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Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 3 November 17, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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In previous posts, I have noted characteristics historians attribute to Cold War-era social science, and have posited that the historiography of the social sciences often follows a “whig” structure. This narrative structure builds history around the social sciences’ move away from inappropriate frameworks. These frameworks privileged the sciences’ own cultural perspective, and projected it onto, and proselytized it to, other cultures by means of the sciences’ intellectual and political influence. The whig structure also (implicitly or explicitly) takes the trend of history to move toward a more passive or dialogical social scientific framework pioneered by cultural anthropologists.

The context of “Cold War America” is critical to this narrative, because it provides 1) a particular “liberal” or “modernist” cultural perspective that informed the work of the period, 2) the project of strengthening and defending liberal society at home and abroad—through a) the development of scientific theories of the nature of modern, liberal, and illiberal society, and b) the instrumental use of social science in augmenting military and diplomatic power—and, accordingly, 3) funding.

Lyndon Johnson and adviser (and modernization theorist) Walt Rostow discussing Vietnam

The trouble with this narrative structure is that it tends to constrain historical analysis so that it produces stories that conform to it. At the same time, it would be difficult to sustain such narratives if the record did not at least bear some resemblance to it. The place where the record most clearly resembles this narrative is in a branch of sociology and political science known as “modernization theory”.

Theorists of modernization studied the process by which societies transform from a “traditional” culture into an industrialized culture. These theorists and their links to Cold War-era development projects have been studied by a variety of scholars in the last fifteen years (none of whom, incidentally, are historians of science). See especially:

Michael Latham, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era (2000)

Nils Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (2003)

David Engerman, Mark Haefele, Gilman, and Latham (eds.), Staging Growth: Modernization, Development, and the Global Cold War (2003).

David Ekbladh, The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order (2010 — I haven’t gotten a hold of this, but it looks to be less centered on modernization theory, and more on development projects and policy, which is surely useful.)

Michael E. Latham, The Right Kind of Revolution: Modernization, Development, and U. S. Foreign Policy from the Cold War to the Present (2011)

Hemant Shah, The Production of Modernization: Daniel Lerner, Mass Media, and the Passing of Traditional Society (2011 — again, I haven’t picked this up; Shah is a professor of journalism and mass communication, and approaches the subject from the perspective of  looking at the history of “development communications”)

(Also, back in 2004, Gilman very helpfully posted an annotated bibliography, which deals with a lot of antecedent literature, and tangential literatures, such as the critique of modernism. Also, Gilman keeps a blog)

Modernization theory presents us with an almost ideal type of what a Cold War science is supposed to look like. Although it was not intimately connected with the intellectual project of systematizing sociology, the dean of that project, Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), was a key player in the development modernization studies. (Other key figures were Edward Shils (1910-1995), Lucian Pye (1921-2008), David Apter (1924-2010), Daniel Lerner (1917-1980), and Gabriel Almond (1911-2002).) Also, practically by definition, modernization theory espoused an effectively whiggish and determinist view of history, positing American liberal society as a logical endpoint of economic and social development. Accordingly, modernization theorists made specific policy recommendations advocating foreign intervention and development. And, indeed, one of them,* Walt Rostow (1916-2003), became an important figure in the John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations, and a key proponent of the escalation of the Vietnam War.

In fact, I think there is a good case to be made that without the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, there would be little impetus behind the notion that there was a peculiarly “Cold War” variety of social science. It has been customary to portray these administrations as peculiarly intellectualized, which has helped to explain their policy failures as the natural result of the encounter of pristine ideas with messy reality. The literature espousing this theme coalesced with journalist David Halberstam’s (1934-2007) The Best and the Brightest (1972), and continued through Gregg Herken’s Counsels of War (1985) and Bruce Kuklick’s Blind Oracles (2007), among many other works.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1916-2009) is probably the key figure in this portrait, on account of his background in quantitative management, and his World War II service as a statistician assisting Curtis LeMay’s strategic bombing campaign. McNamara actually has more to do with my particular research territory of policy analysis than with the social sciences, per se. However, Rostow certainly also looms large in the picture; David Milne’s 2008 biography casts him (quoting Averell Harriman) as “America’s Rasputin”. Another key figure is McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996), who had been appointed dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences at age 34.

To note that there is a common historiographical pattern of assigning an intellectualized character to Kennedy-Johnson policy is not to say anything about the quality of the works comprising it—one can glean a very nuanced portrait from them. The opening scene of Milne’s book, for instance, makes clear how different McNamara and Rostow were from each other (while not failing to obligatorily mention McNamara’s reputation as an “IBM machine with legs”).

What this pattern does do, however, is set up an overarching framework of historical understanding, which I believe creates overly stark interpretive divides. For example, it encourages us to analyze (indeed, to psychoanalyze) apparently intellectualized advisers in a way that is different from other kinds of advisers, when, in fact, all advisers must use abstract notions to recommend policies and anticipate their results.

