Daniel Bessner (Ph.D., Duke University) is a historian of the twentieth-century United States in a global context. His manuscript, The Rise of the Defense Intellectual: Hans Speier and the Transatlantic Origins of Cold War Foreign Policy, uses the German exile Hans Speier as a window into a community of left-wing academics who joined the national security state as “defense intellectuals” in the early Cold War. It argues that to understand the emergence of this intellectual cohort, historians must examine the decades-long process by which liberal German exiles re-imagined their social role in the wake of the Weimar Republic’s collapse and helped create new institutions designed to connect experts with decision-makers. By becoming important resources for government officials, these intellectuals brought their unique transatlantic experiences to bear on the formation of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the realms of psychological warfare and European reconstruction.
Speier was a centrally located cold warrior who in the 1940s and 1950s consulted for the State Department and executive branch, and helped found the RAND Corporation, Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the program in international communication at MIT’s Center for International Studies. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, witnessing ordinary Germans vote enthusiastically for Adolf Hitler engendered a skepticism of democracy in Speier and a cohort of German social democratic intellectuals. Once Hitler seized power in 1933, Speier and his colleagues were forced to flee Central Europe for the United States. In America, a number of these left-wing German exiles banded together with U.S. progressives to argue that if democracy was to survive as a viable political form in a world beset with totalitarian threats, intellectual experts, not ordinary people, must become the shapers of foreign policy. Only intellectuals, Speier and others argued, could ensure that the United States committed its vast resources to totalitarianism’s defeat.
World War II provided Speier and his academic cohort with the opportunity to transform their ideas into reality. Called upon by government officials who required the services of intellectuals familiar with the German language and culture, hundreds of social scientists joined the Office of War Information, Office of Strategic Services, and other new organizations of the wartime state. After the war, this first generation of defense intellectuals allied with government and military officials to create a network of state and corporate institutions that reproduced the wartime experience on a permanent basis. Speier himself became chief of RAND’s Social Science Division and a consultant for the State Department, Psychological Strategy Board, and Ford Foundation.
Speier’s interwar experiences with Nazism and postwar understanding of Stalin’s actions in Eastern Europe led him to conclude that all totalitarian societies, be they fascist or communist, were run by elites uninterested in reaching détente with the United States. For this reason, Speier declared, U.S. decision-makers should treat all Soviet diplomatic overtures as feints designed to trick the western alliance into weakening its international standing. He further argued that because totalitarian states were autocracies in which the public had no say in foreign affairs, the United States should not focus on winning ordinary people living in the Soviet Union to its side, but should instead concentrate on disrupting the functioning of Soviet elites. Speier’s position at RAND and his relationship with the State Department provided him with the opportunity to disseminate his opinions throughout the foreign policy establishment. By virtue of his central location in this institutional matrix, Speier was able to influence a number of key U.S. foreign policies, including the inflexible negotiating position adopted by U.S. delegates at the Korean War armistice talks; the tactics of U.S. psychological warfare directed against East Germany and the Soviet Union; and Dwight Eisenhower’s “Open Skies” proposal at the 1955 Geneva Summit.
By the 1960s, Speier had helped institutionalize a system in which intellectuals had direct, and permanent, access to foreign policymakers, as well as a policy culture that valued expertise. His case demonstrates that the Cold War national security state, broadly defined to include governmental, nongovernmental, and university-associated research centers, was not solely a proximate reaction to the perceived Soviet threat, as historians have argued, but was also the realization of a decades-old, expert-centered political vision formed in response to the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
Daniel has published on a variety of topics related to the history of the Cold War and German exiles in America. His most recent forthcoming essay examines Hans Speier’s creation of the postwar political simulations played by high-ranking civilian policymakers in the 1950s and 1960s. Another focuses on how in the 1930s similarities between U.S. progressive thought and German-Jewish cosmopolitianism helped foster German exiles’ entrance into the U.S. academic community. Two earlier pieces based on master’s degree research analyze the influence exerted by Karl Heinzen, a revolutionary who emigrated from Germany to America in the mid nineteenth century, on American terrorist theory and the ideology of women’s emancipation.
Daniel’s research has been funded by a number of organizations, including the Marshall Foundation, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Josephine de Kármán Fellowship Trust, and the German Historical Institute.
For copies of Daniel’s dissertation, publications, or job materials, please contact him at email@example.com.