Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science
Audra J. Wolfe
Johns Hopkins University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

The word “science” typically evokes epistemic ambitions to explore the fundamental laws of the natural world. This is the stuff of philosophical reflection and documentary specials—and it is unquestionably important. This ethereal vision of science appears starkly divorced from the messy fray of “politics,” however you might want to understand the term.

Our understanding of science was built, in part, on the back of Cold War cultural diplomacy.

Yet consider two other central features of today’s science: it is elite, and it is expensive. By elite, I do not mean that only certain sorts of people—the “right sorts”—have the capacity to do science. What I mean is that you cannot just pick up and decide today that you are going to be a scientist. It requires years, even decades, of training in the methods and practices of inquiry; consulting a scientist means that you are obligated to turn to someone who has already undergone that process. You do science with the scientists you have, regardless of whether they are socially or politically agreeable to you.

The expense of science is related. Especially since the end of World War II, research in cutting-edge areas of science consumes vast resources: particle accelerators, satellites, genome sequencers, large-scale field surveys, and all the monies invested in the training of those elite scientists. Someone has to pay for that. In the United States, at first that “someone” was philanthropy (such as the Rockefeller Foundation) or industry (Bell Labs), but during the Cold War it was, increasingly, the state. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union had begun large-scale state patronage of science immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Justifying the titanic expense was important both then and now. Often societies fund science because of the gizmos it can offer—atomic bombs, transistor radios, antibiotics—but they also do so for reasons of ideology. We fund this expensive, elite activity because it conveys something about the ideals of our society. That apolitical picture of science we started with turns out to be a very political project when it comes to writing the checks.

Science is one of society’s most impressive institutions, not an entity apart. We have rules for how to handle scientific testimony in courtrooms, how to protect intellectual property (and allow universities and scientists to patent publicly funded research), and a host of policies to shape the pipeline of scientists and facilitate international exchanges. Historians of science over the past several decades have chronicled not only the piecemeal emergence since the seventeenth century of this highly political environment for supporting science, but also how a countervailing sense that science was objective, impersonal, and apolitical was erected in lockstep. In her new book Freedom’s Laboratory, Audra Wolfe tells the story of how U.S. politicians and diplomats during the Cold War sought to mobilize apolitical science for ideological ends. As she shows, while there may have been roots of this twinned political/apolitical story going back to the age of Galileo and Newton, the confrontation with Communism sent the process into overdrive.

Through careful reading of reams of Anglophone materials culled from federal records, private correspondence, and newly declassified intelligence briefings, Wolfe unravels the distinctive meanings science took on within an American political and scientific elite at pains to distinguish “the West,” symbolically as well as substantially, from the Soviet Union. As Wolfe chronicles, the insistence that scientists must enjoy the freedom to pursue knowledge without political interference came to be deployed as an anti-communist weapon, winning so much support that it was able to underwrite (the concept “political interference” was deliberately silent on funding) much of the infrastructure of science as we know it—including the National Science Foundation (NSF). The separation many take for granted between science and politics, Wolfe thus shows, has a political history: it is partly “constructed and maintained through a series of political choices.”

Wolfe helps show how the inevitably political institution of science is not necessarily at odds with its intellectual integrity.

Wolfe’s book is not a history of science filled with equations, detailed accounts of laboratory research, or gee-whiz discoveries. It is about the erection of a scientific infrastructure in the Cold War and the many ways that scientists were embedded in the apparatus of that frigid confrontation. By focusing on how the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department expended a lot of attention and treasure on promoting a particular view of science both at home and abroad, she shows how our understanding of science today was built on the back of Cold War cultural diplomacy. Today, when both science and academic freedom have resurfaced as flashpoints in U.S. politics, Wolfe helps us think more clearly about how the inevitably political institution of science is not necessarily at odds with its intellectual integrity.

• • •

Freedom’s Laboratory generally works from the inside of the state outward: from the politicians, diplomats, and intelligence operatives inside the post–World War II U.S. foreign policy establishment to the scientists who ended up, often unwittingly, on the receiving end of federal support, to the institutions that were built (overtly or covertly) to pursue these ends, and finally, sometimes, to the reception by its intended audience. The emphasis, though, is always the state at the center, and so the question becomes: what did the Cold Warriors in the government think science was, that they should promote it as the very ideal of the apolitical?

For the Americans, this choice was mostly a reactive one. Already in the 1920s it was clear that the newborn Soviet Union was paying tremendous attention to science and technology. Vladimir Lenin had published his philosophical analysis of modern physics, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, eight years before the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd, and his regime took seriously its self-designation as “scientific socialism.” The issue at stake was how one defined “science.”

With Soviet biology as a foil, science was transformed into an ideal propaganda tool of the Cold War.

The official philosophy of science of the Soviet Union was dialectical materialism. In heated moments Soviet philosophers would argue whether cutting-edge scientific theories—relativity or quantum mechanics in physics, say, or resonance theory in chemistry—were compatible with the tenets of Lenin or Friedrich Engels. (Marx had comparatively little to say about such matters.) If a doctrine was found wanting—as happened with Freudian psychoanalysis in the face of Pavlov-inspired behaviorism—it was tragically suppressed, and its adherents occasionally brutally repressed. More frequently than not the demonized doctrines found champions who succeeded in averting the cudgel.

