Teaching

Short Teaching Module: Science, Technology, and the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex during the Cold War

Michael A. Falcone
Link to source page for AAAS Letter

Overview

For decades, the relationship between science and the U.S. government during the early Cold War years was understood largely as a story of a militaristic state persecuting and co-opting scientists and scientific institutions to serve national security interests. And there is much truth to that framing: scientists fell victim to political witch-hunts over espionage, disloyalty, and even sexual orientation during these years. More recently, however, historians have reassessed the ways in which science and the state shaped each other during this period. As this module will explore, scientists themselves had considerable say in the development of the national security language of the era—they often played up their importance to national security, for example, in order to secure access and finances from the government. At the same time, they attempted to minimize government oversight in their work, which they cast as an age-old tradition that should be kept as free and open as possible. Through three documents, we will explore nuanced ways to understand the heightened security rhetoric of the 1940s and 50s, as well as the political aspects of commonly-held ideas about scientists and the nature of their work.

Essay

In the decade after World War II, the research and development (R&D) paradigm of the United States transformed dramatically. Prior to that point, the U.S. government had had minimal engagement with science and technology, especially in comparison to other great powers. But the war changed that dynamic. An influx of European émigré and refugee scientists into U.S. academic institutions, as well as wartime scientific collaboration with allies like Great Britain, drove a sea-change in the government’s engagement with R&D. For the first time, public expenditure reached into the billions of dollars, and crash programs drew thousands of the country’s physical scientists into development of new war technologies like radar, penicillin, computers, jet aircraft, and the atomic bomb.

The obvious importance of these developments to the country’s security meant that, unlike after World War I (when the emergency institutional arrangements had quickly been dismantled), government actors elected to keep the new wartime science and technology apparatus in a mobilized state once peace came. From this point forward, scientists and engineers would be cast in both political and cultural terms as national assets in the struggle to keep the United States “ahead” of adversaries. Scientists, like weapons, were described in the bellicose language of “stockpiles”—a shift in language that became particularly virulent as relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated. 

As the documents here illustrate, the new notion that scientists were instruments of geopolitical power meant that the gaze of government defense hawks trained increasingly on the country’s academic laboratories—a focus that only intensified with a succession of security panics in the late 1940s and early 1950s. First, in August 1949, the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb; a few months later, news broke that Manhattan Project physicist Klaus Fuchs had been a Soviet spy funneling U.S. secrets to Moscow; and finally, the militarily-connected Ethel and Julis Rosenberg were tried and executed for nuclear espionage. Amid such heightened stakes, scientists increasingly found themselves subject to political and diplomatic witch-hunts. 

On the most basic level, the documents here appear to bear out the arguments of many scientists from the time that their neutral, rational profession was being corrupted and smothered by a militarized state obsessed with geopolitical power, which they termed a “garrison state.” The first two documents, for example, show a backlash from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) and National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to 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. As a result of these views, Condon became the subject of a smear campaign by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Congress, which leaked doctored letters to the press suggesting he was a traitor.

The third document contains the response of the Harvard University Physics Department to a 1950 Congressional amendment requiring that the FBI investigate scientists’ “loyalty” before they could receive government contracts. As the Harvard scientists write, such heavy-handed attempts to root out the very rare disloyal applicant would be highly damaging overall to the morale of researchers. Moreover, if scientists were obliged to second-guess their work, then national security itself would be under threat.

To be sure, reactionary elements in Congress and the executive branch regularly persecuted scientists, including for things that had nothing to do with science, such as the researchers’ sexual orientations. Myriad careers and lives were destroyed, often at the hands of politicians and investigators with little real grasp of the scientific issues at play. 

At the same time, in the debate about a “garrison state,” scholars since the 1980s have added significant nuance to the state-science binary, identifying an atmosphere of mutual manipulation and fluid, malleable identities and categories among scientists and administrators. Taking a second look at these documents, we can identify two embedded arguments that change our initial understandings of a monolithic, militarized government bent on the manipulation of science: first, we see that scientists themselves leveraged discourses of national security, and second, we can identify the significance of their appeals to a concept known as “scientific internationalism.”

In the first instance, as scientists clamored for mushrooming state resources—remember, billions of dollars were being funneled into laboratories and research and development facilities for the first time in American history—they appealed to national leaders’ sense that science and technology was the new key to geopolitical power and national security, as we see here. The language of science-as-power, in other words, was largely their language, rather than one originating from the political class. As such, we can see subtle references to the security importance of U.S. science in all three excerpts.

Moreover, with a careful eye, we can glimpse that scientists also used security as a reason for them to be exempt from too much state direction or oversight, despite the huge sums of public money they were now receiving. One strategy was to appeal to what has been called the “linear model” of innovation, which posited a kind of conveyor belt between “basic” science (the raw exploration of the laws of nature, free from consideration of future use) and “applied” technology (the concentrated application of the “basic” concepts to develop new and useful innovations and devices, as had happened during World War II). The “linear model” was a vastly oversimplified idea, but it was politically useful, because “basic” science was framed as something centuries old, sacrosanct, and based on the total freedom of scientists from outside pressures—in other words, modern academic physicists, chemists, and others framed themselves as being on a continuum with past polymaths and inventors like Benjamin Franklin and Isaac Newton, whose apparent freedom from outside meddling had contributed to their revolutionary discoveries. The implication was that equal professional freedom would inevitably result in new, militarily useful inventions “of greatest importance to the welfare of the country,” in the words of the AAAS. By extension, any state procedures that “limit[ed] the freedom” of scientists and their students would also detract from “national safety [and] security.”

