Investigative journalist Denton (The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right, 2012, etc.) offers an ambitious “empire biography” of the Bechtel family and the secretive, privately held construction company–turned–diversified international conglomerate that has been “inextricably enmeshed” in U.S. foreign policy for seven decades.
In this incredible-seeming but deeply researched book, the author traces the phenomenal rise of the California-based corporation that became famous for building the Hoover Dam and went on to handle billion-dollar projects from the Channel Tunnel to the Big Dig; to construct airports, power plants, and entire cities; to cart away the wreckage of the World Trade Center and rebuild Iraq; to privatize America’s nuclear weapons business (assuming control of Los Alamos, etc.); and, in the end, to complete 25,000 projects in 160 countries. Now the world’s largest contractor, with offices in 50 nations, Bechtel, from 1999 to 2013, received $40 billion in contracts from the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense. “Despite its fiercely antiregulatory, antigovernment stance,” writes Denton, “the Bechtel family owes its entire fortune to the U.S. government.” She describes the dizzying revolving door between Bechtel’s headquarters and the federal government: Bechtel executives that include John McCone, George P. Shultz, and Casper Weinberger have passed through, forging links with the CIA and other government agencies and leading to favorable contracts and subsidies. Whether in war-torn Europe, the Middle East, or elsewhere, it has always been “difficult to determine if Bechtel was doing favors for the US government, or if it was the other way around.” Parts of this mammoth story have been told before, but Denton has shaped it into a taut, page-turning narrative detailing the company’s machinations under five generations of family leadership. She concludes that the firm is “either a brilliant triumph or an iconic symbol of grotesque capitalism.”
Filled with stories of cronyism and influence peddling, Denton’s riveting and revealing book will undoubtedly displease the so-called “boys from Bechtel,” who refused to talk to Denton, referring her to the company website.