Competing with the Soviets© 2013 Johns Hopkins University Press

“If anyone wants a hole in the ground,” physicist Edward Teller is reputed to have said in 1962, “nuclear explosives can make big holes.” Teller’s enthusiasm for what he called “nuclear engineering” drove Project Plowshare, an ill-fated attempt to use atomic weaponry for peaceful purposes. Between 1957 and 1975, Teller and his colleagues spent hundreds of millions of dollars devising plans to use nuclear devices as convenient tools for mining operations, oil and gas exploration, and most famously, earthmoving projects. Bombs might be used to create a new Alaska harbor or, perhaps, a new Panama Canal. Project Plowshare’s advocates believed that such endeavors could be completed safely, without excessive danger to persons or the environment, and that successful nuclear construction projects might ultimately save the government a small fortune on critical infrastructure.

More than fifty years after it was initially proposed, Project Plowshare can be read as a symbol of everything that was wrong with science and technology in the Cold War. It assumed that civilian applications would follow naturally from military research. Most of its reports were classified. Its continued survival depended on the support of powerful political and scientific sponsors who were infatuated with atomic physics and obsessed with nuclear weaponry. University scientists who criticized the program’s goals and assumptions lost their jobs. Its technological hubris, at least in retrospect, seems more than mildly ridiculous. And like so many other Cold War technological projects, it left environmental destruction in its wake.

But, like the Cold War itself, the real story of Project Plowshare must be told through shades of gray, not black and white. Its high-tech approach made sense at a time when science—particularly atomic science—seemed to offer the best solutions to the nation’s problems, whether those problems might involve infrastructure or foreign policy. Nor did all of Project Plowshare’s research have military ends: work on the biological effects of radiation supported by Plowshare funds helped establish the field of systems ecology. Support for the project was neither inevitable nor unanimous; it encountered resistance from scientists, journalists, environmentalists, politicians, and even Native peoples at every step of the way. Project Plowshare does indeed perfectly capture the spirit of Cold War science, but not necessarily as an exercise in technocracy run amok. Rather, it serves as a vivid illustration of both the faith that postwar Americans placed in state-sponsored science and the doubts that simmered just below the surface of this consensus.

This book is an attempt to tell the story of science and technology, particularly American science and technology, during the Cold War. As treated here, the “Cold War” refers to the period of intense conflict between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their associated allies from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Intended as an introductory synthesis rather than as a comprehensive account, it uses certain key episodes, anecdotes, and individuals to show the central—and unique—position that science and technology held in relation to the Cold War state.

Some of the key themes that emerge from these stories will be familiar to students of American history; others are specific to the history of science. At the more general level, the science-state relationship as it developed over the course of the Cold War reflected broader attitudes about the proper role of government in American life. The period between the start of the New Deal and the early 1970s marked the largest expansion of government in the history of the United States. Scientific research, like so many other areas of American life, subsequently fell under the umbrella of federal support, and thereby, federal oversight. As government programs began to fall out of favor with political commentators and conservative voters, so too did unlimited support for research in science and technology. Similarly, the shift from small-scale, individualist research practices to large, multidisciplinary, hierarchical laboratories mirrors a familiar theme from American business history. In the realm of social history, scientists were subjected to the same kinds of security hearings and loyalty investigations as other American citizens in the 1950s, and at least some of them participated in the anti–Vietnam War protests so common on university campuses in the 1970s.

Yet other themes, specific to the history of science, can deepen our understanding of postwar American history. The special role of science and technology in constructing the atomic bomb, that terrifying symbol of the 1950s, seemed to create an equally special role for scientific experts as figures of political authority. The question of the proper role of a technocratic elite figured prominently in policy circles both at home and abroad, as officials at institutions as varied as city governments and the U.S. Department of State struggled with integrating scientific expertise into their decision-making processes. Similarly, an understanding of how American science came to stand in for democracy in the minds of some policymakers is critical for making sense of much of 1960s-era foreign policy.

And, of course, the Cold War changed the practice of science itself. Attempts to understand the character and effects of science in the Cold War reached critical mass when President Dwight D. Eisenhower used his 1961 farewell address to warn the nation of the creeping influence of what he called “the military-industrial complex.” By this Eisenhower was referring to the explosive growth of military research, development, and production, almost all of which was handled by outside industrial or academic contractors. Because so much of postwar military R&D relied on cutting-edge science, the rise of the military-industrial complex had been accompanied by the creation of elaborate, yet uncoordinated, structures for federal science advising. Eisenhower’s remarks gave name to a phenomenon that critics, including scientists, had been watching with growing dismay since the end of World War II. By 1961, the nation’s aggressive investment in military and scientific research had yielded a fully stocked nuclear arsenal that promised, instead of peace and prosperity, mutually assured destruction.

