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In this trenchant analysis, historian Bruce Kuklick examines the role of intellectuals in foreign policymaking. He recounts the history of the development of ideas about strategy and foreign policy during a critical period in American history: the era of the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The book looks at how the country's foremost thinkers advanced their ideas during this time of United States expansionism, a period that culminated in the Vietnam War and détente with the Soviets. Beginning with George Kennan after World War II, and concluding with Henry Kissinger and the Vietnam War, Kuklick examines the role of both institutional policymakers such as those at The Rand Corporation and Harvard's Kennedy School, and individual thinkers including Paul Nitze, McGeorge Bundy, and Walt Rostow.
Kuklick contends that the figures having the most influence on American strategy--Kissinger, for example--clearly understood the way politics and the exercise of power affects policymaking. Other brilliant thinkers, on the other hand, often played a minor role, providing, at best, a rationale for policies adopted for political reasons. At a time when the role of the neoconservatives' influence over American foreign policy is a subject of intense debate, this book offers important insight into the function of intellectuals in foreign policymaking.
"A provocative exploration of the connection between knowledge and politics that evaluates the role of intellectuals in formulating US foreign policy form 1945 to 1975, Kuklick divides his learned actors into three groups: scientifically oriented experts attached to the RAND Corporation; foreign policy academics, mostly social scientists who were associated with Richard Neustadt and Ernest May; and the university-based academics, such as McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger. The value of Kuklick's analysis resides in the connections he makes between the individuals in each group; his assessment of their commitment to the theoretical principles he outlines; and his evaluation of the practical consequences of the intellectuals' approaches. . . . Kuklick concludes that the impact of ideas on policy was often minimal, unintentional, and less significant than political considerations."--Choice
"Bruce Kuklick has written an engaging and important study of the national security concepts of intellectuals and their influence on the policies of the United States during the period between the end of World War II and the Vietnam War. . . . Kuklick . . . demonstrates . . . an impressive capacity to relate ideas to politics and diplomacy."--Gary R. Hess, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
"The thesis of the book can be simply stated. The foreign policy intellectuals who applied academic expertise to Cold War issues were mostly misguided. . . . This volume is likely to provoke an interesting debate about the role of academics and social science theories in contemporary American foreign policy. In that debate, it will not be hard to know where Kuklick stands."--Robert A. Strong, Journal of American History
"Kuklick's is . . . an informative and persuasive account of a significant subject matter, argued with skill and eruditeness. In recounting the origins and evolutions of intellectual and strategic thought, Kuklick offers a powerful deconstruction of the individuals and organizations of the epoch."--Kaeten Mistry, 49th Parallel
"Creative, ambitious, and stimulating, Blind Oracles is conceived as something more than just a straight history of ideas about international affairs. It explores not just the content of these thinkers' ideas but how the ideas played out when put into practice. . . . [A] distinctive addition to the literature on Cold War thought."--David Greenberg, Political Science Quarterly
"[T]his brief but rich study offers more insights per page than just about any other work on the Cold War of which this reader knows."--Frank Ninkovich, The Historian
AT THE END OF 1961 John Kennedy appointed Walt Whitman Rostow head of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department. Almost fifteen years before, George Kennan had held the same job and provided intellectual leadership for the Truman administration after publishing the famous X-article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." From this position Rostow, an MIT economist and the celebrated author of The Stages of Economic Growth (1960), wrote a paper, "Basic National Security Policy," that tried simultaneously to elaborate a vision of America's role in the world and to guide decisions. Rostow circulated it among Kennedy's advisors on foreign affairs-preeminently former Harvard dean and then assistant for national security McGeorge Bundy and his staff; Robert McNamara and the "Whiz Kids" in the Department of Defense; and Kennan himself, serving briefly as ambassador to Yugoslavia.
