For some dedicated ideologues, everything is political, from voting to ordering a cup of coffee. While that’s obviously an extreme point of view, it’s undeniable that politics affects a wide range of human endeavors. Science has generally been held up as one area that’s objective and dispassionate, free of the taint of political bias and ideological agendas, an enterprise joining all humanity in a single purpose without borders.
As with most lofty ideals, of course, the reality is considerably different. Newton’s laws of motion or Einstein’s special relativity may be apolitical in their essence, but because their interpretation and application are inevitably subject to human emotion and opinions, we have artillery shells and atomic bombs. Anyone who labors under the belief that science can operate completely free of political influence need only ask any of the thousands of scientists whose work was crippled and livelihoods threatened by the recent shutdown of the federal government.
As the historian Audra J. Wolfe demonstrates in her book “Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science,” the entanglement of science and politics becomes especially troublesome in times of great turmoil. While there’s plenty of scholarly work about scientists co-opted by the government and military to build weapons, Wolfe examines the far more obscure history of how scientists participated — sometimes unwittingly, sometimes knowingly — in the quieter psychological warfare and propaganda campaigns against the communist world that shaped Cold War diplomatic policy and cultural interactions.
Wolfe begins with the infamous Lysenko era in the USSR, in which Trofim Lysenko, an agronomist, rejected the scientifically accepted concepts of the gene, Mendelian inheritance, and even Darwinian evolution. Because his pseudoscientific notions happened to coincide with the policies of Stalin and other Soviet authorities, Lysenko’s version of genetics became the official party line. Much to the horror of Western scientists, Soviet biologists who refused to go along with Lysenko’s twisted science were ostracized, persecuted, and sometimes even executed.
When some scientists such as the geneticist H. J. Muller tried to organize their colleagues against Lysenkoism, U.S. government authorities detected the makings of a valuable propaganda weapon. After all, wasn’t scientific freedom as much a core American value as free speech or religious choice? Here was a linchpin that could be used to demonstrate the superiority of Western culture over the authoritarian darkness of Soviet society. Even better, it could be done both openly, through international conferences, cultural exchange programs, and educational projects that promoted the Western virtues of free, fact-based, apolitical science, and clandestinely, notably by using supposed “scientific attachés” to collect intelligence and cultivate contacts with Soviet scientists (who would presumably return to the USSR to subtly influence their colleagues to embrace the Western ideals of open inquiry).
Wolfe traces various such episodes, from the mostly failed “scientific attaché” idea to the considerably more successful CIA backing of international scientific and cultural organizations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) and the Asia Foundation. While many such organizations weren’t mainly scientific in nature, scientists participated in their conferences, wrote for their newsletters and even helped to run them — often unaware that the people holding the purse strings may have had other motives beyond the promotion of free and open scientific discourse. For Cold Warriors such as the CIA covert action chief Frank Wisner, such activities provided a way to counter the Cominform, the Soviet Union’s highly sophisticated international propaganda campaign network. “Science entered U.S. psychological warfare programs as a stowaway…’’ writes Wolfe. “More subtext than text, ideas about science subtly undergirded policymakers’ emerging plans for waging and winning this new kind of war.”
The scientific ideals of free inquiry and open discussion dovetailed nicely with the democratic ideals that America’s psychological warriors were working to promote.
It’s a complex and sometimes murky story, complicated by the fact that a lack of organization and sometimes open conflict between the various parties involved tended to diffuse any coordinated propaganda offensive. For example, in the anti-communist tenor of the times, some U.S. government officials were suspicious of American scientists associating with foreign communist counterparts, and restrictive laws such as the 1950 McCarran Act severely impeded the travel of both U.S. citizens and communist foreigners; meanwhile, other government agencies were trying to encourage such activity.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, some scientists such as the Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling abandoned any pretense of being apolitical, actively campaigning internationally for causes such as the quest for a nuclear test ban treaty, using their professional credentials to lend credibility to their positions on science-based controversies. That also allowed officially independent organizations of scientists, such as the disarmament group Pugwash, to become involved in behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to negotiate the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, with their technical expertise allowing “a reliable backchannel for diplomats and intelligence officers in both the United States and the Soviet Union.”
Still, Wolfe notes, “scientific neutrality nevertheless remained a key value of U.S. cultural diplomacy through most of the Cold War” — even if that neutrality was sometimes more “aspirational” than actual.
By the end of 1967, the CIA’s role in financially supporting and sometimes influencing organizations such as the CCF had been publicly exposed — “the CIA was officially out of the hearts-and-minds game” — but scientific diplomacy and political activities by scientists went on, spurred greatly by the increasing prominence of high-profile political dissidents in the USSR such as the physicist Andrei Sakharov.
The fact that so many Soviet dissidents also happened to be scientists encouraged the political activism of many Western scientists, some formerly apolitical and some who were already politically active. “U.S. scientists in the 1970s confronted the problem of Soviet scientists’ freedoms, and scientific freedom, with a deeper political sophistication than they had two decades earlier,” says Wolfe. That sophistication, along with a renewed official emphasis on human rights under the administration of Jimmy Carter, made scientists’ political efforts more visible and effective.
It also helped that, by this time, the Western ideal of a universal, objective science had essentially triumphed over ideologically based Soviet pseudo-science: “By 1980, there was only one ‘science,’ and it looked remarkably like the vision advanced by the West.”
Wolfe observes that Sakharov’s “peculiar success” as a dissident and human rights icon “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.”
Scientists may still believe they should remain neutral and apolitical, concentrating on eternal verities and the hard facts of experimental data. It’s clear, however, that Wolfe believes otherwise, whether science is being challenged by the ideology of a foreign rival, as in the Cold War, or by the policies of one’s own government, as many Americans fear in the current U.S. administration. “As a historian of science and the Cold War, it’s impossible for me not to hear echoes of Trofim Lysenko’s power grab in the Trump administration’s attitude toward science,” she writes.
Ultimately, “unlike most of the United States’ other attempts to destroy communism through culture, science diplomacy worked,” she writes. Perhaps paradoxically, the idea of “apolitical science could triumph only through scientists’ embrace of politics.” Maybe not quite everything that human beings do is political, but science seems to be one human activity that’s far too important to remain completely untouched by political concerns.
Mark Wolverton is a science writer, author, and playwright whose articles have appeared in Undark, Wired, Scientific American, Popular Science, Air & Space Smithsonian, and American Heritage, among other publications. His latest book “Burning the Sky: Operation Argus and the Untold Story of the Cold War Nuclear Tests in Outer Space” was published in November.