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Lessons from Cold War Sovietology + DC Meetup
"It wasn't only about knowing the enemy; it was actually about knowing the world writ large."
When Churchill announced in 1946 that an Iron Curtain had descended over Europe, the US government only employed two dozen experts on the Soviet Union. Two years later, with the Cold War well underway, the CIA only had 12 Russian speakers.
Over the following decades, philanthropists and the US government started an intellectual mobilization that had profound effects on the course of the Cold War. To talk about this, David Engerman, author of Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America's Soviet Experts, joins the show along with cohosts Chris Miller, Associate Professor of International History at Tufts, and Sam George, who just finished a Masters in East Asian Studies at Stanford.
How America created a cadre of Sovietologists;
What their impact was on US policy;
What lessons the story has for China studies today.
Two announcements up top:
I’ll be in DC next week! Reach out by responding to this email if you’d like to join the meetup on Sept 20th or connect some other time.
A good friend has some paid work for a copy editor with native-level English to help out with polishing some important research on the Russian military-industrial ecosystem. Respond to this email if you’re interested and I’ll connect you two.
Building Sovietology From the Ground Up
Jordan Schneider: What was the state of play pre-WWII, and how did area studies impact the course of how America conducted that war?
David Engerman: One of the biggest figures in Russian Studies in the interwar period was Samuel Harper, who was the son of the founding President of the University of Chicago. He wrote in the twenties that Russian Studies was a small field comprised solely of “freaks and nuts” — and by that he had himself included. There were a handful of Russia experts, by which I mean people who were trained and paid to analyze Russia for American audiences. But they were dispersed, in some cases quite disagreeable, and as likely to work in journalism as they were in universities.
There was not a lot to mobilize when WWII came about. There were a number of efforts to build language training programs that actually dated back before the war and became a big part of language training during the war, trying to train soldiers and sailors for liaison with the Soviets or occupying forces, but there wasn't really a field of Russian Studies until after the end of WWII.
Jordan Schneider: How does the conversation around Soviet Studies and its importance to America's future change after the Cold War heats up?
David Engerman: During WWII, Soviet Studies was wrapped up in conversations about other area studies. When they're looking to map the vast terrain of American ignorance of the rest of the world, you're not just talking about Russia: you're talking about Asia (and especially the fronts in Southeast Asia), you're talking about China, you're talking about Europe — there was no formal European Studies at this point either.
Image: Files in the International & Area Studies Library at the University of Illinois. (Wikimedia Commons)
All of this is building up an area studies complex, in which Russia was just one element. It would become the most important element only after WWII, just as it became clear between 1945 and 1947 that the Soviet Union would be an adversary on a global scale
Chris Miller: David, can you talk a bit about the transition from the 1950s, when you had individual research contracts that were defining government relations with the field; what's the next phase in the late fifties and sixties, and how do things change at that point?
David Engerman: The next phase is the National Defense Education Act. For anyone who's ever received a National Direct Student Loan (NDSL), this is actually something that comes out of an American response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik in October 1957.
The idea with the National Defense Education Act was to double down on science education, but also to double down on area studies. It provided Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) grants to graduate students. It set up an infrastructure that supported a large number of area studies centers for decades.
Initially, government research programs took place almost exclusively at Harvard and Columbia. The Office of Education’s funding for area studies programs were really what allowed places like Berkeley, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan [to grow]. Their area studies programs became truly global institutions because of government money. Matching funds essentially doubled any grant that they would receive, [and] those grants were bonuses for undergraduate education, outreach into the community, and graduate training.
It built up an infrastructure for language training as well. University-level foreign language enrolments doubled between 1958 and 1962. The study of Russian doubled, but so did the study of Spanish.
It wasn't only about knowing the enemy; it was actually about knowing the world writ large.
I don't think they could have done it if there hadn't been these inklings of a field coming into being [at] places like Harvard and Columbia, but they really leveraged their funds to create a national enterprise.
Émigrés and Soviet Studies
Chris Miller: As the US tried to build up this infrastructure, it relied a lot on émigrés from Russia or the regions which spoke Russian. Can you talk about how émigrés, and also immigrants from other parts of the Russian empire who might not have had the most positive view of Russia, influenced the early stages of the Russian Studies field?
David Engerman: It's important to know that in the very earliest stages, these programs avoided having émigrés. They felt they couldn't be objective about it. I actually remember hearing a story from Nicholas Riasanovsky, a very distinguished historian at Berkeley, who said when he was hired in 1955, his department chair pulled him to the office once he arrived; his welcome was to say, “I voted against your appointment because I don't think Russians can be objective about their own history.”
I do think that the émigrés were somewhat limited in those early years to things that were closer to language, which obviously relied very heavily on émigrés. In fact, there's a fairly nasty Vladimir Nabokov novel, Pnin, about the language drill instructors coming from Russia. Russian immigrants could talk about culture, but they couldn't talk about politics.
