America’s Think Tank

Politics warps a new history of the mysterious RAND Corporation

Ridiculed in Dr. Strangelove (as the “Bland Corporation”), castigated by Pravda (as the American “academy of science and death”), and thrust into the spotlight when the Pentagon Papers were stolen from it, the RAND Corporation has played a somewhat mysterious role in U.S. public policy since its founding in 1946. In Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire, Alex Abella surveys the organization’s history and its “extraordinarily wide-ranging influence” on the world stage. Indeed, the author argues that RAND analysts have been “the advocates, planners, and courtiers of an ever-expanding America.”

How did this come about? At the end of World War II, the Air Force recognized that it would need the same sort of scientific and economic expertise that it had called upon during the conflict to conceive new weapons, analyze costs, evaluate training and combat procedures, and select targets. To that end, it developed a nonprofit, civilian advisory outfit—“Project RAND,” an infelicitous acronym for “Research and Development”—to conduct long-range studies. The hard-charging and brilliant (if politically retrograde) General Curtis LeMay nurtured the organization and protected it from interfering bureaucrats and top brass, insisting that it be free to determine its own research agenda.

In 1948, with the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, RAND became an independent, nonprofit corporation, able to conduct any nonproprietary research it chose. Still, the Air Force remained its premiere client: throughout the 1950s, military policy and defense budgeting emphasized nuclear forces, and the Air Force was in charge of those glamorous strategic weapons. From the think tank’s point of view, the flyboys were an enlightened and exceedingly generous patron, even after RAND began to carry out studies for various Pentagon offices during the Kennedy administration.

I worked for RAND as a national security analyst from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, and people there spoke of those earlier times with wonder and nostalgia. Thanks to ever-expanding cold-war budgets, the Air Force essentially dumped a truckload of money at RAND’s front door every year. The organization was permitted to spend that money at its discretion. Although most of it funded useless research—I recall a 1960s-era report on the Black Death in the Middle Ages as an example of societal catastrophe and recovery—some of it helped to invent nuclear strategy, Sovietology, and systems analysis (probably RAND’s most lasting contribution to its military clients). Other analysts developed such far-reaching pursuits as game theory and rational-choice theory.

The late 1940s and 1950s were indisputably RAND’s golden age. Of the twenty-nine Nobel laureates who have been staff members or advisers, nearly all were connected with the outfit in those years. It makes sense, then, for Abella to devote a disproportionate share of his pages to this relatively brief period in the organization’s history. He chronicles how RAND used a dizzying array of variables to evaluate the cost and effectiveness of weapons systems, and how it refined economic and behavioral theory to predict adversaries’ actions.

Above all, Abella lavishes his attention on the nuclear strategists: Thomas Schelling, Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter, and Herman Kahn (reputedly a model for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove). The concepts and vocabulary they developed in their arguably Sisyphean efforts to impose a rational order on nuclear war defined the ways that American political and military elites thought about deterrence throughout the cold war. The RAND approach was rigorous and unusually quantitative. By far, the most famous and consequential study in the organization’s history originated in a seemingly prosaic project that Wohlstetter took on to determine the selection of overseas bases for the Strategic Air Command’s bombers. From his highly complex analysis—which factored in everything from the effectiveness of air-defense fighters to the rate that hydraulic faucets on sac bases could pump water—emerged the crucial insight that nuclear deterrence was far more delicate than previously thought, and depended on retaliatory forces assured of surviving an enemy attack. This was precisely the sort of technical and conceptual feat for which RAND was famed in its heyday: Wohlstetter’s report made deterrence far more robust, and thus arguably helped maintain peace between the superpowers.

The problem is that so much of this nuclear strategizing reads like old news, which lost its savor around the time the salt talks broke down. Worse, this part of the story has been told better—more vividly, fluently, and precisely—by the scholars Gregg Herken, Lawrence Freedman, and Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, and perhaps best of all by Slate’s Fred Kaplan, an MIT Ph.D, in his exceptional The Wizards of Armageddon (1983). Abella’s publisher calls his book “the first history of the shadowy think tank,” and that claim is technically true, if only because earlier books don’t bring the story up to the present. Moreover, Abella enticingly claims that “RAND opened its files to me,” which should give him a leg up on the competition. In fact, he merely drew on the organization’s library of published reports—an archive available to anyone—and a handful of innocuous oral histories conducted by RAND itself. Readers interested in RAND’s role in the nuclear sweepstakes are advised to stick with Kaplan or any of the other scholars mentioned above.

