A Tribute to Sherman Kent

Harold P. Ford(*)


This tribute to Sherman Kent was first published in the 25th anniversary edition of Studies in Intelligence, Fall 1980. Its author, Hal Ford, is a veteran of the Office of National Estimates and its successor, the National Intelligence Council, who in 1989 published the book, Estimative Intelligence.

Whatever the complexities of the puzzles we strive to solve, and whatever the sophisticated techniques we may use to collect the pieces and store them, there can never be a time when the thoughtful man can be supplanted as the intelligence device supreme. . . . Great discoveries are not made by second-rate minds, no matter how they may be juxtaposed organizationally.

Sherman Kent (1)


With this issue the Studies bids an official farewell to Sherman Kent, who somewhat quixotically founded the journal in 1955 and has been its prime sustainer for a dozen years. The infusions of his vigor and polymath good judgment have been so much the wellspring of its life that it has reason to tremble a little at this severance. Yet he has borne himself the wise father, encouraging spontaneity and initiative, nudging here and checking there but fostering the independent child; and he has thus brought it to a stature that can stand the shock. It can take comfort, too, that he will not be altogether out of its reach for fatherly advice. This is the end of an era, but the era's works go on.

The Editors of Studies in Intelligence, 1968(2)

It can be said in one sense that Studies in Intelligence owes its birth to a slow news day some years ago. As Sherman Kent later related that genesis, it was one quiet Sunday in December 1953 when he had the morning duty in Mr. Allen Dulles' office that Sherm memorialized Matt Baird, then CIA Director of Training, arguing that the discipline of intelligence badly needed an Institute for the Advanced Study of Intelligence and an accompanying learned journal. The idea of an institute, which Sherm wanted modeled after the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, was in his words put on a back burner by history(3) while the idea of a journal came to fruition in 1955.

In a more profound sense, the idea of Studies in Intelligence did not of course suddenly strike Sherm out of the blue, one Sunday in 1953, but sprang from a long and intensely held conviction that intelligence should be recognized and treated as a scholarly discipline, and to that end intelligence badly needed a professional literature. We thus pay tribute to Sherman Kent not only for kindling our journal--which with this issue celebrates a quarter century of contribution to intelligence theory, doctrine, technique, and anecdote--but more importantly for the vision, perseverance, and persuasiveness that has made him a principal father of the modern intelligence profession--as well as a splendid leader and colorful personality.

The professional integrity Sherman Kent intended for Studies long antedated that quiet morning in Mr. Dulles' office; indeed, it antedated Sherm's own career as an intelligence officer. While still a history professor at Yale, prior to World War II, his classes had been popular because his enthusiasm brought history to life, generously salted with his unique vocabulary; less popular at New Haven, however, was the rigor he demanded: he bestowed D's and F's with abandon when he encountered sham or lack of preparation--a characteristic some other young scholars, from the Staff of his Office of National Estimates, experienced on occasion some years later. Closely paralleling his theory and practice of professional intelligence were certain of the principles of the historian's calling Sherman Kent enunciated in his first book, Writing History, which he had written while at Yale. In many of its passages one need only substitute the words "intelligence officer" for "historian." One example:

When the evidence seems to force a single and immediate conclusion, then that is the time to worry about one's bigotry and to do a little conscientious introspection into why this particular conclusion stands out. Was it in the material or was it in you? The command of Socrates, "know thyself," never gave richer rewards then in the world of what we've been calling systematic study.(4)

Later, during World War II, Sherm served as Chief of the Europe-Africa Division of the Research and Analysis Branch of the OSS, a direct predecessor of CIA's present National Foreign Assessment Center (NFAC). It was this exposure, he recounts, which brought him to believe passionately in the need for a literature of intelligence.

