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Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire

Abella, Alex Author

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The first-ever popular history of the RAND Corporation, written with full access to its archives, Soldiers of Reason is a page-turning chronicle of the rise of the secretive think tank that has been the driving force behind American government for sixty years.

Born in the wake of World War II as an idea factory to advise the air force on how to wage and win wars, RAND quickly became the creator of America’s anti-Soviet nuclear strategy. A magnet for the best and the brightest, its ranks included Cold War luminaries such as Albert Wohlstetter, Bernard Brodie, and Herman Kahn, who arguably saved us from nuclear annihilation and unquestionably created Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex.”

In the Kennedy era, RAND analysts became McNamara’s Whiz Kids and their theories of rational warfare steered our conduct in Vietnam. Those same theories drove our invasion of Iraq forty-five years later, championed by RAND affiliated actors such as Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Zalmay Khalilzad. But RAND’s greatest contribution might be its least known: rational choice theory, a model explaining all human behavior through self-interest. Through it RAND sparked the Reagan-led transformation of our social and economic system but also unleashed a resurgence of precisely the forces whose existence it denied— religion, patriotism, tribalism.

With Soldiers of Reason, Alex Abella has rewritten the history of America’s last half century and cast a new light on our problematic present.

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About the Author:

ALEX ABELLA is the coauthor, with Scott Gordon, of Shadow Enemies: Hitler’s Secret Terrorist Plot Against the United States and the author of four novels. He has also been a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times. Born in Cuba, he lives in Los Angeles.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

A Great Beginning

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. —"The RAND Hymn," by MALVINA REYNOLDS

  ON OCTOBER 1, 1945, less than two months after the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japan, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces boarded a flight from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco on a trip he was certain would be as momentous as the Manhattan Project.

A man of medium stature, with pudgy features, clear eyes, and a constant smile, General Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold was a true believer in the power of the Air Force. He was one of only nine people ever to earn the rank of five-star general and the only one with that rank in the Air Force. He had received his military pilot license in 1912, and since then had pushed for an Air Force independent of the Army; he never wavered in his conviction of the usefulness of maximum destructive power in combat. On hearing doubts on the legitimacy of the Allied fire bombing in Dresden, Germany, Arnold wrote, "We must not get soft. War must be destructive and to a certain extent inhuman and ruthless."1

General Arnold had welcomed the development and deployment of nuclear bombs—especially since it had fallen to the Army Air Force to deliver, and thus control, that mightiest of weapons. (By 1947 President Truman would cleave the Air Force from its Army concatenation, setting up both services as rivals for the Pentagon’s largesse.) But Arnold was concerned that the amazing concentration of scientific minds that had made possible the Manhattan Project would prove hard to duplicate under peacetime conditions.

Washington had recruited talent from far and wide for its crusade against the Axis. The production capabilities and sheer output of the country’s industries (General Motors, Ford, U.S. Steel, General Electric) had been harnessed by the best and the brightest minds from the country’s top scientific research centers (MIT, Princeton, Columbia), giving the world radar, jet fighters, the atom bomb. In the span of four years, the country had grown from a second-rate power to the greatest military behemoth in history. It was the dawn of the American New Order. Like ancient Athens and her league, it would be an empire of the willing—America’s allies willed her to rule the world and rule the world she would.

Yet now that the battle was won, the unlikely alliance that had guided the United States to victory was splitting apart. Businesses wanted to make money and scientists wanted to do research. Few wanted to put up with the military’s restrictions and low pay. General Arnold feared that if everybody went back to industry or academia, America’s enemies could one day hold sway. The likeliest adversary: our erstwhile wartime ally, the Soviet Union.

Already in March 1946, former British prime minister Winston Churchill had warned about an Iron Curtain descending on Europe.2 Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had shattered his wartime alliance with the United States, and his troops, firmly in control of Central and Eastern Europe, were pressuring Italy and France. Soviet boots seemed ready to crush all political opposition; it was only a matter of time before a major American-Soviet conflict developed. That was why Arnold was flying to California, to find a way to hire the best brains in the country, put them together in a space they could call their own, and have them come up with weapons nobody had ever imagined.

Even in the midst of the war, a year earlier, Arnold had requested his chief scientific adviser, a colorful Hungarian named Theodore von Kármán (who was also director of the Guggenheim Laboratories), to devise a plan to entice scientists to continue working for the Air Force during peacetime. Kármán had come up with a report called "Toward New Horizons," which called for the establishment of a new kind of scientific community, "a nucleus for scientific groups such as those which successfully assisted in the command and staff work in the field during the war," a university without students and with the Air Force as its only client.3 In other words, a prototype for the organization that would become RAND. Arnold had been delighted with the plan, but the exigencies of the war had made him put it aside until the right moment. That moment came when lean, steely-jawed, blue-eyed former test pilot Franklin R. Collbohm, visiting from California, came into Arnold’s office one day in September of 1945.