During this period, "the best and the brightest" made learned discussion the common currency of Washington politics, and intellectuals and their ideas stepped from the academy onto a world stage. But the times were rife with ironic tales, one of which wasRostow's. His associates reacted strongly to his essay. Rostow believed that a nuclear war was winnable, but Kennan wrote to him that he would "rather see my children dead" than have them experience such a thing. More important, Kennan told Rostow, the emphasis on economic development was "irresponsible," "reckless[ly] plundering," and "vulgar." McNamara's staff of civilian strategic thinkers did not bother to take issue with the substance but simply said that Rostow's work "should be ... thrown away." McNamara shared this opinion less openly. The text needed extensive and time-consuming editing, which the secretary of defense did not consider "remunerative." The men around Bundy also doubted that the ideas were "worth the trouble." His deputy, Carl Kaysen, called Rostow's document "bean soup," "blah, blah, blah, blah," "silly," "a lot of nonsense" in which the president "just wasn't interested." In a memo to Rostow, Kaysen mocked the ideas of The Stages of Economic Growth that permeated the text of the proposed national security document. Bundy, the most significant critic, persistently objected to the idea that Rostow could write down "doctrine" for the United States. It was foolish to think a strategy existed distinct from the decisions of the president and the people around him like Bundy.
IDEAS AND POLITICS IN AMERICA
This book examines questions of ideas and foreign affairs on which the Rostow episode touches. What is the role of knowledge in politics? What should learning offer public life? How do political and learned culture contrast? This case study gives limited answers to these questions and others like them by exploring what occurred in the United States from World War II to Vietnam, when men interested in applying scholarly concepts to international policy obtained a distinctive voice in the counsels of state.
Over the course of American history, diplomacy has attracted many thoughtful people. In the nineteenth century we can look to Jefferson, Madison, John Quincy Adams, William Seward, and Richard Olney. In the twentieth century, in addition to the people I will talk about in some detail, there are, for example, Elihu Root, Henry Stimson, Herbert Hoover, James Schlesinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Cyrus Vance, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz. International affairs beguile contemplative people concerned with civic life. Diplomacy is often separated from the hurly-burly of domestic politics, and secrecy surrounds it. Questions about the nature of a polity, sovereignty, the role of force in human endeavors, and deep issues of patria never need be far from the thoughts of the policymaker. An aura of experience and dignity sets the world of the statesman off from that of the politician.
When we say that a decision was "political," or that something happened "because of politics" or was resolved "on political grounds," we mean to say that even if a good decision was made, it was not made on the basis of the merits. We often assume that there is such a basis, though it may be indeterminate. The contesting parties in the disputed election of 2000 sometimes resembled two packs of animals fighting over a piece of meat. Their spokespeople, however, constantly tried to provide legitimacy for the actions of whichever group they represented, despite the fact that they were partisans. Their inability to ratify the behavior of either side was not surprising. Metaphorically, they had a ten-foot ladder with which they were attempting to span a twelve-foot crevasse, and only miraculous or illusory techniques could be successful. There was an unbridgeable gap between the struggle of interests and the laudable. Even when the winner of the election was determined, the victory lacked authority for many. "Politics" had resolved the conflict-not justice but the structure of power, which might be cultural, military, or intellectual.
THE HISTORICAL SETTING
People who think about civic life worry about this disjuncture between politics and merit. If politics were rational, decisions would be uncontestable, and in the twentieth century American thinkers on war and peace emphasized that knowledge and science might leverage politics into the realm of the right. Within the profession of political science itself an ideal occupation was to sit for a time at the side of leaders, and the prerogatives of thinkers in international affairs were emphasized. But commentators brought both historical and contemporary approaches to bear in the hope of creating a more reasoned foreign policy. From the Greeks to the present, historians of political ideas told college-trained Americans, good leaders had had the assistance of experts.
The Greek Plato headed an institute for statesmen, the Academy. In The Republic Plato analogized the harmonious state to the harmonious soul. The just polity and the just individual were for him structurally identical, because reason ruled in each. In the book he outlined the contours of the perfect city led by a class of guardians schooled in Platonic thought. For Plato genuine political understanding was a special sort of knowledge. The guardian-kings would be philosophers, those who studied the nature of life and governance. The guardians would know what was right and good, and would rule their city accordingly. Plato said that the human race would not advance until those who studied philosophy acquired power, or those who had political control became philosophers.
In early-modern and modern Europe, whose traditions were thought to derive from those of the Greeks, political thinkers were also involved in contemporary politics. Niccolo 'Machiavelli had a minor political career in the small Italian states during the Renaissance. His classic text, The Prince (1513), showed how rulers everywhere should use reason and enlightened self-interest to preserve their power. According to the canonical wisdom, The Prince began the modern, realistic period of political thought, because Machiavelli was concerned with the statesman's effectiveness. He was ambiguous about whether the model statesman should pursue just policies or should merely be, in the standard phrase, Machiavellian.