Readers, of course, have an understandable interest in RAND’s early days, if only because the organization, which in that period was carrying out almost exclusively classified research, was so wary of the media. This led to a tantalizing air of secrecy. And the Pentagon Papers affair only heightened the rocky relationship between RAND and the press, which didn’t even begin to improve until the 1980s, as RAND took on more and more unclassified work. Now that it’s competing for Pentagon funding with a host of Beltway bandits, and scrambling for foundation grants, RAND is as eager for media attention as any other think tank. But tales of Top Secret doomsday work will always retain their allure.

As for the rest of RAND’s history, Abella’s account of the Vietnam era is particularly disappointing. Throughout the war, RAND analysts (McNamara’s “Whiz Kids”) filled high posts in the Pentagon, where they planned the bombing strategies, assessed the pacification campaigns, and determined the budgets. In addition, the think tank conducted a staggering amount of research on the country itself, maintaining a huge operation in Saigon. The resulting mountain of reports and memos, which is now declassified, has yet to be assimilated into the history of the conflict. Abella, however, seems to have largely ignored it. He does make clear that much of the organization’s meticulous field research—including its study of Vietcong motivation and morale, cited by George Ball in a famously pessimistic assessment to LBJ on the eve of the U.S. ground war in 1965—suggested that the war couldn’t be won.

Since the late 1970s, RAND has devoted about half of its efforts to domestic policy, and much of this work—particularly in the field of health economics—represents the organization at its most innovative. But here, too, Abella’s account is thin. Of course, it’s difficult to sex up a multiyear assessment of “The Effect of the Employee Pension on the Labor Supply of the Japanese Elderly.” Still, there’s an abundance of sexing up in this overwrought book, which Abella urges his Matrix-minded readers to think of as “the red pill that will make visible the secret world that rules us all.” At times, his narrative borders on the conspiratorial, especially in his assertions that RAND abetted a host of neoconservative policy initiatives. For instance, Abella makes much of the fact that Wohlstetter, who left RAND in 1963, favored a hard line against the Soviets in the 1980s. But in the Reagan era, as throughout RAND’s history, the cold warriors at the think tank were easily outnumbered by the moderates and the distinctly détente-friendly Sovietologists.

Abella’s efforts to link RAND with those Republican neocons who pushed for war in Iraq are even flimsier. To be sure, Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, worked at the organization, and was a student of Wohlstetter’s at the University of Chicago. But Khalilzad’s colleagues at RAND also included a clutch of future Clinton appointees. And indeed, Khalilzad was united with the Clintonites in pushing NATO expansion—a policy closely associated with RAND that, wise or foolish, is the most ambitious extension of the American “empire” since the cold war. Yet this goes unmentioned by the empire-fixated Abella.

Far from leading the drumbeat for war in Iraq, most RAND analysts, like most career analysts in the CIA and State Department, discerned its dangers far more readily than its advantages. I know that in the period leading up to the war, the organization’s foremost terrorism expert repeatedly and forcefully argued that the U.S. invasion would be disastrous. And as Abella acknowledges, RAND’s own research demonstrated that the American occupation and counterinsurgency effort in Iraq were going to be far more difficult than the Bush administration anticipated.

Abella does give a clear-eyed and not unsympathetic account of the current state of the organization. In his view, the place is “too flabby,” and, like most mature and successful outfits, lacks a “culture of self-analysis or reflection.” He’s correct in asserting that RAND’s glory days are behind it. Still, his conclusions also show his book to be a product of the times. A political progressive, he scoffs (correctly, in my view) at U.S. military efforts to “promote American values abroad,” and approvingly cites Muqtada al-Sadr’s insistence that “Americans should look at the Iraqis as Iraqi, not as Americans in training.” But nothing turns an idealist into a realist faster than an interventionist foreign policy on the other side of the aisle. One wonders if Abella was as outraged by Bill Clinton’s “pragmatic neo-Wilsonianism” (the phrase is Anthony Lake’s). And what did he think of that administration’s war against Yugoslavia—an intervention justified by official arguments that were at best exaggerated and misleading, conducted absent congressional and UN authorization, against a regime that, while thuggish, presented no conceivable threat to the United States?

In any case, RAND may have some life left in it yet. More than half a century after World War II, American foreign policy remains stubbornly internationalist—even, to take a cue from Abella’s subtitle, “imperialist.” And that puts the Air Force’s former plaything in the mainstream. Granted, after two terms of George W. Bush, Abella is somewhat hostile toward a research group that advises the U.S. government. One suspects that hostility would be considerably diminished if the think tank were advising a Pentagon staffed by Obama appointees—not a few of whom would undoubtedly be former RANDites. 

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Benjamin Schwarz is the national and literary editor of The Atlantic.