Long Tangled Webs

The US last elected a political outsider to the presidency in the 1950s, in a landslide election. By common consent, Dwight David Eisenhower worked out extremely well. Sixty-four years later the nation has elected another outsider, a real estate developer turned television celebrity, this time by the narrowest of margins.  Donald Trump is giving plentiful signs of becoming a disaster.

It’s best, I’ve argued, to view Trump’s victory as largely accidental, to seek to limit the damage during his administration, and think ahead. To what? Polarization will be even worse by 2020. We’ll badly need to elect a president who can be trusted. It’s not too soon to for the rudderless Dems to begin thinking about the possibility of drafting a soldier-statesman of their own +– Robert Gates (b. 1943), who served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is the one who comes to mind.  At 77, Gates could conduct a front-porch campaign.

The question of the extent and effect of Russian hacking has taken on a new prominence.  There seems little doubt that some, perhaps difference-making interference took place. The New York Times went a long way last week toward showing that the CIA is not making this stuff up, though there remain some knowledgeable skeptics.  It’s a stretch to suggest that the existence of a Russian campaign somehow delegitimizes Trump’s victory.  But the way the president-elect has rejected intelligence assessments out of hand poses a whole new range of problems.

In the circumstances, it is worth thinking back to the somewhat complicated story of what happened last time an incoming president doubted the competence of the US intelligence community and sought to overhaul it. That was 1969, when Richard Nixon took office. The world was parlous then, too.  More than half a million US troops were in Vietnam; the American war there was entering its fifth year. The Soviet Union and China were threatening to go to war with each other along the Amur River, and each had enmity to spare for the United States as well. True, the US was landing the first men on the moon, but the Soviets were testing their first multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles, missile warheads  which might confer a first-strike capability, a possibility much-feared in the Pentagon. West German chancellor Willie Brandt had begun his new Ostpolitik, seeking better relations with the Soviets. Tensions simmered between Israel and Egypt in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967.

Nixon knew a thing or two about foreign relations from eight years as Eisenhower’s vice president.  He was dissatisfied with the CIA’s intelligence reports, seeing them as lackluster and smug; indeed, he began skipping their morning briefing reports in favor of those prepared by the NSC staff of the White House Situation Room. Instead of quarreling openly with director Richard Helms, Nixon instructed former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser, to plan a massive overhaul of the intelligence community. Kissinger turned to Andrew Marshall, an expert on long-range economic competition with the Soviet Union, who had replaced James Schlesinger as director of strategic studies at RAND Corp. when Schlesinger left to become deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in the new administration. .

Marshall, born in Detroit in 1921, attended the city’s premier vocational high school during the Great Depression. For the first three years of World War II, he worked as a machinist in a B-17 factory; a heart murmur kept him out of the Army. Having been broadly educated by his father, an English immigrant stonemason, Marshall tested straight into graduate studies in economics at the University of Chicago in late 1944.  He soon found himself involved in one of the great intellectual hothouses of twentieth century social science, the Cowles Commission, working with Jacob Marschak and Tjalling Koopmans, hanging out with Herbert Simon and Kenneth Arrow. All but Marschak (who died in 1977) eventually became Nobel laureates. Among Marshall’s professors were Milton Friedman, Allen Wallis, and, especially influential, Frank Knight.

(Knight has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years, largely because of his 1920 thesis book, Risk Uncertainty and Profit, with its distinction between calculable risks and the more deeply uncertain ones that are life’s “unknown unknowns.”  A deeply skeptical Midwesterner, Knight struggled mightily to escape the Christianity of his youth. By the time Marshall met him, he was becoming irascible; in 1954, Friedman ran him off into retirement. He continued to exert influence, though, especially at the University of Virginia Department of Economics.  A particularly good account of various issues raised by Knight can be found in Escape from Democracy: The Role of Experts & the Public in Economic Policy, Cambridge, 2016, by David Levy, of George Mason University, and Sandra Peart, of the University of Richmond.)

Marshall moved on to the Washington office of RAND Corp, a cutting edge social science think-tank set up by the US Air Force in Santa Monica, California, in the years after World War II.   Soon he was splitting his time between Washington and the more free-wheeling West Coast environment, where he paired up with like-minded physicist Herman Kahn, worked with economists Burton Klein, Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter, and gradually migrated towards other social sciences.   As early as 1952 Marshall was arguing that Western responses to Soviet power should designed, not just for self-protection, but to affect the behavior of the enemy. By the mid-1960s, he had embarked on studies of organizational behavior in the Soviet Union. Then Kissinger called and asked him to come by for a visit.

