Of psy-ops, seismic detection, and other emanations of the Cold War as it was conducted in petri dishes and cyclotrons.
In this engaging and dense study of the politics of science in the Cold War era, historian Wolfe (Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America, 2012) examines a puzzling paradox: In an era of McCarthy-ite redbaiting and witch-hunting, how could scientists with leftist affiliations keep on working on classified projects related to that struggle against the Communist bloc? The answer is that the era may not have been as thoroughly politicized as we think—or, in the case of at least one prominent researcher, “the US government embraced advocates of scientific freedom as spokespersons for American values.” Just so, science was not necessarily oppositional: A scientist could support civil rights and other prematurely anti-fascist causes without by definition becoming an enemy of the state, and indeed many scientists took care to make clear distinctions between their personal views and their public objectivity. Well-funded by dozens of organizations that were in varying degrees dependent on the government—even as the government took care to pretend that they were all independent—these scientists fought the scientific Cold War on many fronts, engaging against Lysenko-ist notions of genetics here and doing thermonuclear research there. Even so, they engaged Soviet-bloc scientists in regular conferences, some specifically with an eye on promoting international cooperation and peace; they also participated in operations such as Pugwash, which “offered a reliable backchannel for diplomats and intelligence officers in both the United States and the Soviet Union" even as it purported to be made up of unaffiliated scientists. In the end, Wolfe suggests, scientific neutrality, when it comes to politics, may be a chimera, but even that doesn’t matter much in an era when, in the U.S. government, “the structures of power no longer value independent thought, a common public good, or global opinion”—or indeed, science itself.
A strong contribution to the history of modern science.