Then there was genetics—the most extreme ideological showdown in Soviet science, which set the terms for a dispute that would reverberate for decades. In 1928 a Ukrainian-born agronomist, Trofim Lysenko, began publicizing experiments concerning a process he called “vernalization.” Seeds were treated with exposure to cold or friction, and the plants that sprouted from them ostensibly displayed greater resistance to the hardships of the climate. At the same moment when Joseph Stalin had imposed collectivized agriculture on the Soviet countryside and famine was afoot, the promise of an agronomic panacea from a Soviet-educated child of peasants made the higher-ups take notice. Even the geneticists—the Soviet Union, alongside the United States, was a leading country in promoting the experimental study of Mendelian inheritance—were willing to hear this agronomist out.

Lysenko soon partnered with some philosophers and began to reframe his theory in more ambitious terms. No longer was it just a set of practical techniques to improve crop yields; now Lysenko argued that the reason vernalization worked—in itself a contentious issue, since the evidence for its efficacy was rather thin—was because the stresses “shattered” the heredity of the seed, making it amenable to reformatting under environmental influences. Lysenko sold his theories as the only correct dialectical-materialist understanding of heredity, one based on the inheritance of acquired characteristics rather than Gregor Mendel’s particles of heredity (known since 1905 as “genes”).

The story of Lysenko helped American scientists see “the West” as the natural defender of truth.

The battle was set. Lysenko was opposed by classical geneticists, not least among them Nikolai Vavilov, who boasted a global reputation for his innovative system of banking seeds as genetic material. But by the later 1930s, it suited Stalin to break the Soviet scientific community’s international ties—leading to the arrest of Vavilov in 1940 (he died in prison just over two years later). Despite some minor setbacks after the war, Lysenko maneuvered himself to a devastating victory in August 1948, when he was able to declare to a gathering of Soviet agricultural scientists that Stalin had endorsed his environmentalist understanding of heredity. Until 1965 Lysenko functioned as the despot of Soviet biology: his cronies were advanced, the textbooks were rewritten, and the geneticists were fired. (They were not shot; the repressions that struck earlier biologists were largely an epiphenomenon of the purges of the 1930s.)

U.S. observers were horrified at this nakedly political intervention into a scientific dispute, and Wolfe stresses the importance of Lysenko’s elevation to the American scientists’ ideological construction of “the West” as the natural defender of truth. The Cold Warriors could mobilize the scientists as defenders of apolitical science, holding up Stalin’s creature Lysenko as the counter-example: “By the late 1940s, the absence of scientific freedom had come to be shorthanded as Lysenkoism.” Science was transformed into an ideal propaganda tool.

Wolfe also mentions briefly how many physicists found cause to criticize politicized science—to their minds, synonymous with science in totalitarian states—on rather different grounds. To them, at least initially, the great foil to the success of American science lay not in Stalin’s Soviet Union but in Hitler’s Germany, whose scientists had demonstrably failed to produce an atomic bomb. According to physicist Samuel Goudsmit, who had been sent on the heels of the troops into liberated Europe to acquire intelligence on Nazi nuclear efforts, the Germans had only their the anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic ideology to blame. The regime was blinded by prejudice and attempted (unsuccessfully, as it happened) to suppress doctrines such as relativity and quantum theory as “Jewish physics.” For Goudsmit, the Americans succeeded where the Nazis had failed because they understood how to separate science and politics. (The irony, from our point of view, is that making atomic bombs is the ostensibly apolitical end under discussion.) For some of the scientists Wolfe tracks, this case might have been more important than Lysenko or anti-communism in their stumping for the apolitical quality of American science.

• • •

Against the backdrop of these arguments within the scientific community, the U.S. diplomatic and intelligence apparatus found plentiful grist for its Cold War mill. At first, the state’s interest was the same as Goudsmit’s: knowing about what was happening in science in Europe and elsewhere (especially behind the Iron Curtain) was vital because science—conflated as it was at the time with technology, engineering, and medicine—was what produced atomic bombs, rockets, submarines, and other potentially transformative innovations.

Wolfe’s point is that the Cold Warriors considered “science” to be part of “culture,” and so should we.

The difficulty was how to obtain that intelligence. This is where the elite structure of science comes in. Operatives had neither the contacts with foreign scientists nor the training to understand the latest innovations; scientists, on the other hand, would not willingly jeopardize their relationships by following the orders of the fledgling CIA. The solution was first to create “scientific attachés” embedded in European consulates who would gather what information they could. When foreign scientists clammed up, the State Department changed tactics. They would merely ask American scientists who were already traveling abroad (sometimes with federal funding) to describe upon their return what they had learned. These casual debriefings were a way of leveraging a mechanism of ordinary scientific interaction for the purposes of intelligence. This pattern was repeated in many guises, including at the Pugwash meetings between American and Soviet scientists for the purpose of arms control. One could be sure the Soviets were doing something similar.

