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Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger
Bruce Kuklick

Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006
$29.95, 264 p., ISBN 0-691-12349-7


Reviewed by Céline Letemplé



This book examines the role played by ideas and academic knowledge in American foreign affairs from the end of World War II to the Vietnam War. It purports to answer the question of how political practice modifies academic theories [6] through the study of intellectuals and institutions that were influential on strategic issues. Any scholar interested in post-WWII American foreign policy will find this book essential as it provides an illuminating insight into the American disciplines of political science and international relations, the culture of expertise in American politics, and the problematic relationships between academia and power in the United States.

In the introduction, Bruce Kuklick, Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania and author of several books on American intellectual, political and diplomatic history, announces that he will focus on “three overlapping circles of scholars and writers thinking about war from 1945 to 1975” [6] who were particularly influential in Washington. These were: “scientifically-oriented” university economists and political scientists linked to the RAND Corporation; Harvard foreign policy academics influenced by the works of political scientist Richard Neustadt and historian Ernest May; and academics who, like Henry Kissinger, became extremely influential in Washington between 1947 and 1969.
In an attempt at exploring the roots of the post-WWII American belief that experts should sit at the side of political leaders to help them make more rational decisions, he points to the deep influence of two early twentieth-
century intellectual movements on those “civilian strategists”: John Dewey’s pragmatism and the Vienna Circle’s logical positivism, which both argued in favor of the use of “methodological precision and statistics” [11] in the social sciences. But he also mentions the existence of a minor post-WWII counter-tradition hostile to the technocratic, scientist and positivist thinking in the social sciences of the time, which influenced people like George Kennan or Henry Kissinger.
Despite this difference, Kuklick ’s experts shared three assumptions: they were anti-isolationists favoring an internationalist and interventionist approach to foreign affairs; they interpreted American entry into WWII as the result of a “malevolent surprise” [13], discounting the role played by American economic diplomacy in Asia in bringing on tensions in the Far East; and they shared a strong anticommunism mingled with a sense of American righteousness, which both led to a simplistic appraisal of Cold War realities, to a systematic demonization of the USSR, and to an overestimation of Soviet power. The author concludes his introduction on a skeptical note and on a severe criticism of those strategy “experts”: they were blind to the geopolitical realities of their time, voiced fashionable rather than valid ideas, and built after-the-event theories made to justify and legitimate politicians’ decisions.

In the first chapter—“Scientific Management and War, 1910-1960”—the author shows that the Taylorist belief in the possibility of enhancing efficiency through scientific planning led to a greater “cooperation between social scientists and the state” [19] after WWII. A new field devoted to the enhancement of weapons efficiency emerged and was developed in part by the air force-employed RAND Corporation’s “civilian scientists.” By the 1950s, they had become “more interested in strategic questions of national security” [23] and relied on three new intellectual trends that became highly influential in the field of international relations: game theory, organizational behavior, and rational choice theory. John von Neumann’s 1944 game theory “postulated that people acted rationally when they acted with some sense of what opponents might do and then tried to achieve the best for themselves” [25]. It predicted that actors in an international conflict would thus choose “the outcome that minimized losses and maximized gains” [25].
RAND was also influenced by organizational behavior, the “study of the logical foundations of administrative science” based on the idea that “organization should aim at efficiency” [25]. It was theorized by Herbert A. Simon and Albert Wohlstetter, both unconcerned about ends and interested in the efficiency of processes. Finally, RAND embraced rational choice theory. Developed by economist Kenneth Arrow, it argued that “collective rationality” [28] was unattainable in a democracy unless the range of social alternatives was narrowed and diversity of opinion muted in order to produce a certain cultural homogeneity mimicking “the unified will of a dictatorial society” [29]. Critiques of RAND thinking pointed to the limits of an abstract form of theorizing that hoped to model human behavior and predict decision-making basing its logic on a simplistic and monochromatic view of the human psyche. Believing in the objectivity of its quantitative methods, RAND developed its own ideas about weapons and war strategy at the very beginning of the Cold War but was not yet the influential institution it was to become. 