It is perhaps in part because of Eisenhower’s criticism that so much of historians’ initial work on Cold War science focused on the questions of whether, or how, military funding was distorting the practice and culture of science. Studies have explored how postwar scientists chose their research topics, organized their research teams, used their instruments, sought patrons, and dealt with security concerns. While historians generally agree that the military-industrial complex exists and that science and technology were key components of it, they disagree over who was using whom. To give a classic example: most of the particle accelerators currently in place in the United States were purchased with federal support with the implicit assumption that the findings and expertise the equipment produced might some day prove useful in developing weaponry. Scientists who worked at such facilities were subject to security restrictions and were generally hesitant to do anything that might upset their patrons at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). At the same time, these devices made it possible for scientists to discover new chemical elements and subatomic particles—discoveries that had few, if any, military applications. Defense and civilian needs dovetailed in the complicated and contested world of Cold War science.

This book largely skirts the question of scientific “distortion.” That term implies that there exists some sort of pure, undistorted science devoid of political or cultural intention. A generation’s worth of scholarship in the history of science has demonstrated that, to the contrary, scientists are participants in the culture in which they live. Their choices and opportunities have always been shaped by the ideological assumptions, political mandates, and social mores of their times. Indeed, the idea that American science ever operated in a “free zone” outside of politics is itself a legacy of the ideological Cold War. In the postwar United States, the vast majority of scientists assumed that the federal government had an interest in promoting scientific research and that, ultimately, this research would produce a better, stronger society. There were, of course, those who disagreed with this line of thinking, and we shall return to their stories toward the end of this book.

The question of how the Cold War affected the practice of science has a flip side: how did the state use science? Eisenhower’s comments are most likely to bring to mind images of missiles, fighter jets, and atomic bombs, a trio that quite rightly points to the centrality of high-tech weaponry to national security. Foreign policy, however, is about more than just warfare. Consider, for example, the collaborative attempts of American and Indian agricultural scientists to develop more productive and nutritious varieties of wheat. It was hoped that this project, supported with funds from the Department of State, the Department of Agriculture, and American seed companies, might prevent starvation and accompanying unrest among the exploding population on the Indian subcontinent, thereby giving support to a fragile democracy that the United States hoped to hold in its orbit. Moreover, those involved with the project believed that exposing Indian policymakers to American agricultural products might open new markets. From the Indian perspective, partnerships with American development experts offered the quickest route to modernization and, they hoped, economic independence. The products of science could therefore offer multiple foreign policy rewards, from promoting goodwill and developing alliances to ensuring economic dominance. Science could be a carrot as well as a stick.

Postwar American policymakers believed in the power of science to solve problems at home as well as abroad. The astonishing successes in World War II of what had previously been a fairly disorganized American scientific and technical community seemed to validate the notion of a special place for science, and scientific thinking, in solving the problems of a democracy. This mantle of scientific success extended to the social sciences, including the now supposedly objective findings of economics, sociology, and psychology. Flush with new credibility, social scientists offered a rationale for the dramatic growth of government in fighting racism and socioeconomic inequality. In other cases, the connections between civilian science and the military-industrial complex were more direct, as when American city planners and managers turned to defense intellectuals for assistance in solving the intractable problems of the postwar city, from traffic and parking to poverty.

It would nevertheless be a mistake to fixate on military endeavors in understanding the role of science in the Cold War state. Starting with the legislation that established the AEC in 1946, American scientists fought to maintain a separate arena for civilian science. The existence of such civilian institutions as the AEC, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were critical to both policymakers’ and the public’s ability to see science as an objective, transparent way of knowing that could transcend differences between interest groups. This idea of “open science” sat uneasily next to the reality of a research infrastructure that was largely backed by state—particularly military—interests. The space race is a classic example of these tensions. The rhetoric of the American approach to space exploration, particularly the Apollo missions that placed a man on the Moon in 1969, stressed civilian control, the international exchange of scientific ideas, and dramatic research results. At the same time, the Apollo program was designed to display and ensure American dominance; much of the underlying research was classified; and the majority of American space efforts were as much, if not more, about producing missiles and spy satellites as they were about creating new scientific knowledge. The pretense of civilian leadership gave American image-makers the possibility of having it both ways.

