A Long and Winding Road: The Non-Traditional Path to a Non-Traditional Career

Christopher A. Preble (Ph.D., Temple, 2002)
Director of Foreign Policy Studies
The Cato Institute
Washington, DC

Temple was a perfect fit for me, although I could have no way of knowing this when I was accepted into the program in March 1994. I wasn’t what I would consider to be a “typical” graduate student. I had been out of school for five years. I had served in the U.S. Navy. I had held down several other jobs unrelated to an academic career. I was interested in studying military and diplomatic history, but I quickly learned as I went through the process of applying to graduate school that those subjects were not always held in high esteem. But then I discovered Temple, where military and diplomatic history was not merely valued, but celebrated.

When I arrived, I was soon surrounded by a lot of other people who didn’t fit the grad student mold, including more than a few persons who had also served in the military. Over the next four years — as I attended graduate seminars, worked as a teaching assistant for four different professors, attended conferences with my fellow students, and generally enjoyed the camaraderie and good company of the people at Temple — I felt at home and welcomed within the Temple community. Institutions such as CENFAD, which was created on or about the time when I started my graduate career, further cemented this welcoming environment.

In terms of my research agenda, I came to Temple determined to write something about national security strategy during the Cold War period, but not entirely sure where that would go. I soon became interested in the ways in which political, cultural, and economic themes should be incorporated within the study of history, and I found an interesting nexus for these themes in the story of the missile gap from the late 1950s. A political junkie, long fascinated with the careers of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, I gravitated to this story, patiently guided by Richard Immerman.

Indeed, Dr. Immerman’s guidance was more than merely patient, it was instrumental. In the late 1980s, Richard had come to know the eminent political scientist Fred Greenstein at Princeton University. Greenstein himself had been interested in the subject of the missile gap, and he had begun the process of collecting materials on the subject several years earlier. A single cardboard box containing those materials was later handed off to Richard, and then still later to me. These papers became the starting point for my dissertation, and later my book, John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap.

In my dissertation and book, I consider how and why Kennedy capitalized on doubts about the United States’ strategic standing relative to the Soviet Union that were manifest in the presumed gap. My research shows that Kennedy’s belief in the missile gap, and his skill at communicating his concerns to his fellow citizens, enabled him to advance his political career. Kennedy’s missile gap rhetoric stirred the American public to action. Within months of taking office, Kennedy received authorization from Congress for two supplemental defense appropriations that collectively increased the military budget by over fifteen percent. The public fear of the strategic implications of the missile gap served as partial justification for this build-up, and the build up enabled Kennedy to displace Eisenhower’s New Look with a new military strategy known as Flexible Response.

I often discussed my work with my faculty advisers, but also with my fellow graduate students. I tested my theories at academic conferences, including several Barnes Club meetings mentioned by my friend John McNay in an earlier article in Strategic Visions. Encouraged by positive feedback, I became more and more intrigued, and I threw myself into the subject.

I have never regretted that decision. The mistaken belief in the missile gap had a profound impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. The Soviets’ deception convinced many Americans, including John Kennedy, that the United States was at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. This mistaken belief contributed to Americans’ doubts about their capacity for world leadership, and, in turn, weakened the resolve of U.S. allies.

This was a story of intelligence failure, of deceptions, and of the costs and risks of threat exaggeration – a persistent problem in recent U.S. history. The weapons ostensibly intended to close the missile gap were unnecessary. Eisenhower warned of burdensome military spending, and he worried about a federal government that devoured an increasing share of the nation’s economic output. The nation listened, for a time, but Kennedy’s election represented a repudiation of Eisenhower’s policies. The missile gap had shaken the confidence of millions of Americans. Kennedy’s ascendancy to the White House in January 1961 signaled a new willingness on the part of Americans to bear a greater burden to defeat the nation’s adversaries. This willingness to “bear any burden” was translated into an accommodation with higher military spending. As such, the missile gap marks an important step along the road leading to a permanent war economy that lasted until the very final days of the Cold War.

