To the Brink of Eternity
Adam Curtis sheds an interesting light on the post-WWII period, overshadowed by both science and fear. With the Cold War raging, the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching its first satellite. In reaction to that event, American scientists formulated the so called Game Theory; an applied mathematical model which attempts to predict the behavior and capabilities of rational actors in uncertain situations. This theory had a significant impact on the progression of the Cold War, but a rational and controlable world turned out to be an illusion.
The arms race was a critical element of the Cold War, a forty year long conflict marked by displays of military might, ideological opposition and sky-high defense budgets. Young American scientists at the RAND Corporation theorized that the Game Theory would allow the United States to gain the upper hand. Their scientific approach became increasingly influential in the 1960s. President Johnson's social reforms, as well as the progression of the Vietnam War, were impacted by rational-scientific thought.
Scientific thought had considerable influence on American politics during the Cold War. Though the Cuban Missile Crisis was evidence that fear could triumph over rational thinking, John F. Kennedy remained convinced that scientific thought was the key to solving the problems of the modern industrial world. According to producer Adam Curtis, Game Theory was increasingly used to increase the power and influence of some politicians.
About the producer
The British producer, director and documentary maker Adam Curtis has a formidable reputation. According to The Observer, much of Curtis' work is directed at political elites and the negative consequences of the ideology they tried to turn into policy. He has won numerous prizes for his film and television work, including the BAFTA Award for Best Factual Series for Pandora's Box, the series that includes To the Brink of Eternity.
- Fear of Soviet Union
- When the Soviet Union launches its first satellite in 1957 the United States are shocked and confronted with a challenge. For the Americans now begin to realize that the Russians aren't that backward after all and that they are capable to launch missiles. American scientists and politicians consider the possibilities to defend the country against this new weapon.
- Scientists working at the RAND corporation believed they had the answer to the Sovjet threat. The scientific method would help bring the cold war back under US control. RAND (Research And Development) was the first scientific think tank and was funded by the American Air Force.
- Game theory
- The Cold War was a new system of conflict. RAND-scientists therefore created a new model to predict the behavior of the Soviet Union; the theory of games. This game theory is an applied mathematical model which attempts to predict the behavior and capabilities of rational actors in uncertain situations.
- The balance of terror
- In this interview the most influential scientist at RAND, Albert Wohlstetter, elaborates on the ‘delicate balance of terror’. He argued that the Sovjets had to be convinced that if they would attack, the United States would always have enough missiles left to destroy them in return. According to Wohlstetter this strategy would make the Cold War safer.
- Increasing influence of RAND
- Early 1960’s the influence of the RAND scientists increased ‘dramatically’. President Kennedy, for example, turned to them and became convinced that the scientific method would be the key for ‘solving the problems of modern industrialized societies’.
- Cuban Missile Crisis
- The Cuban Missile Crisis at the end of 1962 seemed to be the perfect test case for the RAND theories. Kennedy had to decide whether to attack Cuba. The main question was: would the other side behave in a rational manner? This scene also contains audio footage of a conversation between Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
- President Johnson and the scientific approach
- In 1964 president Johnson promised a new approach in order to solve problems such as poverty. Like Kennedy he turned to the scientific approach to create a better world. This footage illustrates the major influence of the scientific world during the years of the Cold War.
- Rational theory and the Vietnam War
- RAND game theory inspired the bombing campaign for north Vietnam. The RAND scientists believed that the battle against the Vietcong could be handled in a scientific way. The communists however, did not behave rationally. This miscalculation had devastating consequences.
- The scientific failure
- US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara resigned in failure in 1968. In his final speech he commented on the rational scientific approach, which, in the words of Adam Curtis, ‘had been corrupted to serve the politician’s power’.
- MAD and Star Wars
- One of the things the scientific world had left behind was MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. A system which began rational, but according to Adam Curtis, turned into a dangerous trap. President Reagan believed that the Soviet Union would attack the United States. Because this attack would mean the end of the world, the president supported ’Star Wars’: a defense missile system in space.
- Collapse of the Sovjet Union and the scientific approach
- At the end of the 1980’s the Soviet Union was close to collapse. Adam Curtis rightfully questions the way in which science brought down this empire. Since at the time the Soviet Union collapsed, the simple and rational world of the RAND theorists was replaced by complexity and chaos. As Curtis says: "Far beyond the reach of abstract theories."