Science and technology entered a new phase in American foreign relations at the end of the 1930s. Gathering war clouds in western Europe convinced scientists and military leaders that greater attention had to be paid to scientific and technological developments that might aid the United States and its allies. World War II and the ensuing Cold War marked a fundamental watershed in the role that science and scientists would play in American diplomatic efforts. By the late 1940s, new institutions for international science arose within an unprecedented variety of settings (including the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency). Secrecy concerns influenced the practice of science and international communications, and new career opportunities arose as science and technology became significant in U.S. foreign policy as never before.
The integration of science into U.S. foreign policy during World War II initially came from the urging of scientists. In August 1939, just months after the German chemist Otto Hahn and Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, working with others, discovered that heavy atomic nuclei could be split to release energy, three scientists including Albert Einstein urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to fund a crash program to see if an atomic bomb could be constructed. The Manhattan Project that ultimately resulted became the largest research project in the United States to date, one that involved intense and active cooperation with scientists from Great Britain and Canada. Advanced research in the United States also benefited from the emigration of outstanding Jewish scientists from Germany and Italy after the rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. But the atomic bomb project was only one area of international scientific cooperation: in 1940 the eminent British scientific leader Sir Henry Tizard flew to Washington on a secret mission to persuade the U.S. government to cooperate in building a system of radar and radar countermeasures. The Tizard mission laid the groundwork for effective Allied cooperation in building a wide range of science-based technological systems, including radar, the proximity fuze, and the atomic bomb. Scientists who served within the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, with access to greater manufacturing capacity than Britain, also put into production the new drug penicillin.
Concern with devising new wartime weapon systems was equaled by strenuous Allied efforts to discover what science-based weapon systems Germany and Japan had constructed. Through such bilateral efforts, World War II thus nurtured two critical developments that would shape science and technology in the postwar world: the imposition of secrecy systems to protect national security concerns, and the creation of scientific intelligence programs to discover foreign progress in science and technology (particularly but not limited to advances in weaponry). Like penicillin, scientific intelligence was largely a British invention: British scientific intelligence was more advanced than U.S. efforts at the start of the war, owing to its need to buttress its island defenses. But by 1944 U.S. leaders joined Allied efforts to send scientific intelligence teams behind the front lines of advancing Allied troops in western Europe, known as the ALSOS intelligence mission. While the most famous and best-remembered goal of the ALSOS teams was to discover whether Germany had built its own atomic bomb, this was only part of its larger mission to determine German advances in biological and chemical weapons, aeronautical and guided-missile research, and related scientific and technological systems. Broad fields of science were now for the first time relevant to foreign policy concerns.
Allied scientific intelligence missions also served another function: to catalog and inventory German and Japanese research and technological facilities as assets in determining wartime reparations and postwar science policy in these defeated nations. Both Soviet and Allied occupational armies sent back scientific instruments and research results as war booty. In Germany, where the U.S. and Soviet armies converged in April 1945, U.S. science advisers sought to locate and capture German rocket experts who had built the V-2 guided missiles, including Wernher von Braun. Von Braun's team was soon brought to the United States under Project Paperclip, an army program that processed hundreds of Axis researchers without standard immigration screening for evidence of Nazi war crimes. Operation Paperclip was the most visible symbol of a concerted campaign to secure astronomers, mathematicians, biologists, chemists, and other highly trained individuals to aid American research critical for national security. In Japan, U.S. scientists focused primarily on wartime Japanese advances in biological warfare. While members of the Japanese Scientific Intelligence Mission that accompanied General Douglas MacArthur's occupation forces were unable to stop the senseless destruction of a research reactor by U.S. soldiers, science advisers successfully insisted that applied science and technology were critical components of Japan's economic recovery.
Above all it was the use of atomic weapons against Japan in the closing days of World War II that brought science and technology into the realm of U.S. foreign policy as never before. The roughly 140,000 who died immediately at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, combined with the awesome destructive power of a device that relied on the fundamental forces of nature, made the atomic bomb the enduring symbol of the marriage of science and the state. In subsequent decades the U.S. decision to employ atomic weapons has become one of the most fiercely debated events in American foreign policy. Even before the bomb decision was made, a number of American atomic scientists protested plans to use nuclear weapons against Japan since it, unlike Nazi Germany, lacked the capacity to construct atomic weapons of its own. How the decision to use the bomb was made has split historians. Some have argued that U.S. leaders sought to end the war before the Soviet Union could officially declare war on Japan and thus participate in its postwar government, but many have concluded that other motivations were at least as important, including fears that Japanese leaders might have fought far longer without a show of overwhelming force and domestic expectations that all available weapons be used to conclude the war. Others have pointed out that U.S. policymakers had long seemed especially attracted to the use of technology in its dealings with Asian countries.
