John Rooney/AP ImagesRobert Oppenheimer and Walt Rostow

Early in 1966 the historian Fritz Stern traveled to Washington to solicit support for an appeal of academics against the Vietnam War. At the airport, returning home, he ran into a colleague–MIT political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool. Professor Pool did not share Stern’s misgivings about the war. “Vietnam,” he told Stern enthusiastically, “is the greatest social-science laboratory we have ever had!”

Such was the mind-set among some of the scholars at MIT’s Center for International Studies, where Pool’s international communications project was bringing behavioral science to bear on the study of international relations. His colleague, the economist Walt Rostow, had left the center for a new career as a presidential policy adviser, which culminated, in April 1966, in a position as Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser. There were like-minded men in other well-funded think tanks across the country. Over the previous two decades, cold war presidents had successfully enlisted academia in the search for usable knowledge about the world they hoped to lead. Ample funding, entrepreneurial professors and policy-makers thirsting for anything that looked like technical expertise provided a combustible mix.

How this happened, and what the effects were–on the world of policy and on ideas–is a complex and still highly pertinent story. Vietnam, as the books considered here show, bankrupted the world-molding optimism of modernization theorists like Rostow and Pool, but it certainly didn’t put an end to academic theorizing about global affairs or to the desire of American academics to demonstrate the usefulness of their theories to their political masters. Indonesia–the often neglected counterpart to Vietnam–was the more typical model, as Bradley Simpson shows: a playground for “economists with guns.” The politics were often ugly, and the intellectual output was unedifying and deeply compromised.

It all really started with World War II. Before the Depression there had been plenty of serious American scholarship in international affairs, much of it shaped by Wilsonian idealism and a keen interest in the administrative and legal institutions established at the Versailles peace conference. Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler’s belief in the pacific powers of “the international mind” set the tone. But government interest–and funding–was minimal. It was wartime science projects like the Manhattan Project and the Radiation Laboratory that got Washington used to paying top dollar for academic expertise. Military service cemented personal ties between policy-makers, funding bodies and academics. Above all, the experience of the war provided a template for cold war theory and strategy. David Milne points this out very clearly in Rostow’s case: America’s Rasputin offers a lively, well-researched read, connecting recent scholarship on the development of American social science to the Vietnam catastrophe. In Milne’s telling, Rostow makes a very effective antihero, an epitome of intellectual hubris whose story casts a vivid light on our early twenty-first-century warmakers.

Rostow had had a good war. In 1942 he had worked in the Office of Strategic Services and had selected bombing targets in the Third Reich; ever after he remained convinced that the policy of strategic bombing had crippled Hitler’s war machine. Germany remained a preoccupation of his beyond 1945, when he passed up the chance of a job at Harvard in order to help Gunnar Myrdal oversee the economic reconstruction of Europe. Strategic bombing and the Marshall Plan: this was the essence of Rostow’s plan for the cold war front line in Southeast Asia. Two decades after Hitler’s death, Rostow suggested confronting the Vietcong as if they were Nazis: knock them out of the war by destroying their industrial infrastructure, then win the battle for hearts and minds with a serious program of socioeconomic transformation through development assistance.

To get to this point, Rostow needed a theory, one that would allow him to soar above the differences between the Germans and the Vietnamese. The answer was the concept of modernization, an evolutionary approach to contemporary history. Milne says little about this, perhaps because the subject has been well covered by Nils Gilman in Mandarins of the Future. But Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth (published in 1960 and subtitled, with typical modesty, A Non-Communist Manifesto) gives the fundamentals, outlining the “stages” of development all countries allegedly had to pass through in order to achieve their “takeoff” into the modern era. Critically, Rostow argued, most new states would need help before they could become self-sustaining. If the United States did not provide aid, Communists would move in, taking advantage of the disorientation that sudden social change induced. Initially, he assumed–as in the case of postwar Germany and Japan–that modernization would spread democracy. But by the time modernization theory was sufficiently influential to shape American policy, it had acquired a distinctly authoritarian cast. As Ike’s State Department put it, the dictators and military strongmen who had emerged throughout the underdeveloped world by the end of the 1950s offered certain short-run advantages to the United States. Indonesia was a vital example, well described by Simpson in his disturbing and illuminating book. Its army’s slaughter of half a million people there–in the name of wiping out the country’s Communist Party–did not stop Rostow and his colleagues from treating the generals as partners. Quite the contrary: at least the Communists had been disposed of.

