Sons of Wichita: understanding the enigmatic Koch brothers


The Koch brothers have become a household names in the past decade. Three out of four brothers are major players in energy development in the West and across the country. Two are powerbrokers for the conservative right and have been at the forefront of bringing libertarianism into the political mainstream. In the energy and political arenas, much is made of the men today, but the origins of the actual brothers Koch – Fredrick, Charles, David and Bill – remain little known to most Americans.

In a new book, Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty, author Daniel Schulman attempts to understand the lives of these four enigmatic men. Schulman, a senior editor at Mother Jones magazine, explores how their childhoods in Kansas, their sibling rivalries and their early business ventures inform their political philosophies and other current endeavors, from their support of the Tea Party to their influence on the climate debate.

During their childhood, the brothers’ father would pit the younger twins against one another in impromptu boxing matches, and from the beginning of the book, Bill competes with his older brother Charles for their father’s approval – all of which sets the stage for endless legal battles and one-up-manship in their adult lives. At one point, in 1983, Bill seems to cut his losses when he creates his own energy company called Oxbow, “the term for a sharp, U-shaped bend in a river,” a “poetic nod to Bill’s own new direction.” Yet the family saga, Schulman writes, never truly ends.

Schulman recently spoke to High Country News about the book and the brothers both.

High Country News What inspired you to begin writing this book three years ago?

Daniel Schulman I heard Charles’ and David’s names coming up more and more in connection with their political involvement. I did cursory research and there were the outlines there of what seemed to be a really fascinating family story. You had a trifecta of a great business story, an interesting political story and a dramatic family saga.

The thing that helps you understand who these guys are – everything from their business philosophy to their political beliefs to the family feud that ripped the family apart begins with the patriarch, Fred Koch. He was this young upstart oil engineer in the 1920s whose firm at that time was selling an oil refining process. Their first major overseas contract was with the Soviet Union.

The result of it was to help to industrialize USSR and put it on the path to becoming a world superpower. But Fred Koch was horrified by what he saw there and returned to the United States vowing to do everything he could to stop the spread of communism. You can see it come full circle in the Obama age with the fear of socialism that is sort of coursing through the right in this country.

Bill, Charles, and David Koch in Lincoln, Massachusetts, in 1968, the year after their father's death. Charles was then running the family company. Bill was earning a Ph.D and overseeing a family venture capital fund, and David was working in New York City for the chemical company Halcon International. Photo credit: Mikki Ansin.

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Jun 17, 2014 02:09 PM
Let's not forget the David H. Koch Fund for Science is a big contributor to PBS's Nova series, and despite PBS denials, allegedly has already bigfooted it on global warming.
Mark M Rostenko
Mark M Rostenko
Jun 17, 2014 09:58 PM
ah, how touching, the stabbing one another in the back over money, that special kind of brotherly love that only money can buy... lovely family - at least they know what's TRULY important in life!
Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Jun 18, 2014 07:09 AM
Daddy problems and sibling rivalry. That explains everything about these guys.