The Specter of Objectivity: ‘Freedom’s Laboratory’ and the Scientific Cold War Propaganda Machine

Lynne Peskoe-Yang / January 8, 2018

Freedom’s Laboratory
By Audra J. Wolfe
John Hopkins University Press, 2018

In 1957, as the first artificial Earth satellite was launched into an elliptical orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan, American science was suffering a crisis in self-image. No one in the Federal Government had predicted that the Soviets would claim the gold in the race to low Earth orbit; so while Americans were listening to radio broadcasts of Sputnik beeping in the stratosphere, the Eisenhower administration scrambled to recover from the publicity hit. The blow of placing second in a space race to a Communist enemy was not just embarrassing, but emasculating. The entire propaganda program had depended on equating democracy with scientific success. If America wasn’t the global leader in the sciences, then what was it?

This question of national scientific identity is the fulcrum of Freedom’s Laboratory, a meticulously researched, soberly analyzed, and sorely needed entry in the canon of American political history. The actions of scientists, scientific organizations, and the government agents who wielded science as a political battering ram form an unsettling and necessary lens through which to examine both the Cold War and the modern history of nationalist propaganda. Historian Audra Wolfe treats her material with a collector’s reverence, arranging personal letters, scientific papers, classified government documents, and propaganda pamphlets into a corpus of incriminating details that, at some points, overwhelms the story itself. Despite her sober accounting, it is Dr. Wolfe’s growing disillusionment with her subjects that keeps the reader bound to her narrative.

Before Sputnik’s launch and the chaos it unleashed on American national identity, the Americans and the Soviets had briefly joined forces, scientifically and otherwise, against the Third Reich. The cooperation fizzled out sometime around 1948, when the agronomist and biologist Trofim Lysenko’s pseudoscientific theory of environmentally acquired inheritance was adopted as state policy by Stalin’s regime, which simultaneously banned all mentions of Gregor Mendel’s competing model of genetics. This move provided the intellectual justification for what would become a government-wide effort by the Americans to undermine global respect for Soviet science—and to win over the brightest of the Soviet scientists themselves.

To accomplish this end, the Americans had to assemble a cohesive image of themselves as the sole arbiters of scientific freedom and democracy. Beginning with Truman’s famous “Campaign of Truth” speech in 1950, the nation embarked on a new era of public psychological warfare. For the first time in American history, propaganda for both foreign and domestic audiences was part of an overt war effort. Nearly seventy years later, the products of that effort—including hundreds of state-sponsored magazines and conferences, multiple series of international science textbooks emphasizing scientific inquiry over scientific content, and thick volumes of warning tales from former Soviet scientists—could fill a university library. The title of Truman’s speech encapsulates the paradox at the heart of this propaganda program. The US poured millions of tax dollars into efforts to characterize itself as free-thinking, objective, and truth-bound in all its dealings, especially in science; but, as Wolfe points out in her introduction, “[a] society’s decisions about how science should be conducted are inherently and obviously political,” in that those who control science will also control “access, representation, compensation, and expertise.”

Worse, both the American and Soviet propaganda efforts specifically designated their own forms of science—in contrast to the clearly ideological enemy version—as apolitical, which is itself a political act, especially when the statement comes from a national government. The intellectual gymnastics required to justify such messaging is part of what makes Freedom’s Laboratory such an insightful addition to Cold War propaganda analysis. Science, for all its self-promotion as an objective pursuit of knowledge, cannot be separated from the social contexts of its practitioners, funders, subjects, and beneficiaries. And in a wartime social climate, the idea of neutrality is absurd; to claim non-partisanship is either foolish or intentionally misleading. As Wolfe puts it, “Appeals to apolitical science arguably made even less sense during the Cold War than they do now.”

Like any good work of history, Freedom’s Laboratory is heavy with implications for scientific practices of the present. In 1967, the news that the CIA had covertly funded the international activities of hundreds of purportedly private scientific and cultural bodies, like the Asia Foundation, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and the Kenyon Review—frequently without the knowledge or consent of the members and contributors themselves—constituted a fiery, if short-lived, scandal. For a few months after that revelation, as public protests roared for accountability, scientists and organizational leaders reckoned with their personal stances on the ethics of federal funding for the sciences. A few publicly deserted the conferences and programs that had been revealed as CIA covers. Far more, however, remained in their posts.

Dr. Wolfe ventures a guess that, by this point, scientists may have believed the propaganda themselves. Their beloved objectivity had obviously protected them from the influence of even the most persuasive of funders; should they turn down financial support just to protect what they believed was completely safe from harm? It wasn’t until the late 1970s, as the Cold War began to ebb on the heels of the Helsinki Accords and the violent political suppression of dissidents under Soviet rule came to light, that American scientists as a class began to take public political stands once again—this time, in favor of intervening on behalf of the human rights of Soviet scientists. The pressure exerted on both sides was partly responsible for Gorbachev’s reforms, including the glasnost policy that many historians credit with precipitating the political demise of the USSR.

The mounting intrigue is laid out for the reader at a level of detail that can seem almost punishingly intricate. With the rigor of an archivist and the relentlessness of a criminal investigator, Dr. Wolfe makes a case so deeply researched that no amount of patriotic denial can evade its truth. The grueling successions of names and dates—and, more egregiously, the dizzying parade of inscrutable acronyms representing publications, panels, agencies, councils, boards, reports, texts, statements, and conferences—are both a testament to the author’s impeccably thorough research methods and a significant distraction from the book’s worthy argument.

Dr. Wolfe’s writing is most compelling when she shares slivers of her own perspective. As a historian, it must be painful to reveal a growing disillusionment with the subjects of one’s investigation as she comes to terms with the dangerous and ongoing implications of a national mythology. In a fearsome epilogue, the author allows herself this luxury, wrestling with the implications of her findings on Cold War scientific propaganda for the Trump administration and its complete abandonment of scientific accountability, diplomacy, and funding. Wolfe is especially distressed by the conflation of scientific truth with ideology, noting that even before Mr. Trump took office, “the United States had not seen such close ties between an ideologically motivated media organization [like Breitbart News] and an incoming government in more than a century.” The shadow of “an official state line in science” evokes the very image of science under fascism that Cold War propagandists spent so much time and effort disparaging sixty years ago.

Of course, in the time between the epilogue’s completion in December 2017 and the publication of Freedom’s Laboratory in November 2018, the havoc wrought by that same administration has multiplied beyond what the author reasonably laid out as possible. Under the threat of a new scientific Cold War with China—and the Trump administration’s support for a scientific party line that extols the hoarding of capital over the rehabilitation of a planet more vulnerable to climate change than experts believed even a year ago—the need to study this particular slice of American scientific history has grown more urgent than ever before.


Lynne Peskoe-Yang is a freelance science journalist, essayist, and technical writer. Follow her on Twitter at @lynnepeskoe.

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2 thoughts on “The Specter of Objectivity: ‘Freedom’s Laboratory’ and the Scientific Cold War Propaganda Machine

  1. Pingback: When Two Tribes Go to War: ‘The Perfect Machine: Television and the Bomb’

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