Science and Technology - Sputnik, the anticolonial revolution, and science as an ideological weapon

By the late 1950s a second fundamental shift occurred in the role of science and technology in U.S. foreign policy. The shift had several causes. One was the launch of Sputnik, which established the Soviets as a potent technological force in the eyes of observers throughout the world, including western Europe. Another was that the Soviet Union's space spectacular occurred in the midst of the independence movement among former colonies in Africa and Asia. This worried U.S. officials who believed that Soviet triumphs in applied science and technology would tempt these emerging nations to develop socialist governments and build alliances with the Eastern bloc. Yet another factor was the heightened role of science in new multilateral treaty negotiations, including the Antarctic Treaty and the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which brought scientists and policymakers into ever tighter orbits. Finally, increasing concern from American citizens about an environment at risk from radioactive fallout—a view shared by leaders of western European governments—helped make a wide range of environmental concerns from declining fish populations to improving agricultural productivity and addressing air and water pollution a greater focus of American foreign policy. Together, these led to a considerable transformation of U.S. foreign policy, increasing the influence of United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, and heightening diplomatic links between the northern and southern hemispheres. While efforts to coordinate U.S. science policy remained ineffective, and relations between scientists and policymakers were sometimes strained, this realignment would persist through the end of the twentieth century.

The launch of Sputnik was a major foreign relations setback to the United States, in no small part because of American faith in its technology and a widespread conviction in the West that scientific and technological development within a democracy would triumph over that within a totalitarian state. But on 4 October 1957, the 184-pound Sputnik I, emitting a pulsed electronic beep, became the Earth's first artificial satellite. The launch produced banner headlines around the world and convinced many Allies that Eastern bloc science and technology was equal to that of the United States. Secret U.S. Information Agency polling in Britain and in western Europe indicated that a quarter of their populations believed the Soviet Union was ahead in science and technology. In response, the United States accelerated programs designed to symbolize the nation's scientific and material progress, above all the space program. For the next quarter century science and technology would take on a new role in foreign policy—as a surrogate for national prosperity and stability.

Elevating science and technology as symbols of national potency, and hence as tools of foreign policy, took several forms. One was by investing in highly visible technological projects. The space program developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was a prime example. Technology as a symbol of national prestige was embodied in the bold (and ultimately successful) proposal to land humans on the moon by 1969, which President John F. Kennedy announced in a speech to Congress in May 1961 after his most embarrassing foreign policy failure, the Bay of Pigs disaster. But this was only one expression of many. The Kennedy administration also stepped up international programs in such fields as agriculture, medicine, and oceanography. As with the Wilkes Expedition a century before, the motivations behind such efforts were mixed. New research programs in oceanography were intended to help increase fish harvests by less developed countries, and American oceanographic vessels could show the flag at distant points of call. But oceanography was also a particularly strategic field because of growing concerns with antisubmarine warfare and efforts by less developed countries, working through United Nations bureaus, to extend their sovereignty to two hundred nautical miles beyond their coasts. Knowing the sizes of Soviet fish harvests was also of strategic value. Undertakings such as the multinational Indian Ocean Expedition of 1964–1965, which American scientists helped plan, seamlessly embodied all of these aims.

Science constituencies both within and outside the federal government responded to the Soviet achievement in various ways. Worried air force officials, anxious to demonstrate U.S. technological competence in the months following the launch of Sputnik, proposed detonating a Hiroshima-sized bomb on the moon in 1959 that would be instantaneously visible to watchers from Earth. Cooler heads at the Department of State and the White House did not consider this idea because of its militaristic connotations. The National Science Foundation advocated increasing the number of exchanges between U.S. and Soviet scientists, while White House staff members supported the AEC's Plowshare program to make peaceful uses of atomic bombs, among them creating new canals and harbors. Members of Congress echoed private science groups in arguing that the Sputnik crisis showed that the United States had fallen behind in training future scientists. The massive rise in federal spending for math and science education after 1958 was another direct consequence of this foreign relations crisis.

The Sputnik shock forced administration officials to recognize that existing mechanisms for coordinating science and technology within foreign policy were inadequate. In 1957, President Eisenhower announced the creation of the position of special assistant to the president for science and technology (commonly known as the presidential science adviser) and the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) to provide the White House with advice on scientific and technical matters domestic and foreign. While members of PSAC, which was always chaired by the science adviser, were initially drawn from the physical sciences, reflecting continued preoccupation with space, nuclear weapons, and guided-missile delivery systems, PSAC's mandate soon expanded to include a wide range of scientific disciplines. The State Department's Science Office and attaché program, nearly eviscerated before Sputnik , was revived and handed new responsibilities for coordinating bilateral and multilateral programs. Not all government officials saw the increased focus on science and technology as positive. A Latin American ambassador complained that the U.S. embassy in Rio de Janeiro "needs a science attaché the way a cigar-store Indian needs a brassiere." Despite such criticisms, Washington exported these conceptions into its regional security alliances, creating a new science directorate within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While Democrats worried that this plan would militarize western European science and limit contacts with Soviet colleagues, NATO's science directorate steered new research contracts to its closest allies.

