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1963 sputniks-shadow-PSAC

The President’s Science Advisory
Committee and Cold War America
Z u oy u e W a n g
Rutgers University Press
New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wang, Zuoyue, 1963–
In Sputnik’s shadow : the President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America /
Zuoyue Wang.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-8135-4331-4 (hardcover : alk. paper)
1. Science and state—United States—History—20th century. 2. United States. President’s
Science Advisory Committee. 3. Sputnik satellites. 4. Cold War. 5. United States—
Politics and government—1953–1961. I. Title.
Q127.U6W365 2008
A British Cataloging-in-Publication record for this book is available from the British Library.
Copyright © 2008 by Zuoyue Wang
All rights reserved
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from the publisher. Please contact Rutgers University Press, 100 Joyce Kilmer Avenue, Piscataway, NJ 08854–8099. The only exception to this prohibition is “fair use” as defined by U.S.
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Visit our Web site: http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu
Manufactured in the United States of America
To Xu Liangying and Lawrence Badash,
My Mentors
List of Illustrations — ix
Preface — xi
Note to the Reader — xv
Abbreviations Used in Text — xvii
Introduction — 1
Part I
Prelude: Before Sputnik
American Public Science, 1863–1945 — 13
The Origins of Technological Skepticism, 1945–1950 — 23
Mobilizing Science for the Korean War
under Truman, 1950–1952 — 32
Science and the National Security State
under Eisenhower, 1952–1957 — 42
Part II
Ike, Sputnik, and the Rise of PSAC
Eisenhower, Sputnik, and the Creation of PSAC, 1957 — 71
PSAC and the Launching of NASA, 1957–1960 — 88
Military Technology, 1957–1960 — 100
The Search for a Nuclear Test Ban, 1957–1960 — 120
The Politics of Big Science, 1957–1960 — 142
Part III
The Control of Science Policy under
Eisenhower, 1957–1960 — 158
The Politics of Technological Skepticism
Science at the New Frontier under Kennedy, 1960–1963 — 183
Responding to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962–1963 — 199
Testing the Limits, 1961–1963 — 219
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964 — 236
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate,
1964–1968 — 258
The Politics of Technological Dissent
under Nixon, 1969–1973 — 287
Epilogue — 311
Conclusion — 318
Appendix — 325
Abbreviations Used in Notes — 329
Notes — 333
Bibliography — 419
Index — 443
4.1. President Eisenhower meeting with the Science Advisory Committee of the
Office of Defense Mobilization, 1954. — 50
10.1. President Eisenhower holding his last meeting with the President’s Science
Advisory Committee, 1960. — 174
11.1. President Kennedy meeting with the President’s Science Advisory
Committee, 1961. — 189
14.1. President Johnson meeting with science adviser Donald Hornig and his
predecessor Jerome Wiesner. — 237
Even though I grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, I did not escape the
shadow of Sputnik. Just as it sent a shock wave of apprehension through the West
in the bitterly divided Cold War, the satellite stirred a great euphoria for the socialist system in the East. In China, Communist leader Mao Zedong, armed with party
scientists’ supposed “scientific proofs” (dissidents had been crushed months earlier
in the Anti-Rightist purge), launched the country into an ambitious but ultimately
disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign of rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization. My own parents barely survived the resultant famine, but
millions of others were not so lucky. When I was born in 1963, the so-called years
of natural disasters were just over but their effects could still be felt.
Officially, however, Sputnik and the Great Leap Forward remained positive
milestones of the march of communism in China during the decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) when I went to school. It was not until I went to
college that I learned on my own—as physics majors we were not taught much
beyond technical subjects—the full-scale destruction of the campaign and not until
I turned from physics to the history of science in my graduate studies did I understand the crucial role that Sputnik played during the Cold War.
This book, however, did not start as a study of the impact of Sputnik per se.
It had its origin partly in my own political baptism when I took part in a debate
between liberal and conservative scientists over the relationship between science
and politics in China in the early 1980s. At the time I was a graduate student at the
Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, studying the history of modern physics
with historian of science Xu Liangying and astrophysicist Fang Lizhi. Their advocacy of science and democracy as the pillars of modern society had a great appeal
to young people of my generation. When Fang and Xu were attacked by party
philosophers for deviating from orthodox Marxism in their historical interpretation of modern science, my fellow graduate students and I joined in the fray on our
mentors’ side.1 The experience left me with two questions, one historical and the
other political: What had shaped the relationship between scientists and the state
in history in different cultural and national contexts? What should be the proper
role of science in a democratic society? By the time Xu and especially Fang were
embroiled in Chinese politics leading to the Tiananmen Square tragedy in 1989, I
was already in the United States as a PhD candidate at the University of California
trying to decide on a dissertation topic with these two questions in mind.
With fresh memories of the tension between the Chinese scientists and
the state and with growing interest in American science and society in mind, I
eventually chose, under the wise guidance of my advisor Lawrence Badash, to
examine the role of American scientists in national and international politics in
the post-Sputnik era through a study of the experience of the President’s Science
Advisory Committee (PSAC). At the time, not all PSAC-related documents had
been declassified; even today some still remain classified. Enough of them have
now been opened, however, to enable one to piece together at least a first draft of
the committee’s history in broad historical context. In addition, in the early 1990s
Professor Badash introduced me to Glenn T. Seaborg, the Nobel chemistry laureate at Berkeley, to help him write his memoirs as chairman of the Atomic Energy
Commission for the decade of 1961–1971. Even though Dr. Seaborg passed away in
1999 before finishing that memoir (an autobiography that he wrote with the help
of his son Eric did appear in 2001), the access to his papers and journals that he so
generously gave me allowed me to gain a unique perspective on PSAC from that of
a committee member as well as the head of a major federal agency.2
Taking advantage of all these available sources and the opportunities to
interview a number of former PSAC scientists and staff members, I thus started
my own journey to understand PSAC and the politics of science in Cold War
America, with this book as its result. What I have found, as I have tried to argue
in the book, is that the most important contribution of PSAC was not its advice
to the government on what technology could do, but, rather, what it could not
do. It is this sense of technological skepticism, I believe, that we still need in our
own age of global technological enthusiasm and renewed American militarism if
we are to prevent future Great Leap Forwards and escape the various shadows
of Sputnik.
My journey toward the completion of this book has been a long but not a
lonely one. My greatest debts are to Professor Xu, who introduced me to the history of science, provided me with support and encouragement, and above all, by
his own courageous advocacy of human rights, offered a model, for me and many
others, of what it means to be a socially responsible intellectual; and to Professor
Badash, who likewise has not only guided my professional growth as a historian
of science and my progress on this book, but also infl uenced in many ways my
thinking about American science and society with his scholarship and his social
activism on behalf of justice and civil liberty. I am fortunate to have had them as
my mentors and proudly dedicate this book to them.
This book benefited from the interviews that I have conducted with former
PSAC members and others associated with it as listed in the Appendix, and many
of them—especially William O. Baker, Richard Garwin, Wolfgang Panofsky, and
Glenn Seaborg—also kindly gave me access to their files. I thank them all for their
time, interest, and valuable information and insights. With gratitude and admiration I also acknowledge the excellent professional assistance I have received from
archivists and colleagues in all the archives that I have visited, especially Robin
Chandler, then at the SLAC Archives; Marjorie H. Cianlante at the National
Archives; Judith Goodstein at the Caltech Archives; Shannon Jarett at the Johnson
Library; Dwight E. Strandberg at the Eisenhower Library, and Roger Launius, then
at the NASA History Office.
I am deeply grateful to anonymous reviewers and a large number of mentors,
colleagues, and friends who have kindly read parts or all of the manuscript during
various stages of development and given me their constructive criticisms, especially
Kai-Henrik Barth, Otis Graham, Jacob Hamblin, John Heilbron, Donald Hornig,
Marcel LaFollette, Patrick McCray, Peter Neushul, Naomi Oreskes, Michael
Osborne, Wolfgang Panofsky, George Rathjens, Jeffrey Stine, Peter Westwick,
and Chris Young. Without implying their agreement with my interpretations, I
thank them all, as I do the following for fruitful discussions or assistance: Cathryn
Carson, Chen Hengliu, Robert Crease, Ronald Doel, Fan Dainian, Paul Forman,
G. Allen Greb, Walter Grunden, Intaek Han, Gregg Herken, Elaine Kistiakowsky,
John Krige, Li Peishan, Shidong Li, Liu Bing, Haiming Liu, Ronald Rainger,
Michael Riordan, Bruce L. R. Smith, Steven Soter, Yunguang Tian, Mark Walker,
Jessica Wang, Zhao Zhongli, and Benjamin Zulueta. I thank my colleagues at
the California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly), Pomona—especially John
Moore, Daniel Lewis, and Mahmood Ibrahim in the History Department; Dean
Barbara Way of the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences; Peggy Perry in
the Faculty Center for Professional Development; and Kate Seifert in the library—
for their support, and my students—especially Jolie Valentine, Fares Alhassen,
Tokuo Nakamoto, and Paul Traska—for assistance, discussion, and, in Paul’s case,
the Herculean job of preparing the index. Special thanks to Audra Wolfe, Kendra
Boileau, and Doreen Valentine, my editors, and the production staff at Rutgers
University Press, for their patience and support.
A fellowship from the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC)
of the University of California enabled me to carry out the initial research and
writing. I also thank the following institutions for travel and research grants: The
American Institute for Physics’ Center for History of Physics, the Eisenhower
Institute, the Kennedy Library, the Rockefeller Archives Center, the History
Associates at UCSB, and the Faculty Center for Professional Development at Cal
Poly Pomona.
Finally, I want to thank my family—my wife Hui Shen, my daughter Sophie,
and my son Kevin, as well as my parents and parents-in-law—for their love, understanding, sacrifices, and support. In particular, conversations with Hui about her
experiences as a computer engineer have enriched my understanding of the role
of science and technology in society, and in writing this book I have been inspired
by the hope that that it might help, in however small a way, make the future world
of our children and their generation a more livable one.
Note to the Reader
To save space, books, book chapters, and journal articles are usually cited with the
last name(s) of the author(s) and the year of publication. Full citation can be found
in the bibliography.
Abbreviations are usually used when citing primary source materials. A list of
such abbreviations precedes the notes section.
In case several sources for the same primary source material are available, efforts
have been made to cite the most complete or the most widely available ones.
Unless otherwise noted, interviews cited were by the author. See bibliography
for a complete list of the interviews with details about dates and places.
Abbreviations Used in Text
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Anti-ballistic missile
Arms Control and Disarmament Agency
Atomic Energy Commission
alternating-gradient synchrotron
Anti-intercontinental ballistic missile
Agency for International Development
Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome
Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion
American Physical Society
Advanced Research Projects Agency
Anti-satellite weapons
Brookhaven National Laboratory
Bureau of the Budget
Bell Telephone Laboratories
California Institute of Technology
Columbia Broadcasting System
Chemical and biological warfare or weapons
Council of Economic Advisers
European Organization for Nuclear Research
Central Intelligence Agency
Congress of Industrial Organizations
Committee on Science and Public Policy
Defense Communications Planning Group
Director of defense research and engineering
Department of Defense
Defense Science Board
Department of Science and Technology
Environmental Impact Reports
Executive Office of the President
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Federal Council for Science and Technology
Food and Drug Administration
Federal Pest Control Board
Fiscal Year
Abbreviations Used in Text
General Advisory Committee
Gross National Product
Health, Education, and Welfare Department
International Business Machines
Intercontinental ballistic missile
Interdepartmental Committee on Scientific Research and
Interdisciplinary laboratories
International Geophysical Year
Initial operational capabilities
Intermediate-range ballistic missile
Joint Committee on Atomic Energy
Joint Chiefs of Staff
Korean Institute of Science and Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Midwestern Universities Research Association
National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics
National Academy of Sciences
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
National Defense Education Act
National Intelligence Estimate
National Institutes of Health
National Missile Defense
North American Air Defense Command
National Research Council
National Science Board
National Security Council
National Science Foundation
Office of Director of Defense Research and Engineering
Office of Defense Mobilization
Science Advisory Committee of the Office of Defense Mobilization
Office of Management and Budget
Office of Naval Research
Office of Scientific Research and Development
Office of Science and Technology
Office of Science and Technology Policy
President’s Science Advisory Committee
President’s Council (Committee) of Advisers on Science and
Research and Development
Research and Development Board
Semi-automatic ground environment
Satellite and missile observation system
Abbreviations Used in Text
Strategic Air Command
National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy
Strategic Defense Initiative
Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Actions
Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
Superconducting Super Collider
Supersonic Transport
Technological Capabilities Panel
Technical Working Group
University of California
University of California, Los Angeles
United Nations Education, Science, and Culture Organization
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
United States Department of Agriculture
White House Science Council
Women in Science and Engineering
Weapons Systems Evaluation Group
World War II
Zero-gradient synchrotron
When Dwight Eisenhower met with the President’s Science Advisory Committee
(PSAC) on December 19, 1960 in the White House, he had much on his mind. A
little over a month before, John F. Kennedy had defeated Vice President Richard
Nixon in the presidential election. Eisenhower told the scientists that he had been
so sure that Nixon would win the election that his thinking about the transition
“had all been oriented toward that situation.” He now worried that Kennedy’s
brand of liberalism would bring an activist administration, with “centralized
dictation and attitude of omniscience.” PSAC, Eisenhower said, “could be an
offset to such tendencies.” According to the notes taken by presidential assistant
Andrew Goodpaster,
The President said that he had a deep sense of obligation to this group. He
noted that more and more he has tended to put science advice into more and
more subjects of national policy. He thought that this body holds great infl uence in our federal system. Ours is not a system based upon centralized political direction and domination. Rather it is one which derives the initiative from
groups such as this working with the government, but not components of the
government. He stressed that he was deeply hopeful that this institution would
not be lost under the new administration.1
During the hourlong meeting, Eisenhower did not elaborate on how PSAC
(pee-sak), a group of about twenty prominent scientists and engineers that he
had brought into the White House in 1957 to work on military technology, space
policy, and arms control in the wake of Sputnik, could help curb the growth of big
government. He spoke of his personal gratification for the group’s “most impressive” and “valuable” work, and for “the stimulation of thought he gained and the
broadening and deepening of his own understanding.” Although he recognized
the necessity for centralized government control during wartime emergencies, he
believed that “for the long pull we must rely on free methods such as this [PSAC]
rather than on some political head telling everyone just what to do.” George B.
Kistiakowsky, the president’s special assistant for science and technology, or science adviser, and PSAC chairman, reassured Eisenhower that Kennedy’s transition
team had already told him that they would retain PSAC and other elements of the
science advisory system with only minor modifications.2
What exactly did PSAC scientists do to make Eisenhower “put science advice
into more and more subjects of national policy”? Eisenhower himself provided a
few hints in the years following his retirement. In his memoir, Eisenhower wrote
affectionately of his science “wizards” who enlightened him on technical issues
i n s p ut n i k ’ s s h a d o w
and helped him control the space race.3 Then, on his deathbed in 1969, Eisenhower inquired about “my scientists” to the visiting James Killian, his first science
adviser and PSAC chairman, commenting, “You know, Jim, this bunch of scientists
was one of the few groups that I encountered in Washington who seemed to be
there to help the country and not help themselves.”4 In Eisenhower’s eyes, PSAC
appeared not only free of self-interest, but also a “good” scientific-technological
elite that presented a counterbalance to the military-industrial complex that he
would warn the nation of shortly in his famous farewell address.5 To what extent
this perception corresponded to the reality of PSAC and American politics of science is a question of more than historical interest. As we enter a new era of technological enthusiasm, we need more than ever to scrutinize the historical forces
still shaping our perceptions of what science and technology can and cannot do
for social progress.
What attracted Eisenhower the most about the PSAC group and made him
put science advice into public policy was, I would argue in this book, not just their
advice on what technology could do, but, more importantly, on what it could not
do. To the extent that one can speak of a shared ethos of a committee of strongwilled individuals, and of an institution that underwent significant changes over
one and a half decades, the most striking characteristic of PSAC was its strong
sense of technological skepticism, which recognized the limits of technological
solutions to social and political problems, both at home and abroad, during the
Cold War. For most members, this consensus emerged out of their experiences of
struggling with the question of nuclear weapons during and especially after World
War II. The illusion of technological fixes, PSAC scientists believed, often led to
not only a waste of societal resources on impractical developmental projects, such
as the $1 billion failure to make a nuclear-powered airplane, but also, sometimes,
dangerously misguided public policy, such as the perilous arms race and later the
war in Vietnam. Thus, with any given project, the allure of the technological
imperative must be tempered with a critical, independent evaluation of both its
technical limitations and policy implications. Has the necessary basic research
been completed and the project’s technical feasibility been proven before going
into costly production? Has it passed a rigorous cost–benefit analysis? Can it fulfill
its stated mission and, most important of all, does that mission make sense in the
context of broad, long-term policy considerations?
Indeed, one critical assumption that underlay PSAC scientists’ technological
skepticism was their belief that technical issues could never be neatly and completely separated from social, economic, and political factors, and what was technically feasible was not always desirable in the broader context. This inseparability
of the technical and the political led PSAC to break with the traditional injunction
that experts should be “on tap, not on top” and to consider both technical and
policy issues. Thus, in its critique of the nuclear-powered bomber, a poster child
for technological excess, PSAC pointed to not only the fatal technical defects due
to lack of basic research on materials and reactors and its unacceptable health and
environmental risks, but also the lack of a justifiable mission. Similarly, in areas
outside of military technology, such as space and arms control, PSAC produced
critical and infl uential evaluations of American technological programs at the
height of the Cold War.
Crucially, Eisenhower agreed with PSAC on the need for science advising to
integrate technical evaluations and policy considerations. Thus, under him and
indeed under his profound infl uence, PSAC carried out investigations aimed at
strengthening national security and, at the same time, controlling the arms race
and space race with the Soviet Union and curbing the military-industrial complex.
Unlimited technological development of nuclear weapons might increase American military strength, they argued, but would result in less national and international security due to the logic of the nuclear arms race. Ironically, as Sputnik
helped make the Cold War a total war and usher in a new era of technological
enthusiasm, PSAC’s became a rare, technically competent voice for moderation
that matched Eisenhower’s own political and fiscal conservatism. They both, for
example, questioned the glamour surrounding the two leading technologies in the
post-Sputnik era—nuclear power and manned space exploration—as unrealistic
and undisciplined hype. In essence, Eisenhower and PSAC were responding not
only to Sputnik as a technological challenge, but even more as a symbol of the new
technocratic push in its shadow.6
Who were these PSAC scientists? Although not always consistent or without
internal dissension, most of them tended to be political liberals or moderates who
had worked on either the atomic bomb or radar projects during World War II
and continued to serve as consultants to the government on nuclear weapons and
other technologies after the war. Most also had supported J. Robert Oppenheimer
and James Conant in their tumultuous confl ict with physicists Edward Teller and
Ernest Lawrence over the H-bomb in late 1949. Even though PSAC was formally
established in the White House only in 1957, most members had served on its
predecessor, the Science Advisory Committee of the Office of Defense Mobilization (ODM-SAC), which had been created in 1951 amidst the Korean War crisis.
Although not iconic figures or household names like Oppenheimer, who had
served on the ODM-SAC, PSAC members during the late Eisenhower years were
all scientists of stature, experience, and self-confidence, which enabled them to
carry on stimulating discussions as intellectual equals not only among themselves,
but also with high-ranking government officials, including President Eisenhower
himself. The physicists dominated the committee with I. I. Rabi of Columbia,
Hans A. Bethe of Cornell, Edward Purcell of Harvard, and John Bardeen of the
University of Illinois, just to name a few of those who were or would become
Nobel laureates. Other prominent physicists on the committee included James Fisk
of Bell Labs, Wolfgang Panofsky of Stanford, Emanuel Piore of IBM, H. P. Robertson and Robert Bacher of Cal Tech, Lloyd V. Berkner of the Associated Universities Inc., Jerrold R. Zacharias of MIT, and Herbert F. York of Lawrence Livermore
Laboratory and later the Pentagon. The chemists held their own, with William O.
Baker of Bell Labs, Donald F. Hornig of Princeton, Kistiakowsky of Harvard,
and Glenn T. Seaborg of Berkeley, another Nobel laureate. Electrical engineers
i n s p ut n i k ’ s s h a d o w
included Edwin Land, famed inventor of the Polaroid camera, and Jerome Wiesner
of MIT. Physiologist and biophysicist Detlev W. Bronk of Rockefeller Institute was
an ex officio member as president of the National Academy of Sciences. Trained in
engineering administration, Killian of MIT was the only member of PSAC without
any background in scientific research (or an advanced degree). Yet, Killian was so
highly valued for his management skills that MIT had appointed him president in
1948, and Eisenhower picked him as his first special assistant to the president for science and technology, popularly known as the science adviser, and PSAC members
elected him chair of the committee from 1957 to 1959.
Clearly not all American scientists subscribed to PSAC’s technological skepticism. As perhaps the most prominent nuclear physicist of the day, Teller, for example, was conspicuously missing from the committee roster. Indeed, he would often
make a formidable one-man anti-PSAC not only by battling the committee’s various
arms control proposals but also by advocating technological fixes, especially nuclear
energy, in all areas of national life. As a popular joke among physicists went, “You
got a problem? Eddie’s got a bomb.”7 The split in the scientific community, which can
be traced to the hydrogen bomb debate in 1949–1950, was not only over the direction
of American nuclear policy, but also over whether technology offered a solution to
social and political problems. Although neither Teller nor his most ardent followers
ever made it into the PSAC system of science advising, they nevertheless wielded
enormous infl uence in Congress and with the military establishment.
PSAC remained a significant player in American public policy in the Kennedy
and early Johnson years, producing, for example, two infl uential reports on the
environmental impact of human activities, one vindicating Rachel Carson’s Silent
Spring in 1963 and another sounding an early alarm on global warming in 1965.
However, its voice of technological skepticism soon was lost in the turbulent
Vietnam War years under Johnson and Nixon. Initially and remarkably, some of
the PSAC scientists tried to find technological solutions to the war, if not to win
it, at least to moderate it, but most of these efforts ended in frustration or disillusionment. Eventually, many PSAC scientists came to agree with critics of the war
outside of the committee that the American sense of technological superiority
played a significant part in leading the country into the confl ict. When a number
of PSAC members or alumni eventually came to clash openly with the Johnson and
Nixon administrations over the antiballistic missile (ABM) system, the Supersonic
Transport (SST), and the Vietnam War, these actions led to its marginalization and
dissolution, by Nixon, in 1973.
In a way, PSAC became a symbol of a unique kind of technological dissent
both before and after its demise. Attacked from both the left and right, PSAC scientists did not always, or even usually, win the battles, despite early presidential
endorsement. They often found themselves in the position of loyal opposition
when they tried to curb the arms race, to advance various schemes of arms control, to articulate the cultural as well as practical values of science, and to ally
themselves with the forces in the burgeoning modern environmental movement.
Yet, PSAC’s brand of technological skepticism was neither a Luddite denial of the
value of technology, nor a radical indictment of it as the source of modern social
ills, as brought forth by such humanistic critics as Lewis Mumford and Jacques
Ellul. Yes, they consciously tapped into the undercurrent of anxiety in the age of
technological enthusiasm, and their technological critique might have contributed
to the countercultural movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and even the
postmodern questioning of science and technology. However, the radical relativism and the endorsement of irrationality would certainly have seemed alien to
these leaders of the scientific community. Indeed, PSAC scientists often advocated
technological skepticism as a way to redeem science from its perceived immoral
association with nuclear weapons, as symbolized by the destruction of Hiroshima,
and, later in the Vietnam War era, with American technological arrogance, environmental degradation, and the militarization of American society. As scientists,
they recognized the often revolutionary potentials of technological changes and
advised the government on measures they believed would strengthen national
security and achieve other desirable objectives. Indeed, for many of the PSAC
scientists, what unified their professional life and their advising to the government
was their pursuit and promotion of a technological rationality that centered on
critical thinking. Rationality, to them, should not stop at the technical but should
be extended into the policy arena as well. Thus theirs was not an argument against
technology, but one for appropriate technology, for a broadened concept of technological rationality that encouraged technological development not for its own
sake but for its benefits in achieving social, political, cultural, and economic goals
in a democratic society. By insisting on looking at the “big picture” whenever they
examined a particular technology, they abandoned a purely technical approach to
the evaluation of technology and adopted instead what historian of technology
Thomas P. Hughes calls the systems approach to technology.8
Why Should We Care About PSAC?
Since PSAC’s demise, six presidents, several generations of American scientists,
and the public at large have had to deal with increasingly more complex interactions among science, technology, and society both during and after the Cold War.
Are PSAC’s experiences still relevant to us as we enter into a new era of technological promises, symbolized by information technology, biotechnology, and
high-tech warfare—“shock and awe”—amidst renewed foreign adventures in Iraq
and elsewhere after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack? I believe that they are
and that a historical study of PSAC is important not only for its inherent value in
understanding a scientific institution that linked science, technology, and politics
in Cold War America, but also for the lessons that its history holds for us today as
a precedent of healthy technological skepticism in an era of technological enthusiasm. Although PSAC was abolished decades ago and the Cold War has finally
ended, the tension between technological enthusiasm and skepticism with which
PSAC grappled during the Cold War has not left us.
PSAC also deserves our attention as a key institution at the interface between
the scientific community and the broader polity during the Cold War.9 As historian
i n s p ut n i k ’ s s h a d o w
Sally Gregory Kohlstedt argues, institutional histories can be a powerful “point
of convergence” of intellectual, social, and cultural history of science.10 Studies
of scientific institutions, including laboratories, academies, and societies, have
long held a key place in the history of science and blossomed especially in recent
years.11 PSAC’s history fits this pattern but also represents a departure: it did not
conduct scientific research on its own; its membership often shifted; its express
purpose was not to represent the scientific community, but to serve the needs of
the government, and yet it played a key part in the political economy of American
science. By examining its history in depth, this study should help shed light on the
relationship between science and the American state. The committee might have
seemed a small stage, but it offered a rich and fascinating showcase of the drama
of Cold War American science, featuring colorful characters ranging from I. I. Rabi
to Richard Garwin and covering issues from missile defense and environmental
protection to science education and oceanography.
Intellectually, perhaps the greatest value of focusing on PSAC as a scientific
institution is the possibility of making connections between the different aspects of
its activities to help form a big picture of the science–state interaction. Many writers, including PSAC alumni, have written on various parts of the PSAC experience,
often as part of a concerted effort to restore it in the White House. These studies
usually divided the activities of PSAC, and science advising in general, into two distinct categories: science in policy, on the one hand, which referred to the scientists’
use of their expertise to solve technical problems in public policy, or “what can
science do for the government,” and, on the other hand, policy for science, which
dealt with the federal government’s funding of scientific research, that is, “what
government can do for science.”12 Such a division is useful, but it tends to give rise
to a false dichotomy and make science and policy neatly separable arenas, masking
the dynamics of the politics of American science during the Cold War.
The two sides of presidential science advising were in fact intimately related to
each other. It is a major contention of this study that instead of simply “speaking
the truth to power,” as some scholars have characterized the process of presidential science advising, PSAC helped forge complex links between the Cold War and
American science, often not without considerations of institutional self-interest.13
Fitting into the politics of post-New Deal American liberalism, American scientists
became one interest group among many. For their part, PSAC members became
prominent players at the interface between science and state during a time when
an overwhelming share of the funding for American science came from the federal
government. As such they became “public scientists” who took as their duty to
justify and strengthen both the moral and material support for the scientific enterprise from the public and the state. When James Killian called PSAC a “beachhead”
of science in government, he was referring to not only science in policy but also
policy for science.14 At the same time, the American state, especially that part of it
responsible for national security, increasingly relied on science and technology as
well. The resultant mutual dependency has led many scholars to debate, fruitfully,
over who “used” whom in the Cold War political economy of science. This study
contributes to that discussion, but an even more interesting question for me is how
mediators such as the science advisers under study here acted to blur the boundary
between the two sides, which were not monolithic to begin with.15
Scope and Themes of the Study
This is, thus, a study of the social and political vicissitudes of an elite group of scientists in the broader context of modern America, especially during the Cold War.
Chronologically, the book starts with a brief historical overview of the evolution
of the relationship between American science and state through the first half of
the twentieth century, which set the scene for a detailed examination of the ODMSAC (1951–1957) and PSAC (1957–1973). I examine how scientists gained infl uence
during World War II, tried to redeem science during the “Red Scare” in the early
1950s, capitalized on the opportunities in the post-Sputnik period to intensify their
dual drive to increase federal support of basic research and control the nuclear
arms race, and, finally, grappled with the shifting social and political environment
in the Vietnam War era. Institutionally PSAC was only one component of the vast
post-Sputnik science advising system. By and large, I treat the science adviser, who
always served as PSAC chairman on election, together with PSAC, but point out
their differences when these occurred. The science adviser also headed, after 1959,
the Federal Council for Science and Technology (FCST), and after 1962, the Office
of Science and Technology (OST). Finally, in the epilogue, I touch on briefly the
post-Nixon revival of presidential science advising, including the debate that led to
the establishment of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in 1976,
the President’s Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) in the
early 1990s under George H. W. Bush, and the National Science and Technology
Council in the 1990s under Bill Clinton, as well as the intensified controversy over
science and politics under George W. Bush.
The sheer size of the operation of the PSAC system of science advising can
be overwhelming. Spanning three decades if one starts from the creation of the
ODM-SAC, it involved dozens of panels, hundreds of leading scientists and engineers, and the often overlooked staff members, who together worked on topics
ranging from nuclear weapons to Big Science to pesticides to the Vietnam War.16
Instead of trying for an exhaustive treatment, I have chosen to be selective in my
coverage. Several case studies are examined in detail to provide depth in this largely
chronological treatment. These cases look at PSAC’s role in the establishment of
the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the debate over military technology policy, the search for a nuclear test ban, the funding of the Stanford linear electron accelerator, the shaping of the Apollo moon-landing project,
the Kennedy administration’s response to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and the
debates over the Vietnam War, ABM, and SST in the Johnson and Nixon years.17
Again, the tension between technological enthusiasm and skepticism provides a
connection between these seemingly disparate cases and allows one to explore the
intricate interplay of science, technology, and public policy in post-Sputnik Cold
War America.
i n s p ut n i k ’ s s h a d o w
Several themes have emerged from this study that might be usefully highlighted
here. First, PSAC’s technological skepticism presumed and capitalized on a distinction between science and technology. To accomplish their dual goal of controlling
the arms race and promoting basic research, PSAC, following a long tradition
of American public scientists, engaged in what the sociologists of science called
“boundary work”: they negotiated the boundary between science and technology
(or between basic and applied research), and that between expertise and politics
or policy.18 Adapting the famous Vannevar Bush doctrine about basic research as
“the pacesetter” to technological progress for the Cold War political environment,
PSAC scientists formulated what might be called a “negative assembly-line model”
to highlight the critical importance of basic research. Instead of showing science’s
positive contributions toward technological progress, PSAC focused on the role of
basic research in evaluating technology, or, more important, in showing the limits
of technology. A technological project would fail if the basic research necessary for
the technology to work—knowledge on high-temperature materials for the making of a nuclear-powered airplane, for example—was not yet done.
In this connection, perhaps the most surprising finding is that PSAC members,
and many other American scientists, justified federal support of science not so
much for science’s and scientists’ direct, positive technical contributions to the
Cold War effort as for their value in detecting and correcting the deficiencies of
technologies. In other words, PSAC tried to redeem the values of science by banking on the utility of scientists’ technological skepticism. Capitalizing on its key
position in science in policy, PSAC, perhaps more than any other group, helped
boost the national expenditure for science in the aftermath of the Sputnik shock.
Of course this did not mean that the more traditional justification for science
funding based on promises of direct and positive technological payoffs ceased to
exist; it remained a strong argument, especially in Congress. Yet, the Cold War
gave rise to new rationales. In addition to highlighting the importance of technological evaluation, the Cold War also pushed national prestige as a powerful
justification for funding science, including the $100 million Stanford accelerator,
in the wake of Sputnik. Thus, PSAC’s history is a part of the history of the Cold
War not only because PSAC played a key part in defense and space policy in that
period, but also because its justification of federal funding for science reflected
the profound impact of the Cold War on American life. Inasmuch as PSAC scientists, most of whom came from academia, benefited institutionally from the
science–state partnership they advocated, they were not as pure or disinterested
as Eisenhower thought.
Indeed, in pointing out the limits of various technological fixes to social and
political problems, PSAC scientists often advocated increased government support for basic research as, at least partly, a remedy for the perceived technological
deficiencies. Thus, basic research was justified not only as a source of new technological initiatives, as Vannevar Bush had argued, but perhaps more important,
as a way to prevent the government from going into blind alleys in costly applied
research and development. In many ways, PSAC advocated basic research as a way
to compensate for the lack of a market mechanism in the command economy that
characterized defense research and development, crucial for the development of
a sound and economical system of military technology. Thus, promotion of basic
research formed an integral part of PSAC’s technological skepticism, which conveniently linked the Cold War needs of technological evaluation and the funding
of American science.
Ironically, in PSAC’s evaluations of various military technologies, nuclear test
ban schemes, and space programs and projects, PSAC scientists often employed
their engineering skills more than their scientific, theoretical expertise. In other
words, science in policy was often technology policy, whereas policy for science
corresponds to the conventional meaning of science policy. In essence I am carrying the thesis of the historian of science Peter Galison—that American scientists
depended more on technology than usually recognized in postwar science—from
the laboratory to the arena of public policymaking.19 It was no wonder that some
of the scientists most infl uential in PSAC were experimentalists. Scientific brilliance
certainly helped, especially when the prestige of scientists was used to legitimate
policies. However, in the everyday life of a science adviser in the trench, technical
proficiency probably counted more than the scientific discoveries on which the science advisers made their reputations.20
This study also reveals the extent to which PSAC was engaged in boundary
work on what was technical and what was political. We will see, for example,
during the investigation on the technical feasibility of policing a nuclear test ban,
that at various stages PSAC members tried to use, alternatively, its claim to “technical” expertise to fend off “political” oppositions, and its insistence to go beyond
narrow “technical” considerations to justify its policy recommendations. We will
also see how, eventually, PSAC scientists came to repudiate the technological
approach to both the arms race and arms control. “The United States will have
to make,” they concluded in 1960, “a purely political decision” regarding the risks
and benefits of a test ban.21 Their recognition of the necessity to view scientific
and technological solutions within a social and political context underlined their
insistence on examining not only the means, but also the ends of technological
programs of the government. It was this insistence on examining the broader
social and political implications of technology that led PSAC on its road to dissent under Johnson and Nixon. In the end, PSAC scientists might be said to have
shared both the thinking and fates of technological dissidents in other national
and political contexts, such as the Russian engineer Peter Palchinsky that Loren
Graham has so eloquently chronicled.22
This book thus serves two purposes: it is the first full-length history of the
rise and fall of PSAC, and at the same time an inquiry into the role of scientists
as technological skeptics in America during the Cold War and beyond. Its primary
aim is neither to celebrate nor condemn wholesale the scientists under study, but
rather to understand what motivated them in their interactions with the American
state and what the contour of those interactions in turn reveals about the place of
science and technology in that particular period of American history. It is a study
i n s p ut n i k ’ s s h a d o w
in the history of science in that it examines the evolution of the political environment, social status, and public images of American science and scientists. It is a
study in American history as it explores a professional community’s role in American national policy and the growth of big government. As an investigation into the
ways science and state reshaped each other during the global ideological confl ict
from Eisenhower to Nixon, this is also a vital part of Cold War history suitable for
transnational comparative analyses.
Before Sputnik
American Public Science,
When the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, on
October 4, 1957, the feat did more than herald the space age. It also put the spotlight
of world attention on the role of science, technology, and their practitioners in
the Cold War. Widely viewed as a crowning achievement of Soviet socialism, the
satellite launch challenged the perception of Russian technological backwardness,
putting an immediate end to the American joke that the Soviets could not sneak
a nuclear “suitcase bomb” into the country because they had not perfected the
suitcase. Instead, the American public now cried over an apparent U.S. inferiority
in science and technology and worried about a menacing “missile gap” with the
Soviets. Sputnik, although designated as a peaceful contribution to the International Geophysical Year, had carried all the geopolitical significance of a major
military-technological project, as it glided into orbit atop a rocket designed to send
a hydrogen bomb to its target. It led many, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to realize that a “total Cold War” had dawned in which science, technology,
education, and the pursuit of national prestige ranked with military and economic
strengths as vital forces.1
Facing an unprecedented challenge to his leadership, President Eisenhower
made reform of science policy the centerpiece of his response. He quickly
announced the appointment of James R. Killian, Jr., president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as his special assistant for science and technology, and the reconstitution of the Science Advisory Committee of the Office
of Defense Mobilization, which had existed since the Korean War but fallen into
obscurity, into the high-profile President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) to
help him make government science and technology policy.
In many ways, PSAC members became “public scientists” engaged in “public science”—a term used by the historian Frank M. Turner to characterize the
attempt of prominent British scientists to justify public support for their profession
at the turn of the twentieth century.2 There was, however, a key difference between
Turner’s British public scientists and PSAC members: the latter were not only
advocates for science in the public arena, but also active participants in government
science and technology policy. Because Sputnik called into question the adequacy
of both the government’s support for and use of science, PSAC scientists took on
both “science in policy” to make science better serve the government’s needs and
“policy for science” so that the government could support science effectively.
As PSAC scientists gained infl uence under Eisenhower, controversies ensued
over the proper role of expert advisers to the government. Convergence on a
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number of fundamental issues led President Eisenhower to rely more and more on
his science advisers. However, as Killian later reflected, such an almost total trust
sometimes made PSAC scientists and others uncomfortable:
Eisenhower had an exaggerated confidence in the unbiased judgment of the
scientists whom he called upon to help him. He somehow came to have a feeling that these advisers, by virtue of being scientists, were endowed with an
objectivity in technical matters that he didn’t find in other advisers. Actually
he overestimated our capacity for objectivity, particularly when we were asked
to advise on controversial problems where elements of policy or politics were
interlaced. Nevertheless, Eisenhower did have this somewhat naïve confidence
in science advice.3
As Killian implied, not everyone agreed with Eisenhower about scientists’
objectivity. Before long, critics began to question whether PSAC scientists were
there to serve the interest of the government, the needs of which often lay in
practical technology, or the promotion of science, their own profession. Despite
Eisenhower’s endorsement, PSAC scientists’ ventures into public policy drew
criticisms, especially when they challenged presidential policies under Johnson
and Nixon. Shouldn’t science advisers “stick to the facts” and render neutral,
objective, technical judgments regardless of their political and social views? After
all, policymaking involved much more than technical considerations and it was
the prerogative of the policymaker to accept or reject science advice. In response,
PSAC scientists, although agreeing on the need for independence in rendering
technological evaluations, doubted that it was ever possible to draw a clear line
between the technical and the political. Any attempt to adjudicate such complex
issues in a purely technical setting—such as in a Science Court—would probably
fail, they believed, because, as Killian pointed out, most issues in science advising
“involve political, ethical, and scientific considerations in a way that they cannot
be wholly disentangled.”4 Indeed, a central argument of this book is that the dialectics over what counted as the technical and the political drove the dynamics of
American public science and science advising.
The duality question, of course, predated Sputnik and reached far back
into the American experience of integrating science and politics. Thus, before
an analysis of post-Sputnik developments, a prehistory of the debate over the
relations among science, technology, and public policy is necessary both to
illustrate the scientists’ long-standing dilemma and to sketch out the intellectual
and political landscape during the years when the generation of PSAC scientists
came of age. As we will see, American public scientists often had to negotiate
three overlapping boundaries: between science and the government, between
science and technology, and between the technical and the political. To what
extent did the question of duality condition scientists’ initial participation in
public policy? Once they did begin to play a role in policy, how did their understanding of the relationship between science and technology shape their views
of the potentials and limits of technological solutions to social and political
American Public Science, 1863–1945
problems? Finally, how did they defend crossing over from the technical to the
political in the policy arena?
A Dual Allegiance?
The problematic duality of American public scientists as servants to both the government and science accompanied some of the earliest experiments in institutionalized scientific advising. In 1863, during the Civil War, for example, a group of elite
American scientists, the so-called Lazzaroni, managed to get Congress to pass and
President Abraham Lincoln to sign an act to incorporate the National Academy of
Sciences (NAS). Although this charter only explicitly dealt with science-in-policy by
authorizing the NAS to offer science advice “whenever called upon by any department of the Government,” its promoters clearly intended to advance the interest
of American science as well by providing the United States with a “worthy counterpart” to the Royal Society of London and the French Academy.5 Indeed, by the early
twentieth century, the NAS had largely evolved into an honorific society of scientific elites, ill prepared to serve the government’s needs when another crisis, World
War I, came along. It took reformers within the academy to persuade its leadership
and President Woodrow Wilson to establish the National Research Council (NRC),
which, as the operating arm of the NAS, utilized scientists both inside and outside
of the academy to conduct studies for the government.6
By the time a third crisis, the Great Depression, arrived in the 1930s, it was
widely recognized that even the NRC had evolved more to serve scientific disciplines than the New Deal administration. Activist scientific leaders, once again,
convinced the NAS leadership and President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create a Science Advisory Board (SAB) to help the government “deal with specific problems
in the various departments” through the machinery of the NAS-NRC.7 Although
the press dubbed it FDR’s “Scientific Cabinet,” the SAB was not quite an open
invitation to scientists to participate in policymaking, and conservative members
of the academy feared that it would open the door to political interference in science. Most prominent scientists, however, welcomed the move. They hoped that it
would help to calm the so-called revolt against science, which blamed technological automation for unemployment, and to protect federal research programs that
faced budget cuts. Chaired by Karl Compton, physicist and MIT president, the
board was to operate for two years and without federal funds.8
In his new position, Compton soon emerged as a leading public scientist in
America.9 When the NAS met at MIT in December 1933, Compton, in his welcome
speech, predicted that the government’s need for expert advice, on the one hand,
and the “competency and disinterestedness” of his group, on the other, would
open ways for “further extending the prestige of the academy and its service to the
public.” He hoped that his SAB would help counteract the technocracy movement,
which had dramatized technological unemployment and had “unduly shaken public confidence in the basic services of science to society.” Specifically, he promised
to cooperate with social scientists to create a permanent science advisory and policy mechanism so that “science and the government may better serve the public”
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
and quiet the rising criticism of science and technology.10 In this spirit Compton
proposed in 1934, on behalf of the SAB, that the federal government spend $75 million for academic research as a way to put science to work for national welfare and
to ensure the “best possible advancement of science in America.”11
Compton underestimated the duality problem. Despite his professed disinterestedness and offer of cooperation, FDR’s brain trust of social scientists, who
claimed to represent the interest of the government, dismissed the new board as
a spokesman for the scientific community. Whereas Compton tried to position
scientists as one of the many interest groups that began to dominate American
politics after the onset of FDR’s New Deal liberalism and argue that science, as a
driving force of American economy, deserved federal support, his reasoning failed
to impress those infl uential around Roosevelt. The National Resources Board,
dominated by social scientists and headed by Frederick A. Delano, the president’s
uncle, not only challenged the size of Compton’s proposal, but also disputed the
main value of scientific research. Research, especially in the social sciences, was
needed not to produce more technological progress, but to aid national planning
as a way to solve social and economic problems that had in part been caused by
technological progress in the first place, they insisted.12 The social scientists’ argument prevailed, and, as a result, most of the requested funds went to direct relief
efforts for the unemployed, not research scientists.13
It was not clear whether the fact that Compton had publicly supported President Hoover, FDR’s Republican rival, in the 1932 election colored Delano’s verdict
on the scientists’ proposal.14 It certainly did not boost the scientists’ claim of disinterestedness. Neither did it bode well for Compton’s proposal for a permanent
science advisory board as a “guardian” of the technical bureaus against possible
political intrusions by the party in power.15 Again, FDR’s advisers rejected the
proposal as a special pleading of the scientists, and established, instead, a Science Committee in the social scientists–dominated National Resources Board.16
Compared with the labor unions or the elderly population, American scientists,
although enjoying considerable public prestige, were too small in number and their
potential contributions to solving the practical problems of the Great Depression
too remote yet to count much in American politics.
To American public scientists, the SAB experiment proved a sobering reality
check. Although traditional American faith in technological progress remained
strong even in the depths of the Great Depression, few were willing to concede
broad roles in public policy to scientists and engineers. Indeed, in 1935, when FDR
directed federal agencies to turn to a new committee in the NAS on matters of
“scientific research,” he specifically reserved “the consideration of the broader long
time scientific problems of natural and human resources” for the Science Committee of the National Resources Committee (formerly Board). Frank Jewett, president of Bell Labs and a leader of the academy who had been deeply involved in the
SAB saga, for one, felt “humiliated” by the order. A politically conservative scientist
wary of the expansion of the federal government under the New Deal, Jewett
resented FDR’s restrictions of the scientists’ role to “details of research problems
American Public Science, 1863–1945
of the government departments.” “I say this,” Jewett continued, “because of a feeling that if my training, experience and judgment were of any value to the scientific
departments of the Government that value lies rather in the field of matters of
scientific policies which may or may not embrace research, than in the narrower
field of research alone.”17 It would not be the last time that a scientific adviser to the
government was rebuffed in his search for a wider purview and policy role.
On the Boundary
In their quest to promote science, American public scientists faced, besides the
problem of dual allegiance, also what they regarded as widespread confusion
between science and technology. In response, they campaigned not only to differentiate science from technology but also to establish scientific superiority by
making a two-pronged argument: Although science was basic to technological
development, scientists were not motivated by profits. Thus, the physicist Henry
Rowland issued his famous 1883 “plea for pure science” for both its nobility and
its technological benefits.18 Then, an “assembly-line model” of science serving as
the source of technological innovations, first articulated by British scientists during World War I, became infl uential in the United States in the interwar years.19
For example, in the 1930s, American paleontologist John C. Merriam, president of
the Carnegie Institution of Washington and a member of the SAB, insisted that
“Pure science is primary and indispensable,” and scientific curiosity, in contrast to
profit making, was “the mother of invention.”20 Indeed, as a result of the scientists’
campaign, the belief in scientific superiority in this period became so ingrained in
American society and culture that engineers began to define technology as applied
science.21 The 1933 World’s Fair (“Century of Progress”) in Chicago captured this
faith in pure science with its motto: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, and Man
Conforms.”22 Notably, Lewis Mumford, a prominent American public intellectual
and one of the fiercest critics of what he called megatechnics, put an important
twist on the thesis of scientific superiority when he wrote approvingly in the 1930s
about “a liberated scientific curiosity” as “a counterweight to the passionate desire
to reduce all existence to terms of immediate profit and success.”23
It should be pointed out that such a clear-cut distinction between science and
technology has come under question in recent scholarship in science and technology studies; close examination often reveals a deep intermixing at the boundary.24
Yet, the interesting question here is not whether the science–technology distinction existed in reality, but how scientists perceived such a difference and made
political use of it. That a clear distinction existed between science and technology was doubted by few American scientists. Physicist I. I. Rabi, who served as
associate director of the Rad Lab at MIT and consultant to Los Alamos during
World War II, for example, once divided physics into two parts: the “science of
physics” proper and the application of that science, which he called the “inheritance of technology.”25
World War II proved to many the validity of the assembly-line model, as academic physicists emerged as the heroes of military research and received credit for
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the making of radar, the proximity fuse, and above all, the atomic bomb. Even Vannevar Bush, the electrical engineer and director of the Office of Scientific Research
and Development (OSRD) that was in charge of military technology during World
War II, marveled at the surprising versatility of the physicists. “One would not
expect a theoretical physicist with a decidedly philosophical turn of mind,” Bush
said of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s performance as wartime director of Los Alamos,
“to manage a complex affair of this sort.”26 What was less well appreciated was the
fact that the physicists accomplished their feats partly by transforming themselves
into engineers. “All science stopped during the war except the little bit that was
done at Los Alamos,” recalled Richard Feynman, a talented young group leader at
the bomb laboratory during World War II. “And that was not much science,” Feynman added, “it was mostly engineering.”27 Again, the British, who made crucial
early breakthroughs in both the radar and the bomb projects, led the way in this
transformation. “They—the British—had had great success with nuclear physicistturned-radio engineers,” commented Rabi, “and we followed suit.”28
How did physicists, commonly seen as long-haired ivory-tower types, successfully make the transition to versatile engineers? Rabi attributed it to physicists’
understanding of the physical world and their “great energy, vitality, self-confidence
and arrogance.”29 Physicist-turned-historian S. S. Schweber pointed to the training
of American physicists in the 1930s that emphasized engineering abilities and a
proper balance between theory and experiment. Furthermore, in the hard times
during the Depression, only the most enterprising experimentalists and most
talented theoreticians survived the selection process and got to play key roles in
the wartime research projects.30 The centrality of physicists in the bomb project
also derived from the fact that the technology built closely on new discoveries
in nuclear physics. Although building the bomb was largely an engineering feat,
research was a crucial part of an approach that integrated science, engineering,
and industry.31 As historians of science increasingly recognize, physics and its
practitioners themselves were transformed by this wartime fusion. In the Big
Science that emerged out of the war, instrumentation became central to scientific research, planning was modeled after industrial organization, and scientific
and engineering staff interacted to create a new culture of physics.32 Such a new
material culture of physics would prove to be crucial to the business of science
advising as well.
Science and Politics During World War II
Crucial for American public science, World War II not only demonstrated the
technological potency of modern science, but also fulfilled Compton’s and Jewett’s
dream of gaining entry for scientists into public policy. Bush and his OSRD succeeded where Compton and his SAB had failed by focusing not on policy for science, but on science in policy. The first step in this direction may well have been
the prewar advisory relations scientists established with the military. In September
1940, for example, Rabi and several other prominent scientists, including John von
Neumann and Harold Urey, organized the science advisory committee for the
American Public Science, 1863–1945
Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground.33 Independently, Bush and his supporters in the
NAS, especially chemist and Harvard president James Conant, persuaded Roosevelt
to establish first the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) and later the
OSRD system of military research with direct congressional appropriations and
independence from the armed forces. Bush himself became the de facto science
adviser to President Roosevelt. The coming of the war both softened the FDR
White House’s resistance to natural scientists and boosted the scientists’ bargaining power and self-confidence.
The OSRD’s autonomy also ensured scientists’ independence, which, ironically, led to better cooperation with the military. When a naval officer asked Rabi to
make a certain radar device but refused to tell him what it was for—“We prefer to
talk about this in our swivel chairs in Washington”—Rabi knew exactly what to do:
“I didn’t say anything. Neither did I do anything.” Finally the officers relented and
the two sides worked together to produce “a fantastically great radar.” Fortunately,
Rabi reflected, “our money did not come from the military directly” but from the
OSRD.34 In a similar move in Washington, Bush persuaded Admiral Ernest King,
chief of naval operations, to adopt a new, successful antisubmarine strategy by
utilizing the radar. He also succeeded in getting scientists deployed as advisers at
various levels of military operations.35 The prewar injunction of having scientists
“on tap, but not on top” began to weaken.
Resistance to scientists’ participation in public policy, however, did not disappear completely during World War II. It became an especially contentious issue in
the atomic bomb project. In contrast to the Rad Lab, where Rabi and his colleagues
found it both necessary and advantageous to mesh the technical aspects of designing radars with operational and policy considerations, the technical challenge in
making the bomb was so overwhelming and the choices in its use were so few and
so stark that it was plausible and even expedient to segregate the technical from the
political, the making of the bomb from its use, and the scientists from the policymakers. Leo Szilard, the gadfly nuclear physicist who had drafted Albert Einstein’s
famous letter to FDR in 1939 warning the government about the possibility of an
atomic bomb, for example, faced strong official resistance when he campaigned
against the bomb’s use on Japan in early 1945. James Byrnes, President Harry S.
Truman’s personal representative on the high-level Interim Committee that was set
up at the time to consider atomic policy, questioned not only Szilard’s argument,
but also his conduct after a meeting in May: “His general demeanor and his desire
to participate in policy-making made an undesirable impression on me.”36
The well-known debate between the Scientific Panel to the Interim Committee, headed by Oppenheimer, and the Franck Committee at the Met Lab in
Chicago, under physicist James Franck, was as much about the proper role of
scientists in policy as it was about the use of the bomb (the former supported it
but the latter opposed it). On the one hand, the Franck Committee, as outsiders
and dissenters, acknowledged their limitations in policy but emphasized the justification of their involvement: “We believe that our acquaintance with the scientific elements of the situation and prolonged preoccupation with its world-wide
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political implications, imposes on us the obligation to offer to the committee some
suggestions as to the possible solution of these grave problems.”37 On the other
hand, the Oppenheimer panel, which also included physicists Arthur Compton,
Ernest Lawrence, and Enrico Fermi, reversed the latter’s emphasis on scientists’
participation in policy:
With regard to these general aspects of the use of atomic energy, it is clear that
we, as scientific men, have no proprietary rights. It is true that we are among
the few citizens who have had occasion to give thoughtful considerations to
these problems during the past few years. We have, however, no claim to special
competence in solving the political, social, and military problems which are
presented by the advent of atomic power.38
Based on such a technical conception of scientists’ role, Oppenheimer also discouraged scientists at Los Alamos from signing Szilard’s separate petitions against the
use of the bomb.39 Years later, Oppenheimer acknowledged that “we didn’t know
beans about the military situation in Japan” or whether there were alternatives
to an invasion or the bomb.40 The point is, however, that they, narrowly focusing
on the use of the bomb as a technical question, did not attempt to find out about
the Japanese situation or the context into which their technical advice would fall.
Enforcing a production schedule at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer was following, as
historian Charles Thorpe argues, an ethic of “soldierly duty.”41 Yet, to the Interim
Committee, the Oppenheimer letter was unequivocal proof that technical demonstration as recommended by the Franck Committee would not work and that the
bomb had to be used on cities. Furthermore, although Oppenheimer viewed the
panel as purely advisory to the Interim Committee, Stimson apparently regarded
it as representative of project scientists.42
Ironically, a sense of technological determinism that saw nuclear weapons
inevitably reshaping the world underlined the reasoning of both the Oppenheimer
panel and the Franck Committee. Both believed that the bomb, if technically possible, was bound to be made and, when it was, would inevitably revolutionize
national and international politics. Nevertheless, there was a subtle but important
difference between the two groups. Whereas the former believed that the technological and political momentum would almost dictate the use of the bomb, the
latter thought that it was still possible to avoid such a step. By proposing various
alternatives to the dropping of the bomb, the Franck Committee argued for the
need and feasibility of human intervention in the development of technology as
well as the limits of technological solutions to social and political problems. Science, the Franck Committee noted, could not devise a defense against the atomic
bomb: “This protection can come only from the political organization of the
world.”43 By questioning the inevitability of technological development and by
advocating political activism on the part of the scientists, the Franck Committee
sowed the seeds for a technological skepticism that would shape PSAC’s and other
scientists’ understanding of the potentials and limitations of technology in the
postwar era.44
American Public Science, 1863–1945
In the final days of World War II, however, many scientists working on the
bomb, including those who would later become leaders in PSAC, knew little of
the debate between the Franck Committee and the Oppenheimer panel. They
were at Los Alamos continuing a collective technological push to make the bomb
into a reality first. It culminated in the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo,
New Mexico. Capping several years of intense teamwork, the experience of preparing the test further strengthened the bond that would later help to bind the
principals together again as PSAC members. For example, George Kistiakowsky,
the Russian-born chemist from Harvard in charge of the implosion program,
remembered how his physicist colleague Hans Bethe and his own former student
Donald Hornig helped him troubleshoot the last technical glitches during the
tense hours before the test.45 Physicist Wolfgang Panofsky, another future member of PSAC, flew in an airplane 10,000 feet away from the tower to measure the
bomb’s power, “having to trust the theoretical physicists who predicted that that
was a safe place to be.”46
Yet, even Los Alamos could not escape the darker implications of their labor
for long. When the bomb exploded with blinding light, thunderous sound, and
overwhelming heat, scientists and nonscientists alike were awed both by the
force of nature and the potency of theoretical science. At the moment, a sense
of scientific and technological triumph prevailed. One witness reported that “Dr.
Kistiakowsky, the impulsive Russian, threw his arms around Dr. Oppenheimer
and embraced him with shouts of glee.”47 However, a mood of sober reflection
soon set in about the implications of the bomb. Even at the test site, Conant had
already thought of the end of the world, as did Kistiakowsky, his initial exuberance notwithstanding. “I am sure,” Kistiakowsky later said, “that at the end of the
world—in the last millisecond of the earth’s existence—the last men will see what
we saw.”48 Rabi similarly felt “a chill” about the bomb’s potential destructiveness;
as an adviser to Oppenheimer, he had been uneasy about the bomb project from
the beginning. Was this to be the “culmination of three centuries of physics,” he
had asked Oppenheimer in 1943.49 For Feynman, the celebration of the test came
to an abrupt end when he saw Robert Wilson, his physicist friend, “just sitting
there moping”:
I said, “What are you moping about?” He said, “It’s a terrible thing that we
made.” I said, “But you started it. You got us into it.” You see, what happened
to me—what happened to the rest of us—is we started for a good reason, then
you’re working very hard to accomplish something and it’s a pleasure, it’s
excitement. And you stop thinking, you know; you just stop.50
Trinity made scientists face the real-world consequences of their labor and think
about their own social responsibility. The cathartic release of tension transformed
the scientific community at Los Alamos, leading many scientists to lift their vision
above the technical and into the political. Although supporting the use of the
bomb to end the war, many believed that it should be put under international control after the war. Bethe, for example, “felt after the end of the Second World War
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
that we had a great responsibility to explain atomic weapons, and to try and make
the government do sensible things about atomic weapons.”51 The political activism
that had originated with the Franck report now began to spread.
Before the Sputnik shock turned American attention to science and technology,
it was the atomic bomb that had the most impact on the relationship between
science and society in the United States. When the atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus helping to end World War II, scientists at Los Alamos
and elsewhere knew that they now stood at a crucial moment in the history of
American public science. From the birth of the NAS during the Civil War to the
rise and fall of the SAB in the Great Depression, the question of dual allegiance to
science and government had long frustrated American scientists’ pursuit for a role
in public policy. The bomb not only demonstrated the power of modern science
and technology but also, evidently, the validity of the assembly-line model that
highlighted the primacy of pure science, both of which should help public scientists justify future federal funding for scientific research. Of equal importance was
the fact that the bomb enhanced the scientists’ public prestige and their relevance
to the emerging national security state. Although the resistance to scientists’ role
in social and political matters never completely disappeared, it was at least temporarily muted in the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
Thus, by the end of World War II, the bomb made possible a new division of
labor in the American scientific community. Although many scientists continued
to concentrate on their science either as a personal preference—Feynman claimed
to practice “active irresponsibility”—or as a matter of principle to leave the policy
issues to the democratic process, a number of the wartime scientific leaders who
would become PSAC members became involved in public policy as a way to
exercise their social responsibility.52 Yet other public scientists would take on the
additional duty to promote the public support of science, a move that had already
been undertaken by the Oppenheimer panel when it advocated to the Interim
Committee that, in the words of Lawrence, “Only by vigorously pursuing the
necessary plant expansion and fundamental research, and by securing adequate
government support could this nation stay out in front.” Here we see that both
the rationale of science for national security and the science–military partnership
carried seamlessly from wartime to peacetime. It marked one of the earliest efforts
to link science in policy with policy for science.53 Clearly, for American public scientists, the postwar political, social, and technological developments held great and
many promises.
The Origins of Technological
Skepticism, 1945–1950
The years from the end of World War II to the beginning of the Korean War
marked a key period in American scientists’ dual drive to justify public support of
science and to control an increasingly dangerous nuclear arms race. For many scientists, including those who would be active in PSAC, the atomic bomb gave them
both an opportunity and a reason to enter the political arena: the destruction of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki led them to question the applications of their research
and its implications for the future of the world. It started with the Scientists’
Movement for civilian and international control of atomic energy in 1945–1946, and
ended with the controversy over the hydrogen bomb decision in 1949–1950, with
the debate over the founding of the National Science Foundation (NSF) running in
the background. Much has been written about these key events in the history of
Cold War science, but their implications for the agenda of American public scientists, especially the formulation of technological skepticism and the state–science
relationship, deserve further exploration.
The Scientists’ Movement
In the postwar era, although most veterans of the Manhattan Project continued to
believe, as did the Oppenheimer panel, that ending the war quickly justified the use
of the bomb, a sense of anguish, if not guilt, haunted many of them. As historian
Alice Kimball Smith pointed out, this feeling of responsibility for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki helped drive the Scientists’ Movement.1 A young
scientist wept when he read John Hersey’s New Yorker account of the Hiroshima
bombing.2 “All of us had,” declared Samuel Allison, the physicist who had presided
over the countdowns at Trinity, “a momentary elation when our experiment met
with success, but that feeling rapidly changed to a feeling of horror and a fervent
hope that no more bombs would be dropped.”3 Such a sense of doubts about the
wisdom of the use of the bomb, and about their failure to question the decision at
an earlier stage, would in turn lead many scientists to be skeptical of technological
solutions in the future.
To American public scientists, the bomb was a mixed blessing: it helped to
increase federal support for science, but it also introduced a darker image of
science and scientists. A small but vocal segment of the public indeed blamed
scientists for Hiroshima. Lewis Mumford, who had hoped in the 1930s that science
would counterbalance technological excesses, for example, now felt betrayed by
the scientists. In an angry 1946 magazine article titled “Gentlemen, You Are Mad!”
Mumford asked “Why were there no martyrs?” “Why wasn’t there a movement
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
of those who said no and would remove their services from bomb making?” Science, Mumford insisted, should not only pursue truth for its own sake, but be
made to answer the question: “Is it beneficial?”4 Such public questioning of their
responsibility contributed to scientists’ resolve “to make science serve the cause
of peace” and to redeem their beloved calling.5 Likewise denouncing the Hiroshima bombing, Albert Einstein urged activism among fellow scientists: “To the
village square we must carry the facts of atomic energy. From there must come
America’s voice.”6 Such appeals encouraged scientists to leave the ivory tower
or weapons labs, if temporarily, to enter the public sphere and attempt to shape
nuclear policy.
The Scientists’ Movement achieved some of its goals, but not others. It led
to the formation of the Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS)—later changed to
the Federation of American Scientists—and the passing of the McMahon Bill that
established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) as a civilian, not a military,
agency. It failed, however, to make much progress on the international control of
atomic energy as outlined in the Acheson–Lilienthal report, drafted by Oppenheimer. Scientists in the movement also pushed for the appointments of science
advisers in the White House and at the State Department.7 Although the move
failed, it put presidential science advising on the agenda of American public science. Furthermore, despite all its setbacks, the movement represented an important early example of American scientists exercising their social responsibilities.
The Scientists’ Movement also subjected scientists to renewed questioning
about their fitness to speak on nontechnical issues. The New York Times raised this
issue when it editorialized that “not even the fact that a scientist has had a share in
making the atomic bomb qualifies him to map national policy or read the future.”
In response, a group of scientists, echoing the Franck report, contended that they
not only had the average citizen’s rights and qualifications to speak on the social
and political issues, but perhaps more due to their familiarity with the technical
aspects of the problem.8 Such an argument drew general support among scientists,
but more experienced voices urged caution. Hans Bethe, for example, dissuaded
fellow FAS members from advocating world government as a solution to the problem of international control of atomic energy, lest they be accused of speaking
far outside their expertise and thus lose their present political prestige: “I believe
that the time may come again . . . when we shall need this prestige, and when we
shall again have a message . . . which we can carry with enthusiasm.” “It is most
important to preserve our ability to act at such a time,” he added.9
Where did scientists derive their remarkable political prestige in 1945–1946 in
the first place? Echoing Karl Compton, many observers believed that scientists’
“disinterestedness” upheld their public image and made them effective lobbyists. The scientists, once again working on the science and technology boundary,
made themselves, perhaps in contrast to engineers and industrialists, into professionals “without private ambitions” or “profit motive.” Indeed scientists carefully
cultivated this image of disinterestedness by avoiding issues of policy for science.
They did not want to be seen “as just another pressure group.”10 Although the
The Origins of Technological Skepticism, 1945–1950
Scientists’ Movement flexed science’s newfound political muscle, the resistance to
scientists as an interest group that had infl icted Compton’s SAB did not vanish in
the postwar period.
The NSF Debate
Despite the atomic scientists’ claim and popular image, the concurrent debate over
the founding of the NSF indicated that scientists were far from being disinterested
in matters of government science policy. If the scientists’ drive to redeem science
was only implicit in the fights for civilian and international control of atomic
energy, their professional interest became explicit and central in the debate over
the NSF, which was designed by Vannevar Bush to provide federal funding for
science. What connected the debates over the control of atomic energy and over
the NSF was not only that the bomb provided the most compelling rationale for
federal support of science, but also that public scientists in both cases advocated
the cause of science by making a politically advantageous distinction between science and technology.
As the war drew to an end in 1945, Bush began to plan for the simultaneous
phasing out of the OSRD and the creation of a new mechanism to continue the
government–science partnership. Scientists’ wartime achievements put Bush in a
much better position than Karl Compton and his SAB in the 1930s to justify federal
support of science. The key to Bush’s argument was the linear, assembly-line model
of science leading to technology and then to practical applications. As he explained
in his famous report on Science, the Endless Frontier: “Today, it is truer than ever that
basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress. . . . [W]e are entering
a period when science needs and deserves increased support from public funds.”11
The government should give special support to universities, Bush argued, because
they were the main institutions for basic research and for training of scientists.12 In
the postwar political economy, science became too expensive to depend on private
funding and too important not to attract attention from the state.
Evoking the pure science ideal allowed Bush to articulate what historian of science Nathan Reingold called the ideology of basic research, which placed it ahead
of applied research and development in priority.13 To be sure, by the end of World
War II, the pure science ideal was even less tenable than in Henry Rowland’s days.
The Great Depression had forced universities to emphasize practical applications
of scientific research and to seek industrial patronage for its research efforts.14
Consequently, Bush, in his report, tried to modify the assembly-line model by
replacing the exclusionary concept of pure science with that of basic research,
and by broadening it to include basic engineering research. Indeed, Bush called
his proposed funding agency the National Research Foundation. Nevertheless,
Bush wanted to keep social and political interference—“rigid controls”—out of
curiosity-driven science. “Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan
for Government support of science.”15 Along the same line, those sympathetic
to Bush’s proposal, as historian David Hollinger has argued, soon promoted the
concept of the scientific community to replace men of science, implying that
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
scientists could police themselves without governmental oversight, even though
Bush himself held on to an individualistic conception of scientists.16
By insisting on scientists making decisions on the distribution of federal funds,
Bush parted company with those who supported Senator Harley Kilgore’s rival
proposal to integrate the NSF into the political process, including the geographical distribution of some federal research funds.17 This disagreement, and President
Truman’s veto of a 1947 Bush-backed bill on the grounds that it denied political
control over the running of the NSF, resulted in a delay of the NSF from 1945 to
1950. By then, the military and the AEC had already dominated the support of
academic science, ensuring a pluralist federal structure of funding for science even
after the NSF’s birth. Although Bush could claim some measure of success with the
founding of the NSF, his concurrent push for a new science policy was met with
frustration.18 His proposal for another SAB of outside, “disinterested” scientists to
advise both the White House and Congress on science policy went nowhere.19 This
long-standing dream of American public scientists had to wait.
The H-Bomb Debate and the Making of Technological Skepticism
Even though Bush failed to establish a permanent presidential science advisory system, the NSF did give scientists a voice in the area of policy for science and the various science advisory committees that sprung up in other federal agencies did enable
them to speak on matters of science in policy. In contrast to the Scientists’ Movement, which waged a grassroots political campaign to reshape American nuclear
policy, those scientists who sat on these advisory bodies chose the insiders’ approach
by working within the channels. Among the most infl uential of such groups was
the General Advisory Committee (GAC) to the AEC, which succeeded, in many
ways, the Oppenheimer panel in advising the government on its nuclear programs.
In late 1949, shortly after the Soviet atomic bomb test, the GAC, which was chaired
by Oppenheimer and included Conant, Hartley Rowe, Cyril Smith, Lee DuBridge,
Rabi, Enrico Fermi, Glenn Seaborg, and Oliver Buckley, found itself at the center
of a major national policy controversy: the AEC asked it to advise on whether to
launch an “all-out” program to make the hydrogen bomb, or the “super.” The
ensuing debate on the H-bomb proved to be a turning point in the evolution of
scientists’ technological skepticism by fostering a critical attitude toward faith in
technology as a solution to social and political problems.
Surprisingly, in view of its earlier questioning of the propriety of the Franck
Committee’s activism, one of the earliest expressions about the limits of nuclear
weapons in the postwar period came from the Oppenheimer panel to the Interim
Committee. “We believe that the safety of this nation—as opposed to its ability
to infl ict damage on an enemy power—cannot lie wholly or even primarily in its
scientific or technical prowess,” the panel to wrote the Interim Committee only
days after Hiroshima. It urged the committee to undertake “all steps,” including
international negotiations, to work on the prevention of war as the only way to
protect Americans.20 In making this appeal, the Oppenheimer panel clearly ventured beyond its technical mandate and moved into policy matters, as Jewett had
The Origins of Technological Skepticism, 1945–1950
wished before the war and as the Franck Committee sought to do during the war.
Like the Franck group, the panel now justified its move as an “appropriate” step
to establish a meaningful context for its technical advice.21 It was a precedent that
many postwar science advisory committees would follow.
The Truman administration did make efforts, half-heartedly to its critics, at negotiations over the international control of nuclear weapons, but by late 1946, most
scientist-activists recognized that their hope for arms control had faded and nuclear
arms buildup would take center stage in national security policy. The H-bomb debate,
however, reignited the hope for a moderation of the nuclear technological onslaught.
It provided a chance for liberal scientists, represented by Oppenheimer and his colleagues on the GAC, to make the argument that such technological fixes as the super
would not solve political problems in international relations. As Oppenheimer put it
in his famous “ox cart” letter on the H-bomb to Conant on October 21, 1949:
What concerns me is really not the technical problem. I am not sure the miserable thing will work, nor that it can be gotten to a target except by ox cart. It
seems likely to me even further to worsen the unbalance of our present war
plans. What does worry me is that this thing appears to have caught the imagination, both of the congressional and of military people, as the answer to the
problem posed by the Russian advance. It would be folly to oppose the exploration of this weapon. . . . But that we become committed to it as the way to save
the country and the peace appears to me full of danger.22
Oppenheimer’s skepticism toward the H-bomb resonated with and was reinforced by Conant, who shared with the physicist a deep doubt about the widespread faith in nuclear weapons and nuclear power. At the GAC, they both had
opposed the nuclear-powered bombers as wildly unrealistic.23 Even though he had
advocated the use of the bomb during World War II to shock the world into international control, Conant turned, in the postwar period, firmly against the promotion of nuclear power—they were “bedtime stories”—and the reliance on nuclear
weapons in national security policy as perilous. In 1951 he would offer this critical
observation of the military’s transformation from pre–World War II “technological conservatism” to postwar “technological enthusiasm”:
It seems to me something like the old religious phenomenon of conversion. As
I see it now, the military, if anything, have become vastly too much impressed
with the abilities of research and development. They are no longer the conservatives. I don’t know what I should say—at times they seem to be fanatics in
their belief of what scientists and technologists can do.24
Likewise Bush was alarmed by the technological enthusiasm of the military. As
early as October 1945 Bush, as chairman of the Joint New Weapons Committee,
had complained to Conant that “[t]he Services are running wild . . . [pursuing] a
very extensive and utterly uncoordinated” technological agenda.25 His discouragement of missile research was part of his drive to disabuse the American public and
military from Buck Rogers push-button high-tech wars.26
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
Partly in reaction to the military’s gung-ho attitude toward nuclear weapons,
a sense of technological skepticism prevailed at the GAC meeting in October 1949,
where Conant emerged as the most forceful opponent of the hydrogen bomb and
might have moved Oppenheimer from skepticism to opposition.27 Initially it was
not clear which way the meeting was going to go. Both Rabi and Fermi believed
that the decision would be to go ahead.28 Even Oppenheimer, as his letter to
Conant indicated, thought that an outright opposition to it would be “folly.” At the
end of the meeting, however, the GAC, infl uenced by Conant’s emotional appeal,
recommended against a crash H-bomb program even as it urged an acceleration of
the AEC’s fission bomb production.
The resultant GAC report marked several important departures in the history of science advising. Even more than the Franck Committee, the GAC based
its recommendation against the H-bomb on explicitly social, political, and moral
considerations: the H-bomb was not a military instrument but a weapon of genocide.29 The majority appendix to the report, drafted by Conant, and cosigned by
DuBridge, Rowe, Smith, Buckley, and Oppenheimer, argued that it was both necessary and possible to stop the development of this technology. “Mankind would
be far better off not to have a demonstration of the feasibility of such a weapon,
until the present climate of world opinion changes.”30 The minority appendix to
the GAC, signed by Rabi and Fermi, condemned the H-bomb even more forcefully,
calling it “necessarily an evil thing considered in any light.”31 Thus, in advising
the government, the GAC sought to explain not what a technology could do, but
rather what it could not do. “[I]t is not a weapon,” the committee agreed, “which
can be used exclusively for the destruction of material installations of military or
semi-military purposes.” In other words, it would not help the United States win
the Cold War militarily even if it could be made. Furthermore, like the Franck
Committee, the GAC argued against the inevitability of a new military technology. “In determining not to proceed to develop the super bomb, we see a unique
opportunity of providing by example some limitations on the totality of war and
thus of limiting the fear and arousing the hopes of mankind,” the majority appendix argued.32 Whereas in November 1945 Oppenheimer had declared at Los Alamos
that “It is not possible to be a scientist unless you believe that the knowledge of
the world, and the power which this gives, is a thing which is of intrinsic value to
humanity,” he now expressed the GAC’s hope that “by one means or another, the
development of these weapons could be avoided.”33
Characteristic of the postwar science advisory scene and foreshadowing of the
future PSAC, however, the GAC deliberation was not without its own internal dissent. Despite their moral reservations about the H-bomb, Rabi and Fermi declined
to join the majority’s advocacy of a “disarmament by example” approach. Instead,
they proposed essentially an H-bomb test ban: “It would be appropriate to invite
nations of the world to join us in a solemn pledge not to proceed in the development or construction of weapons of this category.”34 Unfortunately, the moderate
Rabi–Fermi proposal did not receive broader support inside or outside of the GAC.
Glenn Seaborg, a nuclear chemist at Berkeley and the only GAC member who was
The Origins of Technological Skepticism, 1945–1950
absent from the meeting, had written a letter to Oppenheimer expressing his reluctant endorsement for the super. He later said that he believed he would have signed
the Rabi–Fermi recommendation had he been present at the meeting.35 Reflecting
his own ambivalence, even Oppenheimer considered signing the Rabi–Fermi statement before joining the majority opinion.36 Then, in a December 3, 1949 letter to
Oppenheimer, the cautious Buckley subtly moved, too, to a position closer to that
of Rabi and Fermi: “I would stop short of a demonstration of a super.”37
Both the majority and the minority views of the GAC enraged its critics.
