There was a time, improbable though it may now seem, when it was not considered inherently dubious for academics to work with or for the government. For several decades in the mid-20th century, Soviet studies -- a field born of America's post-World War II desire to understand its ally-turned-enemy -- enjoyed a wealth of government funding and scholarly attention. In a new book, Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America's Soviet Experts, David C. Engerman explains how Soviet Studies rose so rapidly, and why its decline began well before the fall of the Soviet Union. Engerman, who is associate professor of history at Brandeis University, responded via e-mail to questions about the book.
Q: Over the course of just a few years, as your introduction states, “academic study of the USSR went from laughingstock to juggernaut….” How did such a drastic change take place, and what were the circumstances that made it possible?
A: The transformation of Soviet Studies in the 1940s and early 1950s was the result of a conjunction of many unprecedented (and likely unrepeatable) circumstances, some of which related specifically to Soviet studies and others to the relationship between academia and government. By far the most important was World War II, which drew hundreds of scholars into government service more generally. Political scientists and historians staffed the Research and Analysis division of the new civilian intelligence agency (the OSS, Office of Strategic Services). Sociologists went to the Army’s Information and Education Division. Anthropologists went to OSS or to the Office of War Information (OWI). And economists went everywhere in Washington; not for nothing did a young and confident Paul Samuelson call the conflict “the economists’ war.” And many more scholars, from all fields, taught in campus-based programs like the Naval School of Military Government and Administration or Army training programs on dozens of campuses. OSS alumni became the core faculty members at Columbia’s Russian Institute, the first such institute to open its doors (which it did in 1946). Harvard’s Russian Research Center, which followed two years later, included alumni from Army training programs, OSS, and OWI.
The foundation officials behind Sovietology, furthermore, worked behind the scenes on these programs, as did groups like the ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies) and the SSRC (Social Science Research Council). So World War II gave birth to a network of scholars, government officials and foundation officers comfortable with the idea of bringing scholarship into the nation’s service, as they understood it. They left Washington confident -- indeed overconfident -- that their work had benefited the war effort, with Rolodexes full of soldiers and spies that they quickly used to promote the growth of the field. By the time that Walter Lippmann brought the term “Cold War” into everyday usage in late 1947, this network had already drawn many lessons from World War II: the value of area studies in both interdisciplinary research (like OSS) and in language-intensive training programs (like those the military ran during the war), and the benefits of coordination. The Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation devoted large sums of money to innovation in research and teaching; ACLS and SSRC sponsored the Joint Committee on Slavic Studies -- the field’s Politburo in the early years -- and all of these groups, soon joined by the extraordinarily wealthy Ford Foundation, set about to create a field from scratch. They worried about unglamorous things like getting ahold of (and translating/indexing) Soviet newspapers and journals, making use of sources that had been in military hands, keeping Soviet newspapers out of the hands of overeager American postal inspectors, and eventually sponsoring travel to the USSR. So the combination of wartime experience (and connections), new investments, and a genuine urgency and excitement all helped make Soviet studies into an innovative field long before Sputnik and the National Defense Education Act in the late 1950s.
Q: You write that Soviet studies “was an intellectual success when government funds flowed” and that it produced “some of the most productive ideas in the late twentieth century.” This assessment, however, doesn’t seem to be unanimous among historians of the field. What were some of the important successes of Soviet studies, and what has been their impact?
A: There are many reasons to distrust government involvement in academic life, and plenty of commentators, including terrific historians like Mark Mazower, who make the case against government involvement. Indeed, it was these criticisms that first drew me to the idea of writing about the history of Soviet studies; what could be closer to the heart of the intellectual Cold War, after all, than externally funded studies of the Cold War enemy? But those critics who follow federal money into the pockets of academics need also to look at the results. For instance, when I first learned about the Refugee Interview Project -- a major research contract that Harvard’s Russian Research Center completed for the Air Force -- I had assumed that it would be all about targeting [that is, determining specific locations to attack].