A fanatically fit former marine, Collbohm swam in his pool every morning, rain or shine, before going to work.4 He had fled his childhood environs in upstate New York for the wide skies and opportunities of the West as soon as he could, eventually becoming the right-hand man of Donald Douglas, head of Douglas Aircraft, America’s largest airplane manufacturer, and the special assistant to Arthur E. Raymond, the company’s vice president and head of engineering.

Arnold and Collbohm had met in 1942, when Collbohm procured nascent radar technology being developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the Army Air Force.5 Both men shared a passion for aircraft and a deep love for the armed forces, to the point that they might have been inverse images of each other—Arnold advocating for scientists among the military and Collbohm standing up for the Air Force among the intelligentsia.

Like Arnold, Collbohm was concerned with the imminent dispersal of the best brains the United States could hire, and had approached a number of officials in Washington, D.C., about finding a way to retain top scientists after the war, with little success. When he finally came to Arnold’s office, though, Collbohm did not even have to finish describing his idea for setting up an advisory group of independent scientists consulting for the military before the general slapped his desk and exclaimed, "I know just what you’re going to tell me. It’s the most important thing we can do." He told Collbohm to call Douglas right away to enlist his cooperation; they were to meet at California’s Hamilton Air Force Base in two days. Collbohm was to have a list of all the things required to make the project come to fruition—the men, the machines, the money.6

Collbohm grabbed the first plane he could out of Washington, a B-25 bomber, and landed at Douglas’s Santa Monica plant. He gathered all the Douglas officials he needed for the meeting and then looked for a plane to get them to the San Francisco Bay Area. The only aircraft available was President Roosevelt’s private plane, a Douglas C-54 dubbed "The Sacred Cow," so Collbohm and his people grabbed that and flew to Hamilton in it, arriving at the base just an hour ahead of Arnold, with barely enough time to round up a luncheon for the meeting.7

When the general’s B-21 rumbled into Hamilton Air Force Base, waiting for him were Collbohm, Raymond, and Douglas, whose daughter had married Arnold’s son. Arnold had brought with him Edward Bowles, a consultant from MIT who had collaborated with Collbohm in setting up the first instance of coordinated civilian and military efforts in wartime planning, the B-29 Special Bombardment Project in 1944.8

Lunch was served and the men got to work. One of the chief concerns of the meeting was how the new organization would help develop the technology of long-distance missiles, which Arnold was convinced was the wave of the future. Arnold and his group were adamant that only the Air Force and no other branch of the armed forces should control the new weapon. By the time he finished his coffee, Arnold had pledged $10 million from unspent wartime research money to set up the research group and keep it running independently for a few years. Arthur Raymond suggested the name Project RAND, for research and development. Collbohm nominated himself to head the group while he looked for a permanent director.9 (His temporary stay would eventually stretch to more than twenty years.) And so was RAND conceived.

At first, Project RAND had no specific definition of purpose other than the very general outline hashed out in Hamilton Field—a civilian outfit to come up with new weapons. But how? Besides long-range missiles, what other kind of weapons? How many? Arnold, Collbohm, Bowles, and Douglas exchanged memos, letters, and suggestions on the future of the organization for months, but final details were not worked out until General Curtis LeMay came into the picture in late December.

Gruff, aggressive, demanding, and some would say demented, LeMay was the coldest of the cold warriors. With his bulldog swagger and "never surrender" attitude, he served as a prototype for several generals in the movie Doctor Strangelove, advocating massive attacks on the enemy—whichever enemy America happened to be facing at the time, although usually the Soviet Union—while chomping on a stogie.10

Named Air Force Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Research and Development, LeMay included among his responsibilities the supervision of the new research group. Whether purposely or by the sheer serendipity that can accompany government work, LeMay turned out to be the ideal candidate to shepherd the fledgling organization. With typical impatience, he tore through the red tape hindering the birth of RAND—at one point gathering all the Air Force bureaucrats needed for budget approval in one room and refusing to let them leave until they signed off on Project RAND’s exact mission. Finally, on March 1, 1946, RAND officially was delivered. Its charter was clear: "Project RAND is a continuing program of scientific study and research on the broad subject of air warfare with the object of recommending to the Air Force ...

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