Theory alone guaranteed nothing, unless politicians and their staffers listened. Rostow’s connections boosted his advancement. From his Yale undergraduate days he knew Richard Bissell (the Bay of Pigs and other CIA achievements still before him) as well as the man who brought him to MIT, his old friend Max Millikan. Like Rostow, Millikan had been involved as an economist in the European reconstruction effort of the late 1940s–in his case as assistant to the Marshall Plan administrator Paul Hoffman. Between joining MIT and setting up the Center for International Studies, Millikan also served briefly as assistant director of the CIA under Walter Bedell Smith. All these connections proved vital. The center grew out of Project Troy, an early State Department commission to research radio jamming and psychological warfare against the Soviet Union. When State’s money dried up, Millikan turned to his old employers, the CIA, and to the Ford Foundation (by now run by his former boss Hoffman). Harvard stood aloof; led by sociologist Talcott Parsons, its social scientists were engrossed in the loftier goal of creating an entirely new theory that would unite all the social sciences. MIT was happy to do the nitty-gritty problem-solving for the government, and it got the loot. In 1953 Ford assured the center’s future with an enormous $1.8 million grant. For MIT it was a bargain: it put in almost no money and got terrific input into the shaping of foreign policy.

Millikan had wanted Rostow at the center because they basically agreed on what America needed. In the early 1950s the cold war suddenly became a global competition for influence in the decolonizing world, and many felt that Washington needed to compete much more aggressively. In 1954, a week after the battle of Dien Bien Phu, Rostow and Millikan took part in a conference to generate a “world economic plan” that would ensure the triumph of freedom. The two men wrote the resulting report, forwarded to Eisenhower, emphasizing development aid as the key to securing American foreign policy goals: it had worked in Europe, and now America needed to spend in the Third World. This got nowhere with Ike: he was too much of a fiscal conservative, and his inner circle disliked Rostow’s boosterish tone. But others were listening, especially a young senator from Massachusetts. Rostow wrote some speeches for Kennedy, then joined his Administration, whose Alliance for Progress, the centerpiece of what Kennedy proudly proclaimed to be the Decade of Development, marked the modernizers’ moment. In Washington, as assistant to McGeorge Bundy–Kennedy’s national security adviser–Rostow was given special responsibility for Southeast Asia. Vietnam was his bailiwick, a chance to show what modernization theory could do to win the cold war. After Kennedy’s death, Rostow replaced Bundy as Johnson’s national security adviser–“my goddamn intellectual,” the Texan growled. Rostow’s hour had come. No wonder Professor Pool was gung-ho.

The moment of triumph did not last long. As Vietnam went from bad to worse, ideas for a Mekong Delta TVA were scrapped. Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, advising the State Department, supported forcing the civilian population into cities; but even the “strategic hamlets” scheme backfired. Still, the hawkish Rostow remained optimistic. He ignored those who argued that strategic bombing had failed to knock out the Germans or that Vietnam was different, just as he ignored the evidence of Chinese support of the North Vietnamese. Above all, he closed his eyes to the inconvenient fact that he was not fighting homo economicus but an enemy whose morale depended on the resolve to drive out an imperialistic invader. Rostow did not understand this, because he did not think of himself as an imperialist. All he wanted was to live up to his poet namesake–his middle name was Whitman–by helping nations make the transition from colonialism and thereby transforming the world. Milne compares him with the ideologically driven neocons on the eve of the Iraq War. Both saw America as the model for being modern, and both saw war as one way to spread the gospel. But the differences are as important. Rostow was a man of the 1960s who thought states could make a difference, whereas the neocons were also neoliberals–all for dismantling the state and allowing free-market forces to work their magic. Just as important, Rostow and his cohort were key players in the intellectual and academic world of 1960s America, whereas by 2000, the neocons, ensconced in think tanks, and academics had almost nothing–nothing civil, anyway–to say to one another.

