The New Know-Nothings: National Security and Investment in the American Intellect

April 7, 2017

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President John F. Kennedy steered the United States through the most dangerous moments of the Cold War during the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises. Afterwards, he made a special appeal to Congress, arguing, “For the nation, increasing the quality and availability of education is vital to both our national security and our domestic well being.” Kennedy insisted that the cultivation of the American intellect through federal funding for education must be a security priority in an increasingly dangerous world. Kennedy’s wisdom appears to be lost on President Donald Trump. The new president offers policy proposals that suggest he fails to see how education and intellectual capital contribute to the safety of the United States.

Trump has unapologetically proposed an immigration ban targeted at Muslim countries and a $54 billion increase in defense spending that purportedly “advances the safety and security of the American people.” However, these policies come at the cost of cutting funds to federal agencies — such as the State Department (28.7 percent) and the Department of Education (13.5 percent) — that support critical education and research programs. As such, these proposed policies will jeopardize U.S. security by neglecting the educational and intellectual growth necessary to sustain American power. Historically, the federal government nurtured the American intellect through investment in education at all levels, funding cultural and humanities programs and embracing foreign intellectual talent. These initiatives have reinforced American security by contributing to diplomacy and strategic thinking, the development of military technologies and tactics, and the pace of economic innovation. Given this context, cutting important education funds and limiting immigration undermines the intellectual development imperative to U.S. power and influence.

The rise of U.S. power corresponds to the growth of its educational institutions. In the early years of the Civil War, Southern officers proved strategic superiors to most of their Union counterparts. Recognizing these deficiencies, Rep. Justin Smith Morrill advocated for the 1862 Land-Grant College Act in Congress by embedding military training into the curriculums of institutions of higher education funded by the federal government, creating a network of nurseries for educating military officers across the United States. In turn, Land-Grant colleges promoted regional diversity in the military and bridged social divides by connecting far-flung territories with urban centers through a web of academic contacts.

The American university boom in the early 20th century was a direct result of the Land-Grant College Act. This boom created an institutional gravitational pull that drew in some of the brightest minds fleeing violence and fascism in Europe. Thanks to the initiatives of American universities, an infusion of intellectual capital transformed the United States into the global scientific power that it is today. Émigré scientists built up the scientific infrastructure in the U.S. that was critical in developing superior technologies during World War II and the Cold War. In constructing the first atomic bomb, Enrico Fermi’s lab at the University of Chicago produced the necessary nuclear chain reaction. Émigré scientists like Hans Bethe, John Von Neumann, Joseph Rotblat, Eugene Wigner, and Stanislaw Ulam drew up bomb designs at the Los Alamos Laboratory under the stewardship of the University of California system.

Wartime research also led to a broader partnership between the U.S. government and universities. The Radiation Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology spearheaded research in the military applications of radar, which later proved vital in wartime. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) opened in 1942 and supplied the military with proximity fuses that saved American soldiers, and later developed guided missile technologies that gave the United States a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Eventually, the proliferation of university-government partnerships created a competitive research environment that continues to provide the United States with a lead over its rivals in strategic technologies.

During the 20th century, the United States sustained tests of its power thanks to large investments in its education system, from primary school to graduate training. In 1910, institutions of higher education awarded close to 37,000 undergraduate degrees and 2,500 graduate degrees. Federal initiatives that funded college attendance — such as the National Youth Administration and the G.I. Bill — helped increase enrollment to around 432,000 undergraduate degrees and nearly 65,000 graduate degrees by 1950. These programs aided vulnerable generations of Americans in overcoming the Great Depression and World War II. Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug was among the many students who benefitted from federally subsidized college education. He earned a Bachelor of Science in 1937 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics in 1942 from the University of Minnesota. Borlaug’s modified wheat strains launched the Green Revolution in the late 1960s that led to global increases in food production. U.S. innovations in agriculture helped American diplomats win the Cold War struggle for the developing world’s “hearts and minds” by filling their stomachs.

