A crisp history of the world’s most influential think tank, which the Soviet publication Pravda once called the “academy of science and death.”
The Manhattan Project proved to the military during World War II the efficacy of assistance from independent civilian scientists. Seeking to maintain that link and understanding the need to cope with peacetime threats to national security, Air Force hot shots, including the legendary Generals Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold and Curtis LeMay, helped to found RAND (for “research and development”). Throughout the next half-century, RAND’s intellectual gunslingers—its researchers and advisors have won 27 Nobel Prizes—expanded their role and helped set large portions of America’s military and political agenda. RAND’s detractors accuse the corporation of subordinating morality to the achievement of U.S. government policy, of operating wholly without conscience and of practically inventing the Cold War. Los Angeles Times contributor and novelist Abella (Final Acts, 2000, etc.) takes a swipe at the problematic implications for the country of RAND’s seeming amorality, but he deals far more successfully with the corporation’s history, particularly the early years, and the procession of larger-than-life personalities who passed through RAND’s portals and who influenced the nation’s thinking far more than any single policy paper the institute produced. RAND’s luminaries have included the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, thermonuclear war expert (and model for Dr. Strangelove) Herman Kahn, national-security expert and Cold War strategist Albert Wohlstetter, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and even the humorist Leo Rosten. Its theorists have contributed to our everyday lexicon such words and phrases as “fail-safe,” “doomsday machine,” “systems analysis,” “futurology,” “zero-sum game” and “prisoner’s dilemma.” How many enemy factories can we destroy with the kind of aircraft we possess? After a nuclear exchange, would the living truly envy the dead? Paid to think the unthinkable, RAND’s analysts and their mission come off here as simultaneously marvelous and horrible.
As good a look as we’re likely to get about an organization where, Ellsberg notwithstanding, keeping secrets is second nature.