In December 1969, Marshall set up in the Executive Office Building next to the White House to analyze flows of information to the President.  His next task was to referee an argument between the CIA and the Air Force over the significance of the new Soviet SS-9 rocket (those multiple warheads). By March 1972 he had become director of a newly-created Net Assessment Group within the NSC. Then in June 1972, the behind-the-scenes struggle among the Nixon White House, the CIA and the FBI catalyzed the Watergate burglary and subsequent scandal, whose complex dynamics have been unraveled and brought up to date by independent journalist Max Holland in Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat (Kansas, 2012).

The White House forced CIA director Helms to retire in December 1972, after he refused to impede the FBI’s investigation of Watergate. Marshall’s friend Schlesinger was assigned to replace him, then six months later was named Secretary of Defense, replacing Elliott Richardson, who had become Attorney General. (Former Saigon Station Chief William Colby took over the CIA.) Schlesinger asked Marshall to move to the Pentagon, creating the Office of Net Assessment for him – a small group, far from the spotlight, modestly funded, a “skunkworks” charged with keeping abreast of the growth of knowledge, reporting directly to the Secretary of Defense.  In the bourgeoning Watergate scandal, Marshall enjoyed an extra layer of invisibility.

In his initial memo, August 20, 1973, Marshall told Schlesinger, “We are the end of an era,” and that the United States needed to play “a more sophisticated game.”  Previously the competition with the Russians had been that of a rich man and a poor man, but now the Soviets had achieved military equality.

In general we need to look for opportunities as well as problems; search for areas of comparative advantage and try to move the competition into these areas; [and] look for ways to complicate the Soviets’ problems.

So much for détente; within a year Nixon was gone. All this is described in Casting Net Assessment: Andrew W. Marshall and the Epistemic Community of the Cold War, by Lt. Col. John M. Schutte, published by the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies of Air University, is available for free. It is, of course, a somewhat triumphalist account. There, is much corroborating evidence, however, including Jonathan Haslam’s excellent Russia’s Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall (Yale, 2011).

Over the next fifteen years the US ratcheted up the pressure on the Soviet Union, largely along lines suggested or supported by Marshall.  The Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) pursued an exotic new generation of space-based ballistic missile defenses.  The B-1 bomber forced the Soviets to invest in conventional defenses along their nine-time-zone border, adding to the military burden on the USSR’s economy.  Extensive new war-gaming techniques demonstrated the value of strategic arms-limitation talks. The ONA battled with CIA and Congress, but always behind the scenes. And in the end, Net Assessment won out.

After 1991, Marshall moved on to promoting a new view of the middle-range future – one in which US relation with China and Japan would become a major aspect of US strategy, and technological advances would be so great as to bring about what he called a “military revolution” — global positioning satellites, drones, operational innovations (think SEAL Team Six), and organizational adaptation (think Tampa’s Central Command).  The second part of the story is laid out in detail in The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern Defense Strategy, (Basic, 2015), by Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts.  In a foreword, former CIA director Gates writes

[I]n the early 1970s, the CIA estimated the burden Soviet defense spending placed on the USSR’s economy to be 6 or 7 percent.  Marshall’s independent assessment of the Soviet defense burden led the CIA to double its estimate. It convinced a number of key senior leaders that it would be difficult for the Soviets to sustain this level of effort over the long term. Put another way, it suggested that time was on our side. A decade later, Marshall was proved right.

It was hardly noticed when Marshall retired after 41 years of service to twelve Defense Secretaries under eight administrations. With Mie Augier and James March, Marshall published one paper last year –The Flaring of Intellectual Outliers: An Organizational Interpretation of the Generation of Novelty in the RAND Corporation – and is working away on another.

One virtue of the history of the Office of Net Assessment is to call attention to all that has changed in the nearly fifty years since 1969.  Then the world had been carved into three great sectors, a First World (industrial democracies, Second (centrally planned economies) and Third (post-colonial nations).  China was in the throes of its Cultural Revolution; the Soviet Union was entering upon a period of stagnation, and the US was only just beginning to realize that the height of its powers lay in the past. Today, China is surging, the US is deeply divided, and it is the Russians who, having taken a page from Marshall’s book, are searching for areas of comparative advantage and looking for ways to complicate America’s problems – with some success.

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Thomas Schelling died last week. He was 95. Sometimes vilified for work on nuclear deterrence in the early 1960s, he lived long enough to broadly apply his work on strategic thinking and to be recognized by a Nobel Prize.  Tyler Cowen gives a good summary of Schelling’s influence

Many readers may have seen online Patti Smith’s performance of Bob Dylan’s song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” at the Nobel concert earlier this month. Only a few will have watched Schelling’s Nobel lecture about the origins of the taboo that has prevented the use of nuclear weapons for 75 years. One takes 9 minutes to view, the other 43 minutes. They are equally moving.






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