Ridiculed in Dr. Strangelove (as the “Bland Corporation”), castigated by Pravda (as the American “academy of science and death”), and thrust into the spotlight when the Pentagon Papers were stolen from it, the RAND Corporation has played a somewhat mysterious role in U.S. public policy since its founding in 1946. In Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire, Alex Abella surveys the organization’s history and its “extraordinarily wide-ranging influence” on the world stage. Indeed, the author argues that RAND analysts have been “the advocates, planners, and courtiers of an ever-expanding America.”

How did this come about? At the end of World War II, the Air Force recognized that it would need the same sort of scientific and economic expertise that it had called upon during the conflict to conceive new weapons, analyze costs, evaluate training and combat procedures, and select targets. To that end, it developed a nonprofit, civilian advisory outfit—“Project RAND,” an infelicitous acronym for “Research and Development”—to conduct long-range studies. The hard-charging and brilliant (if politically retrograde) General Curtis LeMay nurtured the organization and protected it from interfering bureaucrats and top brass, insisting that it be free to determine its own research agenda.

In 1948, with the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, RAND became an independent, nonprofit corporation, able to conduct any nonproprietary research it chose. Still, the Air Force remained its premiere client: throughout the 1950s, military policy and defense budgeting emphasized nuclear forces, and the Air Force was in charge of those glamorous strategic weapons. From the think tank’s point of view, the flyboys were an enlightened and exceedingly generous patron, even after RAND began to carry out studies for various Pentagon offices during the Kennedy administration.

I worked for RAND as a national security analyst from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, and people there spoke of those earlier times with wonder and nostalgia. Thanks to ever-expanding cold-war budgets, the Air Force essentially dumped a truckload of money at RAND’s front door every year. The organization was permitted to spend that money at its discretion. Although most of it funded useless research—I recall a 1960s-era report on the Black Death in the Middle Ages as an example of societal catastrophe and recovery—some of it helped to invent nuclear strategy, Sovietology, and systems analysis (probably RAND’s most lasting contribution to its military clients). Other analysts developed such far-reaching pursuits as game theory and rational-choice theory.

The late 1940s and 1950s were indisputably RAND’s golden age. Of the twenty-nine Nobel laureates who have been staff members or advisers, nearly all were connected with the outfit in those years. It makes sense, then, for Abella to devote a disproportionate share of his pages to this relatively brief period in the organization’s history. He chronicles how RAND used a dizzying array of variables to evaluate the cost and effectiveness of weapons systems, and how it refined economic and behavioral theory to predict adversaries’ actions.

Above all, Abella lavishes his attention on the nuclear strategists: Thomas Schelling, Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter, and Herman Kahn (reputedly a model for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove). The concepts and vocabulary they developed in their arguably Sisyphean efforts to impose a rational order on nuclear war defined the ways that American political and military elites thought about deterrence throughout the cold war. The RAND approach was rigorous and unusually quantitative. By far, the most famous and consequential study in the organization’s history originated in a seemingly prosaic project that Wohlstetter took on to determine the selection of overseas bases for the Strategic Air Command’s bombers. From his highly complex analysis—which factored in everything from the effectiveness of air-defense fighters to the rate that hydraulic faucets on sac bases could pump water—emerged the crucial insight that nuclear deterrence was far more delicate than previously thought, and depended on retaliatory forces assured of surviving an enemy attack. This was precisely the sort of technical and conceptual feat for which RAND was famed in its heyday: Wohlstetter’s report made deterrence far more robust, and thus arguably helped maintain peace between the superpowers.

Benjamin Schwarz is the national and literary editor of The Atlantic.