After Vietnam, modernization theory lost its shine, as did Rostow, who was unable to obtain a job on the East Coast: MIT did not invite him back. Only LBJ’s foresight got him a berth in Texas, at the state university’s Lyndon B. Johnson School for Public Affairs. But this certainly did not mean the end of the love affair between the social science professoriat and the policy world, merely a changing of the guard and a new paradigm or two. Modernization theory had been one of the winners in the scramble among social scientists for cold war funding, but we should not forget that there had been losers too: anthropology had gotten very little, despite Margaret Mead’s sterling wartime service and her desire to show how Russian swaddling customs shaped the Soviet mind-set. Geography–the subject that had smoothed the path of Isaiah Bowman, director of the American Geographical Society and president of Johns Hopkins, to the highest reaches of government service in two world wars–seemed to have become so irrelevant by the late 1940s that first Harvard and then many other leading universities closed their departments. In area-studies centers, a little money trickled down to Assyriologists, Sanskritists and experts on Sufism and Confucius. But as the behavioral revolution swept sociology and political science, the gulf between the culture-bounded area-studies folk and the rest widened. For those who regarded history, languages and the values other societies actually lived by as something of a distraction, economics was now the discipline to emulate. Economics, as Philip Mirowski has demonstrated so brilliantly, had successfully refashioned itself first on the basis of physics and then on the basis of wartime operations research and cybernetics. Studying politics in the new economistic vein meant studying “systems,” relationships, actors, agents. It was all supposedly value-neutral, timeless and formal–animated by a vision of science arguably already some two decades out of date.

International relations initially remained somewhat aloof from the rush to scientism. In the 1950s, its theorists spoke as though the world comprised little besides states locked in a perennial struggle for power. They were critical of interwar scholars who had worn their Wilsonian internationalism on their sleeve and of the cold war fanatics who spoke about evil and morality whenever they mentioned the Soviet Union. Men like Hans Morgenthau prided themselves on their realism, their lack of ideological zeal, their powerful sense of the limits of what was possible. Morgenthau, in particular, insisted that the category of “the political” was simply irreducible–conflict was thus a permanent fact of international life. Rostow’s humiliation in Vietnam, and the collapse of modernization theory, created an opening. In the realm of policy, Rostow was succeeded by a very different breed of academic: the realist Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was a historian, not a social scientist, a student of the art of diplomacy and a practitioner, rather than a theoretician, of negotiation in the nuclear age.

In the universities, though, the realist school of international relations was coming under fire. It was not only Vietnam that cast a shadow. There was also the first oil crisis and the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system; the dollar was finally decoupled from gold, and unprecedented quantities of petrodollars sloshed around the world. It was in these circumstances that American international relations theorists–and their discipline’s need for a “theory” was something they keenly felt–took issue with the idea that states were the only entities that counted in the world, and that military and diplomatic power were the only ways nations projected their influence. What they came up with was international political economy, the subject of Benjamin Cohen’s informative insider’s account.

Kissinger’s home at Harvard–the Center for International Affairs, the subject of David Atkinson’s new book In Theory and In Practice–was the pivot of the intellectual reorientation. With Kissinger and Robert Bowie, former head of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department, in charge, it is not surprising that the center had started off focused on diplomacy, defense policy and nuclear strategy. From 1970 onward, however, younger scholars there pushed to include the international economy as a subject for political analysis. Not that international political economy ever rocked the boat of global capitalism. What it promised to do, however, was valuable enough–to cut across the ever more rigidly policed demarcation line between economics and political science. Susan Strange, the pioneering British student of international relations, had condemned the “enclosure movement,” in which social scientists had turned their backs on the older conception of a unified field of political economy to till their smaller grounds. The process had started in the nineteenth century. But the exponential postwar growth of the American social sciences had made the problem much worse. Economists, for example, built an entire subdiscipline–microeconomics–on the philosophical foundations of early nineteenth-century utilitarian psychology; but with no incentive to ask what this meant and how reliable a basis it was for anything at all, they were losing themselves in ever more elegant flights of mathematical fancy.

Unfortunately, the move to rethink social scientific disciplinary boundaries quickly ran out of steam. In 1972 Harvard’s Department of Social Relations was closed and its members trotted back to their separate disciplines, testifying to the collapse of the most sustained effort to create a unified social theory seen since the war. Economics, now less interested than ever in words, reclaimed its role as the model for social scientific research in the American academy. International political economy reincorporated elements of the older realist approach–the focus on states was extended to international governmental organizations–but yoked these to an ever more emphatically “scientific” structure of argument. Cohen’s book is a lament by a scholar hoping against hope that his discipline can still learn from its history. The harvest has been disappointing, he admits, the crop blighted. International political economy has failed to live up to its early promise and has succumbed to the same bogus scientism that infected other social scientific approaches to the world before it.