Turning to our second category, we can see that science lobbyists also used the notion of “scientific internationalism” to lend themselves political and professional credence. The idea of scientific internationalism dated back at least to the seventeenth century, when elite literati spoke of their participation in a nationless, borderless “republic of letters” premised on freedom of exchange and the selfless pursuit of the laws of nature and the universe. By the time of the Cold War, this had morphed into a claim among U.S. researchers that “basic” science was a universalizing agent of progress, above the fray of geopolitics or power squabbles, and that it was international, transhistorical, and uncontainable. In this conception, “progress” could only be attained by allowing maximal freedom both at home and across international borders. Thus we see the AAAS’s argument that the transnational sharing of science—including between the United States and Soviet Union—not only had no bearing on questions of “disloyalty,” but also would benefit all humankind. 

Scientists found national leaders receptive to this argument—especially if it could benefit U.S. diplomatic interests. The Atoms for Peace campaign in the 1950s and the space program in the 1960s used scientific internationalism to suggest that America’s greatness in R&D could justify its global leadership. Only the following decade, with failure in the Vietnam War, growing awareness of environmental degradation, oil shocks, and political and cultural turmoil, did the positivist notion of scientific internationalism as a diplomatic tool begin to come apart.

Returning to our documents, now we begin to see the way in which these two scientific lobbying discourses—national security and scientific internationalism—came together as a tool for scientists to enhance their profession’s material and political standing. On the one hand, scientists were now directly engaging with politics, and had considerable leverage in doing so, because they represented a vital national security asset—a “stockpile” in a new kind of arms race. They argued that if they were given nearly unlimited state resources and total personal freedom, they could let the “linear model” play out and transform free, basic science into astonishing new technologies and weapons for the nation. To bolster this case, they turned to the axiom that scientists were not just national actors, but also part of a cosmopolitan, transnational fraternity of truth-seekers. The universal nature of “basic” science meant that it would not only be anti-scientific for the state to attempt to impose any limit on U.S. researchers, but that doing so would also weaken the nation’s most important asset “at a time when effective government science is of the greatest importance to the welfare of the country.”

Ultimately, a close reading of these documents reveals that in the newly science-focused postwar United States, there was indeed a growing, aggressive, and suspicious military-industrial complex—but it was not set apart from the scientific community in the way that many earlier narratives made it seem. Government and science instead learned to accommodate and exploit each other in various ways. The state needed scientists’ expertise because of its growing belief that science and technology were key markers of geopolitical power; scientists, meanwhile, used the political process to secure state money and resources while resisting control and oversight. Narratives of national security and internationalism were used by both sides to serve their political ends—but also had the power to escape the control and intent of their original proponents. 

It is thus productive to complicate older notions like the “garrison state,” and instead to recognize that national security might be better framed as a process, rather than a thing, as much defined by outcomes as intents, and with its improvised frameworks and language often repurposed—and abused—in unexpected ways. 
 

Primary Sources

AAAS Defends Edward Condon from HUAC, 1948

Link to source page for AAAS Letter
Annotation

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

National Academy of Sciences objects to political persecution of Condon, 1948

Link to source page for NAS Letter
Annotation

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

Harvard Physics Department asserts that investigations threaten national security, 1950

Link to source page for Harvard Letter
Annotation

This document is the response of the Harvard University Physics Department to a proposed Congressional amendment in 1950 requiring that the FBI investigate scientists’ “loyalty” before they could receive government contracts. As the Harvard scientists write, heavy-handed attempts to root out the very rare disloyal applicant would be highly damaging overall to the morale of researchers. Moreover, if scientists were obliged constantly to second-guess their work, then national security itself would be under threat. The letter reveals the defensive posture of U.S. physicists against growing political mistrust 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 this 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. Scientists, they said, could be a vital national security asset only if their profession was free, open, and unfettered. This nuanced argument was mostly successful in securing vast government funding and support, but as the congressional attempts to impose “loyalty” tests outlined here show, it could also inspire suspicion and backlash. The push-and-pull between these forces, and the evolution of political discourses and argument surrounding science and the state in this period, shows us the nature of national security as an ongoing process, rather than a tangible thing.

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

Bibliography

Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.


Vannevar Bush, “Science: The Endless Frontier.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1945.


Joy Rohde, Armed with Expertise: The Militarization of American Social Research during the Cold War. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2013.


Joseph Manzione, “‘Amusing and Amazing and Practical and Military’: The Legacy of Scientific Internationalism in American Foreign Policy, 1945-1963,” Diplomatic History 24:1, 2000
 

Credits

Michael Falcone is an Ernest May Postdoctoral Fellow in History and Policy at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. As a historian of the U.S. and the world, his research examines the connections between science, technology, and global power in the twentieth century. His book project, The Rocket's Red Glare: Transatlantic Technology and the Rise of American Global Power, analyzes the role of British knowledge and technology in the U.S.'s rise to hegemony, as well as the ways in which technology came to redefine notions of empire, aid, diplomacy, and development in the twentieth century. He has previously held fellowships at Dartmouth College’s Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and Yale University’s International Security Studies. He received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 2019.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Science, Technology, and the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex during the Cold War," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-science-technology-and-us-military-industrial-complex-during-cold-war [accessed December 9, 2022]