Kafka’s Tanks: an Early US Attempt to Enter the Gulf Arms Market

Collectively, the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) form one of the largest and most lucrative markets in the world for the global arms industry. American companies in particular have benefitted from the GCC’s extremely high levels of military spending. Kuwait, with an annual military expenditure of over $5bn, is no exception to this trend. In 2012 alone, it was reported to have signed weapons contracts with American suppliers worth approximately $4.2bn. These arms sales form a key component in the strong military and political alliance that exists between the US and the Arab Gulf states.

However, eighty years ago, in 1934, the situation was dramatically different. At that time, Kuwait did not possess a formal military force at all and the oil deposits which have since given the country enormous wealth had not been discovered, let alone exploited. Politically meanwhile, the British Empire was still very much in the ascendancy in the Persian Gulf. The US, in common with any other foreign power, was barred by Britain from establishing any formal diplomatic presence or representation in Kuwait. Nevertheless, files in the India Office Records held at the British Library, reveal that even then – in a pre-cursor to the US’ later hegemonic position in the region – American arms companies had begun to target Kuwait as a potential market for the sale of their goods.

1) Letter from Otto Kafka, January 23 1934 (IOR/R/15/1/505, f 175)

In January 1934, Otto Kafka, President of Otto Kafka Incorporated, New York, wrote two letters addressed to the Minister of War in Kuwait. Since Kuwait did not actually have a Minister of War (or an equivalent), the letters were instead delivered to its ruler, Shaikh Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah.

The first letter – written in “a spirit of cooperation” – extolls the virtues of ‘Disston Impenetra’ steel and underlines the role it can play in protecting “invaluable life in combat” not only with the “potential enemy across the border” but also the “just as dangerous and more sinister, domestic enemy who threatens established institutions, law and order”. The letter remarks that “[i]t takes twenty-one years and more to produce and develop an efficient combatant and only the fraction of a second to extinguish his life”.

In the second letter, Kafka describes in detail the specifications of the Disston Six Ton Tractor-Tank; “a combination of war and peace machine” that had reportedly “created a sensation in military and police circles”. Kafka stresses the tank’s small size and suitability for use in city streets and “difficult war terrain”.

2) Letter from Otto Kafka, January 23 1934 (IOR/R/15/1/505, f 176)

Accompanying Kafka’s letters was a glossy promotional pamphlet in which it is proudly stated that the ‘tractor-tank’ possesses chemical warfare capabilities and could be be equipped ‘with a giant military candle filled with smoke, tear or vomiting gas’. The pamphlet also observes that its armor plating could be removed and the machine then used for agricultural purposes and other public works. Notwithstanding the ostensible dual-functionality of the ‘tractor-tank’ and Kafka’s polished sales pitch, it appears that his attempt to interest Kuwait in his company’s products failed and no purchases were made.

The “Disston Six Ton Tractor-Tank” (IOR/R/15/1/505, f 178)

When reporting the incident to his seniors, Harold Dickson, the British Political Agent in Kuwait, remarked sardonically that Otto Kafka’s attempt was “not a very edifying procedure when their Government (the U.S.A) is supposed to be taking the leading part in the world today to try and stop war etc.” Dickson’s sentiment – although hypocritical given Britain’s colonial role in the region – feels remarkably familiar today, when the US has grown to become so dominant in the global arms trade that its annual sales, valued at $66bn in 2011, account for around three quarters of all sales globally.

Letter from Harold Dickson, 15 February 1934 (IOR/R/15/1/505, f 174)

Louis Allday, 02/10/2015


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s