark money’ and other forms of support), James Crown contributed $150 thousand to the “Biden Action Fund”, and another $106 thousand to the Democratic National Committee. In addition to supporting Biden, Crown also contributed to the “Republican Senate Problem Solvers Fund”, the “Problem Solver Republicans”, and Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn. Perhaps the ‘problems’ that Crown was trying to solve was the possibility that too many Democratic Senators might have pressured Biden to end the Yemen war? 

The most egregious example of the outsize political influence wielded by the Crown family to promote their pro-war imperialist agenda is the relationship between the Chicago-based Crown family and Barack Obama. Obama was presented as a candidate who would move the US away from the belligerency of the Bush era and promote a more humane and diplomatic foreign policy, and many of the people who had vehemently opposed the murderous war on Iraq ended up working to get Obama elected. Obama instead institutionalized the Bush-initiated ‘war on terror’ policies, continuing to keep US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and expanding the bootprint of the US around the world. Under the Obama administration, the US got involved in disastrous and devastating wars in Yemen, LIbya, and Syria and inaugurated a campaign of assassinations by special forces and drone strikes, including ordering the drone assassination of a US citizen and then killing his 16-year-old son in Yemen.

The Crown family were early benefactors of Obama, having a relationship with him dating back to 1989. The Crown family contributed $128,000 to Obama’s 2004 Senate race. James and his wife Paula were the Illinois fundraising chairs for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and among his four largest ‘bundlers’ nationwide, raising millions of dollars. Through donations from their family investment organization, the Crown family would chip in $100,000 to each of the Obama inaugurations. The relationship was mutually beneficial, as the Crowns not only provided funds for Obama, but also reassured important donors that the Black man with the middle name Hussain would go along with the US imperial program, especially with regards to support for Israel. In a 2008 interview with the Chicago Jewish News, Lester Crown (the son of Henry and father of James) said of Obama:

“…knowing him long before he got into politics, I know he is completely supportive, without any question or equivocation, of Israel’s security. He is only interested (in a two-state solution) if Israel’s security is absolutely assured, and that was his position long before he ever went into politics. His speeches to AIPAC are not new positions, merely the vocalization of what he has always believed…. From the time I met him, the times we talked about Israel, and we talked about it several times, he has been an ardent backer of Israel’s defense position, Israel’s security position. He has been a proponent of the two-state solution, but only on the hopes that you will have a demilitarized peaceful Palestinian entity, which you do not have now.”

These exchanges are not exclusively based on mutual financial benefit. There is a genuine unity between wealthy elites like the Crowns, major corporations like General Dynamics, and leading politicians, alongside the media and other major cultural institutions, that the US needs to remain the top-dog imperialist power in the world, meting out death and destruction wherever it sees fit to maintain that goal.  However, the Obama years were extremely profitable for the Crowns and General Dynamics: in addition to contracts with the Department of Defense and CBP, the Obama State and Defense departments facilitated sales in the billions to repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt. In addition to the General Dynamics contracts, James Crown sat on President Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board. In a show of bipartisanship, retired general James Mattis served on the General Dynamics board immediately preceding and immediately following his tenure as Donald Trump’s secretary of defense.

Philanthropy and Ideological Production 

In the face of increasingly brutal and clearly unjust occupation with clear parallels to apartheid, Lester Crown has been an outspoken defender of Israel, being named by the Jewish News Syndicate and Israeli embassy in Washington, DC as one of the greatest American contributors to US-Israeli relations. The rest of the family has preferred to build their contemporary public profiles around the arts, education, and philanthropy, barely mentioning General Dynamics in public articles and profiles. James’ sister-in-law Nancy Carrington Crown sits on the board of the Whitney museum, while Paula Crown, herself an artist who has made billboards against gun violence (you can’t make this stuff up), sits on the board of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. This is a prime example of what anti-gentrification activists have coined as artwashing: using the promotion of the arts or access to the arts as a cover for something much more pernicious. In this case arts-based philanthropy is washing the wealth gained through untold human suffering at the hands of the US war machine. 

