Project Rand: Creating Nuclear Strategy In The Cold War

By U Cast Studios
February 17, 2022

Project Rand: Creating Nuclear Strategy In The Cold War
Image Courtesy Of Clark Gu On Unsplash

“Everything that I have written is obsolete.”

—Bernard Brodie, naval strategist, after learning of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima

The atomic bomb changed the world forever. This new and terrible weapon altered the way military leaders thought about warfare. It changed the way governments thought about diplomacy. It changed the way everyone thought about power.

This article was originally published by Cold War History Blog.

While the Atomic Energy Commission explored ways to contain nuclear weapons, the U.S. Air Force looked at ways to use the new weapons to maximum advantage.

Project RAND began as an organization to aid the military in weapons development. While the legacy of RAND is forever associated with nuclear weapons, the idea of using scientists to assist in military technology began well before the atomic bomb was dropped.

Operational Analysis: The Roots of RAND

War, especially a deadly World War, inspires and accelerates weapons development. World War II gave rise to rapid technological advancement in radar, rockets, torpedoes, and aircraft. To use these new innovations most effectively, scientists and engineers were employed in operational research (in the British military), also known as operational analysis (in the U.S. military).

Operational analysis (OA) teams used hard data to calculate the best ways to improve on the use of weapons and personnel on hand. They made recommendations to military decision makers on all kinds of questions. How many tons of explosives were needed to destroy specific targets? From what altitude and location should bombs be dropped? Should aircraft be armored for protection, or stripped of armor, for speed? In what formations should bombers fly? How will soldiers and pilots behave in battle?

With the dramatic increase in the use of airplanes during the war, it is no surprise that the U.S. Army Air Force soon leaned heavily on this new resource. Every Air Force unit eventually had its own OA division. By war’s end, OA was participating in war planning at the highest levels.

The fusion of science and air power enthralled General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. He hoped to take the concept beyond conventional war, and into the nuclear age.

The Visionary

U.S. Army Air Force General Henry “Hap” Arnold flew his first plane in 1910. He took flying lessons from Orville Wright, and obtained his pilot license in 1912. He was an early believer in the future dominance of air power in battle.

During WWII, Hap Arnold was a key player in the transition from tactical (precision) bombing to strategic (area) bombing. He pushed for the mass production of B-29 long range bombers as early as 1942, and made the decision to commit all B-29s to the Pacific Theater.

Hap Arnold was impressed by the work of OA units during the war, and sought to continue the use of scientific research to prepare for future wars. He knew, however, that these talented scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and psychologists would seek more lucrative employment in the private sector when the war was over.

In 1944, Arnold went to his chief scientific advisor, Theodore von Karman. He asked him to lay out a plan for the continued use of scientific advancement in partnership with the Air Force, as a matter of national security during peacetime.

Von Karman spent the next year producing a multivolume report entitled, Toward New HorizonsHe outlined three basic conclusions: the discovery of the atomic bomb required a powerful air force to deploy it, recent advances in aerodynamics and propulsion opened new possibilities for air power, and rigorous research and development should be committed to exploring the potential of these new technologies.

The report became the de facto blueprint for Project RAND.

Franklin R. Collbohm was a flight engineer at Douglas Aircraft company. He helped design and test fly the DC-1, DC-2, and DC-3. Collbohm met Hap Arnold in 1942 while Douglas Aircraft was building the A-20’s for the British Royal Air Force. He was soon hired as a consultant by Arnold.

Collbohm was involved in the improvement of bombing operations in the Pacific Theater, where long distance flight and constant cloud cover made bombardment difficult. His team discovered that, by stripping away the B-29’s heavy armor, it could fly longer and faster. It could also carry more payload. More importantly, the B-29 could now outrun the Japanese fighter jets with its increased speed and altitude, making the armor unnecessary.

Collbohm voiced concerns to Hap Arnold about the importance of this type of civilian collaboration in military planning. Arnold, who already recognized the value of their contribution, agreed. He asked Collbohm to calculate what resources (money, employees, facilities) would be needed to put Theo von Karmen’s plan into place.

Collbohm later came back with a proposal from his boss, Donald Douglas, founder and president of Douglas Aircraft. He offered to house a civilian consulting organization for the Army Air Force, which would help develop new weapons technology.

The very next day, October 1, 1945, Hap Arnold and Frank Collbohm flew to Santa Monica, where Douglas Aircraft was based. They held a meeting with Don Douglas, Arthur Raymond (Collbohm’s supervisor), Ed Bowles (who directed the B-29 Special Bombardment project), and some other executives from Douglas Aircraft.

