- Historic Sites
Scientists At War
THE BIRTH OF THE RAND CORPORATION During World War II, America discovered that scientists were needed to win it—and to win any future war. That’s why RAND came into being, the first think tank and the model for all the rest.
June/july 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 4
ALONG THE jagged coastline of Southern California, past the hills and forests of Malibu, five miles down from the Santa Monica Mountains, just short of Muscle Beach and the town of Venice, there sits some of the most quaintly decrepit oceanside property in America. The Santa Monica beach hardly looks different from the way it did a few years after World War II: the same huge arch along the entryway, the same calliope with the lighthouse-shaped apartment on top, the same small seafood diner.
At the edge of this underdeveloped strip of land, between Ocean Park Avenue and Main Street, stand two adjoining pink-and-white buildings—one is two stories high, the other five—which, from the outside, appear to house nothing more startling than the business offices of the local telephone company. But inside, there is the security guard in the lobby, doors that open only with the flashing of a special pass, dimly lit corridors, offices with papers and books and reports piled on desks and strewn all about, blackboards crammed with diagrams and complex mathematical equations, the library with its top-secret section, the specialclearance room in the basement where war games are played.
This is the RAND Corporation, and during the peak of the Cold War, most of the men and women (mostly men) of RAND did little but sit, think, talk, write, pass around memos, and dream up new ideas about nuclear war. Isolated from the hurly-burly of the rest of the world, they nurtured an esprit de corps, a sense of mission, an air of self-confidence and self-importance. It was, in large measure, this atmosphere that gradually created a doctrine concerning nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence, and nuclear war fighting, and that propagated the notion that the “RAND way” is the only legitimate way of thinking about the bomb.
RAND HAD ITS origins in the military planning rooms of World War II. It was a war in which the talents of scientists were exploited to an unprecedented, almost extravagant degree. There were all the new inventions of warfare—radar, infrared detection devices, bomber aircraft, long-range rockets, torpedoes with depth charges—and the military had only the vaguest of ideas about how to use them. Someone had to devise methods for assessing the most efficient way to employ these new weapons. It was a task that fell to the scientists.
The result was a brand-new field, called “operational research” in Britain, “operational analysis” when it was picked up in the United States. The questions its practitioners had to answer were crucial to the war effort: How many tons of explosive force must a bomb release to create a certain amount of damage to certain types of targets? Should an airplane be heavily armored or stripped of defenses so it can fly faster? How many antiaircraft guns should be placed around a critical target?
The operational research groups were composed of scientists from all fields—physics, astronomy, chemistry, physiology, zoology, economics, mathematics—and were called “mixed teams.” When P.M.S. Blackett, one of the founders of operational research (OR) explained the British experience to American officers early in the war, he told them that every type of profession had been tried for the job except lawyers. Misunderstanding the point of the remark, the U.S. Army Air Force hired as its first OR chief John Marshall Harlan, a lawyer who later became an associate justice on the Supreme Court.
The scientists working on OR carefully examined data on the most recent military operations to determine the facts, elaborated theories to explain the facts, then used the theories to make predictions about future operations. In assessing the air campaign against German U-boats, for example, they analyzed every possible detail of past campaigns. By calculating the effect and importance of each variable, the scientists could predict what effect a change in any one of them—a new kind of radar, better accuracy, better camouflage, different altitude—might have on the outcome of the campaign.
One example: When Blackett first joined the British coastal command in the spring of 1941, the air campaign against U-boats was proving curiously unsuccessful. Command officers had observed that as soon as a U-boat captain spotted an aircraft, he dived as deep as possible. Consequently the coastal command would set its depth charges to explode one hundred feet below the surface of the water, assuming that the U-boat could sight the airplane two minutes before the attack and could, in that period, dive one hundred feet. Yet they were damaging only a few submarines.