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How the Cold War Defined Scientific Freedom

The idea that liberal democracies shielded science from politics was always flawed.

Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images

The conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, says NSC-68, the planning document adopted by the Truman administration in 1950 and one of the foundational texts of the early Cold War, was between freedom and totalitarianism. The fundamental purpose of the United States, it argues, is to “assure the integrity and vitality of our free society, which is founded upon the dignity and worth of the individual.” The Soviet Union, by contrast, seeks absolute power and domination: “slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin.” In a world of potential atomic warfare, the document concludes, the only choice is a United States firm in its values, firm in military power, firm in economic strength. The world situation “imposes on us, in our own interests, the responsibility of world leadership.”

Johns Hopkins University Press, 312 pp., $29.95

NSC-68 was written as a call to action. But the crusading Cold Warrior mentality that it reflects thoroughly and durably infiltrated Cold War American society. The notion that the United States and its institutions uniquely represent freedom became the basis for much Cold War propaganda. These campaigns were both overt, through the State Department or the U.S. Information Agency, and covert, through organizations sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency. It was a Cold War joke that any civil society organization with the words “free” or “freedom” somewhere in its title was probably a CIA front.

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.

Wolfe begins Freedom’s Laboratory with an anecdote told to her by herpetologist Arnold Grobman. Grobman describes watching high school students in Hong Kong dissecting earthworms in the late 1950s, in preparation for British exams. Though the diagrams in their texts differed from what they were observing empirically, the students memorized what the textbooks told them. To Grobman, this was not simply poor teaching. It represented a mental error with potentially serious political consequences. By taking information on authority, rather than by discovering it in the lab, Grobman thought that Hong Kong’s high school students were making themselves vulnerable to Communism.

The idea that Communist thinking required top-down adherence to orthodoxy, rather than free exploration, was key to U.S. psychological warfare. And it was in biology that the claim was supported by the greatest evidence. In 1948, the Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko made a bold declaration to the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, attacking Western genetic science based on the study of heredity and evolution, and promoting Lysenko’s own views. Whereas Western scientists, following Darwin, believed that genes shaped organisms and were changed by the mechanism of natural selection, Lysenko rejected genetic science and argued that environmental conditions determined biological characteristics. (Lysenko thought, for example, that exposing seeds to cold could make the plants that grew from them more resistant to winter weather.) Western genetics, he charged, was “bourgeois” and should be avoided by true Soviet scientists. Lysenko’s views were not new in 1948 but they received official backing in Pravda, amid a broader crackdown on foreign influences and contacts. In the campaign that followed, labs researching genetics were closed, scientists lost their jobs, and new textbooks based on Lysenko’s theories replaced old ones.

We now know, thanks to the opening of Soviet archives, that conditions were perhaps not quite as bad as they looked. Some Soviet scientists managed to continue studying genetics under new names. People suffered because of Lysenko’s attacks, but lived. Biologists killed during Stalinist purges were killed because their lives coincided with Stalin’s rule, not exactly because of their anti-Lysenko views. But the situation was obviously bad enough. H. J. Muller, an American scientist who had worked in Moscow, heard Lysenko’s speech in 1948 and promptly resigned from the Soviet Academy of Sciences. “No self-respecting scientist and more especially, no geneticist, if he still retains his freedom of choice,” he wrote, “can consent to have his name appear on your list.”

Muller, like many of those who became key actors in U.S. psychological warfare campaigns, began his life on the left. Born in 1890, Muller worked with the quick reproducing fruit fly, helping to establish a research lab at the University of Texas at Austin. Dealing with a serious depression, he left Texas in 1932, first for Berlin, then the Soviet Union. He had been impressed by what he had seen in the USSR on previous trips, as it expanded scientific institutions after the revolution. But in the 1930s he also saw Stalin’s efforts to the restrict international contacts of Soviet scientists, and the rise of a discourse of “bourgeois science,” meaning at the time primarily science for its own sake, rather than that on behalf of the people.

Muller left Moscow permanently in 1937, and won the Nobel Prize in 1946. Deeply offended by Lysenkoism, he threw himself into the work of an anti-totalitarian activist. When a Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace was held in New York City in 1949, featuring Soviet delegates and a message of peaceful coexistence with the USSR, anti-Communists were incensed with the lack of criticism of the Soviet system. Muller appeared at a counter-conference, speaking about the “Destruction of Science in the USSR,” and arguing that “The Communist Party regards as a menace any concept that does not fit patly into its scheme for mankind.”

The CIA took an interest in the protest, and backed an elaborate response to the “Peace” activism that had become one of the key features of Soviet post-war propaganda campaigns. Muller gave the second paper at the inaugural session of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Berlin in 1950. He warned of the threat to science from despotism “masquerading under the name of ‘national socialism’ or ‘international communism’” and he defended the “right to think differently, to question, and to express our disagreements.” The CIA financed the Congress for Cultural Freedom so that it grew into a globe-spanning network that published books and magazines and held exhibitions and conferences. The CCF became the centerpiece of the CIA’s attempt to create a hospitable place for intellectual anti-Communism.

Though best known for its work with artists and writers, the CCF also maintained a science program. (The journal Minerva, which still exists, began as a publication of the CCF in 1962.) The CCF sponsored a major conference in 1953, bringing more than 100 scientists to Hamburg to raise awareness of the mistreatment of scholars under totalitarianism. It started a Committee on Science and Freedom in 1954. But the layers of financial and managerial misdirection required to maintain a front organization also meant that its effects could sometimes be oblique to U.S. security goals.

