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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.