The more I talked with my OSS colleagues, the surer I was that a serious book on the intelligence business was needed. It became a compulsion; I simply had to get these thoughts off my mind.(5)

These thoughts began to take specific form immediately after the war, while Sherm was serving on the staff of the National War College and before returning to Yale in 1947. At this time Sherm was taking stock of U.S. intelligence and asking how the United States could avoid another Pearl Harbor in the years ahead. In a Yale Review article of 1946 he wrote:

The existence of controllable atomic energy, and the dead certainty that others besides ourselves will soon possess the technical secrets, place a new and forceful emphasis upon intelligence as one of the most vital elements in our survival.(6)

During the interval before Sherman Kent joined CIA (November 1950), he contributed to the art and practice of intelligence particularly through the publishing of his Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy, certainly the most influential book of its kind yet to appear. This reputation began with the book's first appearance, the New York Times reviewer (William H. Jackson, himself a former OSS officer) greeting it with the bouquets that Kent

knows his stuff and writes it down with persuasion and force. The result is the best general book so far on any aspect of intelligence. É This book should be read by all high officials charged with responsibility for the security of the country and by all those who work in the field of intelligence.(7)

Princeton Press reprinted the book in 1951 and 1953, and published a revised (paperback) edition in 1966. Archon Books published an edition in 1965. Foreign editions include Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, and pirated.(8)

The content of that familiar work need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that Strategic Intelligence conveyed refined versions of certain themes he had previously advanced in his 1946 Yale Review article, supra, plus numerous injunctions of pertinence to the intelligence world of the 1980s. A few samples:

A last reason for the misunderstandings between intelligence producers and consumers is an understandable reluctance of the part of consumers to embark upon a hazardous task on the basis of someone else's say-so. After all, if anyone is going to be hurt it probably will not be the producers. I will warrant that the Light Brigade's G-2 was high on the list of survivors in the charge of Balaclava.(9)

The main difference between professional scholars or intelligence officers on the one hand, and all other people on the other hand, is that the former are supposed to have had more training in the techniques of guarding against their own intellectual frailties.(10)

When intelligence producers realize that there is no sense in forwarding to a consumer knowledge which does not correspond to his preconceptions, then intelligence is through.(11)

When the findings of the intelligence arm are regularly ignored by the consumer, and this because of consumer intuition, he should recognize that he is turning his back on the two instruments by which western man has, since Aristotle, steadily enlarged his horizon of knowledge--the instruments of reason and scientific method.(12)

Sherm still--and quite justifiably--considers this pioneer book to be basically sound: "The heart of the book is as solid as ever; the game still swings on the educated, thoughtful man, not on gadgetry."(13)

A year after Strategic Intelligence was published, Sherm left Yale for the CIA. The prime movers were in effect the Korean war, the distinguished Harvard historian William L. Langer, and DCI Walter Bedell Smith. The difficulties U.S. intelligence had had in calling the North Korean invasion of the South in June 1950, and especially the massive Chinese involvement that autumn, had led to a major shake-up of CIA's analytic process. One of the principal such changes determined upon by DCI General Smith was the creation of the National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) and the Office of National Estimates (O/NE)--to be headed by Dr. Langer, who had been the Chief of the Research and Analysis Branch of OSS. Beedle Smith proposed the NIE function at an October 20, 1950 meeting of the Intelligence Advisory Committee (the then NFIB). On that occasion there "was general assent" with the proposals of a memorandum the DCI had had prepared on "The Responsibility of the Central Intelligence Agency for National Intelligence Estimates."

  • That IAC memo set forth the concept of the NIEs as authoritative interpretations and appraisals that would help guide policymakers and planners. 
  • The NIEs should command recognition and respect throughout the government as the best available and presumably the most authoritative estimates.
  • It was the clear duty and responsibility of the CIA to assemble and produce these coordinated estimates.

Following the IAC's discussion of that memo, the DCI proposed that an Office of National Estimates be set up in the CIA "at the earliest possible time." In his opinion O/NE would "become the heart of the Central Intelligence Agency and of the national intelligence machinery."(14) O/NE was formally established just a month later, 20 November 1950.