One hundred and fifty years after Machiavelli, John Locke and his followers, on the contrary, expounded the essentials of democracy. In addition to drawing up the constitution for the Carolina colony in British North America, Locke wrote his Second Treatise of Government (1690). He began a tradition of liberal thought, and his successors spoke for the sane impulses of modernizing Britain, which envisioned that politics would purge itself of the irrational. This became the modest equivalent of Plato's hope that one could square the circle of power and knowledge.
A subsidiary current of the late eighteenth century flowing from Locke-the political development that led to revolution in the British colonies-was particularly interesting in the United States. The American Founding Fathers defended a mixed form of popular government. In the Federalist Papers three of these men-Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay-pondered the historical experience of the ancient world. They used a rough-and-ready empiricism and common sense of a high order to comment on the Constitution, which had safely navigated the American people thereafter.
By the late nineteenth century, according to accepted views, the social order might pervert the political thinker. Karl Marx indicted Western economic and political life in Das Kapital (1867-94). His followers also theorized about society but, by the early twentieth century, showed that the Marxist tradition was equally adept in the world of politics. Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin brought Communist rule to Russia in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and created the Soviet Union. Although they demonstrated how powerful ideas could be in the real world, as antidemocratic philosophers, these Marxists were, for Americans, crooked instances of Plato's philosopher-kings.
A comparatively mild set of prescriptions about the role of knowledge in politics in the United States paralleled the European developments that gave rise to the Communist state. After the Civil War, a generation of well-to-do citizens advocated the efficient rule of "the best men," devoted to honest government and motivated by the common good. Political machines in American cities, which immigrants and their slightly more Americanized urban leadership dominated, underscored the need for such governance. Its rationale was elaborated by later university-trained generations skilled in new sciences of society. Reformers brought into government individuals who emphasized scholarship about administration that managers would carry out impartially. The progressive president Woodrow Wilson, himself one of the first generation of American doctorates in the social study of politics, was prepared at the graduate school at Johns Hopkins and called, ultimately, to the presidency of Princeton. Wilson imbibed common ideas of a neutral commitment to advancing public life. In 1912 his future assistant for both domestic and foreign policies, Edward House, wrote a novel, Philip Dru: Administrator. In this fantasy set in the 1920s and 1930s, Dru, a former West Pointer who has won a national prize for strategic thinking in war, leads a successful revolution against a corrupted American government. As a dictator, "panoplied in justice and with the light of reason in his eyes," he proclaims himself "Administrator of the Republic," and solves all of the country's domestic problems. Shortly before giving up power and sailing off with his beloved, the Administrator deftly and efficiently establishes a new international order to "bring about the comity of nations."
The closest Wilson himself came to this sort of viewpoint was to create a group of university-based advisors, "The Inquiry," who prepared reports at the Versailles Conference after successful American participation in World War I. This group exemplified the president's idea of the relation between expertise and foreign policy. For the president and these men, the American program formulated at the end of World War I properly fell within the province of scholarship. Wilsonianism was "a scientific peace," based on "the disinterested finding of specialists." Wilson famously told a group of these academics: "Tell me what's right and I'll fight for it. Give me a guaranteed position."
The advice of scholars about the virtues of administrative science was vague and talismanic up through World War II. However, after 1945 the discipline changed and so did the goals of the learned involved in politics. Universities emerged from the war with a sense of their scientific character. More hard-headed appraisals for taming the irrationality of politics would replace old nostrums of administrative reorganization. Certainly these ideas antedated World War II, and older students of administration and newer experts on policy shared many beliefs. Nonetheless, a young generation of Ph.D.s argued that real progress warranted innovative claims to authority. Rostow's essay was only one of many such claims, but just as the responses to it suggest the essay's tortured history, so the stories of other brainy attempts to get a purchase on global affairs are similarly convoluted.
INTELLECTUALS AND WAR
The "intellectuals" in my title comprise three overlapping circles of scholars and writers thinking about war from 1945 to 1975. The first is a scientifically oriented cadre of experts, usually working in or close to the collegiate world. These men often had a significant association with the RAND Corporation, the think-tank run by the air force. I look at RAND's organizational theory, ideas of scientific management, and forms of economic analysis; and its impact on social science in traditional centers of higher education. I gauge the bearing of RAND's theories on diplomatic practice, and vice versa. Influential economists and political scientists from the university world studied war at RAND, or consulted for it, but of particular importance are the essays of Bernard Brodie in the late 1940s, the reports on strategic "vulnerability" identified with Albert Wohlstetter in the 1950s, and the work of Thomas Schelling on deterrence in early 1960s.
