Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
In the mid-1960s, when members of the Harvard Faculty Study Group on Bureaucracy, Politics, and Policy began to write their scholarly tomes, their sometime colleague in the mathematics department, the irreverent folk singer Tom Lehrer, inadvertently gave song to what came to be called the “bureaucratic politics” approach to the study of U.S. foreign policy. In his ballad about a certain German emigre rocket scientist, Lehrer wrote: “Once the rockets are up / Who cares where they come down? / That's not my department! / Said Wernher von Braun.” Lehrer's ditty, by suggesting that government is a complex, compartmentalized machine and that those running the machine do not always intend what will result, anticipated the language of bureaucratic politics. The dark humor also hinted that the perspective might sometimes excuse as much as it explains about the foreign policy of the United States.
The formal academic version of bureaucratic politics came a few years later with the publication in 1971 of Graham T. Allison's Essence of Decision. Building on works by Warner R. Schilling, Roger Hilsman, Richard E. Neustadt, and other political scientists who emphasized informal bargaining within the foreign policy process, and adding insights from organizational theorists such as James G. March and Herbert A. Simon, Allison examined the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis to counter the traditional assumption that foreign policy is produced by the purposeful acts of unified national governments.