Bill Langer, called upon by President Truman and Beedle Smith to head O/NE, thereupon put the heat on his former OSS R&A colleague, Sherman Kent, to come join the new office. Kent's recollection of being interviewed for the job by the DCI one Sunday in November 1950 (in the DCI's office), reminds us nostalgically of Beedle Smith's persuasive charm. Says Sherm:

I told the DCI I had doubts and wasn't certain about taking the job. Whereupon, putting on that annoyed cobra look of his, Beedle snapped, "Young man, if you think I make a business of coming down to my office on a Sunday morning to talk with people who aren't sure about taking the job you've got another think coming!" (15)

Sherm decided that maybe the job was the right one for him, after all.

At first joining the newly founded O/NE as a temporary consultant, Sherm stayed on to serve as Langer's Deputy until January 1952 when, upon Langer's return to Harvard, Kent succeeded him as chief of O/NE (AD/NE). He held that position until 31 December 1967.

Sherm had thus been AD/NE almost two years when he petitioned Matt Baird to establish an intelligence institute and learned journal. In that December 1953 memo he repeated certain of his long-standing concerns: a "sense of disquiet that Intelligence is a non-cumulative discipline"; a "sense of outrage at the infantile imprecision of the language of intelligence--I give you the NSCIDs for a starter"; and the fact that there existed no institutional memory--"what kind of a way is this to run a railroad?"(16) To remedy that situation Sherm proposed the Institute and the journal. With respect to the latter, the germ of Studies in Intelligence, Sherm wrote:

I would establish a journal--probably a quarterly--which would be devoted to intelligence theory and doctrine, and the techniques of the discipline. I would have an editor who fully understood the limits of his mandate. The journal could be Top Secret; its component articles could be of any classification or unclassified.(17)

Once Studies in Intelligence was launched--with the active and good assistance of Matt Baird--Sherm contributed an article to the very first issue (Vol. I, No. 1, September 1955), which repeated his earlier themes about the necessity for a literature of intelligence.

A couple of attributes he attributed to the intelligence profession at that time bear noting by later practitioners:

"We have within us a feeling of common purpose, and a good sense of mission."

People work at the intelligence calling "until they are numb, because they love it, because it is their life, and because the rewards are the rewards of professional accomplishment."(18)

Sherman Kent's interest in Studies has continued to this day. As of 1968 (his "Valediction" article), he felt that despite some problems concerning security classification and the need to twist author's arms to get articles, "it was beyond argument" that Studies had contributed to a "richer understanding of the bones and viscera of the intelligence calling."(19) His present view is that the journal's articles have in general improved even more in sophistication and contribution since that time. (20) Over the years Sherm has himself contributed some nine articles, eleven book reviews, and one other review (of the worst book he said he had ever reviewed), which was so steaming it was not published--though a copy remains in the Studies files and in the Historical Intelligence Collection.

The themes Sherm had championed so forcefully in his prior writings and in his arguments for a learned journal all carried over into his sixteen-year stewardship of O/NE. Keynotes there were intellectual rigor, conscious effort to avoid unconscious analytical bias, willingness to hear other judgments, collective responsibility of judgment, precision of statement, systematic use of some of the country's best experts as consultants and checks against in-house blinders, and candid admission of shortcomings.(21) This was purposely accomplished by a modest-sized operation: generally a Board of about twelve very senior members, and a substantive Staff of a couple dozen or so. The philosophy of Langer and Kent, alike, was that the people of such a small office would work themselves numb, to use Sherm's figure, but would be too small to carry all the accoutrements of bureaucratic overkill. (22) Shielding Board and Staff in this way, as well as from the passions of Washington policy advocacy, would be a necessity in view of the extremely difficult task the office faced: the venturing out beyond evidence to estimate the unknown.

