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The Original “Think Tank” – An article about RAND, my Almamater

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Originally published in “Sueddeutsche Zeitung”, February 28, 2002
Written by Petra Steinberger — translated by Connor Spreng, RGS Fellow

The cold god of the future

The original “Think Tank”. Visiting the Californian RAND Corporation.

Natalie Crawford might be a regular American housewife, who is enjoying the latter half of her career in California, after raising her children. Her hair is kept short, her outfit is discreet, lips are red, the voice friendly, if resolute. In Natalie Crawford’s office there are no family pictures, but instead, pictures of fighter jets, certificates, tokens of friendships from pilots – and repeatedly herself: In this or that bomber, in battle dress uniform with the boys of the US Air Force – “I fought hard to obtain their acceptance.” As an engineer in the mid-60’s, she developed a new weapon for the Air Force. Today Natalie Crawford is the director of Project Air Force, the true heart of the RAND Corporation.

Those who made it in America’s political arena, display their successes on the walls of their offices. It’s called a “Trophy Wall” or also “I love you Wall”. In a photo one might be standing next to National Security adviser One or Secretary of Defense Two and be proud. But in the offices of the RAND Corporation it is often not clear, if the owner of such a wall is the admired or the fan. Who is giving advice to whom, when Natalie Crawford meets with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force? Who would know?

Nuclear tests in the basement

A few thousand miles to the East, in RAND’s Washington office, it might be, for example, Robert E. Hunter, the Ambassador – or Robert E. Hunter, the Senior Advisor from RAND, who stands surrounded by people like a Kennedy or Kissinger. This is not surprising in an organization like the RAND Corporation, the original, the primordial think tank of America and to this day the most important one. Over the 50 plus years of its history, RAND has accumulated a list of employees and advisors that reads like the directory of all US administrations combined. Including a bunch of Nobel Laureates.

Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Paul O’Neill were on the Board; Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger and Don Rice were advisors; at times the Nobel Laureates Kenneth Arrow, Willard Libby, Robert Solow and William Sharpe were employed there, among others.

The RAND Corporation is one of those organisms whose emergence is only possible in America: A hybrid of a University and private consulting agency for day-to-day politics, deeply connected to the Pentagon, but at the same time independent; financed by research mandates from the government and the private sector, but proud to be always bipartisan and independent and willing to tell clients to their face, if need be, that they’ve been asking the wrong questions; suspected of every imaginable conspiracy and accused of megalomania. A myth that has its roots in the early years of the cold war – at a tranquil street next to the beach in California’s Santa Monica, far from Washington, not by accident.

Even the symmetric layout of the hallways and offices makes any escape impossible

The small notice in the lobby seems to bear witness to the top secret thoughts and experiments that are hidden behind the inconspicuous off-white walls: “This building contains a chemical that may cause cancer and/or birth defects.”

Of course, it must be the nuclear tests, that were supposedly conducted in the basement. Or other tests and invidious CIA-conspiracies, which upset the people of the liberal Santa Monica so much, that -up until a few years ago- they held periodic protest-rallies outside the building. False Alarm. The sign in the lobby is the asbestos disclaimer of the State of California. But security is tight. Every visitor must be escorted at all times, no matter where. In the offices lie a huge variety of top secret files.

The symmetric layout of the hallways and offices makes any escape impossible. Even the structure of the building is an expression of the so-called RAND spirit. The mathematician John Williams drew the blueprints, so that chance encounters would be maximized. At some point, argued Williams, everyone will meet everyone and immediately start developing grand concepts.

At times, this system brings RAND employees to distraught smiles, when they’ve taken the wrong turn once again. But the idea behind all of this is to be interdisciplinary. Indeed Rand gives the impression, with its 2000 physicists, mathematicians, sociologists and economists in Santa Monica, of a happy campus – as long as one tries to overlook the plaques of the predecessors along the walls: those scientists, men in white shirts and black-rimmed glasses, who used the relaxed isolation of Santa Monica to rationally think through the scenario of a nuclear war to the very end.