Now there was a group in the Air Force, and eventually in Congress, who wanted Harvard scholars to gather information that would help select targets. But the actual sponsors within the Air Force were determined to produce first-rate academic sociology, and the published and unpublished results show that that’s more or less what happened. The overarching conclusion of the interview project was that the Soviet Union was a stable industrial society, with Soviet citizens supporting their government, proud of the USSR’s industrial and military might, and enthusiastic about the social-welfare aspects of the Soviet system. Indeed, if anything, the results of the interview project underplayed political repression and limits -- a rare voice of moderation in a moment when many on the right (and, for that matter, in the Air Force) were calling for “rollback” of Soviet power in Eastern Europe, and for direct military confrontation with the USSR. Similarly, research on the Soviet economy sponsored by the RAND Corporation (founded by the Air Force) became the basis of CIA estimating procedures. President Dwight Eisenhower distrusted the estimates on ideological grounds; he couldn’t believe that central planning could outperform a market economy. ... All of these projects were in the early/mid 1950s, when government officials, whether in the military or intelligence, had a broad vision and wanted to hire scholars to do scholarship. That would change in the 1960s, as government agencies narrowed their definitions of “relevance”; while Fainsod and the leaders of the interview and economic projects would remain scholars first and foremost, more and more sought to become policy entrepreneurs: Walt Rostow, Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, in the 1960s and 1970s, Condoleezza Rice in the 1980s, etc.
Q: And what were some of the intellectual failures of the discipline; what did it miss, and why?
A: I’d identify two major failings of the field in terms of its understanding of the Soviet present and the Russian/Soviet past. Both of these have been repeated by critics of the field, so they’re not exactly novel. First, students of Soviet politics got caught up in the sociological moment of the 1950s and 1960s, the high tide of Talcott Parsons’ vision of modern and modernizing societies. The lessons of the Harvard Refugee Interview Project -- that the USSR was a stable, hierarchical industrial society -- may or may not have been relevant in understanding Soviet society, but they certainly were not necessarily helpful for understanding Soviet politics -- as critics like Daniel Bell and others recognized in the 1950s. Those warnings fell on deaf ears, though, as the sociological thinking that was sweeping mainstream political science in the name of “political development” influenced the study of Soviet politics as well. By 1966, Jerry Hough, the target of so much criticism in the 1970s, worried that the field had, in his words, “replaced a theory of politics” with a “theory of society.” He was right. Secondly, the field had a vexed relationship to the study of Soviet nationalities -- what Americanists would call ethnicity or ethnic diversity. The Soviet Union included dozens of major language groups and nationalities, from Ukrainian to Estonian to German to Korean to complex ethnic maps in the Caucuses and Central Asia. Yet the vast majority of all scholarship was about Russia. American scholars engaged in a great deal of hand-wringing about studying non-Russians in the USSR in the years after the founding of Sovietology, but very little scholarship. The famous Harvard historian Michael Karpovich, who was raised in the Caucasus, trained eight students who wrote dissertations on Soviet nationalities -- but only one, by Richard Pipes, was ever published. Two western public universities, Washington and California-Berkeley, had small programs that were much more open to the study of Russian and Soviet peripheries, but that work remained well outside the field’s mainstream. There were many reasons why Sovietology didn’t focus on nationalities – difficulties in learning languages, lack of access to the regions, a general belief that only Moscow mattered – but one of the most important was embedded in modernization theory. In an argument that paralleled Soviet nationality policy, American scholars suggested that inherited identities like nationality would matter less and less as a society modernized.
Q: You go on to say that these “successes came thanks to unrepeatable historical circumstances,” and that “[t]here was no way in 1969, let alone 2009, to go back to the future” -- i.e., we can’t look to even the successful aspects of Soviet studies as a model for future university-government partnerships. What, then, do you see as the appropriate relationship -- if any -- between academe and the government now?
