washingtonpost.com
Dr. Strangelove's Workplace
How a secretive think tank waged the Cold War and affected us all.

Reviewed by Gregg Herken
Sunday, July 6, 2008

SOLDIERS OF REASON

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.

Abella focuses on Albert Wohlstetter, a mathematical logician turned nuclear strategist who was the dominant figure at RAND starting in the early 1950s and whose influence has extended beyond his death in 1997 into the current Bush administration. A brilliant, urbane and arrogant man whose outside interests included modern design, expensive stereos and gourmet cooking, Wohlstetter epitomized what became known as the "RAND approach" -- a relentlessly reductive, determinedly quantitative analysis of whatever problem the independent, non-profit think tank was assigned, whether the design of a new bomber or improving primary education in inner-city schools.

Wohlstetter's first claim to fame was a series of studies that tried to persuade RAND's founding "godfather," Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay -- the hard-charging, cigar-chomping head of the Strategic Air Command -- that SAC's bombers were highly vulnerable to a Soviet sneak attack. The proposed solution was to disperse the bombers in overseas bases and protect them with concrete shelters. In time-honored RAND fashion, the basing study worked its way up the Air Force chain of command until it hit a brick wall with LeMay, who promptly dismissed the charts, graphs and mathematical formulae of the original 426-page report with three memorable words: "Piss on shelters."

As Abella points out, the basing study was emblematic of a fundamental problem with RAND's kind of analysis: "Unexamined criteria had doomed the project from the start." As it turned out, LeMay was not worried that an attack would find his bombers on the ground, since what Wohlstetter had warned LeMay the Russians were going to do to him was exactly what LeMay wanted to do to the Russians. Wohlstetter and RAND had overlooked the simple fact that LeMay's plan was to preempt any Soviet attack, for which he was confident he would have, in SAC parlance, "unambiguous strategic warning."

Unable to quantify human behavior, Abella writes, RAND's analysts tended to ignore or underrate its significance: "Numbers were all -- the human factor was a mere adjunct to the empirical." As events showed, they did so at their own peril. In 1969, Daniel Ellsberg, one of the think tank's whiz kids and a Wohlstetter protégé, acted out his disillusionment with the Vietnam War by smuggling the top-secret Pentagon Papers out of RAND and onto a friend's new Xerox machine. He later sent copies to The Washington Post and the New York Times, which published them in 1971.

By the early '70s, the bloom was already off the RAND rose, in part because of Vietnam. Despite their best efforts, the think tank's analysts had been unable to come up with a way either to win or to end the war. Abella's book also lends credence to suspicions that the RANDites used numbers to cloak what was really just naked political advocacy. In this, of course, they were not alone. One of RAND's, and Wohlstetter's, early promoters within the Beltway was Paul Nitze, a Washington insider and advocate of conservative causes. It was he who introduced Wohlstetter to the powerful in the capital after the strategist left RAND.

Ultimately, however, it was not so much Wohlstetter himself as his acolytes -- those bright, eager and ambitious young men who had sat cross-legged on the floor with their mentor at his stylish house in Laurel Canyon, or later in his classroom at the University of Chicago -- who had a major impact in Washington. Their number included Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Zalmay Khalilzad, who became three of the brightest stars in the neo-conservative constellation and played a significant role in advocating the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Another was Andrew W. Marshall, formerly a RAND economist, who, as promoter of the high-tech "Revolution in Military Affairs" in Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Department, was dubbed the Pentagon's "Yoda."

Abella's book has it own share of flaws, among which are numerous small but irritating errors: the Committee on the Present Danger was founded in 1950, not 1940; the Los Alamos laboratory, not Berkeley's Radiation Lab, developed the first hydrogen bomb; a 767, not a 747, struck the South Tower on 9/11, etc. While distracting, these mistakes do not discredit the author's central point about "Albert's intellectual children" -- which was perhaps best summed up by one of Wohlstetter's students, commenting on the master's neo-con disciples: "There's a lot of very flaky thinking out there." ·

Gregg Herken is a professor of history at the University of California and author of "Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company