Beyond intelligence gathering, the state also unrolled a highly sophisticated campaign of cultural diplomacy and propaganda (a term that did not have quite the same negative valence then as it does now). The Americans, unlike the Lysenko-dominated Soviets, should be represented as the beacons of free inquiry; they would foster scientific research and exchange with allied nations as well as with the developing world. The CIA began to funnel millions of dollars to cover organizations such as the Asia Foundation in order to promote “apolitical science.” This might sound familiar, since the role of the CIA in promoting jazz, abstract art, and cultural magazines has been studiously explored by historians over the past two decades. But as Wolfe observes, “Science is oddly absent from these accounts.” Her point is that the Cold Warriors considered “science” to be part of “culture,” and so should we.

The range of the CIA’s sponsored activities is truly staggering: translating biology textbooks, funding conferences, subsidizing academic publications, promoting nuclear disarmament (Pugwash again), and more. The scientists felt that they were doing their own work and promoting their own disciplines, and the CIA got what it wanted without anyone being the wiser—until Ramparts magazine and the New York Times blew the covers in 1967, that is. This moment is the climax of Wolfe’s narrative.

Wolfe is outraged at the opportunism of the CIA’s under-the-table promotion of science. But even after the exposés, many of the scientists who were unwittingly the instruments of this CIA largesse did not share her consternation. Science continued to be lavishly funded and to play an important role in Cold War politics. The story gradually becomes less how diplomats used scientists than how scientists used diplomats.

Gradually the story becomes less how diplomats used scientists than how scientists used diplomats.

Almost every major professional organization took money from the CIA-backed Asia Foundation; only one, the American Anthropological Association, opened an investigation into the implications after the Ramparts exposé. The others simply shrugged. Typical were the comments of Eugene Rabinowitch, editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and an outspoken advocate of the Pugwash framework: “The whole affair reminded me of ONR [Office of Naval Research] support for research after the war, when Congress could not be persuaded to appropriate money for a National Science Foundation, and the only available support was the military.” Scientists, especially physicists, had been taking military money openly for years—controversial money deployed, they insisted, for the sake of uncontroversial basic science. Why was the CIA so different?

This question is still with us, a necessary corollary of the massive expense of contemporary science. All scientists recognize that financial support is essential for science; most also believe that explicit strings attached to that money could compromise the objectivity of the research. If you work for Big Pharma or Silicon Valley, you obviously know you are working to make a product (and a profit) for your employer. Is this acceptable as long as the bosses don’t dictate the results of the science? Rabinowitch clearly thought so.

According to the evidence Wolfe presents, the Asia Foundation’s largesse seems to have come string-free; the CIA wanted to support the science people were already doing. Does this, as Wolfe believes, jeopardize the ostensibly value-free nature of the knowledge produced? Suppose the shell company worked not for the U.S. government but for Big Tobacco? The absence of direct pressure may not compromise the knowledge, but it certainly suggests that the apolitical gloss of the enterprise is but a façade.

• • •

After Ramparts, Wolfe’s narrative starts to wind down, with one exception. Her excellent final chapter, “Scientists’ Rights are Human Rights,” extends into the 1970s and to what was happening in the Soviet Union. Much attention was lavished in the late Cold War and since on the role of “dissidents” in helping transform the Soviet Union out of existence; Wolfe focuses on the often-overlooked fact that many of these dissidents were scientists: from some of the most prominent of the Jewish scientists denied emigration visas to Israel (refuzeniks), such as Yuri Orlov and Anatoly (Natan) Shcharansky, to the most famous dissident of them all, Andrei Sakharov, father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb and winner of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize for his campaigns against nuclear arms and for human rights. While measured in her claims, Wolfe does suggest that Sakharov’s “peculiar success, both as a thorn in the side of the Kremlin and as an international figure, drew in large part from attitudes about scientific freedom that circulated as part of the U.S. ideological offensive during the Cold War. In this small but important way, cultural diplomacy involving science contributed to the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union.”

Insisting that science is apolitical cannot make it so, but it can and does keep us from better understanding the political conditions that make science possible.

Subtly, throughout the book, the seeds of this argument have been planted. Many of the ideological campaigns on behalf of science took place either among allies or in zones of contestation (Latin America, Southeast Asia). But some of the most consequential of them happened directly between the two superpowers. Pugwash is a good example: elite American physicists committed to slowing the arms race encountered Soviet scientists who had been carefully vetted by the Kremlin. It was a political project on both sides, but it was also a vector for transmitting ideas that filtered through both societies, transforming them. In the end, Soviet scientists also deployed the language of apolitical science to very political ends. 

One upshot of Wolfe’s history is that it may unsettle those who assume that any assertion that “science is political” is an attack on science. That science is political is irrefutable and not connected to the reliability of the knowledge it produces. Insisting that science is apolitical cannot make it so, but it can and does keep us from better understanding the political conditions that make science possible, the political choices involved in organizing and administering it, as well as the political ideologies and structures that threaten it. “To say that the relationship between science and freedom had to be constructed and maintained is not to say that scientific freedom is not desirable,” Wolfe emphasizes. Whether in science or not, freedom is one of our most political ideas.