Edward Teller, who firmly believed in the necessity of deterring Soviet aggression
with superior American military technology, denounced the GAC for abandoning
Oppenheimer’s earlier position on a scientist’s duty. “The scientist is not responsible for the laws of nature,” Teller argued:
It is his job to find out how these laws operate. It is the scientist’s job to find the
ways in which these laws can serve human will. However, it is not the scientist’s
job to determine whether a hydrogen bomb should be constructed, whether
it should be used, or how it should be used. This responsibility rests with the
American people and with their chosen representatives.38
In other words, just as the wartime Oppenheimer panel had tried to patrol the
boundary between the technical and the political in 1945 in its debate with the
Franck Committee, it was now Teller’s turn to use the same rhetoric to attack
the GAC’s opposition to the H-bomb. His argument did not prevent him from
actively lobbying the AEC and Congress for the construction of the H-bomb,
however.39 Privately Teller suspected that Oppenheimer opposed the H-bomb
partly due to “misplaced pride about the device [fission bomb] he was responsible
for producing.”40
In the end, the GAC’s argument did not matter in the H-bomb decision nearly
as much as its supporters had hoped or as its critics had feared. Although AEC
chairman David Lilienthal (and a majority of the AEC commissioners) supported
the GAC recommendation to discourage military reliance on nuclear weapons,
President Truman did not share the GAC’s moral concern over the development
of the H-bomb. Three years ago he had privately dismissed Oppenheimer as a
“cry-baby scientist” when the physicist told him that he had blood on his hands
in the aftermath of Hiroshima.41 Truman now decided that it was in American
national interest to proceed with the H-bomb, even before a special subcommittee
of the National Security Council voted two to one, secretaries of state and defense
against Lilienthal, to recommend a go-ahead. As Lilienthal wrote in his diary,
“the President was so clearly set on what he was going to do before we set foot
inside the door.”42 Sidney Souers, a Truman aide, likewise believed that Truman
had made the decision “at the very beginning.”43 Members of the GAC, in session
when informed of the decision and the additional presidential “gag” order not to
discuss the matter in public, were “stunned and disheartened” by the verdict.44
Oppenheimer thought of resigning the GAC chairmanship, but was dissuaded by
Secretary of State Dean Acheson and the new AEC chairman, Gordon Dean.45
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
American public scientists lost their first major battle to limit the technological
momentum in the nuclear age.
Truman’s decision on the H-bomb had a far-reaching effect not only on the
nuclear arms race but also on the future of the GAC and science advising in
general.46 The committee never regained its infl uence.47 When Oppenheimer and
Conant retired from the GAC, it marked, as Conant biographer James Hershberg
noted, “the triumph of ‘enthusiastic’ scientific advisers intent on the unlimited
development of nuclear weapons.”48 Less tangible but equally important, the Hbomb controversy left the impression in the minds of Congressmen and government officials that most scientists were “soft” in national security policymaking.
It reinforced the idea that scientists, as experts, should be strictly “on tap” and not
“on top.” Redrawn was the boundary between what was technical, and therefore
proper for scientists to address, and what was political, to be reserved for politicians and other policymakers.49 When the H-bomb was eventually made despite
initial technical difficulties, the achievement would further strengthen faith in
technological progress in the minds of those who had backed its development in
the first place. The Manhattan approach worked again; Cold War technologies
could, it appeared, be commanded. In contrast, scientists associated with the GAC
opposition to the H-bomb would view such enthusiasm for technological solutions
as a dangerous impulse to accelerate the nuclear arms race. The gulf would widen
in subsequent debates over nuclear weapons.
This examination of the Scientists’ Movement, the NSF debate, and the H-bomb
controversy indicates that during the early Cold War, scientists increasingly became
part of the national security state both because of their sense of the danger of
Stalinism and because of their mission as public scientists. Even their articulation
of technological skepticism formed a key part of their promotion of science: Motivated by a sense of moral and social responsibility for the uses of their scientific
research, they sought not only to redeem science’s peaceful image, which they felt
had been damaged by the Hiroshima bombing, but also to limit the technological
momentum that would accelerate a nuclear arms race in the postwar period. As
they moved closer to policy and politics, however, they found that their ideas and
ideals about science, technology, and the proper role of experts in a democracy
severely challenged.
Oppenheimer and his GAC colleagues’ opposition to the H-bomb did not
mean that they questioned the objectives of American Cold War policy. Those
who opposed and those who advocated a crash H-bomb project differed mainly
on the means to achieving the same objectives. Many in the former camp, for
example, urged a conventional military buildup and increased fission bomb production as a preferred alternative to reliance on thermonuclear weapons and as
a better response to the Soviet bomb, the Chinese Communist revolution, and,
soon thereafter, the outbreak of the Korean War. Accordingly, Oppenheimer,
who later regarded his following Conant in opposing the H-bomb “a mistake,”
The Origins of Technological Skepticism, 1945–1950
not only played an active role in the making of the hawkish policy document
NSC-68, but also helped organize the Committee on the Present Danger, which
advocated, among other measures, a universal draft for military service in the
United States.50
What the H-bomb episode did demonstrate to liberal scientists associated with
the GAC was the danger of not only blind faith in nuclear military technology, but
also the inadequacy and opacity of the science advising process. Small groups of
top government officials could make life-and-death decisions behind closed doors
without public or even congressional debate.51 Scientists like themselves did participate in the process and proponents of the H-bomb such as Lawrence and Teller
indeed had great infl uence on some key government officials. Yet it was doubtful
whether the GAC’s unorthodox and perhaps naive arguments had a fair hearing
before Truman.52 This lack of a balanced system of science advising and a more
open debate was deeply troubling to the GAC scientists. Thus, when the next crisis, the Korean War, hit the nation shortly after the H-bomb debate, Oppenheimer
and his supporters on and off the GAC saw it as another opportunity both to
strengthen presidential science advising and to redeem science through technological skepticism by bringing scientists closer to American Cold War policymaking.
Mobilizing Science for the Korean
War under Truman, 1950–1952
The Korean War dramatically changed the landscape of American science and government. On the heels of the H-bomb decision, the confl ict brought the urgency
of general military research and development (R&D) and scientific mobilization
beyond nuclear weapons to the attention of government officials.1 It also highlighted the need for a revitalization of defense research policy and organization at
the top of the government. The White House became the locus of a campaign by
scientists who pushed for the establishment of a science advisory setup there to
coordinate both science in policy and policy for science for the Cold War.
The Golden Plan
Even before the outbreak of the Korean War in summer 1950, there had been a
growing concern over the disarray in military R&D. Demobilization and scientists’
desires to go back to basic research had led to the termination of the OSRD, as its
military successor, the Research and Development Board (RDB) in the Department
of Defense (DOD), struggled to fulfill its mission of coordinating the vast military
R&D enterprise. A major problem derived from the fact that military representatives on the board each worked for the interests of their own services, making it
impossible for the divided RDB to exert much infl uence in defense science policy.
More important, the Joint Chiefs of Staff refused to open their decision-making
process to the civilian scientists on the RDB. By 1950 many scientists feared that the
RDB, one of the main formal channels for scientists to infl uence military strategy,
was on the verge of collapse.2
Science advising at the White House had also almost vanished. Truman never
warmed up to the technocratic style of Vannevar Bush, who technically remained
science adviser to Truman even after the dissolution of the OSRD. In 1945, for example, Truman put James R. Newman, chief of the science section in the Office of War
Mobilization and Conversion, instead of Bush, in charge of dealing with atomic
energy legislation. “I cannot remain silent,” Bush protested. “Either my comments
and advice must play an important part in the councils of your administration or I
must be free to speak plainly in public on all those matters of science in which I feel
that my war experience gives me a duty to speak.”3 Soon he left the White House,
disillusioned by what he perceived to be Truman’s unwillingness to heed outside
scientific advice.4 In 1947, a President’s Scientific Research Board under Truman’s
nonscientist assistant John Steelman produced a New Deal-inspired report on Science and Public Policy that emphasized a strong government science policy. Among
its recommendations were the establishment of an Interdepartmental Committee
Mobilizing Science for the Korean War, 1950–1952
on Scientific Research and Development (ICSRD), and the designation of a White
House staff member by the president “for the purpose of scientific liaison.” The
former step was followed but the latter was ignored.5
Shortly after the beginning of the Korean War, calls reached the White House
for a resurrection of the OSRD to remedy the dismal organization of military
R&D. An RDB subcommittee under Irwin Stewart, former OSRD executive secretary, advocated both a revival of the OSRD and the appointment of a presidential
scientific adviser. John McCormack (D-MA), House majority leader, urged Truman
to return military R&D to the hands of civilian scientists and ensure that R&D
funds not be diverted to other purposes.6
To examine the status of military R&D in general and the wisdom of a new
OSRD in particular, Truman and the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) decided to
conduct an informal review of the matter. With the president’s approval, the BOB
appointed for this task William T. Golden, a New York investment banker and
friend of BOB Assistant Director Charles Stauffacher. Golden had just returned to
Wall Street from a post as Commissioner Lewis Strauss’s assistant at the AEC. Now
serving President Truman as a special consultant to the BOB director, Golden found
during the initial phase of his investigation the immense value of presidential sponsorship. He began to formulate his plan for a science adviser to the president as the
focus for national scientific mobilization.7 On October 31, he tried out his idea on
David Stowe, a presidential assistant. Stowe thought that the president “would be
favorably disposed to this recommendation,” but he also warned Golden that “the
President would be opposed however to the idea of a [advisory] board,” reflecting
perhaps his lingering disaffection toward the GAC over the H-bomb.8 Nevertheless
encouraged, Golden went on to visit and talk to more than one hundred scientists
and administrators in and out of the government to further test his proposal and
gain feedback. Many of his interviewees welcomed the proposal,9 and their enthusiasm reflected the key importance of the Korean War in motivating scientists to
remobilize for military research. As Hans Bethe, who had refused to work on the
H-bomb in 1949 on moral grounds, later recalled, the Korean War represented “the
first time that I saw direct confrontation with the Communists”:
It was too disturbing. The cold war looked as if it were about to get hot. I
knew then I had to reverse my earlier position. If I didn’t work on the bomb,
somebody else would—and I had the thought if I were around Los Alamos I
might still be a force for disarmament. So I agreed to join in developing the
Thus, for Oppenheimer, Bethe, and other leading liberal scientists, Golden’s proposal promised to raise scientists’ independent voice in U.S. defense and science
policy. Otherwise, as AEC chairman Gordon Dean told Golden, “many scientists
would not work for the military.”11
Scientists disagreed, however, over the exact setup. Initially, Oppenheimer
and Conant opposed the proposal for a single science adviser, fearing that one
scientist, however qualified, would not represent the broad spectrum of views and
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
scientific disciplines. They rather preferred a committee of scientific advisers.12
In the end, all agreed that some form of presidential science advising should be
established as soon as possible.13 Scientists’ sense of urgency intensified especially
after the United States suffered setbacks in Korea in late 1950 following the Chinese entry into the war. I. I. Rabi, for example, returned from a trip to Europe
gravely concerned about the pessimism there. He called Golden immediately to
urge him to advance his plan for a science adviser as a way to mobilize science
for the Cold War not only in the United States but in the West in general.14 The
aggressive recruiting and “stockpiling” of scientists by military services also generated a rising concern that without a “focal point” the mobilization of science
would be dangerously fragmented.15
In December 1950, Golden formally recommended to Truman that he appoint
a presidential scientific adviser but postpone the resurrection of the OSRD, as yet
unnecessary in view of the vast R&D enterprise in the Department of Defense.
The science adviser would monitor the government’s defense R&D programs,
stand ready to revive the OSRD when necessary, and, of course, provide independent science advice in the president’s daily policymaking. To alleviate Oppenheimer’s and Conant’s concern over the domination of a narrow point of view,
Golden suggested that the science adviser “select a small advisory committee of
scientific specialists . . . or he may call on the National Academy of Sciences.”16
The first step was taken toward the establishment of a formal presidential science
advisory system.
The Science Advisory Committee
President Truman reportedly studied the Golden proposal and reacted to it favorably in mid-January 1951, but he did not consider it a vital part of his strategy.17
Such indifference made the proposal vulnerable to objections from other presidential institutions, especially the new Office of Defense Mobilization (ODM) in the
Executive Office of the President. The ODM was created by Truman in a declaration of national emergency on December 15, 1950, following the Chinese entry into
the Korean War. Headed by Charles Edward Wilson (“Electric Charlie”), former
president of General Electric, the ODM was to set priorities and keep control of
defense-related activities of the entire government. Significantly, the ODM director
was made one of the only five statutory members of the National Security Council
(NSC; the others were the president, vice president, and secretaries of state and
defense). When Golden discussed his plan with General Lucius Clay, assistant
director of the ODM, the latter accepted the necessity for scientific mobilization
but questioned the establishment of a presidential science adviser to accomplish
it. Rather, Clay, famous for his direction of the 1948 Berlin airlift, claimed that
the function fell squarely into the purview of the ODM and therefore the science
adviser should be appointed assistant to the ODM director rather than to the
president.18 Further discussions among Clay, the BOB, and Golden resulted in the
downgrade from a presidential science adviser with a committee to an Advisory
Committee on Defense Scientific Research with a full-time chairman reporting to
Mobilizing Science for the Korean War, 1950–1952
both the ODM director and the president.19 Given Stowe’s earlier warning about
Truman’s hostility toward a science advisory board and the scientists’ preference
for direct access to the president, Golden could not have been very happy with
the arrangement, but there seemed little that he could do to change Clay’s mind.
Thus, Clay, in one stroke, considerably dimmed the scientists’ hope to regain an
independent voice in defense and science policymaking.
Another challenge to the Golden plan came from the NSF, which was finally
activated in May 1950. Meeting for the first time on December 12, 1950, the NSF’s
governing National Science Board (NSB) expressed anxiety that the appointment
of a presidential science adviser would undermine its own prerogatives. The NSF
Act of 1950 had directed the foundation not only “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare,” but also “to secure
the national defense.” The NSB felt the new science advisory setup impinged
on its mandate in military R&D.20 Fortunately for the Golden plan, Conant and
DuBridge, who sat on the NSB, turned the board around by arguing for a much
more limited mission for the NSF. The fledgling NSF should not attempt to
take R&D away from the military, they argued, but rather concentrate on basic
research and science education. Fear of military domination if the NSF took on
military research proved greater than bureaucratic ambition. By early 1951, the NSB
dropped its objection to the Golden plan.21
We would probably never know whether the NSF could have persisted in
covering both military and civilian areas had the preceding events not intervened,
but we do know that this turn of events had profound implications for the future
of the NSF and American science policy. Although freed from possible military
encroachment and left to support basic research, the NSF was forced to accommodate itself to a federal science funding mechanism dominated by the DOD and
the AEC. Its budget languished both in the BOB and in Congress, due partly to
its detachment from direct defense concerns. This situation would change with
Sputnik, but for much of its formative period, the NSF remained an underfunded
promise for the future.
As the mechanism of presidential science advising evolved from Golden’s
original high-profile science adviser in the White House to one of much less significance in the ODM, the search for a committee chairman became an exercise
in frustration. Both Mervin Kelly, president-designate at Bell Laboratories, and
DuBridge, who were Golden’s and most scientists’ favorite candidates, declined to
be considered. The White House did offer the position to chemist Charles Thomas
of Monsanto, but he also declined. Eventually, it fell to Oliver Buckley, retiring
president of Bell, who also served on the GAC.22 The White House’s interest in
Kelly and Thomas and its final choice of Buckley derived from a belief that a
scientist from the industrial sector would be more practical and decisive than one
from the universities.23 Scientists were, however, lukewarm toward the Buckley
appointment. Oppenheimer, Conant, and DuBridge, three of Buckley’s colleagues
on the GAC, all felt that “his attitude is correct and self-effacing and that he will
not do foolish things,” hardly a ringing endorsement.24 However, with the looming
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
threat that the whole thing would be called off if Buckley declined, the scientists
persuaded him to accept the post.25
Contrary to the White House’s expectation, Buckley, in frail health, turned
out to be a very passive leader of the committee and was later blamed by Golden
and many others for the ineffectiveness of science advising in the White House
in this period. Yet, at least for the future of presidential science advising, Buckley
made a significant alteration in the Golden plan when he changed the name of the
group from the proposed Advisory Committee on Defense Scientific Research to
a broader-sounding Science Advisory Committee of the ODM (ODM-SAC). The
renaming helped the committee and its successor, PSAC, to branch out of military
matters and into science, space, and environmental policies.26
The charter of the ODM-SAC was sufficiently vague and broad that the effectiveness of the committee depended on its own initiatives and its administrative
environment. In President Truman’s appointment letter to Buckley on April 19,
1951, which served as the only legal foundation for the ODM-SAC, he directed
the group to advise both the ODM director and himself on mobilizing science for
defense. In particular, he asked the committee to advise on the “objectives and
interrelations” of the several federal agencies engaged in military R&D, to report
on any scientific discoveries that might have military importance, to channel the
scientists’ views on defense R&D to the White House, and to stand ready to resurrect the OSRD when needed. The advising role on nonmilitary science was left
to the NSF.27
The initial eleven members of the ODM-SAC, selected by Buckley in consultation with Golden, the White House, and several scientific leaders, formed an
“old boy network” of science administrators in and out of the government, much
like the original founders of the NAS. Besides Chairman Buckley, four others
served as ex officio members of the Science Advisory Committee: Detlev Bronk,
as president of the NAS (he was also president of Johns Hopkins University),
William Webster, as chairman of the RDB, Alan Waterman, as newly appointed
NSF director, and Hugh Dryden, as chairman of the ICSRD (he was also director of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). Except for Robert F.
Loeb, medical professor at Columbia, the rest of the ODM-SAC members were
all scientists or engineers who headed academic institutions or industrial firms:
Conant of Harvard, Killian of MIT, DuBridge of Cal Tech, Oppenheimer as director of the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study, and Charles A. Thomas, vice
president for research of Monsanto Chemical Company. Even these “outside”
scientists occupied important government advisory positions. Conant was chairman and DuBridge was a member of the National Science Board, Killian headed
the Army Scientific Advisory Panel, and Oppenheimer chaired the GAC, of which
Buckley, Conant, and DuBridge were members. Thus they knew each other well
from association during World War II in the OSRD, or the Rad Lab, or the Manhattan Project, and, in the postwar period, they were further interlocked in their
activities as science advisers in the AEC, the DOD, the Department of State, and
individual military services.
Mobilizing Science for the Korean War, 1950–1952
Notably, moderate-liberal scientists associated with the GAC dominated the
ODM-SAC membership. Given the rise of the Cold War atmosphere at home and
abroad and the nature of the committee, it was not surprising that those scientists
identified with the progressive left were not represented on the committee. What
might have puzzled observers was the absence of those politically conservative
scientists who had, for example, prevailed over the GAC in their push for the Hbomb. During his investigation, Golden did talk with one of the latter, Lawrence,
and his supporter on the AEC, Strauss. However, their recommendation of each
other as candidates for the position of the science adviser to the president—while
virtually no one else mentioned their names—must have made Golden realize
that they represented only a minority, however powerful, within the scientific
community. Because the Golden plan had envisioned that the presidential science
adviser would “[b]e recognized as the representative of the scientific community
at the top of the Government,” it was perhaps understandable that none of the
vocal pro-H-bomb scientists ever was seriously considered as a candidate for
science adviser or ODM-SAC chairman or made it onto the ODM-SAC.28 The
resultant ideological coherence might have helped create a collegial atmosphere
in the ODM-SAC, but it also opened the committee to charges of not being fully
representative of the spectrum of political views in the scientific community.
Furthermore, the very concept that the ODM-SAC would act as a representative
of the scientific community tended to reignite the debate over the dual allegiance
of science advisers.
In any case, despite its distinguished roll call, the ODM-SAC attempted and
accomplished very little under Truman. Oppenheimer later aptly called it “our
good-for-nothing committee.”29 Under Buckley’s conservative guidance, the committee became a forum of information exchange for the several federal science
agencies and advisory groups represented on the committee.30 In September 1951,
the ODM-SAC published its first public statement, “Scientists and Mobilization:
Some Views of the Science Advisory Committee on the Role of Academic Scientists.” In it, the committee tied American science with the Cold War, defending,
as did the Bush report, the importance of basic academic research for national
defense as a source of new knowledge, new revolutionary ideas, and technical
manpower. As to actions, it recommended that scientists at universities stay where
they were, concentrating on “fundamental research” and teaching, but stand ready
to participate in interdisciplinary projects on military problems.31 The statement
was so general, however, that many scientists found it useless and felt that it failed
to reflect their sense of urgency.32
In view of both the history of science advising and the particular circumstances
during the Truman administration, however, the ineffectiveness of the ODM-SAC
was not surprising. To date, there had never been a powerful presidential science
adviser in peacetime.33 As we have seen, during the 1930s, Compton’s SAB rarely
exerted much infl uence during its term of two and a half years. The extraordinary
effectiveness of Bush during World War II derived from both a good relationship
with Roosevelt and the clear need for scientific contributions. Both conditions were
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
absent in the case of the ODM-SAC under Truman. The Missourian, although a
professed enthusiast for science, never felt close to scientists. Meeting Buckley in
April 1951, he assured him of access but made no request for advice, asking only
vaguely that Buckley and the committee help develop more “scientific statesmen.”34 What Truman meant was that he preferred scientists who would be more
understanding of his Cold War strategy, not those associated with the GAC, who
produced, in his view, the naive recommendation against the H-bomb. “We need
men with great intellects, need their ideas,” he commented to Lilienthal on the
anti-H-bomb scientists, “but we need to balance them with other kinds of people,
too.”35 It was the common perception at the time that, as the philosopher Sydney
Hook articulated in 1950, scientists’ pursuit of precision and logic actually handicapped them in the emotional realms of politics.36
Neither the president nor the ODM director, Wilson, nor his successor John
Steelman, turned to the ODM-SAC for advice on any significant matter during the
remainder of the Truman presidency.37 The action in science advising on nuclear
weapons took place largely outside of ODM-SAC as the H-bomb program headed
toward its first test in 1952, code-named “Mike.” Although a Panel of Consultants
on Disarmament in the State Department, chaired by Oppenheimer but led
largely by Bush, argued for a postponement of the test to give the test ban another
chance, Edward Teller counterattacked, effectively, not only for proceeding with
the test but also for establishing a second nuclear weapons laboratory at Livermore.38 Throughout this period, it was possible that Truman’s antipathy toward
Oppenheimer and the GAC carried over into his indifference toward Buckley and
the ODM-SAC.39 The following anecdote, told by Jerome Wiesner of MIT, well
illustrated ODM-SAC’s peripheral status:
One day, during a visit with Buckley, our talk turned to the President and his
need for science advice. He told me that President Truman did not feel the
need for much scientific advice and, as a consequence, Buckley did not offer
very much of it. “On the other hand,” he said, “I see the President every day.”
“You do?” I asked, somewhat surprised, and he said, “Yes, he walks out there
in the garden every day.”40
Indeed, between his appointment in May 1950 and resignation a year later, Buckley
made only one request to see Truman and he was politely turned down by the
White House staff, who told him to present his report to Wilson instead.41
Buckley was certainly no Bush; but then, the Korean War never became a total
war like World War II. Few scientists went to Korea. The young nuclear physicist
Richard Garwin did spend about a month in Korea in 1950, but he was there not to
work on nuclear weapons but to consult on technical problems associated with the
establishment of a tactical air command.42 Nuclear weapons did figure in President
Truman’s strategy in the Korean War—at the time that he approved the establishment of the ODM-SAC he ordered nine atomic bombs transferred from the AEC
to the Air Force with a view toward their possible use in northeast China—but no
nuclear scientist was involved in the policymaking process.43 All these factors make
Mobilizing Science for the Korean War, 1950–1952
it doubtful that a more active scientist in the White House would have made much
An Agenda for Reform
By the end of the Truman administration, it was apparent that due to both personality and politics the ODM-SAC failed to impress either the president or the
scientific community. Although Buckley was content with the status quo, Golden
and several committee members became restless.44 A chance for reform arrived in
spring 1952 when the chairmanship passed from the ailing Buckley to DuBridge, but
the lack of presidential interest continued to frustrate the committee. DuBridge,
for example, remained largely a stranger to the president.45 The fact that he agreed
to serve only as a part-time chairman of ODM-SAC further reduced its presence
in policymaking.46
Concerned with the course of the arms race, members of the ODM-SAC,
however, were as eager as ever to play a role in American national security policy.
Dissatisfied with the ODM’s modus operandi as “not well suited to science and
scientists,” several members returned to Oppenheimer’s original proposal to move
it to the NSC, where they thought it could affect national policy.47 Pinning its hope
on the new Republican administration, the committee held a three-day retreat
at Oppenheimer’s Princeton Institute in November 1952, shortly after the first
thermonuclear test Mike and Dwight Eisenhower’s electoral victory.48 During the
meeting, the committee produced a report that agitated for change: it proposed
its own termination because it “has had few—if any occasion to render advice”
and was “not needed for the national interest,” on the one hand, and, somewhat
paradoxically, changes in government to strengthen scientists’ presence in policymaking, on the other.49
Remarkably, the key to ODM-SAC’s justification of scientists’ role in the
government was not what science and technology could contribute directly to
the military strength, but their role in shaping planning and policy. “Perhaps the
greatest single improvement in the effective use of science in the national defense
will lie,” the committee argued, “in its use in helping to bring about the increasing
clarification of our over-all strategic objectives and priorities, and a greater understanding of where our problems lie and of their relative importance.” Continuing
earlier attempts in the same direction, the ODM-SAC’s quest for science in policy
implied a concurrent demand for scientists in policy. Such science advisers would
not only alert the government about opportunities offered by scientific and technological developments, but also, more important, carry out critical evaluations
at the interface between technology and policy so that both the potentials and
limits of new technologies could be recognized and incorporated in the making
of policy. Such integration of science and scientists in policy would, the committee believed, “serve to reduce waste, confusion and futility in technical development.” Finally, the scientists also linked its advice on science in policy with policy
for science when the committee contended that such critical technical and policy
evaluations would in turn have to rest on “the best available estimates of scientific
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
fact and technical promise,” offering, implicitly, rationale for federal support of
scientific research.
Looking to the future, the committee made two specific recommendations.
First, it suggested that the chairman of the RDB, as chief science adviser to the
secretary of defense, be given broader authority and allowed to take active part
in the Pentagon’s strategy-making processes. Second, it advocated that the NSC
be reformed to concentrate more on long-term national security planning, and
that a scientist be appointed to the council to channel science and technology
to it. A new science advisory committee could then be established to help this
NSC science adviser. In essence, therefore, the committee advocated a direct role
for scientists in national policymaking at the highest level. “It is not enough for
policy-makers to be ‘briefed’ on scientific matters before making their decisions,”
the committee explained, perhaps with the H-bomb decision in mind. Instead,
“men conversant with the scientific background must participate in the process
of making these decisions.”
Ironically, unbeknownst to them, the scientists’ concern actually found echo,
in a way, within the White House. In fall 1952, for example, Raymond B. Allen,
departing director of the Psychological Strategy Board, an interagency coordinating body designed to implement NSC decisions, urged the appointment of a staff
officer, with the backing of a science advisory body, empowered to develop special
technical studies. “The President and, among the Cabinet members the Secretary
of Defense particularly, could profitably use intelligent, high level, advisory counsel of experts on scientific, technical problems which concern national security
and the general problem of fighting tomorrow’s wars with tomorrow’s weapons
rather than with the weapons of the last war,” Allen told Souers. Souers professed
sympathy on the need for science advising but apparently did little to see it implemented. As a sad commentary on the status of the ODM-SAC, it never even came
up in the conversation.50
Thus, only two years after its birth during the Korean War, the fledgling ODMSAC fell victim to White House turf wars and came close to self-dissolution.
When they lent enthusiastic support to the ODM-SAC, the scientists certainly
had hoped to revive the spirit, if not the form, of the OSRD, in terms of giving
scientists autonomy from the defense establishment. That dream almost vanished
by the end of the Truman administration. Partly what doomed it was a profound
divergence in the scientists’ and the White House’s expectations of what the science advisers could accomplish. Whereas the scientists pushed the Golden scheme
as a way to represent the voice of science and to counter the domination of the
military in national security policymaking, Truman and Wilson looked to the scientists primarily as a way to pacify critical scientists and their political supporters
and to legitimate administration policy. In this connection, it was more than ironic
that it was General Clay who vetoed the idea of a presidential science adviser in
the first place. Lacking presidential interest, strong leadership, and, perhaps most
Mobilizing Science for the Korean War, 1950–1952
important, a clear mandate, the ODM-SAC became a lesson in how not to create
and run a science advisory institution.
There was a broader context in which we can understand the failure of the ODMSAC under Truman: the intensified Cold War abroad and rising anti-Communism at
home severely circumscribed the space for the kind of technological skepticism that
was first identified with the GAC and then associated with the ODM-SAC. At a time
when the Truman administration was preoccupied with “fighting tomorrow’s
wars with tomorrow’s weapons,” these liberal-moderate scientists’ advocacy of
critical evaluations of military technology, with its accompanying demand for scientists to play a role in strategic policymaking, generated much less enthusiasm
in the government than Edward Teller’s fervent promotion of direct scientific
and technological contributions to national defense. The Red Scare at home had
already put the Truman administration on the defensive; it had instituted a federal
loyalty program in 1947, with profound impact on many scientists working for the
government. By the time of the Golden investigation, Senator Joseph McCarthy
had already begun to attract a powerful following with his reckless accusations of
communist agents within the government and Oppenheimer was under increasing attack for his past left-wing associations and for his opposition to the H-bomb.
Indeed, at the Princeton meeting in November 1952, the well-connected James
Killian felt compelled to warn Oppenheimer of forthcoming troubles.51 As the
national security state gained momentum, the establishment of the ODM-SAC as
a move toward removing control of military R&D from the military might well
have been viewed as a radical, if not subversive, act. The domination of the ODM
over the scientists spoke volumes about the unequal partnership between science
and the national security state in this early Cold War period.
Yet, as the nuclear arms race raged on and the scientific enterprise increasingly
depended on government support, the mutual need of American science and state
deepened. With the coming of a new administration, there would be, once again,
new opportunities and challenges for the scientists who believed that a strong
science–state partnership was vital for the United States during the Cold War.
Science and the National Security
State under Eisenhower, 1952–1957
For American society and science, the years between the 1952 election and the 1957
Sputnik crisis were full of paradoxes. The end of the Korean War and economic
prosperity created complacency, but beneath the surface lurked great danger for
the United States as the nuclear arms race entered the thermonuclear and missile
age.1 To meet the new threats, many American scientists remobilized themselves
into national security work, only to find themselves targets of surging McCarthyist
attacks that began in the late 1940s and victims of what they regarded as capricious
government science policy. Against this most trying background, the ODM-SAC,
as the highest ranking group of scientists in the federal government, undertook the
daunting task of revitalizing itself and sustaining the partnership between science
and the national security state by, among other measures, exploiting the potentials
of military technology.
Science Advice for National Security
From the beginning, the Eisenhower administration exhibited a profound ambivalence toward science. Coming into the White House, Eisenhower brought with
him an impressive record in building a partnership between science and the state.
Often priding himself as a graduate of the nation’s first engineering school,
West Point, he employed science advisers during World War II when he was the
Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. In the late 1940s, while Chief of Staff of
the U.S. Army, he greatly enhanced the place of science in that service.2 Thus the
new administration appreciated scientists’ critical role in military technology, but it
was reluctant to allow them to enter into policymaking. At a meeting of the NSC
in 1953, the president found it “strange,” for example, that the State Department
Panel on Disarmament led by Oppenheimer and Vannevar Bush “moved out of the
scientific realm into the realms of policy and psychology.”3
Thus, the ODM-SAC received confl icting signals about its Princeton proposal
for better science advising at the Pentagon and at the NSC. DuBridge, as ODMSAC chairman, and Oppenheimer, a committee member, took the Princeton
proposal to Eisenhower’s transition advisers Arthur Flemming and Nelson Rockefeller. The latter endorsed it and passed it on to Eisenhower.4 Although Eisenhower reportedly favored both steps, only the Pentagon reform went through as
two new assistant secretaries, one for research and development, and another for
systems engineering, replaced the weak Research and Development Board.5 The
effort to put science in the NSC stalled at the feet of Robert Cutler, Eisenhower’s
special assistant for national security, or national security adviser, who was clearly
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
aware of the president’s ambivalent views toward scientists’ role in policy. A
Boston banker in background, Cutler believed in the “on tap but not on top” philosophy of science advising. Preferring ad hoc task forces, Cutler reacted coolly
to both the ODM-SAC’s recommendation for science advising in the NSC and his
friend Vannevar Bush’s idea of appointing a scientist on the NSC staff. A meeting
in May 1953 with DuBridge, Bush, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roger Keyes, and
Flemming, newly appointed director of the ODM, failed to change Cutler’s mind.
The NSC, he argued, dealt mainly with broad issues and could, when necessary,
draw on the NAS and the NSF for science advice. To Bush, what Cutler ignored
was that a council of “generalists” might not know when it needed scientific and
technical advice. “And I have seen fool things done in the White House for that
very reason,” he warned.6
Cutler’s stonewalling did not deter the scientists, however. The ODM-SAC
found a much more sympathetic hearing from Flemming, who dissuaded the committee from self-dissolution. The appointment in spring 1953 of David Z. Beckler as
both the committee’s executive officer and Flemming’s special assistant for technical liaison with the NSC also brought the group closer to policymaking. Beckler, a
chemical engineer and patent attorney by training, had worked as a staff member
for foreign technical liaison at the OSRD during World War II and then as executive director of the RDB’s Committee on Atomic Energy after the war. On the latter sat two ODM-SAC members, Oppenheimer and Bacher, who enthusiastically
recommended him for the new positions.7 The ODM-SAC also had its own charter
broadened to enable it to take initiatives. Instead of following Buckley’s philosophy
of “speaking only when spoken to,” it could now, on its own, bring defense science and technology issues “to the attention of the President, the Director, Office
of Defense Mobilization, the National Security Council, and other agencies.” The
membership was expanded and shifted from busy government science administrators to academic scientists who could devote more time on urgent problems. By
1954, for example, Bacher and Charles Lauritsen of Cal Tech, James Fisk of Bell
Labs, Bruce S. Old of Arthur D. Little, Inc., Rabi, Walter G. Whitman and Jerrold R.
Zacharias of MIT, mostly former consultants, had joined the committee, while
William Webster, James Conant, and Robert Loeb had retired.8
Strengthened by these reforms, the Science Advisory Committee was ready to
rise from its insipid beginnings to take center stage in the effort to provide much
needed scientific and technological input in national security policy. Before it could
do so, however, a great controversy erupted in late 1953 and early 1954 that threatened to wreck the committee’s ambitious plans.
The Oppenheimer Case
On December 3, 1953, Beckler was attending a conference in a hotel in Washington, DC, when he was urgently summoned back to the Executive Office by
Flemming. The president had just suspended Oppenheimer’s security clearance
at a secret White House meeting, Flemming told him. From now on, Beckler
should stop sending Oppenheimer, at the time still a member of the ODM-SAC,
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any classified information.9 A “blank wall” that Eisenhower had famously ordered
was thus erected between Oppenheimer and the government.10
Although the trigger of the Oppenheimer case came from William Borden, a
former congressional aide who suspected that Oppenheimer was a Soviet agent,
the surging attacks on scientists had deeper roots. For several years Senator Joseph
McCarthy had exploited the Red Scare hysteria of domestic anticommunism
and, by the time of Eisenhower’s election, he began to target scientists. The
ODM-SAC watched in horror as McCarthy’s reckless investigations devastated
an Army research laboratory at Fort Monmouth and threatened to do the same
for MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in December 1953.11 Eisenhower, although opposing
McCarthy’s method, nevertheless shared his objective “to cleanse the government
of security risks.”12 On learning of the Borden charge, Eisenhower’s first reaction
was that Oppenheimer could not have been a disloyal citizen, but, he added, “this
does not mean that he might not be a security risk.”13 As Cutler noted a few days
later, the new administration had lowered the bar to deny security clearance: it was
no longer disloyalty, but security risk.14 Informed by Secretary of Defense Wilson
and Lewis Strauss, now AEC chairman, that “McCarthy knows about it and might
pull it on us,” Eisenhower felt that he had no choice but to order a suspension of
Oppenheimer’s clearance.15
More than his past left-wing associations, Oppenheimer’s stand on the nuclear
arms race provided ammunition for his antagonists. In 1949, his opposition to the
H-bomb infuriated the Air Force, which counted on the weapon to become part of
its strategic nuclear bomber force. It also disliked Oppenheimer’s advocacy of tactical nuclear weapons in the summer study, Project Vista, at Cal Tech in 1951, and
of continental defense in another summer study, Project Lincoln, at MIT in 1952,
as weakening its centrality in American defense strategy.16 Oppenheimer’s public
ridicule of Strauss, then a commissioner of the AEC, in a congressional hearing
on the export of radioisotopes for basic research in 1949—Strauss had opposed
such export—turned the latter into a vengeful rival.17 In the poisoned political
atmosphere, even the advocacy of basic research by Oppenheimer and his supporters came under suspicion. General R. C. Wilson of the Air Force, for example,
reported to the AEC that he had been highly alarmed that “Dr. Oppenheimer
always appeared to be in favor of basic research and various testing activities
but always appeared to be opposed to production and development,” including,
especially, the nuclear powered bomber.18 American public scientists turned into
public enemies and dual allegiance verged on disloyalty. Finally, in early 1953,
Oppenheimer’s apparently successful campaign for candor in government policy
to enable the American people to understand the dangers of the nuclear arms race
united his enemies in their effort to remove him from national security policymaking by revoking his security clearance.19
Ironically and tragically, Oppenheimer had foreseen the gathering storm as
early as the summer of 1946 when he discussed with Lilienthal the consequences of
a Soviet opposition to international control of atomic energy. Speaking in “a really
heart-breaking tone,” Oppenheimer predicted, in Lilienthal’s paraphrase:
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
This will be construed by us as a demonstration of Russia’s warlike intentions.
And this will fit perfectly into the plans of that growing number who want to
put the country on a war footing, first psychologically, then actually. The Army
directing the country’s research; Red-baiting; treating all labor organizations,
CIO first, as Communist and therefore traitorous, etc.20
By the time Eisenhower issued his “blank wall” order, Oppenheimer had already
retired from the GAC; he remained a rarely used consultant to the AEC and participated regularly in governmental activities primarily through his membership on
the ODM-SAC. Therefore, in the December 1953 White House meeting, Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover had proposed to disband
the ODM-SAC so that Oppenheimer’s clearance would lapse automatically and
quietly because he would have no further need to use it. As a sad commentary on
the importance of the committee, no one came to its rescue. The proposal was
abandoned only because others, especially Strauss, thought it would not go far
enough to cut Oppenheimer off from the scientific community.21
Oppenheimer’s suspension shocked and dismayed many of his colleagues on
the ODM-SAC. The committee appealed to the administration for reason and,
especially, for consideration of the value of scientists to national security. Writing on behalf of the committee to Vice President Richard Nixon, who, as the
administration’s point man on security, had earlier publicly praised Oppenheimer,
DuBridge called on the administration “to take more fully into account the value
of the individual to the Government and balance this against the often trivial nature
of the allegations before action is taken which would reduce or destroy his value.”
Unjustified attacks on scientists “are reducing the morale of important research
laboratories and reducing the availability of key scientists for important posts in
the Government,” DuBridge warned. Notably and characteristically, the letter was
framed in utilitarian, not moral, terms, but, to its credit, the committee sought
redress in regard to both Oppenheimer and less well-known scientists, such as those
at the Fort Monmouth Laboratory, who were victims of McCarthyism.22
The scientists’ lobbying for Oppenheimer was met with silence. Nixon not
only avoided meeting with DuBridge, who hand-delivered the letter to his office,
but actually secretly reported DuBridge’s visit and letter to the FBI.23 DuBridge
did see Strauss, but his “encouraging” talk with the AEC chairman hardly helped
Oppenheimer.24 Privately, several committee members—DuBridge, Rabi, Bacher,
and Zacharias—attempted to raise funds for Oppenheimer’s legal defense when
Oppenheimer decided to challenge the AEC’s suspension.25 When news of
Oppenheimer’s trouble broke in April 1954, even some of those who had sided with
Edward Teller against Oppenheimer in the H-bomb debate became concerned that
the case might be used to “discredit a substantial group of scientists,” as Frederick
Seitz, then a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote Teller.26
The hearing on Oppenheimer’s security clearance before the AEC Personnel
Security Board, chaired by Gordon Gray, presented such a rich and fascinating
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
window on modern American science and politics that it has attracted the attention of various scholars from historians to dramatists. Among the many issues
it highlighted was one that has been central in the history of American science
advising: the boundary between the technical and the political that defined the
proper role of scientists as government advisors. Oppenheimer was attacked
not only for giving “wrong” advice on matters such as the hydrogen bomb, but
for giving such advice at all. “Why you felt it was your function as a scientist to
express views on military strategy and tactics,” Roger Robb, the government’s
chief “prosecuting” counsel, demanded of Oppenheimer repeatedly in the hearing. Initially, Oppenheimer addressed this issue by retreating to the position of his
wartime panel report that scientists were not especially qualified to answer nontechnical question. However, cornered later in the hearing, Oppenheimer boldly
declared that: “having played an active part in promoting a revolution in warfare,
I needed to be as responsible as I could with regard to what came of this revolution.” The rationale was no longer that scientists had special knowledge, as the
Franck group emphasized, but that they had a special responsibility. It reflected a
growing sense of political activism of scientists collectively as well as individually
in the postwar period, although it did not convince either Robb or apparently the
Gray Board.27
A number of Oppenheimer’s close friends on and off the ODM-SAC spoke
before the board not only for reinstating his clearance but also for a science adviser’s right to venture beyond the technical and render unpopular policy advice.28
Bush challenged directly the AEC’s H-bomb charge against Oppenheimer: “I think
this board or no board should ever sit on a question in this country of whether a
man should serve his country or not because he expressed strong opinions.” He
feared that the scientists–state partnership he “labored to create during the war”
was now “in jeopardy.”29 Rabi warned implicitly that the case could have repercussions on scientists working for the government. Speaking of Oppenheimer’s
contribution to the atomic bomb project, he told the Gray Board that “If the end
of that road is this kind of hearing, which can’t help but be humiliating, I thought
that it was pretty bad show.”30 Not surprisingly, Strauss’s scientists—Edward Teller,
Luis Alvarez, and Kenneth Pitzer of the University of California—testified against
Oppenheimer.31 Teller’s testimony was widely regarded as the most damaging to
Oppenheimer, whose actions appeared “confused and complicated” to him: “To
this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands
which I understand better, and therefore trust more.”32
In May 1954 the Gray Board, by a vote of two to one, confirmed Eisenhower’s
initial judgment by finding Oppenheimer a loyal citizen but a security risk, and
thus recommended against reinstating his clearance. The judgment was based
largely, and, to many scientists, dangerously, on his failure to “show the enthusiastic support” for the H-bomb program and for moving beyond the technical
and into moral and political realms. Echoing Robb, the board cautioned against
“advice of specialists relating to moral, military and political issues” and “judgments which go beyond areas of special and particular competence.” The board
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
then promptly did the latter by endorsing the view that “this country cannot in
the interest of security have less than the strongest possible offensive capabilities
in a time of national danger.” Such an incredibly narrow definition of national
security—and scientists’ role in policy—drew not only rebuttal from Oppenheimer—“Does this mean that a loyal scientist called to advise his Government
does so at his peril if he happens to believe in the wisdom of maintaining a proper
balance between offensive and defensive weapons?”—but also from other scientists such as Bush, who argued that “Scientists need to be used not as lackeys or
underlings but as partners in a great endeavor to preserve our freedoms.” This
debate made it clear that the Oppenheimer case was as much about scientists’ role
in policy, and thus a sequel to the 1953 Bush–DuBridge clash with Cutler about science advising, as it was about the security system. The views of the Gray Board,
if anything, reflected widespread public and official skepticism toward scientists’
participation in public affairs.33
Outraged by the verdict, the ODM-SAC made a desperate last attempt to help
Oppenheimer. On June 4, DuBridge wrote Strauss to request the restoration of
Oppenheimer’s clearance so that he could participate in the ODM-SAC’s president-commissioned study on surprise attack: “His value is . . . so enormous as to
completely over-balance and override the relatively trivial risks” cited by the Gray
Board. On the eve of the AEC’s own decision on the matter, Rabi wrote Strauss
a personal note: “may the wisdom of Solomon and the judgment of Hillel [Jewish leader who liberally interpreted Hebrew Scripture] guide your decision.”34
All these efforts were in vain. Kenneth D. Nichols, general manager of the AEC,
who also recommended against Oppenheimer, countered DuBridge’s assertion
by claiming that the ODM-SAC did not know the secret evidence against Oppenheimer and that Oppenheimer was “far from being indispensable” to national
security programs. In late June, the AEC, led by Strauss, found Oppenheimer
a security risk and formally denied Oppenheimer’s clearance in a four-to-one
decision, with the dissenting vote cast by the sole scientist-commissioner, Henry
Smyth. Recognizing that it could not “convict” Oppenheimer for his opinion, the
AEC cited instead Oppenheimer’s character and association as grounds for denial
of clearance.35
In retrospect, the Science Advisory Committee’s utter failure in the Oppenheimer case seemed inevitable. Given its own shaky foundation and the general
ineptness of institutional response to McCarthyism in the era, the committee had
little space to maneuver.36 No one in the committee suggested mass resignation,
nor would it have been helpful to Oppenheimer. Yet, despite all the restraints on
the ODM-SAC, one wonders why it failed to protest the Oppenheimer case and
other similar cases directly to President Eisenhower, as it was authorized to do by
its revised charter. The committee did meet with Eisenhower in March 1954, but
this subject apparently never came up. Conant also personally protested the Oppenheimer case to Eisenhower as an unfair punishment for his advice on the H-bomb,
but it hardly changed the president’s mind. Ironically, Eisenhower called on none
other than Strauss for help in drafting a letter to Conant answering his charge.37
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The Oppenheimer case evoked a vehement protest from the scientific community, which generally blamed the injustice on a paranoid security system.38 It
marked a profound deterioration in the relationship between American science
and the national security state. The far-reaching repercussions did not escape top
government officials. Eisenhower had approved Oppenheimer’s removal because
he questioned Oppenheimer’s conduct and believed the Gray Board’s allegation
that Oppenheimer had attempted to obstruct the hydrogen bomb program even
after Truman made the decision to go ahead. Nevertheless, Eisenhower worried
about the case’s effect on scientists in various defense projects. A telegram from
the AEC’s Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory, protesting the Oppenheimer
case and carrying the signatures of 500 scientists and engineers, surely did not ease
Eisenhower’s mind.39 As Gordon Dean, the second AEC chairman who had retired
in 1953, told Lilienthal, “[t]he Oppenheimer case—the way it was initiated, the way
it was handled, the incredible report of the Gray Board—all put together make
them [scientists] sad, angry, and disenchanted.”40 Aware of the case’s potentially
explosive impact on scientists and dangerous exploitation by McCarthy, Eisenhower told his aides that “we’ve got to handle this so that all our scientists are not
made to be Reds.”41
Remarkably, Eisenhower even suggested a means of damage control to Strauss:
“Why do we not get Dr. Oppenheimer interested in desalting sea water? I can think
of no scientific success of all time that would equal this in its boon to mankind.”42
Because he was “so acutely conscious of the great contributions the scientists of
our country have made to our security and welfare,” Eisenhower claimed privately
that he shared the hope that Oppenheimer could be cleared.43 It was to the president’s and the AEC’s relief, that the “mass exodus” from weapons laboratories that
had been predicted by the ODM-SAC and the AEC’s GAC failed to materialize in
the wake of the Oppenheimer case.44
For many, the Oppenheimer case has remained a classic example of the confl ict
between the values of science and the state. Just as Oppenheimer’s “candor” campaign and support of the export of radioisotopes for scientific research embodied
the open and international nature of science, Strauss’s opposition to both and
his instigation of illegal FBI wiretaps on Oppenheimer showed the closed, secretive, and to Oppenheimer’s many supporters, repressive nature of the state. The
failure of the ODM-SAC to exert any infl uence in protecting Oppenheimer added
an especially sad and revealing note about the Cold War science–state relationship. In the wake of the case, a deep division would develop within the American
scientific community between the majority who supported Oppenheimer and
the minority who sided with Teller, and would cast a long shadow on the representation of science in policy for decades to come.45 Another legacy of the case
was a deepening suspicion of scientists in public affairs. Questioning scientists’
role in policymaking, as we have seen, did not start with the Oppenheimer case,
but the controversy did powerfully reinforce that message. Although not every
scientist would accept, as historians Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin believed, that
now “they could serve the state only as experts on narrow scientific issues,” the
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
case undoubtedly made many think twice before venturing outside of their field
and into policy issues.46
Yet, to see the science–state relationship after the Oppenheimer case as one
of conflict ignores the other, cooperative side of the coin. After all, the American
scientific enterprise remained dependent on military patronage, and, for all their
misgivings, leading American scientists were committed to working for national
security. Both Stalinism and McCarthyism weighed on their minds—they were
fighting “two Joes.” Individually, an excommunication from the national security state meant exile from not only policymaking but possibly one’s science
as well, when so much of it required access to classified information.47 Even
Oppenheimer, with perhaps the exception of the H-bomb debate on which his
stand was strongly influenced by Conant, remained supportive of American
Cold War policy in general.48 Thus, both justified on the collective good and
based on private necessity, most American public scientists continued to prefer
the “insider” approach for exerting influence on national security policy. As the
nuclear arms race reached a turning point in 1953 and 1954, neither could the
national security state, as indicated by Eisenhower’s “Reds” comment, afford
to alienate the technical manpower it needed. The interdependence between
the scientists and the state ensured that their partnership would survive the
Oppenheimer case.
The TCP Study of Surprise Attack
One major effort to exert scientific infl uence on national security policy was a
massive investigation on surprise attacks conducted by the so-called Technological
Capabilities Panel (TCP) of the ODM-SAC. This study coincidentally—or perhaps
not so coincidentally—began at the same time as the Oppenheimer case. The direct
impetus for the TCP came from two sources: Trevor Gardner, then an assistant to
the secretary of the Air Force, who pushed the ODM-SAC to support his proposal
for a crash program to develop a thermonuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic
missile (ICBM), and, in quite the opposite direction, Rabi, who saw this turning
point in nuclear weapons as another opportunity to promote arms control.49 At
ODM-SAC meetings, Rabi, who also chaired the GAC at the time, argued that
a new thermonuclear arms race would favor the closed Soviet system, diminish
American security, and threaten to ruin American democratic institutions. Thus,
with different goals in mind, both Rabi and Gardner called for a high-level NSC
study on science and national security.50
After heated discussions—some members thought Rabi’s proposal was too
much a challenge of the “New Look” defense policy of relying on nuclear weapons—the ODM-SAC decided to recommend such a study to the White House.51 On
March 27, 1954, Flemming arranged the committee’s first meeting with President
Eisenhower (see Figure 4.1). Coming when the administration was preparing its
case against Oppenheimer and when Eisenhower was worried about the case’s
impact on American scientists, the meeting provided him a welcome opportunity
to express his enthusiasm for the scientists’ work. Specifically, he directed the
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Figure 4.1 President Eisenhower meeting with the Science Advisory Committee of
the Office of Defense Mobilization, 1954. Left to right, seated: Arthur Flemming,
Eisenhower, Lee DuBridge, I. I. Rabi; standing: Emanuel Piore, Oliver Buckley, Alan
Waterman, James Fisk, Detlev Bronk, Bruce S. Old, James Killian, David Beckler,
Robert Bacher, Jerrold Zacharias, and Charles Lauritsen. Courtesy of the Dwight D.
Eisenhower Library.
group to conduct a study on the problem of surprise attack, which had long concerned him and which, he feared, echoing Rabi, worked better for the closed Soviet
Union than the open United States.52
The ODM-SAC accepted the assignment but, in drawing up the terms of
reference, actually broadened it and brought it closer to its original proposal for
a “comprehensive examination” of U.S. technological and military capabilities.
From past experiences, ODM-SAC scientists had learned that restricting themselves to narrow technical issues often led to unsatisfactory results. Beyond the
question of feasibility—Can you do it?—were issues of practicality and desirability—Do you want to do it?—as Jerrold Zacharias, who recruited members for
the TCP, put it in reference to an earlier study on the nuclear-powered airplane.53
Like Jewett, the Franck Committee, and GAC members before them, ODM-SAC
scientists believed that it was essential to move beyond technical details to explore
policy implications and to move beyond the question of the means to that of the
end. Not radicals, the ODM-SAC scientists did not question the overall American Cold War objective of countering Soviet threat, but neither did they want
to be treated as mere technicians solving a narrow technical problem. Thus the
committee’s proposal ventured into policy as well as technical areas, identifying
continental defense, offensive power, and intelligence as three areas vital to the
prevention of surprise attacks.54
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
The ODM-SAC was well positioned to sponsor the study. Several of its members had participated in or organized relevant summer studies in the past related
to these three areas. Furthermore, the full ODM-SAC, as a hub of the vast science
advisory network to the national security state, had held numerous discussions and
briefings on these topics. Besides strengthening American defense, the committee
hoped, perhaps with the Oppenheimer case in mind, that the study would “provide
a better relationship between government and the scientific community.”55 Despite
his earlier qualms about scientists getting into policy, Eisenhower approved the
revised plan. The committee soon established the special TCP panel, with Killian
as director and Fisk as deputy director.56
As the TCP started to recruit panel members, it immediately felt the fallout
from the Oppenheimer case. Dale Corson, a prominent nuclear physicist at Cornell who had participated in Project Vista, cited the hostility toward scientists
venturing beyond purely technical issues in explaining his decision not to join the
TCP. He had first experienced such hostility personally in Project Vista, he told
Zacharias, and then, indirectly but more strikingly, in the Oppenheimer case:
I have read almost all the 992 pages of the Oppenheimer hearing and all through
that there runs an official suggestion that people are advising the government
on problems outside their fields of competence. I feel that this criticism could
well be leveled at me. . . . [Thus] I would not participate in any other projects
except on direct appeal by some high official of the defense department.57
Another physicist, A. E. Whitford of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, also
declined to join the Killian panel in favor of “astronomy-as-usual,” mainly because
“I want to be freer to think my own thoughts and to campaign on the political front
than one committed to highly classified work is now apparently permitted to be.”58
Luckily for the TCP, Corson and Whitford proved a minority among those contacted; most responded with enthusiasm for the project. Despite their misgivings
about the Oppenheimer case, moderate American scientists saw the Killian panel
as an opportunity for them to contribute to national security, to preserve their
infl uence, and possibly to slow the arms race. In total, about forty scientists, engineers, and military and civilian administrators from universities, industries, the
Rand Corporation, and the armed services participated in the study, from which
would emerge several future PSAC members. Whereas most advisory committees
met only periodically, the Killian panel actually worked full time from September
1954 to February 1955.59
The presidential commission facilitated cooperation from the defense establishment and the study proceeded with remarkable speed. By November 1954, the
TCP began to brief Eisenhower on some of its key findings. The climax of the
project came on February 14, 1955, when the panel presented its report on “Meeting the Threat of Surprise Attack” to the NSC. At the heart of the report was a
sobering time table of the likely course of the nuclear arms race. For several years
in the mid-1950s, the panel predicted, the United States would keep its offensive
advantage over the Soviet Union, but both sides would be vulnerable to surprise
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attacks. Approaching the end of the decade, both would improve defense but
the United States would enjoy its greatest offensive advantage. Repeating Rabi’s
earlier suggestion, the panel urged “political moves and diplomatic negotiations”
in this period to reach arms control agreements, thereby freezing the American
military edge. If this window of opportunity was lost, the consequences could be
catastrophic. Both sides would develop massive thermonuclear ICBMs in the early
1960s, and after the mid-1960s, “an attack by either side would result in mutual
destruction.” At that time, improved defense, early warning, or even surprise
attack would not matter much.
Based on this grim preview of the nuclear age, the panel made both strategic
and tactical recommendations. To prevent a surprise attack and to prepare for a
future without a nuclear thaw, the panel urged that the United States develop the
ICBM as the highest priority, followed by measures to protect bomber bases, build
up continental defense, expand early warning systems, and improve the overseas
communications networks. The panel also recommended a crash program to
develop intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM), both land and submarine
based, and, strangely, even two programs that had met with skepticism from
ODM-SAC in the past and would again come in for criticism by PSAC in the
future: the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion project and an intensified campaign for
civil defense. Dissatisfaction with the massive retaliation strategy led the panel to
advocate development of tactical fission bombs for use in limited wars—confl icts
that did not directly involve the superpowers.60
The most secret section of the TCP report, fully declassified only in 1997,
dealt with intelligence, the “first defense against surprise attack.” It was drafted
by the so-called Project 3 group, which included three future PSAC members:
Edwin “Din” Land of Polaroid as director, Edward Purcell, professor of physics
at Harvard, and John W. Tukey, a statistician at Princeton. Acknowledging that
the “brutally effective” Soviet security system had frustrated human intelligence
gathering, the Project 3 group urged a shift to innovative technical approaches.
“Indeed, the really cute tricks are those so close to the frontier of scientific knowledge that they remain unsuspected for months or even for years,” it noted. In an
“Eyes Only” appendix to its report, the TCP proposed such a “trick”—a program
of aerial photography with a plane that eventually became known as the U-2. Flying at a height of about 70,000 feet, the Lockheed-made glider would not only be
beyond Soviet interception, but also “have a good chance of avoiding detection” for
a few years, Land assured Allen Dulles, director of central intelligence. “No proposal or program that we have seen in intelligence planning can so quickly bring
so much vital information at so little risk and at so little cost,” Land enthused.61 In
early November 1954, Killian and Land presented the U-2 proposal to the president
who, after asking “many hard questions,” approved it with the condition that it be
operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), not the Air Force, to reduce
provocation to the Soviet Union.62
Besides the U-2, the report recommended other ways to “increase the number of hard facts” and “to reduce the danger of gross overestimation or gross
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
underestimation of the threat.” For example, the Land group pushed for the initiation “at once” of a program of intelligence operation in the North Pole region.
It also urged the “immediate” start of a program to launch a small satellite before
the development of a full-featured reconnaissance vehicle. Although not a carrier of reconnaissance operation itself, the small satellite was expected to serve
four important purposes: it would gather information on the upper atmosphere
and the shape of the earth; work as a possible communication reflector; win
international prestige for the United States; and, most interestingly, “explore or
establish the principle that space, outside our atmosphere, is open to all.” The
last justification confirmed long-held suspicions by historians that the U.S. scientific satellite program was designed from the beginning to serve primarily not
scientific interests, but the political purpose of legitimizing reconnaissance satellites. On July 28, 1955, a few months after the presentation of the Killian report,
the White House announced the president’s approval for a program to launch
“small, earth-circling satellites” as the U.S. contribution to the International Geophysical Year.63
The Killian TCP report has been widely hailed as one of the most infl uential
documents of the nuclear age and the Cold War. It greatly accelerated ballistic
missile development in America and led to vastly improved intelligence-gathering
capabilities. The TCP-inspired Polaris missiles, U-2, and reconnaissance satellites
played crucial roles in stabilizing the arms race.64 In addition, the TCP study did
much to restore the scientists’ and the government’s confidence in each other.
To Eisenhower, the TCP provided evidence that “many dedicated scientists have
gladly devoted their talents to government service” following the divisive Oppenheimer case.65 The TCP study also reflected much credit on ODM-SAC, despite the
panel’s largely autonomous status as an NSC task force. When the Sputnik crisis
came in 1957, perhaps more than anything else it was the memory of the TCP that
prompted Eisenhower to appoint Killian his science adviser and to upgrade the
ODM-SAC into the White House.66
The very success of the TCP investigation, however, also raised disturbing
questions about the relationship between science and the national security state.
If the Oppenheimer case bode ill for scientists who gave advice unwelcome to
the national security establishment, did not the warm reception of the TCP seem
a reward for those who in effect argued for a great, although perhaps justified,
arms buildup? Did not both convey the message that science and scientific advice
advanced only within the framework of the national security state? In the end,
as historian Daniel Kevles points out, the study reflected more Gardner’s push
for a military-technological buildup than Rabi’s concern for the need to arrest
the nuclear arms race.67 The TCP report did emphasize arms control, but the
message appeared lost in the sea of proposed new weapon systems. Even Eisenhower became troubled by the report’s effects on the arms race. During a 1956
NSC discussion on the implementation of the TCP report, he commented, “with
a smile,” that “every new survey of our problems by a scientific team seemed
to result in recommendations that we undertake additional things.” He rather
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wished that “we could find a team which would recommend programs which we
could dispense with.”68
Undoubtedly, TCP members regarded their recommendations as necessary
measures to counter Soviet aggression in the Cold War, especially after the outbreak of the Korean War, but such rationalization was complicated by the almost
total dependence of American scientists on military funds for their research in this
period. What effect this support had on scientists’ incentive to work on national
security problems, and even to perpetuate the arms race, is hard to ascertain
and might well have varied from one scientist to another. Killian and Fisk were
respected for their integrity and the question of confl ict of interest never arose
because the TCP study they directed did not make specific contracts or grants.
Nevertheless, their respective institutions, MIT and Bell Labs, were the U.S. government’s two largest contractors on military R&D and would obviously profit
from a TCP-inspired arms buildup. After all, MIT had earlier agreed to undertake
summer studies for the military partly on the promise that these studies would
“make MIT a world center in the field of electronics” and “help [its] Lincoln Laboratory’s growth.”69 Institutional self-interest played a significant role in science
advising. Indeed, throughout the McCarthy era, as discussed later, American scientists were as much concerned with ensuring a stable and generous science policy
(i.e., support of science) on the part of the government, especially the military, as
they were with incorporating science into national security policy.
Science Policy Debate
Ambivalence characterized Eisenhower’s pre-Sputnik attitude toward scientists’
participation not only in “science in policy” but also in “policy for science.” In
his first term as president, Eisenhower earned admiration from scientists for his
dramatic Atoms for Peace proposal in 1953 and for his warm public endorsement
in 1954 of the International Geophysical Year as a model of peaceful international
cooperation in science—although we now know that he also intended it as a cover
for American space reconnaissance.70 However, as the first Republican president
in twenty years, Eisenhower, along with the Republican-dominated Congress,
also vowed to undo the “paternalistic state” of the New Deal and to cut federal
spending.71 In defense policy, the administration sought to achieve “economy” by
reducing military R&D by 25 percent in 1953, with significant impact on funding
for scientific research. To add insult to injury, Secretary of Defense Charles Erwin
Wilson, a former chairman of General Motors, publicly denigrated basic research,
calling it an activity that “could not be of any possible use to the people who put
up the money for it.”72
Related to this economy drive, the powerful BOB, as the president’s housekeeper, attempted to centralize federal science policy. Specifically, the BOB sought
in 1953 to get the reluctant NSF to exercise its statutory role in making federal
science policy through the issuance of two new presidential executive orders.
One would make NSF, then spending only 3.5 percent of all federal funds for
basic research, a “primary agency” in the field by gradually transferring to it basic
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
research funds from other agencies. Another order would authorize it explicitly to
evaluate other agencies’ R&D programs.73 Still cautious, the NSF was nevertheless
tempted by the chance for growth and by the prospect of the demilitarization of
American science.74
Scientists represented in the ODM-SAC, however, thought otherwise, as did
affected science administrators in government outside of the NSF. Their opposition
to the BOB’s move opened the first major debate over science policy in the Eisenhower years. If the Pentagon and the AEC abandoned basic research, the scientists
doubted, rightly, that Congress would ever allow the NSF to pick up the balance.
Scientists also preferred non-NSF funding agencies for their more generous overhead allowances. For their parts, science administrators, especially at the Office of
Naval Research (ONR) and the AEC, resisted any cuts in their budgets.75 As William
Golden learned in 1950, the agencies saw basic research as not only being relevant
to their missions, but also as a bargaining chip with the universities, which would
do classified research in exchange for support for basic research.76
The ODM-SAC, as the highest ranking scientific advisory group in the federal
government, led the scientists’ campaign to keep the Pentagon funding science.
Dominated by academic scientific administrators, the committee had much at stake
in the debate. As DuBridge wrote Flemming on August 12, 1953, his own Cal Tech
“would go broke promptly” if all its basic research funds were transferred from the
DOD and AEC to the NSF, presumably due to a lower overhead allowance.77 The
urgency of the matter was further underscored by a 40 percent cut in ONR funding
for Rabi’s own laboratory at Columbia.78 In his appeal to DuBridge for help, Seitz,
who chaired the military’s Joint Service Advisory Panel on Solid State Physics, called
the pressure for the military to withdraw from science “almost subversive.”79
Quickly DuBridge brought the ODM-SAC into the fray, and in so doing, formally expanded the scope of science advising beyond science in policy and into
policy for science. DuBridge justified the committee’s new role by the need to
maintain a “virile” scientific community as part of the national security resources.80
His specific argument for keeping the military funding science represented an
adaptation of the 1945 Bush report to the postwar reality of a pluralistic but military-dominated system of federal science funding. Like Bush, DuBridge sought to
base American science policy on setting a clear boundary between science, or basic
research, on the one hand, and technology, or applied research and development,
on the other. Even more than Bush, DuBridge broadened the definition of basic
research. It included not only the “search for knowledge” carried out for its own
sake or for unforeseen applications, but also that undertaken “because it clearly
would be useful in some particular area of activity.” Like Bush, DuBridge called for
preferential treatment of basic research and those scientists engaged in it:
It is basic research which leads to the new discoveries in science and it is basic
research which makes the heaviest demands upon the ingenuity and creativeness of the scientists. For this reason scientists engaged in basic research must
be given utmost freedom in carrying on their studies.81
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
In contrast to basic research, DuBridge defined applied research as research aimed
at a specific goal such as a new weapon system, a new drug, or a new product, and
interpreted development as industrial design and building of prototype hardware.
Agreeing with the Eisenhower administration that the latter were expensive and
could be usefully centralized to avoid duplication and waste, DuBridge emphasized
that basic research was self-regulating and ill-suited to centralization.82
As another departure from the Bush report, the DuBridge committee tried to
position the academic scientific community both as a strategically important part
of the national security state and as a deserving interest group in the welfare state.
Responding to those who criticized federal support of basic research as a subsidy
to the universities, DuBridge declared that “in a sense such support is a subsidy,”
an acknowledgment that would have delighted those left-liberal scientists who had
advocated distribution of federal science funds on a geographical basis. DuBridge
went on to argue that universities deserved special support because of their critical role in basic research and the training of technical manpower, both being “vital
to public welfare and national security.”83 Thus the universities contributed to the
American Cold War efforts not only a reservoir of knowledge for future weapons
development, but also a scientific community in reserve, ready to man the applied
research laboratories in an emergency:
The Science Advisory Committee suggests that the Office of Defense Mobilization should regard it as a part of its mobilization planning to make sure that the
general scientific strength of the country is maintained and improved. From
this general scientific strength must come the knowledge and the men to be
used in case of national emergency. As we require stockpiles of aluminum and
of uranium and of certain production facilities, so even more, must we “stockpile”
scientific resources—for they cannot be created suddenly.84
With this concept of the university as a technical reserve for national security,
DuBridge sought to align the science advisers’ institutional self-interest with the
broad national interest.
Reflecting the new, pluralistic reality in science policy, the DuBridge argument
diverged most strikingly from the Bush report in that it tried to justify support of
science not just by the NSF, but also by the DOD and AEC. Even as the DuBridge
committee recommended that the federal government increase its support of science, from $75 million to $100 million for academic science, it explicitly rejected any
effort to centralize science funding or policy in the NSF. “The nation’s scientific
program requires that the Foundation undertake activities in addition to others
now in progress,” DuBridge wrote. “[T]he diversity of support provided when several agencies are active is a valuable asset.”85 Such a pluralistic structure of science
support was good not only for the scientists but also for the agencies themselves,
which needed both knowledge and, especially for the military services, “direct and
friendly contacts with scientists.”86 Here, DuBridge’s emphasis on the utility of
basic research fit into the articulation of what emerged as “mission-oriented basic
research.”87 His “keeping in touch with scientists” argument was relatively new and
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
would become increasingly important in scientists’ justification of military funding
of science. The embracing of pluralism, however, represented a significant break
in the search for a central scientific organization that historian A. Hunter Dupree
identified in his survey of the history of science in the federal government before
World War II.
A further revision from the Bush report took place when DuBridge and his
colleagues suggested that basic research could serve not only as the fountainhead
of technological progress, as Bush had argued, but also as a possible remedy to the
ills created by unwise technological enthusiasm. At a meeting with Bush, Robert
Cutler, and others in May 1953, DuBridge had already contended that whereas
research cost little money and was well managed, development cost much more
and showed “mismanagement.” It was not always industry’s fault, he explained
later in a follow-up letter to Cutler:
The trouble comes in military planning: what weapons or equipment should
industry be asked to design? Too often, most any idea for a new gadget—if an
enthusiast is behind it—results in an expensive contract. Sometimes the technical feasibility is not properly examined first; more often the military need or use
for the device is not examined at all.88
DuBridge did not name any specific project, but he could have pointed to the nuclearpowered airplane that Zacharias had criticized. What should be done? DuBridge
made a case for basic research in solving ill-defined development projects:
The conclusion is this: Let us not slice “R&D” funds blindly; let us do better
military planning so that R and D effort will not be wasted on useless projects.
The new organization plan for the Department of Defense should improve
this situation. I hope the research funds for such agencies as the Science Foundation, the Public Health Service, the Office of the Naval Research, etc. will be
increased not decreased.89
Like keeping in touch with scientists, this justification of basic research as a way
to prevent technological blind alleys or as an antidote to technological excess
marked another important revision to the Bush’s assembly-line model. Like the
ODM-SAC’s Princeton report, the DuBridge appeal formed an important part of
scientists’ technological skepticism, and represented a move in public science by
linking policy for science with science in policy. What motivated DuBridge to justify basic research as a possible cure for developmental problems was not just that
he knew the latter to be of paramount concern to the Eisenhower administration.
It also derived from the fact that Bush’s assembly-line model of science producing
practical technologies was not as forceful in 1953 as it had been in 1945. There had
simply been too few examples of striking new weapons to come out of postwar
research. The semiconductor and the laser would not appear and bear fruit until
a few years later.
Remarkably, and unbeknownst to the scientists, they had an ally in the White
House who not only accepted their basic–applied boundary, but was sympathetic
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
to their promotion of basic research. On May 23, 1953, President Eisenhower wrote
Wilson, his science-bashing, headline-making secretary of defense:
I think I have forgotten to tell you about my great interest in what we call
basic research. I think we probably overdo what is generally called development
research, but in the basic research largely conducted in industrial establishments and our universities I think we have been doing a good job. Since a relatively small amount of money is involved, I should hate to see this contracted
or much damaged. If we have planned to cut this particular part of our research
program seriously, will you let me know?90
Although expressed privately, the note was one of the earliest and clearest presidential statements favoring federal support of basic research as compared to applied
research and development. Subsequent administrations, even those of his Republican successors who objected to government’s involvement in civilian technology,
would endorse federal funding of basic research in principle. Eisenhower’s experience of working with scientists during World War II and during his presidency
at Columbia must have contributed to his understanding of such fine points of
science policy. Unfortunately for American public scientists, neither the president’s
caution nor DuBridge’s protestation seemed to deter Wilson from ordering an
across-the-board reduction in military R&D.
Nevertheless, the strong opposition to the BOB’s plan and Eisenhower’s own
sympathy toward basic research did make it necessary for all to compromise
on the issue of centralizing science funding. Interestingly, the DOD, if not the
individual armed services, decided to give up general-purpose, or “pure,” basic
research that was not related to its mission, which totaled about $3 million, a mere
fraction of its basic research funds, if only to stop the BOB from “heckling” it on
the subject. To the relief of the ODM-SAC, the DOD promised DuBridge that it
would not abandon “mission-related” basic research.91 On March 17, 1954, President
Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10521, which designated the NSF to be “increasingly responsible” for federal support of general-purpose basic research, instead
of the “primary agency” as preferred by the NSF. Most important, and a victory
for the ODM-SAC, the order deemed “important and desirable” that other agencies conduct and support “mission-oriented” basic research, thus legitimizing the
postwar structure of pluralistic science funding. To the scientists’ further delight,
a presidential statement accompanying the order called for increased support of
basic research, which marked the end of the first debate on science policy in the
Eisenhower administration.92 Thanks to the prestige of the scientists, Eisenhower’s
sympathy for basic research, and, perhaps most important, the lull in military technology spending before the onslaught of the missile program that the TCP would
set in place, DuBridge and his colleagues in the ODM-SAC successfully defended
and even updated the Bush doctrine of basic research for the Cold War. The episode also demonstrates that, contrary to some earlier studies of the ODM-SAC,
the committee did not just focus on science in policy but participated actively in
the debate over the funding of science.93
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
The Second Science Policy Debate
As much as the executive order pleased the scientists, it clearly fell short of the
BOB’s aim of establishing a science policy mechanism to control expenditure. The
bureau continued to nag the NSF about its responsibility to regulate other agencies’ programs.94 By 1956, the top echelon in the BOB returned to the “runaway
horse” of federal R&D. After a few flat budgets at $3.6 billion between 1953 and
1955, the federal R&D expenditure jumped to $4.1 billion in 1956, $5 billion in 1957,
and then to an expected $6.6 billion by 1958.95 Although most of the growth derived
from the missile and nuclear projects, basic research funds also rose rapidly. In late
1955, for example, the NSF, aided by the ODM-SAC, won a budget increase from
$16 million for FY 1956 to $40 million for FY 1957, much of which went for capital
grants to improve scientific instruments.96 At a high-level meeting in the BOB on
October 2, 1956, William Carey, a key staff member on science policy, became restless: “Must the government accept the fact that the scientists call the tune?”97
In 1956, the BOB’s mounting concern over federal R&D spending began to
receive sympathetic hearings from the president himself. His earlier support for
basic research was now replaced with worries about a budget deficit, the expansion of the federal government, and the militarization of American science and
society.98 By mid-1956, Eisenhower decided to curtail the technology-driven growth
of big government on several fronts. He directed the Pentagon to cut the military
R&D budget, and ordered reviews of several big defense projects, especially the
nuclear-powered aircraft, with a view toward its cancellation. On July 31, 1956, he
directed a willing Wilson to “go ahead and squeeze” the DOD’s R&D in its FY 1958
budget.99 Notwithstanding his early enthusiasm for the International Geophysical
Year satellite program, Eisenhower in 1956 and 1957 frowned at its mushrooming
cost and, on the instigation of Wilson, refused to give it highest national priority.
At an NSC meeting, he also rejected the ODM-SAC’s recommendation to increase
the number of launching vehicles from six to twelve to ensure a successful satellite within the International Geophysical Year ( July 1957–December 1958). The
committee’s prescient warning that an American failure and Soviet success in this
field “would result in loss of U.S. scientific prestige” went unheeded.100
Eisenhower also ordered a general review of federal support for R&D. At a
cabinet meeting on March 11, 1957, Eisenhower criticized “the tendency of Government in recent years to supply whatever funds might be requested for research”
and expressed his “long-time feeling” that “basic research was a university rather
than a governmental responsibility.” He urged federal departments, especially the
Pentagon, to “get better control over the matter.”101 Thus started the second major
science policy debate of the Eisenhower administration on the eve of Sputnik.
