Political Science

Science diplomacy is part of the basic blocking and tackling of American foreign policy. The State Department’s Office of Science and Technology Cooperation, for example, manages a US Science Envoy Program and an Embassy Science Fellows Program in an effort to “build relationships and partnerships that advance American foreign policy and scientific priorities”. Yet it is rare to hear any real debate about the role of science in America’s work abroad, or about how science came to be incorporated into the core functions of American foreign policy. Enter Audra Wolfe, a historian whose recent book, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science covers the rise and consequences of science diplomacy as a tool of the American state and the rationalizations scientists made along the way. I spoke with Dr. Wolfe over e-mail about how the Cold War shaped American science in the 20th century and how effects are still felt today.

Sam Ratner: Your work centers around the idea of “scientific exceptionalism”, which isn’t a concept that we hear a lot in foreign policy discourse. What exactly is scientific exceptionalism, and why does in matter to broader questions of diplomacy?

Audra Wolfe: Scientific exceptionalism is the claim that science — and scientists — somehow exist beyond the reach of politics, and especially international politics. It’s a claim that obviously isn’t true, and yet it is also a core belief among many American scientists. I wanted to figure out why that is, so I dug into the history of American science. What I found kept bringing me back to Cold War propaganda. 

Much of the existing historical scholarship on science and the Cold War focuses on identifying which scientists supported, and which opposed, McCarthyism and the expansion of the military-industrial complex. As I got deeper into this account, I was particularly troubled by the realization that most of the scientists usually held up as oppositional voices were, in fact, deeply embedded in state power, whether as “informal diplomats” or as participants in overt or covert propaganda programs. Some of them did this knowingly, and others simply chose not to ask a lot of questions about who was supporting their international work, and why. My concern here was less about whether it was appropriate for scientists to support the work of the state, but rather, the consequences of assuming that American scientists’ international partnerships were, by definition, some sort of critique of US power and the ideology of capitalist superiority during the Cold War—because that’s definitely not the case.

How had scientists and historians, myself included, misunderstood this story so badly? Over time, I came to realize that the sheer effectiveness of Cold War-era propaganda campaigns limited scientists’ ability to understand their role in the stories being told about science and freedom. These were campaigns largely carried out by private individuals who insisted that their activities were driven by a commitment to the values of science, not any individual nation. Scientists’ belief in their autonomy as scientists–their commitment to scientific freedom–limited their ability to recognize that their ideas were being put to use in campaigns they did not always control. 

SR: You write that, during the Cold War, American science defined itself, and justified its exceptional place in American life, as the opposite of Soviet science. Does American science define itself against anything today, and if so what role does “other” science play in modern American scientific ideology?

AW: In my experience, most contemporary American scientists don’t think of their approach to science in either nationalistic terms or as the opposite of anything—it merely exists as a naturalized approach to producing knowledge. If anything, the popularity of the language of science diplomacy shows how scientists the world over have embraced the language of scientific internationalism, the idea that science has no borders. 

But if pressed, these same scientists might bring up pseudoscience as the “opposite” of science. They might invoke anti-vaxxers, or perhaps “alt-facts.” These (hypothetical) responses draw on the idea that the opponents of science have a “politics,” whether from the left or the right, while mainstream scientists do not. When I bring up the idea that mainstream science, too, has a politics in public forums—especially Twitter—someone inevitably responds by invoking the specter of Lysenkoism. “Lysenkoism,” as Americans usually use the term, refers to the process by which Trofim Lysenko, a Ukrainian agronomist, seized control of Soviet genetics by currying Stalin’s favor. Their collective response might best be summarized as, “We’ve seen what happens when we let politics into science, and it’s geneticists getting shot.” 

I want to be clear that not all scientists respond this way. For the record, in 2019, many young scientists, particularly those who are not white men, readily acknowledge that the institutions and rituals of science as it is practiced in the United States inevitably enact the same sort of politics that govern the rest of life in this country. Even so, there remains a militant core of science warriors who defend the idea of science that is and must be disembodied from any form of power, and who warn that any discussion that dares to suggest otherwise will inevitably end in death and destruction. The staying power of anti-Communist propaganda is remarkable.

SR: Could you describe one of the Cold War propaganda programs that drew on the idea of scientific exceptionalism? I’m interested in both the execution of the program and, maybe more so, in the justifications planners gave for utilizing a depoliticized vision of science for propaganda purposes. 

AW: I love the story of how US high school biology textbooks ended up in Asian classrooms because it’s so absurdly complicated—so much so that summarizing it in a paragraph or three is complicated, but I’ll try my best.

Propaganda involving science typically took the form of propaganda of the deed—US foreign policymakers assumed that scientific and technical professionals would be more receptive to conferences, exchanges, research support, and other forms of real-life interaction, as opposed to the films, print media, and exhibits that made up the bulk of the US Information Agency’s work. You can see this logic being worked out in a 1955 memo produced by the Operations Coordinating Board (a high-ranking body tasked with implementing National Security Council policies, particularly as relating to psychological warfare) with the wonderful title of “Strengthening the Free World Through Science.” 

One tool at the propagandists’ disposal was the Asia Foundation. The Asia Foundation still exists today as a mostly State Department–backed NGO doing development and democracy work in East Asia, but from its founding in 1951 (originally as the Committee on Free Asia) until 1967, the organization was a CIA proprietary that worked closely with Asian-led nongovernmental organizations to further US interests in countries on the perimeter of the People’s Republic of China. I often describe it as a sort of hybrid USAID/Rockefeller Foundation that reported to the CIA. The Asia Foundation became deeply interested in science education in the early 1960s. 

