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. In 1954, as members of the Soviet Politburo battled to succeed Stalin, the committee fought with the U.S. Postal Service to keep copies of Pravda from being confiscated by overeager mail inspectors. Throughout the 1950s, the committee -- with the help of the CIA -- sponsored The Current Digest of the Soviet Press, which translated and compiled Soviet newspaper and magazine articles. The closed nature of Soviet society made such basic sources indispensable for both research and teaching. Today, although communication and access have greatly improved, the Current Digest model of sifting through and translating a large and often obtuse body of material would be a great benefit to those who study Islamic fundamentalism.

Original sources were important because the founders of Slavic studies were not content to just find a handful of established policy advisers, but rather hoped to create a new field of scholarship essentially from scratch. In other words, Slavic studies would not just serve the immediate interests of government but would gain respect from its academic peers by making serious scholarly contributions. As a result, the field won acceptance within the academy, trained experts for government service, and educated hundreds of scholars, some of whom shared their expertise with the government. (In fact, U.S. government agencies -- most especially the CIA -- called on these new university experts so often that Harvard professors once complained that they had no time to write their own books.)

So far, however, U.S. efforts to study global threats have been focused on answering the narrow and immediate needs of current defense planners. In December 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates unveiled the Pentagon's Minerva Initiative to provide research grants to a select group of established scholars -- most of whom had already worked with government agencies. The Pentagon specified five narrow areas of "strategic importance," which encompassed such topics as the Chinese military and the archives of the Iraqi Baath Party.

At first, it was proposed that the Pentagon, not a peer-reviewed panel, would decide on the grants. But in the face of widespread academic criticism, the Pentagon agreed to outsource the selection process to a panel at the National Science Foundation, though it has reserved the right to appoint some of the panel's reviewers. The Defense Department seems to be micromanaging academic study, in sharp contrast to its high-flying rhetoric about "building bridges with social scientists" -- and to the lessons of Cold War Sovietology.

It is also important to study cultures, not just threats. Soviet studies did not worry only about Soviet politics and economics; it aimed to understand Russian culture and history. Students learned about Mikhail Lermontov alongside Vladimir Lenin, Mikhail Bulgakov alongside Leonid Brezhnev. The State Department, meanwhile, funded a large exchange program catering to those studying the humanities, not economics or military strategy. The result was a generation of experts and students immersed in Russian culture as it existed before, as well as during, the Soviet era. In other words, scholars saw the pressing Soviet threat of the 1950s and 1960s as part of a history that stretched all the way back to Kievan Rus.

Culture, however, seems to play little role in current efforts. The first round of Minerva projects paid scant attention to culture, and the National Security Languages Initiative, a federal program that funds instruction from kindergarten through college, focuses on language expertise as a seeming substitute for cultural knowledge.

The most direct effort to involve cultural studies in combating today's threats has come from the U.S. Army's Human Terrain System, which embeds anthropologists with military units overseas. In early December, the American Anthropological Association blasted the program, however, saying that it posed ethical problems as well dangers to personal safety (three scholars have already been killed in action). Teaching soldiers about culture, which was a centerpiece of twentieth-century area studies, is one thing; serving as intermediaries on the front lines is quite another.

Another lesson of Cold War area studies is the importance of broadening the horizons of research. The founders of Sovietology in the United States understood that the next crisis could come from anywhere -- not just from the Russian-speaking Soviet Union. As a result, universities trained experts in every part of the world. Asian and African studies, for example, emerged in the early 1950s, when these continents were still largely carved up by European empires. And the National Defense Education Act, passed in 1958 in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, supported area studies far beyond the boundaries of the Soviet Union. In five years alone, federal grants, along with foundation money, helped spur a doubling of enrollment in all foreign languages, not just Russian. Federal support of area studies has survived periodic threats of elimination, leaving the level of funding for such programs far lower than when they were created 50 years ago.

This leaves an important lesson for today. Instead of lurching from one perceived threat to the next, U.S. policymakers should make a deep investment in knowing the whole world. It is not only necessary to understand the mechanics and tactics of terrorists but also the cultures, religions, and political systems that house - and, in some cases, spawn -- such threats. Such breadth is all the more important in studying the Muslim world, which stretches across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

The great irony of recent government programs is that two of the highest-ranking advocates for new approaches to so-called enemy studies, Gates and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are themselves products of Sovietology. But they were trained in the 1970s, long after the dissolution of the network of soldiers, spies, and scholars who created the field. By then, the Joint Committee had disappeared, and federal and foundation monies had generally stopped flowing into area studies programs. Both Gates and Rice worked in a corner of the field that focused primarily on policy, valuing relevance over scholarship and politics over culture.  

They also missed some of the tensions created by government sponsorship of area studies. In 1953, for example, Senator John McClellan (D-Ark.) criticized the Pentagon, saying that if it couldn't fight communism "without hiring a bunch of college professors," then "this defense establishment is in one darn bad shape." He cited one Harvard project in particular, asserting that it produced nothing more than "a lot of professor theories." Although McClellan did not necessarily represent the political mainstream, he seized on a consistent theme of skepticism about government-sponsored academic work. Most recently, this tendency appeared in a proposal by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to end federal funding for political science. But aside from Coburn's recent statements, most criticism of such government-supported research comes from academics themselves -- as seen in the outcry against the Human Terrain System. This attitude dates back to the 1960s, when many professors and scholars attacked U.S. policies in Vietnam and wanted to distance their work from the war and, more broadly, the government.

Gates should be applauded for recognizing that, in fact, "a bunch of college professors" can help understand the world and the United States' place in it. Moreover, the insights they produce are not only "a lot of professor theories" but can also inform and shape U.S. policy. But one should hope that new approaches follow the lessons of early Sovietology. Only then can the United States hope to understand the threats of today -- and tomorrow.

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  • DAVID C. ENGERMAN is Associate Professor of History at Brandeis University and the author of Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts.
  • More By David C. Engerman