How the Creation of Sovietology Should Guide the Study of Today’s Threats

Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants march during a military drill in the southern Gaza Strip, December 11, 2014. Suhaib Salem / Reuters

In 1945, the United States faced a dire threat. The rising power of the Soviet Union and the spread of communism in Eastern Europe -- and, soon enough, worldwide -- represented a new enemy that imperiled postwar hopes for a peaceful and prosperous world. The United States was poorly equipped to comprehend, let alone respond to, this emerging global danger. The federal government had few experts who spoke Russian or had a deep knowledge of Russian history and culture; universities were barely better off. The field of Soviet studies emerged as a response and became the catalyst for a network of area studies programs that would soon follow.

Today, the United States faces a similar challenge in understanding the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Much like the Soviet Union, militant Islam represents not just an army but an idea -- and one that fights in novel and highly unorthodox ways.

Despite the existence of a successful historical model, the U.S. government does not seem to have absorbed the useful lessons from the creation of Soviet studies programs in its efforts to study this new threat. Sovietology was -- especially in its first decade -- a vibrant intellectual enterprise that contributed to scholarly disciplines, public debate, and top-secret government discussions. A look at this field's success is essential to shaping how the U.S. government defines and studies the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.  

The most important step is to build infrastructure. Money is critical, of course, but so are institutions and information sources. In its early years, the Joint Committee on Slavic Studies, comprised of scholars who represented the field to foundations and government agencies, acted as the discipline's Politburo. It quickly established a peer-reviewed academic journal, now called Slavic Review, which remains a leading outlet for new research.

But the committee's most important and time-consuming task was hunting for sources about the Soviet Union, a country that was off-limits to U.S. scholars for almost a decade after World War II.

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