The fine faculty and staff at Temple facilitated my work every step of the way. In addition to my regular contact with Richard Immerman, who carefully scrutinized every chapter as it was completed, I was also privileged to work with James Hilty and David Alan Rosenberg. It was a special honor for me when Russell Weigley graciously agreed to serve on my dissertation committee, even though by that time he had already essentially retired.

I was not like my fellow graduate students in still other ways, in that I was always interested in understanding economics. While at Temple, and again encouraged by Professors Immerman, Hilty, and others, I honed my quantitative analytical skills in order to study the economic effects of military spending. I may not have been the first history Ph.D. at Temple to study economics, but I was certainly a rare bird. And it wasn’t always an easy thing to do, given that the economics department is located in a different school (The Fox School of Business and Management, as opposed to the familiar College of Liberal Arts). I was fortunate to connect with Dr. Susan Wolcott, who most generously gave of her time to teach what must at times have seemed to be very elementary concepts.
I really enjoyed my work as a teaching assistant. I TA’d for Howard Ohline on three separate occasions, an experience that was both useful and rewarding. I was also privileged to have worked with Jay Lockenour in teaching War and Society. I believe that this was during Jay’s first semester at Temple, and he had never taught the course before. It didn’t show. When I had an opportunity to teach the course myself during a summer session in 1997, I closely followed Jay’s outline. I have since expanded the syllabus into a course that encourages students to explore the social, economic, and political effects of warfare and military mobilization throughout history.

To the extent that my TA responsibilities and grad student course work did not keep me busy enough, I also held down several part-time jobs, including a two-year stint at a Barnes and Noble bookstore, and a summer working in the Urban Archives at Paley Library. Immediately after completing my comprehensive exams in March 1997, I took the first of two different full-time jobs with Internet companies. Over the next four and half years, I worked in this dynamic industry while I completed my dissertation, and the experience deepened my understanding of how this technology can be applied to the study and teaching of history.

In February 2002, I accepted my current position at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, after having taught history briefly at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. It was yet another indication of how my career has not tracked with those of other graduate students in my cohort. But I have long stopped worrying about such things. In so many ways the move to Cato was like a homecoming. I had attended George Washington University as an undergraduate from 1985 to 1989; for over six months during my junior year, I worked as an intern for Cato. I was comfortable and familiar with life in the District. My wife Krista supported the move, just as she had supported me in all that I had done at Temple, and since. This time, however, it wasn’t just the two of us. We now had our one-year old son Alex in tow, and a second child on the way (Katelyn was born in June 2003). They have all adjusted to life in Northern Virginia. The kids especially like the zoo.

Cato is a libertarian think tank, committed to broadening “the parameters of public policy debate to allow consideration of the traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace.” I like to say that it is the “peace” part where I come in, although I am not a pacifist. Libertarian attitudes toward war derive from an inherent skepticism about the utility and efficiency of state action, combined with fears that state power, mobilized for foreign policy aims, can just as easily be directed to stifling liberty at home.

“Of all enemies of public liberty,” James Madison wrote in 1795, “war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.” “No nation,” Madison continued, “could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” The historical evidence bears this out. The expansion of state power has occurred in almost every crisis, and at the expense of individual liberty. In short, war is a kind of petri dish for the germ of expanding state power. Libertarians take this into account when considering whether or not to support a particular military intervention. “War cannot be avoided at all costs, but it should be avoided wherever possible,” writes Cato’s David Boaz in his essential work Libertarianism: A Primer. “Proposals to involve the United States—or any government—in foreign conflict should be treated with great skepticism.” When our physical security is threatened, or when deterrence is likely to fail, libertarians may reluctantly choose to initiate a war even before an attack. But we do so with a very clear sense of the high costs of such operations, and with a sober sense of the likelihood or success or failure.

My colleague and mentor here, Ted Galen Carpenter, also holds a Ph.D. in diplomatic history. He explains that work at a think tank is like work at a university in the way that checkers is like chess (i.e., they’re not much alike). I prefer to think of my work at the Institute as like that of a professor without the students. There are no blue books, no exams to grade. I do my own independent research, write a lot (a total of more than 50 articles, op eds and book reviews in less than three years), and occasionally appear on television or radio. I also organize and host events at Cato; speak at conferences and seminars; and supervise the work of several research fellows and adjunct scholars.

