Blind Oracles

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

For the first century and a half of its existence, the United States tended to avoid global involvement. Focused on settling the American continent and securing its immediate region, the young country generally avoided the international “power politics” that absorbed European and other powers. In the twentieth century, the United States entered World War I, with some reluctance, and then retreated back to isolationism soon after the armistice (despite President Woodrow Wilson’s desire to create a global League of Nations). The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 again rousted the United States from its disengagement with the world. This time, the United States emerged from the (second) world war as the preeminent global power for which isolationism seemed an unrealistic option.

At the time of the Axis powers’ defeat, U.S. troops were deployed around the world, and the United States was the only country that possessed atomic weapons. The traditional “great powers” of the world (including Japan, the Soviet Union, Britain, and most of Europe) were militarily and economically exhausted by the war. Popular thought saw the dawning of an “American century,” in which the United States would create a new world order based on democracy and, not incidentally, American interests. For a country without a history of global involvement, this was a tall order indeed. How would America move from isolationism to prolonged engagement on the world stage? Would the American economy be affected by peacetime militarizationand a peacetime draft? Would the American public support such an approach?

In his book Blind Oracles, Bruce Kuklick examines the influence of a select group of well-educated, intelligent academics on American statecraft from World War II through the Vietnam War. These “wise men,” as they are sometimes called, applied an analytical, science-based approach to the realm of international politics that was traditionally associated more with personal relationships and dynastic ties.

It is an ambitious project for this relatively short book. The three decades under review were at the height of the Cold War between the Western democracies and the Soviet-led Communist bloc. Kuklick asserts that these men believed in the rightness of their causethey “knew that . . . America was right and its enemies wrong”yet their focus was not on ideology but rather on theory. Through such devices as “game theory” and content analysis, they sought to understand how states “acted” in the international environment. The stakes were incredibly high. The period under review was characterized by a bipolar balance of power that had the potential to end civilization with a nuclear world war.

This raises the question of whether it is even possible for scholars to discover objective “laws” of international behavior on which to base their foreign policy prescriptions. This belief, which is implicit in the very field of political “science,” has been subject to some criticism. How can state policies, which after all are the product of human decisions, be subject to external laws the way a billiard ball is subject to Newtonian physics? Without directly answering this question, Kuklick seems skeptical about the ability to discover such “laws” with any accuracy.

Kuklick’s subject of study contains an important normative question as well: To what extent should the foreign policy of a country, especially in a democracy, be determined by elite “intellectuals” rather than the expressed will of the population? Is rule by these “wise men” desirable, even assuming that they are better informed than the masses?

Kuklick largely ignores these questions. Instead, he focuses almost exclusively on explaining the link between intellectuals’ thinking and the policies adopted by the political leadership. Interestingly, he believes that these men had little influence on the actual formulation of policy. Instead, he asserts that “they served to legitimate but not to energize policies.” In his view, the world of Washington policy making was one of “Darwinism” where defense intellectuals had to “prune their theories to satisfy the demands of statesmen.” If this is the case, one...

(The entire section is 1742 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

The Economist 378 (March 25, 2006): 87-88.

Foreign Affairs 85, no. 5 (September/October, 2006): 164-165.