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Review: Ron Robin's 'The Making of the Cold War Enemy: Culture and Politics in the Military-Intellectual Complex'

Updated on March 2, 2017
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Michael has been an online freelancer and writer for many years and loves discovering and sharing about new experiences and opportunities.

“The only thing we have to fear is... fear itself,” Franklin D. Roosevelt announced during his inauguration. While this remains uncertain, fear was definitely used throughout the post-WWII era to construct the US’s foreign threats. Indeed, the creation of an image of enemies abroad was a pseudo effect given the lack of context about them in the 1950s and ‘60s. Even a fake radio broadcast of an alien invasion from Mars sent people into a panic because the expectation was that people would ultimately meet their doom at the hands of a feared foreign invader. And those spreading these types of rumors, Ron Robin notes, with fact indistinguishable from fiction, were high-ranking officials trusted by the public.

Detailing how academics participated in shaping the Cold War enemy, including in areas such as the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts—where “behavioral scientists were influential participants” (9)—is Robin’s objective for this book. Whether their input was correct was beside the point; they had an overwhelming influence on the American national perspective on the enemies beyond the seas.

Robin also provides context on the significance of the mental state of US soldiers by evaluating the field’s theories. He notes that psychoculturalists view parent-child relations as the key to how adults behave later on. Robin then concludes that the entire US POW crises in Korea left the “inherent social problems plaguing its armed forces” (181) unsolved before heading into the next military escalation of Vietnam.

Project Troy in 1950, which focused on building a counter-communication system against the Soviets and was handed over to newly formed think tanks to conceive (themselves funded by government departments and military expenditure), was one of the first projects to bring together behavioral scientists. And it was in projects of this vain that behavioral scientists contributed in building a psychological weapon of mass destruction bent on disseminating the idea that communism itself was a failure of Marxism. Under these movements, behavorialist were integrated into the compendiums of physicists and chemists working on physical WMDs, thus legitimizing their endeavors to bring formulaic structure to a multi-dimensional world.

Unfortunately, as Robin illustrates, the behavioral science system itself was sustained by a mafia-esque hierarchy as “the research agenda and academic paradigms that permeated government-behavioral sciences projects were devised and controlled by a small group of important academic figures” (36). They controlled research funding and predictably supported those projects that elevated their agendas, and included Wilbur Schramm, who “became the gatekeeper of communication studies” (90).

Beyond this issue, the development of top secret programs aimed at bringing down foreign nations through psychological warfare was of huge ethical concerns. In particular, the release of the “Report from Iron Mountain (1968), the alleged bootlegged copy of a government-sponsored seminar on the dangers of world peace,” (226) brought down the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the type of work behavioralists were focusing on—even if it was untrue. Government projects such as Project Camelot also had a detrimental effect on the behavioral science field by restricting the aim of research.

Moreover, while “congressional leaders expected evidence of conversion rates brought about by America’s propaganda” (39) as determinants of success, behavioralists were claimed to “arbitrarily [dismiss] problems that were not quantifiable, and ignored the chaotic elements of history and culture and their effects on decision making” (71). Thus, although Korea, and even Washington DC, became the testing grounds for a form of psychological warfare through the mass dissemination of leaflets, they resulted only in inconclusive and overzealous attempts.

What we observe in the end is that as “the nation’s social and behavioral scientists [cowered] under the “umbrella of military protection”” (236) in order to legitimize their brand, they in fact aided in deteriorating it. Ron Robin’s The Making of the Cold War Enemy therefore provides significant evidence on just how much of a role behavioralists played in shaping the enemies of the Cold War, as well as their own field.

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