The renewed threat of DOD withdrawal from basic research alarmed the ODMSAC, now under Rabi’s chairmanship.102 Believing that this was yet another ploy by
Wilson to eliminate basic research funding, the committee met with Eisenhower
on March 29, 1957, to appeal for his intervention. At the meeting, Rabi deplored
the military’s narrow focus on weapons at the expense of basic research as shortsighted and self-defeating. Moving even further than the DuBridge doctrine in 1953–
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
1954, Rabi’s argument emphasized both the “keeping in touch with scientists” and
“basic research as an antidote to problematic technologies” justifications of military
funding of science. If the military did not fund basic research, it would lose contact
with scientists and new scientific progress and would pour money into expensive
and obsolete weapon systems. Thus the government should support basic research
not merely or even primarily to derive ideas for new military technologies, but to
ensure the functioning of a robust system of technological evaluation.103
Reflecting their respective positions as a laboratory director and a university
president, Rabi’s argument differed from DuBridge’s arguments in a subtle but
important way. Instead of arguing how important federal support was to the universities and how universities were important to national security, as DuBridge did,
Rabi pointed to the military’s direct self-interest in basic research and in keeping
in touch with the scientific community. Even though DuBridge had mentioned
implicitly the function of basic research as a solution to technological blind alleys
in the first debate over science policy, Rabi now made it the central argument for
federal support of science. Rabi’s argument also differed from those scientists who,
like John Wheeler of Princeton, regarded the military as a more powerful patron.
“The National Science Foundation,” Wheeler lamented, “doesn’t seem to have
the political power it takes to live a safe life in Washington.”104 In contrast, Rabi
argued that the military needed to fund science not for science’s sake, but for the
military’s own sake.
Although sympathetic, Eisenhower was not entirely convinced by Rabi’s argument. He reiterated that he accepted the importance of basic research but he
objected to its monopoly by the military. After all, science, he said, “has a wider
purpose than weapons alone,” foreshadowing his farewell address warning against
militarization four years later.105 He knew firsthand the effects of the invasion of
military secrecy on campus when he was president of Columbia: he would have
been prevented from knowing the detail of some research projects had he not
had full clearance due to his prior military background.106 To avoid federal control
of science, he now requested from the ODM-SAC “a simple set of yardsticks” to
decide “the dividing line between the efforts that should fall to the government and
those that should fall to universities and industry.” He also wanted the committee
to advise him on the right balance between research and development.
Eisenhower’s deceptively simple requests pointed to the central questions of
American science policy: What was the proper role of the federal government in
the support of American science and technology? How much should it spend on
science and how much on technology? On these questions, the scientists’ answers
did not completely satisfy him. Rabi and his colleagues claimed that government
support had not infringed on scientific freedom, but Eisenhower did not seem convinced. As to the “yardsticks,” Rabi concluded that the best gauge for determining
the national scientific effort was “the manpower available for basic research” and
that the lion’s share of funding had to come from the federal government. In other
words, Rabi was asking for a blank check: the federal government should provide
as much funds as needed to support all the available scientists and engineers
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
capable of conducting research. It might have been a workable, if generous, policy
but for the fact that the same federal funds were often used to increase the pool of
scientific manpower as well.
At times, the president and the scientists seemed to talk past each other. Part of
the difficulty in this dialog derived from Rabi’s failure to clarify for Eisenhower that
even when a research project was carried out in the university or an industrial lab it
was most likely funded by the government. For his part Eisenhower never made it
clear to the scientists that it was he, not Wilson, who had instigated this new round
of DOD retrenchment in research. In a letter to Gordon Gray, who was then ODM
director, following the White House meeting, Rabi denounced the budget cut as “a
dangerous fallacy.” He asked Eisenhower to order the DOD to reverse its policy. As
in the 1953 debate, the committee recommended an increase in basic research.107
Meanwhile, in response to Eisenhower’s repeated comments, the BOB and the
NSF conducted a joint study on federal research programs and presented it to the
Cabinet meeting on August 2, 1957. After Percival Brundage, BOB director, gave a
survey of the upward trend in R&D spending, Waterman made his case for increasing, rather than decreasing, federal support of basic research. Basic research, he
said, constituted only 3 percent of the total R&D expenditure and could pay for
itself if done on a broad scale.108 Gordon Gray then cited the ODM-SAC paper to
support Waterman’s request for an increase in basic research. Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks likewise sided with Waterman after securing the latter’s
endorsement for an expansion of the “science of measurement” in the National
Bureau of Standards (NBS) in his department. When Wilson attacked basic
research as reaching “a point of extremely diminishing return,” Weeks, who himself had clashed with scientists earlier in a controversy over the NBS, rebutted that
in research “the end is never reached.” The scientists’ arguments somewhat muted
President Eisenhower’s objection to government’s role in basic research. As if just
suddenly remembering his 1953 memo for Wilson, he noted during Waterman’s
presentation that the procurement took much more money than basic research.
He subsequently approved a Cabinet policy paper that directed the federal government to curtail R&D in general but continue to support basic research, even at a
slightly higher level.109
So in theory, the scientists succeeded, once again, in holding the line on the
issue of military support of academic basic research by demarcating between
basic and applied research. In practice, however, the result of the second science
policy debate turned out very differently from the first one, largely because the
DOD chose to implement the new policy in a way that ignored the boundary set
by the scientists. When Wilson ordered, on August 7, 1957, a 10 percent reduction
in military R&D, the military services chose to sacrifice basic research first and
foremost. The same kind of thinking that had caused General Wilson to equate
Oppenheimer’s advocacy of basic research with subversion now led the Air Force
to slash basic research funds. Predictably, uproar ensued among universities as the
Pentagon canceled numerous academic contracts and halted research projects on
short notice.110 A number of universities reportedly “swore never again to have any
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
dealings with the Air Force in peace time.”111 Speaking before a group of industrial
chemists, Killian held the capricious policies of the DOD responsible for a crisis in
basic research in the face of a rising Soviet challenge.112 Science administrators in
the DOD warned that not only vital defense research would be lost, but “irreparable damage will be done to the excellent Defense–research scientist relationship
built up during the past decade.” The Defense Science Board, consisting of mostly
academic science advisers to the Pentagon, passed a resolution calling for an
immediate correction of the situation.113 Ironically, it was the NSF that now came
to academic scientists’ rescue. In September, Waterman finally took a step in exercising the foundation’s science policy role by intervening with the DOD on “the
importance of stability and continuity in basic research.” As a result, basic research
programs were reportedly “partially exempted” from the Wilson cuts.114 However,
the damage was already done and few of the scientist-critics were pacified.
The Rabi Study
Indeed, on the eve of Sputnik in late 1957, many scientists were greatly demoralized
over both the state of American science and the course of the Cold War. Moderate scientists as represented by the ODM-SAC met with disappointments in both
policy for science, as federal funds for science were cut, and in science in policy,
as arms control languished in the shadow of the accelerating nuclear arms race.
In both areas, the committee appeared to have diminished in infl uence since its
peak TCP days. When Harold Stassen became Eisenhower’s special assistant for
disarmament in March 1955, for example, he proceeded to create his own scientific advisory groups, and only occasionally sought advice from the ODM-SAC.115
During the 1956 presidential election campaign, nuclear fallout became a political
issue and many scientists endorsed the call by Eisenhower’s Democratic rival,
Adlai Stevenson, for a nuclear test ban. The ODM-SAC, although silent in public,
privately prodded Stassen to take up the test ban proposal as a point of departure
in disarmament. Rabi and Bethe, a new ODM-SAC member in 1956, in particular
argued the case for a test ban to freeze the U.S. nuclear advantage. However, the
test ban faltered at the resistance of the DOD and the AEC and at the Soviet refusal
to allow inspection. Strauss and his antiban science advisers—primarily Teller and
Lawrence—prevailed over the ODM-SAC with their campaign for tests to make a
“clean” hydrogen bomb, free of radioactive fallout. Ever since their victory over
the GAC in the H-bomb debate of 1949, they had nearly monopolized science
advice on U.S. nuclear weapons policy.116
The marginal position of the ODM-SAC scientists in this period was also
demonstrated by President Eisenhower at a press conference in the White House
in mid-1957. Asked whether he had thought of appointing a scientist on his staff
on the model of the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Eisenhower
Well, no. We have got the National Science Foundation, you know, and Dr.
Waterman and Dr. Bronk are always available to me for instant consultation.
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
Then, of course, we have our scientists in the AEC and Defense Department
and other places. It hadn’t occurred to me to have one right in my office, but
now that you have mentioned it I will think about it.117
Notably, Eisenhower did not mention the ODM-SAC scientists, nor is there evidence that he ever followed up seriously on his promise “to think about it” during
the days before Sputnik.
Remarkably, the post-TCP marginalization of ODM-SAC scientists led them to
take their complaints about the neglect of scientists in government to the public. In
early 1955, the usually mild-mannered DuBridge told the press “that the top government officials treat scientists like barbers”: “They call them in for a specific job and
then forget about them.” “They say that scientists should be on tap not on top,”
he continued, referring probably to Cutler’s attitude. “I would not want to argue
with that, but it is time that those who are on top began to tap them.” Echoing
Rabi, DuBridge argued against the perceived role of scientists as merely delivering
weapons to the military’s specifications. There was a great danger, he warned, that
without the direct participation of scientists at the highest level, national policy
would be made based on “mistaken and misunderstood technical grounds” filtered
up from below.118 Such complaints, however, did not improve ODM-SAC’s status
in government.119
In fact, restrictions on ODM-SAC’s policy role continued to frustrate the committee under Rabi. In late 1956 and early 1957, Rabi, alarmed by the unchecked
momentum of the American military buildup and its growing global security
commitments, revived his earlier idea of a sober review of American national
security. He proposed a TCP-type study on the effects of the arms race on national
resources and manpower. It sought “to test priorities, to check on coherence, and
to determine whether the program represents the most effective employment of
our technological and economic resources as related to national security objectives.” Among its specific proposals was an examination of major weapons systems
“in order to suggest the elimination and deemphasis of unprofitable approaches.”120
The plan was, however, vetoed by Cutler, who viewed it as too broad a review of
national security policy to be appropriate for the scientists to undertake. Officials
in the Pentagon, AEC, and other agencies already resented intrusion in policymaking by “outsiders,” Cutler informed the ODM-SAC in a tense meeting.121 Privately,
Cutler feared that Rabi might exert undue infl uence on Eisenhower in effecting a
radical change in American policy. “If we let Rabi loose on the President, he’ll go
along” was Rabi’s recollection of Cutler’s reaction to his proposal.122
What Rabi did not know was that even Eisenhower himself was wary, in early
1957, of another TCP-style investigation by the scientists. When Cutler briefed him
on the Rabi proposal on March 12, 1957, Eisenhower readily concurred with his
national security adviser’s negative conclusion. Mounting concern over the costs
of military R&D led him to have second thoughts about the Killian TCP study,
which in turn colored his view of the study proposed by Rabi. As Cutler recorded
the conversation,
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
It was perfectly obvious from what the President said that he wanted to go very
slow on letting any more scientists “into the act.” He said with a wry smile that
he was still living with the prior scientific appraisal (meaning the Killian Report
of 1954). He indicated that every time the scientists looked into a matter their
exact minds required them to come to a very finite conclusion which inevitably
added up to a great expenditure of money.123
One could argue with Eisenhower’s conclusion whether it was their exact
minds, or their objective assessment of the situation, or their institutional selfinterest that led scientists to recommend new programs. However, the note was
revealing of Eisenhower’s misgivings, evidently shared by Cutler and many others
in the government, about scientists’ role in policy on the eve of Sputnik. Here the
basis for the president’s objection was not the scientists’ lack of objectivity, but
rather their obsession with it in a narrow sense. In a way, his lament about narrow
expertise echoed Truman’s call for scientific statesmanship several years before.
To Eisenhower, hard-headed evaluations of the technical aspects of American
national security by “exact minds” were needed, which was why he had sponsored
the Killian study in the first place. However, he was also keenly aware that any
such examination, if not put into the broadest political context, would likely be
transformed by the logic and momentum of the arms race into justification for a
new military buildup.
There was, however, a fundamental difference between Eisenhower’s and Cutler’s views on the potentials of scientists’ participation in public policy. Whereas
Cutler saw a dichotomy of experts being either “on tap” by staying with the facts
or “on top” by playing a policy role, Eisenhower viewed three connecting zones of
the expertise–policy continuum: the technical realm of technological evaluations,
the policy realm where the policy implications of these technical evaluations were
extrapolated, and, finally, the political realm where national policy was made on
the basis of both these technically based policy considerations and other, broader
political considerations, such as the economic and psychological aspects of the
Cold War. Whereas Cutler felt that scientists had overreached themselves if they
ventured into the policy realm, Eisenhower rather thought that they had not gone
far enough to liberate themselves from their “exact” mind-set, to see beyond the
logic of technological determinism, and to take the broader political factors into
considerations in the policy realm. This did not mean that he would want political
considerations to distort technical evaluations, but it did mean that the technical
arguments should be balanced with those derived from other justified sources.
Thus, even though from his experiences with the Killian study and with the Teller–
Lawrence lobby for the clean bomb Eisenhower was aware of scientists’ tendency
to push for technological buildup, he did not preclude their participation in policy
just because they were scientists.
Ironically, however, Rabi’s proposed study resembled the TCP study only in
form and diverged very much in direction. Aimed at reducing the American commitments in the world, Rabi’s proposal was in essence a push for arms control
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
that can be traced to his opposition to the H-bomb and his original intention for
the Killian study. If approved, the new Rabi study would have been exactly the
kind of study Eisenhower was looking for, to eliminate unnecessary programs
and curb the arms race. To be sure, here, as in TCP, the science in policy was not
far removed from the policy for science. Reflecting his concern over the “Wilson
cut” in military R&D, Killian made a “redraft” of Rabi’s letter that highlighted the
rationale for beefing up federal support for “risk-taking, creative” basic research
that would underline future military strength. However, both Rabi and Killian
believed that such investment in basic research, especially by the military, would
help the government gain fresh, independent insights, which would in turn enable
it to pursue a forward-looking, intelligent military technological system and to
weed out dubious, obsolete, and costly weapons. Most important, they believed
that enhanced basic research would produce the kind of science and scientists that
would help Eisenhower control the runaway spending on weapons systems by
evaluating military technology “free of vested interests.”124
Why did not Rabi talk to Eisenhower directly about the matter? After all, he had
enjoyed a close working relationship with Eisenhower ever since they met at Columbia. Even after Ike left Columbia to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
Rabi continued to provide him with scientific advice.125 In 1956, Rabi had publicly
lent his name to Eisenhower’s reelection campaign.126 In 1957, however, he thought
that he was “outgunned” and that “it would have been futile to appeal to the President”; “General Cutler was there all the time, I only from time to time.”127
Had Rabi had a chance to explain to Eisenhower fully the objective of his study,
he would have found a kindred spirit. During his March 1957 meeting with the
ODM-SAC, the president had mentioned “the importance of re-evaluating war as
an instrument of policy,” and added that he “studies and reflects at great length on
how to deter war—which has now become so destructive.” This statement might
have sounded vague to the scientists, but it represented a real, profound rethinking
on Eisenhower’s part on nuclear weapons, deterrence, war, and peace that emerged
in a series of NSC debates in 1956 and 1957. Eisenhower was gradually turning to
arms control as a way not only to prevent budget deficit, but also to prevent war.
His conviction that it was not only desirable, but also possible to avoid a nuclear
war with the Soviet Union helped him to persuade other administration officials
to pursue a sufficient, not unlimited, deterrence, which, in turn, would contribute
to the control of spending. Unfortunately for Rabi and his colleagues, who were
not privy to these NSC meetings and who were preoccupied with the problem of
science funding, they did not pick up this clue to the president’s new thinking and
connect it with their own proposal for an arms control study.128
Soon Rabi would come to regret his decision to back down, not only for the
sake of the arms control study that was not pursued, but even more because of the
study that did get underway.129 Just as Cutler and Eisenhower vetoed the Rabi initiative, they approved a rival project also sponsored by the ODM-SAC. The Security
Resources Panel, or Gaither panel, chaired by H. Rowan Gaither of the Ford Foundation and dominated by industrial leaders and former government officials, was
B e f o r e S p ut n i k
launched to examine, for the NSC, a $40 billion bomb shelter program proposed
by the Federal Civil Defense Administration. Following the example of the TCP
and with the consent of the White House, which apparently thought that sensible
businessmen would be more responsible at evaluating national security than those
exacting scientists, the panel broadened its investigation to a comprehensive review
of U.S. defense strength.130 One of the largest “summer studies” ever conducted,
the Gaither panel involved about one hundred prominent scientists, engineers, and
government officials. Several ODM-SAC members, including Rabi himself, were
nominally involved in the study as advisers.131 Completed in October, the report
depicted, in blunt terms, the danger facing the United States by the growing Soviet
military power. It recommended a massive military buildup that included bomber
dispersal and alert, acceleration of missile programs, and to a lesser degree, fallout
shelters. It was a grimmer update of the TCP report.132 Once again, as in the discussion that had led to the formation of the TCP in 1954, Rabi’s concern for arms
control was sidetracked by a push for arms buildup as the Cold War moved toward
another turning point.
In a sense, the mixed experience of the Science Advisory Committee in this period
reflected American society’s ambivalent feeling toward nuclear arms—products
of modern science and technology—as sources of both protection and danger.
Ever since the discovery of radioactivity at the turn of the twentieth century, the
public had feared that scientists might destroy the universe with their mysterious
inventions.133 Reflecting widespread social attitude, American high school students, for example, typically would pay lip service to science but few would want
to pursue it as a career, as revealed in a 1957 study sponsored by the American
Association for the Advancement of Science and conducted under the direction
of well-known anthropologist Margaret Mead.134 As the Oppenheimer case demonstrated, unease likewise colored the science–state relationship as liberal scientists’ technological skepticism was equated not only with dissent but sometimes
with disloyalty. A subtle but unmistakable shift in science advising followed the
H-bomb debate and the Oppenheimer case: few science advisers would question
national security policy on moral grounds. The process was not unlike what
happened in the State Department in this period: As the old China hands were
purged from the State Department for, among other things, stepping out of their
diplomatic bounds and into policy arena, “[t]he best had been destroyed and the
new experts were different, lesser men who had learned their lessons, and who
were first and foremost good anti-Communists.”135 Although few would think of
I. I. Rabi and Hans Bethe as inferior successors to Oppenheimer and Conant in
any way, they often had to advocate nuclear arms control in the name of national
security instead of morality.
American scientists and state were brought together by mutual desires—scientists wanted to contribute to the defense of freedom and needed the military
funds for research, and the state depended on the scientists’ expertise to win the
Science and the National Security State, 1952–1957
Cold War—but their distrust of each other persisted in the pre-Sputnik period.
Although the ODM-SAC’s TCP investigation on surprise attack and its successful
fight to keep the DOD funding basic research helped strengthen the partnership,
it could not overcome the fear and paranoia engendered by the advent of the
nuclear arms race or prevent the clash between scientists and the state. The failure
of the scientists to move closer to the NSC, the Oppenheimer case, the military’s
disregard for basic research, and the government’s shelving of arms control were
only a few prominent examples of that confl ict in the committee’s experience. Yet,
the fact that the ODM-SAC survived and matured in this most turbulent period
indicated the increasing importance of science in government and in the Cold
War. The Sputnik crisis would put a decisive end to much of the ambivalence of
the government and public toward science and science advisers, and would place
scientists, as represented by the ODM-SAC, in a much better position to reshape
American science policy.
Eisenhower, Sputnik, and the
Creation of PSAC, 1957
On the evening of October 4, 1957, American physicist and ODM-SAC member
Lloyd Berkner was attending a reception for International Geophysical Year scientists at the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC, when a New York Times reporter told
him that the Soviets had just launched a satellite. Berkner immediately announced
the news and congratulated the Soviet scientists present on their achievement.1
In short order, the Sputnik news spread like a wildfire and promised to change,
among other things, the science–state partnership and put the hitherto obscure
scientists on the ODM-SAC into the public spotlight.
Sputnik, or “fellow traveler [of the earth],” evoked intense but mixed feelings
in the American people. Ever since American scientists and engineers produced
the atomic bomb and other technological wonders to win World War II, their
countrymen had generally assumed that the U.S. domination in science and technology was unquestionable. Few were aware or cared about the fact that Europe
had led the world in science until the 1930s. Even scientists who knew better about
Soviet strength disbelieved that a totalitarian system that had brutally suppressed
scientific freedom, as in the Lysenko scandal only a few years before, could
achieve such technological excellence. Vannevar Bush, for example, had declared
in 1949 that “We can take comfort in the conviction that dictatorship will seldom
pioneer, and that when they do the dictator will probably buy gold bricks. . . .”2
Now Sputnik inspired in the American public not only a sense of shock, but also
admiration for this unique human endeavor. Amateur astronomers from coast to
coast gazed into their telescopes searching for the artificial moon. Others tuned
to their radios to listen to the sharp beeps emitted by the satellite as broadcast by
CBS and other networks.3
As Sputnik brought the world into the shrinking global village, many Americans also recognized the end of U.S. safety through isolation. It was a rude awakening to the nation’s vulnerability. The fact that the rocket that had launched
Sputnik could also serve as an ICBM to deliver an H-bomb to its target led many
Americans to wonder whether the country had lost not only the competition for
national prestige, but also the nuclear arms race. Just a few weeks prior to Sputnik, Khrushchev’s boast of a successful launching of an ICBM had been met with
skepticism in Washington. Some even thought that Sputnik itself was merely a
propaganda trick. However, when the Soviets launched Sputnik II on November 3,
1957, with an incredibly large half-ton payload and a live dog, all doubts vanished.4
With Sputniks beeping overhead, all other Soviet propaganda appeared perilously
true: their gross national product grew at a faster rate than that of the United
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
States and would soon surpass it; they were producing twice as many engineers as
the Unites States; other countries would adopt the Soviet political system and the
United States would be isolated in the world.
Dire warnings from politicians and scientists soon radiated from Washington.
Democratic Senator Henry M. Jackson characterized Sputnik as “a devastating
blow to the prestige of the United States as the leader in the scientific and technological world.”5 Lyndon Johnson, Democratic majority leader in the Senate, held
headline-making hearings on the nation’s satellite and missile programs. As the
lead witness, Edward Teller, whose portrait appeared on the cover of Time, gave
alarmist testimony. His warning that the Soviets were winning the race in military
technology and in scientific research was confirmed by two venerable figures in
American science and defense, Vannevar Bush and James Doolittle. To drive the
point home, both Teller and Johnson pronounced the Sputniks a worse defeat for
the United States than Pearl Harbor.6 Underneath the Cold War rhetoric was a
strong sense of wounded nationalism.
Partisan polemics reached a height in Washington that had not been seen since
the acrimonious debate over “who lost China” several years earlier. Democrats
accused the Eisenhower administration of lacking leadership and vision and putting budget before national security. Senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA), for example,
criticized it for “complacent miscalculations, penny-pinching, budget cutbacks,
incredibly confused mismanagement and wasteful rivalries and jealousies.”7
Capitalizing on the so-called missile gap, Kennedy, Johnson, and other Democratic
presidential hopefuls began preparation for the 1958 congressional and the 1960
presidential elections.8 In response, the Republicans blamed the Truman administration for delay in starting the missile program and the Democratic-dominated
Congress for reducing Eisenhower’s request for defense funds. Such partisan bickering largely drowned out the voices of many intellectuals and concerned citizens
who called for a thoughtful national self-examination.9
In this tense atmosphere, scientists, because of their prominent role in both the
missile and satellite programs, came under attack. Senator Styles Bridges (R-NH)
blamed them for the missile lag because they “were beguiled by the peace and
light emanating from the Kremlin.” “The time has come,” he claimed, “not to ask
our scientists what to do, but to tell them what must be done.”10 Unaware that the
rocket, not the satellite, was the bottleneck of the American program, some members of the public charged scientists’ “gold-plating” of the satellites as the cause of
the nation’s humiliation. One Texan constituent complained to Johnson that the
“brains” did not understand the feeling of the people. If they did, “they would have
shot a waste basket, a filing cabinet or anything up there.”11
Whereas scientists appeared soft-headed, incompetent, and out of touch to
their critics, they stood out to others as unsung heroes laboring in an environment
of neglect and hostility. Whether accurate or not, former President Truman’s
diagnosis that McCarthy-style “character assassination of Oppenheimer” and other
scientists had led to the loss by the United States of the satellite race resonated
within the scientific community.12 Several of Oppenheimer’s supporters within
The Creation of PSAC, 1957
ODM-SAC, including Rabi, then ODM-SAC chairman, now called publicly for a
redress of his case, “as elementary justice.” Rabi also agitated for Oppenheimer’s
reemployment by the government—only then “will it indicate that a change of
heart has occurred.”13 The administration, however, resisted reopening the Oppenheimer case. One NSC official privately characterized the scientists’ request as
scapegoating the security system when they were “unable to equal some of the
scientific feats of the Soviets.”14
Sputnik was not the first technological spectacle to bring the power of science
to national conscience—the atomic bomb and other technology-based weapons
during World War II had already done so. However, Sputnik coupled science and
technology with the pursuit of national prestige in a way that touched a raw nerve
in a society already rattled by the Cold War. Thus, when the news came from
Stockholm on October 30 that the Nobel Prize for physics had been awarded to
two Chinese American physicists—Tsung Dao Lee of Columbia and Chen Ning
Yang of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study—it provided both a welcome
relief and a cause for concern. When the duo traveled to Sweden to receive the
awards in December, American officials kept “an anxious eye” on them for fear
that China might woo or snatch them way; the FBI relaxed only when the pair
promptly returned to the United States.15 Eventually, traditional American enthusiasm toward technology would return with a vengeance as a reaction to the Sputnik
challenge, but in late 1957, the American public lived in the shadow of a technological defeat. Eisenhower, even years later, could not believe the near panic that had
greeted Sputnik—“its light was blinding.”16
In part, the Eisenhower administration had itself to blame for the way Americans reacted to Sputnik. Prior American rhetoric, such as that advanced by Strauss,
had always identified the superiority of the American system with its technological
and military prowess.17 Eisenhower himself had never given the U.S. satellite program the highest priority that the Soviets did. Even though the Killian TCP report
of 1954–1955 had urged the United States to launch the International Geophysical
Year satellite program as a way to legitimize its reconnaissance satellites, and many
people, including the ODM-SAC and Eisenhower himself, recognized the satellite’s
significance for national prestige, apparently none believed the Soviet Union could
really beat the United States.18 Thus there was a sense that the American International Geophysical Year satellite would serve its strategic purpose better if it was
pursued as an internationally open scientific project, rather than a crash military
endeavor. In the same spirit, Eisenhower had approved in 1955, on recommendation
from Assistant Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles, that the U.S. satellite project,
called Vanguard, be established as an NSF project using a relatively new rocket
built by the Navy, instead of utilizing the advanced Redstone military rockets
developed by the Army.19 Such an arrangement, as Quarles reminded the cabinet
two weeks after Sputnik, had been meant to “obviate or weaken Soviet protest on
over-fl ight.”20 Now Sputnik actually “has done us a good turn,” as Quarles told
Eisenhower in a separate meeting, by nicely establishing the “freedom of space”
for everyone, paving the way for American reconnaissance satellites.21
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
In a way, the fact that the Soviets used a military rocket for launching the
satellite was actually reassuring to the Pentagon and Eisenhower. It indicated
that the Russians gave higher priority to space than to ICBMs, which would in
turn imply that they did not think that the United States was going to start a war
against them and that they wanted to wage the Cold War more in psychological
than military terms.22 This understanding, coupled with his knowledge of the real
Soviet strength from the U-2 reconnaissance overfl ights, led Eisenhower to react
calmly to the Sputnik launch. For security reasons, however, he could not disclose
the U-2 information to the public, which limited the effectiveness of his response
to the Sputnik challenge.
The Origins of Presidential Science Advising
Despite his conviction that Sputnik, per se, represented no major strategic threat
(and indeed some benefits) to the United States, Eisenhower still had to calm the
hysteria and mitigate the public alarm. He took several measures behind the scenes
to speed up the American satellite program, but his appointment of James Killian as
science adviser and the reconstitution of the ODM-SAC into the President’s Science
Advisory Committee formed the most publicly prominent part of his response to
the Sputnik challenge. Conventional accounts of this process render it as mainly
a matter of science in policy: Sputnik made the president recognize his need for
science advising in space and defense policy and he then proceeded to establish
it.23 However, this narrative of natural evolution does not explain why Eisenhower
chose Killian and the ODM-SAC scientists, instead of their opponents led by Edward
Teller or Ernest Lawrence, as his science advisers. After all, in the pre-Sputnik days
Teller and Lawrence were equally if not more prominent scientific figures than
ODM-SAC scientists. They certainly wielded more infl uence than the latter in U.S.
nuclear weapons policy. What the conventional account masks is the role played by
a crucial debate among these opposing scientific camps and policymakers over the
meaning of Sputnik for American science and technology policy, especially nuclear
weapons policy. In the end, the establishment of the science advisory system had
to do with both science in policy and policy for science.
Even though Sputnik provided the direct trigger for the establishment of
the PSAC system of science advising and with it the incorporation of moderate scientists in policymaking, at least three prior or concurrent developments
shaped Eisenhower’s choices of scientists. The first and most important factor
was Eisenhower’s profound rethinking about the course of the Cold War and the
nuclear arms race, as he indicated in his meeting with the ODM-SAC in March 1957.
“There will be no such thing as a victorious side in any global war of the future,”
he told the nation during a subsequent press conference.24 Related to this turn
toward serious arms control was Eisenhower’s increasing disenchantment with
the technological push of the Teller–Lawrence–Strauss group. In the summer of
1957, for example, in response to the clean bomb campaign by Teller, Lawrence,
and Strauss to derail a nuclear test ban, Eisenhower acknowledged the potential
benefits of the research in reducing civilian casualties in a nuclear exchange and
The Creation of PSAC, 1957
in peaceful applications, but resented their implication that a test ban was thus
immoral. They made it “look like a crime to ban tests,” he complained after the
meeting.25 The incident also led him to observe bitterly that “the scientists today
in this field seemed to be running the Government rather than acting as servants
for the Government.”26
Concurrent with these developments was Eisenhower’s increasing attraction
to the ODM-SAC group for both its advocacy of a moderation of the arms race
and for its linking of federal support of basic research with curbing the technological push. Thus, on October 8, in his post-Sputnik consultation with Detlev
W. Bronk, president of the NAS, he warmed to the latter’s recommendation that
he revive William Golden’s original proposal for a presidential science adviser
and advisory committee by consulting with Rabi and upgrading the ODM-SAC.27
Coincidentally, Eisenhower had, prior to Sputnik, requested to meet with the
ODM-SAC on October 15 to discuss its report on basic research. He now appreciated it even more as an opportunity to discuss the Sputnik crisis with a group of
prominent American scientists, especially Rabi and Killian, who had commanded
his admiration and confidence.28
For their part, Rabi, Killian, and their ODM-SAC colleagues also looked forward to the meeting. They had been just as surprised by Sputnik, especially by its
political impact, as everybody else, despite their own earlier warning of just such
an event.29 “I was really astonished,” recalled Rabi years later.30 As Hans Bethe
recalled, most American scientists had thought “that the Russians were somewhat behind us.”31 Still smarting from the Wilson cut in basic research funding,
ODM-SAC scientists saw the meeting with Eisenhower as a golden opportunity to
strengthen the scientists–government relations and to promote federal support of
science. Rabi, for example, “knew something would happen.”32
On October 12, Rabi met with Andrew Goodpaster in the White House to plan
for the committee’s conference with the president three days later. “Advice to the
president on science” was already on the meeting agenda, including the possibility
of the appointment of a special assistant for science and upgrading the ODMSAC to a level comparable to the Council of Economic Advisers.33 The day before
the meeting with the president, Rabi convened the Science Advisory Committee,
which decided to recommend the preceding steps as well as other changes in science and defense policies to Eisenhower.34
At the October 15 meeting, Eisenhower opened the discussion by posing a
question about government support of science, the original theme of the meeting.
Still remembering the pre-Sputnik debate on basic research he touched off in the
Cabinet, Eisenhower told the scientists that he had been reflecting “very earnestly”
on the best way to support science. According to Goodpaster’s notes:
He said it was all well and good to accept the importance of basic research, but
government officials have some responsibility to assure that money provided is
actually used for research, and not diverted to other ends. However, to do so
might result in intrusion into university activity.35
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
Obviously the debate in the spring and the impact of Sputnik had softened the
edges of Eisenhower’s criticism of federal support of science. He was no longer
questioning such support, although his concern over maintaining a public–private
boundary—public accountability and private autonomy—remained and would
later find general expression in his farewell speech. Welcoming this shift in Eisenhower’s thinking, Rabi sought to transform the debate even further into a matter
of administration. He told Eisenhower that the question of government management of research was of central concern to his committee and proposed that it
conduct a study on the issue for the president. Eisenhower readily approved.
Then the discussion quickly turned to the burning question of whether
American science already lagged dangerously behind that of the Soviet Union.
Rabi’s answer was both reassuring and alarming. The United States still enjoyed
some advantages, he told Eisenhower, but the Soviets had picked up momentum.
“Unless we take vigorous action,” he predicted, the Soviets could surpass the
Americans just as the Americans had overtaken the Europeans in science in the
last generation. Following Rabi, Edwin Land spoke “with great eloquence” about
the urgent need for presidential action. Land lamented the American obsession
with mass production and consumerism and its loss of the pioneering spirit to the
Soviets, who pursued science “both as an essential tool and a way of life.” Describing the current feeling of scientists as “isolated and alone,” Land pleaded with the
president to break American complacency and inspire American youth toward
scientific adventure. Although Eisenhower disagreed with Land on the advantages
of the elitist Soviet education system (they were “picking out the best minds and
ruthlessly spurning the rest”), he promised to do his part to create a better attitude
toward science in the United States. Thanks to Sputnik, he added, “people are
alarmed and thinking about science.” By giving speeches and public recognition to
scientists (including establishing the national science medals), Eisenhower hoped
to turn this alarm to constructive ends.
Rabi then came to the main recommendation of the ODM-SAC: the appointment of a presidential science adviser. According to Goodpaster’s notes,
Dr. Rabi said that many of the policy matters that come up to the President have
a strong scientific component. He pointed out that the President lacks a scientific adviser, or someone who can provide him with a scientific point of view.
The President said it might be well to have such an adviser, or even a small section, to support him. He said the group would have to recognize, however, that
every such individual added simply adds to the burdens of the Presidency—but
perhaps the individual could be a great help in getting the right point of view
across. He said he would like to hear something more specific as to their ideas.
Rabi answered that he believed “the first essential is to get someone the President
could live easily with (in the sense of working with him agreeably),” and “completely sound scientifically.” Killian suggested “a committee to back up” the science
adviser, with which Eisenhower agreed, mentioning the Council of Economic
Advisers as a model.
The Creation of PSAC, 1957
The more Eisenhower reflected on the idea of a science adviser, the more
enthusiastic he grew. “Such an individual could be most helpful,” he told the scientists. A science adviser could assist him in keeping track of the government’s decisions related to “scientific matters,” he said, such as the one he made in 1955 to give
the highest priority to ballistic missiles. That decision, Eisenhower complained, did
not get fully implemented due to secondary considerations at the Pentagon. As
another example, Killian mentioned the disarray in military R&D in the DOD and
the demoralization of the scientific community. The need, Killian said, was “more
for leadership than for money.” A sympathetic Eisenhower immediately asked
Goodpaster to arrange for the committee to meet his new secretary of defense,
Neil McElroy, on the subject.
It is worth noting here that both the scientists and Eisenhower adopted fairly
fl uid definitions of the boundaries between science and technology and between
science in policy and policy for science: missiles were hardly “scientific matters”
and scientific demoralization derived more from the cut in funding for science
than from any weakening in the government’s use of science. Yet, the nature of
the Sputnik crisis allowed ODM-SAC scientists to connect policy for science with
science in policy. In the same vein, the scientists urged Eisenhower to strengthen
scientific cooperation with the allies. A joint scientific committee with the NATO
allies was mentioned (and later established). Rabi suggested a science adviser to the
secretary of state. Albert Hill and others called for removal of security restrictions
in information exchanges with allies, especially the British. Again, Eisenhower was
most receptive. He immediately asked Cutler and Goodpaster to explore ways to
implement these ideas.36
Although, as we have seen, Rabi had cleared most of these proposals with the
White House staff, if not President Eisenhower himself, prior to the meeting, its
significance as a creation moment for the modern presidential science advisory
system was recognized and would be long remembered by American public scientists. Years later, Bethe recalled it as “one of the most memorable hours of my
life. . . . I have never before been present at a session where so much was decided
in such a short time. Eisenhower was most impressive.”37 The receptiveness of the
president to their proposals clearly excited and energized the scientists. For his
part, Eisenhower appreciated the scientists’ reassurance of present U.S. strength
and made good use of it in his effort to calm the public and fend off political
attacks. At the same time, he took the scientists’ warning about science education and basic research seriously, and soon made these subjects major items on his
post-Sputnik agenda. It is doubtful that the American response to Sputnik would
have emphasized science and education so much if not for the strong infl uence of
science advisers such as the ODM-SAC.
In retrospect, what was at stake in the meeting was no less than the negotiation
over the meaning of the Sputnik challenge itself. With his Pearl Harbor analogy,
Edward Teller was especially effective in leading the charge, in both Congress and
in the media, that Sputnik represented a military and technological defeat for the
United States and that it had to respond accordingly by accelerating its nuclear
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
weapons and other defense programs. Even though he agreed with the ODMSAC scientists about the Soviet challenge in science and education, the thrust of
his concern over Sputnik was military and technological. Just two days before
Eisenhower’s meeting with the ODM-SAC, Teller had issued a clarion call in the
Los Angeles Times under the headline “We Must Win the H-War before It Starts!”
Contrary to Eisenhower’s conviction about the absurdity of nuclear wars, Teller
demanded that “we must overcome the popular notion that nuclear weapons are
more immoral than conventional weapons” and that “we must revamp our military planning to fl ight and win a limited nuclear war.”38 Much of what Eisenhower
would later call the military-industrial complex resonated with Teller’s analysis.
It pushed on its own for a countertechnological attack that would eventually spill
over into other areas of American life, resulting in a new wave of technological
enthusiasm in Sputnik’s shadow. Of course, such a reaction placed the institutions
of American military technology—including Teller’s Livermore Laboratory—in
the forefront of American Cold War strategy.
In contrast, at the White House meeting, Rabi, Killian, and their colleagues,
with their own interpretation of the boundary between science and technology,
attempted, with considerable success, to turn Sputnik into a challenge in science,
education, and presidential science advising. Like Teller, they did so partly out of
conviction and partly out of their own institutional self-interest, for their interpretation of Sputnik would lead to increased funding for science and science education,
with benefit for the universities, home institutions of most ODM-SAC members.
Thus, despite their differences, both groups would contribute to what historian
Walter McDougall called “another American lurch toward technocracy” in the
wake of Sputnik.39 For his part, Eisenhower was not unaware of ODM-SAC scientists’ self-interest, but on balance he accepted their version of the challenge because
it helped him devise a response strategy that would promote his own agenda of
arms control and fiscal conservatism. He even began to appreciate their argument
that federal support of basic research might help curb the technological momentum
behind the arms race itself. Ultimately, it was this agreement between the president
and his science advisers that paved the way for the establishment of a peacetime
science advisory system in the White House for the first time in American history.
Thus, even though all parties involved in the debate over Sputnik—Eisenhower, the
Democrats, ODM-SAC scientists, and Teller—shared what historians have called
an “ideology of liberal consensus” on the need to fight communism abroad (and
to solve domestic problems through incremental reforms, not radical revolutions),
they differed sharply over the limits of nuclear weapons in this struggle.40
The cordial atmosphere at the October 15 meeting left little doubt that Eisenhower would look to the ODM-SAC for his first science adviser. Although no name
was mentioned at the meeting, Killian, for his performances in directing the TCP in
1954–1955, in chairing the President’s Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence
Activities, and for his prominent position as MIT president, quickly emerged as
Eisenhower’s and his staff ’s favorite choice. A political moderate, he had been
attacked by the right wing for protecting left-wing faculty members at MIT and for
The Creation of PSAC, 1957
his association with Oppenheimer, but his TCP investigation had also established
his credibility with the military establishment.41 Although not a working scientist
himself, Killian had the reputation of a brilliant science administrator. He knew
both the scientific community and the government well enough to be an effective
liaison between them. Conceivably, his nonscientist background might actually
have made other White House staff feel more comfortable in working with him.
His friendship with Congressman John McCormack, the Democratic majority
leader in the House, did not hurt him either.
Another logical choice would have been Rabi: He not only knew Eisenhower
well, but also, unlike Killian, was “completely sound scientifically.” Was he ever
considered? Goodpaster remembered Rabi declining the position—“Rabi felt that
it simply was not possible for him to undertake the job”—implying that it was
offered to him, but Rabi recalled neither receiving a formal offer nor having great
enthusiasm for it. In retrospect, Rabi cited his religious ( Jewish) background and
possible attack from the right wing as his, and possibly the White House’s, concerns.42 His advocacy for arms control both during the H-bomb debate and after
would have led to opposition from the national security establishment as well.
Cutler, who was attuned to the concerns at the Pentagon and the AEC and who
had just clashed with Rabi over his proposed study of American commitment in
the world, clearly favored Killian over Rabi, too.
Once the White House reached consensus on Killian, things moved rapidly. A
few days after the White House meeting, Sherman Adams, Eisenhower’s chief of
staff, called Killian and asked him to come back to Washington for discussion on
the matter of a science adviser. After a conference with Rabi, Land, Berkner, James
Fisk, Mervin Kelly, and Bronk in New York, Killian drew up a memorandum on
the appointment of a presidential science adviser and the transfer of the ODMSAC, with enlargement, into the White House. At breakfast in the White House,
Killian met with Adams and Cutler, who had drafted a similar memorandum on
the subject. Killian was subsequently asked to combine his with Cutler’s memo and
come up with terms of reference for the new science adviser and advisory committee.43 On October 24, Killian had breakfast with Eisenhower, who formally asked
Killian to be his special assistant for science and technology (commonly known
as the science adviser). Killian accepted the offer after securing a leave of absence
from MIT.44 Although the exact setup for a science advisory committee was not yet
decided, a major step in the history of American public science was accomplished.
The Rabi Committee vs. the Teller–Lawrence Group
As the White House deliberated over whether to upgrade the ODM-SAC or try a
new setup like the Council of Economic Advisers, another sequence of events took
place that might well have both reaffirmed Eisenhower’s decision to shift his trust
from the Teller–Lawrence group to the Rabi–Killian group and led him to approve
the establishment of PSAC out of the ODM-SAC. On October 29, 1957, Rabi, as
chairman of the ODM-SAC, met with Eisenhower in the White House to report
a finding by his committee that nuclear explosions could prematurely detonate
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
unprotected warheads within several miles. Although the United States had already
started shielding its warheads against this effect, the Soviets apparently had not yet
caught on. Thus, the committee recommended that, first, the United States develop
an antimissile system based on this effect, and, second, the United States quickly
reach a test ban with the Soviets to prevent them from finding out the secret.45
Eisenhower reacted favorably to the Rabi proposal. He even agreed with a poignant
comment by Rabi that it was a “tragedy” that the United States had not reached a
test ban early enough, as ODM-SAC had suggested, to prevent the Soviets from testing their thermonuclear warheads in their latest test series. Eisenhower recalled that
he himself had often expressed a desire for a test ban to “freeze our advantage.”46
Eisenhower’s warm reception of Rabi’s test ban advice alarmed Strauss, who
also attended the meeting. He told Eisenhower that he and his scientists questioned some of the assumptions and conclusions of the ODM-SAC study. The AEC
believed, for example, that the Soviets could always “steal our secrets” or conduct
tests secretly. As a compromise, Eisenhower agreed that scientists holding different views should get together and try to reach a technical agreement on the proposal.47 After Rabi left, Strauss tried to plant more doubts about the Rabi proposal
in Eisenhower’s mind. He told the president that Rabi was a brilliant scientist and
“a friend of long standing,” but the ODM-SAC proposal was not thought through.
It lacked mature and experienced judgment about the broad concerns of national
security and international relations. Interrupting him, however, Eisenhower reiterated his agreement with Rabi on the need to freeze the U.S. lead.48
The Rabi meeting made a deep impression on Eisenhower. Months later, when
reviewing U.S. policy on the test ban, Eisenhower singled out the Rabi meeting as
the pivotal event that prompted the administration to enter into serious test ban
negotiations with the Soviets.49 It also made Eisenhower keenly aware of the deep
division within the scientific community over American nuclear policy. At one point
in the meeting, Rabi stated bluntly that he thought it a mistake for Eisenhower to
have accepted the views of Lawrence and Teller on the clean bomb and the test ban.
Strauss later confirmed that the Rabi and Teller–Lawrence groups had opposed each
other “very sharply” ever since the H-bomb decision. What Strauss did not tell Eisenhower was the impact of the Oppenheimer case and the minority status of the Lawrence and Teller position within the scientific community. In his diary, Eisenhower
noted, with surprise, that “Dr. Rabi and some of his group are so antagonistic to Drs.
Lawrence and Teller that communication between them is practically nil.” Given his
own turn toward arms control and his growing antipathy to Teller’s advocacy for
continued nuclear buildup, it was clear which scientific group was going to gain his
trust.50 Thus, even though the Rabi initiative proved technically problematic, it did
add to the voice for a test ban and, more important, let Eisenhower know that he
could rely on the Rabi and Killian group for assistance on arms control.51
Science in National Security
As the White House sought to respond to the Sputnik crisis with reforms in science
advising, the urgency of the situation was underlined by the delivery, on November
The Creation of PSAC, 1957
4, of the Gaither report, with its gloomy assessment of the Soviet military threat
to the United States. Among its recommendations was a proposal for a massive
program to defend the population and the nuclear force against a Soviet attack.
In contrast to his largely positive reception of the TCP report three years before,
Eisenhower reacted to the Gaither report with serious misgivings. Although agreeing on the need to protect the bombers, he thought the panel underestimated
the U.S. offensive strength, especially the value of its many overseas bases. He
concurred with the panel on giving priority to offensive power but doubted the
feasibility of the shelter program.
Above all, Eisenhower’s reservations about the Gaither report derived from his
own profound rethinking of the direction of the arms race. Listening to the briefing by the Gaither panel, he was flabbergasted by its finding that in a nuclear war,
the Soviet Union could infl ict 50 percent casualties on the United States, and vice
versa.52 It reinforced his conviction about the absurdity of talking about winning a
nuclear war. “You can’t have that war,” he said. “There aren’t enough bulldozers to
scrape the bodies off of the streets.”53 When Eisenhower conveyed his conviction
forcefully to the Gaither panel, he helped convert several young scientists, such as
Jerome Wiesner of MIT and Herbert York of the AEC’s Livermore Laboratory,
who already began to question the direction of the arms race during the study, to
the cause of arms control.54
In the meeting with the Gaither panel, Eisenhower also lamented the tendency
“in our democracies” to await a crisis such as Sputnik to awaken the people about
the importance of science and technology. Instead of this “government by crisis,”
he wanted to “keep up interest and support without hysteria.” However, hysteria
was just what Eisenhower faced when the Gaither report was, to Eisenhower’s
dismay, leaked to the press in late November 1957. Part of the uproar came from
Congress, which demanded public release of the report, but Eisenhower refused,
claiming executive privilege. Although the administration eventually took the
Gaither report into consideration in making the FY 1959 DOD budget, the apprehension it generated lingered on.55
Finally, having undertaken all these steps, Eisenhower was ready to launch
a series of “confidence speeches” to calm the country in the shadow of both
Sputnik and the Gaither report. The first one was a radio and television address
on November 7, 1957 on “science in national security” from the White House.
Its drafting was in part shaped by a report from the ODM-SAC on the need to
improve public appreciation of science, strengthen the partnership between science and the federal government, increase support for basic research, especially in
the DOD, and reform science education.56 In his speech Eisenhower emphasized
how scientific advice and research had in the past shaped the superior American
defense strength, complete with an enumeration of the many nuclear weapon
and missile systems. Conceding Soviet advantages in satellites and in some other
areas, Eisenhower nevertheless declared to the nation that the West still enjoyed
overall military strength over the Soviet bloc. “Our scientists assure me that we
are well ahead of the Soviets in the nuclear field, both in quantity and in quality.”
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
In this address, Eisenhower spotlighted science not only as the driving force in
the defense of America, but also as a key to the nation’s future security and prosperity. Following Land’s proposal, Eisenhower took the forum to promote public
interest in science. “According to my scientific friends,” he warned the millions
of households watching him on TV and listening to him on radio, “we could
fall behind” the Soviet Union if complacency persisted. He urged Americans to
give higher priority to science education and basic research.57 Moderate scientists’ interpretation of the Sputnik challenge now reached the public through
Eisenhower’s pulpit.
It was in this speech that Eisenhower announced the appointment of Killian
as his special assistant for science and technology. His job would be to formalize
the science advising process, link government with the scientific community, and
monitor the defense R&D programs. In particular, Eisenhower emphasized that
Killian would help the secretary of defense to curb interservice rivalry in missile development. To facilitate scientific cooperation with the Western alliance,
Eisenhower also proposed a NATO Science Committee, a science adviser to the
secretary of state, and science attachés in important U.S. embassies abroad. In closing, Eisenhower mentioned the peaceful contributions of science—“there is much
more to science than its function in strengthening our defense”—and called on the
Soviet Union to join the U.S. in disarmament efforts.58
A week later, in another speech on national security, Eisenhower expanded on
the importance of science education and basic research: “My scientific advisers
place this problem [science education] above all other immediate tasks of producing missiles, of developing new techniques in the Armed Services.”59 It was another
powerful indication of the effectiveness of American public scientists’ campaign
to turn Sputnik into a challenge more in science and education than in military
technology. At the same time, by highlighting the importance of science and education to national security, the speech also subtly accelerated their integration into
the Cold War.
The upgrading of the ODM-SAC into the PSAC in the White House proceeded soon after the Killian appointment. In his November 7, 1957 speech,
Eisenhower had said that Killian, as his science adviser, would be aided by a
scientific staff and “a strong advisory group of outstanding experts reporting to
him and to me.” Notably, Eisenhower did not mention the ODM-SAC by name,
probably because the White House had not yet decided whether to upgrade the
ODM-SAC or establish a smaller advisory council modeled after the Council of
Economic Advisers, which consisted of three economists working full time in
the Executive Office of the president, with the chairman acting as the president’s
principal economic adviser. On November 15, Killian wrote Eisenhower that “after
careful consideration,” he recommended the upgrading of ODM-SAC. He also
suggested the addition of several new members to strengthen the committee.
Eisenhower approved the plan and announced the reconstitution and upgrading
of the ODM-SAC into the PSAC on November 22, 1957.60 As an indication of their
newly acquired status, the science adviser and PSAC were given the best suite in
The Creation of PSAC, 1957
the Executive Building next to the White House as well as the privilege of using
the White House mess for lunch, overcoming a long-standing inconvenience facing the old ODM-SAC.61
In a formal December 2, 1957 letter to Killian that served as the legal foundation for his office, President Eisenhower gave the science adviser what Killian later
called “remarkable carte blanche.”62 He was asked to keep himself informed of
science in government, giving primary attention to “the use of science and technology in relation to national security,” to provide the president with scientific
and technological “facts, evaluations and recommendations,” to try to “anticipate
future trends or developments” in science and technology, especially related to
national security, and to facilitate international scientific exchanges with allies.
Perhaps most important, the science adviser was authorized to attend the NSC
and cabinet meetings and “to have access to all plans, programs, and activities
involving science and technology in the Government, including the Department
of Defense, AEC, and CIA,” reflecting a striking confidence from Eisenhower in
his new science adviser.63
Notably, the letter emphasized science in policy much more than policy for science; the latter was implied only when Killian was asked to work closely with the
NSF and its director. It was more specifically spelled out in a separate set of terms
of reference: “to be concerned with maintaining good and close relations with the
U.S. scientific and engineering community and to further in every appropriate way
the strength and morale of the scientific community.” The terms for PSAC likewise
emphasized science in policy: it should be “broadly representative of those fields
of science and technology most important to Government and at this juncture,
most relevant to national security.” Both the letter and terms of references were,
however, so generally worded that they contained the flexibility for the science
advisory system to expand into areas beyond national security in science in policy
and into policy for science even under Eisenhower.64
The emphasis on science in policy was also reflected in the background of the
five new PSAC members. Their fields of expertise indicated the primary importance of space and missiles as well as the possibility of a move by Eisenhower in
the direction of a nuclear test ban. Chemist George B. Kistiakowsky of Harvard
had worked on implosion at wartime Los Alamos and had sat on the infl uential
John von Neumann committee on missiles. Physicist Herbert F. York, director of
the AEC’s Livermore Laboratory and another alumnus of the von Neumann committee, was obviously knowledgeable about nuclear weapons. Both he and another
new PSAC member, Robert F. Bacher, professor of physics at Cal Tech and a former AEC commissioner and ODM-SAC member, would play a key role in PSAC
deliberations on a nuclear test ban. James Doolittle, then vice president of Shell
Oil Company and chairman of both the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board and
the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, would naturally advise on both
the space and missile programs. Finally, Edward M. Purcell of Harvard, a Nobel
laureate in physics and expert on space communication, would chair PSAC’s space
science panel.65
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
In many ways, the reconstituted and enlarged PSAC thus embodied the American scientific establishment. Not surprisingly, most members were veterans of
wartime research under OSRD. However, contrary to common perceptions, the
number of former atomic bomb makers (Bacher, Bethe, Kistiakowsky, and York)
was dwarfed by that of the radar people (Killian, William O. Baker of Bell Labs,
Berkner, Bronk, Fisk, Caryl P. Haskins of the Carnegie Institution of Washington,
Purcell, Rabi, H. P. Robertson of Cal Tech, Wiesner, and Zacharias), although it
should be noted that several members had worked on both. Continuing the ODMSAC tradition, the membership fell into roughly three major categories: scientific
generalists, industry, and medicine and biological sciences. All major forms of
scientific institutions found representations: about half of the members came from
academia (Killian, Bacher, Bethe, Bronk, Kistiakowsky, Purcell, Rabi, Robertson,
Wiesner, and Zacharias), several were based in industry (Baker, Doolittle, Fisk,
and Land), one (York) directed a government weapons laboratory managed by
a university, one (Berkner) headed a university consortium on contract with the
government, and three (Haskins, Bronk, and Paul Weiss of Rockefeller Institute,
who was added in March 1958) operated from private research institutions. Interestingly, the last three also stood out from their physical scientist colleagues for being
biologists or physiologists. With this mainly academic cast, it was not surprising
that committee meetings often resembled more the freewheeling laboratory or
departmental gatherings in the universities than formal bureaucratic affairs.
In addition to these full members, PSAC also invited several major science
administrators, such as the NSF director, director of the National Institutes of
Health, and, later, the director of defense research and engineering (DDRE) in the
DOD (York became the first DDRE in 1958), to sit in on its meetings as consultants.
Almost in a class by himself was Emanuel Piore, who, first as chief scientist of
the Office of Naval Research and then as director of research at IBM (a position
that Killian helped secure for him), had long been active in ODM-SAC affairs as a
consultant.66 In the wake of Sputnik he became the main troubleshooter for Killian
despite the fact that he would not be made a full member of PSAC until 1959. He
was, as he saw it, simply an insider:
When Killian took the job, he made it a condition that either Jim Fisk or I
would back him up. One of us had to be in residence in Washington. Eventually, I became an official member of the committee, but it was almost irrelevant
whether I was a member or not. I was part of the inner circle of the committee
from the beginning, welcomed to every meeting.67
In the future, when their terms expired, almost all the chairmen and a few key
members, such as Bronk, Fisk, Land, Piore, Harvey Brooks of Harvard, and Colin
MacLeod of New York University, would become consultants-at-large and participate
in nearly all of the committee’s activities. In the 1960s, these PSAC alumni consultants
would play as important a role in the politics of science as current members.68
Inevitably, who sat on the PSAC affected what came out of it. Members were
more likely to be science administrators than working scientists—department chairs,
The Creation of PSAC, 1957
college deans, laboratory directors, and university presidents. As historian Rebecca
Lowen has illustrated with the case of Stanford University, the interest of science
administrators did not always coincide with that of the working scientists.69 Among
PSAC’s science administrators, layers of networks overlapped: scientific (physicists,
e.g., had already formed bonds in their field), institutional (several worked for the
same universities or industrial labs), and political (PSAC members would often
support the same candidates). “A Cambridge mafia” dominated PSAC, as a large
number of MIT and Harvard faculty and alumni served as committee and panel
members, a fact that often subtly colored their science policy advice to favor elite
universities. As MIT president, Killian enjoyed especially the respect and loyalty of
industrial scientists, such as Land, Fisk, Baker, and Piore, who had played a key role
in his TCP investigation and would be most active in the early PSAC. These close
connections among PSAC members might have helped make the committee into
what Kistiakowsky called a “coherent, thinking organism,” but it also gave them the
appearance of an “old boys’ club,” in both a symbolic and a literal sense.70 The committee remained an all-male cast throughout its existence. Some members of its
secretarial staff were women, but their critical role in educating the scientists about
the inner workings of the White House and Washington has often been neglected.71
Neither was there much racial or ethnic diversity in the committee, except for the
presence of a number of Jewish American and immigrant scientists.72
Remarkably, the establishment of the new science advisory system involved
only the president, his close aides, and a few prominent scientists, without meaningful participation of the scientific community at large or the public. Neither did
the BOB, which had been largely responsible for the creation of the ODM-SAC
in 1950–1951, and Congress, which last spoke on science policy with the NSF Act,
play any significant part. Like the NAS, PSAC was a semipublic institution whose
establishment derived as much from American public scientists’ desire to promote
basic research and expand the role of scientists in the federal government as from
the latter’s need for assistance.73 Interestingly, it operated on largely a nonpartisan
basis; many of its members were Democrats but Eisenhower refused to intervene
even when pressured by other members of his party.74
The new PSAC convened on the same day as the White House announcement, at which time Rabi resigned the chairmanship (but remained a member)
and Killian was elected to succeed him.75 Although PSAC retained the option of
electing a chairman other than the science adviser, the Rabi–Killian transition set
a precedent that would be followed in the future to help maintain unity. At the
committee’s meeting in early January 1958, members elected Fisk and Bacher as
co-vice chairmen.76 With a sense of urgency, most PSAC members devoted substantial time to the committee’s work; York and Kistiakowsky even worked full
time on the all-important satellite and missile reports for several months. Killian
quickly appointed panels in PSAC to provide advice for Eisenhower regarding
space, missiles, a nuclear test ban, and, significantly, science policy. Usually chaired
by PSAC members, these (and other) PSAC panels drew their members mostly
from outside the committee, thus enabling PSAC to utilize a network of several
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
hundred scientists and engineers who were experts in their fields. In contrast to the
massive and semiautonomous Killian TCP and Gaither panels of the ODM-SAC,
the PSAC panels were often low-key operations focusing on specific issues. Early
on, PSAC recognized the problem that its panels, as groups of specialists, could
become parochial advocates for a certain policy, or, in the case of policy for science,
could become advocates for their own respective fields. One way to counter such
tendencies was to balance panel membership with people holding different points
of view. Another way was to put specialist panel reports and recommendations
through a thorough scrutiny by the full PSAC, which, as a gathering of generalists
of stature and independence, could bring a broader perspective to the discussion.
Thus PSAC created a two-tier system to achieve a kind of functional, collective
objectivity not through cognitive purity or a priori elimination of bias, but as the
result of a reasoned, balanced clash of ideas and interests.77
The new science advisory system received enthusiastic support from the scientific community as well as from the public.78 Many regarded it as one of the most
significant steps Eisenhower undertook in response to the Sputnik crisis. It marked
a new level of centralization of science in the federal government, never before
achieved except during wartime, and had far-reaching implications for American
defense and science policy. Although the NSF worried, again, that the new science advisers in the White House would further erode its statutory role in science
policymaking, it nevertheless supported the move as giving scientists more control
over military R&D.79 A few scientists, most notably Wallace Brode, a veteran government scientist and president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, privately lamented the fact that Killian was not a trained scientist,
but most scientists found Killian a wise choice for the post of science adviser.80
Thus, only weeks after the onset of the Sputnik crisis, a new, vigorous presidential
science advising system was in place. For Eisenhower, having his own scientists
meant a better understanding and control of government programs that increasingly involved technical considerations. In public relations, they provided a shield
to deflect political criticism, to slow down the space race, and to move toward
nuclear arms control. They also helped the White House to resist what it regarded
as undesirable reform proposals, such as an expansion of the NSC or the establishment of a Department of Science.81 Although the leak of the Gaither report
showed the hazards of an outside group—never again would Eisenhower approve
such an autonomous task force—the science adviser–PSAC arrangement proved an
effective and valuable asset to the White House.82 As Gordon Gray, Eisenhower’s
last national security adviser, later pointed out, “the reconstitution and elevation of
the Science Advisory Committee in 1957 . . . had substantially eliminated the use of
consultant groups which had been put together in the past such as the Technological Capabilities Panel, the Gaither Committee, etc.”83
Clearly, public pressure, political expediency, and policy considerations
prompted Eisenhower to create the presidential science advisory system. But
The Creation of PSAC, 1957
could he have chosen a different science adviser and brought in a different group
of scientists than PSAC? Could he, for example, have appointed Edward Teller or
Ernest Lawrence, who had just three months before Sputnik met with Eisenhower
to lobby for the “clean bomb” and to argue against a test ban? Teller, in fact, was so
ubiquitous in the media in the aftermath of Sputnik’s launch, including appearances
on the cover of Time and on Edward Murrow’s See It Now television program, that
David Lilienthal noted in his diary that “Teller’s is now the featured face (instead
of Oppenheimer’s) in the role of scientific statesman.”84 Or could Eisenhower
picked Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist whom the Army had brought from
Germany at the end of World War II and who was widely celebrated as a space
enthusiast and expert?85 The fact that Eisenhower chose Killian and the ODM-SAC
indicated his agreement with the latter in the intense debate and negotiation over
the meaning of Sputnik: it represented less a military and technological threat
than one in science and education. Furthermore, his awareness of the Rabi–Teller
division over a nuclear test ban also confirmed his desire to bring in scientists who
could advance his own efforts to control, not accelerate, the nuclear arms race. In
other words, he was as much attracted by PSAC’s technological skepticism as he
was repulsed by Teller and Lawrence’s technological enthusiasm.
Thus, a hope of using PSAC to raise the voice of moderation helped overcome
Eisenhower’s considerable worry about the expanding role of scientists in public
policy. In contrast to his complaint in July 1957 about “scientists . . . running the government,” he openly welcomed Killian and PSAC to “provide him with a scientific
point of view” in policy matters.86 His wariness about scientists’ policy role in general did not completely disappear; it would resurface in his warning against the scientific-technological elite in his farewell speech. However, Eisenhower appreciated
PSAC scientists’ technological skepticism enough that he encouraged them to play
an active role in public policy, including space, military technology, arms control,
and science policy. In contrast, he grew disenchanted with the Teller–Lawrence
group. Three days after he reconstituted PSAC, Eisenhower complained to Strauss
bitterly about Teller’s Pearl Harbor analogy, commenting wryly that “Scientists
have suddenly become military and political experts” and vice versa.87
For American public scientists, the establishment of a presidential science
adviser and PSAC marked the achievement of a long-sought goal. From the Steelman and Stewart reports of the 1940s, to the Golden plan of 1950, and through the
ODM-SAC’s Princeton memorandum of 1952 and various other attempts of the
committee during the Eisenhower administration, scientists had agitated for an
institutional base at the top of the U.S. government. With the PSAC system, they
finally regained a voice for science in national policymaking. Because of the nature
of the Sputnik crisis, it was clear from the beginning that the new science advisers
would play a key role in both science in policy and policy for science. How they
approached and balanced their dual, and sometimes confl icting, mandates would
help determine not only the fate of science advice at the top of the government,
but also the science–state partnership for the remainder of the Eisenhower administration and beyond.
PSAC and the Launching
of NASA, 1957–1960
With PSAC’s ascendance into the White House in 1957, American public scientists
moved institutionally closer to executive policymaking than ever before in peacetime. The first order of business for PSAC was to help President Eisenhower restore
confidence in the American space program, which appeared technically incompetent and organizationally confused. At a press conference on February 5, 1958, the
president announced that he had asked Killian and PSAC to “give for the United
States a program of outer space achievement.”1 The decision was an unusual one
in that it allowed a group of technically private citizens to shape one of the most
important public policies of the day. That Eisenhower took such a step and had it
accepted by the American public and polity was testimony to the effectiveness, in
this period of American history, of what political scientist Yaron Ezrahi has called
the “depoliticization of executive action” through the “utilization of science and
technology.” Symbols of openness and rationality, science and technology functioned as political and ideological resources, allowing the president to present
his actions as “impersonal, nonarbitrary, and publicly accountable measures to
enhance the public good.” 2 It was also a powerful demonstration of what historian
Robert Griffith called Eisenhower’s “quest for a corporate commonwealth in which
the contradictions of modern capitalism would be resolved through cooperation,
self-restraint, discipline, and disinterested public service.”3
The theoretical attraction of the strategy, however, did not mean that its actual
application would be smooth sailing. Sharp clashes and tension soon ensued,
as interested parties, including the scientists themselves, sought to protect and
advance their often divergent political, ideological, and institutional agendas. At
stake were both the organization and direction of the American space program.
Should the United States consider space a national security priority and carry out a
Manhattan District-style crash project under the military, or regard it primarily as a
peaceful pursuit and put it under a civilian organization? Should the United States
concentrate on popular and spectacular feats, thus increasing American national
prestige and gaining Cold War propaganda effects, or follow a scientific agenda?
Whatever space policy PSAC was to recommend would have to satisfy public and
congressional pressure for action, solve—or at least get around—the problem of
interservice rivalry in the military, and promote, as much as possible, their own
interest in the advancement of science. In other words, space policy encompassed
both science in policy—how would science and technology contribute to the
achievement of national objectives in space—and policy for science, or how the
space program would further progress in relevant scientific fields.
PSAC and the Launching of NASA, 1957–1960
The International Geophysical Year Satellite Investigation
PSAC actually had begun to advise Eisenhower on space even before his public
announcement in February. On December 6, 1957, the first American attempt to
launch a satellite failed miserably when the Navy’s Vanguard rocket exploded after
barely leaving the launching pad. The intense public and media reaction made the
aborted attempt a national catastrophe, but the outcome was not entirely surprising, given its low priority and a launching schedule contrived under White House
pressure.4 The pressure actually backfired: the Vanguard fiasco forced Eisenhower
to allow the Army, whose ambition to get into the space program he had earlier
denied, to launch a satellite using its better tested Jupiter C rocket. Yet, concern
over interservice rivalry made him withhold the final go-ahead until the last minute. He hoped that Vanguard would prove itself.5
To help the president and the Pentagon decide whether the Navy or the Army
had the best chance of launching satellites during the International Geophysical
Year, Killian appointed a panel under Herbert York, with George Kistiakowsky and
Emmanuel Piore as members.6 Working feverishly, the York panel came up with a
preliminary report to PSAC within a week; it reached Eisenhower before Christmas. Essentially, the panel found the Vanguard team competent but pressured to
meet deadlines. So many key parts of the Vanguard had not been fl ight-tested
that York told PSAC on December 11 that he would “bet even money against” its
next firing. In contrast, the Army team had tested most of its rocket parts and was
likely to succeed even on its first try. Thus, the York panel recommended to Killian
that instead of expanding the Vanguard program, the administration should shift
resources to the Army’s Jupiter C to launch the several satellites for the International Geophysical Year. Eisenhower heeded this advice.7
The technical predictions of the York panel proved accurate. Vanguard indeed
failed again on its second try on January 26, 1958, and five days later Jupiter C
carried the first American satellite, Explorer I, into orbit. The subsequent performance of the two systems also fell within the scope of the panel’s assessment, with
the Vanguard finally redeeming itself on March 17, 1958. Through this narrow and
yet extremely important example, Eisenhower found in PSAC an indispensable
technical arm that could help him make a decision based on sound knowledge.
Thus, instead of creating a special presidential commission on space to examine
the issue for him, as proposed by the NSF, he entrusted the task to PSAC. Unfortunately, however, not all policies were so clearly a matter of technical judgment,
not the least of which were the questions of the direction and organization of the
space program.8
Space for Science
As Explorer I brought welcome relief to the United States, national attention
turned to the administration’s long-range space policy, which in turn intensified
an internal space race in Washington as agencies competed to become the organization running the U.S. space program. There was also public pressure for what
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
Eisenhower viewed as glamorous, expensive, but useless stunts to beat the Soviets
in space. Concerned with these developments, Eisenhower asked PSAC to examine
for him both the question of direction—what projects should be undertaken by the
American space program—and the question of organization—what organizational
form the program should take. Often the two questions were intertwined, requiring both technical and policy determinations. In response, Killian and PSAC established a panel on space science and technology under Purcell, with York, Edwin
Land, and James Doolittle as members, to study and report on these issues to the
full committee from December 1957 to March 1958.9
Key to PSAC scientists’ deliberation on the direction of the space program
was its effect on the funding for nonspace scientific research. Several members felt
that the dramatic effects of Sputnik had stimulated “undisciplined enthusiasm”
for an inflated importance of space. Kistiakowsky called the situation a “great
tragedy”: the uninformed public could easily give space half a billion dollars while
leaving other sciences starving. He urged the committee to educate the public
about the proper relation between space exploration and science. The former
could be useful to the nation only if the latter was vigorously supported as well.10
Rabi thought the clamor for grandeur in space was “outside [the] realm of science.”11 It distorted national priorities, as space fl ight or beating the Russians to
the moon became more important than finding a cure for cancer. Space’s share of
federal funding, Rabi believed, was out of proportion, especially when compared
to that of basic research. In FY 1958, basic research, encompassing all the sciences,
received $280 million, whereas space alone garnered $130 million and was expected
to receive much more in the future. “Should we as [a] committee go along with
this prog[ram] without further exam[ination?]” Rabi asked, adding that “We are
likely to have to do explaining.” Killian and Cal Tech physicist H. P. Robertson
agreed with Rabi that the imbalance between basic science and space funding was
troubling.12 Here, PSAC members clearly linked a national public policy with their
institutional self-interest—the funding of science.
Not everyone was, however, pessimistic about space’s impact on science. Hans
Bethe believed that it “would be a great mistake for us to oppose popular enthusiasm even tho[ugh] misguided.” He discounted the fear that space would take
money away from science, recalling that many European physicists had originally
worried that CERN (the European Council for Nuclear Research) would divert funds
from their own fields, but in fact the “opposite has happened.” Bethe proposed that
PSAC endorse the space program but at the same time advocate increased support
for other sciences. Doolittle seconded Bethe’s position, urging the committee to
use space as a means to “enhance public interest in science per se.”13
Other members, although not without misgivings, emphasized the many real
benefits that would come from space explorations. Edwin Land, for example,
agreed with Rabi and Kistiakowsky that PSAC should dismiss “stunts” or “athletic
contests” with the Soviet Union and give Eisenhower “bona fide” scientific objectives for the American space program.14 It should let Congress know the costs
involved in going to Mars and let it decide “whether we should buy [a] ticket.”15
PSAC and the Launching of NASA, 1957–1960
But he also believed that the space program could save more than it cost by its
contributions to the military strength of the country in the area of reconnaissance. Likewise, Lloyd Berkner foresaw “saving [the] entire expense simply by
meteorological gains.”16 Spiritually, Land thought that space exploration represented “one of [the] best human crusades,” a feeling shared by Jerome Wiesner.
Detlev Bronk added that “the prestige factor can’t be ignored.” Bethe and Rabi
also thought space provided a great opportunity to engage the Soviet Union in
international scientific cooperation, although others doubted the feasibility of
such an endeavor because civilian and military space programs were so closely
tied together.17 Notably, these discussions focused on space as technology; space as
science was conspicuously missing, reflecting perhaps the fact that no astronomer
or geophysicist served on PSAC.
For his part, President Eisenhower shared PSAC’s skepticism against “stunts” in
the parallel political debate on space. Whereas PSAC worried about space’s adverse
impact on science funding, Eisenhower feared that a costly space program would
weaken national security and the economy. He took a dim view of lunar probes,
for example, because “we didn’t have any enemy on the moon!” This narrow
definition of national security, however, was challenged at a meeting by Republican Senator William Knowland of California, who reminded the president of the
great psychological effects of Sputnik at home and abroad. Eisenhower grudgingly
relented, but only approved the lunar probe project on the condition that “it could
be accomplished with some missile already developed or nearly ready.” Overall,
Eisenhower vigorously demanded the application of “a rule of reason” in space
and a stop of the rush into “all possible glamour performances.”18
To provide this “rule of reason,” he asked his science advisers to examine the
specific plan for lunar probes before issuing the final go-ahead.19 Such a study was
carried out by the Purcell panel. It soon submitted a list of several satellites and
lunar probes as the next phase of the U.S. space program. Although one lunar shot,
by the Air Force, was recommended to counteract and mitigate the psychological impact of a possible early Soviet feat in that direction, most of these projects
were devoted to scientific research.20 A month later the DOD formally proposed
to launch these projects, under the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA),
a new agency established to lessen interservice rivalry by centralizing anti-ICBM
and space projects in the Pentagon. On advice from Killian and PSAC, Eisenhower
approved the projects with the stipulation that those of a civilian nature should be
transferred to the new space agency once it was established. He also asked that no
money for the lunar probes should come from the armed services. “I desire that
the identity of these projects as ARPA projects be maintained throughout.”21
Meanwhile, PSAC’s extensive internal discussions and external consultations
with other interested parties served as an effective consensus-building process.
Eventually, PSAC reached the agreement that it should endorse a reasonably strong
civilian space program, but should make sure that nonspace sciences were also
adequately supported. Indeed, PSAC hoped that the space program itself could
focus on scientific research and exploration, with due consideration to prestige and
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
exploration factors. Above all, PSAC emphasized that the space program’s expected
huge expenditure should not be laid at the feet of science and thereby work against
science in the federal budgetary process.22 To summarize this consensus, the Purcell panel worked out an outline of scientific research that could be carried out in
space.23 It also compiled a timetable for space exploration, basing it on technologies then foreseen. In terms like “early” (two years), “later” (two to five years),
“still later” (five to fifteen years), and “much later still,” it predicted dates when
such specific goals as unmanned lunar exploration, man in space, man to moon,
and planetary voyages could be realized. Eisenhower enthusiastically embraced
the report as a step toward the “rule of reason” in space. Seeing its potential in
moderating the space race both internationally and at home, the president asked
Killian, Purcell, and York to put on briefings for the NSC, the Cabinet, and the State
Department.24 The president personally sat through both the NSC and the Cabinet
briefings, commenting at one point, “I think I understand this for the first time”:
the satellite was not “up” there, but “out” there.25 The “show on the road” became
legendary in the lore of PSAC’s education of presidents and government officials.
As Purcell later put it, “The people that needed to be educated were not merely
the public at large but people in responsible positions in Washington.”26 In March
1958, the White House published these briefings as one of the first PSAC reports,
Introduction to Outer Space.
