Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger

By Heineman, Robert | Independent Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger


Heineman, Robert, Independent Review


Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger By Bruce Kuklick Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006. Pp. 241. $29.95 cloth.

Blind Oracles is an informative and unsettling analysis of scholars' role in influencing national-security policy from approximately 1945 to 1976 by a noted student of American intellectual history. The author's analysis destroys many long-standing shibboleths about the importance of academic thought in the world of policymaking, and the book is unnerving in its revelations of such thinkers' pretensions. Bruce Kuklick begins by sketching the history of U.S. infatuation with expert knowledge in the twentieth century and argues that in the field of national-security policy this orientation flourished after World War II. Among scholars, those at the RAND Corporation are perhaps the best known. Also in this tradition but differing in important respects have been the academicians housed at centers for national-security studies established in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Finally, Kuklick credits thinkers such as George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Henry Kissinger as being influential though outside the positivist mainstream of RAND and the university centers.

In chapter 1, Kuklick describes how methods of scientific management contributed to the use of operations research during World War II and to the postwar rise of the RAND Corporation as an adjunct to the U.S. Air Force. Moving from purely mathematical analyses, RAND scholars soon began to use economic analysis and the techniques of rational-choice theory to argue for more military spending and in particular for greater support of the air force, their major financial benefactor. Kuklick then discusses Kennan's position and his seminal 1947 article in Foreign Affairs, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," which became one of the bases for the doctrine of containment. In its global sweep and attention to political realities, Kennan's approach differed fundamentally from that of the RAND analysts, and Kuklick portrays Kennan as articulating beliefs that already pervaded the policy culture and as being the "first intellectual middleman of postwar national security studies"(p. 40). The outbreak of the Korean War forced the RAND people to move from strategies for nuclear confrontation to ways of dealing with "conventional" wars. However, as Kuklick shows in chapter 2, RAND's influence waned in the fifteen years from 1946 to 1961. Not only were major graduate schools instituting competing programs in security studies, but President Dwight Eisenhower made it clear that he had little use for the ideas that emanated from RAND.

Although Kuklick is not especially sympathetic to Eisenhower, he acknowledges that Ike's strategy of massive retaliation constituted a clearly defined strategic policy and that he was intent on reducing the military and defense spending in general. Kuklick notes that as Eisenhower left office, he warned against the military-industrial complex and the dangers posed by a scientific-technological elite. Not unexpectedly, academic students of foreign policy deprecated Elsenhower's approach to national security and, in their view, his lack of understanding of the value of rigorous analysis. During this period, however, Morgenthau emerged as a "realist" foreign-policy scholar who also saw little of value in the scientific approach to policy.

The scholars at RAND were enthusiastic about the change of administration in 1961, and their approaches to security policy were largely embraced by Robert McNamara, incoming secretary of defense, who features prominently throughout the rest of the book. McNamara, of course, epitomized the positivistic rational-choice approach to policy, and, as Kuklick shows, theories in this mold were plentiful, if transitory, in the new administration. Kuklick estimates that as the nation moved deeper into its entanglement in Vietnam, the theory or analysis of the moment appeared to have a shelf life of about a year. …

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