Scientists At War

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IN RECENT YEARS hundreds of national-security think tanks have sprouted up along the American political landscape. RAND itself has branched out to cast its analytical net over not only the imponderables of nuclear war but also the lucrative study of urban affairs, energy problems, alcoholism, and other bits of social science. But it was in the military realm that RAND had its heyday, and there it was first, the trend-setter, the most influential.

The RAND analysts fabricated the technique of systems analysis—with the conviction that all problems can be solved through quantitative means, that the mathematical models of econometrics and game theory can be applied to all aspects of life, including the greatest man-made threat to life, nuclear war.

Throughout the 1950s an explosion of conceptualizing took place at RAND. Bernard Brodie’s tentative thoughts on using nuclear weapons to exert leverage over an opponent during a war grew into sophisticated treatises—though more often written by his colleagues than by Brodie himself—on “counterforce/no-cities targeting,” on limited “tit-for-tat” gamesmanship, on the art and (presumed) science of fighting a nuclear war.

The strategists of RAND rose to power in the 1960s. When John F. Kennedy was elected President, his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, hired a handful of RAND analysts to be his top aides—most notably Charles Hitch as comptroller and Alain Enthoven as head of systems analysis—and, at least in the first few years, adopted their ideas completely. In the 1970s a RAND alumnus, James Schlesinger, was appointed secretary of defense. Others from RAND—including Andrew Marshall (an original articulator of nuclearwar fighting theories from the early 1950s) and Fred Iklé—hold high positions in the Pentagon today and have coauthored the highly controversial “Defense Guidance” document of early 1982, which called for the strengthening of forces and strategies that would allow the United States to fight a “protracted” nuclear war.

In one sense these strategists of the nuclear age have engaged in a legitimate exercise in rational analysis, an honest attempt to impose rational order where others had envisioned only chaos. (One of RAND’s most famous strategists, Herman Kahn, called this task “thinking about the unthinkable.”) However, in doing so, they created a vocabulary, a style of thinking that tended to make nuclear war appear more like a chess game than an unprecedented castastrophe. The method of mathematical calculation gave the strategists a handle on the colossally destructive power of the weapon they found in their midst. But over the years the method became a catechism, the first principles carved into the mystical stone of dogma. The precise calculations and the cool, comfortable vocabulary were coming all too commonly to be grasped not merely as tools of desperation but as genuine reflections of the nature of nuclear war.

And yet every time that, in the real world, policy makers or advisers contemplated applying the theories to an actual crisis at hand, they shrank from doing so, finding the uncertainties all too great and the risk of obliteration too awesome. And with good reason. The nuclear strategists had come to impose order—but in the end, chaos still prevailed.