To love the bomb

Futurology was the magic word in the years after the Second World War, and because the Army and later the Air Force didn’t want to lose the civilian scientists to the private sector, Project Reasearch and Development, RAND in short, was founded in 1945 together with the aircraft manufacturer Douglas and in 1948 was converted into a Corporation. RAND established forecasts for the coming, cold future and developed, towards this end, the ‘delphi’ method.

Rand worshipped rationality as a god and attempted to quantify the unpredictable, to calculate it mathematically, to bring the fear within its grasp and under control – something that seemed to many Americans spooky and made the soviet Prawda call RAND the “American academy of death and destruction.”

To this sinister myth, Pete Seeger dedicated 1961 the ‘RAND hymn’: “The Rand Corporation’s the boon of the world / They think all day long for a fee. / They sit and play games about going up in flames / For counters they use you and me…” This myth supposedly inspired Isaac Asimov for his science-fiction series “Foundations”. And this myth is the basis in Stanley Kubrick’s movie “Dr. Strangelove”, where they talk about a “Bland-study”. The character of Dr. Strangelove himself might have been inspired by the RAND futurologist Herman Kahn or perhaps by the mathematician John von Neumann.

Big thoughts in deck chairs

Kubrick himself, so the rumor goes, researched here for two months. This comes as no surprise to Kubrick fans and surely caused no uproar at RAND itself. After all, out here one had all the time in the world to deal with its end.

RAND still feeds off this myth of the early years. “The best work was done in deck chairs on the beach.” This is not only the opinion of James Dewar, Director of the new Center which was named in best RAND tradition the Center for Longer Term Global Policy and The Future Human Condition.

They were the masterminds of game theory and systems analysis: John von Neumann, John Nash, George Dantzig, Anatol Rapoport, Melvin Dresher – practically every great thinker of these disciplines worked at RAND. Their motto: “Thinking the unthinkable.” In the early 50’s, the RAND physicist Bruno Augenstein developed the plans for what later became the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. In 1951 the Air Force asked for recommendations for new European bases.

Grudgingly at first, the mathematician and economist Albert Wohlstetter took on the job. He explained in his study that the Air Force had asked the wrong question: More American bases would be safer and cheaper. He developed the strategy of the nuclear retaliatory strike after a Soviet attack. The study became a foundation of American defense strategy and Wohlstetter later on became the mentor of foreign policy hawks, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.

Sovietologists and Kremlinologists

In order to better understand also the thinking of the enemy to the East, philosophers and sociologists, such as Margaret Mead were brought in. Even the Soviet ministry of economic planning was recreated in Santa Monica. With the Sovietologists and Kremlinologists the ‘soft’ sciences entered RAND Corporation. Today, more than 50% of RAND research is not connected to defense.

Ironically, the private sector clients benefited from the methods that were developed for the military. And some from the Old School explain to the visitor in quiet indignation, that RAND is only able to afford its civilian research, due to the continued, steady supply of funding from the military. Even if it lessened over time, especially after RAND’s most embarrassing scandal, when the RAND employee Daniel Ellsberg smuggled out of the building and published the classified documents that would become known as the “Pentagon Papers” and would expose American Vietnam Policy. No wonder, that the false rumor persisted for a long time, Nixon had asked RAND to find out whether it was feasible to skip the 1972 elections.

To this day, there is a particular ‘esprit de corps’ among the RAND employees. Repeatedly, the mystique of the institution is mentioned and its mission for the betterment of mankind. Not just to produce knowledge, but to make sure it is implemented in improved policies. In some way, RAND was involved with everything: The invention of satellites and the development of the internet; the beginnings of research on AIDS and terrorism; the examination of the struggling US education system and also of the criminal justice system.

Criticism was not held back, which hurt neither the Corporation nor its employees: America’s think tanks are also a kind of interim storage for leaders in government and administration, who get replaced every four or eight years, and can easily be found in RAND’s Washington office. Working there is also director and terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, who smiles about the esoteric, deep thinkers in California. The Pentagon is very close here. Since a few months ago one can see, from the window of the office, the big whole in its side.

admin @ March 25, 2010

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