A best seller, the report crystallized PSAC’s and most scientists’ views on space,
and became one of the most significant documents of the Space Age, with great
impact on the direction of the early American space efforts. In it, PSAC listed four
factors that “give importance, urgency, and inevitability to the advancement of
space technology”: human urge for exploration, military applications, national
prestige, and scientific research. Among the “bona fide” scientific objectives, it
enumerated research on the earth’s magnetic field, the van Allen belts, cosmic rays,
meteorology, and astronomy—notably all physical sciences; there was no mention
of exobiology (research on life outside of the earth), which had been advocated
by biologist Joshua Lederberg and others outside of PSAC.27 The committee also
mentioned practical space applications such as weather forecasting, telecommunications, and military reconnaissance, but discounted the popular notion of a “satellite bomber,” pointing out, as York and Purcell told Eisenhower earlier, that space
was not “up” there but “out” there, and that a weapon could not be simply dropped
from the sky. After all, the report said, the earth appeared still the best weapon carrier. In addition, as suggested by Rabi and Bethe, the report called for international
cooperation in space. To prevent space endeavors from overshadowing nonspace
scientific research, the report recommended that the latter “go forward without
loss of pace,” or, preferably “at an increased pace,” implying, of course, increased
federal funding. Finally, the report called on the public to support space exploration “as part of a balanced national effort in all science and technology.” In short,
space should be explored for the benefit of science, not to its detriment.28
Eisenhower not only heartily endorsed the report as “a sober, realistic presentation prepared by leading scientists,” but also used it effectively to fend off
PSAC and the Launching of NASA, 1957–1960
undesirable space weapons systems or manned space programs. When he was
asked, in April 1958, about a declaration by von Braun’s Army group that they
could send a man in space within a year and ahead of the Soviets, Eisenhower,
clearly unenthusiastic, brought out PSAC as his countering experts:
I have an advisory, scientific advisory committee. I have great faith in their
sincerity, in their disinterestedness so far as different services and different
agencies are concerned, in bringing about the things that they believe should
be discovered and accomplished in the space field. . . . [T]hey did not put a
manned space vehicle, of any kind, “early.”29
In other words, Eisenhower saw the von Braun team as a parochial “pressure
group” that pushed for its own selfish institutional interest while upholding PSAC
as a model of disinterested professionals serving the common good. His qualifications on their disinterestedness, however, indicated that he was not unaware of
their possible self-interest beyond matters of interservice rivalry.
Civilian Control of Space
Indeed, as public scientists, PSAC fought for the interest of science not only in the
debate over the direction of the American space program, but also in the discussion that shaped its organizational form. Whereas PSAC’s discussion on a program
for space had focused on the issue of the balance between space and science, its
concurrent study on organization pivoted on the matter of civilian versus military
control, with much at stake for American science. At the time, four models presented themselves: the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), an
independent civilian agency with a long tradition of cooperative research in aeronautics with the military and industry; ARPA; the AEC; and a new space agency.
As the Purcell panel examined these options, advocates for each made their case
both in private and in public.
The powerful congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy ( JCAE)
thought the AEC had a claim on space because of its work on nuclear-powered
rockets. The agency had great appeal to many scientists and PSAC as well, due
in part to its excellent support of basic research and its mature management system. However, for several reasons the AEC soon dropped out of the race. Despite
the JCAE’s rhetoric, the AEC really had little to do with space; the success of
the nuclear rockets appeared far in the future. Besides, its important mission in
nuclear weapons development prevented it from taking on another huge national
enterprise. A new space agency starting from scratch was rejected by PSAC on the
ground that, aside from a step in the proliferation of new agencies, it would take
too long to set up.30
Thus, PSAC found itself choosing between ARPA and NACA, each with strong
advocates and detractors within the committee. Initially many PSAC members
were rather skeptical of the technical and organizational soundness of ARPA
despite the fact that Killian had played a key role in its creation. At its meeting in
January 1958, PSAC questioned the wisdom of ARPA’s taking on both space science
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
and missile defense while separating them from ballistic missile development in
the services. Furthermore, the committee did not think it wise to put the AICBM
together with space science. As Land put it, “AICBM [was] urgent—no urgency on
Mars.”31 Nevertheless, PSAC agreed to withhold comment about ARPA, awaiting
its own comprehensive study of DOD organization.32
The question was not whether the Pentagon should get into space; it already
was there and would stay there to pursue legitimate military projects such as
reconnaissance. Choosing ARPA would allow for ready utilization of existing
hardware and experience within the DOD. Furthermore, the DOD claimed
interests even in civilian space sciences, which might have military implications.
Thus, significantly, and contrary to the perception of many, President Eisenhower
initially leaned toward lodging the space organization within the DOD because it
had both “paramount interest” and the necessary hardware and because doing so
might help avoid waste on fancy nondefense space projects. If the NSF or other
scientific agencies wanted to conduct peaceful space research, they could contract
with the DOD, which would act as an “operating agent,” following the pattern
of the International Geophysical Year project.33 Killian, who consistently sought
to strengthen the ties between the Pentagon and the scientific community, shared
this view in the immediate post-Sputnik days. It seemed to him “entirely feasible
for the DOD to be the major sponsor and entrepreneur of space research and
development, both military and ‘non-military.’”34 Likewise, York and H. P. Robertson, chairman of the DOD’s Defense Science Board, made the case for ARPA at
PSAC’s December 1957 meeting.35
Other PSAC scientists, however, felt uneasy about making ARPA the main U.S.
space agency, suspecting that the military was trying to hold the American space
program permanently within its own control. The question was not only one of
public policy—was it best to lodge the entire space program permanently in the
Pentagon—but also one of science policy. Should civilian scientists be forced to
turn to the DOD for support in space research, or should there be a civilian space
agency to sponsor such research? At the meeting where York and Robertson made
the case for ARPA, many others spoke against it, not so much on moral as on practical grounds. Although recognizing the need for cooperation from the military,
which alone had the hardware, they feared that science would be “dominated” in
the DOD. Wiesner, Kistiakowsky, Berkner, and Doolittle—a former general but
now chairman of NACA—all suggested an agency outside the DOD, “coupled”
with the military but not dominated by it. Rabi, who had fought against the
militarization of science during World War II, now spoke out most emphatically
on the issue.36 The space program, he said, “would thrive best under civ[ilian]
org[anization].”37 There was also concern in PSAC that giving space to the DOD
might “dilute” vital defense efforts such as reconnaissance or antiballistic missile
projects. Finally, it was felt that a military-controlled space organization would
impede international cooperation in space.38
PSAC members’ strong opposition to the ARPA option helped change both
Killian’s and Eisenhower’s mind about lodging the space program in the Pentagon.
PSAC and the Launching of NASA, 1957–1960
By the end of 1957, Killian came to share PSAC’s concern that centralization of
space R&D in the DOD would restrict and militarize scientific research.39 Remarkably, then, at a meeting between Eisenhower and legislative leaders on February
4, 1958, Killian contradicted Eisenhower and spoke up about his reservations as to
“the relative interest and activity of military vs. peaceful aspects.” Vice President
Richard Nixon agreed with Killian, expressing his hope that nonmilitary space
research would be carried forward by an agency “entirely separate from the military.” He thought letting the DOD manage the space program would damage the
U.S. posture in the world and slight those peaceful projects that had no military
value in sight. At this point, Eisenhower conceded that he did not preclude eventually having “a great Department of Space.” In the end, it was agreed that PSAC
would tackle the problem, which led to the president’s request cited at the beginning of the chapter.40
PSAC’s push in the White House for civilian control of space research reflected
and reinforced a similar movement both inside and outside the government. In a
fight reminiscent of the scientists’ movement in 1946 for civilian control of atomic
energy, several scientific organizations publicly opposed what they regarded as
military control of space. The NSF called for a new civilian space agency and
a large-scale space program “over and above” the military efforts. In a letter to
Killian, Waterman expressed his view that the human urge for exploration, not
Cold War rivalry, was the fundamental reason for space activities. Public opinion,
he believed, strongly favored “a strictly scientific, civilian-managed program”
without military overtones. Finally, he argued that space applications like weather
forecasting and global communications would be expedited in a civilian agency
better than in the DOD, which had to justify activities and expenditures in military
terms.41 The Federation of American Scientists, which had led the scientists’ movement in 1946, again mobilized itself to lobby Congress and the administration for
civilian control of space.42
PSAC, seeking an alternative to ARPA, then focused on NACA. At the committee’s December 1957 meeting on space organization, Bronk was the first to
suggest that NACA might be “worth looking into.” Killian agreed, saying that he
was enthusiastic for a “NACA type” of organization coupled to the DOD. James
Fisk went further, suggesting that NACA itself become the space agency. It would,
Fisk said, both satisfy the military needs in space and retain civilian control, just as
the AEC did in the nuclear area. The leadership of NACA naturally welcomed the
suggestion as an opportunity for the old agency to modernize. Speaking after Fisk,
NACA director Hugh Dryden, who sat in PSAC meetings as a consultant, made a
low-key appeal on behalf of his agency by highlighting its work in space and its
excellent record of cooperating with the DOD and the universities. More forcefully, Doolittle, as both PSAC member and NACA chairman, made clear that it
was not only desirable but imperative for NACA to enter into space. Questioned by
Killian about space’s possible adverse impact on NACA’s traditional role, Doolittle
responded that NACA needed the new orientation to survive.43 Thus by the end of
1957, NACA already emerged as the leading candidate among members of PSAC
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
in the race to become the American space agency. Moving quickly, on January 27,
1958, NACA staff publicly proposed to take over the leadership of space research in
cooperation with existing military and civilian science agencies.44
Facing NACA’s offensive, advocates for ARPA did not easily give up the fight.
The presidential request to PSAC for a study on space organization in February
1958 only made the discussions at the committee meetings more charged. During that month’s PSAC meeting, York, who would soon become chief scientist of
ARPA, defended ARPA against NACA, which, he pointed out, lacked contracting
authority and relied on civil-service laboratories. In response, Fisk suggested that
NACA could seek authorization to use “captive-contractors,” as did the AEC,
which contracted with the University of California to run York’s own Livermore
Laboratory. Doolittle agreed, and assured the committee that NACA, if given sufficient authority and support, could “grow up” to administer the space program in
coordination with the DOD, AEC, NSF, and the NAS. Dryden was also confident
that NACA could adapt to the new method, although he conceded that contracting
might change NACA’s operating pattern. Waterman supported the NACA team.45
York’s continued advocacy of ARPA within PSAC soon acquired a sinister
dimension in the eyes of the NACA leadership, especially after the announcement
in March 1958 that he would become ARPA’s chief scientist. Indeed, NACA was
suspicious of the new agency from the beginning. Dryden reported to Waterman
that ARPA’s new director, Roy Johnson, a former General Electric executive, was
“terrible,” with no conception of either science or space and only a strong desire
to “classify everything.” Dryden claimed to have spent “an hour and a half to get
started on educating him.” York knew science, but disturbed Dryden even more
by his “unconcealed ambition” to become the overall manager of the U.S. space
program and to build “his own empire” from ARPA. Killian, according to Dryden,
was aware of the situation and would soon take Dryden, Doolittle, and York off
the space panel to avoid charges of a “rigged” report on space.46 Yet, as if to confirm Dryden’s fear, ARPA did, as mentioned earlier, begin to sponsor nonmilitary
space projects in early 1958.47
The worries of Dryden and many other scientists were soon laid to rest, however, as PSAC and Killian recommended to Eisenhower that NACA be expanded
into the new American civilian space agency. The Purcell panel had reached such a
conclusion in late February and early March 1958. Its organization subpanel, with
key participation from the BOB, studied and discussed the matter widely with
interested federal agencies and outside experts. Choosing NACA, the panel pointed
out, would solve the problems of the militarization of space inherent in the ARPA
approach. In addition, NACA had worked well with both military and civilian
institutions, conducted space research, and had a high international reputation.48
Following PSAC’s lead, a consensus soon emerged within the administration that
NACA indeed could be reconstituted to form a nucleus around which to build the
U.S. civilian space agency. The DOD, probably not given the opportunity by the
White House to recognize fully the magnitude of the planned NACA assignment,
concurred in the plan. McElroy was unhappy about this outcome but Quarles, his
PSAC and the Launching of NASA, 1957–1960
deputy, agreed with Killian and PSAC that putting a man in space was primarily
a civilian, not military, undertaking.49 The BOB then drafted, in cooperation with
Killian’s office, a memorandum recommending such a move. In early March 1958,
Killian, BOB director Percival Brundage, and Nelson A. Rockefeller, chairman of
the President’s Advisory Committee on Government Organization, presented
the NACA proposal to Eisenhower. By now, as Killian recalled later, Eisenhower
“clearly leaned toward a civilian rather than a military agency” and readily
approved the recommendation.50
Why did the president change his mind? He was naturally sympathetic toward
the move to reduce militarization of American life, especially after the new proposal addressed his concern over duplication between civilian and military space
programs. He also might have supported a civilian agency as a way to reward the
scientists for their help to him in space and other areas of national policy. As Goodpaster later commented on Eisenhower’s change of mind on the space program:
He gave a lot of weight to the views of the scientists. At the same time he knew
that the scientists would be happier having it [space] in a civilian organization
than having it given to the military. He wanted, in a way, to placate the scientists. He wanted to draw them closer to his operation.51
After the BOB translated the memorandum into a legislative bill, there followed
several rounds of give and take between the White House and Capitol Hill, which
finally passed the bill with some revisions. The National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA), based on NACA, was established in July 1958.52
The establishment of NASA, of course, did not mean the end of PSAC’s participation in space policymaking. With Eisenhower’s emphatic agreement, PSAC
and the science advisers (Killian and later Kistiakowsky) continued to infl uence
space policy toward its dual goals: space for science and civilian control. Partly due
to these scientists’ infl uence, space spectaculars were checked, and resources not
needed in the military, most notably the Army’s von Braun team, were transferred
to NASA during the remainder of the Eisenhower administration.53 In December 1960, a PSAC panel under the chairmanship of Donald Hornig of Princeton
reported to President Eisenhower that “man-in-space cannot be justified on purely
scientific grounds,” but it also acknowledged that “international political situation” and “the dream of man’s getting into space” were major motivations for
the space program. In any case, it advocated unmanned space programs both for
their intrinsic scientific values and as necessary support for any manned programs.
Based on information from NASA, the Hornig panel believed that the next steps
in the manned space program would be expensive: sending a man around the
moon would cost about $8 billion and a lunar landing by 1975 would cost between
$26 billion and $38 billion.54 The figures shocked Eisenhower into talking about a
complete termination of the manned space program.55 It did lead him to veto the
manned lunar landing project on the grounds that it was neither scientifically nor
militarily useful.56 In his annual budget message to Congress on January 16, 1961,
Eisenhower announced that “further testing and experimentation will be necessary
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
to establish whether there are any valid scientific reasons for extending manned
space fl ight beyond the Mercury program.”57 PSAC fully shared Eisenhower’s skepticism toward the manned space program but, as discussed later, their stand proved
far from the last word on the subject.
More than anything else, it was Killian’s and PSAC’s remarkable effort to moderate
the space race that earned Eisenhower’s lasting gratitude during the initial postSputnik days. When Killian resigned his position to return to MIT in mid-1959,
Eisenhower wrote him a warm personal note in which he singled out his role in
the space program:
No one did more than you, in those days, to bring reason, fact and logic into
our plans for space research and adventure. I shall never cease to be grateful for
the patience with which you initiate me into the rudiments of this new science
and the part that the government should play in its development, and for the
skill with which you assembled a capable scientific group of people to take over
many resulting responsibilities.58
In his own memoir, Killian gave the credit to PSAC scientists’ technological skepticism: “I think it fair to say that when the Sputnik panic was being used to support
an orgy of technological fantasies and a speed-up in the arms race, PSAC was a
voice of sense and moderation, and that this was one of the reasons it commanded
the confidence of its beleaguered chief.”59
The birth and subsequent development of NASA offered an interesting contrast to that of the AEC, both being powerful science agencies. In 1946, it took a
scientists’ movement, through grassroots campaigns, public appeals, and congressional lobbying, to secure civilian control of atomic energy in the form of the
AEC.60 In 1958, the scientists, as represented by PSAC, had direct access to a generally sympathetic president, and worked within the system. Thanks to scientists’
infl uence, via reasoned argument, and also thanks to NASA’s own bureaucratic
sensitivities, the resultant space agency was probably freer from military infl uence
than the AEC. In its pursuit of civilian control of space, PSAC largely succeeded.
However, on the question of space for science, PSAC was not nearly as effective
when the Cold War dynamics in the 1960s, as we will see in later chapters, increasingly drove the American space program toward the pursuit of national prestige.
Thus, although PSAC scientists succeeded brilliantly in advising Eisenhower on
the technical aspects of the U.S. space program, the desirable conciliation between
scientific interests and Cold War politics proved more elusive.
PSAC’s successes and failures both point to the new reality of American science
policy in the post-Sputnik era. The Soviet achievement in space and its great psychological impact linked science directly with national security. National prestige
became an important factor in the Cold War struggle. For this reason, satellites
with “key political, scientific, psychological or military import” were added, at
Eisenhower’s personal direction, to the NSC’s “top priority” list, where they joined
PSAC and the Launching of NASA, 1957–1960
rank with ICBMs.61 Concurrently, with their contributions to space policy, scientists
rebounded from their “wounds” in the McCarthy era to play a key role in national
policymaking and to regain some measure of control of American science policy.
PSAC scientists helped Eisenhower to curb what they perceived as “undisciplined
enthusiasm” for space spectaculars, emphasizing instead moderation and balance
in the program. Out of what they perceived to be both national interest and their
own institutional self-interest, they pushed for science to take center stage in
American space policy. Yet, the same connections to national prestige that gave
science so much prominence in the post-Sputnik era also imposed restraints on
science policy. The fact that NASA would, soon after the end of the Eisenhower
presidency, adopt the goal of “beating the Soviets” in space glory, over PSAC objections, says as much about the limits of PSAC’s political perception as it does about
the unpredictability of American politics of science.
Military Technology, 1957–1960
If getting the American space program off the ground provided a placating pill for
the agitated American public, rationalizing the military R&D programs was the
medicine Eisenhower sought to solve what he perceived as real problems. Indeed,
nowhere did PSAC articulate its sense of technological skepticism better than in
the area of military technology. It pointed out the limitations as well as the potentials of the various defense projects that mushroomed amidst the post-Sputnik
technological rush. Their advice proved enormously helpful to the president and
made him include science advice in other areas of public policy. Here, as in space,
PSAC scientists often crossed the boundary between the technical and the political.
They critically examined missile programs, nuclear-powered bombers, and missile
defense. They helped draft and implement a major reorganization of the DOD by
creating the powerful Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering
(ODDRE). As Thomas Gates, Eisenhower’s last secretary of defense, saw it, “all of
a sudden the scientists became very important. . . . They had great veto power.”1
Yet, there was more to scientists’ involvement in military technology than their
rising infl uence. How did political considerations, for example, shape the technical
assessment by the scientists? In many ways, advising on military technology was
an educational process not only for President Eisenhower, but for PSAC scientists, too, as they together navigated a critical phase in the making of American
nuclear strategy. To a certain extent, the prominent role of scientists in military
technology policy opened opportunities for scientists to argue for increased federal
funding for science. As we have seen, concerns for the funding of science were a
key element in PSAC scientists’ deliberation on American space policy. Compared
with space, military technology represented a larger piece of the federal budget,
with potentially even more far-reaching impact on both the direction and size of
the government’s support of science. Thus, much was at stake as the dialectics of
science in policy and policy for science played out in the area of military research
and development.
Advising on Missiles
Perhaps more than anything else, the perceived American “missile gap” with the
Soviet Union generated fear in Sputnik’s shadow, stirring controversies and fueling
partisan politics. Eisenhower dismissed the charge as an exaggeration but, reluctant
to disclose secret intelligence information, he failed to calm the public. The vast
technical uncertainty in estimating Soviet military strength also impeded his effort.2
Furthermore, to Eisenhower’s dismay, the military services fought the White House
and each other in a race of their own for expanded weapons programs and bigger
Military Technology, 1957–1960
budgets, all in the name of overcoming the “gap.” The Air Force, for example,
battled the Army over the adoption of their respective Thor and Jupiter missiles.
In 1955, the DOD had started the rival programs as backups to each other. When
both proved feasible by 1957, Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson found himself in
the dilemma, as he colorfully put it, of a man “who proposed to two girls, both of
whom accepted.”3 Neither he, nor Eisenhower, “not being a technician,” could make
a choice in the aftermath of Sputnik.4 Indecision continued until late November
1957, when Neil McElroy, Wilson’s successor, tentatively decided, with Eisenhower’s
reluctant approval, to put both missiles into initial production to soften the rising
criticism of the administration.5 The costly dual production decision, however, did
not end the Thor–Jupiter controversy, much less the missile gap debate.
Major U.S. strategic missiles then under development fell into two classes. The
IRBMs, with a reach of about 1,500 miles, included, besides Jupiter and Thor, both
land-based and liquid-fueled, the Navy’s submarine-launched, solid-fueled Polaris.
Much longer in range were the ICBMs, all under development by the Air Force.
They were the liquid-fueled Atlas, its more advanced backup, Titan (whose fuel
was storable), and the most sophisticated, solid-fueled Minuteman, eventually the
workhorse of the U.S. strategic strike force during the Cold War. To help the president sort out this “missile mess” and monitor this far-fl ung enterprise, Killian and
PSAC appointed a PSAC panel on missiles under Kistiakowsky with James McRae,
president of Sandia Labs, and later Herbert York, as members. In his first report to
Killian on November 30, 1957, Kistiakowsky expressed satisfaction with the technical progress of the missile program in general but voiced sharp criticism of the
dual production decision. It made no technical, managerial, or fiscal sense and was,
he and McRae concluded, “not in the national interest.” Both services, they noted
with alarm, intended to pursue the next phase of costly “product improvement”
on their respective missiles. “We consider that allowing both to do so will be diametrically opposed to national interests.” In general, they preferred to see Thor
picked out of the two because it was closer to production.6
Killian, who was more attuned to the politics of the matter, understood Kistiakowsky’s argument but reacted differently. He knew that Eisenhower had misgivings about the dual production decision. “We should not spend money because of
public pressure,” the president had said in a meeting in late November 1957, “but
should do what is based on real need.”7 However, Killian also sympathized with
McElroy, who four days later cited public pressure to justify a final dual production
decision at a meeting with Vice President Nixon and other top administration officials (Eisenhower was recovering from a stroke). Killian supported McElroy’s argument, adding that the decision would also appease the military services—“it would
make the people involved in the program very happy.”8 Thus, in his first report
to Eisenhower on missiles a few weeks later, Killian avoided the Thor–Jupiter
controversy altogether and delivered mainly a reassurance that the U.S. program
was technically “proceeding in a satisfactory manner” despite a slight lag that was
caused by a late start. Trying to boost federal support of science, Killian also advocated beefing up “basic research and development” that would improve missiles in
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the future.9 Clearly, here “basic research” was not the pursuit of knowledge for its
own sake, but rather the mission-oriented kind. By using the same term to describe
both work on missile fuels and traditional scientific projects, Killian and PSAC
rhetorically linked science and national security.10 Only in his second and third
memos to Eisenhower on missiles, based on subsequent Kistiakowsky reports, did
Killian alert the president about the need to choose between Thor and Jupiter (and
between Atlas and Titan) beyond initial deployment of four squadrons each (each
squadron consisted of fifteen missiles).11
Eisenhower appreciated the politically sophisticated technical backup he
received from Killian and Kistiakowsky. At a meeting on March 10, 1958, Eisenhower told the two that he had “no problem with dropping either” of the two
IRBMs, although he wondered why Thor was better than Jupiter. Kistiakowsky
replied that “it is not better, but simply nearer to quantity production.” Eisenhower
accepted the explanation and proposed to move the Wernher von Braun team that
had worked on Jupiter “to ARPA, or even NASA,” which agreed with PSAC’s thinking. He also approved PSAC’s proposal to strengthen “basic research effort on solid
propellants,” on the condition that it be carried out in ARPA, or NASA, not the services. He further agreed with PSAC that the solid-fueled Minuteman and Polaris
not be rushed into production before the R&D work was completed. Hoping that
all these steps would help reduce interservice rivalry, he asked Killian to “prepare
for him a series of decisions” to implement them.12
Through these investigations on the missile program, Eisenhower developed
a close working relationship with Killian and Kistiakowsky in military technology
policy. In later reports, the Kistiakowsky panel continued to make thoughtful,
specific policy recommendations.13 Based on technical considerations, it picked
Thor over Jupiter and Titan over Atlas as missiles for further improvement. It also
strongly supported the development of both Polaris and Minuteman as stable
deterrents for the future. These judicious evaluations, untainted by loyalty to any
of the military services, assisted Eisenhower in his effort to build a strong, secure,
but not excessive deterrent. When troubles flared in these projects, the panel
explained the causes and recommended remedies; when they proceeded smoothly,
the panel looked ahead and alerted Eisenhower about potential problems, and
opportunities, that lurked on the horizon. It examined not only problems in R&D,
but also in deployment.14 By requesting and accepting most of these recommendations Eisenhower paved the way for PSAC scientists to move beyond the technical
and into the broader policy arena. He clearly enjoyed his meetings with PSAC
scientists at both the policy and personal levels. “Andy,” he once told Goodpaster
after such a meeting, “this is one of the finest days I’ve had as President.”15 Time
and again, Eisenhower would insist on hearing from his scientists before approving
a major missile program.16
Science Advice for the Pentagon
As Eisenhower became reassured about the technical soundness of the missile
program, he began to turn his attention to the institutional problem that underlay
Military Technology, 1957–1960
the “missile mess,” the interservice rivalry. He sought to reform the Pentagon by
strengthening the secretary of defense’s authority over the individual services, by
establishing unified commands (troops from different services serving under one
commander appointed by the DOD), and by centralizing military R&D.17 Convinced that modern military technology made the artificial division into separate
armed services ineffective, Eisenhower had resolved, even prior to Sputnik, to
reorganize the DOD along these lines, which had also long been advocated by
the ODM-SAC.18 Post-Sputnik developments only reinforced Eisenhower’s determination. When retiring Secretary of Defense Wilson reported to Eisenhower on
October 8 that “trouble is rising” between the Army and the Air Force over the
anti-intercontinental ballistic missile (AICBM) program, Eisenhower threatened
to take it out of the services and adopt the “Manhattan District” approach “for all
missiles.”19 A few days later, when he met with McElroy, Eisenhower again encouraged him to think about the possibility of “a fourth service” to handle all missile
construction, as the Soviets did.20
A cautious former executive of Proctor and Gamble, McElroy’s first reaction
to Eisenhower’s push for DOD reform was, however, “to go slowly and carefully.”
After consulting with Killian, Charles Thomas of Monsanto, and James Conant of
Harvard, he established ARPA, as mentioned earlier, to handle the AICBM, satellites, and other advanced R&D projects.21 In theory, ARPA was to operate outside
of the services and report directly to the secretary of defense. In practice, however,
ARPA contracted much of its work back to the services.22 Even then, it met with
opposition from the services and the Defense Science Board (DSB).23 Nominally
the highest level science advisers in the DOD but ignored by McElroy during the
creation of ARPA, the DSB bitterly opposed the new agency as a step toward the
downgrading of the office of assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, to whom the DSB in effect reported.24
In contrast to McElroy’s attitude, Killian and PSAC actively promoted Eisenhower’s Pentagon reform, especially the creation of a high-level scientific position
in the Pentagon to help curb interservice rivalries and slow the arms race.25 In
December 1957, PSAC won Eisenhower’s support for the appointment of a deputy
secretary of defense for military R&D, a step above the assistant secretary that was
recommended by the President’s Advisory Committee on Government Organization.26 Killian then prodded McElroy with a major PSAC report on DOD reorganization, which represented by far the bluntest attempt by scientists to regain a voice
in military R&D policy.27 Beyond organizational changes, PSAC emphasized the
urgency of a renewal of the science–military partnership that was damaged in the
pre-Sputnik days. The military should “strike deep roots into our civilian scientific
community” and “tap our most basic and advanced research,” it maintained. To do
this, PSAC argued, a new science policy was needed:
We should seek to understand the way scientists work most creatively, and
those conditions of free interchange and freedom to see a project through
uninhibited by administrative or budgetary badgering. We must give particular
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attention to the importance of high competence and leadership of research
projects and laboratories.
Criticizing the DOD’s capricious attitude toward basic research, PSAC advocated
specifically long-term and flexible support for scientists so they could pursue fruitful
new ideas.28 Once again, what started out as a matter of science in policy—how to
make more effective use of science in defense—turned, in the hands of PSAC, into
one of policy for science (i.e., how the Pentagon could best support scientists).
Despite his own growing concern over the military–science ties, Eisenhower
supported the PSAC proposal as a way to solve interservice rivalry.29 In response,
the DOD finally proposed the appointment of a high-level director of defense
research and engineering (DDRE). Ranking just below the secretary and deputy
secretary of defense, the DDRE was to advise the secretary of defense and to supervise, direct, and control all research and engineering activities in the DOD, including ARPA and the WSEG (Weapons Systems Evaluation Group). In congressional
testimony, McElroy freely admitted that the idea of the DDRE came from Killian,
and the office at the DDRE was modeled after Killian’s in the White House.30 Then,
after what Eisenhower called “the most spectacular legislative battle of that year,”
the DOD reorganization bill, with slight changes, passed into law in August 1958.31
The establishment of the ODDRE proved to be a milestone in raising the
voice of scientists in defense policymaking. Throughout the remainder of the
Eisenhower years, PSAC and the ODDRE became indispensable allies. In late 1958,
Herbert York, then chief scientist at ARPA, was selected and confirmed as the first
DDRE. With vital support from the president’s science adviser and PSAC and with
a staff of highly competent scientists and engineers, York soon made his office into
an effective focal point in the organization of scientific efforts in the DOD.32 By
then, a detachment from the Livermore Laboratory, a new national purview, and
especially an exposure to the thinking of Eisenhower and other PSAC members on
the limits of the nuclear weapons had turned York away from his original, Tellerian
technological enthusiasm, as he later recalled:
I had gone to Washington a technological optimist, full of confidence in technological fix. I came away three and a half years later gravely concerned about
the all too common practice of seeking and using technological palliatives to
cover over serious persistent underlying political and social problems.33
York’s growing technological skepticism led him to see the futility of solving the
problem of national security via more powerful weapons. Under his guidance
the ODDRE became a key link in a system of technological check and balance:
it often translated PSAC’s philosophy of technological moderation and restraints
into actual program guidelines. After all, York was not only “on tap,” as an adviser
to the secretary of defense and the president, but also “on top” as an administrator
with budgetary power.
Besides military research and development, PSAC sought to centralize the U.S.
military intelligence and communications organizations. In both these endeavors,
Military Technology, 1957–1960
William O. Baker, vice-president of Bell Labs and a member of PSAC, played a
central role.34 In military communication, PSAC paid special attention to the need
for a central command and control system in the missile age. The last several years
of the Eisenhower administration saw a radical transformation in communication
technology with the advent of satellites, solid state electronics, and computers. At
the time, each armed service was developing its own gigantic global communications network, with no provision for an adequate central system. After careful
studies, Baker proposed in 1959 a unified DOD global communications system.
This recommendation won Eisenhower’s strong support and eventually evolved,
against the military services’ vehement opposition, into the Defense Communications Agency, which was established in May 1960.35
The Killian–Kistiakowsky Transition
By early 1959, after nearly two years on the job during which the basic structure
of government science advice and policymaking was in place, Killian felt that a
more technically competent person should replace himself, a brilliant organizer
but not a working scientist. Impressed with Kistiakowsky’s job in missile advising, Eisenhower accepted Killian’s recommendation of the Harvard chemist as his
new science adviser (and PSAC elected him chairman).36 The Killian–Kistiakowsky
transition brought both changes and continuities to the presidential science advising system. In contrast to Killian’s quiet, stately manners, the lanky Kistiakowsky,
“Kisty” to his friends, was a much more forceful personality, with a sharp tongue
and a relish for practical jokes. He once put a carton marked “Dynamite,” together
with the Ian Fleming novel From Russia with Love, on the desk of Wilton B. “Jerry”
Persons, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, as a birthday present.37 Indeed, the Ukraineborn former White Russian soldier-turned-chemist enjoyed the reputation of
being a world authority on explosives. At the time of his appointment, the press
delighted in recounting his role during World War II not only in perfecting implosion at Los Alamos, but especially in inventing “Aunt Jemima,” an explosive powder that could be mixed with flour, baked, and eaten—without exploding. That
property had helped it to pass Japanese checkpoints and get into the hands of the
Chinese resistance forces.38
In contrast to Killian’s belief in coupling American science with national
security, Kistiakowsky harbored ambivalence toward the partnership throughout
the postwar years. In the early 1950s, for example, he openly expressed concern
that federal and especially military funding on basic research and graduate training at universities was turning the latter into “commercial development establishments.” Thus he supported Conant’s decision to ban classified research at
Harvard, even though they both encouraged individual faculty members to consult for the military “to insure the flow of needed information to the Department
of Defense.”39 He himself had continued to consult for the DOD and the CIA,
but not without misgivings. “I have worked for the Government since 1940,” he
told a reporter following his White House appointment in 1959, “and I’ve never
stopped, unfortunately.”40
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In further contrast to Killian, who had, by necessity and inclination, largely
operated behind the scenes and relied on other PSAC members for technical input,
Kistiakowsky could and often did render his own advice directly to the president
without having to consult with other PSAC members. This change enabled Kistiakowsky to respond more quickly to the problems facing the president. Soon the
president not only developed a close working relationship with his new science
adviser but also began to draw directly on his expertise in military technology.
Hans Bethe, for one, believed that Eisenhower “liked Kistiakowsky even better
than he did Killian.”41 Inevitably, however, this development introduced a subtle
change in the dynamics within PSAC. As Kistiakowsky took on more and more of
the daily operations in the White House, some PSAC members, especially Rabi,
felt that inadequate attention was paid to broader issues.42 To Kistiakowsky’s dismay, other members’ sense of urgency also relaxed after the transition. He tried
to goad them back into action, when, for example, he had lunch with Emanuel
(“Mannie”) Piore in September 1959:
I . . . rather sharply accused him and the rest of the PSAC of dropping me cold
and not doing what PSAC did for Killian, i.e., being available in Washington for
advice and discussion. Mannie was visibly embarrassed, but maintained that
the original members of the PSAC have done their job and that it was up to
me to find a new crew.43
In time, Kistiakowsky did recruit younger scientists into the PSAC orbit. In
fact, rejuvenation of the committee had started before the Killian–Kistiakowsky
transition. To replace those whose terms expired, five new members entered in
February 1959: John Bardeen, physicist and co-inventor of the semiconductor, then
at the University of Illinois; Britton Chance, a biophysicist at the University of
Pennsylvania; Glenn T. Seaborg, at the time chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley; Cyril Smith, a metallurgist at the University of Chicago; and Piore
himself. A year later, another round of rotation brought in four physicists: Harvey
Brooks of Harvard, Wolfgang Panofsky of Stanford, Walter Zinn of Combustion Engineering, Inc., and Alvin Weinberg of Oak Ridge National Laboratory; a
chemist, Donald Hornig of Princeton; a mathematician, John Tukey of Princeton;
a biologist, George Beadle of Cal Tech; and physician Robert Loeb of Columbia,
who had served on ODM-SAC. Like those they replaced, most of these new members were leading figures in their fields with administrative responsibilities as well
as experience working with the federal government.44
Kistiakowsky tried, much more consciously than was the case under Killian, to
diversify both PSAC’s composition and coverage, especially by expanding its focus
from military technology and space to civilian concerns. Unfortunately, some of
the biologists’ initiatives—a study of the conservation of natural resources, for
example—did not go very far in this post-Sputnik era, due in part to the Eisenhower White House’s reluctance to get into matters that it thought belonged to
the private sector. Eisenhower also disapproved of Kistiakowsky’s proposal for
PSAC to study the technical aspects of birth control on the ground that it was a
Military Technology, 1957–1960
divisive political issue.45 Politically, Seaborg and Weinberg were brought in as part
of an effort to attract moderate scientists who had been closely associated with
politically conservative scientists such as Teller, Lawrence, and Eugene Wigner
of Princeton.
The Missile Gap
To say that Eisenhower developed trust in Kistiakowsky and PSAC did not mean
that they always agreed on all issues, even in military technology. Likewise, to say
that PSAC scientists exhibited skepticism toward military technological proposals
did not mean that they were not concerned with the U.S. strategic posture in the
post-Sputnik era. No case better illustrated these points than the notorious debate
over the missile gap. Indeed this case revealed that presidential science advising
was not, as has often been portrayed, a one-way process of scientists educating
presidents about the technical reality, but the other way around, too, where the
president’s broader perspective helped scientists interpret their technological
evaluations. On the matter of the missile gap, it was President Eisenhower who
infl uenced PSAC scientists’ thinking about the limits of military technology.
Both before and after the Killian–Kistiakowsky transition, PSAC members
struggled with the perceived missile gap with the Soviets. Although clearly no
extremists, PSAC scientists, especially Kistiakowsky, nevertheless suspected a
much bigger Soviet missile threat than Eisenhower believed was valid. Such views
led them to oppose, in spring 1958, the State Department’s proposal for an international missile test ban.46 To PSAC, which had sponsored a study on the matter
under Kistiakowsky for the NSC, the existing disparity in missile development
meant that a ban would benefit the Soviets more than the United States.47 If a ban
was negotiated in six months, the Soviets could well have completed major tests
and use only peaceful rocket tests, allowed under State’s proposal, to build up an
ICBM force, whereas the United States would not have conducted all the critical
tests and could not cheat on peaceful tests because of “our democratic system.”
Reversing PSAC’s argument, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles then proposed
to reach a test ban within six months so that neither side would have ICBMs but the
United States would enjoy advantages in IRBMs with its overseas bases.48 PSAC,
however, believed that even an immediate test ban could not deny but only delay
the Soviet ICBM program. Finally, in early May, Killian presented PSAC’s arguments in the NSC and won Eisenhower’s approval for shelving the missile test ban
proposal.49 Shortly thereafter, Kistiakowsky, concerned about the accusation that
PSAC improperly ventured beyond its technical boundary, suggested to Killian that
a broader group than his panel reassess the matter of a missile test ban in the near
future.50 Such a study was not organized, however, until early 1960 and when it
was, the new report confirmed the earlier conclusion.51
This debate clearly indicated that PSAC took the missile gap seriously enough
to advise Eisenhower against a major arms control initiative. It also demonstrated
that, contrary to the charges by their critics, PSAC scientists did not pursue arms
control at all cost. For his part, Eisenhower reacted with remarkable tranquility
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
to his science advisers’ alarm over the missile gap. Although he agreed with PSAC
members on their technical assessment, he differed from them on the strategic
implications of a missile gap. For example, when Kistiakowsky and Killian told
Eisenhower in February 1958 that the Soviets were one year ahead of the United
States in ICBM propulsion and one year behind in warhead design, Eisenhower
did not dispute their technical assessment, but neither did he appear overtly concerned. Unless the Soviets developed a capability to wipe out the American retaliatory force in a single blow, he would not worry about the missile gap.52 A year
later, he told PSAC scientists that as long as the United States deployed a sufficient
nuclear deterrence, he was ready “to beat off the self-proclaimed experts calling for
sudden changes.”53 Above all, Eisenhower believed that the United States and the
Soviets would not go to war with each other in the next five years.54
PSAC scientists understood Eisenhower’s reasoning, but the nagging fear of
underestimating Soviet strength nevertheless continued to haunt them. Thus, in
October 1958, Kistiakowsky, as a representative of PSAC, persuaded the official
National Intelligence Board to adjust its estimate of Soviet capability upward to
predict one hundred operational Soviet guided missiles by the end of 1959, a level
the United States was not expected to reach until 1961–1962.55 Soon thereafter, Kistiakowsky found a new cause for concern when he participated in an East–West
technical conference in Geneva on measures to prevent surprise attacks.56 Soviet
refusal to consider any control over ICBMs indicated to him that the Soviet missile
capability was even higher than the U.S. intelligence estimate had indicated. Once
again, Eisenhower accepted the possibility that the Soviets might have produced
some ICBMs before the United States, but he questioned their military and political significance. “If the Soviets should fire these weapons at us, where [would] this
action . . . leave them[?]” he asked, and then expressed his strong faith in American
deterrence to prevent a Soviet attack. 57 In essence, then, Eisenhower, as he had told
the Gaither group earlier, saw no strategic or meaningful missile gap even as he
conceded a technical one.58 He believed in sufficiency, not superiority in the nuclear
deterrent—“What you want is enough, a thing that is adequate . . . for compelling
the respect for your deterrent.”59
To be sure, neither Kistiakowsky nor other PSAC members believed extreme
claims about the missile gap.60 Indeed, soon after he became Eisenhower’s science
adviser, Kistiakowsky began to reevaluate the missile gap. On August 26, 1959,
he heard a report on Soviet missiles at the National Intelligence Board, which he
believed “should do a lot to silence those who maintain the [Soviet missile] threat is
imaginary.”61 Several weeks later, however, a Pentagon briefing led him to observe
that “the Soviets are ahead of us in propulsion, but that is all; that as far as IOC
[initial operational capabilities] is concerned, we are almost even with them.”62 By
late 1959 and early 1960, the missile gap began to recede even in the technical sense
within the administration. With some surprise and relief, Kistiakowsky referred to
a new CIA estimate in his diary and noted that “the missile gap doesn’t look to be
very serious,” adding that “I hope this estimate is not a political effort to cut down
on trouble with Congress.”63
Military Technology, 1957–1960
Even so, Kistiakowsky and PSAC supported moves in the Pentagon to speed
up both the Polaris nuclear submarine program and the Alaska radar warning line,
in case the missile gap did become militarily meaningful by mid-1961.64 At a PSAC
meeting in March 1960, Killian echoed Kistiakowsky’s concern over the missile gap
when he pronounced grimly that “we have failed to meet the problem of getting
a reasonably secure deterrent.” PSAC, he continued, “has failed adequately to
express its conviction that we will not have a secure deterrent.”65 Yet, even as he
spoke, the “missile gap” was vanishing. By June 1960, the apparent lack of signs of
progress in Soviet missiles began to baffle Kistiakowsky so much that he suspected
that the U-2 had missed another missile range.66 On his instigation, the U.S. Intelligence Board abandoned its authoritative tone of the past, frankly acknowledging, in mid-1960, the great uncertainty in estimating the Soviet missile program.67
Finally, of course, it was with the help of reconnaissance satellites that President
John Kennedy and his advisers laid the missile gap to rest in 1961, ending a debate
that ironically had helped so much his own 1960 electoral victory.68
It is remarkable that despite their differing views of the missile gap during this
period, PSAC continued to gain Eisenhower’s confidence, which testified to the
strength of their rapport. PSAC tried to present balanced advice and Eisenhower
appreciated PSAC’s technical honesty. PSAC enjoyed other advantages in its advising on missiles. It was independent of the particular armed services. Despite its
many Democratic members, PSAC did not allow its disagreement over the missile
gap to enter partisan politics and embarrass Eisenhower. One member, Jerome
Wiesner, did work for John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election campaign
while remaining a PSAC member, but it was with Eisenhower’s express approval
and on the condition that he did not publicly criticize administration policy. Neither did PSAC leak any privileged information on its missile investigation to the
press, which must have been a welcome relief to Eisenhower after the uproar over
the Gaither report.
The missile gap episode also taught Kistiakowsky and other PSAC members
about the limits of technology and especially military technology. Like York, Kistiakowsky attributed his transition from a soldierly sense of duty to a broader perspective and his increasing sense of social responsibility in large part to his contact with
Eisenhower. Years later, in the preface to his published diary, he reflected that:
I joined PSAC and then assumed the office [of presidential adviser] seeing
myself as a technician whose task it was to execute the general policies set by
my superiors. I believe the journal shows the growth of a skepticism about
these policies, especially those of the Pentagon, as my term of office progressed. Conversations with the President, not all of which are here recorded,
were especially infl uential in making me more of an independently thinking
citizen, interested in the meaning and objectives of policies more than in their
detailed execution.69
Thus began Kistiakowsky’s disillusionment with technological fixes that would
culminate later in the Vietnam War era.70
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Fundamentally, PSAC and Eisenhower shared two beliefs in regard to defense
policy. First, they agreed that it was in the interest of the United States and the
world that the United States achieve a strong and secure nuclear deterrent before
the Soviet Union did. Thus, Eisenhower always, although sometimes reluctantly,
supported measures suggested by PSAC and others to reach this goal. Second, they
both believed that to achieve a secure deterrent they did not have to succumb to
the forces of the military-industrial complex that gained so much momentum during the post-Sputnik debate over American defense policy. Despite PSAC’s concern
about the missile gap, it tried valiantly to assist Eisenhower in curbing what he
regarded as a runaway arms buildup.71
Arms Race and Arms Control Inside the Pentagon
Aside from the highly contentious debate over strategic missiles, PSAC was soon
involved in decision making on a vast array of costly military R&D projects. In the
wake of Sputnik, the military services and their industrial contractors waged campaigns to launch numerous new weapons systems. It fell to PSAC and the ODDRE
to help Eisenhower control the arms buildup, and, at the same time, to promote
federal support of basic research as a counterbalance to the military-technological
momentum. At a PSAC meeting on December 15, 1958, Killian told the committee
that the president placed importance “on the continuing advice and help from the
Science Advisory Committee with emphasis on the need for objective scientific and
technical advice.” Specifically, Eisenhower wanted PSAC to advise him on national
security programs “looking toward elimination of waste and duplication” and on
arms control. As a result, PSAC established a special group, which consisted of its
vice chairmen and all its panel chairmen, to evaluate weapons programs.72
Throughout the late 1950s, PSAC devoted much of its attention to advising
Eisenhower on military technology. “I spent less than 10% of my time on science as distinguished from technology,” Kistiakowsky later recalled.73 Half of the
fourteen PSAC panels in June 1958, for example, dealt with military R&D. Later
that year, PSAC initiated its all-important annual reviews of the military budget at
Eisenhower’s direction. Under Kistiakowsky, these reviews became an especially
effective vehicle for PSAC to infl uence defense policymaking. Succinctly written, they combined technical assessment and policy considerations to give the
president unprecedented support in his effort to control the military R&D.74 In so
doing, the committee went, once again, as in space, beyond the technical and into
policy and political matters. Echoing the 1945 Franck report, PSAC defended the
practice as necessary to draw out the full implications of technical considerations.
For example, the preface to its review of the FY 1961 DOD budget for Eisenhower
in November 1959 stated that:
We have not found it possible to limit our review to purely technical considerations in view of the complex interaction between weapons technology and
non-technical factors. Therefore, while recognizing that any special claims to
competence that we might have are primarily in technical areas, we have not
Military Technology, 1957–1960
hesitated to discuss budget problems in the light of the interaction of strategic,
tactical, and organizational considerations with technological developments.75
A year later, it reiterated the need to examine “broader military and organizational
considerations” in its evaluation of military technology.76
Objections to such explicit declarations of scientists’ policy role did not disappear even in the post-Sputnik days, but they lost much of their former weight with
Eisenhower’s PSAC. The committee’s integrative, expert, and independent evaluation was exactly what Eisenhower wanted. He was delighted to see scientists move
beyond their “exacting minds” to evaluate technology in a broader context. At one
point he told Kistiakowsky that he felt the reviews of the military budget were
“the most important task” that PSAC could perform for him. In fact he valued the
committee’s service in the field so much that he worried about its future after the
end of his own term. During a meeting with Kistiakowsky on September 29, 1959,
on PSAC’s role in military technology,
the President launched into a strong appreciation of the committee and gave it
his full endorsement. He expressed grave concern that his successor may not
appreciate its full importance and may abandon or degrade it. He suggested,
therefore, that we study the problem of whether it would be better to have
Congress pass a bill to establish the committee and the office of the special
assistant for science and technology.77
This was a remarkable turnaround for a president who had just two years earlier felt
that a science adviser “simply adds to the burdens of the Presidency.” Kistiakowsky
was ecstatic—“It was a very pleasant meeting, to say the least, and the degree of
confidence expressed in us was most heartening”—although neither he, nor anyone
else, followed up on Eisenhower’s suggestion of putting PSAC and the special assistant on a statutory basis, thus sowing the seed for its future vicissitudes.78
When the budget sessions came in November 1959, Eisenhower literally kept
PSAC’s review in front of him, side by side with the Pentagon’s budget, during
meetings with DOD officials.79 Technical feasibility, cost-effectiveness, and effects
on the stability of the nuclear arms race were usually the most compelling reasons
for PSAC to reject the many weapons systems proposed in the post-Sputnik era.
Skeptical of excessive technological enthusiasm, PSAC insisted on proving a technology in the research phase before rushing into the costly development stage,
which also allowed it to justify increased support for basic research. In their evaluation of the FY 1961 DOD budget in 1959, for example, Kistiakowsky and PSAC
wrote in the introduction:
We observed too much emphasis on remotely available, complex weapons systems as compared with less glamorous projects which could be of considerable
military value sooner. At the same time, there is not enough emphasis placed
on quality and focus in research and development to advance the state-of-theart which alone can lead to “quantum jump” in military capabilities. Specifically, we strongly recommend that budget allocation for basic research—our
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only true assurance of continuing strength in the future—be kept at least on
the FY ’60 level. We also specifically recommend that programs in materials
R&D and in oceanography be strengthened.80
This argument echoed the 1945 Bush report as well as the DuBridge and Rabi theses in the ODM-SAC days in their attempt to link federal support of basic research
with national security. Indeed, PSAC’s support led to a considerable increase in
funding for materials research and oceanography in the 1960s.
No project better illustrated PSAC’s argument for critical, independent evaluation of military technology than aircraft nuclear propulsion (ANP), which aimed
at making a nuclear-powered bomber.81 In the late 1940s, the Lexington study at
MIT, as mentioned earlier, had concluded that the nuclear airplane was technically
feasible, much to the dismay of some of its participants, such as Jerrold Zacharias,
who opposed it as lacking either cost-effectiveness or a clear mission.82 As a new,
glamorous technology promising long fl ight, ANP enjoyed enormous popularity
within the Air Force and Congress, with the JCAE comparing it to the H-bomb
and the nuclear submarine.83 Yet, after spending more than $600 million by 1957, the
project, jointly sponsored by the Air Force and the AEC, suffered serious technical
difficulties. Two technical approaches—direct and indirect cycles—were adopted
for the design of the nuclear power plant, but both stumbled at the difficulties of
shielding the pilots from radiation and the possibility of a nuclear disaster if the
plane crashed. Eisenhower had tried to cancel the project early in his presidency,
but a powerful military-industrial-congressional alliance kept it alive.84
In 1957, Sputnik breathed new life into the ANP project. The Air Force proposed
to regain American prestige by winning an ANP race with the Soviets. The Navy
also jumped on the ANP bandwagon by arguing that a heavy, low-performance
ANP bomber would be useless to the Air Force, but it could be a great asset to
the Navy in antisubmarine warfare. Congressman Melvin Price (D-IL), the ANP’s
principal advocate within the JCAE, publicly urged Eisenhower to support the Air
Force’s ANP program. At this point, Eisenhower turned to Killian and PSAC for an
evaluation and advice.85
Killian and PSAC were well aware of the ANP’s controversial and sensitive
nature, even within the White House. In an unusual move, Eisenhower’s naval
aide, E. P. Aurand, had lobbied Killian for going ahead with the ANP and for giving it to the Navy.86 In contrast, PSAC believed that the ANP should not expand
into the costly phase of systems development, but continue to focus on basic and
exploratory research, which included reactor and engine development.87 This
conclusion soon received confirmation from a PSAC panel on the ANP chaired by
Robert Bacher. Following a review of past studies and site visits to ANP contractors, the Bacher panel dealt a further blow to the troubled project by questioning its technical feasibility. The panel recommended shifting the objective of the
ANP project from engine and plane development to fundamental research on
high-temperature materials and reactors (and turning a technical failure into a
justification for basic research).88
Military Technology, 1957–1960
PSAC, Eisenhower, and even the secretary of defense embraced the Bacher
report, but the controversy inevitably contributed to the politicization of science
advising. At a high-level White House meeting on February 25, 1958, Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles suggested to Eisenhower that, at the risk of losing
an ANP race with the Soviets and infuriating the JCAE, the administration should
heed PSAC’s advice and focus on reactor development, and indefinitely postpone the
construction of prototype aircraft. Eisenhower concurred in the decision, and Quarles quickly reorganized the Bacher panel as his own to back him up in Congress.89
Predictably, the JCAE reacted with fury. In a joint statement, Carl T. Durham, chairman of the JCAE, and Price, chairman of its Subcommittee on Research and Development, blasted the go-slow decision as inviting a Sputnik-like “humiliating defeat”
to the United States. They blamed “the Killian Committee” for the decision and
faulted the Bacher panel for conducting only a cursory review and for ignoring “the
psychological importance” of the ANP race.90 The angry JCAE called a hearing on
the ANP, at which members of the Bacher panel testified but refused to change their
conclusions.91 The no-fl ight policy stayed, even after ANP proponents drummed up
a report—false, as it turned out—that the Soviets had fl ight-tested their ANP.92
As the ANP debate raged, a war of words soon erupted among the various science advisory bodies of the government. It pitted Herbert York, who, as DDRE, took
over the Pentagon’s ANP policy after Quarles’s death in 1959, and PSAC on one side,
against the GE engineers, the Air Force’s Scientific Advisory Board, and the General
Advisory Committee of the AEC on the other.93 In 1959, York formally and publicly
announced a policy of deferring fl ight tests until a power plant became feasible.94
PSAC supported York’s position, and even went further sometimes to question the
existing level of expenditure on ANP. To PSAC, the ANP was not only technically
problematic, but also inefficient when compared with missiles and rapidly improving chemically powered aircraft.95 By the end of the Eisenhower presidency, York
and his staff, again with strong support from PSAC, proposed to terminate work on
the direct cycle and limit work on the indirect cycle to research only.96
Why was the ANP not killed outright? After all, by the end of 1959, everyone
involved agreed that it was, in Kistiakowsky’s words, “definitely a technical failure.”97 As a political problem, it was kept going at a reduced level largely to placate
the military-industrial complex. It appears that Killian, Kistiakowsky, and PSAC
would have been happy to see it ended, but they recognized the political reality.98
Their drive to increase federal funding for science might have also led them to
support the continuation of the research phase. Such an approach, however, gave
rise to the growing perception that PSAC was interested only in research and led
disgruntled Congressmen to resist the expansion of federal funding for science.
Once again, science in policy was connected with policy for science.
The controversy over the ANP did not, however, lead PSAC to back down in
its evaluation of military technology. Based on technical feasibility, cost-effectiveness, and military usefulness, it questioned, for example, the Air Force’s Skybolt,
an IRBM launched from aboard a bomber; Dyna-Soar, a primitive, bomb-dropping
space shuttle; and the B-70 supersonic bomber.99 It criticized the Air Force’s faith in
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premature technology such as “read-out” reconnaissance satellites called SAMOS
(satellite and missile observation system) that would “televise” Soviet military
activities directly into the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Such reliance on oversophisticated technology, PSAC warned, would generate “a feeling of false security.”
It recommended instead the reorientation of SAMOS toward a simpler operation
whereby satellite photos would be dropped and recovered on the ground.100 PSAC
and York also fended off repeated proposals of antisatellite weapons, believing that
reconnaissance satellites were more important to the United States than to the
closed Soviet Union.101
Perhaps the fiercest battle PSAC and York’s ODDRE fought together was over
the Nike-Zeus antiballistic missile (ABM) system developed by the Army. Although
the American ABM program had begun in the mid-1950s, it did not receive top
priority until Sputnik highlighted the Soviet missile threat. At the time, the only
air defense system in sight was the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE)
system of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). However, SAGE
was born obsolete because it was designed for interception of invading bombers
only.102 Following Sputnik, the Army proposed to make its Nike-Zeus into a crash
project and advance the deployment date from 1963 to 1961. Such a change would
increase the project’s annual budget from about $250 million to $700 million, pushing the total price tag to $7 billion. It would initiate the costly production process
even before R&D work, carried out at the Bell Telephone Laboratories, could
prove the technical feasibility of the system.103 Yet, the DOD and White House
were under great pressure to give the go-ahead.
A PSAC panel on AICBM, formed in January 1958 under Jerome Wiesner, however, concluded that the Nike-Zeus lacked technical feasibility. It could not discern
decoys from real warheads, handle multiple warheads that might spring from a
single missile, or protect its giant and vital radars from either blackout by nuclear
explosion in space or a direct attack. In contrast, the panel believed that passive
defense, such as hardening, concealment, dispersal, and shortening the reaction
time of U.S. offensive missiles and bombers offered better defense for American
deterrence and for the population. As a result, the panel recommended the continuation of R&D on Nike-Zeus on a priority basis but questioned the wisdom of
early production. This analysis received confirmation from other studies carried
out in the ODDRE and at Rand.104
The DOD accepted PSAC’s recommendations despite the Army’s vehement
protest.105 At a crucial meeting in December 1958, Eisenhower approved the decision, commenting that “we have wasted too much money by going prematurely
into production on various items.”106 The Army did not give up, however. In 1959,
it continued to generate pressure, mainly through Congress, for early production,
but PSAC and the ODDRE once again stood in its way. Although noting the many
improvements in Nike-Zeus in the interim, and conceding that Nike-Zeus could
provide protection against “small attacks of an accidental or mischievous nature,”
the Wiesner panel nevertheless still regarded production as premature.107
Military Technology, 1957–1960
Tension between PSAC/ODDRE and the Army mounted, however, as the
R&D work on Nike-Zeus progressed and as it became necessary to conduct tests
of the system. In 1960, the Army asked permission to use its Jupiter missiles as targets for Nike-Zeus tests, but York denied the request. He saw the move as an excuse
to continue Jupiter’s production beyond its scheduled termination and instead suggested the substitution by the Air Force’s Atlas missiles. Infuriated, Army Secretary
Wilbur Brucker and some Republicans attacked York as a registered Democrat and
“as a young egghead—one of those scientists trying to run the country.”108 During the ensuing clash, York was often sustained by the availability of an academic
escape route:
All the while the Secretary threatened me and scolded me, a thought kept circulating in my head: “He’s the Secretary of the Army, he’s furious about what
I’m doing, but I’m on leave from the University of California and there is nothing this poor so-and-so can do to me that I care about, and he knows it.”109
Similar thoughts must have occurred to academic scientists who worked in the
government as either advisers or administrators when they ran into confl ict with
military leaders or career politicians. To the extent that the possibility of an academic retreat emboldened them to stick with their principles in the bureaucratic
battles, one might indeed make a case that university scientists enjoyed an advantage over their colleagues who pursued careers within the government. To what
extent one can generalize from this incident, however, is hard to say: universities,
just like corporations, came to depend heavily on government funding and contracts and academic scientists might not be as free to criticize government policy
as they sometimes claimed. However, at least in this case, it appeared to help York
to hold his ground.
York’s refusal to back down pushed the problem one notch up in the Pentagon,
to Deputy Secretary Thomas Gates and Secretary McElroy. They could not resolve
the controversy either, so McElroy turned to Kistiakowsky for help.110 PSAC formed
a special panel to adjudicate this dispute, setting up, in effect, a “science court.” Following a dramatic two-day hearing, the PSAC panel upheld York’s decision but also
made concession to the Army’s concern for autonomy by suggesting that the latter be allowed to procure Atlas directly from the contractor and to have complete
control over the launching site.111 With Eisenhower’s blessing, the DOD carried out
PSAC’s recommendation.112
As the test preparations began, the Nike-Zeus budget came up for review again
in fall 1960. Although PSAC once again recommended against large-scale production of Nike-Zeus, it nevertheless approved a “limited deployment” of the system.
Such a deployment would, PSAC argued, introduce uncertainty in Soviet strategic
planning, provide limited defense of critical areas against accidental or non-Soviet
attacks, help the armed forces gain operational experience, and blunt political and
psychological impact of a Soviet missile defense system.113 The justification seemed
to have made sense, but York knew better. He “violently opposed” the proposal,
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warning that once started, the production would inevitably develop into “a fantastically large operation with very little return.”114 His position prevailed in the
making of the budget for fiscal 1962.
PSAC’s recommendation for “limited deployment,” in fact, appeared out of
character. Yes, there was pressure from the State Department for an early ABM
to counter a possible Soviet achievement in the field.115 However, given their
knowledge of the working of the military-industrial complex, it is hard to imagine that members of PSAC or its AICBM panel did not foresee what York feared.
Years later, Kistiakowsky speculated that “personal friendship with the people of
the Bell Telephone Laboratories [prime contractor for Nike-Zeus] . . . helped in
giving Nike Zeus the benefit of the doubt.” 116 If this was true, then the episode
represented a disturbing example of confl ict of interest in the process of science
advising. Although no personnel from Bell Labs were on the AICBM panel, such
a subtle infl uence as friendship could be unconscious and hard to pinpoint. Even
more broadly speaking, PSAC scientists, as a part of the scientific community,
could not avoid a confl ict of interest in the sense that all the decisions they helped
make would in one way or another, at least indirectly, affect the federal support for
academic science in general and for their home institutions in particular. Their bias
toward extramural research and toward basic research, as Harvey Brooks of Harvard put it, “are seldom consciously self-serving; they are merely a part of human
nature.”117 However, this incident does lend weight to the argument for more transparency and more robust checks and balances in the advisory system. Philosophically the ideal of “objective science adviser” might be hard, or even impossible, to
define or achieve, but reasonable measures to prevent confl ict of interest should be
built into the science advising process.
The phenomenon of allowing personal friendship to color one’s technical
advice was, of course, not limited to PSAC scientists. For example, Freeman
Dyson, a distinguished theoretical physicist at the Princeton Institute for Advanced
Study, did exactly that when he argued against PSAC’s proposal for a nuclear test
ban in 1960. He did so, as he later acknowledged, “as an act of personal loyalty to
Edward Teller and to his colleagues with whom I worked at Livermore” on Project Orion to produce a rocket that used small nuclear explosions for propulsion.118
Started in 1957 by the physicist Theodore Taylor at Atomic Dynamics in San Diego
“as a reaction to the Russian Sputnik,” Orion was another example of the postSputnik technological push.119 It received funding from ARPA, as a way to power
huge loads into space, and support from several prominent scientists, including
Stanislaw Ulam, Hans Bethe, and Lloyd Berkner, who were sufficiently intrigued
by the project to lobby PSAC and the science advisers on its behalf. However,
Kistiakowsky was “not enthusiastic” and York remained skeptical.120 The nuclear
test moratorium in the late 1950s and the limited test ban treaty in the early 1960s
effectively doomed Project Orion: without nuclear tests (at 1 kiloton), it was impossible to establish the project’s engineering feasibility.121
Kistiakowsky and PSAC helped Eisenhower control the arms race by intervening not only on hardware, but also directly on policy matters. In May 1960,
Military Technology, 1957–1960
for example, Kistiakowsky brought Franklin A. Long, a Cornell chemist and his
successor as chairman of the PSAC missile panel, into the White House to brief
the president on two technological developments with fateful implications for the
nuclear arms race. In developing the Minuteman missile systems, the Air Force had
set a punishing thirty-second firing time for the missile, they told the president.
Eisenhower immediately recognized that such a harsh requirement would not only
inflate the complexity and cost of the system, but also create frightening instability
in the nuclear arms race. He ordered a longer reaction time “to give someone high
up in authority the decision.” Second, the panel recommended that the guidance
system be modified so that each missile could be programmed to fire not at a single
target, as then configured, but any one of several destinations to reduce “overkill,”
to which Eisenhower readily agreed.122
The question of overkill took on even greater significance when the U.S.
military produced its first Single Integrated Operation Plan (SIOP), at the center
of which was a master list of targets for nuclear attacks in the Soviet bloc. In
November 1960, Eisenhower sent Kistiakowsky on a fact-finding mission to the
SAC headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, to examine the SIOP. The Navy had instigated the investigation because it distrusted the Air Force’s SAC that dominated
the making of the SIOP. Accompanied by George Rathjens of his staff and Herbert
“Pete” Scoville of the CIA (also a PSAC consultant), Kistiakowsky returned from
what he called his “kamikaze dive” greatly disturbed by what he learned: the SIOP
raised damage criteria to such a degree “as to lead to unnecessary and undesirable
overkill.”123 Under the plan, it would take, as he told Eisenhower, “eight weapons
of tremendously greater size against a city of the size of Hiroshima to do the
same damage” that was done by Little Boy. Reportedly, Kistiakowsky’s analysis
“frighten[ed] the devil out of ” Eisenhower, not only because of the overkill, but
also because of its political effects. “[T]his type of planning fails to recognize that
war of the kind described no longer makes any sense,” he said.124 He later passed
Kistiakowsky’s memorandum to the Kennedy administration.125
Although PSAC scientists were proud of their role in curbing militarytechnological excesses, they were not unaware of the price they had to pay for
their newfound infl uence. In the post-Sputnik atmosphere of technological
determinism, control over military R&D became one of the most prized and
contentious objects in American politics as the debate over a missile gap fueled
the 1960 presidential campaign. PSAC’s devastating reviews of the many ambitious weapons systems drew sharp attacks from the entrenched military-industrial
complex. Kistiakowsky found it disturbing, if not chilling, for example, to hear that
“everybody in the Air Force from the secretary down now thinks that you control
the entire military R&D program.” Such a belief would, Kistiakowsky knew, make
him and PSAC enemies of the military.126 Infl uential figures, such as Congressman
Melvin Price of the JCAE and General John Medaris of the Army, also lamented
the “obstruction” of weapons projects by civilian scientists in the Pentagon and the
White House.127 Here, once again, perhaps the security of knowing that they could
always return to their academic positions enabled them to withstand the enormous
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pressure from the military-industrial complex, even though that same connection
sometimes colored their science advising to the president.
Perhaps the most salient point to emerge from this examination of PSAC’s role
in defense policymaking in the Eisenhower administration was the fact that it did
not confine itself to technical matters alone. The scientists were willing to tread
on the interface between science and technology, on the one hand, and public
policy, on the other. In its investigation of the missile programs, PSAC often went
beyond technical issues to make policy recommendations. In PSAC’s advocacy of
the reorganization of the DOD and the centralization of military R&D, concern
for a positive science–military partnership played as much a role as the advent of
new weapons. In the area of strategic deterrence, the scientists did not hesitate to
advise the president on priorities of various missile systems and recommend cancellation of the Jupiter IRBM and the B-70, and the acceleration of Minuteman and
Polaris. In its studies of weapons systems, PSAC always incorporated cost-effective
analysis and comparative assessments. Significantly, in all these cases, PSAC scientists were useful to Eisenhower not because of their technical knowledge per se,
but because of their knowledge of the limitations of technology. The result was
quite impressive. “Few programs or ideas that did not meet their approval got very
far,” commented York and historian G. Allen Greb on PSAC’s “veto power” in the
post-Sputnik “technology happy” days.128
What motivated PSAC scientists to venture outside of the technical bounds
and into the policy realm? Partly, they learned well from scientists’ past mistakes
when they segregated technical factors from broader policy considerations, such
as happened in the Lexington Project on nuclear-powered airplanes. Thus they felt
that they needed to explicate the policy implications of their technical analyses to
prevent them from being obscured or distorted. This expansion of their perceived
role derived from the long-held dissatisfaction, as Frank Jewett had expressed in
the 1930s, of being viewed as narrow technicians. Instead, they wanted to exercise their social responsibility and look at the big picture of where their technical
investigations fit into the broader social and political context. In the case of PSAC
scientists, this process of transformation was greatly facilitated by their interactions with President Eisenhower himself, who taught them, in the debate over the
missile gap, that technology was an important but often not a determining part of
public policy. Thus PSAC scientists did not abandon technological rationality as a
key factor in policy, but they expanded it to include not only technical factors but
also broader considerations as well.
Their common interest in arms control lay at the foundation of Eisenhower’s
trust in his science advisers, which in turn enabled PSAC scientists to play such a
crucial role in American military technology policy in this period. Yet, there were
limits to what they could accomplish together. Actually one of the most common
and revealing features of PSAC’s investigations of military projects was that almost
all the weapons systems it criticized survived the Eisenhower administration and
Military Technology, 1957–1960
were terminated only during the Kennedy administration or even later. Several
factors contributed to this outcome. Sputnik and its devastating impact made it
difficult for the Eisenhower administration to eliminate any major defense system, as exemplified by the decision to put both Thor and Jupiter into production.
American public reactions to Sputnik gave rise to a sense of technological imperative—that the United States would win or lose the Cold War on the technological
front. Thus, some of the new projects, although doubtful and perhaps out of the
question in normal times, had to be given a chance to prove themselves in the
post-Sputnik era.129 The failure to follow through on much of what he thought
was right policy also pointed to the limitation of Eisenhower’s “hidden hand” style
of leadership—through groups as unorthodox as PSAC. As McGeorge Bundy and
Robert Divine have pointed out, Eisenhower could have done more to dispel the
missile gap scare.130 Yet, in view of the resistance they met, Eisenhower, PSAC, and
York deserve great credit for accomplishing what they did.
For their part, PSAC scientists undoubtedly used their evaluation of military
technology to advocate increased federal support for science. Banking on their
technological skepticism, they argued that the neglect of basic research was often
at the root of the disarray of U.S. military technology. Indeed, suggestions for more
basic and applied research to advance the state of the art formed a common thread
in most of PSAC’s recommendations on military R&D in the late 1950s. It did so in
the case of the ANP, Nike-Zeus, B-70, biological-chemical warfare, and other projects.131 Even though their rhetoric on the connection between basic research and
military technology changed little before and after Sputnik, the crisis atmosphere
lent much more weight to their argument. To be sure, PSAC’s dual emphasis on
long-term research and utilization of existing capabilities easily won Eisenhower’s
endorsement. Here was one scientific group that finally answered his prayer in 1956
that someone “recommend programs which we could dispense with.” However,
to advocates of ambitious weapons systems, PSAC’s strategy appeared unduly
conservative and amounted to one of “studying them to death.”132 The irony was,
of course, that PSAC’s own justification of military support of science and technology, on the grounds that they would make new weapons possible, often was
turned around to fuel the nuclear arms race they tried so hard to control.
The Search for a Nuclear
Test Ban, 1957–1960
As Sputnik ushered the Cold War world into the missile age, the prospect of a
nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union became all
the more deadly. Inevitably, PSAC came to reflect this concern in its advice to President Eisenhower. Remarkably, in the field of arms control, as in so many other
areas, PSAC found its position much closer to Eisenhower’s than to that of the rest
of the defense establishment. PSAC scientists fought passionately for a nuclear test
ban, continuing a struggle that the moderate wing of the scientific community
had carried on since at least the Scientists’ Movement in 1945–1946 and the debate
over the H-bomb in 1949–1950. Perhaps more than their work on space and military
technology, they infused a sense of moral responsibility into their pursuit to limit
the momentum of the nuclear arms race. At the same time, they knew that they
were entering a political context, both at home and internationally, that was highly
charged, with many factors of unpredictability. It was an endeavor that linked science, technology, bureaucratic confl ict, international diplomacy, and deeply held
but confl icting views of the world.
Sputnik’s Impact on Arms Control
By the time of Sputnik’s launch, Eisenhower had made several attempts—Atoms
for Peace and Open Skies, for example—both to score propaganda victories
against the Soviet Union and to slow down the nuclear arms race, but none
turned out as well as he had hoped. Gradually, the concept of a nuclear test
ban emerged as the most promising approach to arms control. Worldwide protest against radioactive fallout from nuclear tests put the U.S. government on
the defensive. Above all, Eisenhower increasingly feared that if unchecked, the
nuclear arms race would ruin the economy, turn America into a “garrison state,”
and even trigger a nuclear war.1
Eisenhower’s move toward a test ban, however, met with strong resistance
within his own administration. The AEC and the DOD opposed it for fear that
it would weaken U.S. nuclear superiority. During their campaign for the “clean
bomb” in the summer of 1957, for example, Lewis Strauss, AEC chairman, and
his science advisers, Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller, cast their appeal to
Eisenhower for continued tests in moral terms. If the United States stopped testing and failed to make clean bombs, Lawrence said, it would have to use the big
and “dirty” ones when war came. This, Lawrence said, would be truly a “crime
against humanity.” The Soviets, added Teller, could actually succeed in making a
clean bomb even under a test ban by testing secretly. If that happened, the United
The Search for a Nuclear Test Ban, 1957–1960
States would be rendered impotent because it could not use the dirty bombs for
fear of world opinion. Teller also emphasized that nuclear tests were needed for
the Plowshare program of peaceful nuclear explosions and that a test ban could
not be effectively policed.2
Eisenhower reacted to the Lawrence–Teller clean bomb plea with ambivalence.
On the one hand, he agreed that the clean bomb was a worthy goal for peaceful
uses and for reducing civilian casualties in war. On the other hand, he felt that the
United States could no longer ignore the global protest against nuclear tests, the
division it caused in America, or the effects of Soviet propaganda—it could not
“permit itself to be ‘crucified on a cross of atoms.’” It was a powerful demonstration of the effectiveness of the grassroots antinuclear movement. Furthermore,
Eisenhower resented the group’s moralizing tone because he saw a test ban as a
step toward the ultimate goal of stopping war.3 Yet, as a result of the clean bomb
campaign, Eisenhower became confused about the desirability and feasibility of a
nuclear test ban. “Our statecraft,” he commented at a meeting on the clean bomb
shortly before Sputnik, “was becoming too much a prisoner of our scientists.”4
As Eisenhower pondered the wisdom of a test ban, the long-standing diplomatic talks on arms control hit a dead end. The West insisted on linking a test ban
with the cut-off of production of nuclear weapons materials, whereas the Soviets
wanted all nuclear weapons to be destroyed first. In late 1957, Stassen, as the U.S.
representative, tried to drop the linkage but met strong opposition from other
American officials. Eisenhower himself felt embarrassed by the contradictory
stand of the United States when he, on the one hand, sent Stassen to negotiate a
test ban, and, on the other, approved a major test series, Hardtack.5
Then the Sputnik shock brought several fundamental changes in the field of
nuclear arms control. First, it revealed the alarming Soviet advances in science
and technology and its potential to achieve nuclear parity with the United States
sooner than expected, a danger that was reinforced by the Gaither report. Second,
the Sputnik-inspired appointments of Killian and PSAC brought in scientists at the
highest level of American policymaking who believed that security could be best
achieved by selective measures of arms control. In contrast to Teller and Lawrence,
most PSAC members did not see a technological solution to the problem of the
nuclear arms race. They advocated a test ban as a first step toward reducing the
Cold War tension and as a way to freeze American advantages in warhead technology. Eisenhower’s agreement with PSAC on the benefits of arms control and his
increasing confidence in the committee meant a sea change in science advice on
the test ban. The Strauss–Teller–Lawrence group still retained enormous infl uence
in the government, but they were no longer the only recognized experts on arms
control, as Eisenhower’s meeting with Rabi on October 29, 1957 indicated. Thus,
Sputnik boosted both the president’s determination to work on a test ban and
PSAC scientists’ role in nuclear weapons policymaking.
