John Nash, like so many of the best scientific minds of the late 1940s and 1950s, was drawn into a military think tank based in Santa Monica, California -- the RAND Corporation. Although Nash would leave after only a few years, the institution would have a profound effect on the mathematician who for many years carried within him its culture of secrecy, paranoia, worship of rationality, and obsession with geopolitics.
The concept of an intellectual center for military strategy came from World War II, a war in which scientists and mathematicians were recruited in unparalleled numbers by the U.S. government. During that struggle, U.S. military leaders recruited the best scientific minds from academia to work projects from developing the A-bomb in the deserts of Los Alamos, New Mexico, to breaking the Nazis' secret code in Bletchley Park, north of London.
As the war drew to a close, Air Force generals worried about the expected loss of top scientists. It was known that many would return to academia rather than stay in the more intellectually constrained armed forces. U.S. military leaders knew they needed the best scientific minds not only to build new weapons but develop strategies for how to use these weapons. In his book, The Wizards of Armageddon, author Fred Kaplan writes about the new challenges that lay before post-World War II America: "Whole conceptions of modern warfare, the nature of international relations, the question of world order, the function of weaponry, had to be thought through again. Nobody knew the answers."
The military hoped that RAND (an acronym for research and development), an agency originally connected with the Douglas Aircraft Company, would pursue some of the answers. It soon was turned into an independent, non-profit agency that recruited mathematicians such as Nash as well as computer engineers, political scientists, and economists. They were expected to work together loosely to tackle some of the pressing geopolitical problems of the post-WW II world.
Shortly before Nash entered RAND in 1950, the think tank had gained a new sense of urgency from the news that Russia had developed the A-bomb, many years before U.S. officials expected they would. RAND's primary task became not only to figure out how to prevent a war with the Russians but how to win one, in case deterrence failed. The best minds of the day were brought in to "think the unthinkable."
Because the work was consistently top secret, the RAND building was one of the most difficult buildings in America to gain entrance to, according to a Fortune magazine article about the institute. Everyone who entered needed top-secret clearance, and at the end of each day all employees were commanded to lock papers away in a safe.
Despite this collective secrecy, the reins were held loosely at RAND, an attitude reflected in its rather broad mission statement: "To further and promote scientific, educational, and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare and security of the United States of America." This open-ended mission was intentional and employees such as Nash were not given mission assignments, but loose guidelines. Great minds were given permission to roam intellectually, an attitude that was fostered by the building itself, built to encourage people to circulate and bump into each other and thereby cross-fertilize intellectual pursuits. Staff was also allowed to roam these halls at any time, as the building had an open-all-hours policy.
Nash wandered the halls more than most, often whistling the same few bars from a Bach fugue as he rambled. Mathematicians, well aware of Nash's reputation as a genius, quickly learned to step into Nash's path to introduce him to their problem, for his interest was easily caught.
Despite these freedoms, RAND didn't hold Nash. Neither playing military strategist nor earning a large salary in a full-time post seduced Nash to stay. The mathematician wanted freedom to explore all corners of mathematics, and he knew the place for that was not the military, but a leading scientific university, which turned out to be M.I.T.