This first circle connected professionally to a second: the foreign-policy academics who were allies of the political scientist Richard Neustadt and the historian Ernest May, particularly in "the May Group" at Harvard and the Kennedy School of Government. My account explores the less formal and more historically grounded social science formulated in Neustadt's Presidential Power (1960) and the way the May Group offered advice to those in power. Two events that this circle studied receive detailed attention: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and the conflict with the British later that same year over the Skybolt missile.
Third, I emphasize as a separate circle those individuals who had bases in the university and who achieved the highest positions of influence from 1947 to 1969. The narrative focuses on George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Rostow, and Henry Kissinger. The discussion converges on events that committed the United States to the fight in Vietnam.
Overall, the men who actually made decisions were least concerned with scientific ideas of any sort, and had a multifaceted view of the application of intelligence to society. Kennan and Kissinger, who eschewed much American policy science, were more central than Rostow, who embraced it. Yet all of them interacted with members of the other two circles, and most had close ties to RAND or Harvard. In looking at this third circle, defined by both position and intellect, I scrutinize how the assumptions of the more social scientific strategists affected the truly powerful who had ties to the academy. The question is: how does political practice, for intellectuals, modify theory? I am concerned not so much with the policies that they carried out, as with the fit of these policies to the mind-set of the policymakers.
The book concludes with a twofold analysis. First there is an intellectual history of what came to be known as The Pentagon Papers-the huge secret document collection of American involvement in Southeast Asia leaked to journalists in 1971. Rather than focusing on the unauthorized release of The Pentagon Papers or on the details of the war that this report revealed, I consider it as a collective enterprise undertaken by men with backgrounds at RAND and the Kennedy School. This multiauthored, forty-seven-volume "book" can be read to uncover the academic presuppositions about war and history governing the thinking of the men whose careers my study traces. Second, and in closing, I examine how policymakers came to perceive their role in the postmortem about Vietnam conducted from the mid-1970s until the end of the century. In writing their memoirs, many policymakers with ties to the intellectuals assisted in the construction of a dominant view of the foreign policy of the United States since World War II. I want to place the historical work of people like former defense secretary Robert McNamara in In Retrospect (1995) and Argument Without End (1999) in the context of ideas that policy scientists and reflective policymakers created.
Excerpted from Blind Oracles by Bruce Kuklick Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 16, 2008
This fascinating book looks at the influence in government of intellectuals such as George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Walt Rostow, Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger. It also examines their shared myths, for example that US interventionism is necessary, that the USA is uniquely virtuous, and that war only comes from malevolent surprises by others. Kuklick shows that their basic function was to provide politicians with justifications for doing what they were going to do anyway, to give them cover and act as defense counsel. He judges, ¿The accepted wisdom of the era fell short of what we might want.¿ Their assessments of Soviet strengths and motives were `simplistic¿. ¿Much of what strategists `knew¿ was wrongheaded or muddled, if not mistaken.¿ He notes that these civilian strategists showed an acute distrust of democracy and were committed to `a select management that would lead by exaggeration¿. Proximity to power brought arrogance and ignorance. After the US war against Vietnam, McNamara organised a conference at which he tried to make the Vietnamese participants accept that the war had been due to `mutual misunderstanding¿. But Nguyen Thach, a former foreign minister, responded, ¿I would say, with all due respect to Mr. McNamara, that the U.S. mindset, as he says was incorrect, but that the Vietnamese mindset ¿ our assessment of the U.S. ¿ was essentially correct.¿ General Nguyen Giap, Vietnam¿s chief military strategist, said, ¿I don¿t believe we misunderstood you ... Excuse me, but we correctly understood you ¿ you are wrong to call the war a `tragedy¿ ¿ to say that it came from missed opportunities. Maybe it was a tragedy for you, because yours was a war of aggression, in the neo-colonialist `style¿, or fashion, of the day for the Americans.¿ Kuklick concludes, ¿The men of knowledge did well by their societies, yet their actual knowledge was minimal while their sense of self-regard and scholarly hand-waving was maximal. They did their best work in constructing ways of thinking that absolved leadership of liability, deserved or not. Undoubtedly there was a symbiosis between the defense specialists and the nonintellectual elite that wanted their services in places of power, but the culture paid a pretty penny for the expertise, especially when so many intellectuals disdained a democratic republic.¿Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.