Killian and PSAC knew that the test ban represented a political arena that was
perhaps even more charged than space and military technology policy. Fearful that
it would project PSAC into “the realm of political policy as well as technology,”
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Killian declined Stassen’s request in December 1957 for support of his test ban
proposal, with the excuse that PSAC lacked competence and experience in the
field.6 The politically astute Killian must have also sensed that Stassen had made
too many political enemies in the administration to last long in his position. Thus,
while keeping a low profile, Killian and PSAC established a panel on disarmament
under Caryl Haskins to study the issue of the test ban “for possible reporting to
the President.”7
Killian’s chance came at the NSC meeting on January 6, 1958, during which
Stassen’s proposal was promptly defeated by the AEC and the DOD; citing Teller
and Lawrence, Strauss questioned the adequacy of the dozen inspection stations
proposed by Stassen to detect Soviet tests. When Eisenhower expressed his own
misgivings about adopting the Stassen proposal before reaching a consensus with
the NATO allies or “even among ourselves,” Killian rose to report on PSAC’s view
that the United States “should not proceed with additional proposals” on a test
ban “without up-to-date technical appraisals made in advance by the most highlyqualified U.S. scientific and technical personnel.” Specifically, PSAC recommended
that the NSC sponsor two interagency technical studies on disarmament—one on
nuclear test cessation, and the other on long-range rocket test limitation, which
Eisenhower promptly approved and asked Killian to help organize. Thus, even
though Killian sided with Stassen’s opponents, he opened the door for PSAC to
get involved in arms control. The fact that Killian spoke without first being asked
to speak and was able to have the PSAC recommendation accepted testified to
both the rising stock of moderate scientists in the Eisenhower administration in
the post-Sputnik days and the importance of the “presence” of scientists in the
policymaking process that Vannevar Bush and Lee DuBridge had tried in vain to
convince Robert Cutler of in 1953.8 It also pointed to a widespread post-Sputnik
faith in nonpartisan science advising, although, as we will see, the phrase “technical appraisals” would soon become contested.
The Miracles of the Bethe Panel
An interagency panel on a nuclear test ban was promptly formed under the chairmanship of Hans Bethe of Cornell, with members from the Pentagon, the Air
Force, the AEC, and the CIA. The choice of Bethe was most unusual because his
only official position was his membership on the nonstatutory PSAC. The fact that
Cutler did not voice his customary opposition to this arrangement testified, again,
to Sputnik’s effects on the thinking about the proper role of outside expert advisers, to his rapport with Killian, and to Killian’s skills operating in the White House
political environment. Bethe was also an apt choice given the push by Eisenhower
and PSAC for arms control. As a pioneer in nuclear physics, chief of the theoretical division at wartime Los Alamos, and longtime chairman of the Air Force panel
in charge of collecting and interpreting data on Soviet nuclear tests, Bethe was an
acknowledged nuclear expert familiar with the status of Soviet nuclear weapons
design. An advocate for the test ban to freeze in American nuclear advantages,
he nevertheless kept an open mind to other points of view.9 Above all, his choice
The Search for a Nuclear Test Ban, 1957–1960
promised to bring in fresh, independent points of view and take the debate on a
test ban out of the control of representatives of the agencies, especially the DOD,
AEC, and the State Department, that had mired it in internal confl ict.
The Bethe panel was to consider three questions: Was it technically feasible to
establish a monitoring mechanism for the enforcement of a nuclear test ban? What
would be the impact of a ban on the United States? And finally, what would be its
impact on the Soviet Union? In view of the strong antiban positions of the AEC
and the DOD, the task of achieving some kind of agreement that did not amount
to an outright rejection of a test ban was a daunting one indeed. It was testimony
to Bethe’s great scientific stature and his persuasive power that the panel members,
mostly physicists, actually came to the consensus that a test ban was technically
feasible. The panel report of March 1958 concluded that a practical detection system could be designed to detect and identify nuclear explosions in the Soviet Union
and China, except for small underground tests. The system would utilize several
dozen fixed and mobile inspection units, as well as overfl ights. Even Killian was
astonished by the positive conclusion of the Bethe panel.10
When the issue turned from technical feasibility to political desirability, however, consensus was harder to achieve. Although the AEC and DOD representatives
on the Bethe panel agreed with Bethe that a test ban was feasible, they vehemently
denied that it was desirable. Nuclear tests were necessary, they argued, to develop
clean, small, and low-cost warheads for battlefield use and for ABM systems. They
also argued that the United States needed more varieties of warheads for defensive
purposes because the Soviets were more prone to launch a surprise attack. During
the often heated panel discussion, Harold Brown of the AEC’s Livermore Laboratory and Herbert Loper, assistant to the secretary of defense for atomic energy,
emerged as the most articulate and resourceful antagonists to a test ban. Calmly
and persistently, Bethe countered their arguments by asking them to consider the
possibility of freezing the American advantages over the Soviets in nuclear weapons designs and the beneficial effects of a test ban on the vicious arms race. In this
he received some support from Herbert Scoville of the CIA and Herbert York.11
Just as PSAC’s studies of military R&D had to deal with interservice rivalry, its
involvement in disarmament required it to balance between the antiban views of
the DOD and the AEC on the one hand, and that of the State Department, which
began to push for a test ban after Stassen’s departure.
In the end, the Bethe panel report did not reach a conclusion on whether a test
ban was to the net military advantage of the United States. Even this, as it turned
out, was no less an achievement on the part of Bethe, because in the discussion,
the majority of the panel tended to think that a test ban was detrimental to U.S.
national security. At one point, Loper produced a letter from the Joint Chiefs of
Staff ( JCS) that strongly opposed a test ban without linkage to production cut-off.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles later reinforced the JCS position
in a memo to Bethe that concluded that “in its overall long range effects a test
cessation will operate to the distinct disadvantage of the United States.” Ruling
that these views were outside the panel’s “technical” mandate, Bethe prevented
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them from being included in the panel report. His success showed that by now
scientists learned not only to venture beyond the technical “boundary” but also to
retreat behind it when desirable. By holding the line firm against sweeping negative
assessment of a test ban, Bethe made way for PSAC to fill in the gap.12 What also
helped Bethe was that General Alfred D. Starbird, as a representative of the AEC,
reluctantly agreed with Bethe that a test ban might lock in the U.S. superiority in
nuclear weapons designs.13
As the Bethe report was written, a fierce, concurrent debate on the test ban
took place within the American political leadership. In late March 1958, the United
States learned that the Soviets would soon announce a unilateral suspension of
nuclear tests. It was a move calculated for propaganda advantages, because the
Soviets had just finished a test series, whereas the United States was about to
begin its important Hardtack series. Nonetheless, Secretary of State John Foster
Dulles became concerned about its effect on world opinion. He suggested that
Eisenhower “beat the Soviets to the punch” by announcing immediately that the
United States would unilaterally stop testing after Hardtack. Eisenhower tended
to agree; he saw it not only as a step to boost the falling moral leadership of the
United States in the world, but also as a chance to move the administration toward,
perhaps for the first time, serious disarmament.14 The DOD and AEC, however,
stalled the Dulles initiative. At a White House meeting on March 24, 1958, Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy argued that a test moratorium would drive nuclear
scientists out of the weapons labs. Eisenhower responded sharply that he thought
“scientists, like other people, have a strong interest in avoiding nuclear war.” At
this point, Strauss produced a letter from Teller emphasizing strongly the need
for continuing tests, which Quarles corroborated. The combined opposition from
the DOD, AEC, and their scientists overwhelmed Dulles. He asked to withdraw
his proposal. Disappointed, Eisenhower agreed to the decision for now but served
notice that it was not the end of the matter. He asked the group “to think about
what could be done to get rid of the terrible impasse we now find ourselves in with
regard to disarmament.”15
For his part, Eisenhower turned to PSAC in his next move toward a test ban. In
a press conference on March 26, 1958, Eisenhower publicly endorsed the expected
findings of the Bethe panel report about the feasibility of detecting tests and hinted
that he would be flexible on the linkage issue.16 The anticipated Soviet announcement of unilateral test cessation came on March 31, together with a request that
the United States and Britain join it in negotiating a test ban. As the United States
scrambled to answer the Soviet challenge, Bethe formally presented his panel
report to the NSC on April 4. It met with remarkably little opposition. Eisenhower
and Dulles expressed concern about the difficulties of detecting underground
tests, but they seemed to accept the technical feasibility of a test ban in general.
Indeed, Dulles believed that a far simpler system than considered by the Bethe
panel—one with a 50–50 chance of detection—would have sufficed to deter the
Soviets from conducting secret tests. To the DOD’s usual argument that a test ban
would be to the military disadvantage of the United States, Eisenhower and Dulles
The Search for a Nuclear Test Ban, 1957–1960
countered that the United States must also consider the “psychological erosion
of our position” in the world.17 Subsequently, Dulles drafted Eisenhower’s reply
to Khrushchev in which the United States reiterated its invitation to the Soviets
for a technical conference first, mentioning the Bethe study as evidence of its
sincerity.18 Then on April 9, as another example of the post-Sputnik acceptance of
experts in public policy and of Eisenhower’s growing trust in his science advisers,
he announced that he had asked PSAC to consider the pros and cons of a test ban.
Most important, he implied that he would consider a unilateral test moratorium if
PSAC recommended so, which greatly shocked and upset Strauss.19
The Puerto Rico Consensus
The national spotlight in the debate on the test ban was now focused, just as it was
two months before in the area of space, on PSAC. From April 8 to 10, the committee met at Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico to discuss the Bethe report
and a separate report on a missile test ban by Kistiakowsky’s missile panel. After
spirited debates, the committee reached a “general agreement” that an inspected
nuclear test ban was to “the overall advantages” of the United States, provided that
it take effect after the Hardtack test series but prior to any new Soviet tests.20 A
nuclear test ban would, PSAC argued, allow the United States to keep its nuclear
superiority—the United States had about twice as much yield as the Soviet Union
in nearly every weight class—far longer than if tests continued. PSAC also justified a nuclear test ban as a move to “forestall” any possible Soviet pressure toward
a missile test ban before the United States achieved ICBM capability. It supported
the completion of the Hardtack test series—scheduled to start in April and meant
largely to develop warheads for the Polaris and AICBM missiles—but pointed out
that the major problems facing the AICBM were nonnuclear in nature.21 Remarkably, reduction of radioactive fallout, which occupied a central point in the public
debate over the test ban, was absent from PSAC’s list of justifications. Rabi’s
remark at a subsequent PSAC meeting that the “test ban as such never meant anything per se” and that it was worthwhile “only as a step toward something else,”
indicated that it was arms control and national security, not fallout, that motivated
PSAC in advocating a test ban.22
Given the general orientation toward arms control of most PSAC members
and the strong advocacy for a test ban by Bethe and Rabi that dated back at least
to the H-bomb controversy, the committee’s conclusion was not surprising. What
was noteworthy was the debate within PSAC over the proper role of the group
in policymaking. As the former director of the Livermore Laboratory, Herbert
York, for example, objected to PSAC’s recommending a test ban to Eisenhower as
going out of its areas of technical competence. In a vote taken on the matter, York
cast an “abstain.” Afterward, Wiesner explained to York about the thinking of the
majority. Wiesner conceded to York that PSAC members were not experts on arms
control, but the truth was, he said, nobody else was. Furthermore, the president
could ask for advice from anyone he wanted.23 In their willingness to move into
arms control policy, several PSAC members undoubtedly recalled Eisenhower’s
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plea the previous November in connection with the Gaither study. “The Defense
Department isn’t interested [in arms control] and neither is the Atomic Energy
Commission,” Wiesner remembered Eisenhower saying to him and his colleagues,
“Why don’t you fellows help me?”24
At the other end of the spectrum, Rabi not only regarded York as a member
of the Teller–Lawrence group, and therefore too much of a hawk, but also felt
that PSAC did not go far enough in considering the policy aspects of the question.25 He thought science advice should not just provide technical facts, but
also help the government grasp the big picture. Science was the most forwardlooking element of modern culture, Rabi argued, and it should lead a concerted
effort toward solving major national and international problems, especially those
related to nuclear weapons. At the Puerto Rico meeting, he revived his earlier
proposal that “a broad study of arms limitation be made interrelating technical,
military, economic, international and political factors in a symmetrical way.”
Other PSAC members, however, regarded it as too ambitious and therefore did
not pursue this proposal.26
The York–Rabi debate over the propriety of scientists’ role in policymaking
reinforced the need for PSAC to defend its action to the rest of the national security state. In its report, PSAC scientists cited their “experience with the technical
aspects of military weapons systems” to justify their considerations of both technical and military aspects of the test ban. On this basis, PSAC concluded that “a
test cessation would be to the over-all advantage of the United States,” especially
considering the relative, not just the absolute, strength of the United States in
comparison with that of the Soviet Union. Moving further into foreign policy, it
argued that a test ban would not only freeze American superiority, but also serve as
“an opening wedge for other inspection systems.”27 Thus, in anticipation of almost
certain opposition from the military, PSAC made national security the primary
justification for its recommendation. Doing so, PSAC scientists hoped, would allow
them both to defend their technical claims and to reach policy conclusions.
PSAC’s strategy largely succeeded. On April 17, 1958, Killian met with Eisenhower to report on PSAC’s recommendations. Acknowledging that the test ban
was “a controversial subject,” he continued the delicate dance around the science–politics boundary. PSAC, he said, had limited itself to “technical aspects” of
the question, but nevertheless concluded that an inspected nuclear test ban was
both feasible and desirable and could serve as “an opening wedge” for general
disarmament in the future. Although PSAC’s justification for a nuclear test ban
to forestall a premature missile test ban did not impress Eisenhower, he reacted
positively to its overall recommendations.28 In an unusual move in late April 1958,
Dulles and Eisenhower bypassed the DOD and AEC to propose to the Soviets (and
the British and French) a technical conference at Geneva to consider the feasibility
of an inspection system for a nuclear test ban as a prelude to diplomatic talks. In
contrast to Dulles’s skepticism toward Soviet acceptance of any inspected test ban,
Eisenhower appeared to share PSAC’s hope that the scientists, with their common language and long tradition of international cooperation, could indeed cut
The Search for a Nuclear Test Ban, 1957–1960
through the Iron Curtain, as they did at the Atoms for Peace Geneva Conference
in 1955, and clear the road for political agreements.29 Even though PSAC scientists
were not the only voice in the government supporting Eisenhower’s push for a test
ban—Dulles espoused it as at least a useful move in public relations—their scientific and technical expertise proved crucially important to him in countering the
arguments from the Teller group.
Indeed, as expected, PSAC’s Puerto Rico report drew violent protest from
opponents of a test ban. At PSAC’s meeting on April 21 in Washington, Killian
reported to the committee that both the DOD and AEC opposed a test ban unless
all kinds of protections were provided, such as the development of AICBM and
clean bombs by the United States. He himself had just had an emotional confrontation with Strauss over the PSAC report.30 The DOD’s Loper accused PSAC of distorting the Bethe report and failing to give “due consideration to certain basic U.S.
policies [or] to geographic and international political factors.” What the AEC and
DOD wanted, Killian noted, was an “absolute” advantage, not a relative advantage
over the Soviets, as advocated by PSAC.31 Even though Killian disagreed with these
arguments, he made sure that Eisenhower “gets more than one point of view in
dealing with some of these highly complex and delicate matters.”32
These developments heightened PSAC’s internal debate over scientists’ role in
policy. The fierce opposition by the DOD and AEC to the PSAC report confirmed
in Rabi’s mind the need for broad studies to build an internal consensus in the
American government over arms control. “[I do not] think we can get out of this
box,” Rabi said, “without deeper study than we have made. . . . We must get ourselves limber.” For Rabi, a sweeping reexamination of U.S. policy on disarmament,
preferably led by PSAC, was necessary not only for the achievement of a test ban
but also to lay the foundation for future arms control measures and world peace
in general, for which the test ban was only a first step. Scoville, however, disagreed
with Rabi. He probably spoke for the rest of the committee when he expressed
doubt that the views of the DOD and AEC would change with further study.
Instead, most PSAC members opted for a shortcut through their access to the
president. Killian confidently predicted that, despite the DOD and AEC opposition,
PSAC’s recommendation had Eisenhower’s and Dulles’s backing and “will receive
real attention.” For the first time, Killian noted, the top level in government had
views radically different from the Pentagon and the AEC. When pressed by Rabi,
Killian said that he believed that only the president and the secretary of state could
resolve the internal confl ict.33
This little-known debate between Rabi and his PSAC colleagues on the test
ban is significant because it highlighted the diversity and complexity in scientists’
approaches to arms control. It has been commonly assumed that the nuclear test
ban polarized American scientists into two camps in this period: those led by Linus
Pauling who supported it and those who rallied around Edward Teller in opposing
it. What this view ignores is the divisions within each camp and the issues these
divisions evoked, such as the weight of institutional self-interest in policymaking.34
Herbert York, for example, attributed his initial opposition to the test ban to his
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close association with the Livermore weapons laboratory and believed that the
same pattern applied to others as well:
During the period immediately prior to Sputnik, the scientific advisers who had
the most impact on this issue—Strauss, Lawrence, and Teller—were all participants in the nuclear weapons program. It was their ox that was about to be
gored, and they were unenthusiastic. The members of the new PSAC, except
for me, had no such current involvement; indeed, some of them regarded
nuclear testing as pernicious. As a result, the whole approach to the question
underwent a sea change at the White House level.35
Here, as in military technology, the question of confl ict of interest was not
whether one would personally profit from one’s position as a science adviser, but
whether one’s institutional and professional loyalty would affect the policy advice
rendered. The dilemma was thus both more general and harder to solve than what
could be accomplished by the standard disclosure of financial interests. PSAC dealt
with this problem by hearing both sides of the argument, but in the end steered
a middle ground by rejecting both York’s contention that scientists should stay
within technical bounds and Rabi’s opposite proposal that scientists should lead
the formation of policy.
PSAC’s deployment of the adversary process, however, was only accidental in
that York was not brought in to work primarily on the test ban issue. As Bethe later
recalled, “the committee at that time did not try to bring in people of widely different opinion.”36 The emphasis was not on unanimity, but rather cohesion. Indeed,
support for arms control became one of the informal criteria in admitting new
members to the committee. For example, in 1960, Kistiakowsky, by then the science adviser, asked Harold Brown a crucial question before recommending him for
PSAC membership: Was Brown’s aim “preservation of peace or destruction of the
Soviet Union”? (Brown “emphatically” said the former.)37 In this sense, one could
say that PSAC followed a “party line” of its own, although one could argue that
a measure of balancing was achieved within its panels which, as demonstrated in
the case of the Bethe panel, included, by design, spokesmen of opposing interests.
Whether such a balancing act within a closed circle of policy advisers and makers
in the government was enough to guarantee a sound public policy in a democracy
is, of course, open to question. However, in this period, demands for transparency
in the proceedings of advisory groups such as PSAC seemed never to arise, perhaps
reflecting a more trusting attitude toward the experts and the government in the
pre-Watergate era.38
In one institutional respect, the PSAC system worked well for Eisenhower:
PSAC scientists were his advisers and he appreciated their independent advice
and their skepticism toward nuclear weapons development. Killian’s meeting with
Eisenhower on April 17 marked a complete switch of Eisenhower’s trust in scientists on the issue of the test ban from the Teller group to PSAC. Ever since he
learned of the split within the scientific community during his meeting with Rabi
The Search for a Nuclear Test Ban, 1957–1960
and Strauss on October 31, 1957, he began to observe the two groups closely. Just
as he found PSAC increasingly indispensable, he grew disillusioned with the Teller
group. At a press conference on April 16, Eisenhower called PSAC “my Scientific
Advisory Committee” and praised its “sincerity” and “disinterestedness.” The next
day, in his meeting with Killian, Eisenhower confided that he had “never been too
much impressed, or completely convinced by the views expressed by Drs. Teller,
Lawrence, and [Mark] Mills [of Livermore]” for continued nuclear tests. Less than
half a year after Sputnik, Eisenhower made his choice of scientists between the
Rabi group and the Teller group. And nowhere was this change more pronounced
than in the test ban debate.39
The Geneva Conference of Experts
With Eisenhower’s acceptance of PSAC’s proban recommendations, the scientific
and political tango now moved into the international arena. In May 1958, PSAC’s
test ban proposal received a boost when Khrushchev accepted Eisenhower’s suggestion for a technical conference. Soon thereafter, Eisenhower wrote Khrushchev
to emphasize the importance of selecting competent scientists for the conference
so they could reach “scientific, not political conclusions.” The opening date of the
so-called Geneva Conference of Experts was set for July 1, 1958.40
As Eisenhower, Dulles, and PSAC moved toward a test ban, the AEC and DOD
launched a last-ditch effort to save at least underground testing by challenging
the technical soundness of PSAC’s Puerto Rico report. In early May, the GAC of
the AEC, led by Teller, now a dominant member, and over the objection of Fisk,
who sat on both PSAC and the GAC, denounced the PSAC report and advocated
a limitation of atmospheric tests only. Any additional restriction of nuclear tests,
it warned, “would seriously endanger the security of the United States.”41 On May
14, Strauss presented the GAC report to Eisenhower, but it did not seem to impress
him. Neither did a similar memorandum, dated May 30, 1958, by the JCS. At the
bottom of the memo, Eisenhower simply noted to Goodpaster: “Andy—I assume
State is aware of these opinions and suggestions from JCS.”42
The internal division within the administration was reflected in the selection
of the U.S. delegation to Geneva. On the one hand, Killian, PSAC, State, and the
CIA agreed at a meeting in May that the United States should appoint three distinguished scientists to show its seriousness and to force the Soviets to do likewise, and
that the chairman of the delegation should not be an “extremist” on the issue of the
test ban or a “weaponeer.” Indeed, State, regarding the whole thing as primarily a
propaganda move against the Soviets, believed that “it would be better to select a
chairman who is known to be in favor of test suspension” to preempt Soviet charge
of American insincerity if the Geneva talks faltered. Killian proposed Rabi as his
“ideal choice,” citing his experience and “ability to get along with foreigners.” Scoville nominated James Fisk and Hans Bethe.43 On the other hand, the AEC was wary
of the domination of PSAC members in the delegation. At a White House meeting,
Eisenhower, Dulles, and Killian came up with a list of Fisk, Lawrence, and either
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Bethe or Rabi. Strauss, however, “expressed strong opposition” to both Bethe and
Rabi when phoned by Eisenhower. As a result, Bacher was selected instead.44
Killian and PSAC were happy with the final selection of the three scientists.
Even though Strauss vetoed Bethe and Rabi, PSAC members could count on Fisk
and Bacher, their two moderate vice chairmen, to articulate a balanced case for the
test ban. They were also no doubt pleased that the AEC nominated Lawrence, not
Teller, as Strauss had originally intended to do. By then Lawrence had apparently
experienced a remarkable change of mind on the question of the Cold War: unlike
Teller, he believed that scientific contacts could actually help “break down the Iron
Curtain.”45 A balanced slate of advisers to the delegation included Bethe, Scoville,
and Harold Brown. Britain, France, and Canada all sent eminent scientists. Only
the Soviet delegation, headed by a geophysicist, Yevgeni K. Fedorov, included a
veteran diplomat, Semen K. Tsarapkin, among its members.46
PSAC was full of optimism as it held its annual meeting with President Eisenhower on June 18, 1958. Killian opened with a description of the U.S. delegation
as an “extraordinary team” with a strong backup. As a “good omen,” Killian told
Eisenhower, the Soviets had taken the conference seriously and “pushed out really
top people.” Eisenhower shared PSAC’s enthusiasm. Responding to Killian’s concern for declassification at the conference, Eisenhower said that he would approve
a “liberal and broad policy” because the United States had more to gain than lose
from the conference. A report by Bethe on the difficulties in the clean bomb project
also boosted the cause for a test ban. Further reflecting PSAC’s optimism about the
post-Sputnik rise in the social status of science and scientists was a dialog during
the meeting between Land and Eisenhower on the need to turn more and more of
the American population into scientists. You “can’t have 80% of people at leisure”
as a result of technological changes, Land claimed.47
The high hope for technical agreement, however, did not spread to the political
arena. When PSAC asked for policy guidance during and after the Geneva conference, Eisenhower gave few hints. Partly, it was because the president himself could
not yet resolve the interagency confl ict.48 In his briefing to Fisk, Lawrence, and
Bacher on June 6, Dulles had told the scientists that the conference was to be strictly
technical. The political decisions would be made by Washington after the conference.49 In contrast to PSAC scientists, Dulles apparently believed that it was both
possible and desirable to separate the technical from the political. Dulles’ directive
also reflected his view that scientists, with what Eisenhower had called their “exacting minds,” would not make good diplomats. The Bethe panel report, he had earlier complained to a group of his own advisers, had gone so far with its inspection
requirements “as to be impractical.” Instead, as mentioned above, he believed that
a 50–50 chance of detection would be enough of a deterrent against Soviet cheating.50 For his part, Eisenhower did establish a Committee of Principals—chaired by
the secretary of state and comprising the secretary of defense, AEC chairman, CIA
director, and the president’s science adviser—to assist him on arms control policy,
but there was little hope that the principals would be able to overcome their own
disagreements to give clear guidance to the scientists in Geneva.51
The Search for a Nuclear Test Ban, 1957–1960
Despite all these uncertainties, a major objective was nevertheless achieved at
the Geneva Conference of Experts. All sides agreed that a system composed of
certain numbers of seismic stations and on-site inspections, combined with other,
nonintrusive technical means already in use, could detect nuclear explosions.
Known as the Geneva system, the agreement was one of the first major breakthroughs in the Cold War. Its achievement showed that the East and West could,
after all, find some common ground, even on an issue as contentious as the nuclear
test ban. On the most difficult question of the detection of deep underground
tests, the Western experts persuaded the Russians to accept control posts and onsite inspections in Soviet territory. The conference, nevertheless, left crucial details,
such as the number of on-site inspections and control posts, to political follow-ups.
The final communiqué drew the positive conclusion that it was technically feasible
to ensure a “worldwide” nuclear test ban.52
Much of the world received the Geneva system with enthusiasm. The day
after the Geneva conference ended, President Eisenhower proposed diplomatic
negotiations on a test ban and announced that the United States would enter into
a test moratorium on October 31, 1958. In so doing, Eisenhower overruled opposition from the AEC and DOD by citing the overall political advantage of a nuclear
test ban. After a briefing by Teller and Norris Bradbury, directors of the Livermore
and Los Alamos weapons laboratories, respectively, Eisenhower remarked that
“the new thermonuclear weapons are tremendously powerful; however, they
are not, in many ways, as powerful as is world opinion today.”53 It was another
striking indication of both Eisenhower’s commitment to arms control and of the
impact of the international antinuclear movement.54 Meanwhile, PSAC scientists’
analysis of Argus, a PSAC-promoted series of high-altitude nuclear tests, added
to the weight of the argument for the test ban, as did reports on the problems
with the AICBM project.55 The British, after being assured of U.S. nuclear assistance through a PSAC-advocated change in the Atomic Energy Act, accepted the
proposals for a moratorium and diplomatic negotiations, as eventually did the
Soviets. At this point, optimism among the proponents for arms control, which
included most of the American scientific community, reached a high point. Scientific internationalism was hailed as the most effective channel to cut through
Cold War confrontation.56
Russian scientists, although equally pleased with the outcome, were more
cautious. At the Third Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, held
in September 1958 at Kitzbuhel, Austria, Fedorov, just returning from the Geneva
conference, told physicist Victor Weisskopf of MIT that he and his colleagues had
worked hard to convince their government to stop tests and negotiate with the
West on a test ban. The suspension of tests was to the Soviet military disadvantage, Fedorov conceded, because the United States had conducted twice as many
tests as had the Soviets. The Soviets nevertheless wanted a test ban, Fedorov
insisted, as a measure to counter nuclear proliferation and as a “first step” toward
disarmament. Despite the success of the Geneva conference, Fedorov felt that the
test ban still “hangs on a thread,” as antiban forces could easily sway Khrushchev
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in the bitter Soviet internal debate. Weisskopf promptly conveyed Fedorov’s message to Killian.57
The Geneva system proved indeed precarious, and not only due to the threat of a
Soviet reversal. Its unraveling started in December 1958, when analysis of the Hardtack II series of nuclear tests led PSAC to concluded that the Geneva system was
inadequate in detecting underground tests. Specifically, Hardtack II showed that
it was harder to distinguish nuclear explosions from earthquakes than previously
assumed. In addition, the number of earthquakes in the Soviet Union per year
was now thought to be about twice that of the prior estimate. On January 5, 1959,
Killian and Fisk delivered the bad news to Eisenhower. They asked his approval
to release the result to show that “we are being realistic and responsible.”58 With
misgivings, Eisenhower agreed to publish PSAC’s analysis of the Hardtack II data.
He would accept a greater number of control stations or higher threshold of detection, but worried that the Soviets and domestic opponents of a test ban might
attack the administration for failing to indicate “the tentative nature of our findings” earlier at Geneva. Killian assured Eisenhower that he did not think the new
data would invalidate the Geneva system. To boost the president’s spirit, Killian
reminded him that a test ban would serve broad purposes such as setting a precedent for monitored inspection and “breaking through the iron curtain.” Eisenhower emphatically agreed, confiding that he was considering formally breaking
the linkage between a test ban and production of weapons to keep the negotiations
going. The U.S. dropped the linkage two weeks later.59
In the political negotiations in Geneva, U.S. representative James J. Wadsworth
introduced the Hardtack II findings and requested that a technical working group,
with experts from both sides, be convened to study these findings. The Soviets
were, as Eisenhower had feared, infuriated by Wadsworth’s report. They charged
the United States with reneging on its “official” position at the conference of
experts and regarded the Wadsworth proposal as an attempt to send more Western
inspectors (regarded as likely spies) to the Soviet Union. The test ban talks were
thrown into turmoil.60
Back at home, the turn of events showed to many the risks of mingling science
with politics. If science, by its internationality, had helped produce the Geneva
system, its probing nature also led to its peril. Shifting technical arguments now
posed additional obstacles to a difficult course of diplomatic negotiations. Ironically, one might say that it was PSAC and President Eisenhower who seemed to
have believed in a “technical fix” of problems in arms control with their earlier
faith in the Geneva system. PSAC’s critics now began to wonder aloud about the
“betrayal by science.”61 Even Eisenhower, who did not blame PSAC, realized that
“technology [was] beclouding the negotiations.”62 In a separate development, the
physicist Albert Latter of the Rand Corporation proposed a “big hole” theory that
revived the possibility of concealment of underground tests by imagining the use
of a huge cave to muffle the effects of nuclear explosions. It gained legitimacy
The Search for a Nuclear Test Ban, 1957–1960
within the administration when PSAC visited Livermore in January 1959 and Bethe,
initially skeptical, confirmed Latter’s theoretical conclusions.63
PSAC scientists began to feel the sting from their critics. At the committee’s
meeting on December 15, 1958, for example, a sharp exchange took place between
Gordon Gray, now Eisenhower’s national security adviser, and Edwin Land over
scientists’ proper role in arms control. Gray, who had four years earlier led the
charge against Oppenheimer for opposing the H-bomb on nontechnical grounds,
praised PSAC’s “solid contributions to security” but admonished it to “keep itself
in this posture” and to “keep out of the arena of charges and counter-charges to
avoid future embarrassment of its usefulness.” In other words, he wanted PSAC
scientists to stay within technical bounds and not be identified as outspoken
advocates for arms control. Land resented Gray’s tone and demanded that Gray
make clear “who it is that feels that the scientists are less tough minded and soft.”
“It is the task of the Administration,” Land continued, “to make it clear that its
science advisers are a tough minded group; that it can’t expect the PSAC to be a
secret advisory group on the one hand and on the other hand to say nothing when
such charges are made.” PSAC, Land added, had never “advocated agreement for
agreement’s sake” and was doing “a balance job perhaps more than any other
group in the country.”64
Despite the controversy and Gray’s warning, PSAC persisted in its push for a
test ban. In the spring of 1959, at the request of the State Department, it established
several panels to reexamine the Geneva system in light of these new problems and
to find ways to improve it. A panel on seismic improvement under Lloyd Berkner
confirmed the inadequacy of the Geneva system, but suggested that its effectiveness
could be restored with improved equipment and facilities. The panel thought that
the “Latter hole” concealment was possible but prohibitively expensive.65 Another
PSAC panel, chaired by Wolfgang Panofsky of Stanford, studied the detection of
nuclear explosions in outer space, a problem that was left unsolved at the Geneva
conference for lack of data. After reviewing the Argus and other American tests
in space, the Panofsky panel concluded that such explosions, if unshielded, could
be detected by satellites, but both the tests and their detection would be, like the
Latter hole, prohibitively expensive.66 Most of all, both panels noted the scarcity
of available data and recommended an expansion of seismic and space research,
which were eventually carried out by the DOD (Project VELA) and the AEC (Project Cowboy).67 Once again, as in Kistiakowsky’s recommendation for research on
solid fuels for missiles, science in policy was linked to policy for science.
Their guarded optimism notwithstanding, the Berkner and Panofsky reports’
confirmation of loopholes in the Geneva system greatly troubled Killian. They led
him gradually to agree with John McCone, Strauss’s successor as AEC chairman,
on limiting the ban to atmospheric tests only. The change was unmistakable. At
the meeting of the Committee of Principals on January 26, 1959, Killian still argued
that it would be “dangerous” to change to an atmospheric ban, because “that
would imply that the fall-out hazard was real,” a position the Eisenhower administration had not officially conceded. Although the Geneva system was not perfect,
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
Killian thought it probably posed sufficient deterrence to prevent any future tests.68
On March 13, however, Killian admitted that there were “very real” loopholes in
detecting underground and outer space tests when he briefed Eisenhower on the
conclusions of the Berkner and Panofsky reports. Pessimistically, he predicted that
a comprehensive ban of all tests was probably not viable now.69
These setbacks disappointed but did not deter Eisenhower. If a comprehensive
ban was difficult, how about a “threshold treaty,” which would ban all atmospheric
tests and those underground tests above a threshold (e.g., ten kilotons) that could
be detected with existing means? For Eisenhower, as it was for PSAC, the principal
value of a test ban was not the ban itself, but the precedent it set for the establishment of a system of control stations and the right to inspect without a Soviet
veto.70 As he told his top advisers on January 12, 1959, if the test ban negotiations
succeeded in establishing reciprocal inspection, he thought it would help prevent
war. On April 13, Eisenhower proposed the atmospheric ban to Khrushchev who,
surprisingly, rejected it as not a complete ban.71 In the meantime, in anticipation
of a break-off in the Geneva talks, Killian called for and the administration moved
toward resumption of tests.72
Notably, members of PSAC disagreed with Killian over the risk of concealment. In approving the Berkner and Panofsky panel reports in March 1959, the
committee emphasized the high cost and impracticality of the “big hole” and
outer space concealments. During the discussion, Rabi pointed out that the real
question was, as a national policy, “whether we should enter into arms limitation
at all.” If this question was settled in the affirmative, he felt, it probably was necessary for the United States to have an arms control agreement “even in the face of
possible loop holes.”73 What Rabi rendered was, of course, a political judgment,
a recognition that there was no perfect technological solution to an essentially
political issue, as Dulles had earlier proposed. The risk of test ban evasion, like the
risk to health and environment posed by chemicals, was something that had to be
managed intelligently based on a dynamic balance among science, technology, and
political consensus-building.
The impasse over the test ban also led PSAC, and Killian, to confront the
profound asymmetry in the distribution of American technological resources
for military buildup and for arms control. On the one hand, the United States
tended to give “too much weight to what technology can produce” in military
areas such as antimissile defense, while devoting little to arms control, as Killian
observed at the committee’s March 1959 meeting. PSAC itself was an asset in
arms control and Killian hoped that the committee would not become “conservative and relaxed” but could come up with technical ideas “as rapidly as possible”
to control the arms race. Yet both he and other members of PSAC knew that the
committee was neither a permanent solution, nor could it hope to match the
enormous technical resources, including the numerous think tanks, available to
the Pentagon and the AEC. The solution, they concluded, was the creation of a
strong organization at the top level of the U.S. government devoted to R&D studies on disarmament. Whereas Edwin Land worried about bureaucratization, the
The Search for a Nuclear Test Ban, 1957–1960
idea received enthusiastic support from Wiesner, who thought it important “to
establish a vested interest in this field.” A quick study by Kistiakowsky supported
the idea. With PSAC’s approval, he then incorporated the idea into a letter from
Killian to Gordon Gray advocating an arms control agency.74
PSAC also attempted to move the Geneva talks on a test ban forward more
directly. During his meeting with Eisenhower on March 13, 1959, Killian urged a
resumption of technical discussions in Geneva on detection.75 Consequently, in
May, Eisenhower proposed and Khrushchev accepted technical talks, at Geneva,
on the detection of nuclear explosions in space.76 Once again, Western and Eastern
scientists, headed by Panofsky and Fedorov, respectively, met in Geneva and, with
some difficulties, reached agreements on several alternative approaches in detecting space tests.77 However, when this so-called Technical Working Group I (TWG
I) presented its report in the summer of 1959, the United States dragged its feet in
following up on the recommendations. There were two seemingly contradictory
reasons. On the one hand, in contrast to Killian, PSAC, and the State Department,
who argued for the acceptance of certain risks in exchange for breaking the iron
curtain, the AEC and DOD insisted on absolute safeguards against clandestine testing and found that none of the technical agreements reached by TWG I were satisfactory in this regard.78 On the other hand, the AEC, as Panofsky had suspected,
simply did not think that, due to its high cost, high-altitude testing was a significant
issue.79 As a result, TWG I turned out to be a classic case of where scientific consensus failed to solve political problems.80 The Geneva diplomatic talks made little
progress before they recessed again between August 26 and October 27, 1959.81
Science for War or Peace?
As the test ban process faltered, PSAC scientists became highly agitated over
the antagonism to arms control at home, especially in the DOD and AEC. They
decided to make arms control the main theme of their annual meeting with
President Eisenhower on May 19, 1959, holding extensive preparatory discussions
the day before. Whereas “freezing the advantage” had been PSAC’s positive, if
unsuccessful, justification for arms control, the scientists appeared now ready to
argue its case in more negative terms (i.e., the danger of an uncurbed nuclear
arms race).82 Reflecting the coming of the missile age, the remarkable meeting
between Eisenhower and the PSAC scientists opened on a grave note. The trend
of military technology, Killian told Eisenhower, profoundly troubled the committee. Not only did the weapons systems grow ever more complex, but with
them came the perilous shortening of reaction time, increasing instability, and the
chances for accidental war. Quickened development of hardware also led to rapid
obsolescence and wasteful overlapping of costly weapons systems. Reiterating a
long-held belief of PSAC scientists, Killian added that “the Committee could not
see any advances in technology which could give us overwhelming superiority.”
This clear and stark expression of PSAC scientists’ technological skepticism drew
Eisenhower’s emphatic agreement. He noted that “military establishments have
always been obsolete.”83
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Following this sober warning against any technological fix in the arms race,
Killian turned to PSAC’s recommendation to attack “anew” the problems of arms
control, which constituted “an alternative [to armed buildup] that holds real possibilities.” In particular, both reflecting and narrowing Rabi’s earlier proposals,
Killian called for systematic studies of the technical problems in arms control to
prevent all the difficulties experienced in the hurried test ban talks. Eisenhower
agreed and was willing to issue “any additional charter or directive” to carry out
this idea. The president added, according to Goodpaster’s notes, “just as military
men succeeded as they work themselves out of a job, the scientists should be
working themselves out of the job of devoting their talent to military weapons
systems.” Here, once again, one can see the seed for Eisenhower’s warning against
the militarization of American science and society that he would issue in his farewell address less than two years later.
Edwin Land, playing his usual role as the promoter of the scientific spirit,
elaborated on PSAC’s plea for science to play a more prominent part in arms control. He started by thanking the president, on behalf of the committee, for raising
public appreciation of science and making it “as popular as baseball” since their
meeting in the shadow of Sputnik one and one-half years ago. Nevertheless, Land
doubted that the public had a balanced image of science. The country now rightly
recognized science as a vital component of national security, but it did not, Land
argued, appreciate science for its potential in bringing peace, hope, and prosperity
to the people. For science to make dramatic progress in arms control, scientists
needed the president’s backing. Reflecting his earlier clash with Gray, Land pointed
out that the military always suspected scientists who advocated arms control as
being “soft or indifferent” to national security, although in fact they made vital
contributions to American military technology. In conclusion, Land urged Eisenhower to make “science for arms control and peace” part of the American mission,
supporting it with not only funds, but spiritual leadership.
Land’s plea demonstrated that as public scientists, PSAC scientists tried to
enhance not only the material support, but the social and cultural images of American science during the Cold War as well. Arms control formed an important part
of American scientists’ effort to defend science’s moral standing as well as its institutional and social interest. Following Land’s lead, Wiesner advocated institutional
reforms to better prepare for arms control talks. Speaking of his recent trip to
Geneva, Wiesner deplored the inadequacy of preparation on the part of the United
States and the resultant “overconservatism” in negotiations. Eisenhower strongly
agreed with Wiesner on the need for further studies, but he was, like Land, wary of
big bureaucracy. He recalled his fight for an atmospheric test ban against the DOD
and AEC “three or four years ago,” but also pointed out the need to win over public
opinion in a democracy. Instead of “big bodies,” he suggested the formation of a
small subcommittee of PSAC to develop, together with other interested agencies
and the NSC, the technical basis for disarmament. Killian promised to coordinate
this with the State Department.
The Search for a Nuclear Test Ban, 1957–1960
PSAC scientists’ effort to shift science from a tool of war to an instrument of
peace continued as Detlev Bronk, as chairman of PSAC’s panel on science and
foreign affairs, urged an expansion of international scientific exchanges. Scientists,
Bronk observed, had always had close associations across national boundaries, and
were probably better positioned than others to build international understanding.
To maximize the effects of science for peace, Bronk suggested that the United
States send young scientists to work overseas for several years, anticipating, in
a way, the “peace corps” that would be established later under Kennedy. Bronk
also urged an “overhaul” of security rules to allow freer international scientific
exchange. In support of Bronk’s proposals, Rabi described his cordial reception
during a recent trip to the Soviet Union’s Dubna Laboratory and his admiration for
it as an international center of nuclear research within the Eastern Bloc. Inspired
by Dubna, Rabi suggested that the United States make the Brookhaven and Lawrence Radiation Laboratories “Pan-American” centers of science.
Listening attentively, Eisenhower was impressed by PSAC scientists’ profound
concern over the arms race. In both Bronk’s and Rabi’s suggestions, he expressed
great interest and asked that the committee follow these up with specific plans. He
believed that “we must get better understanding—or else.” There was no sense, he
continued, for the American people to make great sacrifices merely “for a negative
purpose.” In the long run, the arms race could lead to “dictatorial control or even
war.” To avert this, he agreed with PSAC that scientists must turn from weapons
to their control. “Science shouldn’t confine itself to military matters,” he said.
Rather, echoing Rabi, Eisenhower challenged his science advisers to go beyond the
imagination of the military and political leaders and help promote arms control,
promising that he himself would do what he could in the same direction. Remarkably, it took a former Army general and a group of the country’s leading scientists
to recognize the limits of a military-technological approach to national and international problems.
This PSAC–Eisenhower encounter also shows that scientists, or at least some
of their leaders, recognized fully the moral implications of how their science was
put to use. Instead of being maneuvered unwittingly by the government or the
military into doing their bidding, as some recent studies of scientists in the Cold
War have suggested, the scientists were shown here attempting to infl uence the
direction and role of science in the arms race.84 They were concerned about the
nuclear arms race in the late 1950s just as much as they feared Nazi domination
during World War II and Soviet expansion in the early phases of the Cold War.
In all cases they sought to play a role. This sense of social responsibility might be
innate among some of the traditional values in science, such as freedom of communication and internationalism. More likely, however, the scientists developed
their political and moral sensitivity from their own bitter experience. During
World War II, scientists fought militarization in the Manhattan Project, and in
the postwar period, they campaigned against military control of atomic energy,
debated the H-bomb decision, and became polarized over the Oppenheimer case.
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
It was no accident that PSAC, as the most prominent advocate of arms control,
included such veterans as Rabi and Bethe from all these previous cases when science was politicized.
Hope and Despair
The stark reality of the Cold War ensured that the soaring words at the Eisenhower–
PSAC meeting resulted in no radical departure in American policy, but it and the
subsequent Killian–Kistiakowsky transition reenergized Eisenhower and PSAC’s pursuit of a test ban. In March 1959, the Committee of Principals had contemplated a
retreat to an atmospheric ban, especially after Killian himself relented, whereas the
State Department considered breaking off the talks. By the summer, the “whole
activity” began to weigh on Eisenhower. Another PSAC panel study under Robert
Bacher on the difficulties of detecting underground tests led him to sigh that perhaps “we had to give up hope” for a comprehensive ban, which McCone quickly
seized to push for resumption of tests. Yet, frustrated as he was, Eisenhower did
not give up hope; on Kistiakowsky’s swearing-in, he asked his new science adviser
to “work hard” on a test ban.85 A new PSAC panel study under James McRae concluded that there was no urgent need for early resumption of tests to safeguard a
bomb from accidental detonation if dropped, which allowed Eisenhower to deny
an AEC request for that purpose.86 Then, in September, while preparing for a summit with Khrushchev at Camp David, Eisenhower proposed to the Soviets that the
two sides resume technical discussions on the test ban and, much to Kistiakowsky’s
delight, the latter accepted. Upon Kistiakowsky’s recommendation, Fisk was again
selected to head the American delegation. Eisenhower told the Fisk group to aim
at a monitoring system to detect underground tests, thus reversing the movement
toward an atmospheric ban only.87
The task of Technical Working Group II (TWG II), as the conference came
to be called, did not prove easy. Starting in November 1959, the new round of
talks in Geneva was plagued by misunderstanding, insufficient technical preparation, and, despite Eisenhower’s general directive, lack of clear and specific
policy guidance for the American scientists. Had they been instructed to aim
for a 50–50 chance of detection, as Dulles had preferred, for example, the job
of the TWG II would probably have been much easier. But Dulles had died on
May 24 and no such instruction was forthcoming from either Christian Herter,
his successor, or Eisenhower himself. Once again, the U.S. and Soviet scientists
sparred over the necessity of revising the Geneva system in view of the Hardtack
II data, agreeing only to undertake measures to improve seismic detection.88 The
productive atmosphere of international scientific understanding created by the
Geneva Conference a year earlier was poisoned to such an extent that the Geneva
negotiations nearly collapsed at the end of 1959.89 On December 29, President
Eisenhower announced that the United States would continue efforts for a test
ban but would end the moratorium on December 31. He did promise, however,
not to conduct any nuclear test “without announcing our intention in advance of
any resumption.”90
The Search for a Nuclear Test Ban, 1957–1960
After the failure of TWG II, pressure against a comprehensive ban as unenforceable mounted, and Kistiakowsky sought a compromise. He proposed a
revised “threshold test ban,” with the measure of “threshold” changed from TNT
kiloton weight to the Richter seismic scale, which could be more easily monitored.
Studies by an ad hoc PSAC group found the scheme technically feasible. Surprisingly, it won support from the AEC and others, but not the DOD.91 At PSAC’s
meeting in February 1960, Kistiakowsky also convinced Wiesner and several other
PSAC members that the compromise was indeed needed to win Senate ratification.92 Eisenhower approved the threshold proposal, with the threshold set at 4.75
on the Richter scale, for presentation at Geneva in February 1960, together with a
joint seismic research program toward the ultimate goal of a comprehensive test
ban.93 The Soviets agreed to negotiate on the threshold ban with the condition that
all tests be stopped while the proposed research program was in progress. Over the
AEC’s and DOD’s objection, Eisenhower approved a resumption of negotiations
on the ground that a test ban would help to relax Cold War tension and prevent
nuclear proliferation.94
Subsequently, Kistiakowsky was asked to organize the joint seismic research
program designed to lower the threshold.95 For this purpose, he received an
authorization of $100 million for the American part of the program, named
VELA, which later expanded to cover both seismic and space detections and
involved the DOD and the AEC. Another example of the interaction between
science in policy and policy for science, the VELA program had a major impact
on American seismic and geophysical research. “Unhappy” at the large amount
of funds involved, Eisenhower reluctantly approved the proposal only after Kistiakowsky promised to “keep a sharp eye on the program.” “So I have helped to
spend about 100 million bucks in the next two years,” Kistiakowsky wrote in his
diary. “Poor taxpayers!”96
Despite their support for VELA, both Kistiakowsky and Eisenhower recognized by now that the test ban was primarily a political, not technical, issue. During Eisenhower’s meeting with British Prime Minister Harold McMillan in late
March 1960, for example, he agreed that the key problem of the number of on-site
inspections would not be decided at Geneva, but at the forthcoming summit with
Soviet leaders in Paris.97 As it turned out, that summit never materialized. When
the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane in May, the incident not only
aborted the Paris summit, but also brought to an end Eisenhower’s hope for a
test ban during his presidency.98 The grim news of the confrontation and fiasco
in Paris reached the White House when PSAC was in session. Dark thoughts ran
through Kistiakowsky’s head: he saw an “intensification of the cold war” on the
part of the Soviet leadership. “I see bad times coming, with this crisis sharpening
to God knows what extent, and very likely the Soviets testing our readiness to use
a nuclear deterrent. . . .”99
Among those who were most disappointed and disheartened by this turn of
events was Hans Bethe, the most infl uential advocate for a test ban within PSAC
before being rotated off the committee in 1959. Privately he grew unhappy with
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President Eisenhower for allowing himself to be bogged down by internal division and for failing to “take a firmer stand” on the test ban.100 In 1960, Bethe, who
remained a PSAC panel member, decided to speak out on the issue in an August
1960 Atlantic Monthly article. Recognizing the difficulties, including that posed by
the Latter holes, Bethe nevertheless argued that the United States should have gone
ahead with a test ban even with some risk so as to freeze American superiority
in nuclear weapons. Continued tests could not improve the efficiency of nuclear
weapons by a thousand times, as Teller claimed, because “Further nuclear weapons
development will be limited by the laws of physics.” In the end, Bethe argued for
a resumption of test ban negotiations to preserve what little military advantages
the United States still enjoyed against the Soviets, to reap the political benefits of
opening up the Soviet society, and, lastly, to help limit the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries such as China. To be sure, China might not adhere to a test
ban, but if there was no ban, he predicted that China would gain nuclear capabilities soon—“I will not be surprised if the Chinese develop nuclear weapons before
another five years pass.”101
As the first public, though gentle, criticism of the Eisenhower administration’s
nuclear policy by a former member of PSAC, Bethe’s article caused unease in
Kistiakowsky and his staff when the physicist sent them an advanced draft. “I am
not enthused by this,” wrote Kistiakowsky, but he did not prevent its publication
either.102 The article did lead at least some critics of the test ban to rethink their
positions. The physicist Gregory Breit of Yale, a Los Alamos veteran, for example,
wrote Bethe that it “has shaken somewhat my beliefs” in support of Teller’s position. However, Breit was now troubled by the Bethe–Teller division; he urged them
to “work out a common viewpoint or compromise.”103 That, however, turned out
to be impossible. In fact, Teller became so enraged by Bethe’s article—“full of
factual misstatements”—that he challenged Bethe (and Wiesner) to a television
debate. When Bethe refused, Teller appealed to Kistiakowsky for intervention.104 In
talking to Bethe, however, Kistiakowsky was himself convinced that “nothing good
could come of the proposed TV debate.”105 It is not clear what arguments Bethe
used to convince Kistiakowsky of the futility of a direct confrontation with PSAC’s
nemesis over the test ban. Both sides knew, however, that their battle over the test
ban, one of the most momentous issues in the nuclear age, would not end even as
the Eisenhower administration drew to a close.
The ultimate cause of failure in the search for a test ban during the Eisenhower
administration was the mistrust between the two superpowers and the belief on
the part of the U.S. military and its supporters that continued nuclear expansion
benefited the United States more than the Soviet Union. Except for Eisenhower,
much of the U.S. government, especially the DOD, still thought in terms of
winning a nuclear war, as Dulles lamented at the March 24, 1958 meeting in the
White House.106 For this purpose, it was natural for the military to insist on having all possible weapons that technology could provide, to resist the closing of
The Search for a Nuclear Test Ban, 1957–1960
any option, and to feel confident only in its own military strength, even with the
knowledge that the Soviets might eventually catch up to or surpass the United
States in various measures of strength if the arms race continued.107 There was
also the matter of a turf war over the control of American defense policy: the
DOD and AEC resisted arms control because it threatened to make defense policy
a matter of political decisions handled by the State Department rather than themselves. For these reasons, the DOD and AEC also resented the participation of
PSAC in nuclear policy.
Yet, despite strong resistance, PSAC’s involvement in the search for a test ban
showed that science could exert a crucial infl uence in American Cold War policy.
Through the Bethe panel, PSAC’s Puerto Rico report, the Geneva Conference of
Experts, and the subsequent diplomatic and technical negotiations on a test ban,
PSAC sought to and largely succeeded in putting moderate scientists back into
American nuclear policymaking. It broke the spell against scientists’ participation in policymaking that was one of the legacies of the 1954 Oppenheimer case.
With Eisenhower’s vital support, it even succeeded where the GAC under Oppenheimer failed in 1949 with its proposal of a ban on H-bomb tests: it helped put
arms control, which had faltered since the Baruch Plan of 1946, back on the U.S.
government’s agenda. As the committee’s remarkable meetings with Eisenhower
on arms control in 1958 and 1959 revealed, PSAC’s advocacy for a nuclear test ban
came closer to a moral questioning of unlimited technological developments—in
this case nuclear weapons technology—for the good of the society than insider
scientists had ever dared to argue since the H-bomb debate in 1949.
In struggling with the problem of arms control, PSAC’s own thinking was
transformed: it evolved from its early hope of finding a technological solution to
the arms race—the Geneva system—to a strong skepticism that technology would
ever solve the problem of the arms race. The collapse of the Geneva system, the
deadlock over inspection and control, and the revival of Cold War tension following the U-2 incident in 1960 all indicated to PSAC that arms control was essentially
a political question. Thus by the time it met with Eisenhower on July 12, 1960,
PSAC came to recognize that “the United States will have to make a purely political decision” regarding the risks and benefits of a test ban.108 In recognizing the
primary importance of politics in the test ban process, neither PSAC scientists
nor Eisenhower denied the validity of the technical reality, such as the difficulty
of test detection and the possibility of evasion. Testifying to their faith in the
ultimate commonality of science and democracy, they believed that it was imperative that they not hide or distort the facts about test detection from the public.
Ultimately, however, PSAC realized that, without a necessary political consensus
on the part of the U.S. government, their dream of turning science from war to
peace through arms control, a key item on their agenda as public scientists, would
remain unfulfilled.
The Politics of Big Science,
On May 14, 1959, President Eisenhower addressed a high-profile Symposium on
Basic Research in New York. Sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Alfred P. Sloan
Foundation, the conference and the presidential speech were both designed by
science adviser James Killian and PSAC to enhance the public’s interest in science. Speaking on “Science: Handmaiden of Freedom,” Eisenhower dramatically
announced that, on the advice of his science advisers, he would soon ask Congress
to appropriate $100 million to build the largest scientific instrument in history, a
two-mile-long linear electron accelerator at Stanford University. The president
called the decision a deliberate step to demonstrate the federal government’s
determination to further scientific research and to ensure American leadership in
high-energy physics.1 It clearly indicated that in the post-Sputnik era, the Cold War
was waged not only in space, over the missile ranges, or at the negotiating tables in
Geneva, but also in university laboratories, places closer to the hearts of the public
scientists in PSAC.
Yet, despite the substantial support it enjoyed in the scientific community
and the presidential endorsement, the Stanford accelerator’s path in Washington
was not smooth either before or after Eisenhower’s speech. In many ways, the
Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC as it became known) inaugurated the
era of the politics of Big Science.2 Why and how should the government and
society fund intriguing but expensive and apparently impractical research? Along
with others, PSAC grappled with that question during its involvement in the saga
of SLAC. It was PSAC’s first major role in post-Sputnik national science policy.
The vicissitudes of the project, PSAC’s arguments in its support, and their effects
reveal the extent to which Big Science policy, just like issues in space, military
technology, and arms control, was shaped by both the Cold War and domestic
politics in the post-Sputnik era.
The Origin of SLAC
Stanford physicists under W. W. Hensen had pioneered the development of linear
electron accelerators to study the structure of elementary particles and had, by
the mid-1950s, built four such machines in the Mark series, all under the sponsorship of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), with good results. These successes
inspired Stanford physicists, now under the leadership of Edward L. Ginzton and
Wolfgang Panofsky, to propose to the university in October 1954 that it seek federal funding for an even bigger machine dubbed Project M, with M standing for
The Politics of Big Science, 1957–1960
both “multi-Bev” (billion-electron-volt)—initially fifteen but expandable to fifty—
and “monster.”3 It “would keep Stanford in the forefront of physics during the next
decade or two and would firmly establish the university as a center of research in
high-energy physics.”4 In the shadow of the Oppenheimer hearings, the Stanford
physicists declared that they would guard their autonomy despite government
funding. “We would resist all attempts by the AEC or other contributing agencies to impose security restrictions on this project,” they wrote, vowing to keep
the facility “not only unclassified but open to visitors, regardless of clearance
and citizenship.”5 Due to both the size of the requested funding—$78 million for
construction and $14 million annually for operations—and the pluralistic structure
of federal funding for science, Stanford sent the proposal in April 1957 to all three
potential patrons: the AEC, the ONR, and the NSF.6
Curiously, the proposal contained little to justify public funding of such a huge
scientific project other than its unique value to high-energy physics. Apparently,
Stanford scientists took for granted that the government would support Big Science for its own sake. Project M would be just another in a long line of federally
funded accelerators. The momentum in federal funding reinforced the physicists’
tendency to concentrate on the intrinsic aspects of basic research. When they did
occasionally promise technological applications, it was at best indirect.
Cold War and Turf Battles
The physicists’ apparent disregard for a broad rationalization for their claim to
public funds did not, of course, extend to government agencies. The AEC, for
example, had to justify its ever costlier high-energy physics program to the JCAE.
Although the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 authorized the AEC to conduct research
and development on nuclear processes, the agency, under the chairmanship of
Lewis Strauss, always charged such spending to the Cold War. Advances in the field
helped to show American superiority in science and its intention to use “Atoms for
Peace.”7 To keep the United States ahead of the Soviets in accelerator energy level,
the AEC had decided in 1956 to build a large accelerator at its Argonne laboratory
near Chicago.8 For similar reasons, the Soviets also pursued a crash program in
accelerator development.9
As the Cold War competition fueled the race in high-energy physics, interagency rivalry within the U.S. government made it difficult to pursue a rational
national policy. The ONR had dominated funding in nuclear physics in the early
postwar years, but the AEC soon overtook its position, drawing resentment from
both the ONR and the NSF, which, despite its puny budget, also wanted to get in
the big game.10 Although Stanford physicists were willing to accept funding from
any of the three agencies, privately they preferred the ONR, which tended to give
universities more autonomy than the AEC.11 Nevertheless, neither Stanford nor the
ONR could make a move without the AEC’s blessing. For its part, the AEC did not
like to see its monopoly broken, but neither did it want to undertake the project
until assurance came from the White House that such an expensive accelerator
would not hurt its other programs.12
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
There was an additional complication with the AEC sponsorship: The AEC had
limited new accelerators to its existing national laboratories, a policy that was challenged not only by Stanford, but also by several other universities in the Midwestern Universities Research Association (MURA). MURA had clashed with the AEC’s
Argonne Laboratory in Chicago over management policy and had tried for several
years to get government funding for a huge proton accelerator of its own. The
association, however, drew criticism from both science administrators and fellow
scientists for using politicians from the Midwest to lobby for it in the White House
and in Congress.13 Thus, by late 1957, the decision over the Stanford accelerator
involved not only interagency entanglement, but also competition from MURA.
The matter stood at “dead center” and became one of the most pressing issues in
science policy to be decided at the presidential level in the aftermath of Sputnik.14
Initially, Sputnik invoked concern at Stanford. Panofsky thought that the Soviet
victory would touch off a space race and spur further emphasis in American
policy on applied research and development at the expense of basic research such
as high-energy physics.15 Such fear soon subsided, however, when Frederick Terman, Stanford provost, attended a meeting in Washington of the Naval Research
Advisory Committee, which he chaired. At the meeting he learned from Rabi, a
member of his committee, that the ODM-SAC, which Rabi chaired, was “making
strong statements” to Eisenhower in support of basic research.16 The Stanford
scientists became all the more hopeful when Eisenhower singled out high-energy
accelerators for wise federal investment in his “chin-up” speech on November 13,
1957. Terman and Panosfsky took the speech as a cue to “speed up the machinery
in Washington” for the Stanford accelerator.17
Meanwhile, high-energy physics drew Eisenhower’s personal attention in early
1958 when he spotted an item on the construction of accelerators in the DOD’s
budget. Eisenhower questioned the role of the military in such a basic research
field and asked Killian to examine the matter for him. Killian took the opportunity to initiate a general review of big accelerators, in the hope of reaching an
interagency policy consensus among the AEC, the DOD, and the NSF. James Fisk
undertook the job for Killian and PSAC.18
Fisk soon focused on the Stanford proposal and strongly recommended it for
government support on both its merits and on its role in raising national prestige.
The Stanford accelerator, Fisk found, enjoyed the “enthusiastic endorsement” of
the scientific community, was “thoroughly sound,” both scientifically and technically, and was critical to American leadership in the field. In contrast, the MURA
proposal appeared to Fisk “less advanced.” Fisk proposed joint support of the
Stanford project by the DOD, the AEC, and the NSF, arguing that it transcended
the interests and present financial capabilities of any of them alone. The proposal
won endorsement by PSAC at its meeting on January 2, 1958, but drew mixed
reactions from the agencies. Whereas the DOD and the NSF welcomed it, the
AEC vacillated between passive consent and active opposition. Without the AEC’s
cooperation, the ONR and NSF could hardly afford to fund the machine on their
own, despite the NSF’s newfound wealth in the wake of Sputnik. Furthermore,
The Politics of Big Science, 1957–1960
all three agencies found the Fisk proposal lacking because it failed to address the
high-energy physics program as a whole. They also opposed the stated principle of
joint funding as limiting their future freedom of action.19
The Stanford physicists likewise reacted to Fisk’s proposal with ambivalence.
On the one hand, they welcomed it as a sign of the new national and presidential
attention to basic research. On the other hand, Stanford physicists were concerned
that the multiagency plan would make it much more difficult to get congressional
approval for the project, because many committees would be involved. Panofsky
especially worried that “the Great Men in Washington” were making premature
decisions “without consulting the victims.”20 Through a network of contacts in
the ONR, AEC, and NSF, Panofsky was determined to keep abreast of “Project M
politics” in Washington and make his own views known. His job was made easier
by his membership in many science advisory groups and, after the 1958 New Year,
by his consultant work for PSAC.21 Despite his misgivings, Panofsky nevertheless
urged the DOD to take the lead in moving forward the multiagency scheme.22
A bureaucratic dance ensued. Partly due to Panofsky’s push, Deputy Secretary
of Defense Donald Quarles approved $3 million in March 1958 to start the Stanford
project and asked the AEC and the NSF to match it.23 Whereas the NSF reacted
favorably, the AEC continued to drag its feet until its opposition to the Fisk scheme
received powerful backing from the BOB, which believed in streamlining federal
programs.24 The AEC’s victory over PSAC came as a great disappointment to science administrators in the DOD and the NSF who had hoped to set a precedent of
the PSAC overriding an agency in science policy.25 The AEC proposed to fund the
Stanford accelerator on its own, but with two conditions: first, a procedure of tight
fiscal management to avoid such vast cost overruns as happened at its PrincetonPennsylvania electron accelerator, which Stanford generally accepted, and second,
a comprehensive White House policy, broader than the Fisk proposal, to ensure
long-term support for the AEC’s role in high-energy physics.26
The ball was kicked back to Killian and PSAC. Although the AEC refused
to request another study by PSAC—in the background was its chairman Lewis
Strauss’s increasing animosity toward PSAC over its support of a nuclear test
ban—virtually everyone else agreed that PSAC was the key to getting a presidential
policy on high-energy physics. In May 1958, PSAC, spurred by Panofsky, agreed to
revisit the subject of high-energy physics. The move coincided with the departure
of Strauss from the AEC, which made it possible for the AEC’s scientific staff to
communicate directly with PSAC.27 In June 1958, an NSF panel on accelerators
studied the issue at Killian’s request and it essentially confirmed the Fisk proposal.
At this point, the AEC made a move of its own: John McCone, as the new AEC
chairman, proposed to Killian that the AEC’s General Advisory Committee and
PSAC create a joint subcommittee to develop principles for a national high-energy
physics program. Pending the BOB’s approval, the AEC also formally proposed
that it sponsor the construction of the Stanford and other accelerators and the
DOD and NSF join in operating them after completion.28 Killian accepted the
idea of a PSAC–GAC subcommittee, and, to ensure pluralism in science funding,
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
countered the AEC’s second proposal by suggesting the establishment of a federal
council on high-energy accelerators with representatives from all three agencies.
McCone agreed, believing that the council would keep control of the program “in
the hands of government officials and not the scientists.” An engineer by training,
McCone distrusted scientists in government. 29
A New Network of Science Policy
When it became apparent that the AEC was to be the sponsoring agency, Stanford
physicists acted quickly to learn how to deal effectively with this new patron. For
this purpose, they turned to a new kind of scientific network that had emerged
at the end of World War II: academic contractors with the federal government.
Reflecting the state-dominated political economy of Big Science, scientists and
administrators built this network not for scientific research, but for science policy,
for dealing with the government. It was a key part of the world of public science
that PSAC scientists, many of whom headed universities or laboratories, helped
shape and would continue to defend during the Cold War.
Thus, for a week in May 1958, two Stanford physicists, R. H. Moulton and
F. V. L. Pindar, visited five institutions—the University of Chicago, MIT, Harvard,
Brookhaven, and Princeton—that were running research laboratories under
contracts with the federal government. They queried their hosts on their relations
with their patron agencies, including terms of contracts, overhead costs, the hiring of subcontractors, and pay scales for scientists. Clearly, dealing with federal
patrons administratively had evolved into an art form for university bureaucrats.
For example, R. W. Pratt, Harvard’s director of contracted research, told the
visitors, with glee, that the financial plans section of Princeton’s contract with the
AEC was not carefully drawn, exposing Princeton to “subtle control of everything”
by the AEC. He and other interviewees advised Stanford not only on how to resist
the “encroachment” by the AEC, but also on how to make strategic concessions
when necessary. Exploring the boundary between public policy and private institutions, Stanford scientists gained much from this contractors’ network on how to
negotiate the rather malleable relationship between science and the state. To the
scientists and science administrators in this network, who jealously guarded their
autonomy, the involvement of PSAC scientists in science policy was undoubtedly
a welcome development.30
Pride and Prejudice
Meanwhile, in Washington, Killian and McCone established the joint PSAC–GAC
panel to advise the government on a policy for high-energy physics. PSAC named
Emmanuel Piore, Hans Bethe, and Leland Haworth of the AEC’s Brookhaven
National Laboratory as its representatives; the GAC sent Edwin McMillan of the
University of California, Berkeley, and Jesse Beams of the University of Virginia.
Piore became chair of the group. Following Killian’s instruction, the Piore panel
went beyond the matter of the Stanford accelerator to evaluate the importance
of high-energy physics, its needs, and the role of the government. It was to
The Politics of Big Science, 1957–1960
compare the scientific merits of the Stanford and MURA proposals, consider the
best administrative arrangements, and finally, explore the possibilities for international cooperation.31
As the Piore panel sprung into action, a small drama of Washington intrigues
began to unfold over the fate of the Stanford Monster. Forces interacted and interests collided at both institutional and disciplinary levels in the Piore panel, rendering it a fascinating window through which to observe post-Sputnik American
science policymaking. To start with, Killian’s choice of Piore as chairman of the
panel favored the position of the ONR, because Piore had served as its chief scientist before moving to IBM.32 An evangelical promoter of academic basic research
despite spending most of his career in the government and in industry, Piore was
concerned about ONR’s losing high-energy physics to the AEC, which, he privately
complained, did not do a good job in supporting research.33
Partly due to Piore’s and Panofsky’s instigation, the ONR soon countered the
AEC’s move with a proposal to sponsor the Stanford accelerator on its own, citing
its previous support for the university’s Mark accelerators and its electronics interests in the electron accelerator. The ONR proposal received support from others in
PSAC, including Killian, but they doubted it would meet the approval of the DOD
leadership, which was wary of acquiring such a Big Science project without apparent direct military relevance.34 Yet, not long into its deliberation, the Piore panel
indeed seemed to lean toward the DOD as sponsor for the Stanford accelerator,
which came as an unpleasant surprise to the AEC.
Although this development pleased Stanford physicists, opposition to the
accelerator on physical grounds by two of the most prominent physicists on PSAC
stunned them. Rabi, dean of physics on the East Coast, argued before the Piore
panel that the proposed scale of the Stanford project, at fifteen to forty-five Bev, far
exceeded the current needs in physics. Hans Bethe, although not as critical as Rabi,
agreed that seven Bev was then the highest energy at which one “knows interesting
things can be studied.” To be conservative, Bethe considered twenty Bev a reasonable limit and regarded forty-five Bev as unjustified. The panel then authorized
McMillan, a close friend of Panofsky, to convey these criticisms back to Stanford.35
Clearly, the Stanford physicists had to respond to Rabi’s and Bethe’s questioning of the energy range of their accelerator.36 As often was the case when
scientists communicated among themselves, the Stanford physicists’ appeal to the
Piore panel was void of the Cold War rhetoric of accelerator race that scientists
were wont to deploy in public discussions. They did not insist on a forty-five Bev
energy to beat the European or Soviet efforts, but only expressed proper concern
that accelerators should not cluster around the same energy levels. For the most
part, Panofsky and Ginzton concentrated on scientific and technical reasons for
retaining forty-five Bev as the final energy level. Conceding to Bethe that there
was no specific scientific justification for forty-five Bev as yet, they nevertheless
argued strongly for retaining the expansibility to such a level. They noted that
past experiments had made use of scientific instruments in unexpected ways, and
went on to enumerate several fundamental problems in particle physics where
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further progress might well require energy at the forty-five Bev level. In addition,
they argued that a reduction in the final energy level would probably result in
very little savings.37
The argument did not persuade Rabi, who continued to oppose the Stanford
project. In a phone call to Piore, Rabi referred to an article on cosmic rays to
show that high-energy accelerators were no longer necessary. Both McMillan
and Panofsky were “considerably upset” with this line of argument—“if a junior
person had made such a statement, we would have thrown him out,” McMillan
swore. Although cosmic rays could be used to simulate some of the work done
with accelerators, they pointed out, the results were very crude and qualitative
because cosmic rays provided only scanty and uncontrolled initial data. McMillan
and Panofsky believed Rabi, not being a high-energy physicist, simply did not know
“the facts of life” in the field. They asked Robert Serber, another former Berkeley
friend who was now a colleague of Rabi’s at Columbia, to help enlighten Rabi on
these matters.38
Despite Rabi’s criticism, Stanford’s argument won approval from the majority
of the Piore panel. The panel completed its report in November 1958 and recommended go-ahead of the Stanford accelerator with ten Bev as the starting energy as
a compromise between Stanford’s proposed fifteen Bev and Bethe’s seven Bev. Citing the use of advanced microwave technology in the proposed Stanford accelerator and the military interest therein, the Piore panel hinted that the DOD might be
the right agency to sponsor the project. This suggestion matched the thinking of
Killian and his staff. Shortly afterward, a paper apparently prepared by PSAC staff
advocated a DOD sponsorship, noting that “linear accelerators . . . have at times
been suggested for military weapons applications such as defeating air dropped
nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. Although these possibilities have not materialized, they further illustrated the relevance of linear accelerator technology to
the long-term interests of the DOD.”39 Once again, PSAC scientists, although not
strident cold warriors, could not let pass an opportunity to link basic research and
American national security.
The Piore report touched, as did the original Stanford proposal, only very
briefly on the broad justification for continued federal financing of high-energy
physics. The panel argued that such support was warranted both because of the
field’s importance to science and because of its high cost, which was well beyond
the capabilities of private resources. Although it cited the role of accelerators as
“training ground” for young scientists both in high-energy physics and in other
fields, it did not elaborate the case. Interestingly, neither did it make any explicit
promise of technological spinoffs.40 It recommended that the whole high-energy
program be reviewed at the presidential level, both because of the desire of the
NSF and DOD to break the AEC’s monopoly, which it supported, and because of
an expected quantum leap in cost from $53 million in 1959 to $125 million in 1963.
As to the MURA proposal and another from the AEC’s Oak Ridge Laboratory,
the Piore panel recommended continued support for study but rejected construction at the present. The panel also agreed with Killian’s proposal of a high-level
The Politics of Big Science, 1957–1960
AEC–DOD–NSF council to coordinate the nation’s high-energy physics program
and international cooperation.41
Science and National Prestige
The Piore report gained wide support within the government but did not solve
the problem of a high-energy physics policy entirely. PSAC accepted it after a
lively discussion during which Bethe withdrew his earlier reservations about the
Stanford proposal and lent it strong support and Rabi sat silent. The AEC’s GAC,
the other sponsor of the panel, expressed concern about the balance in the support of basic research, but nevertheless approved the Piore report. The ONR, AEC,
and NSF also endorsed the report, but the crucial question of which agency was
to sponsor the Stanford project remained unresolved, notwithstanding the Piore
report’s vague suggestion of the DOD.42 Thus Killian hesitated to bring the report
to Eisenhower for approval, because he knew of the president’s displeasure about
military sponsorship. Equally troubling to the ONR and the Stanford physicists
was Quarles’s coolness toward the DOD’s involvement in such a nonmilitary Big
Science project, which Herbert York, as the DDRE, shared. In addition, the budget bureau refused to increase the FY 1960 budget; DOD and NSF had to try to
find money for the first year of the Stanford project within existing funds if they
wanted to sponsor it. When they finally did so, Killian decided to bring the Piore
report to Eisenhower.43
On April 2, 1958, Eisenhower met in the White House with Killian, McCone,
York, Waterman, Elmer Staats (deputy BOB director), Piore, McMillan, and others
to hear the Piore report and to determine a national policy for high-energy physics. Killian opened the discussion by noting that PSAC endorsed the report and
regarded the proposed program as the single most important way to strengthen
American science. McMillan then gave a primer on high-energy physics, which
fascinated Eisenhower.44 Inevitably, the Cold War entered the picture as McMillan emphasized Soviet progress in high-energy physics. Piore then outlined his
panel’s proposal for a national program in the field. Despite the sharp increase in
cost, Killian urged Eisenhower to support the program as a way to improve both
American science and national prestige.45 Specifically, Killian told Eisenhower that
he, McCone, Waterman, and York together recommended, among other things,
the immediate approval of the Stanford accelerator as the next major American
step forward in the field. To ensure its long-term prospects and public understanding, Killian also suggested that the project be specifically authorized by Congress.
