Knowing the Enemy

David C. Engerman, Brandeis University

In the summer of 1953, a major military-academic project came under attack on Capitol Hill.  The target was Harvard University’s Refugee Interview Project, sponsored by the Air Force to the tune of almost $1 million – equivalent to $8 million in 2008.  It sought to understand Soviet society by applying the latest techniques of “behavioral science,” the ill-defined amalgam of sociology, cultural anthropology, and social psychology then in vogue.  A handful of budget-minded senators attacked.  One called the program “insane,” while another offered a broader condemnation, as summarized and quoted in a Boston newspaper:

The program Harvard conducted got nothing “except just a lot of professor theories and all that stuff.”  If the army, navy and Defense Department and American citizens have not sense enough to know how to counteract Soviet propaganda without hiring a bunch of college professors… [then] this defense establishment is in one darn bad shape in my opinion.”[1]

We can take at least some solace from the fact that such inquisitions and insults have not accompanied the Minerva discussion.  Indeed, judging by the posts in this forum and others, the strongest opposition to Minerva seems to be coming from a “bunch of college professors.”

Beneath the senators’ budget bluster, though, were some serious concerns that affected not merely Harvard’s Refugee Interview Project (RIP), but the field of Soviet Studies more broadly.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in announcing Minerva to an assembly of university presidents, celebrated what he called “Kremlinology” as a model for Minerva.  The analogy merits serious attention.  This essay will draw some conclusions from Cold War Soviet Studies that might shed light on the potentials and dangers of Minerva.  While I understand the many scholars’ skepticism about DOD motives and possible intellectual impact, my skepticism is rooted in the very example – Soviet Studies – Secretary Gates cited. 

Secretary Gates’s language itself invites skepticism.  He referred to his own field as “Kremlinology,” a term that most academic Soviet experts would have rejected.  Kremlinology focused primarily on the top leadership – who gave which speech, where they stood for a parade, etc. – and was more often the work of émigrés or experts connected to intelligence agencies.  Academic experts in Soviet Studies (which I’ll use interchangeably here with Sovietology) focused on a far broader set of concerns.

Sovietology got its start with the creation of Columbia University’s Russian Institute in 1946 and Harvard’s Russian Research Center in 1948; both were well-stocked with scholars who brought their scholarly expertise to Washington during World War II.  By the time Sputnik went into orbit in 1957, the field was thriving, with its own journal, monograph series, and graduate students who found jobs in the rapidly growing universities in the 1950s.  The expansion was fueled by a steady stream of external funding from the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, and with support from government agencies.  Sovietologists in all fields contracted with the Office of Naval Research, Air Force research institutes, the State Department, the new Central Intelligence Agency, and on occasion the White House National Security Council.  One Columbia scholar, for instance, had security clearances with nine different federal agencies, a fact we know in large part because those clearances were briefly revoked in 1954.  (Such loyalty concerns were an occasional issue in early Soviet Studies, reflecting both the paranoia of the times and scholars’ wide-ranging political views.  Social Democrats and many others from various precincts of the left found common anti-Stalinist cause with Cold War liberals and Eisenhower Republicans.)

Early Sovietologists held a deep-seated and unquestioned belief that their work should receive government support, monetary and otherwise.  There was a remarkable innocence that scholarship and security went hand-in-hand: these scholars saw their scholarly writing and teaching as continuous with their contract research and classified consulting.  In reading thousands of documents in personal papers, university archives, and government repositories, I did not run across a single reference to a situation in which a scholar was reluctant to do government work in principle, and plenty more examples of scholars angling for one or another form of government support.

The close ties between government and Soviet Studies were assumed, but they were not accidental.  A network of scholars, government officials, and those whom Dwight Macdonald called “philanthropoids” coalesced to build Soviet Studies out of various wartime programs and a handful of desultory efforts from the interwar years.  They met in numerous venues: RAND conferences, the Pentagon’s Research and Development Board, and the newly created Joint Committee on Slavic Studies (an ACLS-SSRC effort).  These interlocking directorates aimed to establish a field of study.  They undertook contract research like the Interview Project, but also devoted substantial time and resources to investments in infrastructure.  In the early 1950s – when headlines from the USSR included the death of Stalin, struggles over succession, the first inklings of cultural thaw, Khrushchev’s secret speech, and the rise (and brutal demise) of Hungary’s experiments – the Joint Committee spent its time promoting library purchases, fighting Post Office censors (so universities could receive copies of Pravda), and coordinating academic conferences.  The work wasn’t glamorous, but it allowed the field to develop as an academic enterprise, to produce worthwhile scholarship and to train graduate students.  Not coincidentally, this new enterprise also trained future diplomats and intelligence analysts, developed economic methods long used at CIA, and provided a steady stream of government consultants along with the occasional senior policy official.