When the Soviet Union appeared on the brink of overtaking the U.S. technological lead with the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by signing the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958. The NDEA phased out the preferred “life adjustment” curriculums of local authorities that emphasized practical skills and vocational training by providing funding for college-preparatory curriculums that prioritized science, math and language study. NDEA reforms supported higher education by way of national defense fellowships, which offset tuition costs for students studying in fields critical to national security. The fellowships produced significant socioeconomic changes that more evenly distributed educational attainment across class and geography while also providing a direct stream of technical talent and foreign studies experts into the nation’s security establishment. As a result of the NDEA, Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 have the highest level of collegiate and secondary-level educational attainment in the world.

Beginning in the 1980s, the shift away from using federal funds to incentivize education programs that benefit national security has handicapped Americans. A recent study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found Americans to be non-competitive in science and math and less literate than most people living in the world’s wealthiest countries. The ability of Americans to synthesize information from complex sources has declined since 1992, and Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 now rank 12th worldwide in both collegiate and secondary-level educational attainment. It’s simple; less brainpower will mean less hard power, less soft power, less power period.

State Department visa programs have, in part, compensated for the decline in the American education system. The U.S. national security apparatus – comprised of the military, national laboratories, defense contractors, intelligence organizations, research universities, independent think tanks and countless other non-government organizations – benefits from the influx of foreign intellectual capital through the J-1 and H-1B visa program. Established by the Fulbright-Hays Act in 1961, J-1 visas for educational and cultural exchanges are run primarily through universities. They have been instrumental in spreading the U.S. model of civil society across the world and have increased the number and impact of global diplomatic contacts. Though changes are needed to protect both native and foreign-born workers, the J-1 also exposes international students to mutually beneficial opportunities in the U.S. economy.

Although the H-1B program merits reform, it has become a pillar of the U.S. proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As recently as 2013, graduates from American universities filled only a third of the 120,000 computer engineering jobs available in the United States each year. Foreign employees make up much of the difference. In the bio-medical research industry, 52 percent of 69,000 researchers in the United States are foreign-born. The influx of foreign-born experts into critical fields such as computer engineering is increasingly important in the age of cyber vulnerability. H-1B visas permit foreign experts to teach and research at U.S. universities. Since 2000, 31 of the 78 American scientists to win the Nobel Prize have been immigrants, with all six of the Americans winning the Nobel Prize in 2016 born outside the United States. By providing a large pool of STEM professionals, area studies specialists, and experts in the humanities, the J-1 and H-1B program have helped stock the broad constellation of U.S. national security institutions with high-skilled labor, and contributed to economic innovation underwriting the expansion of American capitalism and corresponding political influence.

Despite this clear record, the current administration has opted to deprioritize education and intellectual development. Trump’s team has spoken of deconstructing the administrative state and proposed to zero out agencies that fund education initiatives such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Should the Trump budget pass, the Fulbright-Hayes program will be one of its many casualties. The president’s envisioned budget cuts for the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health will undermine the pace of American technological innovation by cutting off funding streams for research at universities and programs that encourage STEM professionals to teach in primary and secondary schools. Eliminating support for the Woodrow Wilson Center — the non=partisan think tank that helps train the next generation of national security experts on critical issues such as nuclear proliferation, environmental security and global economic challenges — undermines effective future management of American diplomacy and defense.

At the same time, the U.S. Congress is now producing a series of troubling ideas about the future of American education. Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA) introduced legislation to roll back the H-1B program, arguing that it robs Americans of high-skilled jobs, and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) has authored a symbolic one-line bill to eliminate the Department of Education by December 2018. Following through on these proposals will only contribute to physical, cyber, economic, and diplomatic vulnerabilities by depriving the United States of necessary expertise. The federal government must recognize that its responsibility for national defense means equipping future generations with the skills and critical thinking capabilities necessary to meet 21st century security challenges. U.S. power and influence cannot survive a two-front assault on intellectual development by cutting both support for education and programs designed to harness talent from abroad. The United States must invest in education with an emphasis on subjects that most benefit the country’s global interests, or Americans must welcome foreign intellectual talent that its national security establishment requires. U.S. standing around the world would be best served by doing both.


Anthony Eames is a nuclear historian and Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University. He has written on nuclear sharing agreements, Anglo-American diplomacy in the Middle East, the global Cold War, and other topics at the intersection of science and diplomacy. He’s spoken on these issues in front of audiences at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, George Washington University, and at conferences hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Woodrow Wilson Center and many other organizations.

Image: Architect of the U.S. Capitol

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