Finally, Killian reported that the question of which agency would take up the
project was not yet decided. Although most favored the DOD’s ONR, the budget
bureau did not consider it a wise management policy to divide the AEC’s responsibility in high energy physics with others, he said.46
Eisenhower readily approved the Stanford proposal but raised several issues
about how to proceed with it. He questioned, for example, whether it was necessary
to get Congress to authorize such a specific project. Partisan politics and harmful
publicity would surely distort and confuse the case, Eisenhower feared. He rather
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
preferred to build the accelerator first and then announce it. McCone and Staats
replied that a construction project of such a large size needed special congressional
authorization, and McMillan said it was simply impossible to conceal work on the
two-mile-long machine. Eisenhower, as expected, expressed reservations about the
DOD as sponsoring agency. He worried about “the psychological aspects of identification of the accelerator with military interest.” On the other hand, Eisenhower
felt that if the DOD became the sponsor, it might be easier to obtain funds from
Congress because the armed services committees would handle it in a “more quiet
and businesslike” fashion than the JCAE, which oversaw the AEC’s budget. In the
end, Eisenhower ordered further study of the agency matter.47
Eisenhower’s enthusiasm for high-energy physics was remarkable, especially in
view of his earlier (pre-Sputnik) questioning of federal support of pure science.48
To be sure, Sputnik worked in the scientists’ favor, for the Stanford accelerator was
widely seen as a necessary move to win the Cold War race in science and technology. However, as we have seen, Eisenhower also resisted many post-Sputnik
projects in military R&D and in space purportedly to do the same. There were
probably other factors as well. One factor was simply Eisenhower’s fascination
with the exploratory aspect of high-energy physics. Just as he enjoyed the earlier
briefing by Purcell and York on space, he seemed to derive great pleasure from
learning about the “strangely beautiful” subatomic world, although it is doubtful
that he understood much of the technicalities.49 Perhaps more important, Eisenhower was grateful to Killian and PSAC for helping him put the government’s
space, science, and defense programs in order and for spearheading efforts in arms
control. Thus, when Killian and PSAC recommended the high-energy physics program as the single most important demonstration of government support of basic
research, Eisenhower was willing to go along with them, both as an indication of
his trust in their judgment and likely also as a reward in policy for science for their
contributions in science in policy.50
The White House meeting, especially McMillan and Killian’s invoking of Soviet
progress in the field, also indicated that as the battle moved from physicists to other
scientists, to bureaucrats within the executive branch, and then to Congress, justification for the Big Science project likewise shifted. It evolved from learning about
the inner structure of matter, to the status of particle physics as a frontier field in
science and its benefits in training scientists in other fields, to the practical results
incidental to such research, and finally, to maintaining, or rather, restoring, American scientific leadership in the Cold War. Thus Sputnik added national prestige as a
new argument for federal support of science to Bush’s 1945 list of national security,
economy, and health as well as the DuBridge–Rabi justification on its role in shaping technological evaluations.
In May 1959, as Eisenhower publicly endorsed the Stanford project at the Symposium on Basic Research in New York, the budget bureau moved successfully to
make the AEC, rather than the DOD, the sponsoring agency, despite opposition
from the ONR and Killian and the private wishes of the Stanford physicists. York
did not fight the decision, because he agreed with Eisenhower that the DOD should
The Politics of Big Science, 1957–1960
not be looked on as the primary agency to support science.51 A Science editorial
also questioned whether the DOD was the best place for the Stanford accelerator,
especially in view of its requirements for security and secrecy.52 Killian, however,
acquiesced to the BOB’s decision most reluctantly; he insisted that the decision
should not set a precedent for narrowing the DOD’s role in basic research.53 For
its part, the AEC sought and secured assurance from the BOB that the Stanford
project would not hurt its other programs. It formally accepted the responsibility
and requested congressional authorization of construction funds, now estimated
at $105 million, to be spent in six years.54
Ways and Means
When the JCAE opened hearings on the AEC’s request for authorization of the
Stanford accelerator on July 14, 1959, the fight over the “monster” moved to a new
arena. For the remainder of the Eisenhower administration, the debate was no longer over agency assignment or scientific merits, but rather the practical questions
of financial and administrative arrangements, the site suitability, and Stanford’s
confl ict of interest with suppliers for the project. In the background were partisan
politics and heightened concern about the rising cost of science in the AEC and
elsewhere in the government.
At the JCAE hearings, the AEC justified the project as part of its mandate to
conduct R&D as related to “nuclear processes.” High-energy physics was presented
as a logical extension of nuclear physics, the importance of which was “evident to
you.” Scientist-witnesses testified that expensive accelerators were not scientific
luxury, but rather, as Norman Ramsey of Harvard put it, “a very sad necessity
which nature seems to be forcing upon scientists.” They cited examples from the
history of science and technology, such as electricity and digital electronic circuits,
to show how discoveries in basic research on the nature and structure of matter
had transformed industry and the military in the past. By and large, however, they
were preaching to the converted. Although somewhat irritated by the administration’s failure to give advance notice of Eisenhower’s announcement, the JCAE,
which took a proprietary view of the AEC, seemed favorably impressed with the
project. An “energy Cold War” with the Soviet Union was mentioned but did not
figure very prominently in the hearings.55
However, the most neatly tied package can easily unravel on Capitol Hill. On
August 26, 1959, the JCAE voted to recommend authorization of the Stanford
project. Before the bill was sent to the House and Senate for voting, however, the
JCAE, especially its chairman, Senator Clinton Anderson (D-NM), had second
thoughts. He claimed to have found “a number of uncertainties” in the original
Stanford proposal. Specifically, he complained about the proposed site’s vulnerability to earthquakes, differing cost estimates, and problems in design and construction approaches. Anderson then reached an agreement with McCone that
the authorization be deferred.56 Through its own channels, Stanford learned that
McCone himself had, following a visit to the university, provided much of the
ammunition for the JCAE and suggested the delay of authorization. Fortunately
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for its advocates, the setback to the project turned out to be minimal, because the
compromise allowed the AEC to continue to sponsor engineering and geological
studies on the project. To McCone’s and the JCAE’s delight, such investigations
did result in changes of both the site and the construction method, from tunneldigging to the money-saving “cut and cover.”57
For his part, McCone was bothered by more than technical problems about
the Stanford project. Increasingly, he resented the growing cost of science and the
rising infl uence of scientists in government. Calling the Stanford machine “your
accelerator,” he told York and Kistiakowsky in July 1959 that in general “scientists
cause trouble in government.”58 He was sympathetic to Eugene Wigner, a politically conservative physicist from Princeton, who denounced the Piore report as
“irresponsible” and jeopardizing to national defense by drawing too many young
scientists from military research to particle physics.59 The debate over the nuclear
test ban once again colored the AEC’s relationship with PSAC and Stanford, as
McCone continued Strauss’s opposition to it and as Panofsky emerged as a principal advocate for it within PSAC.60 By late 1959, the shock of unexpectedly high
costs of experimentation with the existing accelerators led McCone to reopen the
question of priority to be accorded high-energy physics in the government’s support of basic research. At his request, Kistiakowsky agreed to reconvene the Piore
panel to take another look at the subject.61
The reconstituted Piore panel, however, did not solve McCone’s problem.
Following a two-day meeting and briefing, the group actually increased its earlier
estimate of costs in the field and reaffirmed its earlier recommendation to “start
immediately” the Stanford accelerator.62 The report alarmed not only McCone but
also the budget bureau. Both appealed to Kistiakowsky, hoping that he could get
PSAC to dampen the panel’s recommendations in view of the needs of all fields
of science. Kistiakowsky, however, demurred at the AEC/BOB request, citing the
incompetence of PSAC to judge scientific priorities and its lack of members from
many fields, such as earth sciences, biochemistry, oceanography, and astronomy.63
Nevertheless, Kistiakowsky did convey the AEC’s and the BOB’s desires to PSAC
at its meeting on February 14 and 15. During discussion of the new Piore report,
Rabi again objected to the recommendation for more accelerators. Another PSAC
member, Glenn T. Seaborg of Berkeley, also expressed concern that high-energy
physics should not be expanded at the expense of low-energy physics. In the end,
however, the majority of PSAC firmly endorsed the second Piore report.64 In this,
PSAC differed markedly from the AEC’s GAC, which now viewed the expansion of
the field with growing unease.65
Dissatisfied by the outcome of the second Piore report, the AEC demanded
another presidential review of the high-energy physics program. On March 9,
1960, McCone met with the White House staff and Maurice Stans, BOB director,
to review the matter. Reading a handwritten note from the president asking why
the Stanford project was stalled, W. B. Persons, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, urged
action to get it going. Stans, however, criticized the scientists for overselling their
costly programs to Eisenhower. He suggested that neither the Stanford accelerator
The Politics of Big Science, 1957–1960
nor other projects be recommended to Congress in the budget request for FY 1961.66
At this point, Cold War rhetoric came to Kistiakowsky’s, and Stanford’s, rescue. He
astutely responded that the high-energy physics program involved “national prestige.” To compete with the Soviet Union, the Stanford project presented a unique
opportunity “to lead from strength rather than from weakness.” The allusion to the
Cold War worked the intended magic and all present agreed that Kistiakowsky and
McCone should study the problem in more detail before they went to see Eisenhower at a later date.67
Interestingly, despite his clever maneuvering on behalf of the Stanford project,
Kistiakowsky was actually ambivalent about the rapid growth of high-energy physics. As a chemist, Kistiakowsky had his own reservations about the balance of U.S.
science policy, but eventually endorsed high-energy physics both as a frontier field
in science and as a symbol of American national prestige. In a letter to McCone
following the meeting just mentioned, Kistiakowsky elaborated on his and PSAC’s
arguments in support of the high-energy program. Kistiakowsky told about his
own initial doubts about the wisdom of a large-scale expansion in high-energy
physics, as recommended by the Piore panel. However, these doubts were “gradually dispelled,” he wrote, by several considerations about American science policy
during the Cold War. The federal government had committed itself to the support
of science to further “national welfare, health, security and prestige,” he noted.
Soviet successes in several fields convinced him that the United States should,
besides ensuring broad scientific progress, “push selected areas of our own at the
maximum possible pace.” Kistiakowsky believed space and high-energy physics
fell into the latter category. Although both contributed to national prestige, highenergy physics, Kistiakowsky pointed out, enjoyed more scientific merit.68
In the end, Eisenhower agreed with Kistiakowsky’s and PSAC’s argument. At
a meeting in the White House on March 23, 1960, he “spoke most emphatically”
about getting the Stanford accelerator started.69 He also approved the rest of the
high-energy physics program as recommended by the Piore panel, with the condition that it be implemented at a slower pace.70 Following this presidential directive,
McCone finally agreed to incorporate the Stanford accelerator and several other
items in high-energy physics in the AEC’s FY 1961 budget and proposed them to
the JCAE.71
The battle over the Monster was rejoined in Capitol Hill, where the JCAE,
especially Senator Anderson, continued to fight the administration’s proposed
project while its scientist-advocates both inside and outside of PSAC rallied to
its support. On April 11, 1960, Robert E. Marshak, a physicist at the University of
Rochester, sent a telegram to Anderson urging him to withdraw his opposition
to the project, which he said enjoyed overwhelming support of the American
scientific community. Recalling that Anderson had made an “eloquent plea”
for federal support of the field four years ago at a Rochester conference on the
subject, Marshak found Anderson’s current opposition to the Stanford project
“difficult to understand.” Failure to approve this important project, Marshak
warned, “will be serious blow both to progress in [the] most fundamental field of
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
atomic science [and] American prestige abroad.”72 Anderson, however, remained
unmoved. Although he drew more fire from scientists over the Stanford project
“than any group on any program” since he sat on the JCAE, he refused to expedite
its approval. The JCAE again turned down the AEC’s request for full appropriation
of the Stanford project. Instead, it recommended a one-year $3 million grant for
design and engineering, which the AEC was willing to consider despite opposition
from Panofsky and Kistiakowsky.73
The JCAE cited various technical reasons for the delay of authorization, but
many observers, especially Republican members of the committee, pointed to
politics as the real reason for Anderson’s move. They believed that the Democrats
blocked “the Republican accelerator” to deny vice president and GOP candidate
Richard Nixon a photo opportunity amidst the heated presidential campaign.74
They also pointed to Senator Henry M. Jackson’s maneuver to use the Stanford
accelerator as a lever to force the administration to accept the addition of powergenerating facilities, costing $95 million, to a new plutonium-producing reactor at
Hanford in his home state of Washington. As the first major Big Science project
in politics, the Stanford accelerator was trapped in the conventional Capitol Hill
give-and-take game.75
Finally, the AEC and JCAE worked out a committee report that Stanford felt
was favorable enough for it to accept the one-year authorization. The report
allowed the AEC to “proceed from the present master plans” and take steps that
“would lead to initiation of construction at the site with a minimum of delay after
full authorization of the project.”76 As Science reported, the AEC seemed to have
a go-ahead to proceed exactly as if the construction funds had been authorized.77
Most important, Panofsky won the precious right for Stanford to control the design
and, later, the construction of the accelerator.78
When PSAC’s Piore panel reconvened for a third time in the autumn of 1960 at
McCone’s request, its enthusiastic report on high-energy physics contained a biting
commentary by Wigner, who became a member of the expanded panel. In it he
made public his previous concern about the impact of an expanded high-energy
physics program on other sciences and on national defense efforts.79 Kistiakowsky
and PSAC, however, once again endorsed the Piore report, with the disclaimer that
it represented an optimum program that had to be balanced against other programs in science and in the government.80 The question was, of course, who would
do the balancing. In a concurrent proposal, Kistiakowsky and PSAC suggested that
instead of PSAC, the NAS should be brought in to help make choices in science
funding. However that initiative received only partial implementation because the
BOB objected, echoing the debate in the 1940s over the establishment of the NSF,
to private bodies and special interests shaping public policy.81
Short of complete authorization, the Stanford project, one of the most prominent scientific projects sponsored by PSAC and Eisenhower in the post-Sputnik era,
faced an uncertain fate after being kicked around in Washington for three years.
Eisenhower was clearly disappointed by the lack of progress on SLAC. During his
last official meeting with PSAC on December 19, 1960, Eisenhower again asked
The Politics of Big Science, 1957–1960
about the status of the linear accelerator. When told by Panofsky that Congress
had slowed its authorization, Eisenhower lamented bitterly the meddling of partisan politics in science policy: “The Congress authorizes things we do not want
or need, and denies what we do want or need, not hesitating, even in a scientific
matter like this, to set its own judgment against that of the scientists.”82 Political
resistance to a pure and expensive federal science project, in both Congress and
the administration, proved formidable, and the internal division in the scientific
community certainly did not help.
This story of PSAC’s involvement in the funding of SLAC makes it clear that the
dynamics of the political economy of high-energy physics in this period hinged
on both the pull of international politics and the push by the scientists. President
Eisenhower and PSAC supported the Stanford project because it promised to maintain American leadership in the field and serve as a symbol of the administration’s
support of basic research in the aftermath of Sputnik. Lacking utilitarian promises
and therefore a wide constituency, however, Big Science practitioners such as the
Stanford and PSAC scientists had to use the Cold War competition for national
prestige and rely on a network of scientists in government to achieve their scientifically meritorious but financially hopeless goals. Sputnik marked a turning point in
the politics of Big Science not only by creating a new popular enthusiasm for basic
research and scientific exploration, but also by bringing scientists such as PSAC and
its Piore panel into positions of infl uence. Finally, economic prosperity in the 1950s
and 1960s made the expansion of high-energy physics fiscally possible.
Yet, as science left its “sealing wax and string” tradition behind and entered
the era of gigantism, it had to contend with other elements in the equation of
national political economy. Several factors contributed to the Stanford accelerator’s difficulties. The most prominent one was what journalist Daniel Greenberg
called the “immunological reaction” against such an early Big Science project.83
Its price tag alone shocked many. As one congressman pointed out at the JCAE
hearings in 1959, the Stanford machine cost almost as much as all the other accelerators up to that time combined.84 Elsewhere, another congressman, John R.
Pillion from New York, found it hard to believe that a pure science project could
be so expensive. “I can build five or six nice blast furnaces for that type of money,”
he said, “or almost a whole steel plant.” “What is the practical result of this accelerator?” he demanded. “What are the prospects of putting the knowledge that we
will obtain from this accelerator into practical use? How will it aid our defense?
How will it raise the standard of living of our people?” After all, he said, “we
have to explain it back home.” When McCone shrewdly invoked the connection
between Ernest Lawrence’s equally “pure” cyclotron and atomic energy, Pillion
appeared calmed but hardly convinced.85 Several years later high-energy physicist
Robert Wilson would famously defend his field in Congress by claiming that
“it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make
it worth defending.”86 Such moving but vague justification, however, as PSAC’s
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
involvement in the funding of the Stanford accelerator demonstrated, was not
enough to get the kind of funding that Big Science increasingly required.
Another problem for the Stanford accelerator was the persistent internecine
division over the distribution of resources, both among high-energy physicists
and among scientists in general, that PSAC could not manage to smooth over.
As Kistiakowsky observed of one meeting of the Piore panel, “those who have
machines want the money to go to the existing machines and those that don’t have
them want the new ones.”87 In a way, the fight over the accelerator turned into an
East–West confl ict—not the Cold War, but the Coastal War. In late 1959, Rabi continued his campaign against large accelerators in general and the Stanford machine
in particular. At his instigation, several physicists wrote the AEC against the latter.
“What a bastard!” Kistiakowsky wrote in his diary when he found out what Rabi
did.88 In March 1960, another attack against the Stanford project came from Stanley
Livingston, director of the joint Harvard–MIT Cambridge electron accelerator.
Calling it “premature, unwise, and probably useless,” Livingston provided Stans
a “bombshell” against Kistiakowsky.89 Thus, contrary to the common perception
that all scientists got what they wanted in the post-Sputnik golden age of federal
funding of science, a competition for resources clearly drove the intrascientific
struggle, and it would only get worse in the future.
Nevertheless, the Stanford project had also shown its strength in several
respects. Its technical feasibility was unquestioned and its scientific merit, although
challenged by Rabi, Wigner, and Livingston, survived crucial tests in the Piore
panel. Stanford emerged from World War II as a first-rank educational and scientific institution.90 Panofsky, the project’s main proponent and later its first director,
had high standing in the high-energy physics community and on the Washington
science and defense advisory scene.91 Perhaps most important, Sputnik highlighted
the role of national prestige in justifying public support of science and brought to
the White House science advisers who kept the project alive in the Eisenhower
administration. Following the election of 1960 they would try even harder to get
it going, but the final resolution of the matter, like so many other science-related
issues, would have to await the Kennedy administration.
PSAC’s involvement in SLAC’s funding also points to the need to modify the
terms of the fruitful debate among historians over “who’s using whom” in the
relationship between American science and the national security state. Above all,
it shows that neither the government nor the scientific community was monolithic:
there were opposing views not only between the executive branch and Congress,
but also within the administration, and within the scientific community. The
demarcation between science and government became further blurred as the Sputnik crisis brought about a deep intermixing: scientists, as represented by PSAC,
rose as infl uential advisers in both science in policy and policy for science and
the government assumed an increasingly dominant role in science funding. The
enhanced status of basic research after Sputnik seems to have also made scientists
feel, and sometimes act, less dependent on the military than they were in the preSputnik period. As we have seen in the struggle for the funding of SLAC, defense
The Politics of Big Science, 1957–1960
institutions such as the ONR often had to appeal to the newly powerful PSAC in
their interagency competition for desirable programs. Sputnik not only brought
bigger budgets for science, but also a psychological boost for scientists.
SLAC was not the only Big Science project that PSAC had championed in its
effort to enhance basic research in the post-Sputnik era. The “Golden Age” in science support in the late 1950s and early 1960s saw federal budgets for basic research
at universities leap from $127 million in 1958 to $564 million in 1964, effecting an
annual increase of between 20 percent and 40 percent, far surpassing the growth of
either total R&D or the gross national product.92 Yet, PSAC’s frustration along the
tortuous path of SLAC also suggests that there were limits to the infl uence of the
new science advisers. Although Sputnik and the Cold War had a strong accelerating effect on American science, more traditional forces, such as domestic partisan
politics, bureaucratic turf wars, and competition within the scientific community
continued to shape science policy. For PSAC, the growing tension between the
rival forces and interests in the post-Sputnik era meant that a much more systematic restructuring of American science and technology policy was required.
The Control of Science Policy
under Eisenhower, 1957–1960
By mid-1958, PSAC had accomplished much in the areas of Eisenhower’s immediate concerns, namely space and defense, and felt that it was time to put general
science policy, beyond the Stanford accelerator and high-energy physics, under
a comprehensive examination. In July, Killian asked PSAC to divest its attention
from the DOD and NASA to “developing a program for American science.” The
specific goals included increased science funding, better government–university
ties, improved federal organization of research, and heightened public appreciation
of science.1 In short, PSAC, as public scientists, set out to renegotiate the terms of
the social contract between science and government in the wake of Sputnik and to
regain scientists’ infl uence in science policymaking that they felt was lost during
the dark days of the H-bomb debate, McCarthyism, and Charles Wilson. Its successes and failures in the increasingly politicized arena of science policy, in turn,
illustrated both the cooperative and confl icting aspects of the relationship between
American science and state during the Cold War.
A Department of Science and Technology?
Within months of Sputnik’s launching, public pressure not only led to a great
increase in government support for science and education, but also growing interest, especially in Congress, in the establishment of a Department of Science and
Technology (DST) to centralize American science policymaking. The latter met
with strong resistance from President Eisenhower. Although the Sputnik experience taught him that, in waging a total Cold War, science could not be left to private and local concerns alone, Eisenhower nevertheless felt uneasy about the trend
toward a greater federal role in science and education as well as an expansion of
the federal government, both of which he feared that a DST would encourage. A
balanced science policy was needed, and for its formulation the president naturally
turned to his science advisers.
To examine the question of the post-Sputnik American science policy in general and the DTS in particular, in December 1957, PSAC appointed a panel on basic
research chaired, once again, by the ubiquitous Emanuel Piore. As in the space
and defense areas, PSAC divided the science question into policy and organization:
Why and how the government should expand its support for science? Was the DST
an appropriate organizational form to manage this growth?
The idea of a Department of Science can be traced back to the 1880s, when the
Congressional Allison Commission, chaired by Senator W. B. Allison, concluded its
investigation of the matter with the conclusion that science could realize its full
The Control of Science Policy, 1957–1960
potential only by integrating itself into the whole structure of the government.2
The consensus held—only once was a proposal made in the Capitol, by Representative Clare Boothe Luce of New York in the 1940s, but with little support—until
Sputnik rekindled congressional interest.3 John McCormack, the longtime Democratic majority leader of the House who had urged Truman to strengthen civilian
control of military R&D during the Korean War, now sought to centralize civilian
R&D through a DST.4 Other advocates of a DST aimed to gain control of science
policy for Congress in the same way that Senator Lyndon Johnson did with space.
With the huge post-Sputnik increases in federal R&D, Congress felt the need to
reassert itself in the government’s science policy mechanism. Senator Hubert
Humphrey (D-MN) led this movement with bills and hearings on the subject in
1958–1959. His and several other similar proposals for a DST would put the NSF,
the AEC, NASA, and other science bureaus in existing departments under the new
department, with a secretary of science in the Cabinet. Besides coordinating and
centralizing federal science activities, Humphrey’s DST would also establish a central clearinghouse for scientific information, reflecting the popular belief that lack
of translated foreign technical publications accounted for the Sputnik surprise.5
For others, dissatisfaction with other aspects of the existing science policy
underlined their interest in the DST. In a speech on the Senate floor on February 10,
1958, Senator Mike Mansfield (D-MT) warned against the increased militarization
of American science. The Pentagon, he said, “is not a good site for the control and
direction of creative scientific research,” thus foreshadowing his famous amendment for the same purpose that would be passed later during the Vietnam War era.
Scientists working in the government also supported the idea of a DST in hope
that it would improve their working conditions and status. Government science
had deteriorated in the postwar period, they felt, as the departments contracted
projects out to universities. On their behalf, Wallace R. Brode, a career government
scientist at the National Bureau of Standards and president of the AAAS in 1958
who had been critical of Killian’s appointment, now testified in favor of a science
department before Humphrey’s Subcommittee on Reorganization of the Senate
Committee on Government Operations.6
From the beginning, PSAC was ambivalent about a DST. In the October 22,
1957 memo that Killian said represented the views of several ODM-SAC members,
he proposed to the committee that it conduct a study on the “advisability” of a
Department of Science. After becoming Eisenhower’s science adviser, Killian also
discussed the question with Robert Cutler.7 Soon, however, preoccupation with
space, defense, and the test ban pushed the DST off the radar screen of both
Killian and PSAC. It was not that PSAC scientists lost interest in science policy;
on the contrary, as the case of the Stanford accelerator indicated, they worked
hard to increase federal support for science. At its December 1957 meeting, PSAC
decided to develop a statement on basic research “to bring problems forcefully to
the attention of government agencies in order to get more [federal] funds flowing into needed areas.” It also noted the need to provide funds for capital equipment in research, to enhance scientific institutions, to support “the most creative
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
scientists,” and to improve the coordination of those research projects sponsored
by several federal agencies.8 Yet, during all these discussions, the idea of a Department of Science was rarely mentioned, if at all.
Part of the reason for PSAC scientists’ indifference to a Department of Science was the fact that money did start to “flow” into science. Within weeks of the
launching of Sputnik, Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy restored the research
funds cut by the August 17, 1957 order of his predecessor, Charles Wilson. Then, at
the urging of Killian and PSAC, Eisenhower approved, reluctantly, a further $140
million emergency increase in the DOD’s research efforts.9 The NSF also received
$10 million in supplemental funds for FY 1958. For FY 1959, Eisenhower agreed to a
50 percent increase in the DOD’s R&D budget, and a doubling of the NSF’s basic
research funds.10 Between 1957 and 1962 federal R&D expenditure would more than
double, to about $10 billion and to 10 percent of the federal budget. The Soviet feat
not only made science and technology the focus of national attention, but also
fulfilled scientists’ longtime wish of seeing an upsurge in federal funds for both
research and scientific training.11
In the spring of 1958, with the threat of a congressional move toward a DST,
however, the matter gained urgency within PSAC. To get a glimpse of the state
of science in the federal government and assess the feasibility and desirability of
a DST, the Piore panel conducted, on May 28, 1958, a hearing of its own with
representatives from major federal agencies—the DOD, AEC, the Department
of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), NSF, and the science bureaus in the
Commerce and Interior Departments.12 To the delight of academic scientists on
PSAC, the briefing revealed a striking feature of American science policy in the
post-Sputnik era: most of the new federal funds for science would go to universities through a highly pluralistic funding system. According to the DOD, the advantage of working with the universities lay in both the superior quality of university
research and the educational values of these contracts. The goal was, as stated by
HEW, “to ensure that the competent people available have the money they need.”
Even though, as we have seen, the flow of funds did not stop internecine competition in a Big Science field like high-energy physics, the HEW’s generous policy did
characterize the beginning of a golden era in science funding.
Although the Piore panel viewed the pluralistic structure—with multiple
funding sources and flexible policies—as a strength, it detected an obvious defect:
there was little coordination of federal programs. Some fields, such as meteorology, high-temperature materials research, and particle accelerators, enjoyed
support from several agencies, but without close coordination, whereas others,
such as oceanography, fell into the cracks. Without any planning, the availability
of vast sums of federal funds might cause imbalance among scientific disciplines
in the universities. Specialized “project grants” could lead researchers to crowd
into some fields and desert others. Sometimes a university might have to divert
funds from less glamorous fields into those that would attract government funds.
Unconventional scientific ideas, new fields, or unfashionable subjects might also
suffer. The panel found that geophysical sciences, for example, were in dire straits
The Control of Science Policy, 1957–1960
because the old-line agencies, such as the Geological Survey, had long ceased to
conduct much basic research. Finally, the panel felt that national planning could
also improve the nations’ scientific instruments, last refurbished in the late 1940s,
and meet the needs for construction of laboratories, not only in the AEC, but
elsewhere as well.
The most crucial condition for the healthy growth of science, the panel
concluded, was stability in governmental support. Thus it recommended that
contracts be extended to three years and never should the DOD be allowed again
to cut science funds the way it did in 1957—by canceling existing contracts. It also
endorsed one solution that had emerged from the agency briefing: the employment of broad, long-term “program grants” or “institutional grants” that would
give the universities more control and stability. Most important, it proposed that
the federal government, including both the president and Congress, make a formal commitment “to support research and recognize its importance as a national
resource in keeping the nation strong and economically sound.”13 Thus the Piore
panel differed little in principle from scientists’ statements on science policy in the
past—the Bush report of 1945 and the DuBridge–Rabi doctrines in the ODM-SAC
days—but it did advocate institutional reforms to fine tune the system.
Was a new DST the organizational answer to these problems? The Piore
panel did not think so, because, it argued, echoing the Allison Commission, that
most of the science and technology programs in the major departments were
directly related to their missions, and could not be adequately administered if
separated from these departments. Neither did it seem advisable to the panel to
lump together the independent agencies, such as the AEC, NASA, and NSF, in one
entity; each of them had its unique mission.14 Furthermore, the panel noted that
the scientific community did not seem to favor a radical change, now that Sputnik had brought scientists into the White House, the DOD was reorganized, and
research funds were increased. Indeed, an AAAS “Parliament of Science” in March
1958, attended by more than one hundred scientists from all fields, had opposed
a Department of Science on the same grounds as articulated by the Piore panel.
Equally untenable, in their view, was a proposed Department of Science for basic
research alone, for it would, AAAS scientists feared, put those parts of science that
were “least relevant to political issues” under the control of a secretary of science
“who is automatically and properly a political appointee.” Furthermore, echoing
the 1950s debate over the NSF’s role, AAAS scientists worried that a Department of
Science would make it more difficult, not easier, to justify federal funding of basic
research if it was not closely associated with the government’s practical missions,
such as defense and health.15 Whereas some critics saw this reasoning as an argument for the status quo, its advocates regarded it as a necessary recognition of the
pluralistic reality of the postwar American science policy.
A “Little Cabinet” for Science
Yet, as the Piore panel recognized, there was an urgent need for coordination of
federal R&D programs. If not a new cabinet department, what should take up this
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
function? “A Little Cabinet” for science and technology was the panel’s answer.
It proposed that, as a first step, each of the eight departments and agencies with
substantial R&D programs appoint an assistant secretary for science and technology. These policy-level officials should then form a subcabinet-level committee—a
Federal Council for Science and Technology (FCST)—that would report to the
president through his science adviser, as the chairman of the council. The council
should coordinate the government’s research activities, improve its contracting
and granting procedures, and prepare annually a three-year projection of the basic
and applied research needs for the federal government. The Piore panel believed
that this “Little Cabinet,” together with the science adviser and PSAC, could successfully coordinate science policy without radical changes such as the creation
of a DST.16
At its June 1958 meeting, PSAC members offered mixed reactions to the
“Little Cabinet.” Although most members liked the idea, a few still preferred a
more centralized DST. Lloyd Berkner, for example, wanted to bring some of the
old science bureaus into a Cabinet department and add to it new organizations
for meteorology and oceanography. This scaled-down version of a DST—some
nicknamed it a “Department of Geoscience”—received only lukewarm support.
In the end, PSAC endorsed the Piore report in general and the FCST proposal
in particular. Calling it “one of the most important reports” the committee had
worked on, Killian put it on the agenda for PSAC’s forthcoming conference with
Eisenhower on June 18, 1958.17
As always, Eisenhower took science policy seriously. Coincidentally, a few
hours before the meeting with PSAC, Eisenhower had a news conference where
he was asked about his position on a DST. Eisenhower said he doubted it was
either possible or useful, primarily because science was so widely dispersed in the
government. It was “a little bit like the air you breathe,” he quipped. Nevertheless,
he promised that he would refer the question to his science advisers.18 Hours later
he did and PSAC said it agreed with him. To PSAC’s surprise, Eisenhower was,
however, initially skeptical toward the idea of a “little cabinet for science.” “A committee could serve as a forum within which gaps and duplications would be identified, but could not have authority,” he said. Only after Piore assured him that the
council would not have operative power and that the science adviser would serve
as its chairman did Eisenhower grant approval.19
Following further interagency consultation, Eisenhower and the Cabinet formally approved the FCST.20 The White House published the Piore report under the
title of Strengthening American Science, together with an endorsement by the president.21 On March 13, 1959, Eisenhower signed Executive Order No. 10807, establishing the FCST. On the same day, he designated his special assistant for science and
technology as chairman of the FCST.22 In the meantime, despite initial protest by
Waterman, the order abolished the Interdepartmental Committee on Scientific
Research and Development. It also narrowed the NSF’s role in science policy to
“basic research” (the original wording in the 1954 executive order was “scientific
research”). The foundation, however, acquired a leadership role in coordinating
The Control of Science Policy, 1957–1960
the handling of scientific information in the federal government, as the result of
another PSAC study on the subject.23
As the centerpiece of PSAC’s plan for better science policymaking, the FCST
generated high expectations that it ultimately would fail to meet. In the American
system of government, interagency coordination was difficult to achieve even
under the best of conditions. Largely independent from each other, federal agencies enjoyed great freedom of action, guaranteed in part by their direct connections with various congressional committees. Indeed, big-ticket items in federal
R&D—space, defense, and health—largely fell outside of the FCST’s purview and
giant agencies often ignored it with impunity. The BOB, theoretically a natural ally,
however, distrusted it as a potential rival in science policy. Within the council, frictions also developed between old-line agencies, such as the Departments of Interior and Commerce, and the new, “glamour girls” in R&D, the DOD, the AEC, and
NASA.24 Thus, despite considerable effort on the part of Killian and Kistiakowsky,
the council never overcame the opposing interests of member agencies to become
a very effective instrument of science policy.25
Nevertheless, within these limits, the FCST did provide a forum for PSAC to
translate some of its ideas into action. One of the most important such initiatives
was the establishment of the national materials research program. Indispensable
to both civilian and military projects, research on materials had been carried out in
several agencies, but with little coordination. The field faced an acute shortage of
buildings and equipment on university campuses because it did not fall neatly into
traditional academic fields. Neither was it clear which, if any, federal agencies had
legal (Congressional) authorization to pay for such capital facilities in nonprofit
institutions. At the FCST’s first meeting in March 1958, William O. Baker of Bell
Labs, the prime mover on this issue within PSAC, urged the council to support a
national materials research program at universities.26 As a result, the FCST initiated
the interdisciplinary laboratories (IDL) program for materials research, first supported by the DOD’s ARPA, and later also by NASA and the AEC.27 The materials
program not only expedited materials research but also set a precedent for the federal sponsorship of new interdisciplinary scientific programs in universities. The
FCST later coordinated federal research in oceanography, atmospheric science,
high-energy physics, seismology, pesticide use, and fire control technology.28
The FCST also transformed several other recommendations of the Piore report
into policies, such as those designed to improve relations between government and
universities. It helped pass legislation that allowed agencies to provide buildings,
such as IDLs, to universities for research and promoted wider use of institutional
grants as a supplement to the traditional project grants and contracts. The FCST
also functioned as a forum for information exchange within the federal R&D
establishment. Furthermore, it provided a channel for the flow of ideas between
the scientific community, as represented by PSAC and the NAS, and the various
federal agencies. Above all, the FCST helped expand the purview of the science
advisory and policy system, especially in civilian R&D. Even Kistiakowsky came
to believe, as he accounted all the activities of PSAC and his office in an attempt
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to justify pay raises for his staff to the Civil Service Commission, “for a moment,”
that “we are the center of the government!”29 Thus, for all its weaknesses, the
science adviser–PSAC–FCST system represented a valuable attempt at long-term
science policy planning.30
The establishment of the FCST did not end the debate over a DST, but helped
to lessen the sense of urgency behind it. In spring 1959, Humphrey’s committee renewed hearings on the matter. Again, the majority of the witnesses, who
included several science administrators, William Baker, and historian A. Hunter
Dupree of Berkeley, who had completed a history of federal science policy, testified
against it as unnecessary. William F. Finan of the BOB deemed the DST impractical because all the science agencies had distinct missions and organizational structures, so grouping them together did not make sense administratively. Notably,
Finan also argued that the appointment of the presidential science adviser and
PSAC had already gone a long way toward giving science a voice in the highest
level of the government, thus obviating any need for a DST. In making this argument, Finan acknowledged a subtle expansion in PSAC’s identity from a group of
scientists wholly devoted to advising the president on science in policy to one that
included the role of speaking for the scientific community in government as well.
Finally, Finan pointed to the creation of the FCST as a step in alleviating the need
for coordination in federal science activities.31 In effect, PSAC became a symbolic
surrogate for a central scientific organization in the age of affl uence when scientists enjoyed pluralistic funding sources.32
The seemingly powerful congressional drive for a Department of Science thus
faltered in the face of strong resistance from the executive branch and the scientific
community. The lack of public interest in the subject was noted by Humphrey,
who lamented the dwindling attendance at his hearings.33 According to PSAC staff
member Robert Kreidler, the DST initiative had largely come from some of the
staff on Capitol Hill. Most members of Congress, with turfs to protect, did not feel
strongly about the matter. With the BOB “unilaterally” laying down the administration’s objection to a DST, Kreidler predicted that none of the various DST bills
would pass the Congress. None did.34
In the aftermath of the DST’s defeat, however, congressional dissatisfaction
persisted with the perceived closed nature of the White House science advisory
system. Senator Humphrey deplored the withholding of some PSAC and FCST
reports from Congress. Presciently, Senator Ralph Yarborough (D-TX) warned
about the future effectiveness or even existence of the science advisory system
when the climate of opinion changed or “when the White House has a new occupant.” Senator Mike Mansfield (D-MT) once again lashed out against the military
domination of American science.35
Given Sputnik’s enormous political and psychological impact, it is easy to see
the period as a completely new era in many areas of American public life and in
the Cold War. Yet, as this look at the Piore panel indicates, Sputnik brought surprisingly little change in science policy. Not only did the basic tenets of the grant
and contract system survive, with some modifications, but the pluralistic pattern
The Control of Science Policy, 1957–1960
of science funding also persisted. To be sure, the NIH and NASA would soon
replace the DOD and AEC as leading federal agencies funding science, but no one
emerged as a dominant patron of science. The drive for a DST failed miserably,
again. Thus, to a large degree, Sputnik enlarged the trends already set in motion
in the postwar period. It highlighted the role of national prestige in the Cold War
and gave scientists much more leverage to pursue a generous, if not always coherent, science policy.
Science Education
In contrast to the failure of the DST, another Congressional initiative, the National
Defense Education Act (NDEA), did pass in 1958, designed to improve American
education in the areas of science, mathematics, and foreign languages. Within the
administration, the HEW was the main agency responsible for implementing the
NDEA, but Killian participated in the policymaking meetings.36 For its part, PSAC
tackled a more fundamental question: how to make science attractive to Americans, especially in schools. It was a question that had preoccupied American scientists before Sputnik and one to which Eisenhower had called national attention in
his post-Sputnik speeches. In May 1959, the White House issued a PSAC report on
Education for the Age of Science, prepared by a panel under the chairmanship of Lee
DuBridge of Cal Tech, as its formal answer to the question.37
As part of PSAC’s post-Sputnik public science agenda, the report aimed to
link science with national security through a recasting of the terms of the age-old
debate over the proper role of experts in a democratic society. The purpose of a
strengthened education was, it argued, to “more fully meet the requirement of this
age of science, and best serve the nation” in the Cold War struggle. School could
no longer function merely as a laboratory of democratic “personal adjustment” as
had been advocated by the infl uential American philosopher John Dewey. Indeed,
the report blamed an obsession with “social techniques” for the prevalence of antiintellectualism. “The terms ‘egg-head’ and ‘intellectual’ are not always terms of
approbation,” it complained, “as though there was something strange about the
‘straight A’ student.” Instead, school had to take on the responsibility of turning
those “academically talented” into needed scientific manpower while providing
the rest—and by extension the general public—an understanding of science and
technology so they could judge wisely those public policy proposals that came
from the specialists and the government.38 In many ways, the report represented,
as historian John Rudolph points out, an effort to “generate greater public status
for scientists.”39
The report also forcefully supported the case of women to pursue education
and professional careers, but its language was couched in pragmatic terms, not on
the basis of gender equality or women’s rights. “Women,” it pointed out, “constitute an enormous potential resource for research, scholarship and teaching which
we have not even begun to tap. We should begin conscious efforts to assist them
to make the contributions of which they are capable.”40 In a way, even though
the report completely ignored the issue of race in American education, it shared
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with the 1954 Brown decision of the Supreme Court its emphasis on the pragmatic
imperative of American education for the Cold War.
Yet, by insisting on the public’s need and right to make informed choices in
national decisions, the PSAC panel set itself apart from advocates of technocracy
and scientism. The question was not whether it was the experts or the public that
should decide American public policy, but how to educate the public so that it could
take part in the decision-making process based on adequate knowledge and understanding of the underlying scientific and technological factors. For the public to
vote on such issues as the space program, the DuBridge report argued, it needed to
develop the critical mind to “check” on the advice provided by the experts, to draw
on knowledge beyond that provided by “science fiction or the comic strips,” and
to “think beyond the press releases and publicity statements.”41 As the panel recognized, what was at stake was not only science in policy, but also policy for science.
“A national effort is required to strengthen our scientific and technological efforts in
all fields, aimed at the advance of knowledge and the enhancement of the general
welfare. In a democracy such an effort can succeed only if it has widespread public
understanding and support.”42 Thus, as a document of American public science, the
DuBridge report was certainly self-serving, because most PSAC members were university scientists or administrators and would benefit from increased governmental
funding for science education, but it also linked PSAC’s technological skepticism
with critical thinking as a crucial element in democratic policymaking.
DuBridge and his colleagues knew that the need was to cultivate “dedication
to and respect for” not just the sciences, but “learning in all fields.” Otherwise the
public would continue to appreciate only the utility of science, but treat scientists
as “useful strangers, dimly understood and more feared than admired.” Science, it
pointed out, did have “other values,” as a training ground for critical thinking and
as a humanizing intellectual force that revealed the beauty and order of nature.43
Like PSAC’s meeting with Eisenhower on arms control, such extensive comments
on the public’s image of scientists reflected a heightened sensitivity of scientists
to their social environment in the period. If the Piore report had helped to fulfill
the institutional and financial needs of American science, the DuBridge report was
designed to improve its social and cultural image.44
Specifically, to improve American education at all levels, the DuBridge report
advocated doubling national education expenditure, modernizing curricula, and
reforming government policies. It urged federal agencies to support higher education by avoiding granting and contracting practices that might hurt teaching in universities. It recommended the strengthening of science education for adults for the
sake of democracy and, in this connection, advocated the increased use of audiovisual aids, such as public educational television. The training of science teachers
should be increased and the emphasis shifted from pedagogy to scientific content.
Above all, it recommended the enhancement of the salary and social standing of
teachers in general to attract the best people into education.45
Eisenhower reacted with mixed feelings to the DuBridge report when
Killian and DuBridge made a presentation to him and the cabinet on May 15,
The Control of Science Policy, 1957–1960
1959. Underscoring his basic conservatism, both fiscal and political, Eisenhower
did not see any federal role in improving education beyond stimulating private
resources.46 Neither did he share completely the scientists’ emphasis on science’s
special place in education. Privately, he expressed concern that too much stress
on performance, applied too early in a student’s schooling, might lead to restriction of individual choices and hurt “late bloomers.”47 Overall, however, he found
the report useful in stimulating public interest in science and education. At the
cabinet briefing and in a preface to the report, Eisenhower called it “an excellent
statement of educational goals and needs,” endorsing especially the report’s calls
to strengthen all education and to enhance teachers’ social standing.48
Public response to the published report was also mixed. Many scientists agreed
with a Science editorial that the report’s recommendations were balanced and
forward-looking, but it lacked suggestions for implementation.49 Senator Alexander Wiley of Wisconsin made a laudatory speech on the Senate floor and put the
report’s recommendations in the Congressional Record.50 Others, however, were
more critical, faulting the report as elitist and as advocating scientism without
humanistic concerns.51 The conservative Wall Street Journal applauded the report’s
criticism of the social adjustment philosophy of education but denounced its
call for doubling educational spending as throwing money at the problem.52 The
National Science Teachers Association, as a division of the National Education
Association (NEA), complained about the lack of participation of school teachers in the panel.53 The NEA itself did not endorse the report until months later.54
Nonetheless, despite its flaws, the DuBridge report opened the door for PSAC’s
continued involvement in science education and many of its recommendations
formed the foundation on which future reforms in science education would be
built. It also helped nudge the Eisenhower administration toward recognizing a
role of the federal government in education.
Government and University Science
The overall success of the Piore and DuBridge reports encouraged Kistiakowsky
and PSAC to launch, in the summer of 1959, a third investigation on science policy,
this time focusing on a topic that was even closer to its members’ hearts: federal
support of academic science and graduate education. Although the first two
reports had touched on this subject, they did not go far enough in articulating academic scientists’ voice in science policy. A chemist with his own graduate students
at Harvard even when he was working full time as the science adviser in the White
House, Kistiakowsky brought a new drive toward returning the control of science
policy from the military to the scientists, especially through increasing funds for
the civilian NSF. In late 1959, for example, he fought the BOB to gain a $15 million
increase in the NSF’s budget. He cited the NSF’s importance to American science,
education, and the Cold War effort and argued that the relatively small amount of
money could be easily deducted from the DOD’s, AEC’s, or NASA’s “pure boondoggle” projects, such as the nuclear-powered airplane. “I feel very deeply about
the matter,” he wrote the White House chief of staff, W. B. Persons, “as if my
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personal integrity as a scientist were at stake.”55 Beginning with Kistiakowsky, if
the science advisers and PSAC played any favor among the federal agencies, they
did it with the NSF—the foundation became their own interest based on both the
principle of antimilitarism and institutional self-interest.
At the first PSAC meeting under his chairmanship in July 1959, Kistiakowsky
proposed and the committee agreed to the formation of a panel on basic research
and graduate education. Glenn T. Seaborg, recently inaugurated chancellor of
the University of California at Berkeley and a PSAC member, chaired the panel.
The new study was expected not only to bridge the two earlier reports, but also
to help develop specific policies that would strengthen the universities.56 Seaborg
brought long interest and much experience in the matter to his appointment. As
early as March 1957, he had analyzed the problems and promises in federal support of university science in a thoughtful speech that argued for its expansion
and a liberalization of science policy. Much of the speech would later find its
way into his panel report.57 Yet, more than national interest motivated Seaborg’s
speech and his guiding of the PSAC panel: his effort to establish a Space Science
Laboratory at Berkeley had been hampered by a cut in NASA’s science budget
and by a funding policy that preferred projects to programs or buildings. Indeed,
when accepting Killian’s invitation to join PSAC in early 1959, Seaborg had hoped
that his PSAC membership would enhance his position as Berkeley chancellor and that “the contacts I would make with other PSAC members would be
helpful to the University.”58 In his mind and those of his fellow PSAC members,
there was no doubt that their institutional self-interest meshed with the national
interest in advancing science and education. Still concerned about the Soviet
scientific and technological challenge, the public and Congress largely accepted
the reasoning as well.
The Seaborg panel, however, ran into bureaucratic politics even before it held
its first meeting. The NSF at first resented PSAC’s poaching into its own area of
responsibility. Kistiakowsky, however, assured Waterman that the Seaborg panel
would work closely with the NSF. As a tactical move, Seaborg promptly invited
Waterman to be a member of his panel.59 In contrast to the NSF’s initial coolness,
the Office of Education, as part of the HEW, invited the Seaborg panel to advise
on its new NDEA graduate fellowship programs. Perhaps unexpectedly, the panel
of mostly natural scientists recommended that a larger proportion of the NDEA
fellowships be allocated to the humanities and social sciences. In a less altruistic
frame of mind, the panel reminded the Office of Education not to neglect the elite
universities when it implemented the congressional will for geographic distribution of federal funds.60
Following this excursion into direct science policy and an extensive round
of briefings from federal science administrators, the Seaborg panel developed a
central thesis on the inseparability of basic research and graduate education. It
concluded that the federal government needed to formulate a science policy that
would advance both at the same time. The panel believed that the current funding
mechanism of project grants or contracts and the trend toward research institutes
The Control of Science Policy, 1957–1960
on campuses favored research at the expense of graduate training. If continued,
the practices could harm the long-term health of science and damage the scientific
enterprise by separating research from training. To strike a balance, the panel,
amplifying the Piore report, recommended more federal support to universities in
the form of institutional grants.
Not all PSAC members agreed with this justification of federal support for
academic science, however. John Tukey of Princeton and Bell Labs, for example,
questioned the “inseparability principle,” pointing out that government and
industrial laboratories did excellent research without having educational programs. In response, Seaborg conceded the validity of the criticism but nevertheless emphasized the importance of graduate education to the long-term health
of scientific research and the creation of a desirable atmosphere of learning at a
research institution.61
The draft report also stirred a vigorous debate within PSAC over who should
have control over science policy. Although most members agreed with the general
philosophy of strengthening universities, they, like Eisenhower, worried about the
political implications of direct federal aid to higher education. Some members
feared that the panel’s recommendation of institutional grants, in contrast to
project grants, would give the federal government more control of universities.
Physicist John Bardeen of the University of Illinois, for example, doubted that the
time was ripe for institutional grants and implored the panel to anticipate possible
problems in their implementation. Would the institutional grants be awarded on
merit or distributed “on a geographic or political basis?” Chemist Donald Hornig
of Princeton saw no desirable alternative to merit as the criterion for allocation
of funds, but he worried that the departmental structure of universities ill prepared them in the distribution of institutional grants, for a random distribution of
funds among departments would not help desirable national planning in science
or interdisciplinary research. Physicist Harvey Brooks of Harvard expressed his
belief that the government was already “attempting” to infl uence the direction of
the scientific enterprise and that, as an embodiment of society, it probably had the
right to. Yet, he thought it was wrong to cede control of the direction of science
to government. Panofsky, speaking of his experience working with the AEC on
SLAC, warned about the risks involved in close ties between the universities and
the government. Whereas the NIH and NSF largely left their scientist-grantees
alone, the AEC tended to micromanage its labs, which led to an “unsatisfactory
working relationship” with scientists.62
Playing the devil’s advocate from the other end of the government–university
partnership, Kistiakowsky, however, tried to dampen the rhetoric of entitlement
that he detected among his PSAC colleagues. Although sharing Panofsky’s concern
about governmental control of science, he worried even more about justifying government support of science in the first place. Experienced in the politics of science
by now, he bluntly told the Seaborg panel that its first draft was “too much a plea”
for more money. It was “essential for the success of science in the White House
and its impact on policy-making,” he said, that the panel avoid the appearance of
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science as a special interest. The panel should build its argument for federal support of university science not on the needs of the universities, but on the needs of
the government. Thus the report should make not just ringing statements about
the necessity for federal support, but also specific recommendations on how to
improve the distribution and use of existing funds. As Killian put it, PSAC needed
to consider “how to present these ideas in the most palatable form for this Administration.”63 Even less sympathetic was physicist Alvin Weinberg of Oak Ridge, who
had just joined PSAC. He saw the draft as an “overstated and slightly hysterical”
justification for federal support of academic science, especially big science such as
high-energy physics. “Can we in fact prove or even document the assertion . . . that
‘strengthening of basic research’ determines ‘whether we survive at all’?”64
The final report, which was drafted by McGeorge Bundy of Harvard (a member of the Seaborg panel but not PSAC) and which tried to incorporate some of
these criticisms, was a forceful statement of the need for a strong government–
university partnership in science and education. Starting with the inseparability
of basic research and graduate education, it asserted the unique role of the universities as “the natural holders and custodians of the knotted core” of American
science and education. Reflecting Kistiakowsky’s concern, the report argued that
the federal government should advance science in general and university science in
particular to fulfill its—government’s—broad missions of strengthening national
security and promoting public welfare. Addressing other PSAC members’ concern
over the question of control, it advocated that complete scientific responsibility
“remain with the universities” and that the federal government not seek to supervise technical operations directly.65
Given the fact that the government already provided a whopping 70 percent
of all funds for academic science, the report’s blunt assertion that university science was a national problem and primarily the federal government’s responsibility—“From this responsibility the Federal Government has no escape”—was as much a
statement of reality as an advocacy of policy.66 However, the panel did feel that
there was a need to reorient federal science policy from “buying” research to
ensuring the steady growth of universities—and supply of manpower—to win the
Cold War for the long haul. Echoing the Piore report, it advocated institutional
grants to supplement project grants and contracts, together with coverage of full
indirect costs and provision of research buildings to universities. The report did
not spell out criteria for selecting universities for institutional grants, although
it did urge the government “to support excellence where it already exists and to
encourage new centers of outstanding work.” Neither did it suggest a uniform
formula for calculating overheads, or tackle the difficult issue of patents arising
from federally funded research. Many of the reforms it did focus on were already
in place in some federal agencies.67 Yet, the sum was greater than the parts. What
the Seaborg report called for was a new and coherent science policy beyond the ad
hoc responses to the Sputnik crisis, to be established by the president himself with
the aid of the science adviser, PSAC, and the FCST, and carried out primarily by
the NSF and the HEW.68
The Control of Science Policy, 1957–1960
The Seaborg report, first circulating in the government in its draft form, drew
largely encouraging responses. The FCST formally endorsed the study at its
meeting in September 1960. Although some council members urged modifications
to give stronger emphasis to the need for reforms by the universities and the need
for private contributions, most welcomed it as an important step toward a closer
university–government partnership. NASA administrator Keith Glennan and HEW
Secretary Arthur Flemming, both former college presidents, praised the report as
“formidable” and “constructive.”69 Their endorsements were significant because the
two agencies were in good positions to implement the report. Indeed, in the 1960s,
the HEW would surpass the DOD and NASA would overtake the AEC in funding
academic science, especially through the use of institutional grants.70
Once again Eisenhower was, initially and characteristically, ambivalent toward
the Seaborg report’s advocacy for an expansion of the federal role in science.
He was especially bothered by the report’s apparent call for increasing faculty
salaries through federal grants—Kistiakowsky assured him that the report only
recommended federal payment for faculty’s summer months but not as a way
to increase the base salary. At his demand, the panel also added a statement on
patents.71 Later, after careful study of the revised report, however, Eisenhower
rather warmly endorsed it and approved its publication by the White House. In a
statement drafted by Kistiakowsky for inclusion in the report, Eisenhower spoke
of American science as “one of our essential resources for national security and
welfare,” and called for a closer federal–university partnership to advance both
basic research and graduate education.72 Indeed, the report helped convince
Eisenhower to accept, as he told PSAC in their meeting on July 12, 1960, that “the
federal government must provide support for basic research.” “Gentlemen, I think
you have convinced me,” he said, according to Kistiakowsky, “I am convinced that
basic research is a federal responsibility.”73
The scientific community and the universities received the report with much
greater enthusiasm than they did the DuBridge report. Science magazine printed
the document in its entirety. From the White House, Kistiakowsky’s staff also sent
tens of thousands of copies to eager university presidents, graduate school deans,
and other administrators in higher education across the country.74 The report’s
recommendation that the government help universities to enlarge their permanent
faculties, by allowing “charges against all Federal grants and contracts for time
spent by faculty members on work so supported,” generated especially keen interest among university presidents.75
More than specific measures, the Seaborg report helped set the stage for the
radical changes in federal policy toward higher education in the 1960s. It linked
graduate education with basic research and both with national security and national
prestige, thus paving the way for general aid to higher education that followed the
Higher Education Act of 1963.76 As a product of the post-Sputnik enthusiasm for
science and technology, the Seaborg report served, for better or worse, to formally
establish the American government–university partnership on the basis of science
for the Cold War. Even more than the Piore and DuBridge reports, it represented
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a major update of the Bush report in both general philosophy and specific policies
as well as a peak in American public science.
A Chain of Science Policy
If the Seaborg report articulated a philosophical argument for the government’s
support of science, another Kistiakowsky initiative sought to revamp American
science policy organizationally. Forecasting an eventual end to the post-Sputnik
science funding boom, he saw the need for a system of national planning in science
to make the necessary hard choices, not only within a particular field, as the Piore
panel on high-energy physics did for that discipline, but also among all the sciences.
For this purpose, he envisioned the involvement of the NAS and a strengthened
FCST in a conduit of science advising: a list of priorities would originate with the
NAS, undergo reviews by the science adviser and PSAC, and then reach the FCST,
which would then compare it with a parallel list drawn by its member agencies. A
compromise emerging from such a process should, like the congressional “conference report” between the House and Senate, guide the final step in national science
policy in the form of budgetary allocations to different scientific fields and federal
agencies.77 Implicit in this system was a desire to increase the infl uence of scientists
in “policy for science.” Ambitiously, Kistiakowsky hoped that the office of science
adviser and PSAC could, like Herbert York’s ODDRE in the Pentagon, act as an
“authorizing committee” in science for the entire executive branch.
The novelty of the Kistiakowsky plan was the prominent role it assigned
the NAS in setting scientific priorities. Why not PSAC or NSF for that function?
Kistiakowsky believed that PSAC could, and indeed did, call attention to the inadequacy of basic research support, but its membership was not representative of
all sciences. In addition, it was too much preoccupied with national security issues
and other science in policy matters. The NSF had great merit as the only federal
body with a mission to support science for its own sake, but it was a government
agency, and a relatively weak one at that, making it inappropriate and impractical
to arbitrate the relative merits of various scientific fields.78
Kistiakowsky’s scheme met with both support and resistance. Eisenhower gave
his “most vigorous” endorsement because the idea of private–public cooperation
in government policymaking appealed to him.79 In contrast, several PSAC members expressed misgivings about the plan. Rabi, for example, opposed it in favor of
a Department of Science “to press for science.” He was concerned that without
such a department, science policies would be increasingly made by bureaucrats and
not scientists. Bacher agreed that a Department of Science was needed to protect
research’s proper share of government R&D funds in the face of the post-Sputnik
emphasis on development. Piore likewise endorsed a DST to give better representation of science to the public and to Congress, as did Alvin Weinberg, who hoped
that it would provide a better focus for government laboratories. Clearly, the matter of control was the key in the debate over science policy.80
Faced with these criticisms, Kistiakowsky defended his plan. He pointed out
that a secretary of science would not help much because the Cabinet was not
The Control of Science Policy, 1957–1960
the center of policymaking. In contrast, his NAS–PSAC–-FCST chain of science
policy would enjoy not only access to the president but also the vast intellectual
resources of the academy to generate fresh ideas.81 However, Killian’s concern that
the Kistiakowsky plan would draw PSAC and the science adviser deeply, and in his
view, dangerously, into administrative and budgetary matters did give everyone a
cause for pause.82 At Kistiakowsky’s request, Weinberg chaired an ad hoc panel on
“science in government” to consider all the relevant issues.83 It eventually helped
Kistiakowsky draft a report that retained his “conduit for advice” scheme and a set
of other recommendations for Eisenhower, which won PSAC’s approval.84
The BOB, however, opposed the Kistiakowsky plan and drew up its own
report on American science policy.85 The BOB’s plan was, like PSAC’s, naturally
self-centered, because budgeting set priorities for all federal programs, scientific
and otherwise. As proud generalists, the BOB harbored suspicion toward those
it viewed as specialists or special interests. Thus when Kistiakowsky volunteered
PSAC’s help in 1960 to the BOB in its evaluation of the civilian R&D budget for
FY 1962, bureau director Maurice Stans turned down the offer, citing the danger of
introducing another “pressure group.” Kistiakowsky thereupon told Stans that the
bureau “can’t tell me how to advise the President” and that he and PSAC would
fight for the science budget on their own.86 The Kistiakowsky report now presented
fresh evidence to the bureau that scientists did form a special-interest group: it
sought to place public policy in the hands of semiprivate groups such as PSAC
and the NAS. The bureau also objected to PSAC’s advocacy of the appointment of
assistant secretaries for R&D in departments or giving statutory position to PSAC
as unnecessarily tying the administration’s hands.87 Finally, the BOB convinced
the Eisenhower White House not to publish the Kistiakowsky report but merely
transmit it to the next administration.88 Notably, neither the Kistiakowsky nor the
BOB plans gave a prominent place to Congress and the public in the formulation
of science policy. Congress would eventually get to dispose of what the executive branch proposed, but there was no mechanism in either plan for the public,
through Congress or civil society institutions, to participate at the early stage of
setting priorities in federal support of science.
Thus, by the end of the Eisenhower administration, the battle over the control
of American science policy was fought to a stalemate on many fronts. Capitalizing
on the extraordinarily conducive atmosphere in the post-Sputnik era, PSAC scientists, especially under Kistiakowsky, made unprecedented moves to gain a voice of
scientists in American science policy. They even convinced President Eisenhower
that university science and basic research were a federal responsibility. Through its
three reports—Piore, DuBridge, and Seaborg—PSAC not only helped fend off the
drive for a DST, but also gained acceptance for several changes in science policy
with far-reaching impact. The BOB’s opposition to Kistiakowsky’s chain of science
policy, however, indicated that the duality problem continued to plague American
public scientists even in this post-Sputnik golden age of science and scientists in the
government. As the scale of federal R&D continued to skyrocket, the fight over the
control of American science policy was destined to intensify.
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
Figure 10.1 President Eisenhower holding his last meeting with the President’s Science
Advisory Committee, 1960. Left to right, seated: James Fisk, George Kistiakowsky,
Eisenhower, James Killian, I. I. Rabi; standing: George Beadle, Donald Hornig, Jerome
Wiesner, Walter Zinn, Harvey Brooks, Alvin Weinberg, Glenn Seaborg (behind Weinberg), David Beckler, Emanuel Piore, John Tukey, Wolfgang Panofsky, John Bardeen,
Detlev Bronk, and Robert Loeb. Courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library.
Eisenhower’s Farewell Speech
As the Eisenhower administration drew to a close, the president gave a final boost
to PSAC’s drive for scientists to play a prominent role in American science and
public policy when they held their last conference on December 19, 1960 (see Figure 10.1) As mentioned previously, the poignant meeting, taking place shortly after
Kennedy’s election victory, caught Eisenhower in a melancholy state of mind. He
seemed genuinely touched when Killian, at Kistiakowsky’s request and on behalf
of the committee, reviewed PSAC’s achievements and thanked the president for
support and inspiration. In response, Eisenhower expressed his own gratitude to
PSAC for its assistance to him in policymaking and his hope that PSAC, as a “voluntary” and “grassroots” group working with the government, would survive the
transition and be able to act as an antidote to tendencies toward “centralized dictation and attitudes of omniscience” he foresaw in the Kennedy administration.89
Given this ringing endorsement of the role of his science advisers—indeed, the
mutual admiration between the advisers and the advisee—PSAC scientists were
shocked when, a month later, they heard the retiring president’s farewell speech in
which he sounded an alarm against not only the military-industrial complex, but
also the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientifictechnological elite.” Did the president mean PSAC and did he change his mind
The Control of Science Policy, 1957–1960
about its continued role in American government? Like many others then and
since, they interpreted the warning as one about the possibility that science and
scientists in government might serve to weaken American democratic ideals. Some
scientists even feared that Eisenhower “was turning against science,” as George
Kistiakowsky, who was not involved in the drafting of the address, reported to
Eisenhower the day following the address.90
Eisenhower became “quite upset” by the scientists’ reaction to his speech.
Following a reception in the White House, he took Kistiakowsky from the party
to a private room and ordered tall scotches. He assured Kistiakowsky that he was
“unhesitatingly” for basic academic research and feared only the rising tide of the
militarization of science. The “scientific-technological elite” were those scientists
and engineers who pushed the “military-industrial complex.”91 At the president’s
direction, Kistiakowsky wrote a letter the next day to every PSAC member clarifying the president’s intent. As the most explicit and complete contemporary explanation of Eisenhower’s famous but often misunderstood second warning, it is
worth quoting in its entirety:
With the approval of the President, I want to inform you of the subject of a
long, private conversation which we had, on his initiative, during the farewell
staff party yesterday (Wednesday). The President inquired about my reaction
to his reference to science and technology in the course of his TV address
Tuesday night. I said that they disturbed me at the time, but that after reading
his speech carefully the next day and also hearing his response to a question of
the Science Newsservice reporter at the Press Conference Wednesday morning, I
understood that his statement referred to a particular segment of science and
technology, namely that tied to the military-munitions industry complex. I said
also that our office had already received some inquiries about the meaning of
his remarks.
The President expressed extreme concern that his remarks could have
been misunderstood. He said that he made an especial effort in wording his
speech to make clear the connection of what he called the scientific-technological elite with the military-armament industry complex and to distinguish
it from the true scientific research to which he paid tribute. He spoke of his
concern and forebodings on seeing hundreds of pages of ads tying “science”
to armament, assuring the people that research meant better missiles, etc.
He said that even the educational institutions, whose task it is to support free
intellectual inquiry and the acquisition of new scientific knowledge, were in
the competition for big money military R&D contracts and were infl uencing
research people on their staff to abandon basic research for the sake of higher
monetary rewards.
He believes that this emphasis on military R&D in our industry, press and
institutions of higher learning is creating a most dangerous combination of
special interest which is of real danger to the future of our free society. He
believes that even the need for increased numbers of scientists and engineers
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
may be quite artificial and due to their being hoarded by the military-industrial
The President was very friendly but emphatic in his comments, and as I
listened to him I found an extraordinary degree of similarity between his convictions and the remarks on the same subject which I heard from most of you
at many meetings of our Committee. Therefore, I believe, we should make a
real effort to explain to all and sundry that may inquire what the President had
on his mind when he made the statement about the “elite” in his TV address. I
understood that this is his wish also.92
Here, more clearly than anywhere else, one sees the convergence of PSAC’s technological skepticism and Eisenhower’s conservatism in their shared moral concern
over the militarization of American science and society. Kistiakowsky later sent an
abbreviated version of his letter to the editor of Science, who promptly published
it as part of an editorial.93
Similarly, during his press conference on January 18, 1961 to which Kistiakowsky referred, Eisenhower, in explaining his remarks on the “elite,” returned to
the theme of his final meeting with PSAC: the role of citizens, including citizen
scientists like PSAC, acting as a counterbalance to the pervasive infl uence of the
military-industrial complex and its scientific-technological elite:
Q. Lillian Levy, Science Service: Mr. President, last night you called
attention to the danger that public policy could become the captive of a
scientific technological elite. What specific steps would you recommend to
prevent this?
The President: I know nothing here that is possible, or useful, except the
performance of the duties of responsible citizenship. It is only a citizenry,
an alert and informed citizenry which can keep these abuses from coming
about. And I did point out last evening that some of this misuse of infl uence and power could come about unwittingly but just by the very nature
of the thing. When you see almost every one of your magazines, no matter
what they are advertising, has a picture of the Titan missile or the Atlas or
solid fuel or other things, there is becoming a great infl uence, almost an
insidious penetration of our own minds that the only thing this country is
engaged in is weaponry and missiles. And, I’ll tell you we just can’t afford
to do that. The reason we have them is to protect the great values in which
we believe, and they are far deeper even than our own lives and our own
property, as I see it.94
This remarkable statement was consistent with Eisenhower’s earlier expressions
to PSAC that science was more than weapons. Indeed, it appears clear that Eisenhower, like Robert Wilson, regarded science, as a symbol of the freedom of inquiry,
to be among the values that made the country worth defending in the first place.
The statement further helps us understand what he meant when he told PSAC
scientists in the December 19 meeting that he hoped that they, as a “voluntary” and
The Control of Science Policy, 1957–1960
“grassroots” group, would continue into the new administration. They were an
essential part of the “alert and informed citizenry” that he hoped would moderate
the militarization of American society at home and the arms race internationally.
Finally, it also helps us to understand his eventual acceptance of PSAC’s advocacy
of federal support of basic research: as applied research and development were
increasingly devoted to weaponry, it was crucial that basic research be promoted
so it would not be crowded out of the collective American consciousness or in the
perception of what science stood for. Whether realistic or not, science appeared to
both Eisenhower and PSAC as Archimedes’s “leverage point” from which to counterbalance the onslaught of the military-technological momentum.
After leaving office, Eisenhower several times expressed his appreciation for his
science advisers and took pride in their achievements. In his memoir on his second
term, Waging Peace, for example, he wrote that:
The appointment of Dr. Killian, and later Dr. George B. Kistiakowsky of Harvard worked out wonderfully. In character and accomplishment they could
have had no superiors. Whatever the tasks . . . the scientific adviser kept me
enlightened. My “wizard” helped me to keep the subject of space away from
becoming a “race” and from deteriorating into a series of stunts. He helped
to make certain that the government was supporting both basic and applied
research. Without such distinguished help, any President in our time would be,
to a certain extent, disabled.95
In short, he appreciated PSAC scientists’ help in both science in policy and policy
for science. They were truly his scientists. In contrast, when Herbert York pressed
Eisenhower after his retirement about what particular people he had in mind when
he warned the nation about the “scientific-technological elite” that might make
public policy its captive, “he answered without hesitation: ‘(Wernher) von Braun
and (Edward) Teller.”96 He never wavered in the choice of science advisers he made
in the tense days following Sputnik.
The evident identification of the views of Eisenhower and his science advisers on
the necessity of both arms control and federal support of basic research does not
obviate the need to examine more closely the nature of the justification for the
science–state partnership during the Cold War. As I hope has become clear, institutional self-interest did form an important part of PSAC scientists’ motivation
to strengthen this partnership in the post-Sputnik days. Contrary to Eisenhower’s
belief that they were in Washington “to help the country and not help themselves,”
PSAC members, as public scientists, advocated policies, especially in the area of
policy for science, that benefited their profession and their institutions, if not
themselves directly and personally.97 From the Piore and DuBridge studies to the
Seaborg and Kistiakowsky reports, PSAC campaigned to increase federal support
of basic research, especially science in universities from which most of its members came. As Killian declared “happily” at the Symposium on Basic Research in
I k e , S p ut n i k , a n d t h e R i s e o f P S A C
1959, “in the past year-and-a-half, basic research has been gaining” in comparison
to applied R&D. Probably more than any other institution, PSAC was responsible
for the reversal in the fortune of basic research. Federal support for basic research
would continue to grow well into the next decade.98 In the meantime, in both
science in policy and policy for science, PSAC became, in Killian’s words during a
committee meeting, the “beachhead” of science in government.99
Yet, to argue that institutional self-interest partially motivated PSAC scientists’
advocacy of basic research did not mean that it was wholly or otherwise unjustified. In the post-New Deal American democratic system, interest-group politics
increasingly became the way to distribute national resources. There were dangers
of potential abuses and confl ict of interest in this system, but the solution was
not for the government to keep scientists out of science policy but instead to
strengthen the checks and balances in the democratic system and to introduce
greater transparency in the science advisory process. As we have seen, by the
end of his association with them, even President Eisenhower came to agree with
PSAC scientists that federal support of basic scientific research was in the national
interest. Implicitly, at least, he came to share PSAC’s conviction that government
engagement in basic research might act as a counterbalance to the militaryindustrial complex’s single-minded drive to produce new technological weapons
systems. In this sense, ODM-SAC and PSAC scientists’ efforts to update the Bush
justification of basic research not only as a source of new technological developments but also as an antidote to rampant technological enthusiasm might have
finally achieved a measure of acceptance. One might argue that it was this sense
of technological skepticism built on the primacy of basic research that contributed
to Eisenhower’s increasing use of science advice as much as did its independence
from the military services or other parochial interests. Such a linkage among basic
research, technological skepticism, and arms control also gave a certain degree
of coherence to what PSAC stood for in the monumental post-Sputnik American
debate over science and technology policy.
In this context, it is important to recognize that the convergence of views
between Eisenhower and PSAC was not merely the result, as sometimes is claimed,
of the scientists’ education of the president. Yes, PSAC scientists’ clear-eyed explanations of both the potentials and limits of technological solutions to various
national problems did enhance Eisenhower’s understanding of his choices, but
what is striking is the way in which PSAC scientists themselves had evolved, under
Eisenhower’s infl uence, in their own thinking on science, technology, and the Cold
War national security state. In the early post-Sputnik days, under Killian, PSAC
scientists, although skeptical of technological solutions to the Cold War, did play
a prominent part in creating the atmosphere in which both “the military-industrial
complex” and its “scientific-technological elite” flourished. They had steadfastly
argued for the increase of military R&D, especially basic research. They wanted
the military, as mentioned before, to “strike deep roots in our civilian scientific
community.” Indeed, despite its moderation under Kistiakowsky, the identification
of American science with national security during the Cold War was PSAC’s main
The Control of Science Policy, 1957–1960
justification for federal support of science. As the SLAC case indicated, the Sputnik crisis did allow PSAC scientists to deploy national prestige as a new rationale
for public support of science. The Seaborg report did help to convince President
Eisenhower of the federal role in basic research, not a mean achievement. Yet,
for all their eloquence, neither the seminal Bush report of 1945 nor the several
PSAC reports on American science policy in the late 1950s ever established a firm
foundation for the scientists’ cherished ideal of public support of science for its
own sake.100 Only by the end of the Eisenhower administration did PSAC scientists
come to recognize the accelerating effects of military R&D on the arms race and
the “hazards” inherent in federal domination of American science and education.101
Clearly, PSAC was aware of the dangers of technocracy, and indeed made, as
detailed earlier in this book, informed and infl uential criticism of what it regarded
as “undisciplined” technological enthusiasm in its advising to Eisenhower on space
and military technology, but it was Eisenhower who posed the issue of militarization of American science and society most starkly before the American people.
Although Eisenhower’s farewell speech amplified PSAC’s technological skepticism, it, at the same time, also transformed the public discourse on science and
society. In the early post-Sputnik days, it was Eisenhower who, with PSAC’s support, put the emphasis on science’s role in serving national security. Now his twin
warnings highlighted the potentials of science and technology as both a threat
and an aid to the democratic system. Most PSAC scientists believed that American science and state shared common interests within the democratic framework.
Eisenhower, too, was sympathetic to this ideal, but his foreboding about the
thin line that separated science for peace from science for war helped, perhaps
unwittingly, sow the seed for full-blown public doubts about the military–science
partnership. This and other social and political developments would shape the
environment for PSAC scientists as they continued to pursue their twin goals of
sustaining the science–state partnership and controlling the nuclear arms race in
the next decade and beyond.
Science at the New Frontier
under Kennedy, 1960–1963
“The New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not,” John Kennedy declared on
July 15, 1960, when he accepted the Democratic Party nomination for president at the
Coliseum in Los Angeles. “Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and
space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and
prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”1 Kennedy’s highlighting
of science was endorsed by Time magazine when it chose “U.S. Scientists” as “Men
of the Year” for 1960, featuring several PSAC members as well as Edward Teller on
its cover.2 For Kennedy, the rhetoric of the New Frontier stood not only for challenges ahead but also for liberal reforms in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson’s New
Freedom and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Although Kennedy spelled out few
specifics of this agenda during the campaign, observers such as Dwight Eisenhower
and PSAC scientists widely expected an activist administration intent on pursuing a
new set of domestic and international policies with profound implications for American science and technology.
One of the earliest and sharpest departures came in space, where Kennedy broke
Eisenhower’s policy of discouraging manned programs when he committed the
nation to the ambitious Apollo Project of landing men on the moon before the end
of the 1960s. However, the most important change took place in nuclear strategy,
as Kennedy attempted to move from “massive retaliation” to “flexible responses” by
beefing up American conventional forces. Although, as historians have increasingly
come to realize, the Eisenhower–Kennedy transition represented no radical break in
the American ideology of liberal consensus that was anchored on anticommunism
abroad and incremental reform at home, and, indeed, nuclear deterrence remained
the essence of Kennedy’s Cold War strategy, the reorientation in defense policy did
pave the way for renewed American willingness to engage in limited wars in Vietnam and elsewhere.3 Like Eisenhower, Kennedy pursued the nuclear test ban vigorously, hoping not only to relax international tension, but also, to a much greater
extent than did Eisenhower, to reduce radiation fallout hazard and to prevent China
from acquiring the bomb.4 In domestic policy, Kennedy followed the post-New Deal
Democratic and liberal tradition of seeking social reforms through the expansion
of federal programs. Thus, the new administration brought not only increasing
attention to domestic social problems, partly as a response to the surging civil rights
movement, but also an effort to expand federal aid to education, including academic
science. For American public scientists who pushed for federal support of science
and for arms control and who continued to find their spokesmen in PSAC, the Kennedy years promised vast new opportunities as well as novel challenges.