Even if government officials and philanthropoids wanted Soviet Studies to feed into policy discussions, they promoted the field in very broad terms.  Scholarly exchange programs, which were funded by the Ford Foundation and State Department, quickly became the almost exclusive province of humanists and historians; only one in six American participants was a social scientist.  As the State Department insisted on more work on contemporary topics in the early 1970s, the exchanges sought unsuccessfully to bring in more social scientists.  So far as the exchanges were concerned, the most influential external force was the Soviet government, not the American one; by controlling access to sources (and participation in the exchange), the Soviet Ministry of Higher Education shaped American studies of Russian/Soviet history, literature, and politics.  Other federal funds, such as the National Defense Education Act, funded language training and area studies generally, with little regard to the mix of disciplines or immediate relevance.  Though the foundations and government agencies supported Soviet Studies to learn more about the Politburo, they ended up creating experts on Pushkin; they sought insights into Brezhnev and boosted the study of Bulgakov. 

Counter-currents were always present, though.  Harvard may have celebrated its Interview Project as a signal success, but the exercise should have sounded some warning bells about government-sponsored research.  Conflicts arose over security clearances (which all of the researchers needed to obtain before they could meet their interviewees) as well as over the classification of research.  The overall viewpoint of the Project was in line with behavioral science: it depicted the USSR as a relatively modern, reasonably stable industrial society.  The primary customer, the Air Force, had little use for the mountains of Project reports after the sponsoring institute was dissolved.  The scholarly impact was greater.  A dozen or so monographs on specialized topics offered significant information and new ways of thinking about Soviet society – especially valuable in those years before 1955 when it was impossible for most westerners to go to the USSR in any capacity.  Two major summaries were widely read, assigned in classrooms, and debated in scholarly journals. The project produced scholars as well as scholarship: many junior researchers rose to prominent academic positions.  And the interview materials themselves eventually became a crucial resource for western scholars writing about Soviet history.[2]  The fate of the two institutions involved suggests something about the beneficiaries of this instance of government-academic collaboration: Harvard’s Russian Research Center recently celebrated its 60th birthday while the Air Force institute that sponsored the project was quietly dissolved after the Congressional inquiries.

In other cases, too, the benefits of government-academic collaboration were more visible on the academic than the government side.  Secretary Gates mentioned the Smolensk Archive, materials that the Germans took from the Party Archive in that western Soviet city shortly after Operation Barbarossa, and which ended up in American hands at the conclusion of the war.[3] Political scientist Merle Fainsod was given exclusive access to the documents in the mid-1950s; the result was his book, Smolensk under Soviet Rule (1958), which outlined numerous tensions and conflicts within the one-Party state.  In a statement that is easily read as self-criticism, Fainsod acknowledged that “the central controls which looked so all-inclusive and deeply penetrating on paper did not in fact operate with the thoroughness and dispatch it is so easy to attribute to them.”  Reviewers agreed, using it to question the “totalitarian” paradigm promoted by Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski; one compared the actual workings of Soviet system (as revealed in Fainsod’s book) to the “totalitarian façade.”  The episode hardly suggests that the view of the USSR as a totalitarian society was promoted by government-sponsored research.

Though the Smolensk Archive was eventually sent to the National Archives (and available on microfilm), it languished for decades.  Only in the late 1970s did a group of scholars anxious to explore Soviet politics and Soviet life “from below” begin to make use of the Smolensk materials – with the explicit aim of challenging they called the “Cold War” interpretation of the USSR.  After the collapse of the USSR, the materials were eventually repatriated, though the long and cumbersome process hardly offers hope for Saad Eskander, who identifies a number of serious conflicts between American control of Iraq’s Ba’ath Party Archive and the expressed aim of furthering knowledge of Iraq and of promoting democracy there.

Both the Interview Project and the Smolensk work were completed long before Soviet experts began raising systematic questions about government-academic relations.  Indeed, as the field expanded in the late 1950s, it sought simultaneously to move beyond “know your enemy” modes of thinking and to formalize ties by creating a committee charged with helping “academic institutions… derive as much benefit as is desirable” from government work.