Indeed, his data reveal that the problem is getting much worse. The wartime generation–whose education had been wide and multidisciplinary–is passing and being replaced by wannabe scientists whose professional training devalues real knowledge of the world. In the nineteenth century it was not at all uncommon for those commenting on international affairs to have a knowledge of languages; in today’s universities, most literary scholars can’t tell their balance of trade from their balance of payments while increasingly the only language international relations theorists are trained in is a bizarre kind of quasi mathematics. In the late 1970s, fewer than 10 percent of the articles published in the field stressed formal modeling or econometrics, which use statistical models to test economic principles; by the early years of the twenty-first century, the figure had risen to nearly half. Mathematicians, it is worth noting, have been underwhelmed by this work; in the 1980s they blocked an eminent Harvard political scientist from membership in the National Academy of Sciences, alleging pseudoscience. Today you can get tenure as a scholar of international relations without knowing a single foreign language or ever quoting a foreign-language source. But leave out the equations and the variables, and your career path will be a rocky one.

There was, to be sure, an alternative to this increasingly recherché use of quantitative techniques and scientific jargon. Cohen discusses the British version of international studies, which was from the start and has remained more catholic in its disciplinary borrowings and more critical of existing power relations, as befits the work produced by the underfunded employees of a world power in decline. But as Cohen shows, there has been little contact or understanding between theorists on either side of the Atlantic. British academics charge their US counterparts with being Washington’s lackeys and overly abstract; the latter accuse the former of woolly thought, of being unscientific and lacking the discipline to generate verifiable claims about the world.

Both charges are probably true. The British scholars are not good at generating law-like observations about international affairs (although cynics will not necessarily see this as a failing). As for American scholars, it is striking how much the theorization of international relations has fostered a detachment from the real world. For all its numerous sins, modernization theory did generate a body of knowledge about characteristics of countries like India and Indonesia. But since the 1970s, international relations has withdrawn to such lofty mathematical heights that detailed expertise about specific areas of the world may today be enough to write a scholar off as–dreaded phrase–an area specialist. The only alternative to generating theory seems to be providing counsel for the prince, a sort of international management consultancy for the diplomat-statesman. From the august heights of Professor Joseph Nye’s The Powers to Lead (2008) to the less refined insights provided by books like Donald Kettl’s Team Bush: Leadership Lessons From the Bush White House (2003), the tendency is to talk about international relations in terms of the problem of America’s place in the world and to reduce the problem to that of leadership. Formulated in such terms, there soon ceases to be very much that is particularly political about political science: useful lessons can be drawn from CEOs, Mafia bosses, sports coaches and anyone else in charge.

I confess to having finished these books in a mood somewhere between perplexity and despair. Was the choice faced by social scientists always between a frighteningly lethal developmentalism and a pseudoscience of international relations? How can the world’s wealthiest country, with vast resources at its disposal, have ended up with such a paltry intellectual–and diplomatic–return on its investment? It is all too easy to understand that scholars enraptured by access to power ended up rationalizing deeply unethical foreign policies; diplomacy and ethics have, by their nature, an uneasy relationship. More troubling, surely, is how to explain the depth of the failure of the social sciences to produce substantial and lasting knowledge about the world, to have succeeded only in making American policy on the whole more rather than less parochial.

For something happened in the cold war, something that ultimately benefited neither scholarship nor government. Huge sums of money were suddenly poured into the universities. Those with knowledge to offer were not necessarily those to whom policy-makers listened. The social scientists who got the grants offered technical advice that simplified the world and made it governable, using behavioral science or mathematical economics as their models. They turned human affairs into data sets, cultural patterns into forms of behavioral response, and they replaced the messy multiplicity of words and tongues with the universal and quantifiable language of science. This was not so much a military-industrial complex as a governmental-academic one. With the collapse of modernization theory, international relations offered itself as a new way of understanding the world. But world affairs continued to be seen as a problem to be managed, and the view adopted was almost always that from Washington. The rise of the think tanks made a bad problem worse, because as they adopted ever more partisan identities–and as American politics became more polarized–so academics reified the idea of value-neutral science and banished any explicit consideration of politics from their treatment of the world. Alternative approaches–dependency theory, underdevelopment, Marxism–found their niche in the American academy but rarely in mainstream politics departments.

Can social scientists these days do anything like the harm Walt Rostow inflicted? The short answer is yes. What of the Stanford political scientist turned policy-maker who has tried applying the lessons she mistakenly derived from the Soviet collapse to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein? Condoleezza Rice is only the most obvious case, and the country’s continuing love affair with technical expertise guarantees a receptive audience for applied social science. Last year the National Research Council recommended that the Pentagon double the research funding for the behavioral and social sciences; scholars are already helping to build computer-simulated models to predict insurgencies in Iraq and identify “the root causes of terrorism.” Professor Pool’s heirs march on.