The problem is that so much of this nuclear strategizing reads like old news, which lost its savor around the time the salt talks broke down. Worse, this part of the story has been told better—more vividly, fluently, and precisely—by the scholars Gregg Herken, Lawrence Freedman, and Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, and perhaps best of all by Slate’s Fred Kaplan, an MIT Ph.D, in his exceptional The Wizards of Armageddon (1983). Abella’s publisher calls his book “the first history of the shadowy think tank,” and that claim is technically true, if only because earlier books don’t bring the story up to the present. Moreover, Abella enticingly claims that “RAND opened its files to me,” which should give him a leg up on the competition. In fact, he merely drew on the organization’s library of published reports—an archive available to anyone—and a handful of innocuous oral histories conducted by RAND itself. Readers interested in RAND’s role in the nuclear sweepstakes are advised to stick with Kaplan or any of the other scholars mentioned above.
Readers, of course, have an understandable interest in RAND’s early days, if only because the organization, which in that period was carrying out almost exclusively classified research, was so wary of the media. This led to a tantalizing air of secrecy. And the Pentagon Papers affair only heightened the rocky relationship between RAND and the press, which didn’t even begin to improve until the 1980s, as RAND took on more and more unclassified work. Now that it’s competing for Pentagon funding with a host of Beltway bandits, and scrambling for foundation grants, RAND is as eager for media attention as any other think tank. But tales of Top Secret doomsday work will always retain their allure.
As for the rest of RAND’s history, Abella’s account of the Vietnam era is particularly disappointing. Throughout the war, RAND analysts (McNamara’s “Whiz Kids”) filled high posts in the Pentagon, where they planned the bombing strategies, assessed the pacification campaigns, and determined the budgets. In addition, the think tank conducted a staggering amount of research on the country itself, maintaining a huge operation in Saigon. The resulting mountain of reports and memos, which is now declassified, has yet to be assimilated into the history of the conflict. Abella, however, seems to have largely ignored it. He does make clear that much of the organization’s meticulous field research—including its study of Vietcong motivation and morale, cited by George Ball in a famously pessimistic assessment to LBJ on the eve of the U.S. ground war in 1965—suggested that the war couldn’t be won.
Since the late 1970s, RAND has devoted about half of its efforts to domestic policy, and much of this work—particularly in the field of health economics—represents the organization at its most innovative. But here, too, Abella’s account is thin. Of course, it’s difficult to sex up a multiyear assessment of “The Effect of the Employee Pension on the Labor Supply of the Japanese Elderly.” Still, there’s an abundance of sexing up in this overwrought book, which Abella urges his Matrix-minded readers to think of as “the red pill that will make visible the secret world that rules us all.” At times, his narrative borders on the conspiratorial, especially in his assertions that RAND abetted a host of neoconservative policy initiatives. For instance, Abella makes much of the fact that Wohlstetter, who left RAND in 1963, favored a hard line against the Soviets in the 1980s. But in the Reagan era, as throughout RAND’s history, the cold warriors at the think tank were easily outnumbered by the moderates and the distinctly détente-friendly Sovietologists.
Abella’s efforts to link RAND with those Republican neocons who pushed for war in Iraq are even flimsier. To be sure, Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, worked at the organization, and was a student of Wohlstetter’s at the University of Chicago. But Khalilzad’s colleagues at RAND also included a clutch of future Clinton appointees. And indeed, Khalilzad was united with the Clintonites in pushing NATO expansion—a policy closely associated with RAND that, wise or foolish, is the most ambitious extension of the American “empire” since the cold war. Yet this goes unmentioned by the empire-fixated Abella.
Far from leading the drumbeat for war in Iraq, most RAND analysts, like most career analysts in the CIA and State Department, discerned its dangers far more readily than its advantages. I know that in the period leading up to the war, the organization’s foremost terrorism expert repeatedly and forcefully argued that the U.S. invasion would be disastrous. And as Abella acknowledges, RAND’s own research demonstrated that the American occupation and counterinsurgency effort in Iraq were going to be far more difficult than the Bush administration anticipated.