These sorts of contradictions were not unique to the American case, but rather, followed inevitably from the position of science in the global postwar political environment. Consider, for example, the situation of physics in the Soviet Union. Official philosophical doctrine in the Soviet Union stressed the materiality of all things and the unity of theory and practice. The theoretical assumptions and culture of modern physics, with their emphasis on probabilities and uncertainty, proved difficult to reconcile with a materialist philosophy. For a time in the late 1940s it seemed as if Western-style theoretical physics might be prohibited in the Soviet Union. When push came to shove, though, Soviet authorities recognized that they could not develop a nuclear arsenal without the expertise and cooperation of the physics community. The desire to produce spectacular and timely results required the use of the best scientific information available, regardless of its philosophical pedigree, for any nation that wanted to compete on the Cold War stage.

The fundamental characteristic of Cold War science is the central role that the scientific enterprise came to play in the maintenance of the nation-state. Science and technology have, of course, always contributed to state power. In the Italian Renaissance, patrons requested that natural philosophers supply them with telescopes and astrolabes; two centuries later, the imperial governments of Spain, France, and Great Britain would send crews of naturalists to evaluate the commercial potential of the plants, animals, and minerals in their conquered lands. Nevertheless, this relationship underwent a fundamental change in the years immediately following World War II. For all their differences, leaders in both the Soviet Union and the United States agreed that massive displays of technological might were critical weapons in the international battle for hearts and minds. Scientific achievement had apparently won the war for the Allies; it would presumably be the critical factor in deciding the Cold War as well. This assumption transformed the scale and scope of scientific investigation and extended even to the ways that we talk about science.

The Cold War is now over, having been replaced with any number of emerging global conflicts. American science, particularly in the universities, is no longer dominated by military concerns; American policymakers no longer assign a preeminent role to science and technology in building international alliances. Nevertheless, the culture and practice of contemporary American science has been indelibly shaped by its phenomenal growth under Cold War auspices. The decision of many university administrators to sever campus ties to the military-industrial complex in the late 1960s and early 1970s had the unintended consequence of concentrating defense contracts in the hands of independent think tanks and for-profit corporations while simultaneously isolating scientists and military strategists from one another. In a peculiar irony, both the military and the universities have increasingly turned to corporate partnerships in hopes of raising revenue and driving innovation. This, too, is a legacy of the Cold War.

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Students, instructors, and casual readers can approach this book in multiple ways. Chapters 1 and 6 offer snapshots of state-sponsored science in the early and late Cold War through the stories of two iconic projects: the atomic bomb and Apollo. Readers most interested in questions of how the Cold War affected the practice of science may be particularly interested in chapter 2, on the military-industrial complex, and chapter 3, on “big science.” In contrast, chapters 4 and 5 address the uses of science, particularly the social sciences, in foreign and domestic policy. Chapter 7 then turns to the fragmentation of the Cold War consensus that science, and scientists, had a duty to support state power. Chapter 8 considers how the role of science came to change in the 1980s as Communism began to crumble and economic fears increasingly took priority. Read in order, this structure will allow readers to encounter both the “can’t miss” topics in the history of Cold War science—nuclear research, loyalty oaths, the growth of the military-industrial complex, the space race—and less obvious and familiar stories, such as psychological research on race and the campaign to eradicate malaria.

Although the chronologies of the chapters overlap, each moves the story slightly forward in time. In chapters 1 and 2, I focus on the early Cold War, the time during which federal support for science and technology was mostly strongly associated with military and defense needs. With the launch of the Soviet Sputnik in 1957, American policymakers’ notion of scientific power grew to encompass prestige as well as weaponry. Chapters 3 through 6 explore how this broader notion of scientific accomplishment played out from approximately 1957 to 1969 in both the domestic and the international arenas. The inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in January 1961 marks a turning point within this second period, as the Cold War  became an increasingly global race to capture the hearts and minds of the citizens of newly independent nations. The last two chapters trace the dissolution of the Cold War consensus in the late 1960s and the emergence of an alternative role for science in the 1970s and 1980s. These divisions are to a certain extent artificial, but they nevertheless serve to impose some useful order on what might otherwise be a sprawling account.

Every author must make decisions about what episodes to include and exclude from her account; this is particularly so in short, introductory volumes. As should already be clear, this is a work that focuses primarily on the American case. To maintain this focus, excursions beyond American borders are undertaken solely when they shed light on events closer to home. Similarly, although my definition of “science” is broad enough to include the social sciences and certain forms of technology, it does not encompass the medical sciences and therefore excludes a formal discussion of the expansion of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Like academic science, academic biomedicine grew by leaps and bounds in the postwar period, also with generous support from the federal government. But if portions of the story are similar, changing attitudes towards individual rights and informed consent—in short, the human element—complicate the telling. Specialists from other fields may surely notice omissions from their own areas of expertise. Readers interested in learning more about the vibrant and growing field of the history of science in the Cold War are encouraged to begin their exploration with the books and articles suggested in the bibliographic essay at the end of this volume.


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