Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger

Review of Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger, by Bruce Kuklick (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)

As an undergraduate, I had the privilege of interviewing a man who had been a B-24 pilot during the Second World War. After listening to his story, I asked him to compare what he knew of Vietnam to his own experiences. His reply: "The Vietnam War might have been justified, but the damn thing was fought with politicians, rather than generals." This view, which is representative of comments made by other veterans I interviewed, does not seem to be terribly uncommon.

The lesson of Bruce Kuklick's Blind Oracles, however, is that the picture is a bit more complex. Throughout the Cold War, in addition to those who stood before the electorate, there have been scores of foreign policy intellectuals and experts whose theories competed for the attention of elected officials. Thriving in what Elaine Tyler May has called "the era of the expert," these thinkers benefited from a public faith in learned knowledge. To understand American foreign policy, according to Kuklick, requires an appreciation of the relationship between these theorists and the political environment in which they worked.

Divided into eleven chapters, the book is basically chronological, beginning in 1945 and concluding in the post-Vietnam era, in which several prominent Cold Warriors published reflections of their careers. It looks at three groups: RAND staffers, who were mainly "scientifically-oriented"; foreign policy scholars, who were mostly historians and political scientists; and intellectuals in power, such as George Kennan, W.W. Rostow, and Henry Kissinger. In its examination of these circles, Blind Oracles is a testament to their fallibility.

In the 1950s, theoreticians gained a more institutional role in society. In the RAND corporation, founded by the Air Force, scholars developed concepts such as game theory and organizational behavior to guide strategic thinking. Others, like Albert Wohlstetter, attempted to distill the lessons of Pearl Harbor into theories of "vulnerability" and "deterrence" in the nuclear age. However, their work carried little weight with President Eisenhower, who had an aversion to abstract theorization. Even the Air Force at that time generally ignored its RAND staffers' suggestions, unless they justified requests for military budget increases. The decade thus marked a low point in the influence of these thinkers, and they would not bounce back until the election of Kennedy.

The 1960s saw a drastic increase in the attention paid to intellectuals, as many found jobs in the administration, but the result was not more effective policymaking. Kuklick's prime example here is the Cuban Missile Crisis, which experts misinterpreted both during and after the event. First, Kennedy's advisors failed to see the big picture, in that they did not see Soviet encroachments as a response to the possibility of American missiles in West Germany. Second, they glorified their own role in ending the crisis, attributing success to sound advice, rather than the fact that the Soviets had been bluffing. They misread the crisis as a victory for graduated escalation, and they applied the same formula in Vietnam, despite starkly different circumstances.

In his discussion of Vietnam, Kuklick includes Kennedy in his criticism, because the president saw South Vietnam in terms of "abstract Communism" rather than realpolitik (130). But intellectuals in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations also receive a significant share of the blame. The author comes down heavily on Robert McNamara, who treated Vietnam as "an applied social science experiment" (146), and on Rostow, who attempted to graft his modernization theory onto Vietnam. By the late 1960s, such theoretical impositions amidst a worsening situation in Vietnam dealt a blow to the reputation of expert opinion.

The final chapters recount intellectuals' attempts to modify their theories out of self-interest. Those who had been most responsible for decision making now pointed to structural causes, not themselves, as the reasons for failure in Vietnam. Henry Kissinger, the paragon of realist foreign policy, tried to claim in his memoirs that he had aided the cause of the ideological hardliners. Robert McNamara expressed regret for his role in the war, but he attributed the Vietnam "tragedy" to a lack of "social knowledge," a problem which no one could have solved (214). Thus, just as they and others had wielded their expertise to justify actions, now intellectuals used it to distance themselves from the outcomes of their own policies.

In the end, then, foreign policy intellectuals were just as susceptible to politics, hubris, and self-interest as were politicians. Those that found themselves in power often stubbornly adhered to abstract models, rather than accounting for local conditions. Scholars in think-tanks like RAND and the Kennedy School of Government found it difficult to criticize their benefactors, and many of their theories served merely as justifications or as scapegoats. In addition, as demonstrated by the Eisenhower presidency, forming a strategic concept did not require an advance degree. Thus, Kuklick concludes that "the knowledge that defense intellectuals … brought to contemporary issues was no greater than the knowledge that decision makers in earlier times had" (223).

Nevertheless, Kuklick believes that there is value in retaining experts in policymaking. To abandon the intellectual approach entirely, he says, would "leave decisions to habit, authority, or chance" (16). The best option is to continue to respect the contributions of theorists, but to ensure that the experts form opinions with "humility and prudence," rather than with "pride and dogmatism" (230).

At times, the narrative of Blind Oracles moves slowly in its in-depth discussion of evolving theoretical concepts. In the end, though, this level of detail pays off, because the author consistently connects these formulations to contemporary politics and historical events. The study is thus a valuable complement to H.W. Brands's What America Owes the World (1998), which focuses more on the theories and ideas rather than on the thinkers themselves. Kuklick provides insights which would be useful for diplomatic and military historians, as well as for anyone interested in the nature of policymaking during the last century.