Chapter 2—“Theorists of War, 1945-1953”—presents early Cold War American strategy, particularly focusing on the two most influential strategists of the period, George Kennan and Paul Nitze. Kuklick writes that the immediate postwar U.S. strategy was quite simple as long as it remained the sole atomic power. Not yet influenced by RAND’s “scientific” methods, American leaders believed that nuclear armaments and a prosperous Europe would suffice to contain Soviet expansion. Truman thus “restricted the defense budget” [38] and exaggerated the Soviet military threat in order to gain public support for the Marshall Plan. George Kennan’s famous 1947 Foreign Affairs article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” was particularly influential: portraying the USSR as pathologically evil, it overstated its hostility and military capability.
But a first shift in U.S. strategy occurred when the Soviets tested their bomb in 1949, thus becoming a serious threat. Nitze, who replaced Kennan at the head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, was more influenced by RAND quantitative thinking. Believing in the essential villainy of the Soviets and in American exceptionalism, he thought the U.S. was unprepared to face the Soviet threat. In NSC-68, a document that heated up the anti-Communist climate, he called for a military build-up. The last shift in American strategic thinking at the time occurred with the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950. American strategists embraced the Munich analogy and the administration increased the military budget. The North Korean move had revealed the need to wage “little wars in Communist satellites” [48] and the impossibility of relying solely on nuclear weapons.

Chapter 3—“RAND in Opposition, 1946-1961”—deals with the opposition of RAND “experts-academics” [49] to Eisenhower’s strategy, focusing mainly on three influential theorists who tried to develop a scientific approach to war: Bernard Brodie, Alain Enthoven and Albert Wohlstetter. Eager to become more influential in Washington, they proposed new strategic doctrines, “analytical methods” and “conceptual frameworks” [57] as an alternative to what they judged as a weak defense policy. But Eisenhower disagreed with RAND social scientists and avoided them: convinced that the American nuclear arsenal was overwhelmingly superior to the Soviets’ and refusing to increase taxes and the national debt, he wanted to “trim the military” [50] and disarm when they were convinced of American vulnerability and argued in favor of greater defense expenditures. Hostile to the idea of costly limited wars, the President was in favor of “atomic war” [52] when they focused on conventional conflicts and “exposed the deficiencies of massive retaliation” [55].
Generally dismissing history and politics in the analysis of war situations, RAND social scientists considered that conflicts were often the result of accidents or surprise attacks. They thought, along with Nitze, that the U.S. should have different strategic options: it had to have more tactical nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes, but also more conventional armaments to be able to give a “flexible response” [66]. At the end of his second term, Eisenhower finally increased military spending but he had seemed too weak to RAND experts who ended up supporting Kennedy in the 1960 presidential elections.

Chapter 4—“Accented and Unaccented Realism, 1946-1961”—focuses on the rise of realism as the dominant school of thought in the American field of international relations. By the 1960s, defense intellectuals and RAND experts were all realist thinkers, believing in the primacy of national interest and in the irrelevancy of both moral ideas and Wilsonian idealism in the realm of diplomacy.
Kuklick first introduces Hans Morgenthau, the “leading realist thinker” [72] of the period, who opposed RAND’s scientism on the ground that it was faulty and inappropriate to analyze the social world. Convinced that conflict was “intrinsic to human society” [73], Morgenthau considered that statesmen should look only to “the enduring national interests of their own states and those of their competitors” [73] regardless of “ethical attitudes appropriate to private life” [74]. Contrary to RAND experts, he opposed the anti-communism of the age and the belligerence associated with it. He advocated the virtues of restraint and prudence in international affairs and thought the politician did not need the help of the social scientist to make appropriate decisions. Associating these traits to liberalism and democracy, he despised the Americans’ sense of self-righteousness, their belief in their intrinsic goodness, and their desire to spread American values around the world. Pointing to his relative isolation from the rest of the political science community, the author remarks that he eventually became as dogmatic as those he liked to criticize.
The author then shows that the ascent of realism to dogma status in the field of international relations was propelled by the opening of strategic studies centers at top American universities. Modeled on the RAND Corporation, they embraced its scientific approach and were closely linked to Washington, producing realist “politicized scholarship” [79] that narrowed the range of acceptable opinion in the field. Nevertheless, idealism “survived in the writings of scholars concerned with the improvement of domestic institutions” [89] such as Richard Neustadt, interested in finding ways of increasing presidential power. Contrary to RAND experts, he thought prudence and historical knowledge should guide political action. Both approaches influenced Kennedy.