O/NE was not Camelot, but Sherm did run a fine show. It was a great place to work. Enthusiasm and sense of purpose were high. Everyone was overworked. There were lots of laughs, amid countless unprintable Kentian anecdotes and aphorisms. Under Sherm, there was never any party line, other than the dogged pursuit of truth. There was M.B.O.--management-by-osmosis--and it worked. The office was miraculously shielded from non-substantive drag. The table gamesmanship was tough, sophisticated, productive, and delightful.

Sherm presided over it all firmly, but without seeming effort. He gave Board and Staff members their head(s), and asked in return only for a quality and integrity of product and conduct. He was not Olympian. He was not a purveyor of Weltanschauung. He was the direction-setter; the catalyst; the cold reader-critic--beware his broad penciled questions; the weaver of product-to-policy relevance; the source of enthusiasm; the setter of standards; the rewarder of the productive and the chastiser of the unproductive; the one who demanded clear, concise exposition; and, throughout, the exemplar of purpose, good humor, a proper degree of irreverence, civility, and a supreme degree of decency.

Not too familiar to post-O/NE intelligence officers is the remarkable quality of people and product Sherm's office maintained for some years. In those years the Board included historians Langer, Kent, Raymond J. Sontag, Abbot E. Smith, and Joseph Strayer; Ambassadors Llewellan (Tommy) Thompson, Livingston Merchant, Freeman (Doc) Matthews, and Harold Linder; Generals Harold (Pinky) Bull and Earl (Diz) Barnes; plus prominent lawyers and government executives.

Sherm has been especially proud of the substantive Staff he recruited and maintained in O/NE: "For 20 years they were the best staff in town and so proclaimed by a good number of very knowledgeable outsiders."(23) Even allowing for Sherm's understandable enthusiasm concerning his people, the caliber of these O/NE Staff officers over the years is illustrated by the responsibilities many of them subsequently gained. Three later became ambassadors. Three became the DD/I (or D/NFAC). Three later headed O/NE. Seven became DDI (or NFAC) Office Chiefs. Five became National Intelligence Officers. Seven became Chiefs of Station abroad. Three held senior White House positions. Two became Director of State's INR. One an Undersecretary of Defense. Two, Assistant Secretaries of Defense. One an Undersecretary of State. Several became distinguished academicians and authors. One heads the Woodrow Wilson Center at the Smithsonian. One heads Washington's Institute for Energy Analysis. One heads the Staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. One is a senior member of State's Policy Planning Staff. One is the Editor of Foreign Affairs. Not least, one is President of the Washington Audubon Society. Sherm truly had his men everywhere.

To repeat, O/NE was no Camelot. All Board members were not Langer's or Sontag's; some were later wished on Kent by his DCIs; some board members tended to ramble on at great length about irrelevancies; some nit-picked the Staff up the wall; and a few must have been embarrassments to Sherm. Nor were the Staff members all clear-eyed Jack Armstrongs; some couldn't draft; some weren't good at coordination gamesmanship; some Staff alumni later gave Sherman Kent bureaucratic fits. O/NE was not a fount of ERA. In the view of some observers, O/NE later became somewhat cut off from the policymaking world, somewhat self-satisfied and resistant to change, and overly in-grown. Other elite offices developed as intelligence became more technical in many respects. In its later years bureaucratic constraints inhibited O/NE from continuing to recruit the best available Staff members from CIA's ranks. Not O/NE's fault, and indeed to its credit, was a certain fall from grace in its later years occasioned in part by the fact that certain of its estimates were not congenial to senior policymakers. Throughout his tenure, however, Sherm Kent maintained tough, demanding standards of his officers. He maintained the integrity of the estimative process against corruption.(24) He was a tough warrior who protected his scholars from the bureaucratic world, while imbuing them with enthusiasm about the purpose of their common understanding. And, he had a great curiosity about the whole of CIA and its business, and he knew how the total effort all fit together.