A: While some of the many Sovietologists I spoke with would heartily disagree, I feel that that Sovietology’s founders had a remarkable innocence about the relationship of their field to government work. People like Philip Mosely at Columbia (whom I consider the most important Sovietologist of his generation) and Clyde Kluckhohn at Harvard imagined their government consulting -- much of which was classified -- as completely continuous with their work as scholars and teachers. Coming out of the World War II experience, they saw government work as both an obligation and an opportunity for scholars. That Kluckhohn, for instance, could hold onto this view even as he fought with Air Force intelligence officers interested in targeting data, not sociology, shows the strength of these beliefs. Such innocence was impossible to maintain by the late 1960s. Government-sponsored research like Project Camelot had exploded in the news in 1964, exposing some of the many possible conflicts between government and academic work. And a new generation of scholars, who didn’t have the World War II experience (or assumptions) of their predecessors, pointed out many of the ways in which scholarship in many fields was secretly sponsored by one or another government agency. A few of the older scholars made a half-hearted effort in the late 1960s to return to earlier models of collaboration (or cooperation) with government agencies -- but that time had passed. Why were things so different? For one thing, government agencies had changed; they were less interested in sponsoring general academic research in the social sciences and more interested in “relevance” or direct applicability. For another, many scholars, especially in fields like Soviet studies, were more and more enamored of their disciplines. While this didn’t serve them well -- witness the increasingly sociological tendencies of political science, for instance -- their commitments were more to the academy than to Washington.
Q: On a related note, recent collaborations between scholars and the military -- notably the Minerva Initiative and the Human Terrain System -- have incited a great deal of controversy. On balance, do you see such projects as more promising or worrisome?
A: These are lively and hotly contested issues, and with good reason. It pays, though, to distinguish between them. The Human Terrain System, to me, shows just how much the military is interested in direct applicability without regard for how scholars and scholarship function. The Army -- rightly -- wants better cultural knowledge “on the ground” so they detail scholars to work on the front lines. The WWII-era military training programs, in which the Army was the leader, emphasized teaching the soldiers the language and the culture of the places they would be operating. This was an extensive and intensive enterprise, to be sure, but one that allowed scholars to function as such, doing classroom teaching. The shortcut of deploying an anthropologist, who would function outside the disciplinary norms -- as the American Anthropological Association recently concluded -- endangers individual scholars (three of whom have already been killed) and general scholarly practices.
While I’m also critical of the Pentagon’s Minerva Initiative, my complaint here is less rooted in fundamentals and more in practicality. (Here I differ from the many concerns expressed in a recent project of the Social Science Research Council, concerns that the Pentagon sponsors would do well to understand.) The structure and process of Minerva, in which the research areas and many of the members of the selection panels are chosen by Pentagon officials, is at odds with the rhetoric about “building bridges” to the broader social-scientific community. Sovietology offers an excellent example here, in a program established even after the post-WWII innocence had faded. Some enterprising scholars worked with the Pentagon and eventually the CIA to create the National Council on Soviet and East European Research, an organization that exists today under a slightly different name, NCEEER. The money came from the government but would be dispensed entirely by scholars, who evaluate the projects purely on the basis of scholarly merit. Grant recipients would have to submit published reports, which would make their way into government agencies, but the whole process recognized scholarly norms like peer review and evaluations of scholarly excellence. What Minerva and HTS have in common, though, is insisting upon immediate policy payoffs rather than undertaking the investments in infrastructure (language training, graduate fellowships, etc.) that helped Sovietology become a scholarly enterprise and not just an adjunct to organs of national security.
Q: One of the many factors contributing to the fall of Soviet Studies was what you describe as a narrowing of “the definition of national interest,” in which the humanities and a great deal of the social sciences were no longer seen as sufficiently relevant to merit study -- or funding. With all the emphasis that the government -- and many institutions -- now places on STEM fields, do you see that as an ongoing problem? And if so, what lessons might be derived from the decline of area studies?
