Cold War Science / Cold War Synthesis

BOOK REVIEW: Audra Wolfe, Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in the Cold War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

Back in 2011, AmericanScience interviewed writer and editor Audra Wolfe about her work cataloging the papers of American geneticist Bentley Glass. When asked whether the Glass papers indicated that “the ‘story’ we have about Cold War science is wrong,” Wolfe suggested that we’d have to get back to her in a year or so.

Well, it seems that we now have a chance to learn Wolfe’s take on Cold War science – not from her research on Bentley Glass, which is ongoing, but from her book Competing with the Soviets, a short, textbook-style history of science and technology in the United States during the Cold War. The book examines the role that science and scientists played in maintaining state power, and how Cold War concerns shaped individuals, institutions, funding streams and research agendas.

The book hits on many of the stories that we’ve come to associate with Cold War science: massive technoscientific achievements like the atomic bomb and the Apollo missions; the engagement of scientists in politics (and its outcomes) as illustrated in the Oppenheimer security hearings and the Nuclear Test Ban debates; and moments of astonishing technological hubris including the atomic-earthmoving proposal Project Plowshare (with which the book opens) and Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Wolfe also dives into the history of the social sciences, considering for example the role of American economists and economic ideas in U.S. efforts to “win the hearts and minds” of those living in the developing world, and psychologists’ misguided efforts to address entrenched racism at home.

Wolfe displays a great skill for balancing sweeping summary and illuminating detail. As a case in point, her excellent discussion of the academic-military-industrial complex presents a few key illustrations of the phenomenon, one of which is the SAGE air-defense system at MIT. In just two paragraphs she gives a sense of the immense scale and importance of this enterprise: an $8 billion dollar budget to compare with the Manhattan project’s $2 billion; the use of 25 percent of IBM’s workforce; the eventual employment of half of all of the computer programmers in the country, and so on. One gets the point – and how.

Of course there are stories and topics missing here, but Wolfe readily acknowledges this at the outset. So for example, you won’t find biomedicine discussed, though we know well from the work of Angela Creager and others that this was an area in which Cold War politics had significant effects. But in its selectivity the book achieves a more important goal, which is concision, and readability. The aim – following that of the series in which it appears – is to be an introductory text that offers an engaging and historiographically informed overview, and in this Wolfe succeeds admirably.

I only regret that didn’t read the book until after I’d finished my first term teaching the history of 20th century science and technology and not before. Its synthesis of the large and complex – and sometimes contradictory – literature on the Cold War in our field of course makes it an ideal book for students, and for scholars who aren’t historians of science who’d like an introduction to the subject. But it also prompted me to think about the ways in which I’d organized my teaching of Cold War science and technology, and how I might do this in the future. In other words, I imagine that Competing with the Soviets will be just as helpful to those of us who think we already know quite a bit about science and technology in the Cold War.

Competing with the Soviets doesn’t really attempt to give a new account of this history, so if you are looking for a radical revision you won’t find it here. Wolfe generally deals with unresolved historiographical debates by acknowledging that historians disagree. She does bring her own scholarly perspective to bear, however, most obviously in her decisions about what aspects of this history to include and how to tie them together. To take one example, I found her inclusion of biotechnology, a story that is rarely nested so directly into that of Cold War politics, a thought-provoking choice.

There’s been a lot of talk recently in HSTM of whether and how we should rethink our current tendency towards (some would say pathology of) in-depth case studies and the sometimes narrow vision of history that results. The most recent Osiris explores alternative approaches, in particular what Rob Kohler and Kathryn Olseko call “mid-picture” history, which relies on case studies but uses these to explore ideas and concepts that cut across historical sub-disciplines. Wolfe’s book is the more traditional alternative to the case study: a synthetic overview. And it is a reminder of how valuable a clear, well-researched synthesis — one sophisticated, holistic take on all those little case studies — can be.


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