Another response to the Sputnik crisis was a dramatic expansion of foreign aid programs to support science and technology. In 1961 President Kennedy announced the creation of the Agency for International Development (AID), with an explicit mandate to fund research, education, and technology-based programs around the world. Advocates of old-style scientific internationalism supported AID programs as a way to extend UN programs that nurtured emerging research centers and sustainable development in less developed countries. In certain respects they were not disappointed: AID science programs provided significantly greater support to Latin-American countries in the 1960s and 1970s than their feeble counterparts in the early Cold War period. Grants funded desalination projects, teacher training, and scientific equipment; in cooperation with science attachés, officials also protested the mistreatment of academics in Argentina and Brazil in the 1960s. But as with the Marshall Plan, foreign aid programs in science and technology were adjuncts in the greater struggle to extend U.S. influence to Latin America, the Asian subcontinent, and sub-Saharan Africa, and to win the hearts and minds of leaders in less developed countries deciding between Western and Soviet models of economic development. In practice, however, it was often difficult to separate humanitarian motives from calculation of Realpolitik. U.S. support for costly rain experiments in India's Bihar-Uttar Pradesh area in the mid-1960s was justified by noting that these programs aided American policy aims by mitigating Indian embarrassment at lagging behind Chinese efforts to create an atomic bomb. But this secret research, however fanciful, did attempt to mitigate a life-threatening drought.

The best-known science and technology foreign-assistance program from this period was the Green Revolution. Based on hybrid forms of rice and wheat that had been developed in the United States in the 1930s, the Green Revolution promised to allow poorer nations to avoid the Malthusian dilemma by increasing the efficiency of planted fields to satisfy the demands of growing populations. In India, where severe drought crippled crops between 1965 and 1967, the planting of high-yield grains nearly doubled wheat and rice yields by the late 1970s. Stimulated and financed by the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations, the Green Revolution was one of the most well-known private foreign aid programs during the Cold War.

Historians have reached differing conclusions about the impact and effectiveness of U.S. scientific and technological aid programs to Latin America and to sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Some argue that American aid programs in science and technology represent long-nurtured humanitarian impulses similar to those that informed the Marshall Plan and in general no less successful. Few scholars doubt that the American scientists and policy officials who designed these programs genuinely believed their efforts would achieve positive social ends. However, other historians have pointed out that scientists who sought grandiose results such as weather modification and greatly enlarged fish catches were overconfident about their ability to master nature without harming natural processes, and recent assessments of the Green Revolution have made clear that production gains were less than earlier claimed. A more significant problem was that planners often failed to realize that technical systems developed in advanced capitalistic countries could not be transported wholesale into other regions without concurrent local innovations and adaptive technologies. American enthusiasm about exporting the fruits of U.S. technologies was often accompanied by hubris in assessing the environments of less developed countries.

Beginning in the 1960s, American policymakers also faced new demands to negotiate international agreements governing applications of science and technology. A convergence of factors brought this about. The economic costs of maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal, concerns about proliferation, and a desire to moderate the arms race led the Eisenhower administration to begin discussions with the Soviet Union about what became the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The close call narrowly avoided in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 inspired President Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev to sign it. But another reason was the growing realization among scientists and policymakers that even the testing of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons represented a genuine threat to the health of American citizens and populations worldwide, and that such tests could have unintended consequences for diplomatic relations and regional stability. From secret monitoring of manmade radioactivity levels in the 1950s, scientists understood that measurable amounts had already spread worldwide. Policymakers were also unnerved by the "Bravo" nuclear test on Bikini Island in March 1954, a fifteen-megaton blast more than a thousand times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. Radioactive ash from the test spread across a broader area of the Pacific than expected, contaminating the Japanese tuna ship Lucky Dragon and in turn causing a panic in the Japanese fishing market and outrage in Japan and elsewhere. National Security Council members worried that a disruption of Japan's primary food resource might destabilize government and allow Soviet encroachment. Amplifying these worries was growing popular concern with an environment at risk, accentuated by anxiety concerning nuclear and chemical fallout and the contaminants issue exemplified by Rachel Carson's 1962 Silent Spring. International treaties served policymakers' ends by reassuring citizens of limitations on uses of science-based weapon systems that many Americans found unsafe and threatening.

To be sure, policymakers often found it difficult to steer science to aid foreign policy goals, in part resulting from the elite nature of science, in part because the goals of scientists were often tangential to those of the state. But part of the problem was that by the 1960s policymakers could no longer count on a compliant media to keep covert activities involving international scientific activities secret. In 1962, the New York Times reported a highly secret test of a U.S. atomic bomb exploded in outer space eight hundred miles from Hawaii, code-named Starfish. The resulting controversy intensified suspicions of citizen groups on the left that science had become an extension of state power and morally suspect. Though U.S. officials successfully concealed many related projects from view, demands for greater openness led the 1975 Church Committee to examine unauthorized medical experiments within the CIA, and subsequent revelations about U.S. efforts to employ radiological warfare and to steer hurricanes toward enemy lands raised ethical dilemmas for many citizens. Yet at times the government successfully mobilized public support behind using science as a moral weapon. In 1982 the U.S. government canceled its bilateral science agreements with the Soviet Union to protest its treatment of atomic physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov and its persecution of Jewish scientists. But at least as often relations between policymakers and their scientific advisers fractured. President Richard Nixon abolished PSAC in 1973 for its opposition to his antiballistic missile, supersonic transport, and Vietnam policies. In 1983 President Ronald Reagan announced his decision to proceed with his "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative after consulting a small circle of scientists, bypassing standard review circles in an attempt to use science for strategic advantage.

By the 1970s and 1980s, policymakers also found that the critical defining relations for international science were no longer exclusively East-West but also North-South, between the developed and developing nations. U.S. scientists and diplomats were slower to react to this change than to the upheavals of anticolonialism in the late 1950s, misperceiving the significance of the change. When the Pakistani physicist and Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam created the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, in 1964, a center devoted to researchers from less developed nations, leading U.S. scientists and policymakers criticized Salam's plan as simply duplicating existing Western research facilities. But Salam's institute (backed by the United Nations and private foundations) was soon followed by parallel efforts in other fields, whose leaders sought to set research agendas reflecting the peculiar needs of these developing lands. Although often wary of these new centers (which reflected the growing influence of the UN, UNESCO, and other multilateral agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency remote from American influence), U.S. officials sought to remain appraised of their activities.

Even if science sometimes seemed an uncertain asset in American foreign policy, U.S. policy-makers continued to regard technology as a key indicator of the superiority of American capitalism, illuminating the nation's core values of productivity and resourcefulness. Most Americans still believed that technological solutions existed for a large range of social and political problems. Early in the Cold War, many Americans suggested that Soviet citizens would revolt if sent Sears catalogs showing a cornucopia of American products, and their faith in technological fixes persisted after the launch of Sputnik . Perhaps technology, as embodied in military power, could cut through cultural differences to get the American message across. There was a sense of technological superiority on the part of American policymakers with a penchant for technological solutions to complex social and political problems in U.S. interactions with Asian countries. This was especially the case during the Vietnam War, when American scientists, engineers, military, and civilian leaders worked together to create and implement carpet bombing, defoliants, and electronic battlefields.

American policymakers also sought to capitalize on Asian countries' desire to catch up with the West in science and technology. This interest was not new: the U.S. government, when returning part of the Boxer indemnities to China in the early 1900s, had stipulated that the Chinese government had to use the returned funds for sending students to the United States to study science and technology-related subjects. As a result, the Boxer fellowships helped train several generations of Chinese scientists and engineers. In the 1970s and 1980s, American policymakers again hoped that American science and technology would play a role in the reopening and the normalization of U.S.–China relations. The Shanghai Communique signed by Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai during Richard Nixon's famous trip to China in 1972 highlighted science and technology, along with culture, sports, and journalism, as areas for people-to-people contacts and exchanges. Indeed, the ensuing exchange of students and scholars, including large numbers of scientists and engineers, shaped U.S.–China relations in many ways during this period. In this connection, the disproportionately large number of Chinese Americans who work in science and technology-related fields often played an important role in facilitating such exchanges and in mitigating U.S.–China tensions.

Faith in technological solutions to problems of U.S. foreign policy remained evident in the waning days of the Cold War, even as significant manufacturing sectors were shifted from the United States to lower-cost labor markets throughout the globe. This same faith was applied to relations with the Soviet Union. As historian Walter LaFeber has noted, Secretary of State George P. Shultz learned about the rapid advances of information technology and communications in the early 1980s, at the start of the Reagan presidency. He decided that communications technology could be used to make the Soviet Union face a potentially undermining choice: to yield control over information, at the cost of weakening the system, or maintaining communist controls at the cost of dramatically weakening its science and technology (and hence its economy and military). Against the advice of intelligence and State Department officials who saw few inherent technological weaknesses to exploit within the Soviet system, and convinced that the information revolution would lead to decentralized rather than central controls, Shultz pressed to bring this hard choice to the fore of American Soviet policy. While the decline and ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union resulted from a complex set of social, political, and technological factors, modern information technology had become an important tool in U.S. foreign policy.

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