Meanwhile, scientists working in the United States had been developing a series of what they called “inquiry-based learning” approaches to science education with support from the National Science Foundation. Textbooks always represent ideology, and these were no exception, but the biology books especially trumpeted ideas associated with US propaganda as intrinsic to scientific practice. Biology, as presented in these textbooks, was based on empirical research rather than received authority (a dig at Lysenko); biological scientists focused on basic research rather than applied problems (a dig at socialist planning, in general). No one in government “told” the biologists to develop textbooks with these positions. The biologists who developed the textbooks ascribed to this same ideology, and they wanted to transmit it to the next generation. And because the Asia Foundation also wanted to transmit these views to the next generation, they subsidized elaborate programs to translate and adapt these textbooks for use in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and other places vital to US interests in South and East Asia. 

SR: One overlap between the scientific and mainstream foreign affairs communities in the US is a fascination with Track Two diplomacy–semi-official channels between states run through private individuals who have more freedom to speak than their official counterparts but are expected to pursue their country’s interests as though they were actual diplomats. How did Track Two diplomacy become a major idiom of scientific internationalism in America, and how has it shaped scientific development here?

AW: Absolutely! Especially after the end of World War II, US scientists were dabbling in what we would now call Track Two diplomacy, in large part because many of them sincerely believed in the language of scientific internationalism. If science has no borders, then of course it is only good and right that scientists would be conducting backchannel conversations on matters that involved science and scientists. Atomic weapons fell into this category because the bomb was associated with arcane scientific knowledge, matters so complicated that only physicists could possibly understand them.

In 1950, the State Department attempted to harness scientists’ enthusiasm for chatting each other up to the needs of scientific intelligence. The so-called Berkner Report (you can read the unclassified version in the October 1950 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) proposed that “certain benefits which are essential to the security and welfare of the United States stem from international cooperation and exchange with respect to scientific matters.” It proposed that scientists, as people dedicated to the forthright and open exchange of ideas, would be particularly good vehicles for promoting peace, by which Berkner and his colleagues at the State Department meant US leadership.

That’s what the government wanted from the scientists. But whether you ascribe this to narcissism, guilt, or social conscience, many American scientists—especially physicists—believed that they held a special responsibility to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The Pugwash Movement for nuclear disarmament is a classic example of this. An international group of scientists started the movement as a transnational, independent, nongovernmental call for nuclear disarmament, but the American scientists involved with the campaign soon found themselves working closely with US government officials. They had briefings in Washington before their meetings and filed reports after for the CIA. In one meeting, held in Moscow in 1960, a handful of them held nightly strategy sessions with the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. I don’t necessarily think they were wrong to do this—any effective international treaty ultimately requires government buy-in—but I do think these scientists weren’t being particularly honest with themselves or others about their level of independence from the US government. 

SR: What would it look like to advocate for science diplomacy with a more realistic notion of science, one that acknowledges that science, like art, law, and economics, is part of power structures? 

AW: Any time you’re talking about national security, there are limits to transparency. That being said, democratic governance requires as much transparency as possible. Treating all forms of science diplomacy as somehow separate from the power structures that drive the rest of foreign policy is an unsupportable on the face of it, because “diplomacy” is about advancing a given country’s national interests. Practically speaking, it’s also bad policy, in that scientists who are “protected” from foreign policy considerations are unlikely to be skilled negotiators. From scientists’ perspective, it’s a problem because you can’t challenge power if you’re unwilling to recognize and name its existence. 

So what does the alternative look like? From a policy perspective, it means simultaneously acknowledging that there are foreign policy benefits to be had from scientific internationalism and that you can’t negotiate international scientific agreements in a vacuum from the rest of foreign policy. The people who actually do what we might call “science diplomacy” at State know this, but they encounter a surprising amount of resistance from both scientists—who insist that science should be free of politics—and other government agencies—who emphasize US preeminence above all other considerations.

Here’s a specific example. The Trump administration’s travel ban is a humanitarian disaster. It’s also disrupted any number of scientific collaborations and research partnerships. In response, some scientists have argued that we need to create a “special visa” for scientists, a morally untenable response that suggests that scientists, as specialized experts, are more deserving of freedom of movement than other categories of humans. Political hardliners, meanwhile, assert that the ban won’t affect the quality of science in the United States because they blithely assume the superiority of native-born US scientists, a racist and Islamophobic position that ignores that skills and insights of scientists from other countries. The travel ban has absolutely harmed American science, but the only politically honest and morally defensible approach to this problem is to lift the travel ban as a whole, not just for science. 

SR: What’s the best thing you read recently, on the history of science or any other topic?

I’m thoroughly enjoying Lindsey Freeman’s This Atom Bomb in Me, a sort-of memoir of growing up in and outside atomic culture in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Even before I finished writing Freedom’s Laboratory, I’ve been thinking a lot about why it’s so difficult for historians of science to tell stories that don’t center on those who hold enormous amounts of power. I’m convinced that the answer has something to do about our lack of words to describe people on the receiving end of science. This Atom Bomb in Me is a book that’s simultaneously obsessed with an object of science–the atomic bomb–and items not remotely tethered to scientific practice, like paintings by Bob Ross. It’s unlike anything I’ve read in recent memory, and I’m finding it enormously refreshing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Audra J. Wolfe is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and historian. The author of Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America, her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and the podcast American History Tellers.

Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers security issues in southern and eastern Africa.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s