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
Wiesner, PSAC, and Kennedy
The beginning of the Kennedy administration brought both changes and continuity to the presidential science advisory system, starting with the replacement of
Kistiakowsky by Wiesner as the science adviser. During the 1960 election, Jerome
Wiesner had served as Kennedy’s informal science adviser while remaining,
remarkably, a member of Eisenhower’s PSAC on the condition that he not use
classified information or publicly criticize the Eisenhower administration in the
campaign.5 The Nixon camp “wasn’t very happy” with this arrangement, but Kistiakowsky, citing Eisenhower’s special permission, refused to terminate Wiesner’s
PSAC membership.6 The contrast in elite scientific backing was embarrassing to
the vice president: The Democrats claimed Wiesner and several former PSAC
members (e.g., Hans Bethe, Edward Purcell, and Jerrold Zacharias) in their science
advisory group, but none associated with the committee joined the Republican
camp.7 Teller was active around Nixon, and Kistiakowsky so feared a takeover of
PSAC by Teller if Nixon won the election that at one point he encouraged James
Killian, as a “national service,” to join the Nixon campaign and preempt Teller.8
This episode indicated that the scientific establishment was not only “apolitical and
would advise anyone who might ascend to political power,” as historian A. Hunter
Dupree put it, but intentionally positioned its bipartisan resources to ensure that
science and technology policy remain in the hands of moderate scientists regardless of the outcome of the election.9
Shortly after the election, Kistiakowsky met with Paul Nitze, one of Kennedy’s
transition advisers, to push the new administration to give early attention to science policy, including the selection of a science adviser.10 He was disappointed to
hear that, despite Kennedy’s campaign rhetoric about science at the New Frontier,
science advice was not a top priority with the new team. Kistiakowsky warned that
Kennedy would need help from his science adviser in handling the chaotic federal
R&D system—“the fastest growing part” of the federal budget. He believed that
he and PSAC had made “good progress” in beefing up technical evaluative strength
in the DOD (with “York’s shop”), NASA, HEW, and the State Department, but
the AEC, under Strauss and McCone, “had gone its own independent way.”11 Even
military R&D was not in perfect shape, as Nitze recorded in his note of what Kistiakowsky told him:
. . . the Services were squandering money and particular talent on things which
couldn’t have any use. It is always possible for the Pentagon staffs to produce
briefings which leave the top officials no option but to approve the project. . . .
To cut through this, Kistiakowsky and his people have had to go down to the fine
detail on which the important decisions depend. This often means going into
the laboratories and scientific staffs of the contractors and subcontractors.12
To solve these problems, Kistiakowsky urged that Kennedy appoint a science
advisor early; he nominated Wiesner because he was known to Kennedy, “young,
brilliant and highly regarded by his fellow members on the Advisory Committee.”
Science at the New Frontier, 1960–1963
With his help Kennedy could further strengthen federal R&D policy with the
appointments of assistant secretaries for science and technology in the various
However, Wiesner’s appointment was not immediately forthcoming. Several
Kennedy advisers, including McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser-designate, were concerned about Wiesner’s reputation as a passionate advocate for arms
control.14 Even Kistiakowsky had cautioned Nitze that Wiesner tended to be “an
enthusiast for a single approach.”15 Wiesner’s participation at the December 1960
Pugwash conference in Moscow, where scientists from the United States, Soviet
Union, and other countries met to discuss science and world affairs and where he
gave a presentation on “Comprehensive Arms Limitation Systems,” aroused much
controversy at home.16 Wiesner justified his role in Pugwash as a way to improve
communication with Russian and Chinese scientists (and to counterbalance “wildeyed radicals”), but conservative critics charged that Wiesner and other American
participants were “babes in the woods dealing with the shrewdly calculating Russians.”17 Science reported “lobbying” against Wiesner’s appointment inside the Pentagon because he was “too much interested in disarmament.”18 The Senate Internal
Security Subcommittee launched an investigation of the Pugwash conferences as
being infl uenced by the Communists.19 Joseph McCarthy was dead, but anticommunism still haunted Washington.
In the end, Kennedy, who shared Wiesner’s commitment to arms control,
decided to proceed with the appointment. “I understand some people think I am
wrong for the job,” Wiesner told Kennedy when he accepted the offer, “because
I’m too identified with disarmament and have a reputation for arguing too much.”
“The issue of your disarmament views is for me to worry about,” Kennedy
responded. “Why do you think I want you for the job?” With this vote of confidence, Wiesner went on the transition team. By the time his appointment was
publicly announced on January 11, 1961, he had already worked with Kistiakowsky
for several weeks, especially on a new space policy.20 He was also able, as advocated
by Kistiakowsky, to advise on the appointments of assistant secretaries for research
and development at most federal departments, including the appointment of the
prominent oceanographer Roger Revelle as science adviser to Secretary of the
Interior Stewart Udall. All these moves bolstered scientific presence in the federal
government, especially in the FCST.21
Contrary to common perceptions but confirming Eisenhower’s concern, Kennedy hesitated, at least initially, to continue Eisenhower’s PSAC when proposed
by Wiesner. “Weren’t they likely to have allegiance to the other side?” he asked.
Apparently Kennedy, despite several prominent Republican appointments in his
administration, did care about the partisan affiliations of his appointments and did
not know that at least half of PSAC members were Democrats. Wiesner assured
Kennedy that PSAC’s loyalty was to the institution of the presidency. Eisenhower
never asked about the political affiliation of PSAC members, he added. “If he had
cared,” Wiesner smiled, “I wouldn’t have been on the committee.”22 Kennedy
decided to give PSAC the benefit of the doubt by keeping it, thus reinforcing
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
Eisenhower’s treatment of the committee as a nonpartisan institution. Yet, the
incident indicated that Kennedy, like Eisenhower before him and other presidents
following him, instinctively resisted the entry of independent scientists in the
president’s intrinsically political inner world.
Kennedy soon had reasons to be happy that he did not disband PSAC. With
Wiesner’s encouragement, Kennedy appointed several members of the committee to key posts in his administration. Glenn Seaborg became chairman of the
AEC after he clarified with the Kennedy staff that he was indeed a loyal Democrat
despite some press reports that had identified him as a Nixon adviser.23 His reputation as a moderate advocate for arms control within PSAC was viewed as especially
important to Kennedy’s push for a nuclear test ban. Seaborg’s new position also
gave him a powerful platform to push for the implementation of his PSAC panel
report on increasing federal funding for basic research and graduate education.24
Harold Brown of Livermore succeeded Herbert York as the new DDRE.25 When
the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), an initiative pushed by PSAC
under Eisenhower, was finally established in 1962, a third PSAC member, Franklin Long, became its assistant director for science and technology.26 Interestingly,
even though these PSAC alumni now had to speak for their respective agencies’
positions, which, in the cases of Seaborg and Brown, often differed from those of
Wiesner and PSAC, their moderate views helped change the internal dynamics in
both military technology and arms control.
Thus, due to both the broad political consensus and the institutional continuity peculiar to the science advisers, they experienced a smooth transition into
the Kennedy White House. Those members not reaching the end of their terms
continued, and new members were selected with the same criteria that had been
adopted during the Eisenhower years: scientific qualifications, a broad perspective
on government activities, and, unwritten but no less important, a commitment to
arms control. Besides Brown, whose membership lasted only a few weeks before
he moved to the Pentagon, other new recruits included Paul Doty, a biochemist
from Harvard who had participated in the Moscow Pugwash conference with
Wiesner, and Frank Press, a Cal Tech geophysicist and a consultant to PSAC on the
nuclear test ban. Although these appointments indicated that national security and
arms control continued to be a priority for PSAC, other new members underscored
the expansion of science advising to civilian concerns, a process that had started
under Kistiakowsky. Finally, disciplinary balance also figured in recruitment as
PSAC shifted from science in policy to policy for science. Thus, Zacharias, the MIT
physicist, returned to PSAC to promote his interest in innovation in science education. Edwin Gilliland, a chemical engineer also from MIT, was brought in to run
a major study on the need for technical manpower. Colin MacLeod, a pioneering
molecular biologist from New York University, would spearhead PSAC’s steppedup activities in the life sciences.
As in the Eisenhower years, most of the new members had to prove their maturity, in both technical and broader policy judgment, in PSAC panels before being
invited to join the parent committee. Several came through Jason, code name for
Science at the New Frontier, 1960–1963
a group of young, elite, academic theoretical physicists established in the wake
of Sputnik to conduct summer studies on military and arms control issues under
the nonprofit Institute of Defense Analysis, which itself was infl uenced by several
PSAC veterans.27 Richard Garwin, a brash but brilliant physicist from IBM, was perhaps one of the youngest Jasons to make it into PSAC. A protégé of Enrico Fermi,
Garwin was widely regarded as, like his mentor, a rare master in both theory and
experiment. He had made crucial contributions to the weaponization of the first
hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s as a 23-year-old consultant to Los Alamos.28 His
performance on PSAC’s Strategic Delivery Panel further impressed such PSAC
members as Harvey Brooks and Franklin Long. An industrial scientist with strong
ties to Columbia, Garwin shared with his academic colleagues the belief in the
importance of basic research as well as a commitment to arms control.29 Thus,
even though Alvin Weinberg voiced reservations—he believed Garwin, undoubtedly bright, lacked balance of judgment and instead pushed for his friend Eugene
Wigner—Garwin was made a PSAC member in 1962.30
With such constant rotation of members, how did PSAC maintain its institutional continuity? PSAC’s ability to select its own members was an important way
to maintain its esprit de corps, which was reinforced by the president’s selection
of the science adviser (and therefore PSAC chairman) out of existing membership. The stability of the staff, especially David Beckler as its executive officer,
also helped, as did the appointment of past science advisers and infl uential past
PSAC members as consultants at large. These veterans participated regularly in
committee meetings and activities or otherwise engaged in close contact with the
science advisory system. During the Kennedy years, I. I. Rabi, James Fisk, Edwin
Land, James Killian, Detlev Bronk, and Emanuel Piore all turned into such éminence
grise. Finally, the relatively unrestricted tenures of members of the various panels,
especially in the areas of national security and arms control, also allowed some scientists, such as Hans Bethe, Garwin, and Wolfgang Panofsky, to remain infl uential
in PSAC even after their rotation out of the committee itself. The domination of
moderates in PSAC did not go unchallenged—one critic complained to Kennedy
and Wiesner that PSAC represented only “the Oppenheimer point of view” and
not “the Teller point of view” in its advising on nuclear weapons—but Wiesner
and PSAC successfully defended their position by pointing to the airing of different views within the committee and their efforts to ensure a balanced presentation
of scientific advice by, among other steps, bringing in Teller himself to meet with
Kennedy on the issue of the test ban.31
In its effort to moderate and limit the impulse to solve national and international problems through technological fixes, PSAC found once again that a
sympathetic president was crucial to its success. For his part, Kennedy recognized
that most policy decisions were political in nature, not to be “confided to computers” or solved by experts, but he nevertheless looked to his science advisers for a
sound basis of policymaking.32 In a letter to Wiesner designating him as chairman
of PSAC based on the committee’s nomination, Kennedy expressed his “high
regard for the past accomplishments of the Committee, for its objectivity, its high
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
standards of performance, and its dedication to the national interest.”33 Here, even
though both Kennedy and Wiesner, who drafted the letter, paid tribute to PSAC’s
objectivity, they both were well aware that PSAC scientists, including Wiesner himself, were never strictly neutral advisers. They were certainly much more objective
than scientists working for a particular military branch when evaluating technological projects. In many ways, however, Wiesner, for one, had long abandoned the
traditional ideal of a “neutral” science adviser, at least since Eisenhower asked him
and other PSAC members to help with controlling the nuclear arms race in the
aftermath of Sputnik. Yet, the resultant tension between the expected neutrality
and activism would continue to haunt the science advising system.
After living through what was widely regarded as an era of anti-intellectualism,
scientists on and off PSAC were soon charmed by Kennedy’s easy rapport with
scientists. Once claiming curiosity as his best quality, Kennedy tried forever “to
get someone to explain electromagnetic propagation” to him. During one of his
several visits to AEC sites, he even tried his hand at manipulating radioactive materials in a hot cell through use of the remote control equipment.34 In an informal
memorandum not too long after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Kennedy asked
Wiesner to investigate what must have been, to many, an esoteric subject:
Will you talk to Arthur Schlesinger about the report that Schlesinger has on
Soviet use of cybernetics. I would like to have you and perhaps a panel take
a look at what we are doing compared to what they are doing and what this
means for the future.35
In 1962, Kennedy honored forty-nine Nobel laureates and their wives, including
several PSAC members, at a well-publicized presidential dinner party. In his speech
he praised the gathering as the most extraordinary concentration of talent and
human knowledge ever assembled at the White House. The only exception, he
added famously, was perhaps when Thomas Jefferson dined there “alone.”36
Like Eisenhower, Kennedy hoped to utilize the scientists’ expertise and independence in helping him solve international and domestic problems. During his
first meeting with PSAC in February 1961, Kennedy referred specifically to his difficulties in getting unbiased advice from the various parts of DOD due to the competition among them (see Figure 11.1). He encouraged PSAC to continue its various
studies of strategic weapon systems and doctrines, most significantly ABMs.37 At an
NAS ceremony on April 25, 1961, Kennedy, accompanied by Wiesner and Seaborg,
made an even broader appeal to scientists. “For those of us who are not experts
and yet must be called upon to make decisions,” he told the assembled elite, “we
must turn, in the last resort, to objective, disinterested scientists who bring a strong
sense of public responsibility and public obligation.”38 That extemporaneous talk
reflected Kennedy’s optimism that scientists could help solve major problems in
American public policy.39
By then, however, Kennedy knew that PSAC scientists did not always agree
with his policy initiatives. It was a tribute both to Kennedy’s sense of security and
his good rapport with Wiesner and PSAC scientists, once he got to know them and
Science at the New Frontier, 1960–1963
Figure 11.1 President Kennedy meeting with the President’s Science Advisory Committee,
1961. To Kennedy’s left is Jerome Wiesner (with pipe). Courtesy of the National Archives.
especially their commitment to arms control, that he never treated their opposition to many of his policies as a sign of disloyalty. Their sharpest disagreement,
as detailed later, came early in the administration over the decision to launch the
Apollo Project. Wiesner also opposed the Kennedy-approved Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in early 1961.40 Then in the summer of 1961 Wiesner clashed again
with Kennedy and his advisers over civil defense that the latter had promoted in
response to the Berlin crisis. Wiesner, who had come to see civil defense as a futile
and even provocative move in the arms race, criticized a JFK-endorsed article on
fallout shelters in Life in September 1961 as “grossly misleading.”41 The Soviet construction of the Berlin Wall eased the tension before the push for the shelters went
anywhere, but Wiesner persisted in his criticism of the program and backed his
skepticism a year later with a major, thoughtful PSAC study on civil defense by a
panel chaired by Paul Doty.42 Wiesner and PSAC’s intervention helped to moderate
the shelter program, but the resistance from the public was even more lethal to
its development.43 Kennedy never agreed with Wiesner’s reasoning or gave up his
hope for civil defense, but to his credit, neither did he view Wiesner’s dissent as
anything other than legitimate expression of well-considered advice.44
Unfinished Businesses
Paradoxically, under Kennedy, presidential science advisers saw many of their
longtime proposals implemented even though they could no longer claim the
kind of privileged position they had enjoyed under Eisenhower. Secretary of
Defense McNamara, for example, brought in his own “whiz kids” of economic
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
and technical analysis, and kept PSAC, initially, at arm’s length. When Wiesner
first described to him the role of his office and PSAC, McNamara responded
that “If I am doing my job properly, none of these would be necessary.” However,
he soon came to appreciate the independent judgments, and often support, that
Wiesner and PSAC could provide him at the presidential level.45 Indeed they collaborated under Kennedy to rein in several of the runaway military technological
projects that PSAC and Eisenhower had tried but failed to terminate. For example,
Kennedy finally stopped, with the support of Wiesner, McNamara, and Seaborg,
the ANP project to make nuclear-powered bombers. Shocked by the fifteen years
and $1 billion wasted on the ANP, “the boss is thinking about the possibility of a
complete shutdown,” Wiesner reported to Seaborg only weeks into the new administration. On Wiesner and Seaborg’s recommendation, Kennedy agreed to continue
the research activities related to high-temperature materials and reactor designs in
the AEC but eliminated the ANP as a program.46 In the end, presidential leadership
and bureaucratic unity as much as technical rationality contributed to the slaying
of the nuclear dragon. Wiesner and PSAC also helped Kennedy cancel or radically
curtail several other projects, including the Skybolt missile, the Dynasoar space
glider, the B-70 bomber, and Project Rover (nuclear-powered rocket) as lacking
either cost-effectiveness or a suitable mission. As DDRE Harold Brown summarized
it, Kennedy’s (and PSAC’s) attitude was: “the fact that you could do it, and that it
was in some technological sense superior was not a justification for doing it.”47
Although few shed tears over the deaths of the ANP and the other projects,
Wiesner and PSAC’s actions did make more enemies for themselves in the militaryindustrial-congressional complex. Curiously, the JCAE did not put up much of a
fight against the ANP cancellation. The relationship between the White House and
the JCAE had changed—they were both in the hands of the Democrats—and support for the ANP had waned on the Hill. Congressman Melvin Price did criticize
the decision, but his main target was not Kennedy, whose decision based on the
government’s priorities he said he understood, but rather the scientists in government. He castigated PSAC and the DDRE for using science for political and
budgetary purposes: “I cannot help but observe that the same group of scientific
advisers who have crippled advanced scientific development for the past 10 or 15
years are still around.”48 Price’s attack on PSAC contributed to a growing sense
in Congress and in the public that scientists exercised far more infl uence than
objectivity in the government.
The Stanford accelerator project also benefited from the improved White
House–JCAE relations, but its final approval was by no means assured under
Kennedy. New oppositions, especially from the BOB, threatened to disrupt, once
again, the march of the monster. As in the Eisenhower era, the science advisers
and administrators, especially Wiesner and Seaborg, used Cold War scientific competition to push the project forward. Kennedy’s general sympathy with their argument was revealed by a telling incident during his visit to the AEC headquarters in
Germantown, Maryland, in February 1961. There he was shown several charts on a
board comparing accelerators in the United States and in the rest of the world:
Science at the New Frontier, 1960–1963
As the third chart was about to be snatched away, the President commented
on the fact that the second chart had shown a 12.5 Bev accelerator (ZGS [zerogradient synchrotron]) as the United States effort compared with a 50.0 Bev
accelerator as the Soviet effort. There were hasty explanations . . . that the ZGS
was a superior machine in many other respects than the energy level shown on
the chart, that Soviet machines often do not perform as well as they are supposed
to, and that we are in fact at the head of the parade in high energy physics.49
This presidential, and indeed public, concern with the Bev numbers of accelerators
bore a striking similarity to the world’s interest in the diameters of astronomical
telescopes a half-century earlier and the weight or size of satellites more recently.
All these machines captured the public’s imagination and became important measures of a country’s international prestige. In the post-Sputnik era, space travel and
particle smashing, however, outshone telescope-making in glamour and publicity.
A White House meeting was held shortly after Kennedy’s AEC trip, with the
Stanford accelerator the first item on the agenda. Present were Kennedy, Wiesner,
Seaborg, and BOB director David Bell. Whereas Wiesner and Seaborg supported
the project, Bell questioned its priority in science. In an earlier memorandum for
Kennedy, Bell had echoed Eugene Wigner’s criticism of high-energy physics as
being “out of balance” with other disciplines:
. . . I do not object to proceeding with the [Stanford] machine, but I think that,
in so doing, it needs to be recognized by all concerned that this action represents a very substantial commitment of resources to the increased support of
basic science and that the resources now allocated to an expansion of high
energy physics cannot also be committed to other fields of science.50
Thus at the meeting with Kennedy, Bell suggested postponement of the project to
FY 1963, pending a full review by PSAC. Wiesner and Seaborg disagreed, arguing
that the problem of imbalance be solved by increasing funding to research fields
outside of high-energy physics. American scientists, they insisted, generally agreed
that the Stanford machine was needed “if we are to get ahead” in high-energy
physics. President Kennedy then responded: “Let’s go ahead with it.”51 That, however, was apparently still not good enough for the BOB. Two weeks later, Bell told
Seaborg that he would postpone the Stanford project to FY 1963 after all. Seaborg
disagreed and decided to appeal to the White House.52
Seaborg’s (and Stanford’s) chance came when Kennedy met with leaders of
the JCAE on March 23, 1961 to discuss the AEC supplemental budget for 1962.
During discussion, Senator Anderson repeated his criticism of the Stanford project; he claimed that he had heard “a lot of scientists” speak against the Stanford
accelerator. Seaborg, rightly counting himself a spokesman for those concerned
low-energy physicists, responded that he lately found “unanimous” support for
the project among high-energy nuclear physicists. Reflecting the changing White
House–Capitol Hill relationship, Anderson said then “that was good enough” for
him; he supported the project now. After others left, Bell stayed with Kennedy to
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
work out a final version of the AEC budget. He called Seaborg later to say that,
in balancing the budget, Kennedy nearly threw out the Stanford accelerator, but
Bell reminded him that he should ride with Wiesner’s and Seaborg’s judgment on
this matter, so it was kept in.53 Completed in the late 1960s, SLAC developed into a
major site for high-energy physics in the world under Panofsky’s direction and its
many achievements largely vindicated PSAC’s original faith in it, but the tension in
funding Big Science it revealed would reverberate for decades to come.54
Yet another Eisenhower legacy that the Kennedy administration had to deal
with was the Oppenheimer case. Even though the AEC hearing that resulted in
the denial of Oppenheimer’s security clearance had taken place in 1954, it was still
a controversial political issue in the early 1960s. The FAS, under the leadership of
John S. Toll, mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park,
and an old Harvard classmate of Oppenheimer’s, had campaigned for a redressing
of the case at the start of the Kennedy administration. The FAS argued that revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance not only did injustice to him and deprived
the nation of his service, but also made young people reluctant to become scientists and scientists reluctant to work for the government. It believed the case
was “unfinished business” and therefore urged the AEC to undertake a “complete
review” of it.55 After receiving the request, Seaborg, Wiesner, and Bundy worked
with Toll on a number of schemes to rehabilitate Oppenheimer, including an
invitation to the 1962 Nobel party, which the latter accepted, and giving him the
AEC’s Fermi Award. At the White House gathering, Oppenheimer, responding to
Seaborg’s inquiry, said that he would accept the Fermi Award if offered but did not
want to go through another hearing to get his security clearance restored—“not
on your life.”56
Getting the Fermi Award for Oppenheimer turned out to be no simple matter,
however. At the time of the Nobel party, the GAC, which had taken a conservative
turn since its Oppenheimer days, was considering Edward Teller for the 1962 Fermi
Award. When the AEC suggested that Teller and Oppenheimer share the award,
the GAC indignantly refused, citing its prerogatives in making the nominations.
However, in March 1963, the GAC did unanimously nominate Oppenheimer for
the 1963 award. The AEC quickly approved it and Seaborg called Wiesner to notify
him and ask him to clear it with Kennedy. The news apparently caught the White
House by surprise. General Chester Clifton, the president’s military aide, called
back to say that “the President is concerned about this,” referring, evidently, to
the knotty problem of whether this would require the reopening of the clearance
question. Seaborg explained the background of the award, that it was mainly for
Oppenheimer’s scientific contributions and would not reopen the clearance issue.
He urged a “go-ahead.”57 Kennedy continued to equivocate for several days. He
knew from a discussion with Wiesner that the scientists would applaud the Fermi
Award for Oppenheimer but others, especially some in the JCAE, would balk at it.58
Finally, he gave his approval, as Wiesner reported to Seaborg on March 30, 1963,
“by writing ‘Yes’ across the face of the memorandum” that the AEC had sent him
on the matter.59 When the news broke in the New York Times on April 5, Kennedy
Science at the New Frontier, 1960–1963
once again turned cautious. He directed his press secretary Pierre Salinger to tell
the AEC to minimize the role of the White House in the whole process to control
any possible political damage.60
By and large, reactions from the public and most of the Joint Committee members were favorable. The only exception was Senator Bourke Hickenlooper (R-IA),
who tried but failed to stop the $50,000 award to Oppenheimer.61 Oppenheimer
was pleased with the recognition and his friends and supporters in PSAC were also
elated with the development.62 The award did not quite reverse the 1954 case, but it
indicated how far the country had moved beyond the shadows of extreme domestic anticommunism. It was a ginger step in the American “rehabilitation” process
to undo the wrongs of the McCarthy era.
International Scientific Exchanges
International cooperation in science was another area in which Kennedy and
his science advisers found mutual interest. During his first meeting with PSAC
on February 10, 1961, Kennedy encouraged the committee to promote scientific
exchanges with developing countries and Eastern Europe. Here his objective to
win hearts and minds during the Cold War matched the scientists’ long-held, if
idealistic, view that the international language of science could help break down
national barriers. Thus Bruno Rossi of MIT headed a PSAC panel to look into possible U.S.–Soviet cooperation in space. I. I. Rabi worked on international exchanges
in atomic energy.63 A PSAC study led to the establishment of an R&D unit in
the new Agency for International Development (AID).64 Several PSAC members
continued to meet with leading Soviet scientists at Pugwash conferences, despite
grumbles from conservative congressmen.65 At Kennedy’s request, Wiesner and
PSAC also helped devise solutions to the problems of salinity and water-logging
in western Pakistan.66
With a few notable exceptions, however, state-sponsored scientific internationalism rarely succeeded in mediating tensions during the Cold War. The United
States and the Soviet Union did implement cooperative projects in science, technology, and education, but suspicion and heavy political control on both sides often
marred the process. For example, in December 1960 Wiesner had made overtures
to Chinese scientists at the Moscow Pugwash conference on behalf of the new
administration. Although initially cautiously receptive, the Chinese delegation
broke off contact when they found a passage in Wiesner’s precirculated paper
that advocated what sounded to them as joint U.S.–Soviet actions to contain Chinese nuclear ambitions. There were other attempts to open U.S.–China scientific
exchange by scientists outside of the government, but, given the open hostility
between the two countries, little success came out of these initiatives.67
Indeed, the U.S. interest in international scientific collaborative projects was
often as much political as scientific, as exemplified by the initiative to build a huge,
300 Bev U.S.–Soviet accelerator. Seaborg first mentioned the project to Kennedy
on February 10, 1961 as a way to demonstrate superpower cooperation in science.68
As Leland Haworth, the physicist commissioner of the AEC, told Wiesner in May
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
1961, the project was “very appealing” not on scientific, but on political grounds, in
“opening up” Soviet technology and industrial practices.69 In addition, the project
could help lessen the tension between the two countries as “infl uential intellectual
leaders from the East and the West would be thrown into intimate contact for long
periods of time,” an objective that had been endorsed earlier by a PSAC panel.70
Kennedy reacted favorably to the proposal, encouraging the AEC to pursue technical discussions and prepare for a policy decision.71
The joint accelerator’s potential as an instrument of diplomacy gained further
momentum during the Berlin crisis in the summer of 1961, when Seaborg and the
AEC proposed to Kennedy making the disputed corridor between West Berlin and
the rest of East Germany into a “Switzerland for world science” under the sponsorship of the United Nations. It would contain the joint accelerator and other
scientific instruments such as space research facilities and radio telescopes. The
erection of the Berlin Wall by East Germany, however, defused the crisis before the
science zone could be considered seriously.72 Meanwhile, some American scientists
questioned the U.S. commitment to an international accelerator when it simultaneously planned a very high-energy machine of its own.73 Likewise, the Soviets
concentrated their resources on the building of its own seventy Bev accelerator.74
By the summer of 1962, as Panofsky pointed out, the project was so hopeless that
“it should not play a role in national planning.”75
PSAC scientists’ advocacy for international exchange sometimes also clashed
with obstinate, McCarthy-era policies still in force at the State Department and
elsewhere in the bureaucracy. One area that took much time and energy from
Wiesner and his staff, especially Eugene Skolnikoff, concerned denials of visas for
visiting scientists from Eastern Europe or those from Western Europe who had
a left-liberal political background. One case early in the Kennedy administration
especially galvanized the scientists. In 1961, “a storm of correspondence” poured
into the science adviser’s office regarding the State Department’s refusal to issue
a visa to Jan Tauc, an internationally respected semiconductor physicist from
Czechoslovakia, who had applied to spend a year at Harvard.76 Tauc’s visit at Harvard, the State Department declared, “would result in a distinct advantage to the
Soviet bloc in a sensitive field with applications affecting national security.”77 In his
letter to Wiesner, Harvey Brooks, who had sponsored Tauc’s visit to his lab, called
the denial an “incredible” and “stupid decision.” Tauc had traveled to the United
States before and probably enjoyed closer contact with American scientists than
with the Soviets. “I have further reason to believe,” Brooks intimated, “that he
would like very much to get out of Czechoslovakia permanently.”78
John Bardeen, the usually mild-tempered Nobel laureate of 1956, co-inventor
of the semiconductor, and PSAC member, wrote a strongly worded letter to Dean
Rusk on Tauc’s behalf when Brooks informed him of the visa denial. He called
the decision to be “against our national interest.” In the letter he elaborated a significant, pragmatic reason for encouraging international scientific exchange. The
fear that Tauc’s visit might enable the Soviets to overtake the American lead in
semiconductor was unfounded, Bardeen argued:
Science at the New Frontier, 1960–1963
It seems to me that there is a confusion here between basic research on semiconductors and the technology of electronic devices using semiconductors.
While the United States does hold a substantial lead in technology, this is not
true of basic research. Basic research findings on both sides of the Iron Curtain
have been published freely and promptly and have been discussed openly at
international meetings such as the one at Prague in September, 1960. We should
do all we can to encourage this flow and interchange of results of basic research
because our advanced technology is in by far the best position to profit by it.79
He then gave several examples where American industry benefited from semiconductor basic research carried out abroad, including Abraham Joffe’s at Leningrad
and Leo Esaki’s in Japan. Having traveled extensively in the Soviet Union and
Eastern Europe, including visits at Tauc’s institute in Prague, Bardeen, like Brooks,
regarded Tauc as a competent, pro-West basic research scientist and the denial of a
visa to him as “a slap in the face to a potential infl uential friend.”80
Intervention from Wiesner’s office worked in this case; Tauc was able to visit
the United States, although not without complications even after his arrival.81
Then, in 1969, one year after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Tauc managed
to emigrate permanently to the United States, where he first worked at Bell Labs
and then as a professor at Brown University.82 Tauc’s case indicated that politically
motivated denials of visas to foreign scientists did not stop with the end of the
McCarthy era, but at least now their American hosts could count on sympathetic
hearing, and sometimes successful interventions, in the Kennedy White House.
Civilian Technology
Presidential science advising expanded not only in international affairs, but in
the domestic area as well. In the early Kennedy years, PSAC organized a task
force on water research that considered desalination of seawater with nuclear
power, a subject of great interest to the president, although most PSAC members
expressed doubt about its economic feasibility.83 The science advisers did push
for civilian technology in general. In 1961, at the suggestion of Wiesner and the
economist John Kenneth Galbraith, Kennedy ordered an interagency study on the
effect of military-space R&D buildup on civilian technology.84 Several past and
current members of PSAC with industrial or engineering backgrounds sat on an
advisory panel. The investigation resulted in several proposals for the Department
of Commerce to expedite the transition from basic research to civilian applications. These included contracts and grants to universities for applied research,
for engineering training, and for “Industrial Extension Service” to aid local firms
in absorbing new technologies and the expected military-space spinoffs.85 Unfortunately, this foresighted initiative stalled in Congress, which, along with some
powerful corporations, denounced industrial technology policy as dangerous
meddling in the marketplace.86
Interestingly, the focus on civilian technology brought to surface the longsimmering resentment among many engineers that their prominence in society
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
had been eclipsed by scientists in the post-Sputnik “age of scientific revolution,”
with the new push for glamorous defense and space projects. At a meeting of the
Civil Technology Panel in late July 1962, for example, members noted a shift of
students from chemical engineering “into the more exotic fields.” Furthermore,
the defense-space emphasis had contributed to the downgrading in the popular
mind of engineering, and the boosting, out of proportion, of the reputation
of “science.” While even in defense and space R&D, engineers are doing most
of the work, the fashionable fields are the sciences, and this fact is affecting the
distribution of new graduates.87
Wiesner, himself a communications engineer, was no stranger to such complaints.
A year earlier, Hugh Dryden of NASA had written him requesting a closed-circuit
speech by Kennedy for a ceremony marking the founding of the United Engineering Center in New York:
You are very familiar with the feeling of the leaders of the older engineering
societies, that the public has insufficient knowledge of the engineering profession and understanding of its importance to our society. . . . It seems to me that
some modest recognition of the work of the engineers on the part of the White
House would be appropriate and useful to you in your general relations.88
The argument failed to convince Kennedy, however; instead he sent a letter of
congratulations for the occasion in which he praised the engineers as “our main
sources of technological progress.”89 It was ironic that even decades after what
historians called the revolt of the engineers during the Progressive Era that they
would still feel slighted in the age of technological enthusiasm.90 The identification
of physicists with the bomb and the advocacy of basic research by PSAC scientists
both before and after the Sputnik crisis probably had much to do with the continued perception of science being superior to engineering.
Office of Science and Technology
The expansion in both the scale and complexity of federal scientific and technological activities also demanded organizational reform in presidential science policy
and the advisory system. Between 1957 and 1962, federal R&D expenditure more
than doubled, to about $10 billion a year, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the
total federal budget.91 Alarmed by such trends, Congress increasingly demanded
access to and accountability in executive science policy.92 The pressure added fresh
fuel to the perennial drive for a DST. To head off a DST, the Senate Subcommittee
on National Policy Machinery under Henry Jackson advocated the establishment
of a statutory Office of Science and Technology (OST) in the Executive Office of
the President that would institutionalize presidential science advising and allow its
director to testify in Congress.93
In addition, Kennedy’s organizational advisers wanted to keep the presidential
staff small and politically focused. In January 1961, Richard Neustadt, for example,
urged Kennedy to move the entire science advising system “out of your own
Science at the New Frontier, 1960–1963
House” and locate it in the Executive Office of the President, to streamline the
White House, to give science advising institutional stability, and to appease the
scientific community who he believed desired permanent “status recognition” with
the presidency.94 Once again, one can discern in Neustadt, as in the BOB, a subtle
sense of discomfort with the presence of the scientists who might put the interest
of the scientific community ahead of that of the president.
Initially, Wiesner and PSAC resisted any radical change so that the Kistiakowsky
chain of science policy interrelating PSAC, FCST, the NSF, and the NAS could be
given a chance to succeed, but they gradually accepted the inevitable. By 1961, the
science adviser’s office became one of the largest entities in the White House, with
a budget approaching an unwieldy $700,000. After extensive discussions within
PSAC and with the NSF, Wiesner now reluctantly agreed to accept the Jackson
Committee’s OST proposal. In 1962, Kennedy signed Reorganization Plan No. 2,
which established the OST, with a director and a deputy director available for testimony in Congress, and transferred to it some of the statutory science policy functions originally assigned to the NSF.95 In the latter connection, a National Science
Board panel study under William O. Baker supporting the OST helped to smooth
the way for the transition.96 As a result, the OST became not only the staff unit
for the science adviser and PSAC, but also a central agency of science policy itself.
In other words, the OST solidified the duality of science advising: it continued its
science in policy role while expanding its policy for science functions.
Technically, Kennedy could have appointed a separate OST director, but concerns about competing voices for science led to Wiesner’s nomination for that position. Colin M. MacLeod became the first deputy director of the OST.97 The science
adviser, PSAC, and a small staff retained their White House status, with an annual
budget of about $150,000.98 Wearing four hats now (science adviser, OST director,
PSAC, and FCST chairman), Wiesner had to segregate his duties carefully, especially when it came to testifying in Congress. In general, he spoke as OST director
to Congress on policy for science matters, and worked on science in policy issues
as science adviser and chairman of PSAC.99
The OST did institutionalize science advising, but it also introduced problems
of its own. In a memorandum to Kennedy, Wiesner spoke, prophetically, of the
“danger” of the OST becoming isolated from the president and his staff.100 Furthermore, with the OST, Wiesner and his staff, in contrast to PSAC, began to take on
a larger share of the science advising function than before, even though the latter
had recognized the need for shedding the overload on its agenda. “[Because] I
knew the president before he was elected,” Wiesner later reflected, “I was regarded
by him as one of the group of the White House family, probably in somewhat a
different sense than either Dr. Kistiakowsky or Dr. Killian had been.” That easy
access had its cost as Wiesner tended to take on more issues and perhaps lost
them “more easily than my predecessors.” Partly due to this development, PSAC
members never developed as close a relationship with Kennedy as they did with
Eisenhower. They became advisers more to Wiesner than to the president. In retrospect, Wiesner acknowledged that “this might not have been wholly good.”101 The
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
main benefit of the new OST was that it allowed greater congressional, and with
it public, oversight of science policymaking. As we will see later, it also provided
a relatively stable base from which the science adviser, PSAC, and their staff could
take on expanding activities on behalf of the president, most important in the areas
of environmental protection, arms control, space, and science policy.
In retrospect, the Kennedy administration’s decision to retain the position of the
science adviser and PSAC marked a milestone in the history of American science
advising. It did not seem all that significant at the time, probably because of the
remarkable political convergence that governed American political beliefs in the
1950s and the early 1960s. Centered around an anticommunist foreign policy and
a domestic agenda that relied on government-sponsored incremental reforms and
economic progress to solve social problems, the so-called Cold War liberal consensus ensured that the transition between the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations was marked more by continuity than radical rupture, despite Kennedy’s
rhetoric of the New Frontier activism and real departures in several policy areas.
Within this consensus, the ideal of science as an objective pursuit of truth and
scientists as a source of disinterested technical advice on public policy, although
increasingly challenged, largely survived. PSAC benefited from this inertia even
though it no longer maintained its close policy synchronization with the president
or its centrality as a locus of technical and military analysis at the top of the government that it had enjoyed during the post-Sputnik Eisenhower years.
Yet, as the Kennedy administration, with its liberal impulse, sought to encompass more of the national life under the purview of the federal government, the
science advisory system began to take on a greater spectrum of activities, including
civilian technologies, international scientific projects, education, and environment,
than it had under Eisenhower. The establishment of the OST both reflected this
trend and in turn further facilitated it. As the next chapter demonstrates, PSAC’s
investigation of the problem of pesticides represented a major triumph of presidential science advising in the Kennedy years. Ironically, even as Wiesner and PSAC
ventured, often quite successfully, into new areas of public policy, their advising on
space, national security, and arms control, still deeply colored by their post-Sputnik
experience and their interactions with President Eisenhower, met with increasing
challenges in the Kennedy years. As public scientists, PSAC members needed to
adapt their strategy of banking on technological skepticism for a new age of science and politics.
Responding to Rachel Carson’s
Silent Spring, 1962–1963
On August 29, 1962, when President Kennedy held his forty-second press conference, foreign policy, especially the nuclear test ban and suspicion of Soviet shipment of missiles to Cuba, dominated the exchange until one reporter brought the
discussion closer to home. “Mr. President,” he asked, “there appears to be growing
concern among scientists as to the possibility of dangerous long-range side effects
from the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides.” “Have you considered
asking the Department of Agriculture or the Public Health Service to take a
closer look at this?” “Yes,” Kennedy answered, “and I know that they already are.
I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book, but they are examining
the matter.”1
“Miss Carson’s book” was, of course, Silent Spring, a critical account of the consequences of excessive uses of pesticides by Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and
popular science writer. When first excerpted in the New Yorker and then published by
Houghton Miffl in that year, it evoked a strong, sympathetic public response. Many
people have since credited it as the beginning of the modern environmental movement, often comparing its impact in history to that of Harriet Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s
Cabin or Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.2 The initial reaction to the book from pest
control scientists, the industrial establishment, and agricultural officials in the Kennedy administration, was not, however, anywhere nearly as sympathetic as Kennedy
appeared. A review by the biochemist William J. Darby in the Chemical and Engineering News carried the condescending and damning title “Silence, Miss Carson.”3 The
Department of Agriculture—the federal agency responsible for both the promotion
and the regulation of pesticides—regarded the controversy as a “public relations
problem” and aimed to “contain the damage.”4 Thus, at the time of Kennedy’s press
conference, it was not at all clear that the book would ever result in any significant
change of federal policy on the use of pesticides, one major goal of Carson’s.
The tone changed dramatically a year later when PSAC sent Kennedy its
eagerly awaited report Use of Pesticides. It was universally greeted as a vindication
of Rachel Carson and became a harbinger to changes in federal policy. Although
recognizing the indispensable role of pesticides in modern agriculture, the PSAC
report reaffirmed Carson’s warnings about the harmful effects of persistent pesticides and called for tighter governmental control of pesticides to protect the environment and human health. Kennedy ordered federal agencies to follow up on the
recommendations in the report, and Congress passed laws that were advocated by
Carson and PSAC. By the weight of their proximity to presidential power and their
scientific prestige, PSAC scientists helped to certify the seriousness of Carson’s
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
seemingly radical claims of environmental cataclysms. The episode marked a high
point in the history of PSAC, offering one of the most significant and successful
examples of American scientists’ involvement in public policy in this period. Carson herself was clearly heartened by the report. She regarded it as one of the most
important government documents in many years. “I think no one can read this
report and retain a shred of complacency about our situation,” she wrote shortly
after the release of the report in May 1963.5
The making and reception of the PSAC report, often mentioned but not
explained in accounts of events following Silent Spring, raise fascinating questions
about the role of science advisers in public policy, and the relations of science and
the environment in this early stage of the modern environmental movement. How,
for example, did a scientific group like PSAC, until then best known for its part
in nuclear and space policy, emerge overnight as environmental experts and did
so with apparent effectiveness? In this chapter I argue that it was the same sense
of technological skepticism that PSAC had articulated in its evaluation of nuclear
weapons that led it to embrace Rachel Carson’s critique of the chemical industry
and of government pesticide policy. Examining the making of the PSAC report
also shows how such government reports were constructed and especially how that
process responds to many different types of input, including such popular science
writing as Silent Spring, the media, and contending government bureaucracies.
Environmental Locus in the White House
In 1962, PSAC did not have much of a reputation in environmental policymaking
but it was not a complete novice on the topic either. It was true that nuclear and
space issues dominated the agenda of the committee—so much so that several
members not willing to work on these subjects resigned from it shortly after joining—but Eisenhower, if not the rest of his Republican administration, did encourage PSAC to get involved in some civilian matters, such as an evaluation of the
National Institutes of Health’s research program and a study of the conservation
of natural resources.6
Indeed, the “cranberry crisis” of 1959 marked PSAC’s first foray into environmental and health policy, when, just before Thanksgiving, trace amounts of an
herbicide were detected in the crop leading the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) to impound some shipments of cranberries. A frightened public stayed
away from the fruit and related products for the holidays, which enraged cranberry farmers and their political supporters, including the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA). They put pressure on the Eisenhower White House to revise
future FDA policy on the matter, but the latter cited the Delaney Amendment
that had mandated zero tolerance for any potentially carcinogenic chemicals. A
PSAC panel examined the issue and recommended a reasonable moderation of
the Delaney Amendment, but it was met with resistance by the HEW, and, to
Kistiakowsky’s surprise, with skepticism by the full PSAC.7 In the end, PSAC’s
cranberry study had very little direct impact, but it did establish the science
advisers as the unit within the White House to handle environmental issues. The
Responding to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962–1963
creation of a standing Life Sciences Panel in 1959 also facilitated PSAC’s expansion
in these new directions.8
Even PSAC’s focus on nuclear and space matters was not without environmental relevance. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, for example, the committee had
sponsored or supported several experiments in space. Project Argus (continued
later under “Starfish” and other code names) exploded nuclear bombs in space to
create artificial van Allen belts of electrons (as a possible shield against missiles),
and Project West Ford (“Needles”) spread millions of copper filaments in space
to form a communication reflector. PSAC endorsed these projects as scientifically
exciting and militarily intriguing, but they carried potential global environmental
risks, drawing protests and criticism especially from radio-astronomers. PSAC’s
predictions that any adverse effects would be small or short-lived turned out to be
largely on the mark. However, the controversy did alert the public and the scientific
community about the dangers of global environmental changes made possible by
modern technology. It also highlighted for PSAC the importance of open, international communication about the environmental impact of any large-scale scientific
experiment. In both cases, PSAC pushed vigorously and successfully for the declassification of the projects as soon as possible.9
What might also have helped establish PSAC scientists’ credentials in the
environmental area was the often-commented parallel between nuclear weapons
and radiation fallout, on which they were the acknowledged experts, on the one
hand, and pesticides, on the other.10 Carson herself evoked the analogy several
times in her book. “Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by
nuclear war,” she warned, “the central problem of our age has therefore become
the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potentials for harm.”11 Like his predecessors, Wiesner was actively involved
in the Federal Radiation Council, an interagency group set up to discuss policies
on protection from radiation, especially that caused by the making and testing of
nuclear weapons.
Yet another factor that prepared PSAC for the pesticide study was its expansion, especially under Kennedy, in health and environmental policy. The Life
Sciences Panel of PSAC was reconstituted and expanded, with ad hoc subpanels
in agriculture, behavioral sciences, and bio-engineering.12 Two physicians, James
Hartgering and Peter S. Bing, served on the OST staff.13 In early 1961, Wiesner put
together a PSAC ad hoc panel to help the Public Health Service (PHS) evaluate its
plans for what eventually became the National Institute of Environmental Health
in Research Triangle, North Carolina.14 Although, strikingly, none of PSAC’s
studies on agriculture or even environmental health highlighted the problem
of pesticides until the publication of Carson’s work, the committee did react
quickly when Carson’s articles brought the issue to its attention. In the FCST,
Boisfeuillet Jones, special assistant to the secretary of HEW, first suggested the
need for an interagency review of federal policy on chemicals in the environment
as a response to Carson’s New Yorker articles in July 1962.15 Independently, several
members within PSAC, including Richard Garwin, brought the matter up after
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reading the articles. As a result, the whole committee decided to conduct a study
on pesticides.16
The Kennedy Administration Reacts to Silent Spring
Thus, by the time Kennedy held his August press conference, Wiesner had already,
as Kennedy indicated, set the science advisory wheels in motion to study the pesticide problem. On July 24, less than a month after the appearance of Carson’s New
Yorker articles, Wiesner had asked Jones to head an ad hoc FCST panel to review
federal policy and gather national data on pesticide use in preparation for “a much
deeper look into this whole problem” by PSAC’s Life Science Panel.17 In contrast
to the “contain the damage” strategy adopted by the USDA, Wiesner made it clear
to the Jones panel that federal agencies should take real actions to understand and
control the effects of pesticide use on plants, animals, and the environment. The
group, which included representatives from Interior, the HEW, and the USDA,
agreed that “in light of the enlarging and justifiable national concern, no government agency should minimize this problem.”18
The Jones panel quickly found that there was little federal effort to predict
and control the environmental changes caused by pesticides. The Department
of Commerce’s main concern with pesticides was that the national debate might
adversely affect the pesticide chemical industry.19 The DOD did have a group on
pest control, but it “does not concern itself with long-range ecological effects.”20
What little research went on in the USDA and HEW was mainly concentrated
on the direct effects of pesticides on humans and animals, not on their ecological
impact and without much coordination. In fact, in a 1961 special message to Congress on natural resources, Kennedy, anticipating Carson, had already recognized
the danger of “one agency encouraging chemical pesticides that may harm the
song birds and game birds whose preservation is encouraged by another agency.”
Even though Kennedy directed the secretary of the interior to take the lead “to
end these confl icts,” the USDA refused to give up its control over the pesticides
program.21 Thus, by 1962, as Roger Revelle, science adviser to the secretary of interior, pointed out, the Fish and Wildlife Service, where Rachel Carson once worked
as a marine biologist, still did not have the regulatory power but had to rely on the
states to try to protect fish and wildlife from pesticides.22
The few federal coordinating bodies on pesticides were either weak or biased.
The midlevel Federal Pest Control Review Board (FPCRB), for example, was so
dominated by the USDA that its chairman, Robert Anderson of the PHS, had
declined Wiesner’s invitation to conduct a review on pesticides for the FCST. The
semipublic NAS–NRC Committee on Pest Control and Wildlife Relationships, too,
came under such sway of proponents of pesticides with ties to the industry that
its reports in 1962 and 1963 had served as a common reference point for hostile
reviewers of Rachel Carson.23 In a way, the recognized flaws of these two players
in the pesticide policy landscape facilitated the entrance of PSAC into the fray and
pushed it into the center of the growing national debate. Shortly after Kennedy’s
press conference, the OST began to receive, alongside the voluminous mail from
Responding to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962–1963
concerned public, letters from chemical companies that attacked Rachel Carson
and urged Wiesner to consult with pro-pesticide scientists. “In our opinion,”
Thomas H. Jukes, a distinguished biologist and director of biochemistry of the
American Cyanamid Company, wrote, “the main problem is Miss Carson.”24
The PSAC Investigation
Although Wiesner and PSAC were much more sympathetic to Carson’s views
than Jukes and company, they made efforts to ensure balance in their own investigation. Chaired by MacLeod, the PSAC panel included, among its most active
members, James G. Horsfall, director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and a moderate advocate on the use of pesticides, and William H.
Drury, Jr., director of the Hatheway School of Conservation Education under
the Massachusetts Audubon Society, representing the views of the conservationists. 25 Other members of the MacLeod panel were mostly prominent academic
biomedical researchers, including the well-known biologist James Watson of Harvard, and administrators with no apparent ties to the pesticide industry.26 There is
no evidence that Kennedy had put pressure on PSAC to support Carson’s views,
but they were certainly aware of his concern over the matter from his August
1962 press conference.
As the reports from federal agencies came in, Chairman MacLeod became convinced that “the magnitude of this problem is going to require a distinct reorientation on the part of many.”27 By the end of the summer of 1962, the FCST group
had gathered enough data about the federal pesticide programs for the PSAC panel
to plunge into work evaluating them. On October 1, 1962, the MacLeod panel met
with the FCST group to go over the data. Presided over by Wiesner, the meeting
resulted in a broadening of the investigation from the direct effects on human
health to the impact on national economy—the poisoning of fish and crabs, for
example—and wildlife. The next day, the panel met with Jones to pose further
questions for the agencies about the history of pesticides, the reasons for different
actions of common pesticides on different species, the synergistic action of two
pesticides combined, the role of federal government in the control of pesticide use
outside of the federal government, and other questions relating to the chemical
and ecological aspects of pesticides.28 In addition, the panel invited and received
testimony from university scientists and industry representatives, including the
Manufacturing Chemists Association. The staff also worked closely with consultants such as Alfred M. Boyce, dean of the College of Agriculture of the University
of California, Riverside, who, like Horsfall, tended to emphasize the benefits of
pesticides but was not a hardline partisan.
Besides data from American sources, the panel obtained information from the
World Health Organization and the British government.29 Sir Solly Zuckerman,
chief science adviser to the British Ministry of Defense, for example, sent Wiesner
an exchange in the House of Lords over “the story of the cannibal in Polynesia
who now no longer allows his tribe to eat Americans because their fat is contaminated with chlorinated hydrocarbons.”30
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
Back in the White House, the pesticide project continued to widen beyond the
staff ’s original conception, as Peter Bing reported to a former OST colleague in
late October 1962:
As you might expect Jim [Hartgering] and I, trying to get our toes wet in the
pesticide problem, have both managed to be pushed off the brink. While floundering in the soup, Jim got the superb idea of bringing in a man [John L. Buckley] from the Department of Interior to spend three months working through
this whole problem. Although we have nearly completed a review of Federal
pesticides programs, these constitute only 5% of the total chemicals applied
in this country each year, and the picture becomes increasingly complicated
technically the more we look at it.31
The choice of an Interior scientist obviously did not please pesticide proponents,
but the USDA apparently did not object. The communication also indicated the
important but often neglected roles staff played in the process of science advising.
In January 1963, the PSAC panel invited Rachel Carson for an informal meeting
to discuss her concerns. It was, as she wrote a friend, “not a command performance, but just come if I’d like to.”32 It was the first time that a woman scientist
was involved in a major PSAC investigation. Believing that “perhaps it’s a chance to
straighten out some thinking,” she met with the panel for nearly a day on January
26, 1963, impressing the panel members with her moderate views and reassuring
especially those who had questioned some of the radical claims in her book.33 For
her part, Carson was pleased with the seriousness with which the White House
had taken the investigation. President Kennedy, she learned from friends in government, “often asked about the progress of the Committee and urged speed in
getting out the report.”34
Two weeks after its meeting with Rachel Carson, the PSAC panel finished
the first and, as it turned out, highly controversial draft of its report, simply titled
“Working Paper on Pesticides.” In broad outline, the draft recognized the indispensable role of pesticides in modern agriculture and public health, but devoted
most of the text to the dangers that excessive use posed for human beings, fish and
wildlife, and the environment. It called for a reevaluation of toxicological data on
pesticides, intensified research on pesticide effects, a shift to safer and more selective pesticides, and the elimination of “protest registration,” an incredible loophole
in the law that allowed companies to market products even when disapproved by
regulators. It also advocated close coordination among all federal agencies in the
use and regulation of pesticides, revisions of laws to extend protection to fish and
wildlife, and the establishment of a new Regulatory Commission in the Executive
Office of the President, with a National Advisory Committee of distinguished citizens and experts, to replace the FPCRB in regulating pesticide use.35
Boundaries, Interests, and Negotiations
The USDA reacted to the draft report with alarm and bitter criticisms. Secretary
of Agriculture Orville Freeman sent his departmental comments to Wiesner along
Responding to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962–1963
with a “personal” note pleading for caution in this “very sensitive area.” “Should
this be handled improperly,” Freeman wrote, “I can assure you we could have
a negative effect which would make the cranberry fiasco and the problem with
strontium and iodine fade into complete insignificance.”36 The USDA regarded the
draft as biased—too little on pesticides’ benefits and too much on their hazards.
In its present form, the PSAC report “could profoundly damage U. S. agriculture”
and “lead to a breakdown of public confidence in control programs, pesticide use,
research scientists and their findings, governmental regulations of pesticides, and
the safety and wholesomeness of our food supply.”37 Had PSAC panel members not
been prominent scientists, the USDA would probably have accused them of being
“antiscience.” One USDA official urged that PSAC hear from more pesticide scientists, especially from the USDA, and have its report reviewed by the NAS–NRC
committee on food protection.38 The Manufacturing Chemists’ Association also
sent Wiesner a list of scientists it favored as potential witnesses.39
Self-interest similarly colored reactions from two other major federal players in the controversy. Like the USDA, the HEW feared that the report would
“cast doubt on the safety of our food supply and governmental health protection
measures.” One HEW official suggested that the panel merely recommend more
research on the health effects of pesticides and clarification of each agency’s role
in the pesticide area.40 As can be expected, the Department of Interior was more
enthusiastic about the draft report. Donald L. McKernan, director of the Bureau
of Commercial Fisheries of the Fish and Wildlife Service, called the report “well
done,” although he was concerned that the documentation of pesticide residues
in food fish (which he questioned) might expose the fishing industry to a possible
“cranberry scare.” He recommended only restricted distribution of the report.41
At least one prominent entomologist outside the government saw in the draft
report too much parallel with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Robert Metcalf of
University of California at Riverside believed that “This document suffers from
the overemotional and biased approach which has characterized the ‘Silent Spring’
and other inflammatory writings on this subject. . . . It seems to me this tenor of
writing is not in keeping with the dignity of the President’s Science Advisory Committee.” Despite his critical tone, Metcalf ’s specific comments proved helpful to
the panel in revising its draft.42
Clashes continued when the PSAC panel met in early March to rewrite the
report, especially in response to the USDA’s criticism. Although accepting many
specific changes it suggested, the panel refused to give ground on fundamental
points. For example, next to a USDA comment that “Before pesticides receive a
blanket indictment, there should be positive evidence of significant damage rather
than localized transitory losses,” panel members and staff wrote these marginal
responses: “Who says so?” / “ABSOLUTELY NO” / “Shows serious misinformation.”43 In other words, there was a fundamental division over the burden of proof:
Whereas the USDA held that pesticides should be presumed innocent until proven
guilty, the PSAC panel believed in the precautionary principle of erring on the side
of being conservative. As to the point of balance, the panel pointed out that it had
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explicitly asked the USDA to prepare a case for the pesticides to be included in the
final report.
One incident illustrated for the PSAC panel the urgency of acting on admittedly incomplete information. At a meeting with USDA and HEW scientists on
March 8, 1963, Wiesner and the PSAC panel members sought to clarify some
disturbing new findings about the hazards of dieldrin, a pesticide ten times more
toxic than DDT. They pointed to new data from Britain that seemed to indicate for
the first time the presence of dieldrin in human fat tissues, and asked whether the
USDA should withdraw registration of the pesticide. The USDA and FDA officials
conceded that dieldrin caused tumors but contended that “we need more data
before we can decide whether dieldrin tumors are cancerous or not.” In any case,
even if the USDA withdrew registration, the manufacturer still could market the
product as one registered “under protest.”44 The manufacturer then could take the
USDA to court, forcing the agency to prove that its product was unsafe. “We would
not have evidence to back up our case” on dieldrin, the USDA feared. Wiesner was
incredulous: “This is a peculiar approach to the subject. We are protecting agriculture, but then we pollute the environment with the same chemical.” He and the
PSAC panel encouraged the USDA to ask Congress to change the law to remove
“protest registration.”45
The exchanges on dieldrin made the PSAC panel members feel far from
reassured about the safeguards on pesticides. On March 11, they wrote Wiesner
expressing their concern:
The tolerance level of certain very stable chlorinated hydrocarbons may be too
high and may conceivably result in a health hazard to the general public. . . .
We guess that a significant fraction of the American people is being exposed
to dieldrin at the tolerance level. . . . FDA has classified the liver adenoma as
benign and thus has not felt that the Delaney amendment relating to cancerproducing chemicals is applicable. However, the distinction between benign
and malignant is not always clearcut. We are concerned that farther studies
may show these tumors to be malignant.46
In other words, the meeting with the USDA experts did not allay, but rather heightened, the panel members’ concern about pesticide use.
The battle over the PSAC report intensified as the panel neared completion of
what was expected to be the final draft in March 1963. By mid-March, the panel had
finished rewriting the report and titled it Hazards of Pesticides.47 On March 19, the
full PSAC approved the new draft with only minor changes. Even though the text
made it clear that it was the Life Science Panel that conducted the research and
drafted the report, the report now gained an enhanced status as an official PSAC
draft report, no longer just a working paper of the panel. The USDA was furious
that the revised version went to the full PSAC committee without its clearance and
asked Wiesner to halt any further action on the report pending its own review.48 In
the meantime, Elmer Staats, deputy director of the BOB, also cautioned Wiesner
that “because of the high degree of sensitivity on this subject I believe we should
Responding to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962–1963
arrange to get comments from the agencies directly concerned before the report
gets ‘frozen.’” The White House should not commit itself to making the report
public, he suggested, and definitely not make public any budgetary estimates that
might tie the administration’s hands.49 The BOB was also unhappy with the PSAC
recommendation that a new regulatory mechanism on pesticides be established
within the Executive Office.50
There was congressional and industrial pressure on PSAC as well, as Rachel
Carson revealed in a letter to a friend:
This morning I had a fascinating phone call from a man on the Republican
Policy Committee of the Senate. He wanted to know whether I had seen the
original draft of the report of the President’s pesticide committee. Of course I
haven’t. His group has heard that this draft was so “hot” that enormous pressure has been brought on the committee, especially by two senators, and also by
industry, etc., and that in consequence they have watered it down considerably. I
told him I hoped he was misinformed, but if not, I hoped they could be instrumental in bringing out the original report . . . Now isn’t that interesting?51
The PSAC panel, once again, tried to accommodate the USDA’s and the BOB’s
criticisms without giving in on principles. It added more materials on the benefits
of pesticide use, making a case for its essential role in modern society “in as strong
a way as possible,” and incorporated specific suggestions from other agencies.52 It
softened its advocacy of a pesticide regulatory agency to a recommendation that
“existing Federal advisory and coordinating mechanisms be critically assessed and
revised as necessary to provide clear assignments of responsibility for control of
pesticide use.”53 Finally, it changed the title of the report from Hazards of Pesticides
to the more neutral Use of Pesticides.54
The USDA considered the revised draft “a great improvement,” but was clearly
still not satisfied. One of its major worries, which was shared by the FDA, was the
report’s implication that widespread use of pesticides threatened the safety of the
nation’s food supply. “I am deeply concerned,” Secretary Freeman wrote Wiesner
again, “by the possible public impact of a report on this subject from the highest
official source.” He wanted an explicit statement in the report to assure the public
about American food safety. Otherwise, the Europeans would seize the report as
justification for erecting new import barriers.55
In response, the PSAC panel once again made concessions on specific points
but stood its ground on its main conclusions. It agreed to state that food intended
for interstate and foreign commerce had very low levels of pesticide residues, due
to FDA regulation. However, it refused to guarantee this for food items marketed
within their state of origin, due to lax local regulations, or to make an unequivocal statement that the food of the nation was safe.56 The PSAC panel also rebuffed
the USDA’s request to remove the only passage in the report where they paid a
quiet but warm tribute to Rachel Carson’s work. “Writings in the public press as
well as the experiences of Panel members indicate that, until the publication of
Miss Carson’s book, people were generally unaware of the available information
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
on pesticide toxicity,” the draft stated. The USDA objected to the mention of Carson’s book in the PSAC report because “such a reference to a commercially available publication is inappropriate in a scientific report.”57 As Hartgering reported to
Wiesner, the panel did debate “at some length” before it decided to include such a
reference in the report. “It is noted that it is included under the recommendations
on the need to increase public awareness [of the pesticide problem]. The Panel
members felt that it would be a deliberate slight if they did not make reference
to the book.”58
Although the USDA and the industry grew increasingly fearful that PSAC
appeared to side with Caron, Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall backed the
scientists. Calling the revised draft report a “factual, unbiased treatment of the
pesticide problem,” Udall’s only regret was that the draft report made no mention of the role his department should play in the evaluation of effects of pesticides on fish and wildlife. He wanted the final report to highlight Interior’s role
in this respect.59
Meanwhile, the highly charged atmosphere in the pesticide debate finally
began to erode the considerable camaraderie that had prevailed in the PSAC
panel. During the last stage of drafting the pesticides report, perhaps not surprisingly, Drury and Horsfall tried to pull it in opposite directions. On the one hand,
Drury felt that the first section of the report on the positive side of pesticides
“gives tacit approval of the status quo—the situation is unfortunate but necessary,”
and feared that the report might be used “as vindication of industry’s stand.” He
would rather see the report “reflect the panel’s conviction that Rachel Carson is
essentially correct.” He also believed that the full PSAC shared his sense of the
gravity of the situation:
I remember that everyone on the Committee has been surprised at the abundance of evidence of danger, that they have been irritated at the evasiveness
and dishonesty of industry’s campaign, and seriously concerned that strong
remedial action needs to be taken. That message doesn’t come through to me
in the publication as is.60
On the other hand, Horsfall complained to Hartgering that:
I do not believe the Panel thinks that the country is in danger of poisoning
itself really, and yet the tone of the thing is frightening. I know that it was made
to sound that way, but I still think that we might close up by indicating that we
are, at least, taking a reasonable view of the matter and that we are not just
saying to Miss Carson, “We, too.”61
Fortunately for MacLeod and the embattled staff, there was a strong consensus
on the seriousness of the problem in the panel and enough common ground
even between Horsfall and Drury for them to fashion a coherent and balanced
final report.62
As federal agencies fought over the PSAC report, the media also joined the
battle. On April 3, 1963, the CBS television network aired a prime-time special
Responding to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962–1963
on “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” as part of its popular CBS Reports series,
hosted by Eric Sevareid. Featuring interviews with Rachel Carson and a wide selection of government officials and scientists, including two PSAC staff members, it
dramatically intensified the public debate. President Kennedy was likely among
the millions of viewers that night, having been alerted by Wiesner about the show
earlier that day.63 What he heard probably disturbed him: “Eight months ago, the
President’s Science Committee began its investigation,” Jay McMullen, reporter
and producer of the program, told viewers, “but up to now no report has been
issued, and CBS News has learned that dissension among government agencies is
delaying that report.”64
The show brought to home to Kennedy and the American public not only
the intensity of the backlash against Carson by a powerful establishment that
evoked the authority of science and the government, but also a disturbing trend
of experts at odds with each other over assessment of environmental pollution. A
white-coated Dr. Robert White-Stevens of the American Cyanamid Company, for
example, attacked Silent Spring as “completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence.” He prophesized that “[i]f man were to faithfully follow the
teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and
disease and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” Surgeon General Luther
Terry and Secretary Freeman defended pesticides as vital to public health and
agriculture. Both White-Stevens and FDA Commissioner George Larrick assured
the public of pesticide safety: “There is no danger to either man or to animals and
wildlife” if used properly.
As the program continued, however, viewers began to see that these reassurances were built on shaky ground. Larrick acknowledged that existing controls
of pesticides might not be “truly sufficient” in view of rapid technological developments. Freeman conceded that damages to wildlife did take place “before” his
term. Page Nicholson of the PHS told an incredulous McMullen that “in some
instances” the public was drinking water contaminated with pesticides and that
the PHS had no regulation over the matter. John Buckley, here identified as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Research Center, further contradicted WhiteStevens by asserting “extensive damage to wildlife” even when the pesticides
were applied in “carefully carried out programs.” Likewise, Hartgering, identified by Sevareid as “a staff member of the President’s Science Committee,” told
McMullen that, at least indirectly, pesticide use could affect human reproduction
as it did other animals.
The best defender of Carson’s Silent Spring on the program turned out to
be Carson herself. In a calm but firm voice that contrasted sharply with WhiteStevens’s stridency, Carson called on the public to maintain a healthy skepticism
toward technological promises. “We’ve heard the benefits of pesticides,” Carson
told Sevareid and viewers, “we have heard a great deal about their safety, but very
little about the hazards, very little about the failures, the inefficiencies . . . so I set
about to remedy the balance there.” Judging by the overwhelming number of
favorable letters received by CBS and by Carson, it appeared that Carson’s warning
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resonated with a significant portion of the public and that a strong undercurrent of
anxiety existed even in the post-Sputnik age of technological enthusiasm.65
A Closure and an Opening
Perhaps the goading from CBS Reports helped. After eight months of intensive
investigation, debates, and last-minute “hectic fussing between agencies and countless redrafting,” the PSAC report was finally completed and delivered to President
Kennedy, who released it to the public on May 15, 1963.66 Arguably, no PSAC publication was ever fought over so fiercely because none carried as much implication
for American public policy. To a striking extent, the PSAC report endorsed both the
specific claims and the general philosophy Rachel Carson presented in Silent Spring.
Although recognizing that “the use of pesticides must be continued” for food production and control of diseases, the report made it clear that their widespread use
“may also be toxic to beneficial plants and animals, including man.” It emphasized,
as did Carson, that pesticides represented only the iceberg of a broader environmental problem and that there was a need to act even before full knowledge of the
problem was obtained:
The Panel is convinced that we must understand more completely the properties of these chemicals and determine their long-term impact on biological
systems, including man. The Panel’s recommendations are directed toward
these needs, and toward more judicious use of pesticides or alternate methods
of pest control, in an effort to minimize risks and maximize gains. They are
offered with the full recognition that pesticides constitute only one facet of
the general problem of environmental pollution, but with the conviction that
the hazards resulting from their use dictate rapid strengthening of interim
measures until such time as we have realized a comprehensive program for
controlling environmental pollution.67
Thus the report set a powerful precedent for the argument that when faced with
the potentially disastrous consequences of environmental changes, it was more
prudent to take steps to mitigate the problem and err on the conservative side than
to wait for all the data and proofs to come in before initiating actions.
The panel pointed out that the problem admitted no quick technical or technocratic fixes; instead its solution required dynamic interactions between scientific
understanding and technological progress within a democratic framework:
It [the panel] can suggest ways of avoiding or lessening the hazards, but in the
end society must decide, and to do so it must obtain adequate information
on which to base its judgments. The decision is an uncomfortable one which
can never be final but must be constantly in fl ux as circumstances change and
knowledge increases.68
In demanding the public right to know and to choose, PSAC echoed Carson’s own
call in Silent Spring that “The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on
the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts.”69
Responding to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962–1963
Structurally, the twenty-three-page document included a general introduction summarizing the panel’s assessment of the problem and sections on “gains,”
“hazard,” “pest control without chemical,” “role of the government in pesticide
regulation,” and “recommendations.” The body of the report explained the classes
of compounds used in pesticides, their distribution and persistence in the environment, and their biological effects on humans and animals. As if to confirm the
British joke about Americans being less edible, the report revealed that indeed
Americans had twelve parts per million (ppm) of DDT in their body fat as compared with two ppm for the English.70 The report encouraged, as did Carson, biological controls as an alternative to chemical pesticides, and most important, made
proposals for the USDA, HEW, and Interior to strengthen pesticide regulation. Like
Carson, PSAC deplored the fact that “decisions on safety are not as well based as
those on efficacy despite recent improvements.” The panel blamed the domination of the USDA, with potential confl ict of interests, and the weak or nonexistent
roles of the HEW and Interior in the regulatory process for this outcome. Thus
it called for a role for the HEW in decisions on pesticide registrations when they
were clearly related to health.71 It also pressed for the protection of fish and wildlife
by their inclusion under existing federal pesticide laws and thus for an end to the
exclusion of Interior in pesticide regulation.72
Above all, PSAC called for increased openness in public policy on pesticides—
“The Panel believes that all data used as a basis for granting registration and
establishing tolerances should be published, thus allowing the hypotheses and the
validity and reliability of the data to be subjected to critical review by the public
and the scientific community.”73 Significantly, what PSAC endorsed here was a profound shift in the authority of American public policy from government technocrats to a scientifically informed public, and with it a new model of policymaking
based on contested rationality. Although it did not provide details as to how the
system would work in practice, PSAC’s goal was no less than putting the public
in public policy. In view of the BOB’s opposition, the PSAC report did not repeat
its earlier advocacy for a new regulatory commission, but it persisted in calling for
a critical reassessment of existing federal advisory and coordinating mechanisms
so they could have the power to restrict or disapprove pesticides on the basis of
“reasonable doubt” of safety.
Finally, to make the federal pesticide programs “models of correct practice”
for national guidance, it suggested that each of them include an “evaluation of the
associated hazards.”74 The report further advocated that “every large-scale operation be followed by a complete report which would appear in the public literature,”
thus anticipating the powerful Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) as a regulatory tool.75 PSAC argued, in essence, that skepticism and transparency furnished
effective antidotes to technological abuse.
True to its call for transparency, the PSAC report advocated public education
programs on the effects of pesticides. It not only mentioned Carson’s name, but
also added the title of her book in one of the most quoted sentences of the entire
report (or of any PSAC report): “Public literature and the experiences of Panel
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
members indicate that, until the publication of ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson,
people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides.” The PSAC report
recommended that “the appropriate Federal departments and agencies initiate programs of public education describing the use and toxic nature of pesticides” and
that “The Government should present this information to the public in a way that
will make it aware of the dangers while recognizing the value of pesticides.”76
Most controversial to the USDA and other pesticide proponents were the
report’s proposed changes in federal pesticide policy. Once again echoing Carson,
PSAC called for the eventual elimination of persistent pesticides such as DDT and
the termination of insect eradication programs, terming them as unrealistic.77 Pesticide advocates at the USDA and elsewhere argued that long-lasting poisons were
indispensable for certain applications and that such use actually helped reduce the
amount of pesticides used. They also contended that eradication worked in some
regions and likewise helped reduce pesticide use. What they failed to consider was
the harmful effects both approaches had for fish and wildlife.78
Ultimately, what made the PSAC report a striking vindication of Rachel Carson was not only its confirmation of her specific charges about pesticide abuse,
but its sympathy for her philosophical critique of misguided technological enthusiasm. Like Carson, the PSAC panel focused on the relationship between science
and technology in its appraisal of the excesses and deficiencies of pesticides. In
Silent Spring, Carson had argued that human abuse of the environment derived
from an unfortunate imbalance between our underdeveloped science and overdeveloped technology:
The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists
for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming
misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern
and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also
turned them against the earth.79
PSAC, although not quite as eloquent, clearly agreed with Carson that it was
important to understand nature—through science or basic research—before
attempting to control it with technology. The PSAC report pointed out, for
example, that the lack of basic research on the long-term, environmental effects of
these chemicals was in large part responsible for the crisis facing the nation. Such
basic research would serve both as a foundation for future pesticide technology
and as a way to solve the environmental problems caused by its abuse. In her book
Carson had lamented the “pitifully small” funds devoted to research on pesticides’
environmental effects. PSAC agreed: “approximately $20 million were allocated
to pest control programs in 1962, but no funds were provided for concurrent field
studies on the environment.”80
Both PSAC and Carson, who would proudly identify herself as a marine biologist in congressional testimony on pesticides, believed that scientific research
Responding to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962–1963
would eventually offer a way out of the technological impasse. In Silent Spring
she had cited, for example, the “brilliant successes” of biological control that
had come from “the minds of imaginative scientists . . . based on understanding
of the mechanism they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which
these organisms belong.”81 Likewise, PSAC tried (once again) to turn a flawed
technological program into a justification for basic research. It called for increased
federal funding for research on alternatives to conventional chemical pesticides,
including biological controls, for toxicological studies of the long-term effects of
pesticides on humans and wildlife, and for basic research and education at universities. The science–technology boundary remained as important a subject for
negotiation in the debate over pesticides as it did in those over nuclear weapons
and space programs.
Reaction to the Report
Outside the circle of entrenched pesticide interests, the PSAC panel report was
universally greeted as a powerful affirmation of Rachel Carson’s message in Silent
Spring. “Rachel Carson Stands Vindicated,” headlined The Christian Science Monitor
the day after its issuance. The New York Times announced soberly, on its front page,
that “The President’s Science Advisory Committee cautioned the nation today
on the use of pesticides.”82 Interestingly, some of the scientific publications that
had published damning reviews of Carson’s book now joined the popular press
in applauding the report.83 For example, the Chemical and Engineering News, which
had published Darby’s almost personal attack on Carson, now responded to the
publication of the PSAC report with a laudatory lead article in its May 20 issue.
Characteristically, it found assurance in elitism: “the committee’s panel on the use
of pesticides was composed of men of achievement in the scientific and public
affairs, whose positions imply recognition of their judgment and responsibility.
The tone of the report reflects those qualities.”84 The American Chemical Society,
which published the CEN, made sure that a copy of the article was sent to every
PSAC member.85
What gave particular weight to the PSAC report was, of course, Kennedy’s
brief but crucial statement in the report that “I have already requested the responsible agencies to implement the recommendations in this report, including the
preparation of legislative and technical proposals which I shall submit to the Congress.”86 It was a rare case where PSAC prevailed over the objection from the BOB.