Turning that analysis around (and getting back to our main point), it also encourages us to draw stark divides within the social sciences between work we can clearly link to the liberal project, and work we can link to ourselves.

Thus, for example, in Joy Rohde’s piece in Cold War Social Science (2012), “From Expert Democracy to Beltway Banditry: How the Antiwar Movement Expanded the Military-Academic-Industrial Complex,” she charts the transition of the U. S. Army’s Special Operations Research Office (SORO) from its administrative contract with American University to the private contracting agency, American Institutes for Research. As Rohde notes, SORO was part of a sizeable set of contract-research organizations that sprouted up around the military after World War II, many of which were administered by universities. In the 1960s, these organizations began to cut their ties to universities, sometimes for particular reasons, increasingly because of protest against the militarized university.

The question is: what are we to make of these university ties? For Rohde, they are important, because the university effectively provided SORO with a durable gloss of objective science, which obscured the mission-oriented instrumentality of their research. And, when university ties were cut, “SORO and other manifestations of the Pentagon’s research apparatus … were no less ideological and no more transparent. Social knowledge continued to lend legitimacy to the national security state as the old purveyors of expert democracy remade themselves as Beltway Bandits” (139). In spite of the universities’ turn from this brand of social science, SORO did not take that turn, nor did they lose the influence they initially obtained as part of their affiliation with university science.

I feel this point-of-view ascribes too much scientific specialness to SORO research. It is not without interest that SORO was run by American University—they did a bit more than cut the paychecks—but I think SORO is best understood as a military research organization, and can be most fruitfully compared to the military services’ intelligence branches. Rohde rightly notes that being outside the military chain of command did grant organizations like SORO a certain freedom to reach independent conclusions, but, ultimately, they (I would emphasize, openly) “endorsed their patron agencies’ missions” (140).

I think agencies like SORO had the power to inform, but certainly not dictate, internal military deliberations, and that they did not have much power to confer “legitimacy”, especially since much of their work was secret. Their research may have had an academic dimension, but, at the end of the day (as they say) their work was clearly instrumental in character. Therefore, there would be no reason to expect or ascribe any major significance to their move from being a university contractor to being a private contractor, any more than there would be any reason to expect any radical shift in the nature of military intelligence work through time.

I always get the sense that authors somehow expect self-respecting “scientists” to realize that it is impossible to work for the military and still do Proper Science, but that makes as little sense to me as the view that scientists cannot work comfortably in industrial settings.

But, of course, social scientists who were embarrassed by SORO wanted people to believe that it is impossible to work for the military and still do Proper Science, or, at least, that people who did do work for the military simply did not understand that their work was scientifically problematic. In the wake of Project Camelot, this view became very prominent. Project Camelot was a proposed SORO project (and not an unusual one) to study possible insurgency in Chile. When the study was exposed to the press, it caused a major scandal and was canceled in 1965. The affair was especially scandalous among sociologists as many among them did not wish their own work to be tarnished by intellectual association. Works such as Irving Louis Horowitz’s Rise and Fall of Project Camelot (1967) and Gene Lyons’s The Uneasy Partnership (1969) sought to shed light on the epistemological dangers of working with the state.

Mark Solovey’s piece, “Project Camelot and the 1960s Epistemological Revolution: Rethinking the Politics-Patronage-Social Science Nexus” Social Studies of Science 31 (2001): 171-206, makes the argument that Project Camelot instigated the social sciences’ “epistemological revolution,” that is, the social sciences’ turn away from “a dominant post-WWII model of social science inquiry based upon idealized positivist and empiricist image of the natural sciences” and toward a vision that “drew attention to the problems involved interpreting the meaning of human action, problems whose proper study seemed to require tools of analysis that the natural sciences could not provide” (172). This argument, incidentally, was made in contradistinction to Peter Novick’s claim in That Noble Dreamit all connects!—that this revolution (the term is Novick’s) had mainly academic intellectual roots.

And this brings us back to the crucial point. The confidence, inherited from the polemics of certain academic social scientists, that there was an epistemological revolution, which made the social sciences more like us—a claim that also shows up explicitly in Howard Brick’s account of the “beginnings of the world turn in U. S. scholarship” in Cold War Social Science—is the core of the new whig narrative of the social sciences. It has the power to inform works that aren’t really whiggish in and of themselves, like Rohde’s, by doing things like creating the expectation that something should have happened to SORO after Project Camelot—it should have been transformed or eliminated by the epistemological revolution.

More generally, though, it gives us too much confidence that we understand past social science, and, indeed, too much confidence that we understand ourselves. It closes off the possibility of exploratory scholarship rather than opening it up. And that, of course, is an attitude that our narrative confines to the thinking of the past, which means we have difficulty seeing it in ourselves.

Rostow was author of Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960).


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