A junior high school in Connecticut. (1952)
Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc./Library of Congress
book review / science

How the Cold War Defined Scientific Freedom

The idea that liberal democracies shielded science from politics was always flawed.
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The CIA’s work in sponsoring anti-Communist culture—from highbrow magazines to the cartoon version of Animal Farm you may have watched in middle school—is often described as part of the “Cultural Cold War,” the primarily Soviet and American attempt to win hearts and minds by attracting the allegiance of artists and intellectuals. Audra Wolfe’s Freedom’s Laboratory seeks to extend the “cultural” discussion into the world of science. As she cogently argues, psychological warfare planners understood the word “culture” the way that midcentury anthropologists did: to refer to the entire “structure of society,” not merely to its artists.

At the dawn of the atomic age, scientists were prominent social commentators and advisors, perhaps at the height of their social influence. And the American way of doing science, the “free” way of doing science, was considered fundamental to their success. A 1947 army report concluded that the reason that the United States had developed the atom bomb while Nazi Germany had failed was that “science under fascism was not, and in all probability could never be, the equal of science in a Democracy.” Dogmatic thinking and totalitarian social structures were the enemy of free inquiry, and so “Western science” was defined as simultaneously apolitical and synonymous with freedom.

Wolfe sees the ideal of scientific freedom as a laudable goal. But Freedom’s Laboratory is also a warning. “For twenty years,” Wolfe writes, “leading US scientists and government officials alike attempted to convince audiences both at home and abroad that American science had uniquely transcended politics through its commitment to scientific freedom.” But those were political claims that obscured several things: that all Americans did not have equal access to scientific freedom, or to freedom in general, and that many advocates of scientific freedom also defended U.S. policies that worsened global inequality. Apolitical science, in other words, was thoroughly and unavoidably political.
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