Dr. Strangelove's Workplace

Reviewed by Gregg Herken
Sunday, July 6, 2008


The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire

By Alex Abella

Harcourt. 388 pp. $27

Americans of a certain age, those who remember the Cold War, will doubtless be familiar with the RAND Corporation, the think tank in sunny Santa Monica that Soviet propagandists branded "the academy of science and death," and of which '60s folksinger Malvina Reynolds used to sing:

"The RAND Corporation's the boon of the world

They think all day long for a fee

They sit and play games about going up in flames

For Counters they use you and me."

Novelist and former television reporter Alex Abella has written a history of RAND, which was founded more than 60 years ago by the Air Force as a font of ideas on how that service might fight and win a nuclear war with the USSR and, not incidentally, assure continued funding from Congress. Some readers will probably be surprised to learn that RAND -- the name comes from "research and development" -- is still around, having long since turned its attention from the former Soviet menace to such problems as terrorism and health care.

During the late 1950s and early '60s, however, RAND was an almost legendary presence on the American scene, even though much of what went on there was top secret. (The neurotic anti-hero of the movie "Dr. Strangelove" was a product of "the Bland Corporation.")

Still, the ideas that sprang from RAND did not have quite the importance that its analysts would like us to believe, or that Abella asserts. It is hyperbole to claim, as the author does, that the so-called rational choice theories popular at RAND in the '60s became "the Matrix code of the West." Rather, as Soldiers of Reason clearly shows, it was not the ideas but the people of RAND that have had the real and lasting impact.

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