For a brief moment in the early 1960s the world stood dangerously close to the brink of peace. But as President Kennedy negotiated limits on nuclear weapons testing in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, contractors like the Rand Corporation started to get nervous. Military planning was their bread and butter, and the cold war thaw was bad for business. Eyes on the bottom line, they decided to find new customers for their services just as city planners, having botched urban renewal, were looking for help. “The partnership seemed made in heaven,” writes Northwestern University historian and sociologist Jennifer Light, “a more scientifically sound approach to planning and management for cities and more contracts for the defense and aerospace community.” Instead it turned out to be a marriage of convenience in which the cities got screwed.

Light uses more scholarly language to tell the story of this largely forgotten partnership in her recent book, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America. A critical look at the period from 1945 to ’75 when American cities paid millions of dollars for what now seem like strained metaphors and empty promises, it’s an almost absurd take on a time when almost everyone believed that cybernetics, or computer simulations, or satellite reconnaissance, or “space age management,” could fix city problems.

The union of military strategists and urban planners didn’t do much to improve urban life, but it didn’t make it worse either, except perhaps by diverting tax revenues from better uses. It did, however, accomplish three things. As Light documents, it kept Rand and its fellow consultancies in business. It made wheel-spinning city planners appear to be making progress. And it perpetuated the notion that the technology of war could help build better cities. “City planners in Los Angeles, like those in New York City and Pittsburgh, gained more status from the planning process than from applications of their analytic tools in the field,” Light writes. “In LA, report after report continued to emphasize future promise, and despite few visible positive results…the technology-transfer momentum endured.”

Light first came across this world-class non sequitur in 1997 as a summer associate at Rand itself, while she was working on her doctorate in the history of science. Her bosses encouraged her to publish, but she hung back. She couldn’t believe that so much time and money had been spent to achieve so little. “Perhaps I was missing something, I thought; surely, so many resources would not be devoted time and again to trying to improve on a category of innovations whose benefits repeatedly remained unproven?”

At the end of World War II, having flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans might well have concluded that their own cities needed the exact opposite of war technology. Instead they embraced it. In the late 1940s guilt-ridden scientists wanted their research to produce something less destructive than the atomic bomb. In the late 50s city planners wanted a more sophisticated approach to revitalization than urban renewal, with its naive assumption that changes in the physical landscape would produce desirable social change. Finally, in the 60s, cash-starved urbanists gave up railing against bloated military budgets and sought instead to adapt the tools those budgets had bought.

Now, if you were writing a history of the interstate highway system, at least you’d have something to point to. The expressways that sliced through “urban blight” in the 50s are still standing and the aftershocks of their effect on impoverished neighborhoods are still being felt. But the urban-military collaboration whose history Light resurrects has left few monuments. That’s her point: not that it created disasters but that it created expensive nothing. In large part Warfare is a history of networking–how defense thinkers and urban planners got together and stuck together over a generation.

The network began to take shape right after World War II in a way that now seems doubly ironic–as America’s best and brightest prepared to defend the country by decentralizing urban functions. In 1945 University of Chicago sociologist Louis Wirth asked the American Municipal Association, “Does the atomic bomb doom the modern city?” He didn’t think so, but a lot of his colleagues did. Military leaders like Lieutenant General Leslie Groves of the Manhattan Project and city planning luminaries like Burnham Kelly of MIT wanted people to spread out so that a single bomb couldn’t kill them all. Along the way suburbanization was expected to solve hitherto intractable urban problems like slums and traffic congestion.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published two issues on “dispersal planning” in 1951. Papers on the subject appeared in both the Bulletin and the Journal of the American Institute of Planners, and many cities, including Chicago, established civil defense offices to study it. MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener wrote about it in Life–roughly the equivalent of appearing on a network morning show today. In 1954, when vested interests appeared to have stalled the process, Senator Hubert Humphrey even called for a federal “urban decentralization authority.”

Light documents all this and more. Of course cities did spread out and continue to do so, much to the horror of the current generation of planners and politicians. But none of these conversations, meetings, or articles had much to do with it: as information about the lethality of newer atomic weapons leaked out, it became clear that suburbanites wouldn’t survive a nuclear war–they would just die slowly from radiation sickness or starvation.

“For average urban dwellers, the dispersal movement’s effects were negligible,” writes Light. “For the ‘power elite,’ by contrast, this engagement produced a marriage with lasting effects.” Dispersal planning was the party at which atomic scientists, military strategists, professional planners, businesspeople, and federal and local officials got to know one another, producing relationships that would shape planning initiatives for years to come.

So when defense spending dropped in the early 1960s, the network was already in place. The defense think tanks had used computer simulations and systems analysis to upgrade military strategy. Now they’d use them to model urban processes. By the end of the decade, writes Light, enthusiasm was such that “professional conferences and internal city documents featured discussions about ‘programming’ the city as if it were a computer.” This was not a joke.

In 1962 the city of Pittsburgh pioneered some of these techniques under planning director Calvin Hamilton, himself a part of the network–as a Harvard graduate student he’d helped research the consequences of an atomic attack on New York City. Pittsburgh contracted with CONSAD Research Corporation, a think tank staffed by former employees of Rand, Lockheed, Hughes, and Douglas Aircraft.