A final Soviet Studies precedent for Minerva came long after this age of innocence had ended.  The events of the 1960s burst the assumptions of smooth and seamless relationship between scholars and government: protestors took over administrative buildings and found documents that revealed many previously secret connections; social scientists’ efforts to study and change the world came into question with failures in development efforts and in Vietnam; the revelations about Project Camelot divided scholars, as Ron Robin outlined; and a new generation of scholars, more skeptical of government than their advisors, came into leadership roles.

In the late 1960s, funding for international studies shrunk drastically. Ford Foundation grants dropped from $48 million to $6 million in two years.  The Title VI programs that supported area studies teaching and training faced funding cuts, as did other philanthropies.  By the early 1970s, area studies in general, and Soviet Studies in particular, faced twin financial and intellectual crises.  At least three attempts to help Sovietology emerged in government agencies: George F. Kennan spearheaded the creation of the Kennan Institute, the first area program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  A handful of Sovietologists who consulted with CIA circulated ideas for Agency funding.  And other scholars approached DOD with a plan for support.  This last effort ultimately created the National Council for Soviet and East European Studies (NCSEER), which disbursed DOD money through a strictly academic process.  The applications were reviewed by scholarly representatives from a dozen or so university-based Soviet Studies centers.  In spite of initial plans to “be responsive to the needs of the sponsors,” NCSEER funded projects on a wide range of topics, from literature and culture to politics and economics.  Yet even scholars with long ties to government work had reservations; one insisted that the funding for individuals be especially generous to make up for “‘psychic cost’ to a scholar of doing work for the Defense Department.”

NCSEER – which exists todayas the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research (linkto: www.nceeer.org) – suggests perhaps the closest model to Minerva, and shares some of its limitations.  Both programs fund contract research rather than the infrastructure and training necessary to create a scholarly enterprise.  But the Soviet Studies model seems to have significant advantages over Minerva in its administration.  NCSEER was created ab novo to, in essence, “launder” Pentagon funds through a purely academic process – with none of the strings in the current Minerva-NSF plans.  Once the set of universities was selected, the organization became self-governing, with no input from the sponsor.  And even as DOD defined policy relevance narrowly, its grants through NCSEER covered a relatively wide range of projects – and still does today. (linkto: http://www.nceeer.org/Projects/projects.php)

Whatever its scholarly impact, NCSEER did little to halt the growing differentiation of “Kremlinology” from Sovietology.  Some scholars in universities (or, increasingly, in think tanks) became policy experts and pundits, relying less and less on the scholarly enterprise of Soviet Studies. Many academic Sovietologists, for their part, looked with a combination of disdain and dismay at the world of policy and punditry, seeking instead to advance within their disciplines.  The perception that scholars and consultants could be one and the same diminished over the 1960s and 1970s; the innocence of that World War II generation had faded.

Secretary Gates has taken the wrong lessons from the Soviet Studies example.  If he were truly interested in supporting scholarship that could inform Pentagon activities, Minerva wouldn’t fund a handful of senior scholars.  It would invest in infrastructure: language training, pedagogical and research materials, training grants, travel opportunities, and the like.  Rather than dictating the major topics for research, it would have scholars themselves select projects that would to deepen understanding of regions and trends that impinge on DOD operations.

Yet it is impossible to imagine today the kind of innocence about government-academic relations that allowed Soviet Studies to grow as it did.  As the contributions to this forum indicate, scholars are wary of support from an external source with an interested in applying the results.  And as the Minerva announcements suggest, immediate policy relevance (actionable scholarship?) is a top priority.  Gone are the days when government agencies could support broad-based studies of Soviet society or a history of Party operations in the 1930s – and scholars central to their fields would seek such funding.  The pursuit of relevance helped create these fissures between scholarly and policy-relevant worlds.  A program, like Minerva, that harkens back to Kremlinology rather than Soviet Studies is unlikely to do much to heal them.


[1] All quotations in this essay are from David C. Engerman, Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Russia Experts (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2009) or from David C. Engerman, “American Knowledge and Global Power,” Diplomatic History 31:4 (September 2007), 599-622.

[2] Summaries of the interviews were available for research purposes at Harvard, which recently created a digital archive from Interview Project data: http://hcl.harvard.edu/collections/hpsss/index.html.

[3] I use evasive language here because they exact details of how the material ended up with Army intelligence have not been made clear, though their disposition came up for discussion at Pentagon’s Research and Development Board, the National Security Council, the State Department, and the American Historical Association. 

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