A: Before we blame the government for the decline of area studies, it’s important to look at how one of the enemies of area studies was us -- academics. The staunch allegiance to disciplines, coming alongside disciplinary trends toward formal (mathematical) expression had deleterious effects on area studies. In the 1960s and 1970s, many political scientists engaged in a debate about “discipline vs. area”; one participant’s insistence that the conflict was really “rigor vs. mortis” suggests which side won out. In the 1990s, the Social Science Research Council, which had done as much as any other single entity to define and defend area studies, shifted away from areas and towards transnational trends. While it’s true that geographical boundaries weren’t ideal for studying global trends like migration, trade, or even religion, we’ve now come to the point that we promote studies of migration or trade without promoting a deep understanding of the countries and cultures involved. One ironic result of a global ideological conflict like the Cold War was the notion that we need to understand the whole world and not just today’s “enemies.” As a result, Soviet studies was joined by (indeed, in some cases, followed after) African studies, Asian studies (which often divided into East, Southeast and South Asian studies), Latin American studies, etc. The lesson I take from this is that the job of scholars is to understand and teach students about the whole world, not just today’s enemies. It’s a long-term and extensive project, but one that pays intellectual as well as practical dividends. When external funders are happy just cherry picking a few senior researchers (witness Minerva), and when even scholarly enterprises are constantly making the case for immediate relevance, then we lose track of what academia can do. We need not be restricted to the ivory tower, but nor should we be on the front lines. It’s hard to communicate this effectively in such a funding environment oriented towards short-term results, and facing political pressures like the recent complaints from Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). But that means we should just try harder, not concede the point that academia can provide on-the-spot cultural knowledge a la the Human Terrain System, directly relevant research (a la Minerva) -- or else be irrelevant.
Q: Many colleges and universities are reporting a jump in Russian language enrollments. Are you seeing any revival of interest in Russia -- linguistic, historical, or otherwise -- and, if so, to what do you attribute it?
A: I was glad to read the piece in Inside Higher Ed about the recent jump in language enrollments. The question that Jeffrey Holdman at Indiana University posed – is it Pushkin or Putin who is responsible for this trend? – is a good one, and one relevant to the Cold War era as well, in the form: was it Bulgakov or Brezhnev? or perhaps Lenin or Lermontov? It’s easy to see why studying Russian is so much more appealing for students than it was during the Cold War. The explosion of Russian public cultural expression is exciting, and the study of Russian literature and culture seems liberated from the strictures of politics and limited access so present before 1991. In some ways, the question isn’t just Putin or Pushkin, but also involves figures like Viktor Pelevin, a post-Soviet and post-modern writer who offers important and challenging views of Russian culture but also the human condition; see links in Russian and English. Contemporary Russian culture is fascinating and has helped energize literary and cultural studies. At the same time, it’s worth noting that there are relatively speaking fewer who turn to Russian language for Putin than there were those seeking to understand Lenin and Brezhnev. Brandeis has a small but very dynamic program in Russian, one that is oriented towards literature and culture (more historical than contemporary) rather than towards politics. Language enrollments have been steadily increasing in recent years, and the program has just reengineered the major to emphasize both language and cultural studies. One unusual feature at Brandeis is a large number of heritage speakers, those who learned Russian in the kitchen rather than the classroom; they’re good speakers but have no training in grammar or writing; the department offers a course called, paradoxically, “Russian for Russian Speakers” for this population – perfect, as it turns out, for one of our instructors whose academic research is on bilingualism. I’m grateful – and I’m sure that my colleagues in literary and cultural studies feel even more strongly about this – that students are appreciating the excitement, the complexities, and the contradictions of a society so different from our own… and want to study the culture, not just figure out where weapons are targeted. Russian is and has always been a compelling place, one worth studying in its own right irrespective of military threats. This harkens back to the founders of Sovietology, who insisted that Russia mattered as a “world civilization” and not just as Cold War antagonist.