Origins of the Center

The MIT Center for International Studies was founded in 1951 as a direct result of the Cold War struggles between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Max F Millikan, a young MIT economist who helped found the Center, urged the diverse faculty he assembled at the Center to become “social science entrepreneurs”—to use scholarship to help policymakers better understand and respond to international events, and to further the cause of the social sciences at MIT. 

During Millikan’s long tenure as director of the Center (1952-1969), CIS-affiliated sociologists, economists, anthropologists, political scientists, and historians studied communist societies and movements, the economic and political development of industrializing countries, and communication systems in both East and West. They published influential articles and more than 100 books, and contributed to the expansion of the social sciences at MIT—including the founding in 1965 of the Department of Political Science around a core of CIS faculty.

And while the Center has shifted focus through the decades, its commitment to research in the national interest has remained constant.

Economic and Political Development

The Center’s founders believed that a better understanding of newly developing countries was essential to American foreign policy. CIS faculty and researchers studied economic, social, and cultural aspects of the development process, including extensive field work in Italy, Indonesia, and India.

Center members were also active participants in congressional and executive branch debates about US foreign aid and development policies. During the 1950s, Max Millikan, Walt Rostow, and others worked with Eisenhower administration officials to promote a foreign aid policy informed by development theory. During President Kennedy’s “Decade of Development,” Millikan wrote an influential policy memorandum advocating what would later become the Peace Corps, and served on the President’s Task Force on Foreign Economic Assistance; Rostow served in the State Department as head of policy planning; and Carl Kaysen was deputy national security adviser to the president. The Center published a book, The Emerging Nations, to explain the modernization policy they hoped the US would adopt. And Myron Weiner and Lucian Pye helped shape the emerging field of comparative political development.

Science and Technology

The Center’s founders sought to bridge the social sciences and the hard sciences. They believed the complexities of the post-war world required the insights of both working together. In their 1954 mission statement, they wrote “we hope to carry further... the integration of problems of social science with those of natural science and engineering. An important criterion of project selection will be the relevance of scientific and engineering considerations to the problem at hand.”

Max Millikan personified this goal with degrees in physics and economics. Two early CIS research initiatives, the programs in International Communication, and Economic and Political Development, incorporated technological issues into their research agendas. During the 1960s, scientists, engineers and social scientists collaborated in work on defense and arms control questions.

Later, under the directorship of Eugene Skolnikoff, a political scientist who had studied engineering and was an enthusiastic proponent of expanding CIS’s science and technology-related efforts, the groundwork was laid for a variety of other science-related projects on international issues.

Security Studies

For decades, CIS has been the home of some of the most rigorous research and educational programs on arms control, defense, and national and international security issues in the United States.

In 1958, Director Max Millikan headed a committee on the future of social science teaching and research at MIT. One of its recommendations was that the Institute take on initiatives in defense and arms control. In 1960, Professor Lincoln Bloomfield, a former State Department official, organized graduate seminars on the use of military force, conventional weapons transfers, and arms control. The next year, Professor William Kaufmann, a former RAND defense and security analyst, joined the Center and started a seminar series on defense budgeting and analysis. During the mid 1970s, Professors Jack Ruina (an electrical engineer) and George Rathjens (a chemist) organized MIT-wide seminars on nuclear weapons and arms control policy.

These elements were the seeds for the establishment, in 1976, of the Defense and Arms Control Studies program (DACS), which in 1996 became the MIT Security Studies Program (SSP).

DACS and SSP have had two overriding missions: to train MIT students to become leading analysts of security policy and to conduct research on international affairs within a scientific and technological context to inform public policy.

Despite shifts in emphasis and personnel, security studies has been one of the most enduring programs at CIS—in part because of the importance of the subject, but also because the Center created an ongoing community of scholars and policy analysts from numerous disciplines and backgrounds working on issues vital to national security.

Education and Outreach

CIS is primarily a research enterprise, but from its earliest years also has made significant contributions to MIT and the wider world through teaching and outreach—in the form of seminars, workshops, crisis simulations, publications, and programs for research associates, postdoctoral fellows, military fellows, diplomats and national security professionals based in Washington, DC.