This book adds to a library of material on social science and U.S. foreign policy after 1945. Joy Rohde examines the origins and growth of the Special Operations and Research Office (SORO) that the U.S. Army established in the mid-1950s. SORO was formally a social science institute of American University in Washington, DC, but it did contract work for the military. The organization was of midrank among the proliferating groups of social scientists who served the national security interests of the United States during the Cold War. But Rohde effectively shows how SORO embodied the convictions, hopes, and tensions that many historians have found in the dominant trends of social science from 1945 to 1974. The experts of American University–SORO believed that their know-how could benefit the world and enhance free societies. To some extent, moreover, the armed forces took the researchers at their word. The men and women of SORO also often worried that the government could co-opt them, and they fretted about their moral responsibilities to their profession and to the state. These scholars tried to work out the cognitive status of their enterprise: to what extent, and how, was it related to the culture in which it had emerged? Finally, and not least, Rohde explores the supremacy of the army in this marriage; the essential message is that social science was “militarized.”
SORO was officially disbanded in 1966 after only ten years of doing business, when the radicalism of the Vietnam War began to shake up national politics. The erudite were embarrassed when activists publicized the connection of the generals to higher education, and SORO collapsed. In various guises, however, the institution survived into the 1980s, although it had fewer and fewer traceable ties to ordinary university life. Rohde tracks SORO’s successors in the 1970s before she offers a final chapter offering provisional ideas about the trajectory of social investigation, post–Cold War, in the interventions of the United States into the Middle East from the early 1990s on.
Rohde intimates that the 1960s triumphs of radicals in exposing the links between social science and the military were ambiguous at best. Not wanting to give up on the quest for operational information, the defense establishment funded other entities less coupled to the collegiate system. Social-scientifically trained PhDs were employed in ways that allowed the brass to avoid the scrutiny Americans associated with academic transparency. The victories of critics in the 1960s may have led, Rohde claims, to less oversight than existed when warriors’ social science was more ensconced in universities. She will get no argument from me with this observation. Nonetheless, she finishes up by saying that in the 21st century militarized social science has taken over and fosters the opposite of freedom in foreign policy. This conclusion speaks more to her own liberal politics than anything else.
Armed with Expertise is intelligently argued and fluently written, and its set of theses is clearly stated. Yet it is, initially, only the story of SORO from 1956 to 1970, followed by 30 pages of informed speculation on the national security enterprise and social science from the 1980s through the Global War on Terror. Hence, the subtitle is more than misleading.
Rohde also exhibits the shared assumptions of intellectual historians of policymaking—assumptions that are questionable. Three of them are relevant here.
First, Rohde takes us down a one-way street. The social scientists and their projects are continually “militarized.” No thought is given to the notion that the thick, mal-educated, and non-reflective soldiers may have craved some aspects of the cerebral prestige of the professoriate. The military may have been civilianized as much as the professoriate was militarized.
Second, Rohde truly thinks that the social scientists had something to teach the Army and that they advanced the aims of soldiers. At times she allows us to believe that specific research reports are blather but that overall the scholars produced useful “knowledge.” We have little consideration of the idea that, in general, what was manufactured may have been just some kind of informed verbiage. More important, the effusions of social science may have had little effect on U.S. foreign policy and little influence on what the military did. High-ranking military personnel may have simply gotten new names for old ways of thinking.
Finally, with a historian’s hindsight, Rohde is easily able to make out how affairs of state influenced Cold War social science. Yet she does not so clearly grasp that her own left-liberal ideas have swayed her thinking, especially her ideas about recent foreign policy. For her and those she has studied, scholarship is too often the carrying on of politics by other means.