Arnold came to the table with $30 million left over from his wartime research projects.  Douglas provided an office on the second floor of Douglas Aircraft’s building in Santa Monica. Arthur Raymond created a name for the project, RAND, which stood for Research And Development.

Frank Collbohm promised to find someone to lead the new organization. He offered to run the project temporarily until the position could be filled.

He stayed on as president until 1967.

The Early Years

On December 1, 1945, General Curtis LeMay was appointed Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Research and Development. This long title meant that he was entrusted to shepherd the new organization into existence. Under his direction, the official charter for RAND was composed. It read:

“Project RAND is a continuing program of scientific study and research on the broad subject of air warfare with the object of recommending to the Air Force preferred methods, techniques, and instrumentalities for this purpose.”

The Army Air Force signed the contract on March 1, 1946, and RAND’s four employees moved into the Douglas Aircraft Building in Santa Monica.

Two months later, on May 2, RAND released its first report, Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship. This proposal and design for an orbital satellite was truly futuristic, considering that it predated the Soviet Sputnik satellite by eleven years.

RAND was attracting talented scientists, and it quickly outgrew its little space at Douglas. An old newspaper building was rented, and soon more offices in neighboring buildings were leased, as well.

Meanwhile, executives at Douglas were growing impatient with the project. The research and staff were becoming expensive, and the work was moving too slowly. Furthermore, Douglas had been passed over for some Air Force contracts. Don Douglas suspected that the Air Force was trying to avoid a conflict of interest around RAND.

Frank Collbohm contacted his old friend, Rowan Gaither, seeking a solution to the tensions with Douglas. Gaither was an attorney and an investment banker. More importantly, he had connections to the board of trustees at the Ford Foundation. Collbohm and Gaither decided together that the best way forward was to reorganize RAND as an independent nonprofit.

Don Douglas was agreeable to the idea, and Arthur Raymond asked for the consent of the Air Force General Counsel. The Air Force would agree to the new arrangement if RAND would continue to fulfill the contract.

With the financial backing of Gaither, a line of credit from Wells Fargo, and a zero-interest loan from the Ford Foundation, RAND officially broke ties with Douglas Aircraft.

A new mission statement reflected a widening agenda for RAND:

“To further and promote scientific, educational, and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare and security of the United States of America.”

On May 14, 1948, RAND became an independent nonprofit corporation with a single client: the U.S. Air Force. Project RAND was now RAND Corporation.

The Talent

From the beginning, RAND attracted its fair share of quirky geniuses. The combination of clever minds, vexing problems, and an unstructured work environment was very appealing to nonconformist thinkers.

John Davis Williams, head of the math division at RAND, was an astronomer and statistician. He loved shooting pool, playing poker, and driving fast. He built what may have been the first radar detector for his vehicle. Williams persuaded Collbohm to add departments of economics and social science to RAND’s expanding units of research.

Williams became fascinated with a new concept called game theory, a way of thinking out problems developed by a brilliant mathematician named John von Neumann. Williams wrote The Compleat Strategyst, a book about game theory, in 1954. Its principles are still popular today.

John von Neumann was a frequent visitor to RAND, and was eventually hired as a part-time consultant. He had worked on the Manhattan project, and invented a computer for the purpose of working calculations for the development of the hydrogen bomb. Based on his design, RAND created a computer called the JOHNNIAC, named after von Neumann.

To develop the new social science division, Williams hired Leo Rosten, a Hollywood screenwriter with eclectic interests. Rosten had a background in economics and political science, but had also worked for the Office of War Information during WWII. He led the effort to bring in Hollywood film makers to create documentaries and propaganda movies.

Rosten’s first project was to propose psychological uses for an orbiting satellite. His larger contribution was the establishment of the new social sciences division, and the recruitment of scientists to staff it. He organized a conference in New York, and invited top scientists to come and learn about the new venture.

To lead the new social science division, Rosten hired Hans Speier, a sociology professor who had fled Germany with his Jewish wife in the 1930’s. He had worked as a Germany expert for the U.S. government during the war, and had worked with Rosten in the Office of War Information. Speier stayed on as director for nearly fifteen years.

Also present at the conference was Charles J. Hitch, a professor of economics at Oxford. Hitch had served as an OSS analyst in Research and Experiments Department 8 (RE-8). His wartime work involved analyzing reconnaissance photos of bombing damage to create formulas to improve the bombing  of German targets.

