Science’s Freedom Fighters

Any process of designing science, with its complex suite of methods, funding structures, laboratories, and so forth, is inherently political.

Science’s Freedom Fighters

Freedom’s Laboratory by Audra J. Wolfe. Johns Hopkins University Press. 312 pages.

A FEW MONTHS AGO, a new meme swept over the Twitter-scape. For a few days, historians dutifully composed 240-character-long correctives about the past. They framed their missives with ASCII art — a bunny holding a protest placard with the accompanying #HistorianSignBunny hashtag.

One of the most widely shared correctives came from Audra J. Wolfe, a historian of science by training, an author and editor by occupation, and a vocal member of a community of historians who use social media as a tool for public engagement.

Her simple injunction, just five words long, provoked a multi-day uproar during which scientists, historians, and, of course, less-than-well-meaning trolls responded to her message. Her point is hardly provocative among historians. If anything, it’s banal. Science has been enmeshed in politics for centuries. Full stop.

Some of her critics were hung up on an idealized notion of “The Scientific Method”; they took umbrage with her tweet because of confusion over what “science” is. If one deploys the comically narrow definition — that science represents discovered facts about “The Universe” (e.g., acceleration due to gravity on the earth’s surface is 9.8 meters per second squared) — well, then one might be hard pressed to see it as “political.” But this misunderstands the nature of the thing in question. A more accurate and precise definition: science is the production of reliable knowledge about the natural world. With this definition, dozens of doors open to admitting all sorts of political beasties. Almost every one of those words — production, reliable, knowledge, and natural — is steeped in webs of politics and power.

Some Twitter users protested that Wolfe had missed the point. While “scientists” might be political actors, “science” itself was surely not. As one tweeter insisted, “science itself was designed to be apolitical.” Wolfe patiently replied that any “process” of designing science, with its complex suite of methods, funding structures, laboratories, and so forth, is nonetheless inherently political.

The crux of the misunderstanding regards what scientists actually produce. Science doesn’t produce certainty. It produces consensus. And, by its very nature, this process of making consensus about the natural world — “vaccines are essential tools of public health” or “the Earth is round” — is deeply rooted in politics (whether happening in local school boards or the United Nations). What we know may belong in some arid land of dry facts but how we know has a political dimension. Just ask James Hanson or any scientist trying to counter anti-vaxxers.

Wolfe’s new book, Freedom’s Laboratory, frontally addresses questions of what science is, how it is best done, and how it (and scientists themselves) might be strategically deployed to advance national interests. As suggested by its subtitle — “The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science” — after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a global free-for-all to win hearts, minds, and markets. This extended to “science.” Americans exerted their minds and money to distinguish a “good” American science from its communist — and, therefore, by definition compromised — counterpart.

As Wolfe convincingly argues, these efforts were based from the outset in a questionable assumption: that American science, perhaps like America itself, was exceptional in being inherently apolitical. Or, put slightly differently: It was neutral, unlike its Soviet counterpart. And from this fallacy, as she demonstrates, much trouble has ensued.

For the next two decades, American scientists and government officials assiduously “attempted to convince audiences both at home and abroad that American science had uniquely transcended politics.” Strategically deploying an ideology of “scientific freedom,” American scientists were, the story went, committed to empiricism, objectivity, pure research (as opposed to research for specific applications like making weapons of mass destruction and sending people into space), and internationalism. By the end of her book, Wolfe builds a convincing case for “freedom” being just another word for expediency, realpolitik, opportunism, and perhaps even hypocrisy.

In order for US scientists to frame their science as free, pure, and better, they needed a foil. Wolfe describes how they found their boogeyman in Trofim Lysenko. An agronomist keen to improve Soviet agricultural output, he began experimenting with “vernalization” in the 1920s. This is a well-known agricultural technique that involves rubbing seeds with ice or soaking them in cold water so that they can function as winter crops. Although the technique can produce some positive results — it was actually discovered by an American in the 19th century — Lysenko used his research to promote a version of heredity that was more compatible with Marxist teaching. He correspondingly denounced classical genetics of the type pioneered by Gregor Mendel in the mid-19th century and advanced by geneticists like Thomas Hunt Morgan a half century later. According to Lynsenko, “genes” were immaterial entities dreamed up by ideologically compromised Western biologists. He won Stalin’s favor and so his opponents were arrested, imprisoned, and sometimes killed. In 1948, at the outset of the Cold War, Lysenko proclaimed that his version of biology was endorsed by the Soviet state. All other approaches to studying genetics were forthwith banned. His reign devastated Soviet biology, enduring for over a decade after Stalin’s demise in 1953.

