October 4, 2022
Hardcover, 464 pages
The “chip” at the center of this engrossing new book is neither a salty treat nor a short golf swing. It’s an “integrated circuit,” a silicon wafer about the size of a human fingernail, with millions or even billions of microscopic transistors and other components etched onto its thin surface.
Invented in Dallas, Texas, in 1958, the first crude, basic integrated circuit earned a Nobel Prize for Jack Kilby, a Texas Instruments (TI) engineer. Today’s modern integrated-circuit chips (also known as semiconductor chips, logic chips, processor chips, smart chips, and other names) are at the heart of virtually every convenience and necessity in our lives, from smartphones, cars, televisions, and healthcare to military weapons, stock exchanges, and space satellites. Integrated-circuit chips seldom are visible, but their importance in our lives is expanding. Meanwhile, new problems in the global chip supply chain are endangering America’s economic and national security.
More than a dozen new chip-making plants totaling nearly $200 billion have recently been announced for Texas, and some already are under construction. Chip-making had its beginnings in Texas more than 60 years ago, and the most complicated and important chips soon will be manufactured here, too.
Chris Miller’s Chip War tells a wide-ranging story that includes how Jack Kilby and a few other TI scientists and executives launched Texas as the key player in the nascent semiconductor chip industry. A few years later, several digital visionaries and risk-taking entrepreneurs began building chip factories in an area of California later to be known as “Silicon Valley.” Meanwhile, TI kept expanding, and other companies entered the semiconductor business in the Lone Star State.
Soon, several Asian nations opened their own plants, paid workers very low wages, and charged buyers low prices. To stay competitive and save money, many U.S. firms began outsourcing their most critical and complicated chips to Asia and putting less funding into building up their own chip-making capabilities. The outcome, the author emphasizes, has been “globalization gone wrong.”
Clarity is a key emphasis in this well-researched, well-written book. Miller, who teaches international history and is involved in foreign policy research for several organizations, is good at explaining the complicated details of a high-tech dilemma now posing many difficulties for the world.
He writes that when the coronavirus temporarily shut down chip factories in 2020, critical chip shortages quickly occurred everywhere. “Then, over 2021, a series of accidents—a fire in a Japanese semiconductor facility; ice storms in Texas, a center of U.S. chipmaking; and a new round of COVID lockdowns in Malaysia, where many chips are assembled and tested—intensified these disruptions.” America’s military faced long delays in getting critical parts. Major carmakers and manufacturers in numerous other industries and nations had to shut down for weeks, leaving many workers unpaid and customers with unfilled orders or desperately short of needed parts and supplies.
One other Texas-related story in Chip War illuminates why the U.S. and China are once again at loggerheads over Taiwan and why the White House, Congress, and huge companies such as Texas Instruments, Samsung, and others are swiftly pushing billions of dollars into new, cutting-edge chip fabrication plants. In 1983, Morris Chang, a talented and ambitious Chinese immigrant who had lived most of his life in Texas and risen through TI’s management ranks, was in line to become Texas Instruments’ chief executive officer. But when he was passed over for the post, he left, moved to Taiwan, and launched his own chip company. “Today,” Miller notes, “no firm fabricates chips with more precision than the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) [founded by Chang].” “TMSC [now] builds almost all of the world’s most advanced processor chips.”
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo put that situation under a starker spotlight during a recent interview with writer-journalist Thomas L. Friedman. “Today,” she told him, “we are purchasing 100 percent of our advanced logic chips from abroad—90 percent from TSMC in Taiwan and 10 percent from Samsung in Korea. We do not make in the U.S. any of the chips we need for artificial intelligence, for our military, for our satellites.”
Chip War can be important and informative reading for almost anyone seeking to know more about current digital chip technology, its wide importance, and what could happen if its fragile supply chain is disrupted again, whether by accident, a new pandemic, or war.
Chris Miller is Assistant Professor of International History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He also serves as Jeane Kirkpatrick Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Eurasia Director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and as a Director at Greenmantle, a New York and London-based macroeconomic and geopolitical consultancy. He is the author of three previous books—Putinomics, The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy, and We Shall Be Masters—and he frequently writes for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, and other outlets. He received a PhD in history from Yale University and a BA in history from Harvard University.