Hitch was selected by Williams to head the new economics division. He directed the department until 1961.

In 1948, a shining star of the economics department was hired. Economist Kenneth Arrow, a twenty-four year old wunderkind, had entered college at the age of fifteen, and would later become the youngest Nobel Laureate at the age of 51. His groundbreaking work, Arrow’s impossibility theorem, changed political science forever. He asserted that collective will was impossible, because individuals will make decisions in their own self interest.

Back in the math division, Albert Wohlstetter, and his wife, Roberta, were brought on in 1951. Albert, who had been a communist in his college years, later worked for the War Planning Board, and was designing modular buildings when recruited by Charles Hitch.

After the Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb, Albert became preoccupied with the possibility of a Soviet nuclear first strike. He was no doubt influenced by Roberta, an accomplished military analyst in her own right. Roberta was studying the intelligence failures leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (later published as Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision). One of Albert’s first projects at RAND led to his realization that overseas Strategic Air Command bases were vulnerable to Soviet attack.

Also in 1951, Bernard Brodie came on board as a senior staffer at RAND. Brodie had built an impressive career as a naval strategist, and was teaching at Yale when news broke about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In 1946, he collaborated with colleagues on a paper entitled The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order, which outlined the first strategy for nuclear deterrence. Brodie concluded that the atomic bomb could only be used as a deterrent against attack, but not as an actual weapon of war. The mere threat of nuclear attack, he argued, should be enough.

By 1950, after the Soviets had the bomb, Brodie’s views had shifted slightly. He wrote an article for The Reporter arguing for more careful selection of the targets of an atomic attack. After its publication, Brodie was hired by the Air Force to review their strategic bombing plans. He soon caught the eye of Hans Speier and was hired at RAND.

In contrast, Herman Kahn, an analyst in the physics department, had different philosophies about nuclear warfare. While Brodie and Wahlstetter focused on first strike deterrence, Herman Kahn was thinking ahead to second strike capabilities. He was convinced that the Soviets could be discouraged from making a first strike only if they thought the U.S. could survive it and retaliate.

A colorful character, Kahn was memorably parodied as a bloodthirsty mad scientist in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire film, Dr. Strangelove.

The Big Ideas

The RAND Corporation cultivated and developed some of the most famous concepts of Cold War philosophy and strategy.

Systems analysis was the peacetime version of operational analysis. The term “systems analysis” was coined by Ed Paxson, a RAND mathematician. It describes the method of breaking down a problem and examining all aspects of it: function, cause, effect, weak points, and cost. Paxson first applied his pragmatic methods to aircraft designs and bombing targets.

The Systems analysis method was next applied to air defense, and later to nuclear strategy.

Game theory is a field of study pioneered by John von Neumann, and picked up enthusiastically by scientists at RAND. Game theory aims to predict the behavior and reactions of rational participants acting in their own interest, particularly in a zero-sum game. It was particularly attractive while Joseph Stalin was in power and the Soviet Union was shrouded in mystery. Game theory held an outsized role in foreign policy (and public imagination) during the Cold War.

The RAND Corporation, during the Cold War, was perhaps best known for its influence on nuclear policy.

While the hydrogen bomb was in development, RAND’s physics department conducted a study on its effects. Grim calculations were made regarding the destruction and death tolls which would be caused by the new “superbomb.” The social scientists agonized over the human cost. Despite deep divisions among their scientists, RAND recommended that the deadly hydrogen bomb should be built, if only to stay a step ahead of the Soviets.

Albert Wohlstetter’s study on the vulnerability of SAC bases led to the adoption of long range bombers, and later intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). He has also been blamed for planting fears of a missile gap, the (mistaken) notion that the Soviet Union had a vastly superior nuclear arsenal to that of  the United States.

Herman Kahn’s report on civil defense and surviving a Soviet nuclear strike inspired the construction of bomb shelters across America.

Bernard Brodie’s views on nuclear strategy evolved over time. He first believed that the bomb should be built, but never used. He then wanted the bomb used only as a last resort. He later argued that the bomb should be used first on military targets, to give the Soviets a chance to surrender. Later he advocated for the protection of nuclear weapons, so that they could survive a first strike and retaliate.

Brodie’s evolving views, and the debates between his colleagues at RAND, were mirrored in the larger public debates over how the world must now live with the existence of nuclear weapons.

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