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Hans Speier and CASBS Origins: Q&A with Daniel Bessner

Jun 15 2018

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In the News

The recent re-publishing of Arnold Thackray’s 1984 essay, “Notes Toward a History,” rekindled reader interest in the Center’s beginnings. A new book by Daniel Bessner – Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Cornell Univ. Press, 2018) – provides another glimpse, with new insights based on archival research, into the CASBS origin story. Among other things, the book’s subject, Hans Speier, played a major role in assisting the Ford Foundation as it developed the set of ideas that ultimately took institutional form as CASBS.

Daniel Bessner is the Anne H.H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Assistant Professor in American Foreign Policy in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. CASBS conducted a Q&A with Bessner to discuss the book and the Speier-CASBS connection.

CASBS: Congrats on the book. This is the first biographical treatment of Hans Speier. He has flown under the radar of even many historians. So who is Hans Speier?

Daniel Bessner: Hans Speier, though not particularly well-known, is one of the most important "defense intellectuals" of the mid-twentieth century. (In this context, "defense intellectual" refers to someone, usually – but not always – with a PhD, whose appeal to authority rests on her or his expert knowledge of foreign, military, and national security affairs.) Speier was born in Germany in 1905, and he was the first doctoral student of the sociologist Karl Mannheim, the founder of the sociology of knowledge. He fled Germany for the United States after Hitler came to power in 1933, and became the youngest founding member of the New School for Social Research's University in Exile (an institution that saved a number of very prominent European intellectuals from fascism, including Claude Levi-Strauss and Leo Strauss). During World War II, he became head of the U.S. government department that analyzed Nazi propaganda, before moving, in 1944, to the Office of War Information (OWI), where he was in charge of developing the propaganda directives intended to guide OWI propaganda sent to Germany. After the war, he became the founding head of the RAND Corporation's Social Science Division, which over the course of the 1950s and 1960s influenced a number of U.S. foreign policies, most famously nuclear strategy.

Bessner Book Cover

C:  You write that to understand the rise of the defense intellectual, we must understand Hans Speier. Why is he central to the rise of an expert-centered approach to foreign policymaking in the U.S.?

DB: Speier is central because his career and intellectual trajectory embodies broader trends that changed the ways in which intellectuals understood their social role in the mid-twentieth century and beyond. Speier began his career in Weimar Germany as a social democrat committed to educating German workers and teaching them how to navigate the new institutions of German democracy. However, Hitler's rise to power, which was made possible due to the support of German workers, convinced Speier – and many of his generation, both in Germany and in the United States – that ordinary people couldn't be trusted to make wise political decisions. For this reason, from roughly the mid-1930s onward, Speier decided that, in a moment of crisis, in which democracies like the United States confronted existential challengers like Nazi Germany (and later, the Soviet Union), intellectuals like him best served the greater good by advising policymakers, not educating the public. In other words, Speier replaced an educationist understanding of intellectuals' social role with one that emphasized the importance of providing expert advice to decision makers. The notion that intellectuals have an important role to play in foreign policymaking is one that we presently take for granted, and it is not strange to us that people like Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samantha Power, and many other intellectuals were prominent foreign policymakers, despite the fact that they had little previous diplomatic experience. Simply put, Speier and others in his generation made it possible for people like Kissinger and Power to be accepted as legitimate authorities on U.S. foreign policy.

C: Your book sets the pre-and post-World War II stage that allows an intellectual like Speier to leave his footprint at prominent institutions like the U.S. State Department, RAND Corporation, and Ford Foundation. When, how, and why did he get involved with Ford in particular?

DB: Speier became involved in the Ford Foundation because one of the foundation's early executives, H. Rowan Gaither, Jr., was connected to the RAND Corporation, where he served on the Board of Trustees. Gaither got to know Speier through RAND, came to respect him, and, most importantly, agreed with Speier's opinion that social science was a crucial means to improve both domestic and international affairs. When in the late 1940s and early 1950s Gaither was placed in charge of directing the Ford Foundation's Behavioral Sciences Program, he hired Speier and another social scientist, the psychologist Donald Marquis, to help him determine what social science projects Ford should fund.

C: Of course, as CASBS followers know, the Center owes its existence to the Ford Foundation, and in particular its social science program. That brings us to chapter 7 of your book – Speier as “the institution builder.” Half the chapter relates to Speier, his associates, and their conceptualization and eventual establishment of CASBS in the early 1950s. What was Speier’s role and what was his vision for the Center? You credit him for advancing “the idea that would eventually morph” into it, even though many of the same people who figure prominently in the Arnold Thackray account we’ve published appear throughout chapter 7 of your book as well.

DB: When Speier and Marquis were deliberating about what the Ford Foundation should fund, one of the ideas Speier came up with was that the foundation should support either an annual conference or a permanent institute that would provide an opportunity for the United States' "best" social scientists to come together to explore a specific problem in the social sciences. For the duration of his career, Speier had been involved with several centers of social scientists: the Hochschule für Politik in Weimar Berlin, a college of workers' education and proto-think tank; the University in Exile at the New School; the Office of War Information during World War II; and, of course, the RAND Corporation. Speier thus had personal experience with what social scientists could do when brought together and encouraged to concentrate on a particular problem. Within several months of this proposal, however, Bernard Berelson – a library scientist whom Gaither, at Speier's suggestion, hired to aid Speier and Marquis – convinced Speier and Marquis that the proposed center should be an institute dedicated to training the nation's best postgraduate social scientists. Speier agreed with Berelson's idea because he thought a training institute could improve the intellectual capacities of the next generation of U.S. social scientists, who in turn would solve many pressing policy problems.

