|SONS OF WICHITA
How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and
New York: Grand Central Publishing, May 2014
Among those of a politically liberal persuasion, Charles & David Koch have become the bétes noir of the American political scene. It is not that they are candidates for office. Rather, they contribute large portions of their personal fortunes to conservative causes — and conceal, as well as they are able, the nature of their contributions. Charles and David are two of the four brothers heir to their father's oil fortune, and the two who built it into the conglomerate known today as Koch Industries. This is their saga.
Fred Koch, the family patriarch, was born in Quanah, Texas on 23 September 1900. Located just east of the Texas panhandle, Quanah was then a frontier town, and Fred had ample opportunity as a boy to roam its fields, fish its clear streams, hunt its abundant game. But when he grew to manhood, his ambition steered him toward more technical work. He spent a year at Rice University in Houston, then earned an engineering degree at MIT. After working for several companies in the burgeoning oil industry, he settled in Wichita, Kansas. There, with a partner, he established the Winkler-Koch Engineering Company. He married Mary Robinson and raised four sons: Frederick, Charles, and the fraternal twins David and Bill.
Lewis Winkler had worked at Universal Oil Products prior to partnering with Fred Koch, and the smaller firm introduced a variant of the petroleum-cracking process developed at Universal. Inevitably, Universal brought suit against Winkler-Koch for patent infringement, and a 20-year battle ensued. Domestic business was hard for the smaller firm to find, and Fred worked extensively in the Soviet Union. He saw the poor conditions under which workers there lived, and he met the doctrinaire communist revolutionaries who vowed to conquer America.1 He was, accordingly, ripe for recruitment when Robert Welch summoned him secretly to Indianapolis in December 1958 to join in the formation of the John Birch Society. Welch spoke extensively during the two-day meeting of the threat posed by the world communist conspiracy:
"This octopus is so large," Welch said, "that its tentacles now reach into all of the legislative halls, all of the union labor meetings, a majority of the religious gatherings, and most of the schools of the whole world. It has a central nervous system which can make its tentacles in the labor unions of Bolivia, in the farmers' cooperatives of Saskatchewan, in the caucuses of the Social Democrats of West Germany, and in the classrooms of Yale Law School, all retract or reach forward simultaneously. It can make all of these creeping tentacles turn either right or left, or a given percentage turn right while the others turn left, at the same time, in accordance with the intentions of a central brain in Moscow or Ust-Kamenogorsk. The human race has never before faced any such monster of power which was determined to enslave it."
– Robert Welch, pages 43-44
Defeating communism became Fred's political passion, and he devoted significant company funds to this goal. But, being first of all an astute businessman, he grew the company to an impressive size. Thus begins the saga of a business empire begun by a patriarch in the truest sense: a stern taskmaster who had no truck with nonsense. For his four sons, that meant they should avail themselves of a practical education that would fit them for superior accomplishment.
A senior editor in the Washington bureau of Mother Jones, Dan Schulman gives us here a compelling saga of the origin and expansion of the company that became Koch Industries, vying with Cargill for the title of largest privately held firm in America. His first book, it took him two years to write. He provides only an outline of the business side of things, however, describing the highlights rather that giving a detailed history. Those highlights include Winkler-Koch's battle with Universal, Fred's work in the USSR, and Charles's 2005 acquisition of Georgia-Pacific.
Schulman devotes more attention to interactions between the family members, such as the often destructive rivalries instigated by Bill, and to the political and philanthropic activities of Fred and the four brothers. He has a good deal to say about pipeline ruptures and other failures which brought KI into conflict with government. Suffice it to say here that such failures were numerous.3 But the thing I was most interested in reading about — their positions on climate change — is covered only perfunctorily. I don't fault him for that; his beat is politics.
In the main, then, this is a comprehensive and well-documented account of the lives of the Koch family and their impact on the United States. It does not demonize them, and with good reason. Indeed, I could not tell from his writing which way the author leans politically. (Of course, since he works for Mother Jones, he probably leans liberal.) The book is also a page-turner. Extensive notes and an excellent index make it a keeper for political junkies. Grammatical errors are few. Its worst flaw is the cursory nature of its description of the patent dispute; it gives the impression that Winkler-Koch was justified in fighting the infringement suit, when the circumstances clearly indicate that Winkler applied Universal's IP at his new company. I'm not going to mark it down for that, however, since the dispute was part of the patriarch's era. It matters in this narrative through the effect their father's long legal battle had on his sons, and whether the father was right or wrong would not change that.