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Cold War Cult

Inside RAND, Robert McNamara's favourite think tank.

By Crawford Kilian 8 Jul 2009 |

Contributing editor Crawford Kilian used to walk past the RAND Corporation on his way to Santa Monica High School in the 1950s.

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RAND: Heyday of war nerds. Illustration by Quinn Kelly.
  • Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire
  • Alex Abella
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Brace (2008)

You probably never heard of the RAND Corporation, but it's indirectly influenced your life more than any government or institution in North America.

And during a week when U.S. President Barack Obama is summit-meeting with the leadership of a resurgent Russia, and the ultimate Cold War "soldier of reason" Robert McNamara has died, Alex Abella's history of the think tank makes fascinating and cautionary reading.

Early in its 60 years, this Santa Monica-based nonprofit corporation taught the U.S. Air Force how to fight a nuclear war while assuring the rest of us that such a war would be kind of OK. But it's done much more.

Early on, RAND economist Kenneth Arrow argued mathematically that individuals always act rationally in their own interest, not in the interest of groups. This philosophy developed into Reaganism (government is the problem) and Thatcherism (society doesn't exist). It has guided the policies of George W. Bush.

RAND developed "systems analysis," a logical, mathematical approach to problems. Its analysts argued, for example, that fallout shelters and evacuation into deep mines could save millions of American lives. That would make a nuclear war not just fightable, but winnable. Herman Kahn, an advocate of such wars, became the model for Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

Paul Baran, another RAND analyst, thinking about surviving a Soviet nuclear attack, invented a way to use digital communications. His information packets are the foundation of the modern internet.

Irrational patriotism

Systems analysis had an eager ally in Robert McNamara, who died Monday. When McNamara was U.S. defence secretary, he told his boss, President Lyndon Johnson, that Vietnam was a winnable war. Then RAND analysts interviewed Vietcong prisoners and found them alarmingly irrational and unconcerned about their individual interests. Instead, they were patriots determined to unify their country at any cost. The analysts decided the U.S. had put itself on the losing side of the war, but by then it was too late.

It was a RAND analyst, Daniel Ellsberg, who secretly photocopied the top-secret history of the Vietnam War and released it to the U.S. media. As The Pentagon Papers, that leak discredited a generation of America's best and brightest.

Alex Abella's Soldiers of Reason is a disturbing history of very smart people putting their brains at the service of very stupid ideas. He managed to interview many of the key persons in the organizations, as well as friends and relatives of those who launched RAND after World War II. The result is a book rich in ironies.

Perhaps the richest irony is that RAND owes much of its success to an ex-communist who kept his radical youth a secret. Albert Wohlstetter had been part of a 1930s generation -- the brightest and poorest. They attended City College of New York [CCNY] because Columbia, a few blocks downtown, was too expensive. It also had a quota on Jews.

Stalinists versus Trotskyites

Wohlstetter, a brilliant young mathematician, knew the CCNY Reds who sat at separate cafeteria tables -- the Stalinists at one, the Trotskyites at another.

Some of the names of the CCNY Trots still resonate today: Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell. They soon migrated from the left to the anti-Soviet right, and flourished in Cold War America. Kristol's son William is a neo-conservative who edits the right-wing Weekly Standard magazine, and he remains Sarah Palin's promoter within the Republicans even at this strange stage in her public evolution.

Not yet political, Wohlstetter left CCNY in 1934 and managed to study law at Columbia. There he applied his math skills to politics and philosophy. His mathematics and logic led him to join a neo-Trotskyite splinter group called the League for a Revolutionary Workers Party.

Fortunately for him, his party records were lost in a traffic accident. While he left the League, he never abandoned his view of the Soviet Union as a system determined to conquer the world. His mission in life was to thwart that system.

Wohlstetter spent World War II as a government bureaucrat, and then, in postwar Los Angeles, bumped into an old colleague who invited him to apply for a job with the new RAND Corporation. With his communist past well concealed, he got the job -- and, Abella suggests, prevented the possibility of a Soviet first strike on American air bases.

Wohlstetter's analysis of the vulnerability of the Strategic Air Command didn't just teach the Air Force to disperse its bases. It also made him a major force in U.S. strategic thinking. RAND's systems analysis approach has dominated American policy-making ever since.

The sorcerer's apprentices

Wohlstetter strongly influenced John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. He eventually left RAND, but his impact endured. By the time he died in 1996, at the age of 86, he had inspired and advanced a new generation of apprentices who would become the neocons: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Zalmay Khalilzad.

As soldiers of reason, the neocons believed in numbers and systems and individualism. Trotsky's bastards, they imagined themselves "scientific" just as the Bolsheviks had. Like the Bolsheviks, they believed in reason yet never examined their basic premises. Their patriotism was as irrational as that of the Vietcong, but far more destructive.

It didn't matter. As long as they had access to the billions in the US defence budget, and they could invoke a Soviet or terrorist threat, they flourished.

Abella, a fine writer, does a beautiful job of evoking both the culture of RAND and the personalities of its major figures. We can really believe they were as smart as he says they were. Many, including Wohlstetter and Kahn, emerge as genuinely likable men with charm and wit. That makes them all the more disturbing.

RAND's greatest triumphs were the war in Iraq and the economic policies of the Bush administration. Now both are in ruins. But for the foreseeable future we will live with the consequences of RAND’s thinking, just as we have for the past 60 years.

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