The largest conflict over nuclear weapons in the immediate postwar period involved the American monopoly over them, and how the United States could best safeguard the postwar peace. Bernard Baruch, the financier and statesman, proposed that atomic power be placed under international control through the newly established United Nations. The Soviet Union vetoed the Baruch Plan, believing that the proposal was designed to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, conservatives promoted a congressional bill that placed atomic energy under military control. Liberal scientists opposed the bill and advocated civilian control instead. In 1946, with the support of President Harry S. Truman, a Senate committee under Brien McMahon drafted a new bill that eventually resulted in a civilian-led (but militarily responsive) Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), one of the first postwar agencies designed to address science in foreign policy.
As the Cold War began, debate over science and technology in American foreign policy split along familiar lines. The most well-known of these involved efforts to maintain the deeply eroded traditions of scientific internationalism. Atomic scientists who supported international control of atomic energy created new national organizations, including the Federation of American Scientists. Participating scientists, including Albert Einstein, argued that physicists could aid the development of world government that would avoid the political perils of atomic warfare. In July 1957 nuclear scientists convened the first Pugwash meeting, drawing nuclear scientists from Western and communist nations to discuss approaches to nuclear disarmament. But promoters of scientific internationalism were not solely interested in atomic issues. The liberal internationalist and Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley backed prominent British scientists Julian Huxley and Joseph Needham in their efforts to highlight science within the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Leaders of the Rockefeller Foundation launched major new science initiatives in Latin America, while the National Academy of Sciences urged policymakers not to restrict American access to the world community of science. While public support for these positions remained high during the early years of the Cold War, they faded after Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin resumed a well-publicized crackdown on "bourgeois" research in genetics in favor of Trofin Lysenko's promotion of Lamarckian inheritance. This repression convinced many Americans that objective Soviet science had succumbed to state control. By the McCarthy era unrepentant internationalists were targets of a growing conservative backlash. The biochemist and Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling—who won a second Nobel Prize in 1962 for his campaign to end nuclear testing—was one of several outspoken American scientists whose passport was temporarily revoked in the 1950s.
At the same time, other scientists began working with government officials in Washington, sometimes clandestinely, to investigate ways that scientists could aid U.S. national security by addressing major issues in American foreign policy. These activities took many forms. One of the more visible steps came in 1949, when President Truman announced, as the fourth point of his inaugural speech, that the United States was willing to "embark on a bold new program for making the benefit of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of under-developed areas." After Congress approved the so-called Point Four program a year later, tens of millions of dollars supported bilateral projects in science education, public health, agriculture, and civil engineering, adding to mainstream Marshall Plan funds used to restore technological and scientific capacity in the warravaged nations of western Europe. At the same time, U.S. scientists and technical experts worked to thwart Soviet efforts to obtain advanced Western computers, electronic devices, and other technologies and resources critical to weapons development. These included efforts to limit export of weapons-grade uranium to the Soviet Union and to deny Soviet access to Scandinavian heavy water as well as prominent Swedish scientists in the event of a Soviet invasion.
For U.S. policymakers, a principal challenge was to secure reliable overt and covert information on the scientific and technological capacity of other nations, since such intelligence was necessary to match enemy advances in weaponry—particularly in biological, chemical, and radiological warfare. A major point of intersection between physicists and U.S. policymakers came in efforts to discern Soviet advances in atomic bomb work and in developing methods to detect and analyze Soviet atomic tests, a task that gained greater urgency after the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear device in August 1949. Hindered by a paltry flow of overt information from communist countries, U.S. scientists sought alternative means to secure such data. In 1947 several scientists who had managed the wartime U.S. science effort, including Vannevar Bush, James Conant, and Lloyd V. Berkner, helped create a set of new institutions devoted to the role of international science in national security. The first was the Office of Scientific Intelligence within the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. Three years later, scientists working with the Department of State created a scientific attaché program, patterned on the U.K. Science Mission. A 1950 Berkner report to Secretary of State Dean Acheson, justifying this effort, declared that the program would strengthen Western science while providing American scientists and businesses helpful information; a secret supplement optimistically spelled out ways that attachés could covertly secure needed intelligence. Yet by 1952, national security experts concluded that foreign science and technology intelligence-gathering from the CIA and the Department of State remained woefully inadequate. The United States then created the top-secret National Security Agency to foster signals intelligence, employing the clandestine code-breaking strategies that had aided Allied victory during World War II.
Scientists and policymakers both found the abrupt integration of science into U.S. foreign policy unnerving. Many American scientists recognized that post-1945 national security concerns required pragmatic compromise of the unfettered exchange of information that had long been the ideal of science. The close relations that developed between scientists and the government during World War II also helped certain scientists undertake clandestine research programs. But most American scientists resented increasingly tight security restrictions, demands for secrecy, loyalty oaths, and mandatory debriefings by federal agents following overseas professional trips. Scientists who accepted posts in the State Department felt the snubs of colleagues who regarded such service less prestigious than lab-bench research. For their part, traditional foreign relations experts, trained in economics or history, were largely unfamiliar with the concepts or practices of science, disdained the capacity of scientists in war-ravaged western Europe and the Soviet Union to produce quality science, and perceived the inherent internationalism of scientists suspicious if not unpatriotic. Such views were widespread within the national security bureaucracy. Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover, familiar with top-secret Venona intercepts of encrypted Soviet communications used to discover atomic spies in the United States, regarded the internationalism of scientists as a threat to democracy and the proper aims of U.S. foreign policy.
