The Chronicle Review

Beware of Defense Intellectuals

Diana Walker, Time & Life Pictures, Getty Images

Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (left), along with Paul Nitze (center), received the Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan in 1985.
December 11, 2016

Powerful nations and empires enjoy a certain luxury in how they make decisions. Herodotus tells of how the Persians, when confronted with a question of foreign policy, would first consider the problem sober, then consider it again when they were drunk. A courtier aiming to sway Louis XVI could not rely on appeal to necessity; counsel had to be laced with wit. Bon mots, wisecracks, and puns ruled the day.

If you are tempted to think that the United States operates in a more reasonable fashion, Ron Robin’s The Cold World They Made: The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter will disabuse you. The Pentagon is no more immune to claims of form and style than was Versailles.

Robin’s book is about a rabid form of foreign-policy thinking that speaks with placid assurance about "reality," that presents itself as "pre-emptive" but takes the form of outright aggression, that claims to be "strategic," but is often more enamored of tactics than actual strategy.

REVIEW

The Cold World They Made: The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter
By Ron Robin

(Harvard University Press)

Robin, a cultural historian and president of the University of Haifa, has written a dual biography of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, a couple who loomed large among policy thinkers during the Cold War. Albert’s early biography reads like the CV of many New York intellectuals: born in an outer borough; educated at City College, where he seems to have developed left-wing sympathies that soon faded; further study at Columbia with worthies like Ernest Nagel and Meyer Schapiro.

Then he went down an idiosyncratic path. In 1956, the couple moved west. Roberta got a job reviewing books for a new think tank in Santa Monica, the Rand Corporation. She got Albert to do some consulting, through which he discovered a talent for writing apocalyptic memos about American security. Decision-makers at the Pentagon liked Albert’s essays. They came studded with references to Milton and Shakespeare, and offered clear counsel to a nation that Wohlstetter cast as indecisive, Hamlet-like.

Albert radically and convincingly inflated the capacity and number of America’s enemies. What Robin calls the "Wohlstetter Doctrine" — an offensive, not merely defensive, nuclear strategy — started making gains on concepts like "containment" that had originated with a more subdued cadre of Americans strategists, namely George Kennan. Wohlstetter attacked the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, the premise of which was that the United States and the Soviet Union would never go to nuclear war because it would mean the mass death of each of their populations. Wohlstetter leaned on a valid point about the immorality of MAD — which necessitated each Cold War adversary targeting each other’s civilian populations and cities — in order to press for a more confrontational policy of outspending the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons, and advocating the tactical use of them in places where that could be done without the threat of retaliation. His dream of nuclear invincibility and total security culminated in Reagan’s Star Wars missile-defense system and George W. Bush’s pre-emptive war in Iraq. (Albert died in 1997; Roberta in 2007.)

More intriguing than the substance of the Wohlstetters’ arguments is why they found such favor in Washington. Albert and Roberta were prototypical "defense intellectuals," a unique type of American thinker who advertises a grasp of some deeper reality that the desk workers at the Pentagon and the State Department, consumed with the day-to-day, cannot detect. Defense intellectuals litter their prose with evidence of their liberal educations. It’s a style that aspires to be at once straight-talking and lyrical, learned and casual.

Many considered Roberta more brilliant than her husband. She came from a diametrically different background from Albert, growing up in a WASP family from Massachusetts, daughter of a Harvard law professor. (Her brother was the historian Edmund S. Morgan.) In 1962, she wrote Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, which won the Bancroft Prize. She argued that the United States had collected all of the necessary data that could have warned of the Japanese attack, but had failed to analyze the data correctly. The book included no historical dimension or any analysis of the run-up to December 1941. But it speaks to her belief — shared with her husband — in an America on a permanent offensive footing, with the utopia of perfect security within reach.

The Wohlstetters would be period pieces were it not for their disciples. One of the few things that Robin could have investigated more is how Albert Wohlstetter, who spent most of his career at the University of Chicago as a professor in the political-science department, managed to turn his office into a one-man policy shop, staffed with graduate students. Histories of "the Cold War University" tend to stress the formal tensions between campuses and the Pentagon that began in the 1950s, but Wohlstetter, operating in a more informal fashion, was turning out Washington-bound students well into the 1980s.

The second half The Cold World They Made details the paths of Albert’s more notable disciples. In Richard Perle, one of the most articulate defenders of the war in Iraq, Robin finds Albert’s ideas about overwhelming offensive force finally put into action. In Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as American ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan during the George W. Bush administration, Robin finds an essentially conventional academic whom Wohlstetter helped turn into a chief proponent of substituting global terrorism for the Soviet Union as an all-present American foe.

But the most intriguing disciple is Paul Wolfowitz, former dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and deputy secretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration. Wolfowitz shared not only Wohlstetter’s views, but also the form. Both couched their worldviews in a brittle moralism combined with an unremitting sententiousness.

One passing anecdote in Robin’s book is revealing. As a young man, Wolfowitz drove from Chicago to New York with his friend and fellow budding defense intellectual Charles Fairbanks Jr. Wolfowitz, Fairbanks recalls, "had just been reading Livy’s history of Rome. He was obviously somehow in love with political greatness. I think in the same way as the young Lincoln was. He talked for hours at a time about the ancient Romans, about what kind of men they were and what they achieved." Consider how much is on display here. The dewy-eyed reference to the Romans; the shameless, absurd comparison to Lincoln; the fetishization of "greatness" as a barren abstraction.

One would think that after the Iraq War — the gravest strategic blunder in more than a generation — American elected officials would have lost their appetite for pseudointellectual courtiers and their pandering. But the liberal arts continue to be a useful device for signaling class or moral solidarities in the foreign-policy establishment. They are another medium through which a self-flattering elite takes refuge from actual strategic thought, as well as from knowing other languages and cultures too intimately.

Beware the policy intellectual who comes armed with a bit of Livy … or Herodotus.

Thomas Meaney is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University. Next year he will be a fellow at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany.