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Science, Freedom, and the American Way

Audra Wolfe

Nearly a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, historians of science are only beginning to grasp the role of the Cold War in defining our own field. The most suggestive of recent scholarship on this topic has pointed to the shared intellectual currents that pushed Merton, Polanyi, and Kuhn toward interpretations of the scientific process that fit neatly with postwar American conceptions of the liberal democratic society. Nevertheless, little of this promising research has focused on the institutional and political work that went into creating these convergences.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, both the United States and the Soviet Union looked to science and technology as key tools for demonstrating the superiority of their respective systems. Communist leaders trumpeted the accomplishments of central planning in transforming agricultural economies into industrial powerhouses. In contrast, the United States offered the very structure of science—supposedly open, international, and free from government interference—as a beacon of freedom to citizens of the world.

Using archival evidence gleaned from the (U.S.) National Archives and Records Administration, the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, the Rockefeller Archives Center, and the American Philosophical Society, this project traces the emergence of a U.S. foreign policy consensus that saw science, American-style, as a “big idea” that would help the nation win the ideological battle against Communism. U.S. science attachés, State Department science advisors, embassy officials, and other low-level diplomats actively promoted this vision of science to allies—and would-be allies—through lectures, research grants, exchange programs, textbook translations, science clubs, and other similar actions. Scientists, acting sometimes as private individuals, and sometimes as “semi-official” representatives of their governments, reinforced the message that scientists, in America, acted without government oversight. 


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