In this meticulously researched dual biography of scientist Bernard Vonnegut (1914-1997) and his brother, fiction writer Kurt (1922-2007), Orion contributing editor Strand (Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate, 2012, etc.) focuses on the late 1940s to the early 1950s, when the brothers both worked at General Electric.
“Progress is our most important product,” the company proclaimed, a motto that both Vonneguts came to question. In 1942, Bernie moved from MIT’s meteorology department to the famed GE Research Laboratory, where scientists found the kind of free-ranging opportunities that later would define Silicon Valley: ample time and resources to explore and experiment. There, Bernie joined the team of Project Cirrus, investigating the possibility of “man-controlled weather,” specifically, cloud seeding to produce rain. Kurt, who had been a prisoner of war and witness to the bombing of Dresden, was intent on writing short stories. But in 1945, with a wife and young child to support, he joined GE’s public relations department, “churning out peppy overviews” of GE’s innovations while, at the same time, satirizing the company in short stories that, to his dismay, were repeatedly rejected. Strand closely examines both brothers’ careers in the context of postwar euphoria: science and technology were exalted as paths to a “brave new world,” and the nation flaunted its military and economic might. Optimistic about America’s future when they first joined GE, the brothers became increasingly pessimistic due to the Korean War, the heating up of the arms race, and Cold War politics. When Bernie realized that manipulating weather was seen as a potential weapon, he pressed for government oversight, despite much popular opposition to “planning” and “regulation.” Strand’s thoughtful history, drawn from abundant archival sources, recounts the brothers’ repeated frustrations and disillusion as they confronted, in their own ways, the unsettling ethical questions of their time.
An engaging yet disquieting portrait of postwar America through the eyes of a pair of brothers who accomplished great things in different fields.