No tribute to Sherman Kent could overlook his bright red galluses and his plug of chewing tobacco, or ignore the contributions to the profession his colorful personality has made. His versatility and style have enriched the intelligence profession and helped protect it from becoming flat and featureless. Sherm has been called a rough diamond aristocrat, a mix of Connecticut roots-schooling and California upbringing--a mix which was captured years ago by Yale undergraduate pals who dubbed him "Buffalo Bill, the Cultured Cowboy." The whole term applies, even though it's only the "Buffalo" which has survived as a favorite term among his friends. Sherm's skills include that of accomplished woodworker, whether making furniture or "Buffalo Blocks" (hand-made multi-wood blocks Sherm later had produced for commercial sale.) He is also a chef supreme. His publications concern not only intelligence and how to write history, but a book on French politics (of the 1820s),(25) and one for younger readers called A Boy and a Pig, But Mostly Horses.(26) Sherm's versatility helped the cause of his O/NE products because everyone in town knew him; the impact of his NIEs was facilitated by the respect in which he was held. Truly, Sherm Kent is no run-of-the-mill model of graduate student turned analyst or case officer. Personalities such as his are a good remedy against the development of homogenous CIA men or what author Stewart Alsop has termed the generation of prudent CIA professionals. Our calling needs character. It also needs characters. In the best sense, Sherm Kent has been both.

If Sherm were joining the CIA's analytic world this November rather than the one he did of 30 years ago, what patterns of consistency and change would he encounter? The major hazards of the business remain: the ambiguity of evidence; the loneliness of venturing out beyond available evidence in trying to call future trends; the problems of recognizing and diminishing analytic bias, whether conscious or unconscious; the joy of solving some of the analytic puzzles; the freedom to go wherever the evidence takes you, whatever the consequent logic for U.S. policy or policymakers; the competition for the time and attention of senior policymaking consumers; the rewards when one's judgments prove congenial to the customers; the growls--or worse, the silence--when they do not. Other problems of 1980 differ substantially from those of 1950. There is of course now more red tape, more form and triplicate. But more importantly there are now many more world actors creating more crises than a generation ago, there is more passion and unreason in the world--and not all that is abroad--and there are more challenges to Sherm's expressed faith that reason and the scientific method will see the intelligence process through. There is also a greater need for close intelligence ties to the policy world: there have been some years which show that this can occur without necessarily corrupting the independence of intelligence judgments, and hence there is a certain questioning which can be made of Sherman Kent's certainty that intelligence analysts and estimators who go downtown will become policy advocates and begin to serve power rather than truth.

Whatever the case with respect to policy, however, the contribution of Sherman Kent to the 1980s, as to the 1950s, and 1960s, is truly considerable. Together with celebrating Sherm's key role in creating Studies 25 years ago, we pay tribute to the 30 years of Sherm's professional and personal contributions since he was pitched by DCI Beedle Smith that Sunday in 1950, and to the even longer period Sherman Kent has been championing those qualities the intelligence calling must possess if it is to have integrity and effectiveness.

Honor is perhaps due to Sherman Kent, most of all, for someone who has embodied and helped form the purpose of the intelligence profession, and who has set standards for enthusiastically working oneself numb because of the intellectual challenge and the sense of service at hand. And, tribute, too, to someone who has pointed out the folly of allowing situations to develop where these qualities do not obtain, situations for example where, in Sherm's word,

From the very beginning, there was administrative trouble of a high order, much of it avoidable; personnel actions--new appointments, replacements, and overdue promotions--moved with the ponderous slowness of the glacier or not at all. Life outside the government, or at best outside [that department], began to be more and more attractive to irreplaceable professionals. They began to leave in the order of their importance to the organization; and as replacements did not appear, morale declined.(27)

Sherm was speaking here of the state of U.S. intelligence as it existed at the time--in 1946.




(*) The author wishes to thank the many friends who have helped him prepare this article, but who bear no responsibility for its shortcomings or particular judgments. These friends are Paul Borel, Keith Clark, Mary Cook, James Cooley, Chester Cooper, James Graham, Klaus Knorr, Karen Platte, Edward Sayle, Abbot Smith, Don Smith, Mary Shaw, and Joseph Strayer.