C: As your book reveals, Speier’s vision for CASBS was only partially realized, due largely to friction between intellectuals like him and university administrators. What’s the main issue of contention here, and how were Speier and his cohort ultimately out-maneuvered?

DB: When they learned that the Ford Foundation was going to establish a training institute for social scientists, a number of prominent university administrators became upset. In essence, administrators were worried that Ford was creating a new type of educational institution – a privately funded institute for postgraduate education – that would usurp their traditional function. Indeed, since the foundation established its Behavioral Sciences Program there had been tensions between Ford and university administrators, who were worried that the foundation – which had access to more capital than any other American foundation – would use its vast wealth to shape the direction of social science research. In order to ensure that these tensions didn't negatively affect the training institute, the foundation invited a number of administrators, including Clark Kerr (chancellor of the University of California), F.F. Hill (provost at Cornell), and Paul Buck (provost at Harvard), to serve on its board. Ironically for Ford, these administrators used their positions on the board to scuttle the training institute and transform it into the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences we know today; that is, an organization that does not train social scientists, but rather provides scholars with free time to pursue their own research and collaborations.

C: Speier’s vision notwithstanding, you write (p.193) that “by the late 1950s social scientists, university officials, and foundation administrators embraced CASBS as a significant contribution to the U.S. intellectual landscape.” Was he OK with this precisely because, as you write one page later, “CASBS helped identify and solidify an emergent network of elite social scientists, many of whom were defense intellectuals”? It should be noted that Speier himself was a CASBS fellow during the Center’s third academic year of operation, 1956-57.

DB: One of the major goals of Speier and many of his generation in the 1950s was to establish institutions that would bring together the "best" social scientists in the United States, regardless of their class, ethnic, or national background (although women and African-Americans remained generally excluded from these elite spaces, and would remain so for several decades). In Speier's mind, organizations like CASBS (as well as the RAND Corporation and the Center for International Studies at MIT) were critical because they provided spaces that could identity and solidify an emergent meritocratic elite – the type of social scientific elite that Speier wanted to see take a more direct interest in public affairs.

Bessner Photo
Daniel Bessner (Photo credit: Lars Blackmore)

C: It might surprise some today, decades removed, that several notable defense intellectuals populated early fellows classes at CASBS. In your wrap-up of the CASBS part of chapter 7, you conclude, “…the presence of so many defense intellectuals at CASBS reveals that during the early Cold War the boundaries that had traditionally separated scholars from policy advisers were becoming increasingly permeable.” Was this permeation, in your estimation, inevitable and perhaps even advisable? It’s interesting to note that just in the past few years, CASBS has been making an effort to bring in one or more “policy” fellows annually to mix in with the more traditional university-based fellows.

DB: I do not believe this permeation was inevitable; history is always contingent, and if, say, military elites had decided to dig in their heels and refuse to take advice from defense intellectuals, I doubt this new social figure would have become a permanent part of the policymaking landscape. The question of advisability, however, is a bit more vexed. I am of the opinion that a knowledge-driven society like our own requires expertise. Otherwise, as the historian Bruce Kuklick noted in his Blind Oracles, "we leave decisions to habit, authority, or chance." In other words, expertise is a necessary component of a post-industrial society. At the same time, I think that experts – influenced, if unknowingly, by Speier's skeptical democratic vision – need to take a more active role in engaging with, and more importantly, listening to, public opinion. Otherwise democracy becomes epistocracy, which, as demonstrated in the election of Donald J. Trump, could lead to an anti-expert backlash. (And of course, experts don't always get things right – see, for example, the Iraq War – and could be more humble about the limits of their knowledge.) Though the tension between expertise and democracy is, in my opinion, endemic to our political system, more can be done to bridge the gap between the experts and the public.

C: The chapter’s endnotes clearly indicate that you spent some quality time digging in the Ford Foundation’s records as well as CASBS’s own historical files, archived in a library on Stanford University’s main campus. Did you find the archival work stimulating? Did you discover any surprising or enlightening things about CASBS that didn’t make it into your book?

DB: I found many surprising things about CASBS. Most importantly, I did not know the critical role university administrators played in circumscribing CASBS's early history. This demonstrated to me that, in spite of the Ford Foundation's enormous capital base, people – in this case, university administrators – could use foundation funds in ways they saw fit, even if these didn't necessarily conform to the foundation's wishes. In other words, it wasn't enough to ask "who paid the piper" – one needed to explore what the piper did with that money.

C: OK, so in the course of bringing Speier to life you obtained an excellent grasp of the Center’s early years. But the Center now has a 64-year history. Any interest in chronicling the role of CASBS in the development of post-War social science disciplines and fields, perhaps as a future CASBS fellow?

DB: I am very interested in doing so! Spending a year at CASBS writing the center's history would not only be an exciting personal opportunity, but would help fill a gap in the historiography of midcentury intellectual history. So many important ideas were formulated or developed at CASBS, and we historians require a full accounting of the organization and its impact.