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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
Over the next thirteen months Von Kármán and his Army Air Force Scientific Advisory Board produced—and distributed piecemeal—a multivolume report called Toward New Horizons. It was music to Hap Arnold’s ears. “The scientific discoveries in aerodynamics, propulsion, electronics, and nuclear physics open new horizons for the use of air power,” the report declared. Even greater advances, including the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, lay just over the horizon. Therefore the air staff must “be advised continuously on the progress of scientific research and development in view of the potentialities of new discoveries and improvements in aerial warfare.” The important thing was to maintain “a permanent interest of scientific workers in problems of the Air Forces.”
Thus Von Kármán laid out the blueprint for what would be called Air Force Project RAND.
VON KÁRMÁN was reinforcing a movement already afoot under the sturdy guidance of Arnold, Bowles, and a few others, most notably Arthur Raymond, chief engineer at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, and his assistant Frank Collbohm.
Collbohm had met Arnold in 1942, when Douglas Aircraft was building A-20 airplanes for the British. The British wanted some night-flight capability but had only primitive radar installations, which could barely make out the targets. Collbohm, who had heard something about a radar project going on at MIT, visited the school’s Radiation Lab in Cambridge. ld Bowles and another scientist at the lab took him up on the roof, where they had the radar operating. The day was extremely foggy. All pilots were grounded, except for a physicist at the lab who owned a private plane and had been given an exemption. At the moment, he was flying over the MIT campus. Collbohm could not see him, but the radar was tracking him perfectly.
Collbohm repeated the tale to Donald Douglas, president of the aircraft company, and General Arnold; both men were highly impressed. From that point on, Ed Bowles and the MIT Rad Lab were in with the Army Air Force, and so was Frank Collbohm. He was already a dollar-a-year consultant to the secretary of war. Now he started to consult for Arnold, too, mostly on tactics and economics.
As Collbohm gained a broader perspective on war planning, he grew disturbed that many high-ranking military officers were winning the military phase of the war but losing sight of the larger objectives. For example, in their obsession with measuring effectiveness by gauging damage of production facilities, many officers wanted to bomb the coal mines of the Ruhr Valley. Collbohm and many other civilian consultants argued that, with the Germans practically defeated, such rich resources should now be protected, not destroyed. Collbohm talked tlhe situation over with Ed Bowles and others. They all agreed that the military could not afford to lose the technical and scientific community they would so much need after the war.
When Collbohm aired his concerns to Arnold, the general agreed. “We have to keep the scientists on board,” he said. “It’s the most important thing we have to do.” Arnold immediately sent Collbohm back to Santa Monica to calculate how much money and what sorts of facilities and personnel would be needed for a new organization of scientists, similar to the one urged by Von Kármán, that would work for the military.
On September 30 Collbohm came to Arnold with a proposal from Donald Douglas: Douglas Aircraft would agree to house an independent group of civilians to assist the Army Air Force in planning for future weapons development. Arnold was excited by the idea. Douglas had served the nation well in war, and he was a man Arnold could trust. They were longtime huntingand-fishing friends, and two years earlier Arnold’s son had married Douglas’s daughter. Arnold had already concluded that this new scientific organization probably could not be set up at a university, owing to the need for classified information; nor could it be inside the government, due to the relatively low pay scales of civil service. He had thought industry was out of the question too; possible conflicts of interest would make life difficult for the fledgling outfit. But if Don Douglas was willing and eager to take this thing on and get it moving, then maybe an industry connection would work after all. (In the end the relationship did not work out, and in May 1948 RAND became an independent nonprofit corporation.)
Arnold called for a lunch meeting to be held the very next day at Hamilton Field, an Air Force base just outside San Francisco. There he joined Frank Collbohm, Ed Bowles, Don Douglas, Arthur Raymond, and a few other representatives of Douglas Aircraft. The meeting was to the RAND Corporation what the Continental Congress had been to the United States. Years later, in fact, the group that met at Hamilton Field would be referred to in RAND folklore as the “founding fathers.”