Image: the first-edition front cover of Pnin. (Wikimedia Foundation)
That eventually does change. I don't think there's any one moment when it changes, but you do see two Polish émigrés make their way into the field fairly quickly, both of whom have staunchly anti-Soviet positions: Richard Pipes, who spent his career at Harvard except for two years at the Reagan White House, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who shuttles for a little while between Harvard and Columbia before going down to the Trilateral Commission and ultimately Washington. But in the very first years, the field’s WASP-y fathers were very careful keep some distance from émigrés.
Collecting Sources on the USSR
Jordan Schneider: Materials collection when you're researching a communist regime, particularly one that's not super friendly to the US, had been a challenge in the Soviet era and is increasingly a challenge today. How did Soviet scholars think about getting data, newspapers, and raw inputs (aside from just books) in order to do analysis?
David Engerman: They worked really hard on this and pulled on every government connection they could. One of the things about the WWII attitude of total mobilization is that many, many people in elite universities were doing some kind of wartime activity, working for government in one place or another, and they pulled all those connections. One of the consistent problems at places like Harvard and Columbia was to get overeager postal inspectors to let issues of Pravda and Izvestia go through.
Some of it was through politics, some of it was finding workarounds; it wasn't actually building a new infrastructure. They created the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, which still exists! It starts in the fifties as an effort to summarize and translate articles from not just Pravda and Izvestia, but whatever newspapers and magazines that could get a hold of. It provided basically the only index of Russian press. Real experts would want to get to the source material in Russian, but at least this could help them find it. For a whole swath of other kinds of research projects and for teaching purposes, to have these documents in English was indispensable.
Predicting the Soviet Economy
Chris Miller: Let’s dive into the study of the Soviet economy. On the one hand, [it’s] an economy organized very differently from what economics in the US was used to studying. On the other hand, it was a crucial, empirical question as to what was actually happening and how were things structured. Can you talk about how the field of the study of the Soviet economy emerged?
David Engerman: Well, it emerged during WWII. The first place you could see the ‘60s debate between discipline and area take place was actually at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which is a forerunner to the CIA and a civilian intelligence agency. That group was trying to figure out how much Lend-Lease aid the Soviet economy could absorb: they'd love to send all this stuff for military purposes, but how would it actually fit into the Soviet economy? They had a lot of people pouring over these reports, documents, etc., just trying to develop some minimally quantitative sketch of what the Soviet economy looked like.
So it came about for very practical reasons. Those practical reasons changed after the war: they were more about how much defense spending could the Soviets afford to do, what was the state of the economy in general, why were they growing faster than the US in the early 1950s… It was always something that had some pressing questions behind it, but the obstacles to studying it were immense.
Not just was it something for which advanced economic tools were not designed, there was no way to get good data. Some people say the data was straight-up manufactured; at the very least, they were very heavily massaged. [The Soviet Union] would change the criteria every few years [so] the numbers would keep looking good. How can you read those data and reach some kind of sense of how big the Soviet economy is? How is it handling a trade-off between guns and butter? These were core questions that took a lot of smart people decades to really get a handle on.
Chris Miller: So in terms of the successes of the field: they have these massive data problems, and yet they made some strides to putting quantitative estimates on the scope of the Soviet economy. Can you describe the extent to which the results were impressive?
David Engerman: To put it gently, there was a conversation about this after the Soviet Union collapses and people get into the archives. A number of people treated the archival documents as if they held deep, profound, unexpurgated, unprocessed truths. But in fact, they were also part of the problem.
I think there was a tendency to overestimate Soviet levels of production and prosperity. They got a tremendous amount right: they were pretty close to right about the overall shape [of the Soviet economy] and the kinds of economic decisions Soviet leaders had to make. There’s one Soviet economist who, based on some conversations he had in Moscow and Novosibirsk in the early 1990s, claimed that the American estimates were so good that the Soviets used them for some of their planning process. If it's true, it'd be a wonderful story, but there's not much more to go on than a mention of a couple of conversations. That said, there were definitely tremendous failures. The failure to predict the demise of the Soviet Union is something that weighs on the field pretty heavily and got the field enmeshed in quite a bit of controversy, both in Washington and among scholars, for the half decade or so after ‘91.
Chris Miller: Although that failure was more a failure of the analysts of the political system than the analysts of the economy per se, right? If you look at projections of Soviet GDP growth from 1975, they'll show slowing growth between then and 1985. It's just the disillusion that no one predicted, which is the political analyst’s fault more than the economist’s fault.
David Engerman: Says [Chris] the economic historian! But I also think that what was framed at the time as an economic question was ultimately political. The economic question is: how little can you provide for your people without risking overthrow? I personally take the view that the fracturing of the Soviet Union along nationalist lines tends to overstate the effect of nationality, or what we would call ethnicity, in its demise. I think it explains the way that it fractured, but not the pressure that was on the Soviet Union. That pressure was ultimately economic, but there's no economic number that becomes absolute. It really is a political decision on how to act on it. And yet the fact that the figures were a little overestimated meant that it was easier to misunderstand the political stakes in the eighties.
