The Human Sciences and Cold War America

The Summer 2011 issue of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences has just been released online. This issue is a Special Issue on The Human Sciences and Cold War America, guest edited by Joel Isaac (left) of Queen Mary University of London. Articles in this special issue address, among other topics, 1960s Pentagon-funded psychological research in Vietnam, efforts to use projective tests as mental “X-ray” machines, and the relationship of rational choice models and international relations theory. Titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“Introduction: The human sciences and Cold War America,” by Joel Isaac. The abstract reads,

Studies of the history of the human sciences during the Cold War era have proliferated over the past decade—in JHBS and elsewhere. This special issue focuses on the connections between the behavioral sciences and the culture and politics of the Cold War in the United States. In the recent literature, there is a tendency to identify the Cold War human sciences with two main paradigms: that of psychocultural analysis, on the one hand, and of the systems sciences, on the other. The essays in the special issue both extend understanding of each of these interpretive frameworks and help us to grasp their interconnection.

“The last stand of the psychocultural Cold warriors: Military contract research in Vietnam,” by Joy Rohde. The abstract reads,

In 1966, the social scientists of the Simulmatics Corporation arrived in Saigon. Tasked by the Pentagon with helping to pacify South Vietnam, they conducted political and social psychological research on Viet Cong defectors, government soldiers, and Vietnamese villagers. This essay argues that Simulmatics’s work captures some of the ironies of Cold War social science: its tendency to mask militarization behind the rhetoric of peaceful nation-building, its blurring of data collection and intelligence gathering, and its ambitious dedication to revealing the unseen contents of hearts and minds while remaining ignorant of the historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts in which its subjects lived.

“X-rays of inner worlds: The mid-twentieth-century American Projective Test Movement,” by Rebecca Lemov. The abstract reads,

This essay begins to tell the neglected history of the projective test movement in the U.S. behavioral sciences from approximately 1941 to 1968. This cross-disciplinary enterprise attempted to use projective techniques as “X-ray” machines to see into the psyches of subjects tested around the world. The aim was to gather subjective materials en masse, pursuing data on a scope, scale, and manner rarely hazarded before in any science. In particular, the targeted data included the traces of the inner life and elusive aspects of subjective experience including dreams, life stories, and myriad test results from a battery of tests. This essay explores how the movement and the experimental data bank that resulted were unlikely yet telling sites for the practice and pursuit of the Cold War human sciences. To look closely at the encounters that resulted is to show how the most out-of-the-way places and seemingly insignificant moments played a role in heady scientific ambitions and global geopolitical projects. At times, the projective test movement became a mirror of Cold War rationality itself, as tests were employed at the very limits of their possible extension. The essay argues for an off-kilter centrality in the movement itself, shedding light on the would-be unified social sciences after World War II and the “subjective turn” they took.

“Cyborg pantocrator: International relations theory from decisionism to rational choice,” by Nicolas Guilhot. The abstract reads,

International relations theory took shape in the 1950s in reaction to the behavioral social science movement, emphasizing the limits of rationality in a context of high uncertainty, weak rules, and the possibility of lethal conflict. Yet the same discipline rapidly developed “rational choice” models applied to foreign policy decision making or nuclear strategy. This paper argues that this transformation took place almost seamlessly around the concept of “decision.” Initially associated with an antirationalist or “decisionist” approach to politics, the sovereign decision became the epitome of political rationality when it was redescribed as “rational choice,” thus easing the cultural acceptance of political realism in the postwar years.

“Chicago neoliberalism versus Cowles planning: Perspectives on patents and public goods in Cold War Economic Thought,” by Robert Van Horn and Matthias Klaes. The abstract reads,

In post-Sputnik America, when many policymakers and social scientists feared the Soviet Union had a technological advantage over the United States, assessing the relative importance of patents for inventive activity and examining whether scientific research constituted a public good were paramount concerns. The neoliberals of the University of Chicago and the planners of the Cowles Commission both spoke to these issues. This paper sheds light on their views on patents and public goods in the late 1950s and early 1960s by examining representatives of Cowles and Chicago, Kenneth Arrow and Ronald Coase, respectively. Furthermore, it evaluates whether their views on patents and public goods clashed with the interests of RAND, at which both Arrow and Coase worked at some point during this time period. The paper argues that the Chicago–neoliberal position of Coase undermined the interests of RAND, while the Cowles–planning conclusions of Arrow furthered those interests.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.