As the United States and the Soviet Union harnessed science to build bigger bombs during the Cold War, the US government was trying to keep tabs on the scientific research going on around the world.
That meant sending American scientists abroad to gather scientific intelligence — and the scientists were about as subtle about it as you’d expect. In one case, American bacteriologist Ralph Wyckoff was sent to the United Kingdom, where the US ambassador set him up with a cutting-edge electron microscope. As a result, Wyckoff didn’t have to go far to find people to probe for information: scientists were literally “standing at the door” to check out his microscope, according to science historian Audra Wolfe’s new book, Freedom’s Laboratory.
The book, published in November, explores the science of the Cold War beyond its more tangible role in developing weapons. Instead, Wolfe focuses on science as propaganda, part of America’s psychological offensive designed to convince people to buy into American ideology. She traces the perception that science should be free and unimpeded by borders and politics to this era. But the idea that science is apolitical was itself a political idea, Wolfe says. “Scientific freedom, in other words, had to be constructed and maintained through a series of political choices,” she writes. “Those choices involved power — politics by another name.”
There were a few reasons the US pushed this idea of free and apolitical science. For one thing, encouraging open scientific communication helped the US learn what the international scientific community was up to. For another, this ideology of scientific freedom set American science apart from the more visibly controlled science of the Soviet Union — even as the US curtailed the freedoms of American scientists at home. For instance, the Atomic Energy Commission yanked the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, because of his suspected ties to communism. “This language of scientific freedom and independence from the government was always aspirational language that never reflected the reality in the United States,” Wolfe says.
The Verge spoke to Wolfe about what the politics of science during the Cold War can teach us about today.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What is your book about?
The question of why so many American scientists think of science as being apolitical when it’s so patently obvious that that’s not true. And there are a lot of different answers to that question, but one of the most important is this issue of Cold War propaganda. So I wanted to use this book to explore the lingering effects of overt, covert, and private propaganda in how we think about and how we talk about science today.
How did the Cold War spawn this idea that science is apolitical?
To understand this we have to understand a thing that was happening in Soviet genetics. There was a Ukrainian agronomist by the name of Trofim Lysenko who basically took over genetics in the Soviet Union, and in 1948 the Communist party adopted his views on genetics as being the party line. And so people who didn’t share his views about genetics lost their jobs, their research institutions were dismantled, the research went underground. About a decade earlier than that, some geneticists who had opposed Lysenko had been arrested, some had been imprisoned, some had been disappeared. And when observers in the West saw what was happening with Lysenko’s power grab, they really extrapolated from that to say that this is inevitably what will happen with science in the Soviet Union: that there will be no kind of freedom, that scientists will be jailed, that scientists won’t have freedom of thought, scientific research will be absolutely controlled by the state and subject to planning.
How did the United States respond?
The US was fighting an ideological war, and science really became a battleground — a really fertile area to say, “We’re not like that. In the United States there is no party line for science, and scientists are making decisions about how science can work.” A very specific case where you can see that playing out is in the establishment of the National Science Foundation in 1950, where scientists would be making the decisions about what to fund. There would be no central planning for science, nobody would be establishing a party line for what scientists should work on. All of that language about scientific freedom, particularly in the late 1940s, early 1950s, is about drawing a heightened contrast with the way science was supposedly operating under communism.
Does that mean that science was just a tool for propaganda, or were scientists actually collecting intelligence during the Cold War?
During this time period, the United States and the Soviet Union were, of course, very interested in collecting scientific intelligence on one another’s activities. We often think of the CIA and intelligence work as being cloak-and-dagger stuff. But the day-to-day work of intelligence gathering and intelligence analysis is much more mundane. The basic building blocks of scientific intelligence are things like understanding how many research centers a country had, or what areas of research a country is particularly good at, or which scientists in any given country might have studied in the West, and therefore might be more sympathetic to Western attitudes.
US policymakers had the brilliant realization that the best way to do that would be to encourage the open exchange of science. This had an additional ideological bonus in that if you were encouraging scientists to be out in the world and emphasizing how open your systems were, that was drawing a pretty dramatic contrast to the way that science was being carried out in the Soviet Union. So a lot of these American scientists who were on the international stage were both sincerely saying “We believe that science should be conducted openly, and that science shouldn’t have any borders.” And simultaneously, those same actions were allowing the possibility of collecting scientific intelligence.
How does understanding the origins of this ideology that science is apolitical help us understand the scientific environment in the US today?
One of the weirdest moments for me in writing this book was during the Trump transition, when the transition team asked the Department of Energy for a list of scientists who had participated in certain international climate meetings. That was a pretty shocking request that to me, as a historian of the Cold War, felt like Lysenkoism — which was about establishing these party lines. It wasn’t necessarily about shooting scientists, it was about controlling research agendas, and punishing people who didn’t follow those research agendas. Ultimately the DOE did not comply with that request. But scientists were archiving data, they were worried that data was going to be disappeared, they were worried that there were going to be these litmus tests for which federal scientists were going to keep their jobs. All of that looked like Lysenkoism. It was deeply troubling, and fairly alarming.
If this idea that science is apolitical is a political idea, is it a lie?
To say that something has to be constructed and maintained isn’t to say that it’s not desirable. Scientists function better under conditions of freedom than they do under totalitarianism. You have to make choices, and you have to claim those choices about how you want science to operate. It’s not going to occur naturally.
So now when scientists are under attack, sometimes they just revert to that language about how science should be. It’s a Cold War language, and at the time it resonated with the public, it resonated with politicians, to a certain extent it resonated with international audiences. But we’re in a different context now.
The past few years have been pretty eye-opening for American scientists. I think it’s made many scientists more aware of what they weren’t seeing before, and that’s allowed a much more open conversation about the limits of apolitical science. Simply appealing to scientific freedom won’t work: it doesn’t establish science as part of the common good. And that’s going to have to happen for scientists to regain some of the public’s trust and some of the political trust.