I do miss the regular interaction with students (even the blue books!). I enjoy teaching, and I try to get my fix from time to time by lecturing on college campuses, or to student groups who come to Cato. These activities are an essential deviation from the normal routine. You learn by asking the right questions, but sometimes the questions that we ask of each other in the policy community don’t vary all that much. The questions from journalists and television or radio interviewers likewise tend to stick to a familiar pattern. Sometimes it takes a fresh perspective, presented in the form of an atypical query, to force me to reframe my arguments. Sometimes I even change my mind.

My research interests today are wide-ranging, but all trace to a common concern for understanding the formulation and implementation of national security policy within the context of domestic politics. I am particularly interested in understanding how popular support for policies is shaped by perceptions of the costs and benefits of these policies. It would be very difficult to pursue this line of research had the faculty and staff at Temple discouraged me from branching outside of the department, both literally and figuratively.

Beyond this, it is hard to say exactly how my experience at Temple prepared me for my current job at Cato. When we were not in class, and even sometimes when we were, I think I spent almost as much time discussing and debating contemporary issues as I did history with my fellow grad students.
A few items stand out in my mind. In the mid-1990s, one of the hot topics was the ethnic strife raging in the Balkans. I doubted that the United States could do much to resolve the conflict, and I worried that we might inadvertently make things worse. As is often the case, I hoped that I was wrong. The situation in the Balkans remains murky today, nearly ten years later, but it is still in the news. Just this week I saw a New York Times story about Paddy Ashdown, the former British parliamentarian who has served for three and a half years as the High Representative (a position created under the 1995 Dayton Accords), and also as the European Union’s special representative, in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH, in diplo-speak). Meanwhile, Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University and the Council on Foreign Relations has an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs (November/December 2005) advocating independence for neighboring Kosovo. The goal of creating stable, sovereign, multi-ethnic states out of the remnants of what was once Yugoslavia has yet to be realized.

Around the same time that many of us were debating U.S. policy toward southeastern Europe, CENFAD brought then-National Security Advisor Tony Lake to Temple to discuss all of Europe, NATO more specifically. Lake addressed a packed auditorium, preaching the benefits of NATO expansion for countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic. Again, I was the skeptic, even as most of my fellow graduate students supported the initiative. Since then, NATO has continued its push east. Today, still more countries, this time former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia, are clamoring for membership. I sometimes worry that the process is moving forward with too little thought of the potential costs and risks.

I believe that my caution or cynicism (pick one) stems from my sense of history, of unintended consequences, costs both seen and unseen. This is not to argue that those who disagree with me don’t have a sense of history; obviously many do. It is true, however, that knowledge of history is a precious commodity, and one that CENFAD does well to cultivate.

The policy community desperately needs a better sense of history. There are several ways that this can happen. Historians can actively seek out jobs in the policy community, and by this I mean both the governmental and non-governmental sectors, or historians can make a conscious effort to reach beyond academia, even if they prefer to focus most of their efforts on understanding the past. For my part, I try to sprinkle historical references in almost everything that I write. Within the past year, for example, I have noted the parallels between the inaugural addresses of JFK and GWB. In the pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer, I opined on the different attitudes toward war in the United States and Europe, attitudes that were shaped by different lessons from history.

In conclusion, John Lennon once said that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. That is so true. There were many distractions during the course of my graduate career at Temple, and many more since then. Even my military service was an off-ramp from my charted career path in academia. I now see the value of these distractions. The faculty and students at Temple have a valuable resource in CENFAD that stimulates creative thinking about contemporary issues, and that provides constructive avenues for scholars wishing to move -- either literally or figuratively --beyond the academy.

Perhaps once upon a time, when the academic community treasured theoretical dogma more than it valued policy relevance, intellectual pursuits outside of the classroom or the library would have been discouraged. I am happy to see, and to say, that that is no longer the case.