In chapter 5—“RAND and the Kennedy Administration, 1961-1962”—the author shows that it was with Kennedy’s accession to power that RAND experts became influential in Washington.  Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s secretary of defense, thought decision-making could be rationalized and was particularly influenced by the most prestigious RAND strategists. Even though everybody knew the American nuclear arsenal was considerably larger than the Soviets’, the defense budget was expanded. In the late 1950s, the Soviets’ main concern was nuclear proliferation to West Germany. To prevent nuclear confrontation with the USSR, RAND experts and the Kennedy administration forcefully opposed an idea that Eisenhower had seriously considered to get the U.S. out of Europe. The Kennedy administration turned to RAND experts to devise a strategy for the country. In 1962, McNamara used William Kaufman’s doctrine of “counterforce or no cities” to promote the expansion of European conventional weaponry and the concentration of nuclear power in American hands. Kaufman, like many RAND thinkers, “criticized massive retaliation” and favored a “dominant military capability” made of both “massive conventional force” and a “nuclear arsenal” [107]. But, if the “counterforce” doctrine was used to deny the Germans access to nuclear weapons, it was never officially adopted.

Chapter 6—“Cuba and Nassau, 1962”—deals with two 1962 events and focuses on their interpretation by the experts surrounding the Kennedy administration: the Cuban missile crisis and the Nassau Agreement signed between the U.S. and Great Britain. The Cuban missile crisis was used by RAND scholars as a proof that their theories were right and as an “exemplar of good decision-making” [117]. Rusk, McNamara, and Bundy were convinced that it showed that politicians needed the knowledge of experts to make rational decisions. The author is more than skeptical about this interpretation of the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis, describing the discussions of the Executive Committee as “confused, halting, sometimes unintelligible, at times not rational” [117-18] and adding that “it is difficult to see why students of strategy found a textbook example of rationality in this messy story” [118]. The outcome of the crisis seemed to confirm two RAND theories: the efficiency of “flexible response and graduated escalation” [118] on the one hand, and the idea that “strategic superiority” [119] was crucial to deter the enemy and manage war risk on the other. But Kuklick insists that the theories were confirmed only to the extent that “behavior that it predicted occurred” [120] and comments that the outcome might as well have been interpreted as a result of “good fortune” [125]. On the contrary, the replacement of the Skybolt program by Polaris missiles after the Nassau agreement was interpreted by experts as a model of failure that could have been prevented. Ending the chapter on a critical note, the author concludes that those experts had a “distorted if glorified view of the recent past and dubious if assertive lessons for the immediate future” [127].

In chapter 7—“Intellectuals in Power, 1961-1966”—the author argues against the general belief that experts were responsible for the Vietnam War’s disastrous consequences. If they often had some bearing on Johnson’s policies, Kuklick argues that their scholarly knowledge per se was not decisive in the decision-making process since no single clear strategic concept was used to lead the war: strategists “all supported a middle way between withdrawal and militarization” [144]. If academics were in any way influential in Washington, it was to the extent that they justified existing policies and concealed the real nature of their effect. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1960s, the influence of RAND intellectuals declined.

