All My Sons and What is Ethics?

Thomas Fox
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Compliance Evangelist

I recently saw the Arthur Miller play All My Sons. For someone who grew up being taught that Miller was America’s great post-World War playwriter, it certainly held to that standard. Indeed it was one of the most powerful plays I have seen in sometime. The cast was first-rate, with Annette Bening billed as the star but was only one of a great group of ensemble actors. Bening played Kate, the wife of Joe Keller, played by Tracy Letts, and mother of Chris, played by Benjamin Walker. The fourth key actor was Ann Deaver, played by Francesca Carpanini, who had a relationship with the Keller’s eldest son Larry who died in the war, and now wants to marry Chris.

All My Sonsis set in 1947 Ohio, concerns the complicity of Keller in the manufacture of faulty pistons for airplane engines to be used in the war effort. Keller orders his business partner, who discovers defective engine parts, to weld over the defects and ship the pistons. These defective pistons went into aircraft engines and some 21 men died when their planes crashed. The crime for which his partner, Steve Deever, Ann Deever’s father and whom we never see, is sent to jail. In the 1947 version of the play, Keller is arrested but eventfully is set free when he agreed to pin the full blame on his partner.

All My Sonsis based upon a true story. From 1941–43 the Wright brother’s aircraft manufacturing concern conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines destined for military use. Whistleblowing employees, disgusted with their management’s continence of this massive fraud, reported the story to investigators working the Truman Committee, which was formally known as the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. The Truman Committee was a Congressional investigative body, headed by Senator Harry S. Truman to find and correct problems in US war production with waste, fraud and abuse. These whistleblowers later testified before the Truman Committee. In 1944, three Army Air Force officers, Lt. Col. Frank C. Greulich, Major Walter A. Ryan, and Major William Bruckmann, were relieved of duty and convicted of neglect of duty.

In the play, Chris is a traumatized vet who clearly suffers from both Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD) and survivor’s guilt having lost his entire squad in an un-named engagement. Ann was romantically involved with Chris’s older brother Larry who went missing on an air raid. Chris’ mother Kate refuses to believe her son is dead and believes that if she gives her blessing for Chris to marry Ann it will be admitting Larry is really dead.

Ann has disavowed her father after he was convicted, she either does not believe her father’s story that Keller, as majority owner, had ordered him to approve the defective products and then conceal their defects by welding over them or feels her father’s own complicity is not mitigated by anyone else’s conduct. Ann’s brother, George, believes their father’s story and goes to the Keller house to confront the Kellers and stop the impending engagement. Ann eventually sends him away.

All of this leads to the revelation that Larry killed himself on his final mission after he read a newspaper article about his father’s duplicity in the fraud scheme. He sent a letter to Ann dated the day before he went missing announcing his intention to “go missing”. At this point, the mother Kate goes into near hysterics as she must confront the fact that her oldest boy is gone forever.

This also leads to the final confrontation between Joe, Chris and Ann. Joe finally admits that he ordered Deever to weld over the cracks in the defective pistons and ship them out. It was the classic fraud triangle at work as Joe tries to justify to Chris why he did so. Pressure. Joe first argues that everyone was doing the same thing; it was war and if his factory did not produce the government would find someone else who would do so. Opportunity. It turns out that Deever did call Joe at home to tell his that one shift’s run of pistons had a crack in the housing and when given the opportunity to do the right thing and destroy them, Joe ordered the deception. Rationalization. Here Joe tries to argue some higher truth to Chris that he did it for his family.

After Joe reads Larry’s to Ann, comes the most memorable lines in the play. Joe said, “Sure, he was my son. But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were.” As he concluded saying those lines, the theater was dead silent. He then goes into the house, ostensibly to get a coat and go turn himself into the authorities at the behest of his son. However during this incredible silence in the theater, a shot rings out, announcing to all that Joe has killed himself.

This story packed in so much relevance to a 2019 audience. There was fraud, waste and abuse. Active whistleblowers speaking up to an oversight committee. Investigations leading to jail time for persons who abused their positions of authority with the government. Yet the one thing that struck me the deepest was that line “they were all my sons.” It makes clear the insidiousness of corruption, even if that corruption was in a manufacturing process. If businesses were to understand that if they engage in bribery and corruption, the impact is much larger than simply the bribe they pay for the business opportunity. It can literally ruin the lives of many more people.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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