Primary Source

AAAS Defends Edward Condon from HUAC, 1948


This document from 1948 circulates to members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) the organization’s position on the political persecution of Edward Condon, a physicist and director of the Bureau of Standards. Condon was a moderate internationalist who had a then-mainstream view that atomic bombs were too dangerous for any one country to control. Like many of his colleagues, he was also an advocate for the free, open practice of basic science across borders, and participated in international scientific conferences and exchanges. As a result of these views and activities, Condon became the subject of a smear campaign by the right-wing House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Congress, which leaked doctored letters to the press suggesting he was a traitor. With this document, the leadership of the AAAS comes to Condon’s defense, noting not only that the accusations against him were unfounded, but also that baseless persecutions like this one would inevitably have a chilling effect on the willingness of top scientists to work with the government. The letter reveals the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust around science in the early Atomic Age, but it also raises important questions about the changing relationships between science, politics, and the government in this era. With billions in new public expenditures being funneled to academic and corporate laboratories for research and development, what political justifications were used to gain public backing for such a commitment? What arguments did scientists themselves make about their own importance to national security? And how did they reconcile their claims about science and national defense with longstanding ideas about the borderless, free, and international nature of science? The AAAS’s argument here demonstrates that scientists attempted to thread a needle between the importance of R&D to national defense on the one hand, and the widely-held belief that science could only be effective as a truly international, liberal, and free endeavor on the other. Government leaders mostly accepted these claims, but the case of Condon shows that such nuanced narratives combining national security and “scientific internationalism” could sometimes escape the control and intent of their original proponents.

This source is part of the science and Cold War teaching module


April 5, 1948
Dear Member of the National Academy of Sciences:

This letter of March 31, from Dr. Richards, submitting a proposed statement concerning the attack on Dr. Condon, includes in full the Report of the Un-American Activities Committee, and no reply or rebuttal by Dr. Condon. It has therefore appeared desirable to the undersigned to call attention to a statement by members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, with the permission of its president, Dr. Howard Mumford Jones. We have all been close enough to the case to feel that this statement is an accurate representation of the facts.
    L.C. Dunn        D.A. MacInnes
    Louis P. Hammett    I.I. Rabi
    Victor K. LaMer    M.M. Rhoades
    L.G. Longsworth    D.D. Van Slyke

To the Fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences:


A committee consisting of the undersigned has been appointed by the Council of the Academy to report to the Fellows regarding the attack on Dr. E.U. Condon, Fellow of the Academy, and Director of the National Bureau of Standards, by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. 

We have looked into the published information, consisting of the Report to the Full Committee of the Special Sub-Committee on National Security, of the Committee on Un-American Affairs; correspondence and press released from the Committee and the Department of Commerce; and an address and release to the press and radio by Congressman Chet Holifield of California. These documents leave in our minds no doubt but that the committee has attacked Dr. Condon in the press, by the use of insinuation and innuendo, without producing valid evidence of disloyalty. The Secretary of Commerce takes the same view, and supports Dr. Condon’s loyalty, as have the investigating agencies which have looked into his record.

The charges against Dr. Condon consist largely of statements that he has associated with certain diplomatic representatives of Poland and other eastern European countries; that he belongs to a certain American-Soviet Science Society; that he has made friendly speeches regarding Russian scientists; and that he has encouraged the interchange of scientific reports with Russia. They omit to state that the diplomatic representative most discussed was a member of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, and a fellow-physicist, with whom Condon would naturally have scientific dealings; that the American-Soviet Science Society is an organization, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, for the purpose of making reports of Soviet research available in this country; that the friendly speeches were made soon after the war, when a resumption of scientific relations between this country and the Soviet Union was desired generally by American scientists. One gets the impression, from reading the attack, that the House Committee is interpreting a natural desire to share the results of scientific research internationally as evidence of disloyalty. 

Such persecution of government scientists can only result in a reluctance on the part of reputable scientists to take government positions, at a time when effective government science is of the greatest importance to the welfare of the country. We believe that the Academy should go on record as opposing such methods. We propose the following statement of our position: 

“The Fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences condemn the un-American procedure of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in publishing in the public press charges of disloyalty against Dr. E.U. Condon, on evidence which clearly appears inadequate, and without giving him an adequate to present his case.”

    P.W. Bridgman,     Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, 
Harvard University
    E.M. Morgan,     Professor of Law,
                Harvard University
    J.C. Slater,        Chairman, Professor of Physics,
                Massachusetts Institute of Technology


“To the Fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,” April 5, 1948, Vannevar Bush papers, box 81, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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