National Academy of Sciences objects to political persecution of Condon, 1948
This document from 1948 expresses concern by members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) over the political persecution of Edward Condon, a physicist and director of the Bureau of Standards. Dating back to the 1860s, the NAS is a professional association tasked with giving scientific advice to the government. Here its members argue that the Academy’s ability to recommend scientists for important government posts may become more challenging as politicians increasingly made public smears against the reputations of scientists like Condon. 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. These views and activities led him to become the subject of a slanderous 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. The NAS’s letter reveals the defensive posture of U.S. science against political attacks in the early Cold War, 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 make about their own importance to national security? And how did they reconcile their arguments about science and national defense with longstanding ideas about the borderless, free, and international nature of science? Documents like this one show 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 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.
A Statement by Members of the National Academy of Sciences Concerning a National Danger (Mar 26, 1948)
The National Academy of Sciences, created by Congressional Charter signed by President Lincoln in 1863, has the duty “whenever called upon by any department of the Government to investigate, examine, experiment and report upon any subject of science or art” …..
Among the requests which departments of Government have made of the Academy in the past and among those which may be expected in future are recommendations of men competent to fill important scientific posts in Government bureaus and aid in securing them. A recent event, familiar in pattern, has occurred which, if the pattern becomes established, will make more difficult the persuasion of able scientists to accept Government employment in times of peace.
We refer to the report released on March 1, 1948, by the Sub-committee on National Security of the Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives concerning the Director of the National Bureau of Standards of the Department of Commerce, Dr. Edward U. Condon. The report contains a recitation of associations, recounted in such a way as to imply improper disclosures of secret information; of incidents, so described as to imply guilt. In it are many insinuations but no direct accusation; while it contains no avowed evidence of wrong-doing, it calls the record which it describes “derogatory”; it associates the subject of the report with “other Government officials in strategic positions who are playing Stalin’s game to the detriment of the United States.”
We fully recognize the obligation of the Committee to discharge the duties assigned to it by Congress and we are wholly in favor of full and impartial investigation of legitimate charges. We recognize the necessity not only of loyalty but also of rigorous discretion on the part of any Government employee who possesses information, the disclosure of which would menace the national security. Not having full evidence, we decline to express judgment concerning the justice of the accusations implied in the report cited above.
But as citizens we emphatically disclaim a type of procedure by a governmental committee by which a man is represented to the public as guilty before having been given an opportunity to answer.
The time will never come when the help of American scientists, as described in the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, will not be freely available to our Government; nor in time of national emergency will our scientists be unwilling to serve the Government at whatever personal cost. Our present concern springs from the belief that such procedures as that which calls forth this statement may deter willing scientists from entering Government employ and will diminish the respect with which citizens regard opportunities for service to their Government. Should these possibilities be realized our country will have suffered incalculable harm.
“A Statement by Members of the National Academy of Sciences Concerning A National Danger,” March 26, 1948. Vannevar Bush papers, box 81, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.