(1) Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy, revised ed. (Princeton University Press, 1966), pp. xxiv, 174.

(2) Remarks introducing Sherman Kent's article, "Valediction," Vol. 12, No. 1 (Winter 1968). [See p. 21 in this volume.]

(3) The idea of an institute refused to die, but was born again in various suggested versions over the years. In 1975 an institute at length came into being in the form of the CIA Office of Training's Center for the Study of Intelligence, similar in certain respects at least to Sherman Kent's original proposal. The Center's Senior Officers Development Course, now in preparation, may come even closer to the goal.

(4) Revised edition (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967), p. 5. Sherm recounts that he wrote this whole book, cover to cover, during a week's vacation in 1937 in Florida. "Then, five years and five drafts later, Appleton-Century-Crofts published it." Still later, following World War II and the establishing of the occupation of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters had this book translated into Japanese. Kent to author, May 1980.

(5) Kent to author.

(6) "Prospects for the National Intelligence Service," Vol. 36, No. 1, Autumn 1946, p. 116.

(7) New York Times Book Review, 1 May 1949.

(8) The remarkable success of this book contrasts with its humble beginnings. Various editors had told Sherm to forget about such a project because it didn't include any blood, guts, or beautiful spies, and because it wouldn't sell the 5,000 copies needed for a publisher to break even. Sherm's favorite edition is the pirated one (English-language) General Chiang Ching-kuo presented him in 1959, "with a big smile," on the occasion of a trip by Sherm to Taiwan. Kent to author.

(9) Op. cit., p. 193.

(10) Ibid., p. 199.

(11) Ibid., p. 205.

(12) Ibid., p. 206.

(13) Kent to author, May 1980.

(14) IAC-M-1, of 20 October 1950, paras, 6-7.

(15) Kent to author.

(16) "Valediction" op. cit., p. 3. [See p. 23 in this volume.]

(17) Ibid., p. 5.

(18) "The Need for an Intelligence Literature." [See p. 14 in this volume.]

(19) Op. cit., p. 7.

(20) Kent to author.

(21) Typical of Sherm Kent's candor are (1) his frank admission that O/NE had mis-called the Cuban missile crisis ("A Crucial Estimate Relived," Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 1964, pp. 1-18 [See pp. 173-187 in this volume]); and (2) a letter of thanks to a former O/NE staffer for some comments he had given Sherm on the overall NIE record, because those comments had highlighted "bads as well as goods; (highlighting one's own bad's is always the most uncongenial of exercises). What you wrote is right on the nose." Letter, Kent to staffer, of 4 December 1974.

(22) According to Ray Cline, first Chief of O/NE's Estimates Staff, Dr. Langer told him at the outset that DCI Smith thought that O/NE would require about 1,000 people, but that Langer had assured Beedle Smith that he could do the job well with about 60, total. Cline, Secrets, Spies and Scholars: The Essential CIA (Washington, D.C.: Acropolis Books, 1978), p. 120. Although CIA and the intelligence community burgeoned in size over the years, Kent kept O/NE at about the 60-70 figure, total.

(23) Kent, classified study, 1976 [Law and Custom, see p. 58 in this volume]; and, "The Staff was always the works." Kent to author, May 1980.

(24) A DCI once intervened strongly against one of the NIE's Kent had brought to the USIB (NFIB), criticized Sherm before that body for not having sought the views of the (policy) people who "really knew the x situation best," and ordered O/NE to see those people and recast the NIE. That DCI later told Sherm that the original NIE had had the situation right, and that he (the DCI) had made a mistake in so intervening. Kent and other participants to author.

(25) The Election of Eighteen Twenty Seven in France (Harvard University Press, 1975).

(26) Dodd, 1974.

(27) Yale Review, op. cit., p. 128.


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