Chapter 8—“The Kennedy School of Government, 1964-1971”—presents the birth and early development of the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), which soon became a leading political science institution with a central focus on public policy. Neustadt, who organized the KSG, elaborated a method relying on case studies and interviews of policymakers designed to improve decision-making. Kuklick forcefully criticizes the Neustadt model for its dismissal of traditional historical methods and its naïve reliance on politicians’ statements. He then goes on to describe the ideas of “the May Group” at the KSG, a seminar convened by Harvard historian Ernest May whose ambition was also to advise policymakers. The author argues that the close links between this group of intellectuals and the decision-making elite prevented them from criticizing it too harshly, encouraged them to blame bureaucracy for the consequences of Vietnam, produced biased punditry rather than objective scholarship, and narrowed the range of acceptable opinion in intellectual circles.

In Chapter 9—“The Pentagon Papers”—Kuklick presents and criticizes the Pentagon Papers, which he sees as an attempt by officials to “diminish their accountability” [168] for Vietnam. Ironically enough, the intellectuals who had claimed they could have a rational control over the decision-making process were now saying that policymakers had had no power over the unfolding of the war. Kuklick not only criticizes the nature of these volumes—an “exercise in exculpation” [169]—but also the faulty methods used by its authors and their conclusions. According to him, they were ignorant of the historical literature, accepted the diplomats’ point of view, relied on secondary sources supporting U.S. policies, accepted the overall goal of American strategy and the justification of the war, and laid the blame not on individuals in power but on bureaucratic politics.

Chapter 10—“Henry Kissinger”—focuses on the influence of Kissinger’s ideas on Nixon’s foreign policy and insists on his distinctive personal intellectual style, distant from both RAND and Harvard strategists. Kissinger neither shared their belief in the social sciences or history as reliable forms of knowledge or as appropriate guides to political action nor in the possibility of rationalizing politics. More influenced by Kennan and Morgenthau, Kuklick argues that his politics was nevertheless more determined by his ideas than that of any defense intellectual of the period. A hard-headed antirevolutionary realist, he believed that force was at the heart of diplomacy, that security was the main goal of foreign policy and that the moral order was “always subordinate to interests” [190]. Kuklick explores Kissinger’s “conceptual structure” behind his détente policy with the USSR, the rapprochement with communist China, and the much-criticized bombing of Cambodia and Laos.

In the last chapter—“Diplomats on Foreign Policy, 1976-2000”—Kuklick analyzes the post-Vietnam writings of three decision-makers: McGeorge and William Bundy and McNamara. He argues that they wrote flawed but influential interpretations of the 1960s designed to exonerate themselves from what had gone wrong in Vietnam. Kuklick especially focuses on McNamara’s In Retrospect and Argument Without End? advancing that his intent was to dilute responsibility for the Vietnam War, projecting his present guilt and ideas on his interpretation of the past. 

In a final assessment of the role of ideas on foreign policy from 1945 to 1975, Kuklick argues that it is fairer to say that politics generally determined ideas rather than the reverse: policymakers looked for legitimizing theories for what they were doing and the civilian strategists’ ideas were often no more than after-the-event justifications, not causal explanations of decisions. Ideas were produced to serve policies and to please policymakers who selected them according to political needs. In two cases though does Kuklick acknowledge that ideas had a direct bearing on policy: it was the case with Eisenhower and Kissinger, who put their personal theories into political practice. Kuklick nevertheless argues that no specific academic knowledge is needed to make decisions in the realm of international relations and that intellectuals should therefore adopt a more humble posture. But the question of what role knowledge should play in politics is finally left unanswered: on the one hand Kuklick states that “we cannot do without thinking” [16] and on the other he concludes that the exercise of power inevitably corrupts academic knowledge. As he informs his reader right from the introduction, his “conclusions are more a meditation” [16] on the role of ideas in the realm of politics than “a call for radical change” [16]. In the end, his conclusions are consistent with his assertion that “politics trumps knowledge” [230]: as a historian, he considers that his role is to humbly and objectively analyze facts and ideas from a distance, not to offer alternatives or to speak truth to power.


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