There is no snappy term yet for washing this money through philanthropy, but perhaps we should just call it crownwashing, because they are experts at it. The flagship Crown family charity Crown Family Philanthropies has an estimated  $10 million dollar annual budget to fulfill its mission of (and once again, we’re not making this up) “repairing the world.” James’ sister Susan Crown operates her own charity, the Susan Crown Exchange. While not directly contributing to the human misery of US wars, these public-facing arts and charity philanthropic contributions and organizations contribute to normalizing and rationalizing the industry of death and destruction that generates all of the extravagant wealth in the first place. 

Most perniciously in creating public opinion for the wars they profit from is the role of the Crown family in generating scholarship and public opinion. The support generated for US imperialist foreign policy through scholarship, serious intellectual discussion, and media contributions have a much more insidious impact on ‘manufacturing consent’ for war today than simple resorts to nationalism. James Crown serves as the chairman of the Aspen Institute, a major mainstream liberal funder and thinktank, whose board includes Katie Couric, Arne Duncan, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Aspen is a major source of discussion of public policy and one of the forums where left-leaning elites can debate and discuss their serious policy proposals, with major players from Wall Street and of course James Crown and other leading proponents and profiteers of the US empire. In this sophisticated world of ideological apparatuses, an emphasis on ‘global security’ (really US domination) is smuggled in alongside other goals that, on paper at least, are admirable, such as racial equality and reducing world hunger (again, irony eludes these people).

In an adept display of both crownwashing and generating public opinion for war, the Crown family has extensively contributed to various institutions of higher learning. This includes contributing $10 million to Duke University in 2014, funding the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, and establishing and funding the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israeli Studies at Northwestern University. The Crown family’s recent $75-million-dollar donation to the University of Chicago ties the Crown name to ostensibly social justice oriented events such as the Crown Family School hosting the Prison Industrial Complex Abolition Symposium (no, we’re not making this up). We wonder if any Yemenis were invited to participate, or if abolishing the means of funding your school is a bridge too far. 

#cancelcrown

In a world with extreme rates of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, the kind of opulent wealth the Crown family has acquired, enabling generations of them to live as philanthropic dilettantes, is grotesque and immoral. And extreme inequality on a global scale could only be possible because of war and empire maintaining the ruling system. The depths of the ties that the Crown family and GD have throughout US society reveal that the US war machine is not a simple policy decision, not in the hands of one political party or the other, and not a simple money making venture, as is suggested by the term ‘military industrial complex.’ Through a thousand threads, the US war machine is a tightly woven nexus, involving politicians, corporations, the military, the media, the academy, and even arts institutions to promote the common interest of the whole of the US elite: death and destruction ‘over there’ to maintain their privilege ‘over here’. 

The Crown family and General Dynamics is only one thread in that nexus of the war machine. But it’s a thread that, if pulled, is uniquely positioned to reveal the participation of ‘neutral’, ‘objective’, or even ‘progressive’ institutions in the business of death. Exposing, embarrassing, and opposing the institutions that profit from or otherwise gain form their associations with the Crown family can help bring forward a renewed anti-imperialist consciousness and spirit of solidarity, not with the Crowns and Obamas, but with the people under the guns and boots of their empire. Through education, many new people can be united to oppose General Dynamics and the Crown Family, especially those involved in the Crown funded institutions. This creates a basis to actively disrupt the nexus between the Crowns, GD, and the war machine: for protest  to embarrass the institutions associated with them, for Crown family public appearances to be hounded by opposition, and their ability to crownwash their money severed. Those of us in Chicago are uniquely positioned to lead this campaign, to target (with protest) the Crown family on their ‘home turf’, and provide a vehicle for people in Chicago to resist the imperial consensus and stand with the people of the world. 

 Rise up with the people of the word. #cancelcrown.