Soldiers of Reason

By Alex Abella; New York; Harcourt; 2008; 400 pp. 

In his 1956 book, The Power Elite, Sociologist C. Wright Mills warned about the cancerous growth of the military-industrial complex, and the increased secrecy of the American government, which was controlled by a narrow group with intimate ties to the corporate sector. Journalist Alex Abella’s insightful new book Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire, broadens Mills’s analysis, showing how defense intellectuals with the RAND (Research and Development) corporation played an integral role in pushing for the massive escalation of military budgets during the Cold War, in part through the adoption of an apocalyptic view of the Soviet Union’s nuclear capabilities and global ambitions. Many of the same intellectuals and their protégés would later influence the disastrous U.S. occupation and invasion of Iraq. They were guided by an ideology in which American culture was thought to represent the peak of modern civilization and by a belief in rational choice theory—or the notion that humans acted solely out of self-interest and that the hegemonic aspirations of nations could only be curtailed through force or the threat of it.

Based on the author’s unique access to the RAND archives and interviews with key members, Abella traces the corporation’s fascinating history, which dovetails with America’s rise to global power after World War II. Based in Santa Monica, California, RAND’s mandate was to conduct studies on military strategy and to assist government leaders in implementing national security policy. Its importance reflected the fundamentally undemocratic "cult of the expert," which held that only those with access to privileged information and credentials could be allowed to shape public policy. 

Abella profiles several "star" intellectuals from the "Golden Age" of the 1950s, including Yale historian Bernard Brodie who initiated a pioneering study of strategic bombing, which found it to be relatively ineffective in crippling Hitler’s war machine, as well as futurologist Herman Kahn who endorsed the use of nuclear weapons to prevent the possibility of a Soviet attack. He also focuses attention on mathematician Albert Wohlstetter, who would become a mentor to neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz as a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. Like Kahn, Wohlstetter was hawkish and advocated that the United States be prepared to strike first to avert the possibility of a Soviet nuclear attack. He was also in favor of expanding U.S. hegemony and power abroad and could not conceive of a downside. 

Abella skillfully dissects the worldview of the RAND leading lights, pointing to their paranoia about Soviet military capabilities and how their view of international relations in strict realist and power terms resulted in a callous attitude towards the human ramifications of military action. An infatuation with statistical quantifications and an overweening sense of national exceptionalism and virtue further blinded them from social realities in the Third World and led them to ignore injustices in U.S. society. These tendencies culminated in support for the Vietnam War. 

Many RAND analysts had been appointed as consultants to the Kennedy administration and they saw Vietnam as a laboratory for the implementation of new counter-insurgency strategies. Ironically, while designed to aid in ongoing pacification efforts, their studies of the "Vietcong" infrastructure determined that the revolutionary organization was deeply rooted in the countryside and representative of long-standing yearnings for national independence and social justice. This contradicted the official administrative view of "northern aggression" and led many young RAND employees, including Anthony Russo and Daniel Ellsberg, to conclude that the war was neither winnable nor just. Ellsberg, who was being groomed for a top position, became so incensed that he smuggled the Pentagon Papers—the secretly commissioned study of the history of U.S. policy in Vietnam—out of RAND’s offices and leaked them to the New York Times

After the Vietnam debacle, there was a heavy turnover in personnel and RAND shifted its focus towards urban problems like poverty and crime, which were seemingly weakening U.S. prestige overseas. The corporation continued to shape the policy agenda and pushed forward the Reagan revolution by promoting deregulation, privatization, and lowered taxes. These policies accorded well with rational choice theory, which emphasized that individual self-interest guided human behavior rather than a sense of collective responsibility, and that small government was needed to allow man’s natural instincts to flourish. During the 1990s, RAND would emerge as a bastion of neoconservatism. Many of its leading ideologues, from Zalmay Khalilzad to Paul Wolfowitz to Richard Perle, either worked there or were mentored by former faculty. They promoted the continued militarization of U.S. society, technological innovations in the Armed Forces, and preemptive warfare to expand U.S. hegemony and control of vital oil and energy reserves in the Middle East. Their failed crusade in Iraq epitomizes an ideological hubris and narrow-sightedness rooted in RAND’s foreign policy approach dating from the 1950s, although somewhat more extreme. To his credit, Abella does not place the RAND ideals in a vacuum, arguing at the end of his book that they reflected broader cultural beliefs. He writes: "It is the American people who have bought into the myth of rational choice and closed their eyes and allowed morality to be divorced from government policy…. If we look in the mirror, we will see that RAND is in every one of us." 

On the whole, Abella has written an outstanding book on the history of the RAND Corporation and the flawed reasoning and "expert" analysis that has driven forward an imperialistic foreign policy since World War II. Through these last comments we can see that he avoids the easy trap of vilifying the defense intellectuals at RAND, who were merely a product of a specific time and place in history and their own culture. He sheds great insight, nevertheless, into the Byzantine world of U.S. national security policy and how a technocratic elite helped to craft a foreign policy based on irrational fears, self-interest and a lack of human sensitivity and compassion. The consequences have been devastating for both America and the world.



Jeremy Kuzmarov is visiting assistant professor of history at Bucknell University.