Saturday, January 26, 2019

Audra J. Wolfe's "Freedom's Laboratory"

Audra J. Wolfe is the author of Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science (2018) and Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America (2013). A Philadelphia-based writer and editor, her work has appeared in the Washington Post,, Slate, and the popular podcast American History Tellers, as well as more scholarly venues.

Wolfe applied the “Page 99 Test” to Freedom’s Laboratory and reported the following:
My first thought when I opened my book to page 99 was, “Oh dear.”

Most of my book doesn’t focus on “policy history.” It’s not—I swear to you—primarily a history of government appointees or the decisions that those appointees make. Instead, the most original sections of the book focus on how various groups of scientists enacted those decisions. Chapter 3, for instance, does discuss how and why the Central Intelligence Agency came to embrace covert cultural diplomacy for a tool in fighting the Cold War, but Chapter 4 explores how anti-Communist scientists took the CIA’s money (with or without knowing it was the CIA’s money) to promote the connection between science and freedom. Similarly, Chapter 6 looks at how U.S. scientists involved with the Pugwash movement understood their relationship to government, and Chapter 7 explores an unlikely movement to spread democracy around the globe through biology textbooks.

And yet, when I open Freedom’s Laboratory to p. 99, I’m greeted with a paragraph that lays out the various new science policy advisory mechanisms implemented by the Eisenhower administration after the launch of the Soviet Sputnik in the fall of 1957. It’s got everything a postwar scientific administrator could dream of: PSAC! The potential for a cabinet-level Department of Science! A Federal Council on Science and Technology!

Reader, I am sorry. In my zeal to minimize the presence of this sort of thing in the rest of the book, I fear I squeezed it all onto p. 99. The next paragraph discusses Wallace Brode’s appointment as science advisor to the State Department. At least it include a joke:
The appointment was greeted with fanfare, with Brode’s deep-set eyes and bushy brows gracing the cover of the Saturday Review and newspapers across the country. The most honest of the dozens of letters congratulating Brode came from Koepfli [the State Department’s first science advisor, appointed in 1950] himself: “I know you are going to have your work cut out for you,” he wrote. Brode should feel free to call him “any time.”
The reason that this qualifies as a joke, at least in the world of Freedom’s Laboratory, is that the State Department’s prior attempts to establish a science office, described earlier in the book, failed miserably. The office got caught up in webs of McCarthyist politics that bordered on farce. The launch of Sputnik finally changed all that, forcing U.S. administrators to take scientific prestige seriously as a front in the Cold War. The moment, and this page, is a turning point, when halting efforts coalesced into an all-out race for the soul of science.
Visit Audra J. Wolfe's website.

--Marshal Zeringue