To American geneticists, Lysenkoism represented all that was bad about Soviet science. Not only was the research underpinning it poorly done, but its opponents suffered cruelly. Even more damning, it was warped to uphold dialectical materialism, the Soviets’ philosophy of science. In the United States, the anti-Lysenko platform was adopted most forcefully by Hermann J. Muller, a biologist who won a Nobel Prize in 1946 for showing how radiation-like x-rays can produce genetic mutations. But, unlike many of his colleagues, Muller had actually worked in the Soviet Union and, for a while, had even been a passionate socialist. By the beginning of World War II, however, he was thoroughly disenchanted. Appalled by the growing power of Lysenkoism, he became a virulent anti-Stalinist — and, after receiving his Nobel, eagerly used his platform to denounce Lysenkoism and, by association, the politically compromised nature of Soviet science in general. The US State Department, recognizing a golden opportunity to highlight the superior “apolitical” qualities of American science, happily abetted him. The vitriol in Muller’s speeches and articles was then further amplified in the early days of the Cold War by magazines like Time, which jumped on the bandwagon to decry how Soviet scientists must “toe the party line.” Throwing shade at Lysenko, Muller himself, according to Wolfe, proclaimed science a “tender plant,” whose progress depends on “complete freedom of inquiry and of criticism.”

But here’s the rub: Lysenkoism was in fact a rather narrow brush with which to paint a wholesale picture of Soviet science’s corruption.

Indeed, the problem with Muller’s diagnosis is that it ignored two unpleasant truths. First, lots of good science was underway inside the Soviet Union, particularly in areas like physics, materials science, astronomy, and mathematics. The story of Soviet nuclear scientists being shielded from potential political fallout is a case in point. Despite the fact that much modern physics theory went against the grain of Soviet political ideology — quantum mechanics relies on lots of less-than-readily-tangible entities and deeply strange philosophical ideas — its practitioners were left alone because the Soviet state needed their expertise. As Stalin allegedly said, “Leave the physicists alone. We can always shoot them later.” As a result, work in physics, albeit in the service of making nuclear weapons, proceeded apace and the Soviets tested their first atomic device in August 1949. Their successes raise a second point: science doesn’t need freedom or democracy in order to function effectively. But acknowledging this would have undercut the Americans’ party line. As Wolfe notes, by 1950, the “absence of scientific freedom had come to be shorthanded as Lysenkoism.”

It was this ideal of scientific freedom that American officials at the State Department and the CIA promoted throughout the world in the Cold War’s first two decades. Wolfe details a variety of methods, enacted with varying success, that used the premise of scientific internationalism as a tool to collect intelligence. Lloyd Berkner, a radio engineer who became a statesman of science in the 1950s, argued that official science attachés and American scientists attending international meetings could produce “certain definite benefits […] essential to the security and welfare” of the United States. This flavor of internationalism was decidedly not apolitical.

These efforts, as Wolfe describes, were often executed with a near-comic ineptitude or torpedoed by inter-agency mistrust between the State Department and the CIA. American scientists, nonetheless, refused to see their own activities as political. Wolfe relates at least two cases of interviewing scientists who, decades after the fact, still insisted on this point. Even as they were scooping up foreign publications and attending overseas meetings, sometimes returning home to write reports to their handlers on their observations, these scientists claimed their work as apolitical.

After the Cold War ended and access to new archival material became available, historians like Frances Stonor Saunders and Hugh Wilford meticulously documented the extent to which the CIA co-opted and bankrolled cultural organizations to expand American political influence. Wolfe’s book contributes to our knowledge of this concerted campaign. Like Saunders, she directs attention to the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), a Paris-based organization that the CIA covertly supported. As she notes, all-too-often, historians’ views have been shaped by the recollections of participants rather than by asking why the CIA funded it all.

Wolfe’s verdict in a nutshell: Science was a key, oft-unrecognized part of this broader cultural offensive.

For a brief period of time, the CCF operated a Committee on Science and Freedom, run out of Paris by the chemist-philosopher Michael Polanyi and his son, George. With patronage from the CIA, the Committee envisioned science as a bellwether for global freedom. If scientists in a given country were free to work, disagree, travel, and so forth, then that was a healthy political situation. The irony is rich here as it was the United States that denied scientists visas to travel (left-leaning Linus Pauling was refused permission to travel in 1952, as it “would not be in the best interest of the United States”), revoked their passports, (rocket engineer Frank Malina was marooned overseas for years) or tolerated individuals’ harassment by the House Un-American Activities Committee (too many of them to list). Given our current president’s penchant for pulling security clearances and restricting foreign entry visas, Wolfe could easily have done more to highlight parallels.

Unfortunately, the Polanyis appear in Wolfe’s telling as clumsy promoters of this idea, using their platform and patronage to broadcast their own particular perspectives. Although their mission may have been to advance “freedom,” their methods in retrospect seem more often than not driven by personal animus rather than noble intent. And, as Wolfe hints at, it’s one thing to propose a series of ambitious programs to advance scientific “freedom”; actually measuring their real-world impact presents historians and others with a daunting task.