Despite these mutual tensions, American leaders in the 1950s nonetheless sought to use science to influence foreign policy debates. Officials used scientific intelligence to refute highly publicized (and still unresolved) Chinese claims that American forces in Korea had violated international accords by employing bacteriological weapons in the winter of 1952. Even greater use of science as an ideological weapon was made by President Dwight Eisenhower, who in a major speech to the United Nations General Assembly in December 1953 offered his "Atoms for Peace" proposal calling for the peaceful uses of atomic power. Regarded at the time as a Marshall Plan for atomic energy, Atoms for Peace promoted the development of nuclear cooperation, trade, and nonproliferation efforts in noncommunist nations; it also provided nuclear research reactors to countries in South America and Asia. Eisenhower's advisers felt certain that the Soviet Union could not match the Atoms for Peace offer, and hence would suffer a political setback as a result. They also believed it would reduce the threat of nuclear warfare, an anxiety shared by western European leaders after the United States explicitly made massive retaliation the cornerstone of its national security policy.
Historians have debated the significance and meaning of the Atoms for Peace proposal. On the one hand, some maintain that Eisenhower correctly perceived that the most effective means of halting nuclear proliferation would come from promoting and regulating nuclear power through the auspices of the United Nations, while ensuring that the European western democracies would gain direct access to what at the time seemed a safe and low-cost source of energy. The program helped the United States secure 90 percent of the reactor export market by the 1960s. On the other hand, critics charge that Atoms for Peace actually served to increase the danger of nuclear proliferation. Yet other historians regard Atoms for Peace as part of a grander strategy to mute criticism of the accelerated buildup of U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles and their secret dispersal to locations around the world, including West Germany, Greenland, Iceland, South Korea, and Taiwan. It is also clear that Eisenhower sought to exploit the apolitical reputation of science to wage psychological warfare and to gather strategic intelligence. In the mid-1950s the Eisenhower administration approved funds for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–1958, an enormous effort to study the terrestrial environment involving tens of thousands of scientists from sixty-seven nations (a plan conceived, among others, by science adviser Lloyd Berkner). In one sense, Eisenhower's support for the IGY was overdetermined: policymakers saw an advantage in limiting rival nations' territorial claims to Antarctica by making the frozen realm a "continent for science" under IGY auspices, and Eisenhower recognized that a planned "scientific" satellite launch would enhance international claims for overflight of other nations' airspace, a concern because of U.S. reliance on high-altitude U-2 aircraft fights to gain intelligence on the Soviet Union. It was a strategy that his predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, had also understood.
Despite their greater involvement in foreign policymaking, scientists largely remained outsiders from diplomatic circles. This was due to several factors. Throughout his first term, Eisenhower maintained his small staff of science advisers in the Office of Defense Management, a marginal agency remote from the machinery of the White House. More importantly, the White House failed to defend scientists against charges from Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee that cast dispersions against the loyalty of atomic scientists, particularly after the Soviet atomic bomb test of 1949. With the declassification of the Venona intercepts, historians now understand that American espionage did provide Soviet agents with details of the "Fat Man" plutonium implosion bomb used at Nagasaki, giving Soviet physicists perhaps a year's advantage in constructing their own initial atomic weapon. This level of spying was greater than many on the left then believed, but far less than what Republican critics of scientific internationalism charged. These highly publicized accusations, and the loyalty investigation of atomic bomb project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, nevertheless aided ideological conservatives convinced that scientists represented a threat to national security and that international science needed to be controlled along with foreign cultural and intellectual exchange. After the conservative-leaning U.S. News and World Report in 1953 reported a claim that the State Department's science office was "a stink hole of out-and-out Communists," Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, ignoring the protests of scientists, allowed the science attaché program to wither away.
These clashes pointed to fundamental tensions in efforts to employ science in American foreign policy. Moderates in the executive branch sought to use scientific internationalism to embarrass Soviet bloc countries by advertising links between Western democracy and achievements in science and technology (a theme heavily promoted in the Brussels World Exposition of 1958). Many believed that scientists in communist nations were the most likely agents for democratization and thus potential allies. Opposing them were ideological conservatives determined to limit international science contacts to strengthen national security and to restore clarity to U.S. foreign policy. These tensions came to a head in the mid-1950s when State Department officials refused to pay U.S. dues to parent international scientific unions in part because unrecognized regimes, including Communist China, were also members. American dues were instead quietly paid by the Ford Foundation, whose directors understood that the CIA's scientific intelligence branch greatly benefited from informal information and insights passed on by traveling American scientists. While the CIA's clandestine support for scientific internationalism helped sustain U.S. participation in major international bodies in the nadir of the Cold War, this conflict would not be resolved before the Sputnik crisis interceded.
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