IR’s ‘Power Couples’

By Dr. Katharina Rietzler

When an upstart discipline constructs its own identity, it tends to focus on “great texts” written by scholars whose capacious minds imagined a whole new range of fundamental questions about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. International Relations (IR) is no different. In fact, IR has been notorious for claiming the great minds of great men as its intellectual foundation. But there are costs to such narrow definitions of “thought”. One of them is that a focus on great minds leaves out the element of collaboration. While there are many forms of intellectual collaboration, between peers, between thought leaders and their disciples and between teachers and their students, there is one form that combines the intellectual and the romantic, the marriage of minds.

Twentieth-century thought has known some very high-profile heterosexual couples, from Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre to Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam, couples in which both partners achieved intellectual recognition and a public profile. Then there are the many unsung “wives of the canon” (Forestal & Philips 2018), women in traditional marriages who supported their husbands’ intellectual work by providing research assistance, commenting on draft work, typing, entertaining visitors and keeping house. There were also structural reasons why a heterosexual marriage to a scholar could be a disadvantage when it came to women’s intellectual production. In mid-century U.S. academe, women married to male faculty were often denied academic jobs because of anti-nepotism rules, an issue that affected white women more than African-American women seeking employment at historically black colleges and universities (Stephan & Kassis 1997, 59; Perkins 1997, 103).

Yet IR, a relatively young discipline that emerged out of multiple fields of intellectual inquiry as well as activism, seems to have an unusual number of academic “power couples”, heterosexual unions in which both partners shared a deep interest in the relations between peoples, empires and states. In these partnerships, female as well as male partners attained a measure of intellectual standing, if not on an equal footing. Being linked to an influential man could be a way for a woman to attain credibility. The historians Joan Hoff-Wilson and Robert Shaffer have highlighted “the importance of family connections, and male mentors, in the ability of women to become recognized as having something to say about foreign policy” (Shaffer 1999, 157). Intimate ties seem to have been particularly important for women’s knowledge production on international questions.

There are many examples of heterosexual couples in the wider field of International Relations: Lucie and Alfred Zimmern, Veronica Boulter and Arnold Toynbee, Margaret and Harold Sprout, Eslanda and Paul Robeson, Elspeth and Walt Rostow, Annette Baker Fox and William T. R Fox, to name just a few. Gender clearly mattered in these partnerships. William T. R Fox coined the phrase “super-power”, while his wife Annette, a trailing spouse, became a specialist on the foreign policies of small and middling powers. Lucie Zimmern was probably the most reviled woman on the interwar International Relations scene, resented for the access that her marriage gave her to conferences and high-level meetings. And yet she was a published author and specialist on the League of Nations, and, together with her husband, ran the Geneva School of International Studies, one of the most successful IR education projects of the 1920s and early 1930s. Veronica Boulter and Arnold Toynbee enjoyed a gendered working relationship in which Toynbee took public credit for Boulter’s work.

But what impact did these personal relationships have on international thought? Was IR as a field invested a heteronormative and gendered narrative about itself and the world? Is there a gendered division of labour within marriages in the formative years of the field, and were men and women assigned different roles according to perceived notions of masculinity and femininity? (As is well known, some spaces in which international affairs were discussed explicitly excluded women, for example the Council on Foreign Relations, the most influential American international relations think tank between World War I and the Vietnam War.) These are questions that have, to date, hardly been considered by historians of international thought.

Image Credit: Strategic Studies Institute, public domain

Ron Robin’s intellectual biography of one such IR couple forms an exception. Promising to probe the “intellectual balance of power” (Robin 2016, 7) between his subjects, Robin analyses the thought and influence of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter, a wife-and-husband team of thermonuclear strategists who worked for the influential RAND Corporation think tank in the 1950s and 60s. If an intellectual marriage is a thought collective of two, with a distinctive thought style (pace Mannheim), then, according to Robin, Roberta set the Denkstil of this formidable couple. It was her seminal history of Pearl Harbor as a paradigmatic surprise attack that shaped their world view and created the foundation for the Wohlstetter Doctrine which argued that statesmen must assume that the enemy is irrational, and therefore needed to be deterred as much as possible. Although influential, the doctrine led the Wohlstetters to misinterpret the Cuban Missile Crisis. The disciples they recruited included Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad and Richard Perle. They resurrected Roberta’s analysis of Pearl Harbor after 9/11, with momentous results in Iraq and elsewhere. Derided as “Mr. and Mrs. Fearmonger” (Bacevich 2017), the Wohlstetters have few fans among critics of U.S. foreign policy but reading Robin, it is impossible to dismiss Roberta, the Bancroft Prize-winning historian who produced usable pasts, as a mere sidekick to her more famous husband.

Although Robin provides little detail on the working, emotional, and marital partnership between Roberta and Albert, there are glimpses of their intellectual life together. Both Wohlstetters were failed academics. Neither completed a PhD and they were employed in various non-academic jobs in the 1930s and 1940s. They had very different backgrounds – Roberta’s was much more genteel than Albert’s – but theirs truly was a meeting of two adventurous if slightly undisciplined minds. It was Roberta, who via a part-time assignment as a book reviewer for the RAND Corporation secured a professional “in” for her husband in Southern California. There they conducted an outwardly conventional heterosexual marriage, with Albert becoming the paradigmatic defense intellectual and Roberta playing hostess in their stylish modernist home.

Returning to Robin’s question about the “intellectual balance of power” within their marriage, I wonder if such an adversarial, “battle of the sexes” metaphor is appropriate. Roberta and Albert were a team, and both benefitted from the operations of gender in the context of their intellectual production. Roberta’s initial analysis made Albert’s hyper-masculine and aggressive take on the Cold War possible. And the delightful contrast between Roberta’s role as elegant Southern Californian housewife and her tough stance on confronting the Soviet enemy as a part-time RAND consultant may have helped her long writing career. Publicly, the couple only disagreed once, when Roberta implied in her final article, published in 1991, that the United States should seek to de-escalate conflicts instead of pushing for regime change abroad (Robin, 199). What happened privately, in the Wohlstetter’s domestic life, remains to be analysed.

What can the story of the Wohlstetters tell us about women and the writing of disciplinary history? The access and credibility that a male partner could provide to a female companion certainly remains important. Intellectual biographies of intellectual couples have the potential to offer more than a calculus of which partner had the more important and influential ideas. And finally, I think, to be wary of facile assumptions about male warmongers and female pacifists, dominant husbands and submissive wives, and the ways in which a gendered division of labour in a marriage maps onto intellectual production.


Andrew Bacevich, “Mr. and Mrs. Fearmonger”, First Things (June 2017)

Jennifer Forestal and Menaka Philips “Gender and the ‘Great Man’: Recovering Philosophy’s ‘Wives of the Canon’”, Hypatia, 33, 4 (2018): 587-592.

Linda M. Perkins, “For the Good of the Race: Married African-American Academics, a Historical Perspective,” in Marianne A. Ferber and Jane W. Loeb., eds., Academic Couples: Problems and Promises (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 80-105.

Ron Robin, The Cold World They Made: The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016).

Robert Shaffer, “Women and International Relations: Pearl S. Buck’s Critique of the Cold War”, Journal of Women’s History 11, 3 (1999): 151-75.

Paula E. Stephan and Mary Mathewes Kassis, “The History of Women and Couples in Academe,” in Marianne A. Ferber and Jane W. Loeb., eds., Academic Couples: Problems and Promises (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 44-79.

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