This said, during the Eisenhower administration, measuring impact was easy in two cases. In 1953, President Eisenhower, who wanted to blunt criticism of the American nuclear arms buildup, announced his “Atoms for Peace” program to the United Nations. This heralded the launch of a massive international propaganda campaign, complete with a postage stamp and traveling exhibitions. Throughout the 1950s, American diplomats, scientists, and politicians duly extolled the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy.

The outcome is well known. No good deed in the service of freedom goes unpunished — several countries, including Iran, India, and Pakistan launched nuclear weapons programs via Atoms for Peace. If it was a possibly short-term diplomatic success, Atoms for Peace ultimately encouraged nuclear proliferation and, some might argue, actually diminished US security.

Likewise, in the mid-1950s, the US government announced its participation in the International Geophysical Year, a multi-national 18-month program of research in fields like oceanography, meteorology, atmospheric science, and, with the launch of the first artificial satellites in 1957 and 1958, space science. It, too, received a stamp.

Many of the measurements carried out by American and Soviet scientists had value for military applications. Although Wolfe labels this international science program a failure, that depends on one’s perspective. The IGY provided the opportunity and funding that enabled Charles Keeling, then a postdoctoral research at Caltech, to start measuring carbon dioxide levels. His research, conducted at places like Hawai’i’s Mauna Loa and an Antarctic station, created a “baseline” level of atmospheric CO


. He continued to collect data long after the IGY ended, his eponymously named curve clearly demonstrating the inexorable rise of CO


levels over time. To be sure, Keeling’s measurements, originally part of an effort to advertise the open and apolitical nature of US science, would later be politicized and demonized by climate change deniers. But that doesn’t mean the program was a failure.

With the IGY came the launch of Sputnik. Clearly, Soviet citizens’ lack of freedom did not hobble their rocket science. Sputnik spurred American policy-makers once again to exploit science to serve national aims, catalyzing US efforts to revamp science education in fields like physics and biology. The opportunity to tacitly juxtapose Western biology with its Soviet counterpart by stressing Mendelian genetics was too tempting to pass up. It’s here that Wolfe’s book reveals what was, for me, a new chapter in thinking about Cold War science. With support from the CIA-funded Asia Foundation, new American-authored biology textbooks were translated and adopted in places like Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Each of these translations presented Western-style biological topics adapted to suit local needs. For example, flora and fauna pertinent to specific countries were included even as all versions of textbooks stressed the value of “free” inquiry-based learning as opposed to dogmatic memorization. This was, Wolfe says, “classroom empiricism as civic instruction,” as science curricula were reformed to promote larger US objectives. What is less clear, as in the case of many of these efforts at scientific diplomacy, is what the effects were. Were Asian students nudged toward an American perspective via their classroom materials and, if so, how?

While such effects might be hard to judge, the backlash against them is not. Wolfe describes how a whole slew of CIA-funded efforts, including its “partnership” with the Asia Foundation, were uncovered in 1967. Starting with articles in Ramparts, which were picked up by the mainstream media, journalists described how the CIA had been playing a “mighty Wurlitzer” in its efforts to influence brains and beliefs. The ostensible pursuit of an idealized apolitical scientific freedom was shown to be politically compromised. Likewise, many scientists, reacting to critiques of power and privilege in the 1960s, “sought new forms of scientific organizations that rejected the possibility of a politically neutral science.” Through groups like Science for the People, science was used to advance politically explicit goals such as helping poor and oppressed people. Ironically, this “political” science may have done more to help promote basic American values than all the earlier CIA-supported efforts.

Ultimately, Wolfe offers a damning critique of attempts to use science to promote internationalism and an American-inflected idea of freedom. As she notes toward the end of her book, “the particular version of ‘scientific freedom’ promoted by postwar scientific administrators […] was a racist, sexist, and antidemocratic vision of science.” She challenges a viewpoint held by some (but not all) historians that “American institutions valued scientists who eschewed politics.” Their claims about scientific freedom, autonomy, and internationalism were not apolitical but were rather carefully constructed tools to advance a particular political vision. Lofty words and ideals invariably masked self-interest. Moreover, American scientists — overwhelmingly male and white — championed political and practical ends that didn’t always advance the cause of Freedom with a capital F. In the United States’s Cold War arsenal, science was deployed for the purposes of global influence-peddling. When seen from this perspective, “freedom” was just another word for something meant to use.


W. Patrick McCray is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of several articles and books about science during the Cold War.

LARB Contributor

W. Patrick McCray is a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara and the author of five books on the history of modern science and technology including Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture (MIT Press, 2020). McCray is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


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