David C. Engerman: How Philip Mosely helped Soviet Studies moderate American policy

Roundup: Talking About History

[David C. Engerman teaches history at Brandeis University. His book, Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts (Oxford University Press) will be published this fall. In 2007, he was awarded a $40,000 NEH research fellowship to work on this project.]

When Winston Churchill ominously announced in March 1946 that an “Iron Curtain had descended over Europe,” the United States government employed around two dozen experts on the Soviet Union and even fewer on Central and Eastern Europe. Two years later, after a steady drumbeat of Cold War crises, the young Central Intelligence Agency employed thirty-eight Soviet analysts, only twelve of whom spoke any Russian. The few university-based Russia specialists varied tremendously in intellect and energy; only a handful were willing and able to contribute to shaping policy. How could American officials chart a foreign policy without knowing what was going on inside the Soviet Union, let alone inside the Kremlin? As Geroid Tanquary Robinson, head of the USSR analysis for wartime intelligence and the founding director of Columbia’s Russian Institute, put it, “Never did so many know so little about so much.”

Into this breach stepped a handful of scholars, including Philip Edward Mosely, the man who would become the most influential Sovietologist of the Cold War. He lacked the name recognition and elegant writing style of the diplomat George Kennan, whose 1947 “X” article introduced the concept of containment to the world. Nor could he rival the publication record and scholarly reputation of Harvard professor Merle Fainsod, whose 1953 book How Russia Is Ruled introduced generations of readers to Soviet politics. And Mosely was nowhere near as colorful a character as the economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron, whose 1952 essay on “economic backwardness” remains a subject of debate into the twenty-first century. Mosely’s contributions to the development of Soviet Studies have received little attention. But in a field of study that emphasized its practical application to policymaking, no one else was so adept at working the lines of influence and power that connected America’s campuses and its capital.

Mosely did more than anyone to underwrite the achievements of Soviet Studies in the 1950s as well as its explosive growth in the 1960s. Thanks to the institutions he created and led, Soviet Studies went from scholarly backwater to intellectual juggernaut in a matter of years. Scholars in the field published dozens of books that peeked inside the Soviet enigma; they also trained hundreds of other experts to do the same. Sitting at the intersection of scholarship, intelligence, and philanthropy, Mosely created a field in which practitioners like himself could imagine, as Secretary of State William P. Rogers noted, “no line between government and academic work.” In the process, though, Mosely set the field up for the controversies that wracked it in the years before his death in 1972. In other words, he put Sovietology on a collision course with that phenomenon generally known as the sixties.

Mosely was raised in the town of Westfield, Massachusetts, in the 1910s. For a determined Cold Warrior, he had surprisingly liberal views in his youth. Much later, he would regale a former student about his trip to celebrate the release of socialist Eugene Victor Debs from prison in 1921. Perhaps it was politics that got young Mosely interested in Russia, or perhaps it was his chance encounter with a Russian immigrant on a trip to the library in Springfield. In any case, Mosely studied Russian with a tutor until leaving for Harvard at the age of sixteen. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he began graduate study in history, writing a dissertation on Russian diplomacy in the 1830s. Perhaps most crucial for his future career was a two-year stint in Moscow for dissertation research.

Mosely’s Moscow years, 1930 to 1932, coincided with the immense and rapid changes of the first Five-Year Plan, Stalin’s program of forced-draft industrialization in the name of building socialism. Moscow teemed with people from the countryside, basic goods were in short supply, and small private enterprise was eradicated in favor of rationing. Mosely worked in government archives, meanwhile scavenging food and supplies through networks of friends, a process no doubt aided by his marriage to a Russian woman. His Soviet sojourn left a deep impression on Mosely, visible in letters home; they movingly describe the difficulties of everyday life as well as enthusiasm for the promises of a brighter future. Mosely repeated the praise for the USSR typical of sympathetic American journalists like Louis Fischer, whom he knew well. Even as the show trials and purges accelerated, for instance, Mosely called the USSR a “defender of peace” and praised its “social welfare” programs...

... In other ways, too, Mosely and his generation of Sovietologists helped keep the Cold War cold. Research projects supported by Mosely’s friends in the national security apparatus undermined public (and political) assumptions that the Communist party was an all-powerful force ruling over an atomized population that was waiting for an outside power to unshackle it. Operation Solarium rolled back U.S. efforts to challenge directly Soviet power in Eastern Europe. The Smolensk project underscored the limits of the Kremlin’s reach even within the USSR. And a major Air Force project at Harvard University (one of the few that Mosely didn’t advise) concluded that the Soviet system was relatively stable, and that potential American invaders would not be greeted as liberators. Especially in the early 1950s, when American rhetoric was at its most confrontational, professional Sovietologists like Mosely were a moderating force.

This model of Soviet Studies worked for Mosely and for his generation. Thanks to their efforts to obtain both sources and funding, scholars of what Churchill called “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” produced remarkable works on the history, culture, and politics of America’s Cold War adversary. The major supporters were all familiar to Mosely: the Rockefeller Foundation, which supported Columbia and other graduate programs in Soviet Studies; the newly ambitious Ford Foundation (with Mosely as an adviser), which established academic exchanges with the USSR; the Joint Committee on Slavic Studies (which Mosely chaired), which promoted the field through grants; and the Office of Education (which Mosely advised), which funded area studies programs after the passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958.

Mosely’s vision of Soviet Studies, closely tied to national-security interests, loosely connected to academic disciplines, and centrally administered by a self-selected network of scholars (heavily weighted with Columbia and Harvard men), did not survive his lifetime. The field’s rapid growth soon met with a democratizing impulse, as a new national membership organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, took over some Joint Committee tasks. (The organization, still in existence, will change its name in 2010.) Scholarly exchange, which Mosely first proposed to the Soviet foreign ministry in 1943, came under attack in the 1960s. The exchange program met with increasing controversy in the American academy in what amounted to a generational divide. Students and young faculty chafed at the ways in which the American exchange organizers closely supervised their personal lives, and resented the involvement of the State Department.

For reasons both political and professional, a new generation of scholars rejected the field’s direct involvement in foreign policy. Increasingly critical of American policy in Vietnam and elsewhere, many young scholars rebelled against what they saw as government incursions into academic life. Others preferred to contribute to disciplinary journals rather than policy debates; in doing so, ironically, they benefited handily from the scholarly exchanges that Mosely promoted as well as sources like the Smolensk documents and the Bakhmeteff Archive that Mosely helped organize.

For all of his insights about the USSR and his renewed work in teaching (he had returned to Columbia in 1963), Mosely did not fathom these changes. In an essay published in 1967, as conflicts brewed on campuses all over the country, Mosely praised scholars for their impact on affairs of state. Five years later, upon Mosely’s death, came Secretary Roger’s praise that Mosely did not distinguish between academic and government work. Undoubtedly an exaggeration, it nevertheless reflected Mosely’s long-standing commitment, forged during World War II, to serve Mars and Minerva, the gods of war and wisdom. Yet by 1972 such sentiments were hotly controversial.

Mosely’s accomplishments were many. He brought together disparate groups to forge a field that shaped foreign policy and academic life for almost three decades. He helped hundreds of students, giving many of them more attention than they received from their ostensible advisers. He aided Russian émigré scholars more than any other non-émigré. Yet the rise and fall of his vision of Soviet Studies tells us as much about the assumptions of the greatest generation as it does about the anger of its successors.

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