The first publication on scientific matters that the CCF supported was called Science and Freedom. But while CCF headquarters in Paris hoped that the journal would continue to cover issues of totalitarianism, its new editor George Polanyi had other ideas. At first glance, he had seemed the ideal candidate. He was the son of the chemist Michael Polanyi, who was active in the CCF and a strong opponent of government planning in science. (Michael, in turn, was the brother of political economist and social democrat Karl Polanyi, with whom he had serious disagreements about Cold War politics. Even in the 1950s Karl warned his brother to disentangle himself “from the parasites of the Cold War,” and said that the CIA’s involvement in shaping the idea of freedom was contrary to Michael’s own commitment against government involvement in intellectual inquiry.)

George Polanyi (aided by his wife Priscilla, who did a good deal of the work for no compensation or recognition) mostly ignored attempts at guidance from the CCF secretariat. They sent material that he simply chose not to publish. Instead of focusing on the poor treatment of scientific workers under totalitarianism, he was more interested in exploring restrictions on academic freedom in the West, such as racial exclusion at the University of Alabama and apartheid at the University of Cape Town. He devoted little attention to conditions under Communism, and in 1960 even ran an article about Chinese universities that argued that academics might be better off under Mao than in many other countries, including non-Communist ones. Science and Freedom was soon enough done in and replaced by the more professional Minerva, but it is hard to see the magazine as having done much to advance U.S. hegemony.

The general portrait that Wolfe offers is of a scientific world thoroughly infiltrated by government interests but not necessarily in lock-step with government goals. Science attachés were used for intelligence collection in the 1950s. The supposedly independent “Pugwash” gatherings, where Soviets scientists gathered with their Western counterparts to discuss matters including the dangers of radioactive fallout, were initially seen by the CIA as Communist propaganda. But the American head of the Pugwash Continuing Committee, Eugene Rabinowitch (who was also editor of the widely distributed Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), began cooperating with the U.S. government, which proceeded to use Pugwash meetings as opportunities for backchannel communications.

After the Soviets’ successful launch of Sputnik in 1958, there was a considerable effort to reform science curriculum in U.S. high schools. To meet the challenge posed by Soviet technology, the new curriculum sought to introduce scientific thinking as a “way of knowing,” not just a collection of facts. There were reforms made in physics and chemistry teaching, but it was in biology that a new approach was most widely adopted. There, the emphasis was on the evidence-based nature of science—making Lysenko the absent foil.

The Asia Foundation, a CIA proprietary whose budget was considerably larger that of the CCF, wanted to help get those textbooks into classrooms around the world. By 1971 adaptations were under way in more than 35 countries; and the Asia Foundation was determined that these versions reflect local fauna and agricultural practices, for example, to avoid the appearance of cultural imperialism. When a textbook was pirated in Taiwan, the Asia Foundation tried to make sure that the directly copied version was not used. “A CIA proprietary,” writes Wolfe, “backed the book that looked less American on the theory that it would more effectively convey the US approach to science instruction.” When, in the late 1960s, it was revealed that the Asia Foundation and the CCF were CIA fronts, the CCF revelations caused a scandal. By contrast, the news about the Asia Foundation (which still exists, now under the budgetary authority of the State Department) was met mostly with shrugs.

Given the relatively ineffective nature of much of this activity, some may feel a tug of nostalgia for a time when the CIA thought it worthwhile to sponsor nearly unread journals and textbooks promoting inquiry-based learning. Compared to the violence that the agency sponsored at the same time, these forays into science might seem harmless. Yet U.S. global power has also always depended on having certain features that were attractive to many people, and scientific internationalism might have been a part of that.

In 2019, it’s perhaps easier to see how politicized science can be in the United States. In an epilogue to the book, Wolfe writes that Trump’s attitude towards climate science reminds her of nothing so much as Lysenkoism. The mechanisms are not the same, of course, and the United States is institutionally pluralistic in a way that limits the repressive power of the state over scientists. Yet the consequences of official denial may still be grave. In a further irony, climate change denialism is a “party truth,” associated with Republican elected officials. Scientists who have raised the alarm are accused of being part of a liberal plot to socialize America.

“Party truths” were one of the ideas that Cold Warriors sought to defeat. There is no such thing as “bourgeois science” they would say: That is a totalitarian slur. There is only science. Their solution was “free” science in a liberal democracy, but the equation of liberal democracy with free scientific inquiry has not turned out to be so simple. The dismissal of climate science as “liberal science” rather than just science, has not occurred under a totalitarian regime. That it has occurred under capitalism is by no means incidental, because much of the work to muddy the waters on the science has come from groups that stand to profit from fossil fuel extraction.

It is difficult to ignore how extensively capitalism shapes the nature of scientific production. Scientific research from agriculture to medicine is directed towards profitable potential discoveries, not those that would necessarily do the most social good. Furthermore, scientists during the Cold War and today face the reality that research possibilities are frequently linked to national security goals and through them, the defense of global inequalities. Carefully researched works on the Cultural Cold War, like Freedom’s Laboratory, reveal what a murky world we have inherited. Scientists fighting against restrictions on their profession used the language of crusading anti-Communism, defining their work as apolitical and therefore free. But it was neither.

The point is not, as Wolfe argues clearly, that “freedom” is an impossible value to hold, nor that scientific internationalism isn’t worth defending, nor that the fiction of apolitical science means that science is better off being relentlessly politicized. The point, rather, is that power and knowledge are always entwined. During the Cold War, American institutions were assumed to be ideal by default. We now know more than enough to understand that they were not, and that the task of making them better belongs to us.