Carl Kaysen was the Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs in the Democratic Kennedy Administration between 1961 and 1963. Coincidentally, Kaysen also was an Associate Dean at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Public Administration between 1960 and 1966.
After it became evident to many U.S. academics that the Democratic Johnson Administration’s policy of escalating the Vietnam War in early 1965 by starting to bomb North Vietnam on a regular basis had failed to achieve a quick victory in Vietnam for the U.S. war machine, Harvard University Graduate School of Public Administration Associate Dean Kaysen visited U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the Pentagon. As Power and Promise: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara by Deborah Shapley recalled in 1993:
“McNamara was looking for `fresh’ ideas when he returned from Vietnam in November , and he was handed one in particular—for a technological `barrier’—that would play a major part in his attempt to redirect the war…Carl Kaysen, who had worked in John Kennedy’s White House…recalls visiting McNamara twice in December 1965 in his office.
“It was common for leading university scientists and other experts to work on military problems during war…In Cambridge in 1965, there evolved a `floating crap game,’ Kaysen says, involving a few Harvard and M.I.T. faculty—some with formal Pentagon ties and some without—to brainstorm on ways to resolve the war…Thus the idea arose of the `electronic fence,’ or `barrier.’…
“Perhaps America’s technology could be used to advantage in the jungle after all, Kaysen’s group told McNamara in December. A string of new devices—tiny sensors that detected footfalls, air-dropped mines, remotely guided air and ground fire—could be installed starting on the coast, following the 17th parallel, running inland and continuing straight on across the waist of Laos…
“The plan for the barrier went forward in secret. Scientists in a secret group called the Jason Division of the Institute for Defense Analyses would bring in parallel studies to McNamara by the fall of 1966…”
Former Harvard University Dean Kaysen also stated in the book Jerry Wiesner: Scientist, Statesman, Humanist—Memories and Memoirs:
“In late 1965 and early 1965, Jerry [Wiesner], [MIT Professor] George Kistiakowsky, and I persuaded McNamara to support a summer study in Cambridge with the purpose of finding more effective ways than bombing…”
McNamara then “wrote back to the Cambridge group asking that their summer study examine the feasibility of…night vision devices, defoliation techniques and area-denial weapons,” according to the book The Jasons by Ann Finkbeiner. The same book also noted that:
“To set up their summer study, the Cambridge group called Jack Ruina, who was now president of IDA. `I got a call either from George Kistiakowsky or Jerry Wiesner or one of those guys,’ Ruina said. `Zacharias maybe. So what were they talking? They said, “We would like to have a study on a Vietnam issue and would you be willing to set up a study so it would be an IDA study.”’ IDA, with its academic trustees and its highly placed Defense Department customers, was a natural for the Cambridge group.”
Next: Columbia University’s IDA Jason Project 1960s Work—Part 3
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