Image: Protestors forming a human chain in Tallinn to call for Estonian independence from the USSR, August 23, 1989. (Deutsche Welle)
Chris Miller: The other interesting facet of the Soviet economics subfield is the extent to which its conclusions didn't feed into other aspects of the Soviet Studies field, or public debate in general. There's the famous anecdote of Paul Samuelson changing the date at which the Soviet economy overtakes the US economy every five years in his economics textbook. And that was not just him: that was a popular view.
By the seventies or so, that was not the view supported by the subfield of people studying the Soviet economy, but that was never really updated in the American thinking writ large.
David Engerman: It was a field that was really recondite and obscure. They had to have excellent knowledge of Russian, the Russian economy, and economic analysis; and not just all of those, but [also] the combination of those to know the wacky (by American standards) Russian system of categorizing. So it was a field that had gained such expertise that they lost the ability to talk to anyone who didn't have it.
Jordan Schneider: Or everyone else just didn't feel like listening because it was too much work. You can put the blame on both sides, right?
David Engerman: I don't think the field did a great job of communicating its ideas. Marshall Goldman was probably the economic Sovietologist who had the biggest profile in public discussions, but he was really going off the cuff based on his years of expertise and reflecting the writings of the field. He wasn't actually using systematic conclusions in the things he was telling journalists.
Parallels with China Studies
Jordan Schneider: [With] China’s growth slowing over time, you see very similar dynamics today among China watchers. My colleagues and I at Rhodium have been very focused on long-term challenges to Chinese growth, but that conversation hasn't really bled out into the broader discussion.
David Engerman: In the early fifties, the Eisenhower administration was so concerned about Soviet growth rates being twice as high as American growth rates — obviously, from a much, much lower starting point — that they actually hired someone to develop a different metric to emphasize American superiority. It never really took hold, but they were concerned enough about it in regards to the public that they initiated this project to invent new measures.
The Soviet Union had muddled through quite a bit over the years. If you look at predictions from the eighties, everyone had a very wide range of possible outcomes from re-Stalinization to the utter dissolution of political society. But then, they all come up with this very narrow band of middle-of-the-road conclusions. Between the amount of muddling through well and muddling through poorly, [the conclusions] were right until they weren't.
Sam George: It reminds me a little bit of the trend of predicting the fall of the Communist Party in Chinese Studies, which has been continuing for as long as the party has been around.
Chris Miller: One thing I think we should address is the impact of the late sixties’ intellectual moment in the US on the field. With the protests of ‘68, the Vietnam War, and the general shift in American culture and intellectual life, how did that impact the Soviet Studies field?
David Engerman: First and foremost is funding. The Ford Foundation, in around 1967, decided to sharply reorient its funding away from international studies taking place in American universities into two different directions. First, building up university capacity overseas directly rather than having Americans who study it build up intellectual capacity there. Then, in a belated response to the uprisings of the 1960s, going in deep on Urban Studies and African-American Studies not only as scholarly enterprises, but as practical efforts.
Jordan Schneider: You had this great quote where Richard Pipes, scholar turned Reagan appointee, makes the pitch to the President of Ford Foundation in the late sixties. And the guy says, “Man, we support all kinds of studies: black studies, white studies, brown studies, studies in scarlet, rural studies, urban studies… But Russian studies? Don't you think that's a bit passé?”
David Engerman: [Pipes] gave that as a toast. It's an imagined conversation, but not an entirely inaccurate one, as historians of the Ford Foundation would attest. The other thing that comes out over the course of the 1960s is a little more subtle, but really important. Most of the founding fathers of the field — and they were, at that point, all fathers — had served in government, if not the military, in WWII or immediately after. With remarkable innocence, they saw their work with government as just a part of their portfolio as professors. It didn’t raise to them any conflicts of interest: to them, it couldn’t possibly be untoward.
They thought they could advise a dissertation one day, a diplomat the next, and then go consult for the CIA, and that these sources of money wouldn’t affect the work they were doing.
In the 1960s there were a number of scandals, most of which weren’t in Soviet Studies, that showed just how closely universities were intermeshed with the defense establishment, at the time that the defense establishment was coming under deeper criticism with the growing anti-war movement. So that steadily revolving door of government and academic work really just falls away. I think it catches everyone a little bit by surprise: the older generation because they can’t understand what the young folks are talking about — “of course it doesn't affect our work”, and the younger generation looking with disbelief that people could assume their funding sources weren't tainted.
There's an overarching narrative in American history of losing faith in government in the era of Vietnam. Whether or not you hold to that, the idea that universities should be working so closely with the government is one that was strikingly uncontroversial between 1940 and 1968 and has been controversial ever since.
Image: Women protesting the Vietnam War at UC Berkeley in the sixties. (Flickr)
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