The idea that planners should envision the city as a set of ever-changing interacting systems, rather than as a collection of static facts, seemed reasonable then and still does. Under Hamilton, says Light, Pittsburgh’s planners “hoped to use a multiplicity of models to simulate and forecast the potential outcomes of spending decisions for public services in different neighborhoods….By using computers, planners could constantly update the information they needed for decision making and iteratively revisit their predictions,” just as a wise commander in chief might do in the course of a military campaign.

But a city is not the same as a war, and as Light perused the stream of reports that flowed out of Pittsburgh in the next few years, she discovered a paradox. The very models touted as a way of breaking through outdated and narrow ways of thinking about the city were having the opposite effect. Planners found that they had to narrow their own understanding in order to fit the limitations of the hardware and software. Most notably, a city–even a city government, even a city planning department–normally has many goals. But the computer system required planners to select a single goal (usually it turned out to be “minimizing blight”) and then to define all others as subgoals of that one. Just as the city’s problems had once been defined to fit the ledger book and the typewriter, now they were being defined to fit the IBM 1401.

Light doesn’t spend much time systematically cataloging every level of error involved in these collaborations, but this may be the deepest one. The military has just one goal to which all others are subordinated, but neither cities nor ordinary human beings work this way. Perhaps an army can be programmed like a computer, but if so that’s only because it’s a specialized tool designed for a specialized purpose.

Less profound disparities between military and civilian life led to other errors that would have stymied the Pittsburgh program all by themselves. Although it didn’t become public knowledge for another decade, necessary data was never collected. As Douglass Lee, who worked on the project, revealed in a landmark 1973 article, the much-vaunted dynamic model couldn’t be used, for lack of information to plug in.

In addition, even if the military’s tools had been intellectually appropriate, cities never had enough money to use them properly. The same was true at the federal level. In 1969 Harold Finger, formerly of NASA, became first assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development under HUD secretary George Romney and President Nixon. Finger’s job was to facilitate the production of affordable housing in what was called Operation Breakthrough. Unfortunately, notes Light, his R and D budget at NASA was $4.5 billion; at HUD, it was $11 million, and that comparative pittance was the largest budget HUD had ever had. Operation Breakthrough broke down in the mid-70s.

In war you can’t hide defeat; in defense contracting the line between winning and losing can be moved or ignored. If anyone suffered from the fiasco of dispersal planning, for instance, Light doesn’t mention it. Calvin Hamilton, fired from Pittsburgh in 1964, landed in Los Angeles where he continued to apply defense contractors’ ideas to city issues. One of his projects was the LA Goals Program, which included the notion that since cities are “communication systems,” urban problems must be communication problems. Hence the city government proposed to wire poor neighborhoods for cable, in order to provide a “municipal information system” enabling the ghetto and city hall to communicate via their TV sets. This was not a joke either.

In 1970 the Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau published a document entitled “Design Requirements for the Data and Systems Support Essential to an Urban Blight Systems Analysis,” the centerpiece of which was a pair of flowcharts that are the intellectual equivalent of a Farrah Fawcett hairdo. They show just how completely a generation of city planners was sold on the notion that military experts could fix cities.

One flowchart displayed seven steps in the production of weaponry, the other, city planning. In step one, “threat assessment,” military planners obtain “intelligence based estimates of enemy threat in specific region and time,” while city planners make a “determination of threat of urban blight to the community.” By step four the military planners are developing “candidate concepts” to fill gaps in their existing arsenal, while their urban counterparts strive to fill gaps in “existing action programs.” In the seventh and final step the military deploys its new weapons, while the city planners submit their “action program plans.” Evidently if you could do one, you could do the other.

One of the most disturbing aspects of Light’s story is the participants’ failure to ask the obvious questions. “The fit was coming undone as soon as the techniques and technologies were first applied,” she writes of yet another fad, Robert McNamara’s Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS). “There was overwhelming evidence–from a lack of positive outcomes in individual cities to negative evaluations of PPBS in federal agencies and state governments–that technology transfer from military decision making to civilian arenas had not been a success.” But for years criticism was muffled at best. From this distance the kindest interpretation seems to be that planners and public officials were in thrall to fashion, no more able to think straight about their jobs than they could avoid wearing bell-bottoms to them.

Not everything failed: military technology did improve the dispatch of police and firefighters. But most planning has a social dimension, as proponents of urban renewal learned to their dismay, and in that dimension nothing much happened except the waste of public money. Could that money have been better spent? Would a bigger budget have helped cities devise their own tools instead of borrowing? Light has her doubts, and not just because cities are more complex than weapons systems. The real problem may be unwarranted optimism–a blind faith in the power of technology to solve problems regardless of their social, political, or economic context.

The military approach to urban planning never died, it just morphed from cybernetics to “space age management” to urban communication without ever quite fading away. “Aerospace firms including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have continued to maintain divisions for bringing innovations in information management to municipal clients,” Light writes. “Government and academic leaders have continued to conceptualize inequality as a problem of communication”–thus the “digital divide.”

Light’s history may be a relic of the past, but the network lives on. We now have a new set of permanent enemies. A richly funded military establishment is taking them on, and hippie chic is back. The historical stage is set for a second act with its own peculiar set of plot twists. “It’s eerie,” she told the audience at a talk she gave last fall. “Defense firms have set up homeland security units and are going after city governments.” The second act may be a farce, but it’s still not a joke.

From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America, by Jennifer S. Light, Johns Hopkins University Press, $42.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Lloyd Miller.