RAND in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era

  • Published

RAND in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era by Mai Elliott. RAND Corporation, 2010, 694 pp.

Since its inception as a project under the auspices of Douglas Aircraft Company in 1946, the RAND (research and development) Corporation has been synonymous with research sponsored by the US Air Force. Much of that effort during the early days of the Cold War took the form of technical studies utilizing the quantitative methodology of mathematical modeling and statistical analysis. Nuclear warfare dominated strategic thinking at the prestigious RAND think tank.

The Vietnam War offered RAND the opportunity to expand its focus. As Mai Elliott explains in RAND in Southeast Asia, the shift in emphasis from a nuclear to a counterinsurgency strategy prompted RAND to expend more resources in the social sciences, using qualitative research methods. The funding cuts resulting from the winding down of the Vietnam War, coupled with the Pentagon Papers security scandal, further persuaded the corporation to seek clients outside the Department of Defense. Hence, although its influence on Vietnam policy was questionable, there is little argument that the war had a significant impact on RAND.

A RAND employee during the war, Elliott has firsthand knowledge of the organization’s experience in Southeast Asia. In her previous work, The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family (Oxford University Press, 1999), she chronicles her family’s history from precolonial times to life under communist rule. Her Vietnamese heritage and upbringing, American education, and marriage to a RAND Vietnam project manager made Mai Elliott the ideal choice to interview Vietcong prisoners and defectors in the field. As with Sacred Willow, much of the factual content in RAND in Southeast Asia comes from Elliott’s personal experiences, as well as those of surviving RAND analysts. The corporation’s research reports comprise the bulk of her primary documentary evidence, supplemented by archival materials and published works of influential figures in government. She uses secondary sources largely to provide the context of combat operations and the political environment during RAND’s tenure in Southeast Asia.

The author takes great care to point out that the think tank’s influence on Vietnam policy was minimal at best since, for example, the intellectual freedom granted to its analysts produced varied and often contradictory studies. Consequently, RAND’s reports frequently supported decisions already made: “Whereas General Curtis LeMay had invoked a RAND study to support his argument for bombing North Vietnam, [Assistant Secretary of State George] Ball cited another RAND report to support his call for withdrawal. These instances demonstrate the credibility that the name RAND carried in Washington at the time, but they also show how selective Washington officials could be in picking findings that suited their own policy recommendations” (p. 124). RAND also exerted little influence because of the quality of its products. Elliott’s descriptions of the challenges the corporation faced in putting a degree of rigor into its research reports would make an effective case study on the value of quantitative versus qualitative analysis. RAND often abused the subjectivity inherent in the qualitative methodology of the Vietnamese interviews in order to cultivate a seemingly incestuous relationship with the Air Force. As that service’s primary client, RAND found itself under great pressure to produce results that validated the use of airpower in counterinsurgency operations. Hence, project managers tended to slant information, presenting air operations in a more favorable light. Finally, the security breach that allowed RAND defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg unfettered access to the classified Pentagon Papers—which he subsequently released to the media—further tarnished its reputation and influence.

As a result of the security problem and the gradual American withdrawal from the war, funding for research projects began to dry up, forcing RAND to look outside the defense community for new clients. National and local governments presented it with new research opportunities in areas such as health, law enforcement, and housing. Working with local politicians and unions generated challenges and frustrations, but the diversification into domestic policy probably allowed RAND to grow as a research organization.

Despite her past relationship with RAND, Elliott objectively presents its achievements and deficiencies in Southeast Asia during this period. Her study, however, is more a history of the corporation than of the Vietnam War. Although she does an admirable job of placing RAND’s presence within the context of the war, readers should have a basic knowledge of the history of Vietnam conflict in order to fully appreciate the nuances of RAND’s role in the formulation of policy and strategy.

Even though it has diversified, RAND still maintains a robust relationship with the Department of Defense, particularly with the Air Force. Its reports and publications on American defense policy and strategy in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are required reading in the discipline of professional military education. Knowing the history of RAND in past major conflicts can give today’s military students a greater appreciation of ongoing analyses of present conflicts.

John F. Farrell, EdD

Squadron Officer College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."