‘The social scientists' war’: Expertise in a Cold War nation

Joy Elizabeth Rohde, University of Pennsylvania


In the late 1950s, Army officials and civilian social scientists joined forces to combat the spread of communism to the so-called 'emerging nations' of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This fusion of social science and statecraft reached its acme at the Special Operations Research Office (SORO), an interdisciplinary research institute created in 1956 by the Army and American University. For fifteen years, SORO's political scientists, social psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists worked with Pentagon officials to illuminate the complex social processes involved in the creation of stable, democratic nations. At their most optimistic and messianic, these scholars hoped to replace the violence of war with the peaceful tools of social knowledge. As the Vietnam War intensified in the late 1960s, however, a vocal community of academics lambasted their Army-funded peers as servants of a war-mongering state, forcing SORO's closure in 1969. Rather than severing their close ties to the American state, SORO's experts relocated to a network of Washington think tanks. From there, social scientists continued to influence American national security policy while the authority of their academic counterparts waned. In 1956, social science seemed to promise an end to violence. By 1970, that same social science appeared to many Americans to be a handmaiden of war. The politics and places of social knowledge production shifted radically in the Cold War. This dissertation uses the case of SORO to examine the ways that social scientists and their patrons navigated the fraught relationship between knowledge and politics in the 1950s and 1960s. The contours of that relationship were marked by institutional, intellectual, and ethical ambiguities. In the 1950s and early 1960s, those ambiguities seemed to many scholars to be manageable. As state patronage increasingly appeared to challenge the autonomy and objectivity of science in the late 1960s, academics worked to isolate scholarship from its patrons. But the actions of well-meaning critics remade the relationship between science and the national security state in ways that neither scholars nor government officials intended.

Subject Area

American history|Science history

Recommended Citation

Rohde, Joy Elizabeth, "‘The social scientists' war’: Expertise in a Cold War nation" (2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3271806.