- 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
GAME THEORY caught on in a very big way at RAND in the late 1940s. John Williams was particularly entranced with it and wrote a lively compendium of dozens of cases—pulled out of real life—in which game theory could play a valuable role in guiding decision makers. But there was a major limitation to game theory. For it to be used precisely, as a science, the analyst had to have some way of calculating what numbers represented the probabilities. And what about those games that involve not just two players but three or four or more? Then there were games where certain moves might be optimal 60 percent of the time, but other moves 40 percent of the time. In these cases the players would have to play according to a mixture of random selection and the laws of probability, just as a good poker player bluffs systematically but randomly, so that his strategy is not discovered.
In brief, Williams realized that if game theory were to grow and have true relevance to economics problems or international conflict, and if RAND were to lead the way, then RAND would have to hire social scientists and economists who could study the “utility functions” of consumers and the actual behavior and values of various nations. The mathematicians, who certainly knew nothing of such things, could then make use of the findings.
So it was that John Williams—through the combination of Olaf Helmer’s original suggestion and his own fascination with game theory—proposed that two new divisions, one for social science and the other for economics, be created that would broaden the range and scope of RAND. At first Collbohm failed to see much use in having such things, nor could many of the other RAND scientists, especially the engineers, to whom the social sciences represented something soft and unscientific. But Williams was brilliant, no doubt about that, so Collbohm became convinced. Williams eventually won approval for his new division from RAND’s immediate Air Force boss, Gen. Curtis LeMay.
A turning point in the progress of Williams's new departments, and of RAND in general, came in 1947 when Williams arranged a conference of social scientists to be held in New York from September 19 to 24. It had become clear that even fairly crude economic and statistical computations could contribute substantially to the formulation of strategic military policy, and there was a good turnout at the New York Economic Club the first day of the RAND conference.
John Williams’s mentor and idol, Warren Weaver, who was social science chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation as well as a RAND consultant, delivered the opening address. He talked about his having spent nearly one-fourth of his life working for the military in two world wars. He talked about the work in operational research during the last war. He explained that RAND was greatly interested in the concept of “military worth,” in seeing “to what extent it is possible to have useful quantitative indices for a gadget, a tactic or a strategy, so that one can compare it with available alternatives and guide decisions by analysis …”
At the conference, Warren Weaver made a particularly revealing remark early in his opening address. “I assume that every person in this room is fundamentally interested in and devoted to what can broadly be called the rational life,” he said. “He believes fundamentally that there is something to this business of having some knowledge … and some analysis of problems, as compared with living in a state of ignorance, superstition and driftinginto-whatever-may-come. ”
The “rational life” might have served well as an emblem of the RAND style. And with a social science and an economics division, RAND was about to start pursuing it along slightly different lines. Before, RAND had confined itself essentially to studying the technical aspects of the instruments of warfare. Now, some of the people at RAND would start to study the strategy of warfare, would try to impose the order of the rational life on the almost unimaginably vast and hideous maelstrom of nuclear war.
LATE IN 1951 a very small number of physicists at the RAND Corporation started to learn a great deal about a new and fantastic weapon that would dwarf all weapons before it. Some called it the Super, because it could release one thousand times as much explosive energy as the atomic bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the war. It was a thermonuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb.