Preparing for the Push-Button War

May 3rd, 2007

We are accustomed to the statement that the last war was one of  machines, that it was essentially an engineer’s and physicist’s  war, and that a third war (if it comes) will be a push-button  affair. However, wars are not fought by machines nor even by men  alone, but by man-machine combinations. The understanding and  management of the human factor will always be critical in time  of war as well as in time of peace.

By the close of 1940, psychologists in large numbers were at work  in the Army, the Army Air Forces, the General Staff, the Navy,  and in the National Defense Research Committee. During the war,  they were concerned with such vital problems as psychological  warfare, morale, the selection and training of pilots, navigators,  gunners, naval gun crews, anti-aircraft height-finder operators,  the training of illiterates and mental deficients, the analysis  of the basis for error in artillery fire, the selection and training  of underwater sound operators for the submarine service, the selection  and training of radio code operators, voice communication problems  on planes and ships, and particularly (since it was a new problem)  the adequate design of equipment to fit the capacities and limitations of the human operator. Many of the psychologists who did this  work were in uniform. Many were civilians employed by the services....

So important were the contributions being made by psychologists  that in 1943 the Office of Scientific Research & Development...  under the immediate direction of the President’s Office, established  an Applied Psychology Panel with W.S. Hunter (professor of psychology,  Brown University) as chief. Expenditures for research and development  under this Panel at the peak were at the rate of one million dollars  annually, and this was but a part of the governmental budget for psychology....

 The importance of the psychological work done during the war is  indicated in part by the fact that President Truman gave the highest  civilian award, the President’s Medal for Merit, to Professor  Hunter for his service with the Applied Psychology Panel, an award  which has gone in all other cases to physicists, chemists, engineers,  medical scientists, and men of affairs for their contributions  to the winning of the war. – from “Facing the Riddle of Human Behavior,” an unsigned article  in the May 1950 BAM.

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Related Issue
January / February 2005