An Academic in the War

Edward F. Chamberlain, superintendent of Kirkland House, tells a story about a Kirkland celebration that took place some years back, when Arthur Smithies was House master. Smithies was pouring drinks for the members of the victorious House crew team, starting with the bow man and working towards the stern of the shell, and as he reached the stroke, someone brought word that he had just become a grandfather.

"He kept right on--he just said, 'Coxswain!'" Chamberlain recalls, chuckling. '"Coxswain, take your wine...' We almost died."

Smithies--Ropes Professor of Political Economy and a long-time adviser in the Saigon bureau of the Agency for International Development--gave up his mastership--"certainly Harvard's best job," he says--last spring. ("You can stay on past 66 as a professor but you have to retire as a master," he grouses. "It should be the other way around--the brain deteriorates before the body does.") But the story of the Agassiz Cup celebration still seems characteristic of him--both in content and in style, for a certain kind of sharp, logical humor as well as, perhaps, a certain cheerful indifference to happenings that would excite or upset or change the attitudes of many people. It's a style, arguably, that found expression in Smithies's work in Vietnam as well as his praise of the Agassiz Cup winners--and there, it was likely to have larger effects and meanings, since it served a side in an internecine war instead of an intramural regatta.

At the simplest, most straightforward level, the Agassiz Cup story is characteristic because it's about crew--the sport that in 1929 helped bring Smithies, a 22-year-old Australian law student, the great-grandson of the first Methodist minister in western Tasmania, a Rhodes Scholarship. Finding England "too structured for my taste," Smithies went on to discover "the fleshpots of the United States" with a Commonwealth Fellowship and a Model A Ford, earn a quick Harvard doctorate in economics, return to Australia briefly to work in its treasury department, then settle in the United States for good.

Smithies accepted tenure at Harvard in 1949--partly "so I could take up rowing again"--and continued to work at budgetary and fiscal economics. He also demonstrated an idiosyncratic kind of firmness--"I'm a believer in strict academic requirements, but for something important, like seat-races, I would make an exception," he once told a Kirkland House oarsman. In its more political manifestations, many students came to find Smithies's firmness objectionable. "People used to go around screaming 'CIA Agent!' and things at me," he recalls. For when anti-ROTC students occupied University Hall in April 1969 and opened the files of then dean of the Faculty Pranklin L. Ford, one of the letters they released to The Old Mole, the underground Cambridge newspaper that folded in 1970, was from Smithies. Dated December 7, 1967, it read: "The Central Intelligence Agency has instructed its consultants to inform their official superiors of this connection with the Agency. I hereby inform you of my connection of ten years duration. I wish I could, add that there is something subtly interesting or sinister about it."

The tinge of self-mockery--the impatience of a person who takes certain things for granted, maybe--was typical: the same slight aloofness you sense when Smithies says he spends his free time "rowing boats and toiling in my garden," as though the joys of domesticity in Belmont, like England, are a little too structured for his taste. But that didn't stop the CIA letter from kicking up a minor storm.

"The CIA is divided sharply into two parts--covert and overt," Smithies--who says he was most recently consulted by the agency, regarding a report on the future of the Vietnamese economy, last year--explains now. "For about ten years I'd go down there and review their papers on national economic matters: I've never been the cloak-and-dagger type. But naturally they made a big fuss about it," he concludes, with something close to approval. "That's good tactics."

It was partly an exclusive attention to improving tactics--rather than more fundamental questions about the Vietnam war--that the University Hall occupiers and other Harvard radicals objected to in Smithies, even before they discovered his CIA letter, Smithies traces his service as an Agency for International Development consultant, advising the Republic of Vietnam on its fiscal policy and rates of international exchange, to previous foreign-affairs interests that included involvement in administering the Marshall Plan. He says he was regarded as a liberal both as a young teacher at the University of Michigan, where he defended the Michigan Daily's right to take leftist editorial stands, and in his early years in the Harvard Economics Department, where Keynesians like him were still an embattled minority.

And he still offers qualified praise for radical economists like Stephen A. Marglin '59 or other members of the Union of Radical Political Economists--for aiming at a historical perspective on economic systems. "I think if they'd let me I'd be more of an ally than I am," he says. "I don't like a narrow concentration on Marx--I think it should also include Weber and people like that. I also and not a socialist, and URPE people generally are socialists--I firmly believe in the mixed economy." For his part, Marglin says he agrees with Smithies's stress on "the historical nature of economic theory and the fact that neo-classical theory is not the pinnacle of economic thought." But he claims that Smithies shares orthodox economists' bias toward marginal improvements that don't call basic assumptions into question--"that perspective divides him pretty fundamentally from most URPE people," he says.

Even setting aside Smithies's belief in a mixed economy, Marglin's criticism isn't too surprising--budgetary economics by definition focuses on evaluating means, not ends, which it takes more or less for granted. Smithies's book, The Budgetary Process in the United States, begins by calling a description of the ways the government sets its priorities "quite enough for one volume and one author," and it offers only one assumption about how the budgetary process should end up--that "government decision-making can be improved by the clear formulation of alternatives." Like his work on the budget, Smithies's work on Vietnamese fiscal policy took its basic political framework more or less for granted.

And like the Agassiz Cup celebration, it was carried on with a certain quiet bravado, even in defiance of what many people might think of as reflex reactions to human events. Apart from his consulting work for AID--which kept him in

During the height of campus anti-war activity, Smithies recalls, "People used to go around screaming 'CIA Agent!' and things at me." Saigon most summers--Smithies wrote several reports, comparable to other American economists' and political scientists' attempts to improve the Saigon government's chances and provide scientific descriptions of its progress.

Like these other writers'. Smithies's descriptions often reflected Saigon's assumptions and interests, and so worked to limit debate in the United States and thus to keep the Saigon government strong. Not all American analysts acknowledged this political effect of their writing, but to many of their critics. It was its most important aspect. For the politics underlying questions of Vietnamese economic development included more even than questions about who shouk, manage development and profit from it. The human, political context AID economists could all but ignore also included the struggle over these questions that was killing people and making them homeless, the struggle in which the government AID belonged to was playing an increasingly dominant part.

In a 1971 report commissioned by the Institute for Defense Analyses, called "Economic Development in Vietnam: The Need for External Resources," and based on a "planning assumption" of "military stalemate and withering away of the war, a process that can last for a decade or more." Smithies called for $500 million a year in American aid to the Saigon government "during the next decade," and $700 million more in financing, preferably from an international consortium of countries, "for the indefinite future." And while noting some of the bad effects of the war on South Vietnam's economy--such as an unfavorable balance of trade, governmental corruption, the destruction of bridges and the defoliation of forests--Smithies also took note of countervailing factors, such as "the increase in the expectations of the Vietnamese people," which he suggested would remain after "the horrors of war" had faded.

"The war has provided Vietnam with paved highways from end to end, with more airfields than it can possibly use, with spectacular harbors, with an elaborate communications system, with power plants, and with potable water in Saigon," Smithies wrote." ...While it is impossible to make an accurate inventory of the changes in the infrastructure during the war, the impression is inescapable that the plusses greatly outweigh the minuses." It was the kind of report that led Frances Fitzgerald '62 to call AID economics "perhaps the ultimate expression of American hubris."

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