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  • Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger
  • David C. Engerman
Bruce Kuklick , Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. 241 pp. $29.95.

Scholars who believe that they are better suited to make policy than to study it should read Bruce Kuklick's Blind Oracles. Over almost a dozen short chapters, Kuklick traces how intellectuals served (and eventually became) the foreign policy establishment and highlights the wide gap between intellectuals' perceived and actual roles in policy formation as well as the limits of their analyses.

Kuklick opens the book with an excellent, if condensed, discussion of the philosophical currents of the interwar years, especially the schools of thought associated with John Dewey on the one hand and logical positivists on the other. He then shows how policy intellectuals after World War II drew selectively from these ideas to valorize scientific rigor and value-neutral rationality rather than deliberation about ultimate aims. Although the next chapter deals with George Kennan, Kuklick's main concerns lie elsewhere, with the mathematically oriented social scientists at the RAND Corporation. Starting in the late 1940s, RAND's impressive group of intellectuals (including Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, and Albert Wohlstetter) began to make the case that questions of war, and especially nuclear war, should be subjected to [End Page 153] models and not morals. RAND theorists bluntly dismissed other approaches, treating even their patron, the U.S. Air Force, with "patronizing arrogance" (p. 23). RAND's modus operandi was that of a modeler, focusing on decision points abstracted from historical, bureaucratic, or psychological circumstances. RobertaWohlstetter's famous study of Pearl Harbor dealt only with methods of intelligence rather than the conflicts that led to the war in the first place (p. 59). Similarly, RAND's focus on rational decisions by rational actors left them theorizing with an "impoverished, predictable, and cramped psyche" (p. 29). The end results, unsurprisingly, worked better on paper than in practice.

After more than a decade of criticizing military decision-making, RAND intellectuals rose to power in the 1960s. Installed in Robert McNamara's Pentagon, they continued to apply sophisticated techniques—and to give short shrift to history, context, and ultimate goals. As good consultants, they could answer questions about the most appropriate means to meet specific aims; but as policymakers they were unready to debate these aims.

At the same time that some policy intellectuals left RAND to take up jobs at the Pentagon, a different group of them left Cambridge, Massachusetts, to head to the White House and the State Department. Kuklick deals only briefly with the "best and the brightest"—McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, and others—who have already been covered at great length by other historians. Instead, Kuklick focuses on a group led by political scientist Richard Neustadt at Harvard University, who sought to analyze bureaucratic politics and bargaining. Neustradt's instant analyses of the Cuban missile crisis and the Skybolt controversy in 1962 took for granted American aims and focused on management techniques.

The Harvard and RAND groups began to converge on the question of Vietnam. McNamara may have come up with the idea for the Pentagon Papers—eventually completed as a RAND study—after visiting Harvard's new Kennedy School of Government. The RAND analysts who compiled the report were wary of fickle popular opinion but not their own cognitive blinders. They concluded that the fault lay with democratic politics, not faulty advice or bad policy (i.e., the policies undertaken by RAND's own "consumers").

Blind Oracles ends, fittingly, with Henry Kissinger and some of his former Harvard colleagues in 1971. The scholars, representing both the RAND and the Harvard approaches, called for Kissinger's resignation. The irony of the conversation was that Kissinger fit precisely the models of his critics. Kissinger was, according to Kuklick, "the best embodiment of the rational-action model." For Neustadt, the author of books cataloguing the deformities of bureaucratic policies, who could be a better student than Kissinger (pp. 201–202)? The attacks on Kissinger were motivated more by an attempt to find blame for ineffective policies than by a consistent application of sophisticated models. Expertise became...


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