National security expert Carl Kaysen, MIT’s David W. Skinner Professor of Political Economy, Emeritus, and former director of the Institute’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, died on Feb. 8 at his home in Cambridge. He was 89.
A trained economist, Kaysen broadened his interests early in his career and participated in significant national-security initiatives as a high-level official in the Kennedy administration. Later Kaysen spent a decade as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and, having joined MIT in 1976, served as director of the Institute’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society during the 1980s.
A native of Philadelphia, Kaysen received his BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1940. During World War II, he worked as an economist for the United States Office of Strategic Services, then in intelligence matters for the U.S. Army Air Force. After the war, Kaysen resumed his studies, earning an MA from Harvard in 1947, and then a PhD from Harvard in economics in 1954. Harvard named him a professor of economics in 1957.
One of many scholars recruited from Cambridge to join the Kennedy administration, Kaysen served from 1961 to 1963 as deputy special assistant for national security affairs. In a 2008 interview with MIT’s Center for International Studies, Kaysen stated that his work on the team negotiating the Limited Test Ban Treaty between the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom was among the proudest moments of his career. Signed in 1963, the treaty prohibited all nuclear test detonations except those underground. “I treasure a photo of the president, [Averell] Harriman, and me in Hyannis Port when we got back from Moscow,” Kaysen said.
After leaving Washington, Kaysen returned to Harvard, before leaving once again to become director of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study from 1966 to 1976. While at the institute, he founded its School of Social Science.
When he once again returned to Cambridge, he joined MIT and directed the Institute’s new program on Science, Technology, and Society from 1981 to 1987. In retirement, Kaysen remained an active scholar, affiliated with the MIT Center for International Studies; he was also co-chair of the Study Committee on International Security Studies for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which he was a fellow.
In recent years, Kaysen was a critic of U.S. foreign policy, saying the war in Iraq was “invented for a perfectly implausible purpose.” In 2002, Kaysen helped produce a study for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “War with Iraq: Costs, Consequences, and Alternatives,” which weighed the implications of war in Iraq; he also remained committed to an internationalist view of policymaking. “To the extent that there is an international rule of law which constrains both others and us, we’ll live in a more orderly and peaceful world,” Kaysen asserted.
In his 2008 interview with CIS, when asked to cite career highlights, Kaysen also recalled “a certain thrill” after publishing his first book, in 1957 — an economic analysis of an anti-trust case between the government and the United Shoe Machinery Corporation. “I didn’t expect it to become a bestseller, and it didn’t,” he quipped. In all, Kaysen wrote, co-authored or edited several books or reports, including “Antitrust policy: an economic and legal analysis” (with Donald F. Turner, 1959), a lecture series titled, “The higher learning, the universities, and the public” (1969), and “Emerging norms of justified intervention,” (1993) a look at military engagements.
Colleagues remember Kaysen as a conscientious intellectual who analyzed issues thoroughly before arriving at his conclusions. “Carl was a very soft-spoken, solid person,” said Professor of Political Science Emeritus Eugene Skolnikoff. “He obviously thought before he talked, and always made a lot of sense.”
Kaysen was preceded in death by his first wife of 50 years, Annette Neutra Kaysen. He is survived by his wife, Ruth Butler; and his daughters, Susanna Kaysen, of Cambridge, and Jesse Kaysen, of Madison, Wisc.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Kaysen's memory may be made to the John F. Kennedy Kennedy Library or to the Cambridge Public Library.
A memorial service at a date yet to be announced will be held in Cambridge. The MIT News Office will release details when they become available.