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From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America

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During the early decades of the Cold War, large-scale investments in American defense and aerospace research and development spawned a variety of problem-solving techniques, technologies, and institutions. From systems analysis to reconnaissance satellites to think tanks, these innovations did not remain exclusive accessories of the defense establishment. Instead, they rea During the early decades of the Cold War, large-scale investments in American defense and aerospace research and development spawned a variety of problem-solving techniques, technologies, and institutions. From systems analysis to reconnaissance satellites to think tanks, these innovations did not remain exclusive accessories of the defense establishment. Instead, they readily found civilian applications in both the private and public sector. City planning and management were no exception. Jennifer Light argues that the technologies and values of the Cold War fundamentally shaped the history of postwar urban America. From Warfare to Welfare documents how American intellectuals, city leaders, and the federal government chose to attack problems in the nation's cities by borrowing techniques and technologies first designed for military engagement with foreign enemies. Experiments in urban problem solving adapted the expertise of defense professionals to face new threats: urban chaos, blight, and social unrest. Tracing the transfer of innovations from military to city planning and management, Light reveals how a continuing source of inspiration for American city administrators lay in the nation's preparations for war.


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During the early decades of the Cold War, large-scale investments in American defense and aerospace research and development spawned a variety of problem-solving techniques, technologies, and institutions. From systems analysis to reconnaissance satellites to think tanks, these innovations did not remain exclusive accessories of the defense establishment. Instead, they rea During the early decades of the Cold War, large-scale investments in American defense and aerospace research and development spawned a variety of problem-solving techniques, technologies, and institutions. From systems analysis to reconnaissance satellites to think tanks, these innovations did not remain exclusive accessories of the defense establishment. Instead, they readily found civilian applications in both the private and public sector. City planning and management were no exception. Jennifer Light argues that the technologies and values of the Cold War fundamentally shaped the history of postwar urban America. From Warfare to Welfare documents how American intellectuals, city leaders, and the federal government chose to attack problems in the nation's cities by borrowing techniques and technologies first designed for military engagement with foreign enemies. Experiments in urban problem solving adapted the expertise of defense professionals to face new threats: urban chaos, blight, and social unrest. Tracing the transfer of innovations from military to city planning and management, Light reveals how a continuing source of inspiration for American city administrators lay in the nation's preparations for war.

33 review for From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America

  1. 5 out of 5

    James

    Light argues that, at the height of the Cold War, many of the intellectuals in military planning who had worked on strategies for winning a nuclear war and then winning hearts and minds in Vietnam, moved to “solving” urban crises of blight and disorder. In order to accomplish these goals, they recommended military techniques and technology to be applied to urban planning. Through military contractors like the RAND Corporation, they set up in cities burearcracy. While eventually they folded since Light argues that, at the height of the Cold War, many of the intellectuals in military planning who had worked on strategies for winning a nuclear war and then winning hearts and minds in Vietnam, moved to “solving” urban crises of blight and disorder. In order to accomplish these goals, they recommended military techniques and technology to be applied to urban planning. Through military contractors like the RAND Corporation, they set up in cities burearcracy. While eventually they folded since they were too expensive and did not mesh well in undisciplined cities with limited resources that had to take into account values beyond efficiency. Light focuses her study on NYC, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. Key Themes and Concepts -Light focuses on four areas of military strategic implementation: 1) “defensive dispersal” of industry (in case of nuclear attack) and indirectly support of suburbanization. 2) Use of “systems analysis” for service delivery. 3) Geo-coded mapping data 4) Cable television (triumph of privatization and potential for reaching trouble making poor of the ghetto through cultural warfare. -Originally, intellectuals were lured out of fields like social sciences, physics, and more to have the “best and brightest” who could solve any problem, in a top down approach. -The failures of Urban Renewal opened up military contractors to enter into urban planning. -Unlike military contractors, NASA had more direct impact on local cities planning. -Defense planners believed that transfer of technologies would solve crumbling cities, and partly, they had to justify much of the immense spending on defense, as the US government somewhat rarely directly invests in development of civilian technology beyond basic research.

  2. 4 out of 5

    CL Chu

    Very relevant to my own studies (the application of computer model in urban planning by Canadian ecologists). It seems like the unchecked techno-optimism of cold war academics certainly spread across disciplinary as well as national boundaries.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    Although many people have pointed out the connections between military and domestic programs in the Cold War, Light has done an impressive amount of research tracing the actual relationships that influenced late 20th century urban policy. Light focuses on four main areas of military influence on urban government: the movement for the "defensive dispersal" of industry, the use of "systems analysis" for service delivery, the use of geo-coded mapping data, and, surprisingly, cable television. At th Although many people have pointed out the connections between military and domestic programs in the Cold War, Light has done an impressive amount of research tracing the actual relationships that influenced late 20th century urban policy. Light focuses on four main areas of military influence on urban government: the movement for the "defensive dispersal" of industry, the use of "systems analysis" for service delivery, the use of geo-coded mapping data, and, surprisingly, cable television. At the end of the book I was truly shocked at the intense level of involvement of military intellectuals in each of these areas. The developer of the ICBM, Bernard Shriever, started an urban consulting firm, USA, Inc.; the writers from RAND and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists published articles in the JAIP and vice versa, Los Angeles established a "Community Analysis Bureau" staffed with former defense analysts and DoD workers after the Watts riots. The problem is that most of these military relationships had little concrete effect, and Light fully admits as much. In fact her main thesis seems to be that these military programs "rarely served as sources of solutions" to urban problems, and that little of their advice was implemented. That's an important conclusion, but it means most of the book is dealing with abstract intellectual history issues that had little effect on the ground. Shriever's USA, Inc. folded in just a few years without a single contract, the tax breaks for dispersal of industry passed in 1952 never succeeded in dispersing industry, and military satellite technology was too clumsy to use for much urban mapping until the 1990s. Ultimately, the defense contractors hired by local governments treated those governments like they treated the feds, overspending and under-documenting, not understanding that cities did not have the resources to long sustain the expense. By the end of the 1970s these defense contractors had by and large folded their urban divisions and cities had closed their "systems analysis" bureaus. It was interesting, however, to see the crucial urban planning role played by those weird, acronymed, semi-public corporations (RAND, MITRE, SDC, etc.) that I had read so much about in "Internet Alley: High Technology at Tysons Corner." Apparently while these firms were busy developing Northern Virgina they were also creating a national urban policy. Unfortunately their policy had little measurable effect on the cities, though after Light's book any writer on the intellectual history of that policy will have to consider their crucial influence.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jillian

  5. 5 out of 5

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