I used to have a roommate—this was the late ’80s—who toiled at a Washington think tank. Chet was a bright, sharp, amusingly postmodern kind of guy, sort of a Cosmo Kramer with a Ph.D. in international relations from Columbia. He sported a smooth Eddie Haskell haircut, favored retro cardigans, and owned a cat named Fluffy. His presentation clashed a bit with his think-tank duties: He was a Cold War policy geek who spent his days calculating how to vaporize the greatest number of Muscovites per kiloton. Yet Chet managed to bring an air of knowing irony to our chats about kill ratios. His manner implied that his job was just a well-timed gig; he was riding the Zeitgeist, staying on the good side of his Strangelovian mentors and a trillion-dollar defense budget.

Of course, Chet’s hipster savoir-faire evaporated fast when the Evil Empire suddenly folded like a chain of pizza joints. He took to his room (sans Fluffy) and, after a season of brow-clenched soul-searching, emerged to announce his departure from D.C.: He had decided to start life anew in the ’90s. He was off to New York—and architecture school.

Chet’s rude awakening to the realities of scholarly funding in America is cast in a new light by a reading of Universities and Empire, a collection of essays examining the impact of Cold War politics on the American university. Chet’s experience, like the book, raises a question not often faced squarely in the American academy: How direct is the link between U.S. domestic and foreign political interests, and decisions about which “pure” scientific and scholarly research projects get funded? Universities and Empire reveals that during the Cold War, government funding in a number of disciplines—much of it secret—topped 75% of total outlays. There has been plenty of contempt in the West for Socialist-bloc scholars and scientists who, it’s assumed, heeled to the dictates of repressive, monolithic states. But how about Western scholars? How low did they bow to Cold War political and financial pressures?

Real low, says Universities and Empire editor (and American University professor) Christopher Simpson. In his previous book, Science of Coercion, Simpson detailed how the vast umbrella discipline of communication studies was virtually created by security agencies to feed U.S. psychological warfare projects. In Universities and Empire, he and his cohorts go a long way toward proving something more ambitious: that much of U.S. social science has been fundamentally altered by decades of major secret funding by government security agencies. The CIA couldn’t see the collapse of the USSR coming—or spot apparently obvious preparations for last week’s Indian nuke tests. But it seems it’s been very good at subverting academic freedom at home.

Why concentrate on the social sciences? Weren’t physicists and chemists more central to a nuclear superpower match-up than touchy-feely types like psychologists, cultural anthropologists, and communication experts? But the priority that the CIA, State Department, and other government agencies put on recruiting from the “soft” sciences is made clear in a cornerstone essay by the Smithsonian Institution’s Allan A. Needell. Needell tells the story of Project Troy, a 1950-51 bright idea (of the CIA and State Department) whose ostensible goal was the un-jamming of Voice of America broadcasts into Russia.

But Troy’s real purpose, documents reveal, was to lure social scientists into ongoing work for the agency in what was variously called “psychological warfare,” “low-intensity warfare,” or “the minds race” (and today, Simpson points out, goes by the euphemism “nation-building”). The ruse worked beautifully; in Troy’s final report, an Ivy League historian was quick to note the military’s dilemma: that the development of the atomic bomb “put in our hands logistical weapons of such power that we are literally unable to use them.” That, of course, is why it was called a cold war, and the historian went on to enthusiastically enlist himself and his fellows in fighting on the new battlefield.

Soon, James Killian, a Project Troy participant and the president of MIT, invited Max Millikan, another Troy alumnus and the assistant director of the CIA, to establish at MIT the still-extant Center for International Studies (CENIS), avowedly an independent institute—which was actually funded and staffed, and had its research coordinated, by the CIA. (A quoted document has Millikan mentioning being “allowed to hire” certain scholars by CIA head Allen Dulles.)

CENIS became a model for institutes and departments at dozens of major universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, and, in Washington, American (which researched the torture of prisoners of war on the CIA’s dime). The work ranged from the apparently prosaic (population surveys, cultural analysis—used by agencies for designing propaganda) to, as Simpson says, “consulting on the design and operation of the special machinery of repression and terror.” For their money, the agencies didn’t get just research: They got research dusted with a patina of prestige and academic authority.

Even money that seemed clean often was not: Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago documents that supposedly independent entities like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the Carnegie Corporation, big givers to university institutes throughout the period, were actually full partners with CIA and similar outfits. He quotes from memos, for example, that catch the Ford Foundation red-handed laundering CIA funds.

Cumings also gets the mix of weasely academic ambition and McCarthyite cold sweats that brought many academics into the arms of the CIA: He quotes from the transcript of a CENIS meeting at which Millikan, McGeorge Bundy, and others held a convivial discussion that “resonate[d] with Hollywood versions of Mafia palaver” about how most effectively to hide the institute’s agency sponsorship. And he has dug up an old FBI memo deeply revealing of the modus operandi at Harvard’s Russian Research Center—secretly funded, of course, by the CIA and similar agencies. The center’s research, quotes Cumings, was regularly “‘made available to the Bureau through contact with President James B. Conant of Harvard University, who has on occasion indicated his respect for the Bureau’s work and his understanding for its many and varied interests in connection with internal security matters.’” Not quite the Stalinist terror, but still pretty damned creepy. And a long, long way from “academic freedom.”

The bottom line, Simpson and other contributors argue, is that security agency sponsorship had the power to make or break entire academic fields. New Cold War-friendly interdisciplinary fields like area studies, development studies, and communications research plucked from each constituent discipline only those researchers and thinkers useful for strategic goals; others suddenly found themselves unfunded and relegated to the margins of their field. (Rebecca S. Lowen’s excellent study of Stanford, Creating the Cold War University, quotes a plaintive letter from one such victim.) The effect, Simpson says, has been devastating: in significant areas of the social sciences, “the security agencies’ intervention proved decisive in the…evolution of an academic field, which is to say, in the establishment of the institutions, texts, methodologies, and body of knowledge regarded as central to that academic enterprise.” A single example: Before he went on to advise presidents Kennedy and Johnson on Vietnam policy, Harvard professor Walt Rostow published his influential book Dynamics of Soviet Society. Rostow originally wrote the book as a report for the CIA—a fact not revealed when the book was published by Harvard University Press.

There are some problems with the collection: Irene L. Gendzier’s piece on links between CIA-financed studies and subsequent U.S.-sponsored (and -conducted) terrorism contains important information, but it’s so bogged-down in lefty academic jargon as to be almost unreadable. And the book apparently never crossed the desk of a copy editor.

But there’s much here that’s important and eye-opening. Kevin Gaines’ piece on the little-known community of radical African-American intellectuals in exile in Ghana in the early ’60s is fascinating (and is just the teaser for a forthcoming book). And one of the book’s central pieces is a historical document: a classified 1954 memo from Millikan and Rostow to CIA head Allen Dulles laying out in confident detail their vision of how to fight the Cold War. Interestingly, the economic and the military are deeply interwoven—already, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was on the minds of U.S. policy mavens.

Lawrence Soley effectively closes the volume by pointing to the Cold War’s legacy for today’s universities: Faced with huge funding gaps after the security agencies abruptly jilted them in the ’90s, colleges have once again sniffed their way to the source of money and power. Our universities are as busy selling themselves as ever—to Coke, Nike, and Federal Express. If my old roomie Chet didn’t get into architecture school, I know just where to look for him: at the University of Memphis’ Federal Express Center for Cycle Time Research—the nation’s only think tank devoted to the study of overnight air delivery. CP