In a way, it marked the end of the first phase of intra-administration debate over
pesticide policy, although even those recommendations in the PSAC report were
subject to different interpretations.87
Rachel Carson was elated by the PSAC report. Having read the penultimate
draft of the report, Carson was able to react quickly and comment on it enthusiastically to CBS on the day of its White House release:
I think it’s a splendid report. It’s strong. It’s objective and I think a very fair
evaluation of the problem. I feel that the report has vindicated me and my
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
principal contentions. I am particularly pleased by the reiteration of the fact
that the public is entitled to the facts, which after all, was my reason for writing Silent Spring.88
That evening, CBS aired Carson’s comments in a special program on the report—
The Verdict on the Silent Spring of Rachel Carson. Sevareid, again in the anchor’s
chair, called the report “prima facie evidence” that Carson had achieved her goal to
“build a fire under the Government.”89 The next day Hartgering wrote Carson to
send her copies of the published report and to thank her for her discussion with the
panel and “your kind comments on the CBS program.”90 A few days later Carson’s
detailed analysis of the report appeared in the New York Herald Tribune. The report
“marks the end of an era of complacency,” she wrote, and if its recommendations
were adopted “we shall have taken a long step forward in our search for a sane
policy” over pesticide use.91
In Congress, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, a Democrat from Connecticut who
had been secretary of HEW early in the Kennedy administration, saw to it that his
former Cabinet colleagues follow the president’s instruction. With good timing, he
opened a series of Senate hearings on interagency coordination on the pesticide
problem the day after the release of the PSAC report. In his hands, the “Wiesner
report,” as Ribicoff called it, became a reference point; he frequently quoted from
the document and asked officials from the USDA, HEW, and Interior about how
they were following up on the recommendations. As the first witness at the hearings, Wiesner made headlines with his claim that, because of the rapid increase in
the use of chemicals such as pesticides, they presented potentially a much greater
danger than radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing.92 In making this pronouncement, Wiesner might well have been following the advice from Margaret
Mead, who told PSAC staff shortly before the release of the report that her survey
research found that the public often linked the pesticide problem with fallout as
top environmental issues of concern.93
Secretaries of the three departments in question gave largely positive responses
to the PSAC report in their testimony, with Udall being the most enthusiastic. He
wanted to see the various agencies carry out its recommendations, especially the
one giving Interior a role in the protection of fish and wildlife from pesticides.94
To Congress he openly complained about the USDA’s exclusionary practice in the
past, thus intensifying what he later called “a little cold war” between the two
agencies.95 In his testimony, Secretary Freeman welcomed the PSAC report, crediting it, along with Silent Spring, as contributing to public awareness of hazards of
pesticides. He also promised to work with Interior in working out a satisfactory
registration process. Although the USDA disagreed with the PSAC report on the
desirability of eradication programs, Freeman endorsed most other recommendations, including the abolition of “protest registration,” expanding public education,
and increasing basic research on biological control.96 Indeed, following established
practice in Washington, the USDA and the Public Health Service began to use the
PSAC report to justify their requests to the BOB for increased research budgets.97
Responding to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962–1963
Carson also testified at the Ribicoff hearings, elaborating on her case against
unrestrained use of pesticides and giving her support to the PSAC recommendations, especially those on the elimination of persistent pesticides, medical education, basic research, and Interior’s role in pesticide regulation.98 Two days later
she testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, where she called for the
establishment of an independent commission within the Executive Office of the
President to set pesticides policy that had been advocated in the original PSAC
report draft. “Confl ict of interest should be eliminated completely,” she said, perhaps by excluding members from the government or the chemical industry. “The
Commission,” she suggested, “should be made up of citizens of high professional
competence in such fields as medicine, genetics, biology, and conservation.” So,
even if her challenge to the chemical expertise would help erode public trust in
scientific authority in general,99 she herself maintained faith in the possibility of
public interest science. Carson’s positive experience with the PSAC pesticide panel
probably contributed to the idea that many saw as the seed for the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA).100
The agricultural chemical industry greeted the PSAC report with mixed
reactions. It welcomed PSAC’s recommendation for expanded educational and
research efforts. The big manufacturers even supported PSAC’s call to eliminate
“protest registration,” for, with their enormous research resources and intimate
connections with the USDA, they were confident that their products could pass
the registration process without resorting to antagonistic procedures. The industry
as a whole, however, disliked PSAC’s call for tighter federal control and regulation
of pesticides, regarding it as unnecessary interference with American “free enterprise.”101 PSAC’s recommendation of phasing out a pesticide if a less poisonous
one could do the job raised especially the long-feared specter that the government
would meddle in the marketplace, arbitrarily picking one pesticide producer over
another.102 Jukes of Cyanamid now emerged as a prolific spokesman for the pesticide industry, arguing that the PSAC report marked the first time “that segment
of society represented by the antivivisectionists, antifl uoridationists and organic
farmers is interpreted to have obtained official endorsement by a committee of the
Federal Government against current scientific technological practice.”103 Given the
high scientific stature of the PSAC panel members, however, it was not so easy to
tar them as antiscience. “I don’t think it is necessary to be an expert in toxicology
to understand what is a good control experiment,” William McElroy, chairman of
the Department of Biology at Johns Hopkins and a PSAC panel member, replied
to Jukes.104
Like Jukes, a number of agricultural scientists and public health officials disagreed with PSAC on the danger of pesticides and the desirability of eliminating
persistent pesticides. Emil M. Mrak, chancellor and professor of food science of
the University of California at Davis, for example, called a PSAC statement that
pesticides were “affecting biological systems in nature and may eventually affect
human health” as “contrary to the present body of scientific knowledge.”105 Several
witnesses questioned the expertise of PSAC and its pesticide panel. Representatives
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
of chemical companies complained to the White House about PSAC’s exclusion
of industry scientists in its panel.106 PSAC responded that it did receive input from
industry. Furthermore, the panel’s focus was not the applications of pesticides, but
their environmental effects. Industrial scientists might have been highly qualified in
the former, they were “in no better position to evaluate the toxicological effects,”
as Bing answered one chemical company executive.107
Indeed, the point of the PSAC report was that there were no experts on the
environmental effects of pesticides. Ecologists were the one professional group
most closely associated with the study of the environment and, by the early 1960s,
had been well-established in American academia.108 Among all scientists they
responded, as a profession, most warmly to Rachel Carson’s book. Yet, their voices
were surprisingly muted in both the controversy over Silent Spring and the ensuing debate over public policy.109 As ecologist F. R. Fosberg reviewed the pesticides
controversy, he was struck by the disappearance of his colleagues: “where were the
ecologists, whose proper concern is the environment in which we live?”110 Apparently they were neither invited, nor did they demand, to be represented on the
PSAC pesticides panel.
This study of PSAC’s involvement in the debate over pesticides, especially the
contrast between PSAC’s prominence and the ecologist’s absence in it, tells us
something about the negotiation of environmental expertise during the early years
of the modern environmental movement. Much still needs to be done to understand how environmental expertise and ecological consciousness emerged and
gained acceptance in American society and public policy. Here, in the early 1960s, it
appears that environmental expertise as we understand the term today, an interdisciplinary body of knowledge about the natural and social aspects of environmental
problems, with the goal of controlling and regulating them through public policy,
was still in its infancy. There were experts in a variety of fields that would contribute to the new discipline, such as ecology, public health, agricultural science,
toxicology, and epidemiology. However, the concept of environmental expertise,
especially in the arena of public policy, seemed to be a new one, to be invented
and contested. In fact, the PSAC pesticide study represented, for the first time, a
synthesis of state-of-the-art research findings on a major environmental problem
from different agencies, sources, and disciplines, generating new knowledge and
helping establish the field of environmental studies in the process. In many ways,
PSAC’s role in environmental policy in the early 1960s resembled its experience in
arms control in the late 1950s.
PSAC’s involvement in the environmental field also resembled its work on
arms control in the sense that it achieved only mixed success. Its study did result in
several far-reaching changes in the federal pesticide policy. It helped to eliminate
the “protest registration,” reduce the dosage of and eventually ban the use of
DDT and several other persistent chemicals in the United States, increase research
and education on the hazards of pesticides as well as on alternative methods of
Responding to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962–1963
controlling pests, and bring about a stronger Federal Committee on Pest Control
to replace the weak Federal Pest Control Review Board.111 As the Consumer Union
pointed out, the PSAC report also helped focus public attention on the hazards of
household pesticides.112 Respectable, this list of specific achievements was, however, probably not as impressive as PSAC, Carson, or other environmentalists had
hoped for. As Shirley A. Briggs, Carson’s fellow crusader against excessive pesticide
use and later executive director of the Rachel Carson Council, stated, the volume
of pesticides produced and used increased every year after Silent Spring and the
PSAC report.113 Perhaps even more disturbingly, at the height of the national controversy over pesticides, the U.S. military began its massive program of applying
herbicides, such as Agent Orange, in Vietnam, which was not mentioned in the
PSAC report at all.114
In retrospect, the real contribution of the PSAC report was its critical role in
changing public and official perception of the environmental problems discussed
in Carson’s Silent Spring. The panel’s scientific reputation, its balanced but clear
articulation of the risks of pesticides, and Kennedy’s strong endorsement combined to give a powerful jolt to the complacent attitude of the pesticide establishment. It was no longer convincing to paint Rachel Carson and her supporters
as “antiscience” in alliance with, as one reviewer put it, “organic gardeners, the
anti-fl uoride-leaguers, the worshippers of ‘natural foods’ and other pseudoscientists and faddists.”115 Furthermore, with its reasoned treatment of the issue based
on compromise among the various interests involved, the PSAC report offered
an early example of what scholars have called a “negotiated model of regulatory
science,” a process that admits of scientific uncertainties but still encourages
policymaking to be guided by dynamic research and by conservative assessment
of potential risks.116 In many ways, PSAC’s pesticide study helped pioneer environmental studies as a serious, interdisciplinary scientific field.
This examination of the PSAC pesticide study also shows that in the area of
the environment, as clearly as in military technology and arms control, the president needed expert but independent science advising. Without the timely and
effective backing of the PSAC, it would have been difficult for Kennedy to stem
the scientific and bureaucratic tide of attacks on Carson and her book.117 PSAC
scientists’ institutional loyalty to, and connection with, the presidency gave them
certain freedom from being swayed by the parochial interests of federal agencies.
The resistance to policy change by the USDA, FDA, and the BOB confirmed historian Samuel Hays’s assertion that “the administrative agencies and the Executive
Office of the President sought to exercise restraint on environmental demands.”118
However, Kennedy’s creative use of outside science advice helped him overcome
such resistance, and the domination of university scientists also made it easier
for them to fend off pressure from the chemical industry. In addition, PSAC’s
flexible panel system made it possible to combine expert depth in the panel with
interdisciplinary breadth of the full committee. By conscientiously seeking members of different points of view on the panel, as well as input from rival agencies,
PSAC also reaped the benefits of the adversarial process to ensure balance and
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
credibility in its final advice to the president. Thus, largely as a result of this PSAC
study on pesticides, the science adviser’s office became even more the center for
environmental activism in the White House and the federal government, at least
until the establishment of the EPA in 1970.
Above all, PSAC’s technological skepticism, its appreciation of the limitations
of technological solutions, acquired during the long struggle with the nuclear
arms race, played a key role in shaping its approach to the problems of both pest
control and pesticide effects. Just as it cast doubt over the promise of new nuclear
weapons as a solution to the political problem of the Cold War, it drew attention
to the danger of misguided enthusiasm for chemical control of pests. Just as it realized that the achievement of the nuclear test ban was a political problem that could
not be solved by technical designs, PSAC recognized that the pesticide problem,
and environmental problems in general, could not be left to the experts. That was
why in the pesticide report they, echoing Carson, called on society to decide on
the use of pesticides based on adequate information. Once again, they emphasized
the need for the public to recognize the limits of any technological solution in the
complex social, political, and natural/ecological context. It was a view much less
technocratic than the NAS–NRC pest control panels and much more in tune with
that of Carson.
There was no question, of course, about the Rachel Carson’s crucial role in
the entire process as a popular, woman science writer. If it were not for Carson’s
book, PSAC probably would not have undertaken its investigation on pesticides
for several years, if at all. Both the clarity with which Carson argued her case and
the accompanying public interest pushed PSAC to go beyond the needs for further
research and make forceful proposals for policy change. They certainly helped to
garner crucial presidential attention for the issue and to weaken the bureaucraticindustrial resistance to the committee’s recommendations. Carson’s appearance
was a historical milestone for PSAC, which had by then been largely a world without women. It was no accident that the first major PSAC report on a topic other
than the masculine military technology, space, and science policy, was instigated
by a woman scientist and science writer, belonging to a marginal group in the
hierarchical scientific community. As recent studies have indicated, the movement
toward appropriate technology, with its recognition of the limits of technological
fixes, represented a feminization of American culture in the 1960s and 1970s.119 In
the end, it took incisive political leadership, enlightened technological rationality,
and scientifically informed public activism to turn the pesticide debate into the
beginning of a modern environmental movement.
Testing the Limits, 1961–1963
In contrast to their remarkable effectiveness in the new area of environmental
policy, the presidential science advisers, ironically, faced mounting challenges in
space and arms control, their traditional strongholds, during the Kennedy years. In
both these arenas, PSAC scientists remained committed to a set of ideals formed
during the post-Sputnik Eisenhower years and under his infl uence. They wanted
the United States to follow a space program of substance, preferably one guided
by scientific merit, and not one geared toward propaganda effects; they cautioned
against a resurgent technological enthusiasm for manned space programs. In arms
control, they agreed with Eisenhower’s argument for nuclear “sufficiency” as the
basis for American deterrence, and advocated a vigorous course of negotiations
with the Soviet Union to abolish nuclear testing. They continued to believe that
there were limits to any technological solutions of essentially political and social
problems such as the space race and the nuclear arms race. Shifting domestic
politics and Soviet actions, however, increasingly tested such beliefs, which also
resulted in an altered ecology of science advising and policy.
The Apollo Decision
Initially, PSAC’s opposition to manned space seemed to prevail into the Kennedy
administration. Under Eisenhower, PSAC had consistently and effectively advised
the president that there was essentially no scientific justification for a manned
space program, although it recognized other factors involved. In January 1961,
Wiesner’s ad hoc committee on space for Kennedy, which included such PSAC
veterans as Donald Hornig, Edwin Land, and Edward Purcell and former defense
officials such as Trevor Gardner, presented to the president-elect a “more vigorous” space program.1 While recognizing the importance of national prestige and
the human urge to explore, the sharply worded report criticized NASA’s focus on
manned space programs, such as Project Mercury, as playing to Soviet strength and
American weakness, and its neglect of science and national security in space planning.2 It even advocated the cancellation of Mercury and shifting of the resources
to programs of intrinsic scientific, technological, and military value. Other recommendations were also aimed at turning space to science and security: the revitalization of the Space Council, a stronger technical leadership at NASA, assigning “a
prominent place” for scientific objectives in space planning, and the centralization
and strengthening of military space programs, including the “surveillance and target reconnaissance” of the Soviet Union and China using the SAMOS satellites.3
In the area of manned space exploration, Wiesner simply did not see that there
was much the United States could do in view of the Soviet strength in boosting
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power. Wiesner had learned from Soviet scientists during his recent trip to the Moscow Pugwash that the Soviets would soon attempt a man-in-space shot. “Probably
the right approach is to make a hero of the Soviet astronaut and offer him a movie
contract,” he facetiously wrote Kennedy’s speech writer Theodore Sorensen. The
United States could attempt a moon landing, but the cost would run between
$30 billion and $40 billion. “It is hard to justify these expenditures for any imaginable military or scientific objective,” he argued. They could only be justified “by
prestige arguments and possibly as a great adventure.” Echoing Kistiakowsky’s
post-Sputnik reactions, Wiesner worried about the new space program “because
these vast sums of money if spent on space adventures will undoubtedly impair
our ability to support other areas of governmental activity, including real science.”
Wiesner mentioned international cooperation in space as a way to both reduce the
cost and lessen Cold War tensions.4
The Wiesner committee’s views soon found reverberations among yet another
group, under Gardner, that was examining space for the Air Force. The Gardner
report moved even further beyond the Wiesner report in demanding a reorientation of the space program toward activities of intrinsic value, especially those of
military utility. As music to the ears of its sponsor, the Gardner group advocated
that the Air Force be made the central agent for military space programs, including
manned space fl ight.5 Even though Wiesner, who sat on the Gardner Committee,
opposed “giving the military total responsibility for space,” it is not clear that he
had much control over the content of the final Gardner report.6
To a disgusted James E. Webb, the new NASA administrator, the Gardner
report was a blatant call for turning “everything over to the military.” In a conversation with Glenn Seaborg, Webb indignantly commented that, as far as he
was concerned, “President Eisenhower was probably right when he said that the
combination of industry and military is a matter that requires the gravest kind
of thought.” He invited Seaborg to join him in a meeting to confront Secretary
of Defense Robert McNamara over this issue. Seaborg, although sympathetic,
declined, citing his concern that “we were all civilians but we in AEC overlapped
tremendously with the military,” implying that he did not want to get involved
in a major battle over military–civilian relations. So much for the civilian control
of atomic energy that the Scientists’ Movement had fought so hard to establish
in the AEC.7
Webb had more powerful allies on his side, however. Soviet space feats, mounting public pressure, and potent forces in Congress and within the administration
soon came to his rescue. They helped not only to curtail the military ambitions in
space, but also overturned PSAC’s advocacy for a moderate, scientifically oriented
space program. In the first few months of the Kennedy presidency, the Soviets
indeed launched, as predicted by Wiesner and others, a cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin,
into space. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was made chairman of the
revitalized Space Council, and Overton Brooks, chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, emerged as powerful advocates for NASA and its
manned space programs. Even Lloyd Berkner, who had emphasized the value of
Testing the Limits, 1961–1963
a vast space program in the post-Sputnik PSAC discussion on the topic, managed
to get the Space Science Board of the NAS to come out with a strong statement
in support of manned space programs.8 A review of American space policy, under
Johnson’s overall direction, concluded, in the words of a joint report from Webb
and McNamara, that:
This nation needs to make a positive decision to pursue space projects aimed at enhancing national prestige. Our attainments are a major element in the international
competition between the Soviet system and our own. The non-military, noncommercial, non-scientific but “civilian” projects such as lunar and planetary
exploration are, in this sense, part of the battle along the fl uid front of the
cold war.9
Just as PSAC scientists used national prestige to push for high-energy physics
projects like the Stanford accelerator, the space advocates saw the Cold War
rivalry both as a driving force and the most compelling public justification for
their programs. Kennedy was concerned by the cost of the project, according
to Wiesner, but after the success of NASA’s Project Mercury on May 5, which
carried Alan Shepard into suborbital space, “the President was not interested in
hearing any arguments against the manned lunar mission.”10 Another discussion
in the White House concluded that without a large space program there would
be oversupply of aerospace manpower. “This took away all argument against
the space program,” Wiesner recalled.11 Kennedy appeared before Congress on
May 25, 1961 to declare the goal of landing a man on the moon before the end
of the decade.12
In the end, the Apollo decision was made against a complex background of
Soviet space challenges and calculation of broad U.S. national interest, with farreaching implications for American science policy in general.13 Yet, the momentous
decision was made without consulting PSAC, which, along with much of the scientific community, had opposed manned space projects as costly stunts for Cold War
propaganda effects.14 Wiesner did initially oppose it, but he could not match the
pro-Apollo forces, which included Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and the NASA
leadership. When the Space Council was reconstituted in this period, Johnson kept
Wiesner out of it, as Webb reported to Seaborg, on the ground that “if Wiesner
had anything to say, as Special Assistant to the President, he could and should say
whatever he thinks directly to the President.”15 Eventually, Wiesner decided to support the Apollo decision, not on scientific but on political grounds. Wiesner’s conversion earned him praise within the White House, but also drew criticism from
some members of PSAC for not giving the committee an opportunity to argue its
case with Kennedy.16
Wiesner and PSAC went along with the Apollo decision, and actually worked
closely with NASA to ensure the project’s success, but its relationship with the space
policymakers remained uneasy and was worsened by a major dispute concerning
the best route to the moon. Whereas PSAC (and initially NASA) favored an earth
orbit rendezvous that envisioned the launching of a big spacecraft into orbit around
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
the earth first and sending from it a smaller “boat” to accomplish the lunar landing,
NASA eventually came to prefer a lunar orbit rendezvous, by first going to an orbit
around the moon and then making the lunar landing from there. PSAC argued that
the earth orbit mode was safer and would result in more useful spinoff applications,
including military ones. NASA, however, insisted that the lunar mode was faster in
meeting Kennedy’s deadline. Above all, NASA, whose position eventually prevailed,
regarded the matter as an internal technical decision and deeply resented PSAC’s
encroachment. Wiesner’s hiring of Nicholas Golovin, a strong-willed former
NASA scientist who broke with his colleagues over lunar landing modes, as PSAC
staff member on space did not help smooth the relationship. Yet, in the end, many
observers felt that the debate was beneficial for the space program.17
The Wiesner–Webb feud continued when they found themselves on opposing sides during a major debate that erupted within the Kennedy administration
in November 1962 over the priority of Apollo in NASA. Whereas Webb argued,
perhaps to Wiesner’s surprise, for a balanced space program with a strong, broadbased space science program, as vital to Apollo and to the American space program
on a long-term and broad basis, Kennedy was clearly intent on making the Apollo
a crash project to achieve its political effects:
. . . the policy ought to be that this is the top-priority program of the agency
and one of the two—except for defense—the top priority of the United States
Government. . . . [O]therwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money
because I’m not that interested in space. I think it’s good; I think we ought to
know about it; we’re ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we’re
talking about . . . we’ve spent half the expenditures, we’ve wrecked out budget
on all these other domestic programs, and the only justification for it, in my
opinion, to do it in the pell-mell fashion is because we hope to beat them and
demonstrate that starting behind it, as we did by a couple of years, by God, we
passed them. I think it would be a helluva thing for us.18
Wiesner supported Webb on the need for research associated with Apollo. “We
don’t know a damn thing about the surface of the moon” and therefore needed to
carry out scientific research before sending a man there. However, he also sided
with Kennedy that only those projects associated with Apollo should be given the
highest priority—“The scientific programs that aren’t associated with the lunar
program can have any priority we please to give them.”
Webb, however, remarkably, did not back down. The following dialogue is
revealing about the place of national prestige in Kennedy’s own thinking not only
about space, but about other scientific and technological projects, especially highenergy physics:
President Kennedy: . . . I think everything that we do ought to really be tied
in to getting onto the moon ahead of the Russians.
Webb: Why can’t it be tied to preeminence in space. . . .
Testing the Limits, 1961–1963
President Kennedy: We can’t because, by God, we keep—we’ve been telling everybody we’re preeminent in space for five years. Nobody believes us
because they’re—they have the booster and the satellite. We know all about
the number of satellites we put up—the two or three times the number of
the Soviet Union—we’re ahead scientifically. It’s like that instrument you
got at Stanford, which is costing us $125 million, and everybody tells me
that that—we’re the number one in the world, and what is it—I can’t even
think what it is.
[Several voices say “accelerator” or “nuclear accelerator.”]
President Kennedy: Accelerator. That’s wonderful, but nobody knows anything about it.
In the end, however, equally remarkably, Kennedy actually followed largely Webb’s
(and to a certain degree Wiesner’s) recommendation to not reallocate funds to
Apollo at the expense of other scientific projects.19
Wiesner’s and PSAC’s marginalization in the Apollo decision and subsequent
setbacks in advising on the space program was emblematic of the growing resistance to its advocacy of moderation in an age of rampant technological enthusiasm. Clearly, PSAC no longer played the role in space policy it once did in the
Eisenhower administration. Its dissent in the Apollo decision was fresh evidence to
its critics, who believed that the committee’s stand reflected its tendency to speak
for the special interest of academic science. Its persistent criticism of manned space
spectaculars as irrelevant to either national security or basic research appeared to
be out of touch with the public and Congress, which placed increasing importance
on national prestige. In short, in space, PSAC’s strategy of banking on technological skepticism faced a major challenge.20 Even George Kistiakowsky, the leading
critic of a prestige-oriented space policy, grew concerned about the negative image
of PSAC. In mid-1963 he wrote Donald Hornig, his old graduate student and protégé, who now chaired PSAC’s space science panel, about an early proposal for a
space shuttle (“recoverable space boosters”):
I hope very much that you will study this material carefully. It may be bunk but
if it isn’t, this scheme may represent a unique opportunity for PSAC to take the
leadership in a positive way toward really spectacular achievements. Since the
days of pushing the development of certain missile systems and the nuclear test
cessation agreement, we have been on the whole rather conservative, criticizing others by and large. This is your opportunity perhaps.21
Fortunately for PSAC, Kennedy apparently still appreciated its service as a gadfly in
the space program. In November 1963, he selected Hornig as the new presidential
science adviser to succeed Wiesner largely based on his space expertise.22
For his part, Wiesner remained bitter about the space program. When he was
interviewed by Eugene Skolnikoff, a former PSAC staff member, in 1967, when
both were back at MIT, Wiesner revealed the depth of his resentment about both
the Apollo and the lunar orbit decisions:
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
Gene, I have made a policy decision myself when I came back from Washington which was to not talk about the space program. I really, as you know, didn’t
approve of much of what was done in the present program. I would have done
it differently but I decided that at this stage to talk about it publicly would be
to hurt something that couldn’t be changed anyway.23
The Limited Test Ban
Compared with its frustrations in the area of space policy, PSAC met with greater
success in arms control during the Kennedy years. Among all the objectives of
the new administration, PSAC identified most strongly with its renewed drive for
a nuclear test ban. However, as in space, the landscape of expertise in national
security decision making changed dramatically in the Kennedy administration:
the position of the national security adviser was now strengthened and filled by
the highly analytical McGeorge Bundy; Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg chaired the
AEC, which did not always agree with PSAC on the test ban despite his own general support for arms control; and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency,
which PSAC helped to establish, now began to function and utilize experts of its
own. In other words, the science adviser and PSAC no longer played as central a
role in arms control as they did in the Eisenhower years, even though Wiesner
continued to be highly infl uential with Kennedy and PSAC maintained a strong
interest in the subject and helped organize several technical studies.
At the very beginning of the Kennedy presidency, PSAC scientists were
involved in the formulation of policy on the test ban. On January 25, 1961, the
White House announced the formation of a panel under James Fisk, president of
Bell Labs and former vice chairman of PSAC, to conduct a review of the test ban
negotiations before their resumption in Geneva. In particular, it was to determine
whether the Geneva system of nuclear detection was still technically feasible. The
Fisk panel was not strictly a PSAC panel; it reported to John McCloy, Kennedy’s
special assistant on disarmament. However, its membership was dominated by
former and current members of the committee, including Hans Bethe, Harold
Brown, Wolfgang Panofsky, Frank Press, and Herbert York, along with people
from the AEC, DOD, and Rand who were much less enthusiastic about a test ban.24
The panel report, submitted promptly to McCloy on March 1, 1961, essentially
reaffirmed the soundness of the Geneva system that the Bethe panel had helped
devise. Even without stations in the Soviet bloc, the United States could already
detect most nuclear explosions in the atmosphere and underwater, as well as some
underground—“60–90 percent probability” of tests down to 5–10 KT—in the Soviet
Union and China, but to distinguish the latter from earthquakes would require
on-site inspections. Improvement in detection technology by 1965 would enable
the United States not only to make such distinctions but also to detect most (60–90
percent) space nuclear shots.25 As Press saw it, “the basis for political decisions
concerning the Geneva talks is already available.”26
The Fisk report buoyed the Kennedy administration’s hope for a test ban at
Geneva. Kennedy believed that an agreement would be important not only for
Testing the Limits, 1961–1963
its own sake but also as a step toward solving other Cold War issues such as the
confl ict in Berlin and Southeast Asia. At a luncheon meeting with congressional
leaders on March 7, 1961, Kennedy also mentioned the role of a test ban in halting the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries such as Israel.27 However,
the Geneva talks, when they resumed, soon hit a snag as the two sides disagreed
on several issues, including the Soviet insistence on veto power and the West’s
demand for twenty annual onsite inspections in each country versus the Soviet
allowance of only three. A tense Kennedy–Khrushchev summit in Geneva in early
June did not help matters. By the summer of 1961, Kennedy came under pressure
to resume nuclear testing from those who suspected that the Soviets were already
conducting clandestine tests.28
It was at this critical juncture that Kennedy turned to PSAC again: Were the
Soviets cheating? In response, the Panofsky panel, established for this purpose,
found no evidence one way or the other whether the Soviets had conducted secret
tests. Confirming earlier PSAC studies, the Panofsky report did reiterate that the
United States could not afford to observe a moratorium if the Soviets conducted
testing, either covertly or openly, in the long run, but, at least at that point, there
was no urgency in resuming nuclear testing:
[N]one of the specific weapons tests now discussed appear to be of such
urgency from the technical and military point of view that a reasonable delay
in reaching a formal decision on the resumption of nuclear testing would be
critical. Therefore, any decisions in the near future concerning the resumption
of nuclear testing can be governed by non-technical considerations.29
Here, as PSAC did so many times during the Eisenhower years, the Panofsky panel
did not refrain from making military judgments, on the grounds that it was their
obligation to explain the military significance of their technical deliberations.
Their critics, however, saw it as overreaching their expertise. The Joint Chiefs of
Staff, for example, were vehemently opposed to the report’s conclusions, arguing
that the fact that the United States had stopped testing without assurance that the
Soviets had done the same since October 1958 “makes the U.S. resumption of testing a matter of great urgency.” The Panofsky report, however, met with general
agreement from AEC chairman Glenn Seaborg, a fact Kennedy used to counter the
objections of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.30 The report enabled Kennedy not only to
resist pressures for resuming tests, but actually to reopen the Geneva conference
on test ban in August 1961.31 He clearly valued such science advice:
If you aren’t fully briefed in this area, you have vague fears—that a month will
make a difference, that testing would give the Soviet Union a major strategic
advantage, that testing might give us great new weapons. But in fact the advantages we would gain from a resumption of testing would be relatively marginal
and sophisticated.32
Everything changed, however, when the Soviets openly resumed testing, in the
atmosphere, on September 1, 1961. After the third Soviet test, Kennedy ordered,
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
on September 5, the AEC to resume underground tests.33 In a letter to the British
prime minister, Harold Macmillan, Kennedy explained that he decided to resume
testing to counter the Soviet “threats and terror” and to avoid the “gravest danger”
of seeming less determined than Khrushchev.34 Given the Panofsky report’s warning about the risk of allowing unilateral Soviet testing, Wiesner acquiesced to the
decision to resume underground tests.35
Wiesner tried, however, to hold the line on atmospheric tests that were
demanded by Edward Teller to speed up the test series and to perfect warheads for
ABMs. Citing the Panofsky report, Wiesner argued that atmospheric testing would
raise the “political problems” of fallout unnecessarily, especially when there was
“not any particular technical pressure” for it yet.36 To make sure that Kennedy got
a balanced view of both the pros and cons on the issue, he arranged for the president to meet with both Teller and Bethe in late November. Whereas Teller pushed
atmospheric tests to offset Soviet gains, Bethe questioned the military need for
such tests.37 In his own advice to Kennedy, Wiesner echoed Bethe’s argument:
[W]hile these tests would certainly contribute to our military strength, they are
not critical or even very important to our overall military posture. . . . I believe,
therefore, that you have the flexibility to make whatever decision on this matter
best supports your broader foreign policy and national security objectives.38
Reflecting the profound infl uence Eisenhower had on him, Wiesner argued that
the key issue was not nuclear supremacy but sufficiency. What mattered was not
whether the United States was “equivalent to the Soviet Union in every aspect of
nuclear weapon technology,” as he told his colleagues in the Committee of Principals, but whether the United States was “missing any of the things that it should
have for its security.”39 To him, true security depended as much on technological
restraints as on its exploitation. To a certain extent, Kennedy shared Wiesner’s
argument for restraint: whenever pressed by the military to expand the nuclear
weapons program, he would ask the question—“How much was the yield of that
bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima?”40 However, by late 1961 both knew that
they were fighting a losing battle against the pressure to resume atmospheric tests.
What mattered was not only the rational calculation of American strength, but
also, as Kennedy’s letter to Macmillan indicated, the psychological effects of any
strategic move.
The news worsened in early 1962. An evaluation of the Soviet tests by an
Air Force panel under Hans Bethe led PSAC to conclude that the Soviets might
have caught up with or even surpassed the United States in several aspects of
thermonuclear weapons designs.41 Disappointed by the Soviet intransigency,
Bethe actually signed what Bundy called “a Teller-dominated report” to the Joint
Chiefs of Staff that not only favored massive testing, including some atmospheric
tests, but also opposed the pursuit of a nuclear test ban for the time being.42 For
Bethe, this was, like his decision to join the H-bomb project after the outbreak
of the Korean War, a “logical” decision that helped him to maintain his “insider”
status and allowed him to influence the future course of action. Yet, as he later
Testing the Limits, 1961–1963
acknowledged, “sometimes I wish I were more consistent an idealist.”43 In a
way, the development also confirmed the prediction by Bethe and other PSAC
members in the 1950s that continued testing would result in nuclear parity. As a
consolation, Bethe saw some benefits in renewed testing in that both sides, but
especially the Soviets, could now make their warheads smaller and less vulnerable, which would help to stabilize the nuclear arms race.44 In fact, by September
1962, he did not even see any point in pursuing a test ban; the focus of arms
control should shift to the control of delivery vehicles.45
As a result of this development, the momentum toward the resumption of
American atmospheric tests mounted, despite continued opposition from Wiesner
and PSAC. By the end of 1961, Bundy, who had earlier sided with Wiesner, reluctantly moved to advocating atmospheric tests “because I think the net military
advantage is real.”46 Kennedy held out for several more weeks before giving in
to the pressure to resume tests in the air. By the end of February 1962, he wrote
Macmillan that his senior advisers “have unanimously recommended” atmospheric
testing. Citing the danger of people losing faith in American “will” and “wisdom,”
Kennedy publicly announced on March 2 the resumption of atmospheric testing,
simultaneously making another push for the test ban.47
Throughout this period, Wiesner and PSAC continued their low-profile work on
a test ban, especially on seismic detection, but their efforts proved only peripheral in
the final achievement of the limited test ban treaty between the United States, Great
Britain, and the Soviet Union in the summer of 1963 that prohibited nuclear testing
in the atmosphere, underwater, and in outer space (but not underground).48 Ironically, it was the U.S.–Soviet clash over the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 that
brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war before a compromise defused it and
served to expedite the test ban process.49 “Perhaps now, as we step back from danger,” Kennedy wrote Khrushchev in regard to disarmament and a test ban, “we can
together make real progress in this vital field.”50 Both Kennedy and Khrushchev also
hoped that the test ban would help solve their respective China problems. Kennedy
saw the ban as the last resort, other than the use of force, in preventing the imminent Chinese nuclear test. He thus sought to convince the Soviets to use their leverage to induce China to sign the treaty and abandon its nuclear dream. However, after
several years of tense relations, during which China had denounced Khrushchev’s
policy of peaceful coexistence with the West as a copout to the capitalists, Khrushchev had little leverage with China. Harriman believed that Khrushchev actually
sought to use the international success of the test ban to further isolate China in
the world.51 At one point, he instructed U.S. negotiator W. Averell Harriman to “try
to elicit Khrushchev’s view of means of limiting or preventing Chinese nuclear
development and his willingness either to take Soviet action or to accept U.S. action
aimed in this direction.”52 Kennedy apparently was considering a joint military “surgical” strike against the Chinese nuclear test site, but it never materialized.53
To PSAC, the achievement of the limited test ban confirmed its conviction that arms control would follow political solutions, not from any technical
breakthrough.54 Although disappointed by the retreat from a comprehensive ban,
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
PSAC supported the limited treaty for its promise both to eliminate radioactive
fallout and to reduce the danger of nuclear proliferation. Wiesner and PSAC
remobilized current and past members of the committee for the expected tough
fight to have the treaty ratified in the Senate.55 Edward Teller, the one-man antiPSAC who had opposed just about every piece of PSAC’s advice on national
security and arms control in the past, emerged once again as its most formidable
opponent. To the media and in Congress, he denounced the treaty as an obstacle
to the development of an ABM system.56 The philosophical contrast between
PSAC and Teller could not be sharper, observed Meg Greenfield, a veteran
reporter in Washington:
P-SAC, for example, has a reputation for scientific rashness where the test ban
is concerned and for scientific skepticism about proposed military weapons
systems. Among Defense Department scientists, quite naturally, it has been
the other way around. . . . Teller . . . has been particularly adept at imagining
weapons that the United States could not develop under the terms of a test-ban
treaty. Bethe, on the other hand, has generally responded to such imaginings
with imaginings of his own—“enemy countermeasures which would reduce
their military worth to zero.”57
Another observer, Freeman Dyson, a physicist who had earlier opposed the test
ban but now actually worked in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency
(ACDA) to achieve it, likewise saw technological skepticism as the defining characteristic of PSAC’s advice on test ban and defense policy in general: “The members
of PSAC have developed a deep commitment to the policy of military restraint, of
deploying new weapons systems only when a military need exists and not just for
the sake of technological novelty.” “Their commitment to this goal has served their
country well,” he added, “and has borne fruit in many other wise decisions besides
the decision to negotiate the test-ban treaty.”58
To counter Teller, who enjoyed considerable infl uence both with the public
and in Congress, Kennedy, Wiesner, and PSAC had to marshal all their political
and scientific capital. At a press conference on August 20, 1963, Kennedy was asked
about Teller’s objection to the test ban that it would weaken American defense.
Kennedy responded by citing the views of his own scientists:
I recognize Dr. Teller has made it clear that he is opposed to it. He opposed it
all last week and this week. Now there are a good many other scientists with
comparable experience—we have a Scientific Advisory Committee to the President, we have other scientists who work in nuclear matters, we have Nobel
prize winners and others, we have members of the military and others—who
think that the test ban is a source of strength to us.59
It was, among other things, a reflection of the reality that in the age of dueling specialists, the expertise and competence of scientists often mattered to a policymaker
less for what they could produce technologically, but more for their symbolic effectiveness in helping fend off rival experts.
Testing the Limits, 1961–1963
To back the president’s claims, the White House released a report by PSAC that
gave “strong support” to the treaty. In it PSAC vigorously disputed Teller’s claim
that the treaty would hamper the development of an ABM system by pointing
out that the bottleneck in missile defense was “non-nuclear in nature.” American
nuclear strength made it possible to accept the treaty “with confidence in our continuing security.” The same technological restrictions that Teller complained about
applied to other nations as well. “In fact,” PSAC believed, “more extensive limitations under a comprehensive treaty with adequate safeguards could provide even
greater confidence in our continuing welfare and security.”60 George Kistiakowsky
and Herbert York reinforced PSAC’s argument in their testimony in the Senate
before its Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator J. William Fulbright.
Kennedy regarded Kistiakowsky’s appearance as especially important because the
chemist was, as he pointed out to Fulbright, “Eisenhower’s fellow.”61
Meanwhile, I. I. Rabi, who remained a consultant at large to PSAC, organized a
campaign of American Nobel prize winners in support of the treaty at the suggestion of Seaborg and Wiesner.62 The unprecedented initiative met with enthusiastic
responses and Rabi soon was able to send a statement of endorsement, with a list
of thirty-five signers, to Senator Fulbright on the day that Teller testified against
the treaty. The laureates endorsed the treaty as “a significant if minimal first step”
in arms control, “thereby enhancing the security of the United States—and world
peace.” The signature list, which was soon expanded to forty, included, besides
Rabi, a number of other past and current PSAC members: John Bardeen, George
Beadle, Edward Purcell, and Seaborg, who also testified in favor of the treaty in
the Senate in his official position as AEC chairman.63 As Polykarp Kusch, professor
of physics at Columbia who helped Rabi organize the campaign, told Tsung-Dao
Lee, his Chinese American colleague and winner of the physics prize in 1957, “a
number of individuals who ‘never sign anything’ have signed this statement.” Lee,
who had just become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1963, gave his approval.64 The
Nobel endorsement received wide publicity: The New York Times headlined “Teller
Opposed Test Ban Treaty but 35 Nobel Laureates Ask Senate to Ratify Accord.”65
Kennedy promptly wrote Rabi to thank him for his “hard work,” commenting
especially on his good timing.66 Meanwhile, Hans Bethe declared that he was
“unequivocally in support” of the treaty.67 The Senate ratified the limited test ban
treaty on September 23, 1963, making it the first major nuclear arms control agreement in the Cold War.
As one of its most important midwives, PSAC took just pride and solace in the
achievement of the test ban.68 As PSAC scientists gradually realized, the test ban
was ultimately a political problem and their technical investigations could make
only limited contributions to resolving the gaps both within the U.S. government
and between the superpowers. Yet, both their advocacy and their technical evaluations did play an important role in countering the arguments from test ban opponents such as Teller with vested interest in continued tests, thus ensuring a balanced
debate and lending support to Eisenhower and Kennedy in their pursuit of the test
ban. As indicated by Kennedy’s comment on “vague fears,” PSAC studies helped
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
counteract the menacing uncertainties that a scientist like Teller could induce in
the minds of policymakers, thus playing a stabilizing role in the Cold War in a way
similar to that of the reconnaissance satellites. One might even argue that PSAC scientists’ advocacy for restraint in dealing with nuclear weapons indirectly infl uenced
Kennedy’s action during the Cuban Missile Crisis and paved the way for the test ban
and the general relaxation of superpower relations in its wake.
Thus, the test ban marked a step in stemming the tide of the nuclear arms race
and demonstrated the possibility to limit, however imperfectly, the nuclear technological momentum. Speaking for many of his former PSAC colleagues, York testified in the Senate that the treaty represented a step in the right direction, because
it sought solutions to the nuclear arms race through political negotiations, not
scientific or technological fixes. The latter had brought more military power but,
paradoxically, less security for either side of the Cold War.69 The treaty not only put
a partial brake on the development of nuclear weapons, but also stopped an entire
class of nuclear technology: the so-called peaceful nuclear explosions that had
been promoted by advocates such as Teller as a way to excavate canals, harbors, or
mine minerals. As the American president who first proposed “Atoms for Peace”
to the world, Eisenhower, for one, was concerned about this implication of the
treaty when first briefed by the Kennedy administration on the matter.70 However,
in public Eisenhower supported the treaty as a way to bring about “better relations
between the Cold War opponents.”71
Ironically, the treaty represented the last time PSAC, as an institution, was able
to exert significant infl uence in arms control. The natural resistance of bureaucracies against interference by outsiders led to increasing isolation of PSAC and the
science adviser himself in arms control policy. Perhaps PSAC scientists’ education
efforts had been too effective—arms control was primarily a political problem that
could not be solved by technological fixes—and worked themselves out of a job.
Even if there was need for technical understanding of certain issues, it was felt
that expertise in the agencies, including the DOD and ACDA, was adequate in this
regard. PSAC was not satisfied with the conservatism of ACDA and believed that
an independent, technically competent group at the presidential level was still vital
to making sound arms control policy, but its days as almost the only technically
competent advocates of arms control at the top of the government faded with the
limited test ban treaty.
Science Policy
There was another reason that PSAC scientists felt bittersweet about the test ban.
They welcomed the relaxation in Cold War relations it helped to bring about, but
they were concerned that such a development might weaken their argument of science for national security and prestige. To be sure, the Sputnik shock had ensured
that the buildup in federal funding of science would continue and actually accelerate during the early Kennedy years, and the vast expansion of the space program
exerted an especially powerful impact on American science policy. Ironically, the
specter of aerospace unemployment that had helped convince Kennedy to launch
Testing the Limits, 1961–1963
the manned lunar project now turned into the opposite problem of technical
manpower shortage. The Apollo decision was expected to stimulate competition for talent not only in aerospace, but in other technical fields as well. PSAC
capitalized on the problem to push for the implementation of its Seaborg report
in terms of increased federal support for basic research and graduate education
in universities. During a special meeting with Kennedy on technical manpower in
November 1961, Kistiakowsky, who remained a PSAC member, spoke on behalf
of the committee on the shrinking share of manpower training in the rocketing
federal R&D funds.72
Kennedy was sympathetic to his science advisers’ concern. At the beginning
of his term, he took several modest steps to increase graduate fellowships and
augment indirect cost allowances for universities in accordance with the Seaborg
report.73 These measures dovetailed with his effort to move Congress toward a
general policy of federal aid to education and higher education. In early 1962, he
seized on an alarming NSF report on Soviet science education to publicize the need
for action by Congress. Shortly after his special meeting with PSAC, Kennedy had
asked the committee to conduct, together with the FCST and the NAS, studies
and recommendations on manpower.74 A PSAC panel under Edwin Gilliland of
MIT then reaffirmed the Seaborg report and Kistiakowsky’s plea by recommending
an expansion in federal support for academic science, which received the FCST’s
endorsement. Declaring that “well-trained minds are among this Nation’s most
precious assets,” Kennedy then ordered new legislative and budget proposals to put
the report’s recommendations into effect.75
Such evident “lobbying” by PSAC on behalf of university science no doubt
contributed to the making of the golden age in science support in the late 1950s
and early 1960s. Federal support for basic research at universities leaped from $127
million in 1958 to $564 million in 1964, effecting an annual increase of between 20
percent and 40 percent.76 The American largess even spread overseas, as federal
agencies, predominantly the three military services, dispersed large amounts of
research funds to scientists in Europe, Japan, and other parts of the world.77 Within
the government, in-house scientists and engineers received higher salaries as a
result of PSAC and FCST advocacy and the so-called Bell report on government
contracting for R&D.78 At PSAC’s instigation, oceanography, atmospheric sciences,
materials research, and high-energy physics, the four national programs under
FCST coordination, received increased funding.79 In the last field, for example, the
expansionist thrust continued not only with the final approval of the $100 million
Stanford accelerator in 1961, but also with the plan for a machine several times as
expensive, the 200 Bev proton cyclotron.80
The largest share of federal funds for research and development continued
to come from the DOD and NASA, followed by the AEC and HEW. By 1963, as
Wiesner reported to Kennedy, 320,000 out of the 500,000 (64 percent) American scientists and engineers who engaged in R&D received federal funding. He estimated
that about half of the 70,000 new scientists and engineers each year would go to
work for NASA. “You asked what the new people would be doing if the NASA
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
program did not exist,” Wiesner wrote, “one can only guess.” He then added a
warning: “If the Federal programs were to taper off for several years, there would
undoubtedly be unemployment in the technical fields.”81
In the newly hospitable political environment, scientists began to reassess
their role in politics and society. Some called for scientists to be not only “on
tap,” but also “on top” when necessary. Technocracy and “technological fix” were
promoted in various guises. C. P. Snow, a prominent British physicist turned science administrator and novelist, became infl uential in the United States with his
writings on the widening gap between the “Two Cultures”—the sciences and
the humanities. In rhetoric similar to that often deployed by Rabi, Snow urged
scientists to participate and perhaps guide public policymaking with their unique
forward-looking capacity. In contrast to the New York Times columnist who had
questioned, in 1945, scientists’ ability to “map national policy or read the future,”
Snow declared in the early 1960s that “naturally they had the future in their
bones.”82 Snow and other commentators also constantly reminded the public that
they lived in a nuclear age, missile age, space age, scientific age, scientific revolution, or scientific society.83
Yet, behind the appearance of wealth and prestige, serious problems emerged
to trouble American science in the early 1960s, especially after the sense of Sputnikinduced urgency passed with the signing of the limited test ban treaty. Congress
began to reassert itself in science policy, threatening to politicize American science
in the eyes of veteran PSAC members.84 The establishment of the OST in 1962 had
met some needs on Capitol Hill, but powerful voices there continued to demand
accountability and practical results from science funds. The turning point came in
1963, when the House of Representatives slashed the NSF budget and sharply questioned the value of basic research and the imbalances in the geographical distribution of research funds.85 Shortly thereafter, the House created a Select Committee
on Government Research to evaluate federal R&D efforts.86 As historian Paul Forman has pointed out, even as Kennedy touted “the wholehearted understanding
today of the importance of pure science” in his 1963 speech at the NAS, “the tide
was beginning to turn.”87 Testifying before Congress in late 1963, Wiesner offered
his perception of the change of order in American science policy. He pointed out
that the relaxation of the Cold War led to a profound shift of national consensus
on the rationale of public support of science from national security to national
well-being, which included national economy and health. In a sense, the changing
public mood toward science also reflected a tendency of American society to meet
crises—World War II, the Cold War, and Sputnik—with crash programs of technological fixes, such as the atomic bomb, the H-bomb, and the Apollo projects, and
to become complacent in calmer times.88
Compounding the external pressure, disciplinary rivalry also intensified within
the scientific community, as the inevitable leveling-off of federal funds for science
loomed. PSAC saw undesirable side effects even in those programs that received
its initial blessing, such as oceanography and NASA’s massive graduate fellowship
programs.89 The disproportionate share of Big Science such as high-energy physics
Testing the Limits, 1961–1963
in funds and manpower also came under attack, even inside PSAC in the writings
of Alvin Weinberg.90 The House–NSF confrontation in 1963 prompted calls for
scientists to set priority in science before Congress did it for them.91
PSAC foresaw the storm, but it appeared helpless as the clouds gathered.92 A
panel on support of research under Harvey Brooks of Harvard labored diligently
for months on the questions of the proper level of funding for basic research, longterm planning in science policy, and mechanism for its accomplishment. The discussions, mostly within PSAC but also with BOB, FCST, and science administrators
in federal agencies, did much to clarify the issues, but resulted in no far-reaching
reforms. The decentralized congressional committee system presented an especially tough obstacle to fundamental changes. Despite the creation of the OST, the
pluralistic structure of American science policy persisted. An effective means for
rationalizing and planning public support of science remained elusive.93 Whereas
most thoughtful observers recognized the congressional resurgence in science
policy as inevitable and vital for the long-term health of American science, many
viewed greater governmental control of science with alarm and some blamed it
on the ineffective science advisory system. By the end of the Kennedy presidency,
it was clear that the golden age of science that PSAC had helped create was under
mounting duress.
When Wiesner announced, in early November 1963, his decision to leave his White
House post to return to MIT in early 1964, a stock-taking of American science and
government took place. Like Eisenhower, Kennedy truly appreciated the service of
his science advisers, despite their role, often, as the loyal opposition. Many of the
policies they advocated indeed reflected the consensus they had formed under the
profound infl uence of Eisenhower: On national security, they emphasized the sufficiency, not superiority, of nuclear weapons; they preferred arms control to arms
buildup; and they were skeptical of a massive civil defense program. On space,
they argued for a scientific, substantive, and unmanned program, and opposed a
manned program geared toward political and propaganda advantages. For these
stands, they were attacked by their critics, especially in the military, as an “antinuclear wrecking crew” and “technipols.”94 Even Kennedy, as Wiesner himself
acknowledged later, “often decided to disregard the PSAC’s favored position . . .
if, in his judgment, a stand was not politically viable.”95 This happened in the decisions to resume nuclear testing and to launch the crash Apollo program.
Yet, as a testimony of their close relationship and the president’s growing
dependence on independent technological evaluations, these incidents, although
far-reaching in their long-term impact, did not make either Kennedy or Wiesner
question the value of continuing science advising. As Wiesner later recalled, Kennedy actually repeatedly defended his science adviser against the increasing attacks
on him and PSAC.96 Kennedy once told a reporter that the most important thing
that Wiesner did for him was to keep the government from going all one way.97 In
a letter to a friend Kennedy called Wiesner “a good friend and trusted adviser . . .
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
one of those rare individuals who can work effectively to relate the complexities
and the opportunities of science to the needs of a nation, to its culture, its security,
its infl uence and its humanity.”98
The question of possible dual allegiance to science and the government continued to plague the science advisers under Kennedy. Whereas Wiesner’s supporters
congratulated him and PSAC for helping achieve the limited test ban, establishing
the OST, and broadening science advice into the environment and other new frontiers, his critics expressed dissatisfaction with the centralization in science policy
and urged changes in the mode of presidential science advising. In a biting editorial, Philip Abelson, editor of Science, the official journal of the AAAS, lamented
Wiesner’s concentration of power and the increased secrecy in PSAC’s operations
under his chairmanship. Instead, Abelson suggested the appointment of a separate
head for OST to open up the science policymaking process.99 Don K. Price, a political scientist at Harvard and a member of the AAAS board, however, disagreed with
Abelson and regarded his idea as harmful to the unity in the Executive Office of
the President.100
Wiesner’s defense that his job was not to represent science but to work for the
president might have been valid in theory, but in practice, as we have seen in the
case of the debates over a DST or the OST, the function of the science advisers as
spokesmen for science was often explicitly or implicitly acknowledged.101 Yes, both
Wiesner and Kistiakowsky before him had worked to make the NAS the proper
representative of science in government. In fact, it was for exactly such a purpose
that, in 1963, Kistiakowsky, as vice president of the academy, organized the Committee on Science and Public Policy (COSPUP) in the Academy. Popularly known
as “Kisty’s Committee,” COSPUP did become in the 1960s an infl uential venue for
raising scientists’ voice in science policy.102 As one of its first projects, in 1963 the
committee undertook a study of federal grant policy and its effects on the health
of American science; under Kistiakowsky’s personal push, it also produced an
infl uential report urging the United States to do more on birth control internationally.103 However, the rising prominence of the NAS did not solve the problem of
duality for the science adviser and PSAC as they were drawn time and again into
advocating federal support for science within the White House, even though their
role in science policy was clearly no longer a dominant one.
For his part, Kennedy also learned to appreciate the complexity of science,
technology, and public policy. His second address to the NAS, on the occasion of
its one hundredth anniversary in October 1963, sounded a much more sober tone
about the prospect of “disinterested scientists” solving problems for policymakers
than his first one in 1961. Commenting on the divisive debate over the limited test
ban, Kennedy now acknowledged that:
. . . scientists do not always unite themselves in their recommendations to the
makers of policy. This is only partly because of scientific disagreements. It is
even more because the big issues so often go beyond the possibilities of exact
scientific determination. I know few significant questions of public policy
Testing the Limits, 1961–1963
which can safely be confided to computers. In the end, the hard decisions inescapably involve imponderables of intuition, prudence, and judgment.104
PSAC veterans could draw satisfaction that their “education” of the president
about the limits of technological solutions of complex social and political problems finally reached fruition. Sadly, it came less than a month before the tragedy in
Dallas took away a president who proved as receptive to their technological skepticism as did his predecessor, even if he did not always follow their specific advice.
Although the entire Kennedy presidency lasted less than three years, it witnessed profound changes in the presidential science advisory system and in the
partnership between American science and government. The emergence of other
forces contended for PSAC’s central importance in arms control and space policy.
In science policy, the establishment of the OST both strengthened and diff used
the science advisers’ role as they expanded their limited resources to a widening
purview. Most important, the reduction of the Cold War tension and the receding
of the Sputnik crisis meant increasing demands, from Congress and elsewhere, for
American science to shift its focus from national security to civilian applications. As
science became a major instrument of public policy and scientists became part of
the establishment, politics increasingly invaded science policymaking and reshaped
PSAC and its environment.
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964
Like the rest of the country, PSAC scientists were shocked and saddened by
Kennedy’s assassination. Despite their disagreements over a number of policies,
PSAC members appreciated what Wiesner called Kennedy’s “spirit and charm and
intelligence” as well as his support of science, education, and arms control.1 Mixed
with a genuine sense of grief was, on the part of PSAC members, a worry over
the continuity of science in Johnson’s White House. Feeling “loss and waste and
danger,” Richard Garwin, for example, wrote Wiesner both to console him and to
express his concern over the transition:
Brilliant, hard working, and effective as he [Kennedy] was, it was your tutelage
in matters technological, military, and scientific, which made him very outstanding in these fields. . . . Now we have a new President, and the educational process must begin again. Very likely President Johnson is not aware of the matters
in which his Special Assistant for Science and Technology can aid him, nor of
the recent accomplishments of the President’s Science Advisory Committee.2
Garwin suggested that Wiesner brief Johnson on the activities of PSAC’s panels,
especially in civil defense, AICBM, and education, so the president could go to
PSAC if he needed help.
What Garwin and other PSAC scientists sensed was that with the coming of
the Johnson presidency, the transformation in the landscape of American science
and technology policy that had started in the Kennedy years would be accelerated.
They could not yet quite foresee exactly the directions and shapes of these changes,
but they knew that the new ecology of science advising would depend on the interplay of the personalities of the new president and his science advisers as well as
the broader developments in American science and society. What place would science and technology occupy in the new president’s conception of what the federal
government could, and could not, do? Would he and his science advisers find common understanding on both the potentials and limits of science and technology in
solving growing problems facing the nation in the mid-1960s? As the presidential
transition took place in the White House, American scientists watched the unfolding events with concern for both science in policy and policy for science.
Hornig, PSAC, and LBJ
For scientists, what compounded the problem of the transition was not only that
a new occupant abruptly moved into the White House, but also that Wiesner
himself was leaving. Kennedy had announced Donald Hornig as Wiesner’s successor, but the paperwork had not been completed.3 Hornig was in a dilemma, as he
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964
Figure 14.1 President Johnson (far right) meeting with science adviser Donald Hornig
(center) and his predecessor Jerome Wiesner. Courtesy of the National Archives.
wrote Johnson three days after Dallas: “I cannot tender you my resignation from
offices which I do not yet hold, but I want to make clear that I am entirely at your
service.”4 He needed to make plans for his leave from Princeton and for his family (his wife Lilli was also a chemist), but days passed without a word from the
White House.
Wiesner and Bundy, who stayed on as Johnson’s national security adviser,
intervened on Hornig’s behalf. Wiesner wrote Johnson that Kennedy had picked
Hornig for his background in military technology, competence in space policy,
PSAC membership, distinction as a chemist, and reputation as an experienced
administrator.5 Bundy affirmed Hornig’s qualifications, but, sensitive to Johnson’s
anti-elitist sentiment, he presented them not as prerequisites for the job but as
an assurance that “the prima donnas of science will be glad to work with and for
him.” Also mindful of past LBJ–PSAC clashes on space, Bundy told Johnson that
Hornig “has shown himself sensible and effective” on that subject. Finally, Bundy
subtly lowered the status of PSAC when he referred to PSAC’s role as assisting the
science adviser, not the president.6 Acting quickly now, LBJ quietly secured congressional support for Hornig before passing the word to Wiesner that he intended
to go ahead with the appointment7 (see Figure 14.1).
The Wiesner–Hornig turnover, like the Killian–Kistiakowsky transition,
brought a different personality to the position of the science adviser. Compared
with Wiesner’s passionate political activism, Hornig was soft-spoken and mildmannered, with an easy smile, but rarely one seeking the limelight. Not a tough
operative in the Washington political jungle, he nevertheless brought with him a
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
quiet strength that would help him carry out what he perceived to be his duties
to both the government and to the scientific community. During World War II, he
had worked on the trigger mechanism for the plutonium bomb at Los Alamos as
a member of Kistiakowsky’s team. On the stormy eve of the Trinity test, Hornig
was one of the last people to “sit on” the bomb stoically up in the tower to allay
Oppenheimer’s fear about sabotage. “You know, either you do get hit by lightening
or you don’t and either way you won’t know what happens.”8
Even though he was picked by Kennedy largely because of his expertise in
space, Hornig’s true passion in policy was international scientific exchange and
cooperation, especially with East Asia. His interest in space, as he wrote Wiesner in
1962, was “purely accidental and casual.”9 It started in 1951when he chaired a distinguished group of scientists to review the Navy’s infrared research activities, which,
among its accomplishments, intervened with the naval leadership to save the Sidewinder missile project from a planned shutdown.10 The Sidewinder turned out to
be one of the most prized weapon systems during the Cold War, and the Hornig
committee’s hitherto hidden role in its development illustrated the key function
of roving science advisers in American military technology policy during the Cold
War.11 As a result of this study, Hornig’s reputation as an expert on missiles rose
within the circle of military technology. Following Sputnik in 1957, Hornig, now at
Princeton, resumed travels to Washington, first as a member of the Space Science
Board of the NAS and then as a member of PSAC’s space panel. He became a full
member of the committee in 1960. By the time of his appointment with Johnson,
Hornig had become a veteran in the science advisory scene, although he remained
little known to the public.
The mismatch between the populist Johnson and his science advisers from the
Ivy League has been much written about and had to do partly with personality
and partly with policy. Hornig had met Johnson during the early Kennedy years
and was aware of his coolness toward PSAC, especially over its opposition to
Apollo.12 Thus, even before taking up his White House post in 1964, Hornig knew
that Garwin’s proposed “education” of the new president would not be an easy
task. Viewed as a Kennedy holdover, Hornig was also handicapped by a lack of
prior personal connections with Johnson that was important in the Johnson White
House. He had to learn to adjust to Johnson’s political style. As he later recalled: “I
had little feeling for the strong, dominant personality who saw everything in political terms, and President Johnson had little feeling for academicians and scientists,
although he always held them in great respect.”13 Also complicating Johnson’s relationship with the scientists was his profound sense of insecurity and resentment
of the East Coast elite. “The Kennedy people,” he told his press secretary George
Reedy at one point, were “more attractive . . . better dinner partners . . . and they
are more exciting than we are socially. . . . Our trouble is, George, we do not have
acquaintances [like that]. . . . San Marcos [State Teachers College, Johnson’s alma
mater] didn’t produce them.”14 This attitude might partially explain Johnson’s
much warmer relationship with Glenn Seaborg, the nuclear chemist who agreed to
stay on as AEC chairman, as a self-made man with a humble background from the
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964
west. Seaborg also appealed to Johnson with his upbeat messages on what science
and technology, especially nuclear technology, could do to improve society.15
Secret tapes and documents from the Johnson White House confirmed his
unease with Hornig, especially during the early days. For example, on March 13,
1964, in the presence of General Lyman Lemnitzer, Johnson asked an aide to tell
Hornig “to quit writing notes” like the one in which he warned that a LBJ decision
“involves us in embarrassingly political, ethical, and legal complications.” “[T]ell
him that I said that I didn’t want notes and to quit writing notes. When I want his
opinion from him, I will ask him for it,” he ordered.16 There is no evidence that
Johnson staged the show for the benefit of the visiting military leader, but his
harsh tone did not help to shore up the authority of his science adviser or PSAC
in the Pentagon. His edict, which implied that Hornig should speak only when
spoken to, harkened back to the early days of ODM–SAC under Truman. Even
more seriously, Johnson, in appointing Hornig, personally deleted language in the
traditional presidential letter that had authorized Hornig’s predecessors to attend
meetings of the NSC, to hire staff and consultants, and, perhaps most important,
to “have access to all plans, programs, and activities involving science and technology in the Government.”17 Repeatedly his name was omitted, “inadvertently,” in
the list of special assistants issued by the White House press secretary.18 Apparently
Johnson thought of Hornig more as OST director and less as one of his trusted
To Hornig’s credit he did not follow the example of Oliver Buckley and
turn passive. His tenacity helped him persevere during hard times. He carefully
navigated the LBJ court and worked behind the scenes, often through Johnson’s
other, more infl uential assistants, such as Bundy, Horace Busby, and Joe Califano,
and agency heads to get science advice incorporated into government policy. He
became, as he later put it, an adviser less to the president than to the presidency,
reinforcing a trend that had already been set in place with the establishment of the
OST in 1962.
“A Good Augury”
Outwardly, however, all seemed well in the beginning between Johnson and the
scientists. Moving into the Oval Office, one of the first items on Johnson’s agenda
had to do with scientists: would he personally present the AEC’s Fermi Award
to J. Robert Oppenheimer in a White House ceremony on December 2, 1963, as
Kennedy had apparently planned to do? The award was controversial among conservative members of Congress when it was first announced in April 1963; a public
ceremony in the White House, a tradition that Kennedy had started with the 1961
award to Hans Bethe, carried further political risk. Indeed, the Kennedy staff had
apparently planned to create an excuse—“there is still a vague possibility that a certain political matter might come up which will call him out of town,” as Bundy told
Seaborg—so Kennedy would not have to preside at the ceremony. We will probably
never know what Kennedy would have done with that ceremony had he survived
Dallas.19 Johnson, however, apparently unaware of these prior political calculations,
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
decided to proceed with the award at the White House. Few, of course, were going
to question the propriety of him honoring a commitment that the fallen president
had made.
In his remarks in front of a small crowd that included PSAC members as well
as Edward Teller, Johnson praised Oppenheimer’s work on the atomic bomb and
his scientific contributions, but made no mention of the H-bomb debate or the
security clearance controversy. In his acceptance speech, Oppenheimer did implicitly refer to them when he said that scientists had not always exhibited a “brotherly spirit” of science that Thomas Jefferson had written about. This was partly
because, he continued, “we are engaged in this great enterprise of our time, testing
whether men can both preserve and enlarge life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and live without war as the great arbiter of history.” Then Oppenheimer
added, “I think it just possible, Mr. President, that it has taken some charity and
some courage for you to make this award today. That would seem to me a good
augury for all our futures.”20
The Fermi ceremony clearly elated PSAC scientists, who had long called for
a rehabilitation of Oppenheimer. It also gave them hope that the science–state
partnership they helped to build would continue in the Johnson years. Indeed, as
an heir of New Deal liberalism, Johnson sought to expand the role of the federal
government, including its support of science and education, even beyond those
measures Kennedy had taken.21 He did personally rule against the low-rated MURA
accelerator, which angered Midwestern politicians and science administrators, but
the action pleased many who believed that he made the right choice.22 Shortly
afterward, he gave implicit approval to the recommendations of another joint
PSAC–GAC panel, this time chaired by Norman Ramsey of Harvard, for the 200
Bev accelerator that would cost $280 million, and an even bigger one with 800 to
1,000 Bev, estimated at $800 million, further down the road. Citing “past experience
in applying the results of basic research in other areas,” Hornig had endorsed the
Ramsey proposal as being “in national interest.”23
Notably, the rhetoric of a post-Sputnik race for national prestige that was key to
his predecessors’ justification for SLAC was missing in Hornig’s and his allies’ case
for the new accelerators. The easing in superpower relations and the lack of sensational Soviet progress in this field combined to make Cold War competition a less
compelling argument. In contrast, utility began to take on growing importance.
Bundy, for example, told Johnson that “High-energy physics is in national interest as
fundamental field of science with major long-run practical value.” Neither Hornig
nor Bundy, however, elaborated on what practical value they had in mind or how it
would come out of the field.24 Of course, international prestige did not disappear
from the scene, as Western Europeans increasingly replaced the Soviets as a threat
to American dominance. Leon Lederman of Columbia, for example, wrote fellow
physicist Gerald Tape, an AEC commissioner, that “[w]e would all enjoy the sight
of a strong European science but it is more clearly seen from a vantage point—a
bit higher and in front.”25 Finally, after a contentious national site competition in
1966, the 200 Bev accelerator, named the Fermilab, was constructed under the able
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964
leadership of Robert Wilson.26 Even though there began to be growing disquiet
about the domination of Big Science, the approval of the 200 Bev was viewed as a
positive sign of LBJ’s commitment to federal support of science.
Scientists and Engineers for Johnson
The Fermi Award to Oppenheimer and his continued support of science not only
won Johnson goodwill from many scientists, but also benefited him in the presidential campaign of 1964. Under the name Scientists and Engineers for Johnson
(SEJ), several scientists associated with PSAC, especially Kistiakowsky and Wiesner,
spearheaded an unprecedented large-scale operation to draw American scientists
into election politics. To preserve the nonpartisan posture of the science advisory
system, current PSAC members in general kept a low profile in the organization.27
With headquarters in Washington staffed by Donald MacArthur, an industrial scientist, and his wife Diane, a former official of the Peace Corps who happened to be
a niece of Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson, the operation enjoyed a close coordination with
the White House.28 Two famous physicians helped expand the group’s infl uence
beyond the scientific community: Benjamin Spock had guided the parenting of
the baby boomers and fought against nuclear testing, and Paul Dudley White had
served as Eisenhower’s heart doctor in the 1950s.29 The scientists made use of their
vast network of professional associations to recruit new members. Soon dozens
of local chapters were organized all over the country, attracting more than 100,000
members.30 In contrast, the campaign of LBJ’s Republican rival, Barry Goldwater,
struggled to come up with its own Advisory Task Force on Space, Science, and the
Atom, which featured Lewis Strauss as chairman and Edward Teller, Willard Libby,
and James Doolittle among its members.31
The Johnson camp took full advantage of the scientists’ support. On October
6, Johnson met in the White House with thirty-eight leaders of the SEJ, including
several PSAC alumni and members.32 He called the scientists’ endorsement “worth
more to me than all the gold in Fort Knox.” Echoing his two predecessors, he paid
tribute to the importance of the science advising system:
In this age, no President can make the vital decisions facing him without utilizing the best of the nation’s scientific and technical advice. Each day, I rely more
and more on your colleague, Dr. Donald Hornig—not only as my Science
Adviser but as counselor on many other subjects.33
Speaking of the international nature of science, LBJ did not forget to praise the
large number of immigrant scientists both in the room and in the country at large:
“We owe a special debt to those who have chosen the United States in search of
freedom from persecution for their beliefs.”34 Other high-profile events soon followed, including a well-publicized rally in Washington, DC, featuring a speech
by LBJ’s running mate Senator Hubert Humphrey.35 Thirty-three Nobel laureates
(including several PSAC members or alumni) reactivated their pro-test-ban network and publicly endorsed the Johnson–Humphrey ticket.36
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
In joining the political fray, the scientists were motivated less by any deep
devotion to Johnson than by a fear of Goldwater’s ultraconservative positions,
especially his fl ippant attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons. Three days
before the election, the SEJ, now renamed Scientists and Engineers for Johnson
and Humphrey (SEJH) sponsored a thirty-minute television program entitled
Sorry, Senator Goldwater . . . The Country Just Can’t Risk It. With Herbert York as
moderator, a panel of Kistiakowsky, Wiesner, retired admiral William F. Rayborn,
and the Nobel laureate-chemist Harold Urey of University of California at San
Diego, lashed out at Goldwater’s education, defense, and nuclear proposals. Spock
called on parents to reject Goldwater for his attack on federal support of education. Kistiakowsky denounced the senator’s aggressive foreign policy as “rash
and primitive,” deeming him “clearly unqualified” to exercise the power of the
presidency. Rayborn refuted Goldwater’s charge of American lag in preparedness,
and Urey called the Republican candidate “a blustery, threatening man, who talks
often without thinking, shoots from the hip.”37
Above all, panel members focused their firepower on Goldwater’s nuclear
policy. Rayborn declared that Goldwater’s advocacy of giving NATO commanders
authority to use nuclear weapons would lead to escalating nuclear wars. Wiesner
and Spock reminded the viewers that Goldwater had opposed the popular nuclear
test ban treaty. “My former boss, President Eisenhower, supported the treaty,”
Kistiakowsky added.38 In one of the few explicit evocations of their professional
expertise, York and Wiesner criticized Goldwater for talking casually about “small
conventional nuclear weapons.” Even the “small” nuclear weapons, they pointed
out, had explosive power of 100,000 tons of TNT, “five times as big” as the Hiroshima bomb. Finally, referring to the recent downfall of Khrushchev in the Soviet
Union and the first atomic bomb test in China, Kistiakowsky told viewers that it
was important to maintain the continuity of American policy in the nuclear age.
The program concluded with York’s plea that “if you care about peace, if you care
about responsible government, we urge you to vote for President Johnson and
Senator Humphrey.”39
Johnson was “impressed and flattered” by the scientists’ support.40 The Johnson advisers knew that “it was the nuclear issue that was killing Goldwater” and
that “the best way to hit Barry on the bomb was with the scientists who made the
bomb.”41 President and Lady Bird Johnson telegraphed Kistiakowsky and others on
the TV panel:
We watched your show yesterday and were proud of its impact and your performance. We have heard many favorable comments and both of us feel the
program will do much for our cause. Thank you for doing such a good job.42
Johnson personally phoned Spock, promising him that “I hope I prove worthy of
your trust.”43 In Albuquerque he called the scientists and engineers “about the best
supporters I have . . . they know the facts of life.”44
Why the intensity of the Scientists for Johnson campaign? For many participants, the election represented their initial foray into electoral politics. As
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964
Urey told an audience in Madison, Wisconsin, it was the first time he “ever wore
a campaign button and ever had a bumper sticker on my car.”45 Few doubted that
Johnson would win. What was needed, as a statement of the Harvard chemistry
faculty put it, was a “resounding” defeat of Goldwater.46 Albert B. Sabin, of the
Sabin polio vaccine fame, called on scientists to support Johnson “not because he’s
likely to lose without us, but because it is important that we win by the largest
possible majority.”47 Ultimately it was the extremism of Goldwater’s nuclear policy
that motivated not just the usual cast of characters who had associated with the
Oppenheimer–PSAC school of arms control, but even some of their former opponents in the H-bomb debate of 1949–1950, such as Urey, Luis Alvarez, and Kenneth
Pitzer to campaign for Johnson.
The Scientists for Johnson campaign also gave scientists an opportunity to publicize their views on the limits of technological solutions to the Cold War. Against
Teller’s defense of Goldwater’s advocacy for increased military R&D to strengthen
national security, York and Wiesner argued, in an October 1964 article in Scientific
American, that such reliance on science and technology would be futile and even
Both sides in the arms race are thus confronted by the dilemma of steadily
increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security. It is our considered professional judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution. If the great
powers continue to look for solutions in the areas of science and technology
only, the result will be to worsen the situation. The clearly predictable course
of the arms race is a steady open spiral downward into oblivion.48
The limited test ban treaty, they believed, pointed to negotiations as a way out of
the dilemma. The logical next step was a comprehensive ban, which would lead the
nuclear rivals to build mutual confidence and to move toward eventual disarmament. Even Urey, who had opposed the GAC and pushed for the H-bomb in 1950,
now joined York and Wiesner in arguing for political negotiations. “There is no
other way. . . . A technical or military solution is not possible,” he now concluded.49
As Marquis Childs, the infl uential columnist, put it, the York–Wiesner analysis
meant that “Goldwater’s demand for new weapons systems can only increase the
risk of nuclear annihilation.”50 On Election Day, arguments like this helped to give
Johnson one of the most decisive election victories in American history.
Remarkably, the deepening American involvement in Vietnam received only
minimum attention from the Scientists for Johnson operation, even after the
Tonkin Gulf resolution in August 1964 foreshadowed a dark future of American
involvement. The scientists seemed to have believed Johnson’s promise of pursuing
peace.51 The group’s brochure, “The Alternative Is Frightening,” cited Goldwater’s
threat to “drop a low-yield atomic bomb on the Chinese supply line in North Viet
Nam” as evidence that Goldwater lacked presidential maturity, but there appeared
to be little concern over Johnson’s stand.52 In a debate with Edward Teller in Science,
Kistiakowsky praised what he called “a bi-partisan foreign policy” that Johnson
supported but Goldwater opposed: “maintain a strong military, with complete
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civilian control; resist firmly aggressive acts but avoid escalation into general
nuclear war,” citing specifically the successful “resistance against attacks on South
Korea, Taiwan, and South Vietnam.”53 Thus, scientists not only largely ignored
Vietnam, but in general supported Johnson’s foreign policy, which, in comparison
with Goldwater’s casual nuke talks, appeared moderate and mainstream. Indeed,
despite their passion for arms control, PSAC scientists, at least in 1964, were still
very much part of the liberal consensus on the need to contain Communist expansion in the world.
The Great Society and Beyond
Johnson’s landslide victory in November spelled relief among scientists and promised the continuation of the science–government partnership. The prominent,
although probably not crucial, role of the Scientists for Johnson movement in
the election also materially improved the standing of Hornig and PSAC in the
Johnson White House. In the afterglow of the election victory, for example, Busby
reported to Hornig this Johnsonian statement at a White House gathering that
Hornig had missed:
That Dr. Hornig is just a good man. I feel good when I talk with him. I like for
him to come in my office because I know I’m going to feel good as soon as we
start talking. He is just like a good drink of whisky to me—he makes you feel
good all over in a hurry.54
Yet, such eff usive praise could not mask the reality that Hornig and PSAC now had
a recipient of advice very different from either of his two immediate predecessors.
Unlike Eisenhower, Johnson was a protégé of Franklin D. Roosevelt when a young
congressman in the 1930s and a firm believer in the beneficial role of the government. In sharp contrast to Kennedy and most other postwar presidents, Johnson
liked to focus on domestic, not international, affairs. Johnson’s heart lay in the
ambitious Great Society program, which epitomized his commitment to solving
the myriad social woes, such as racism, poverty, and illness, through government
intervention and often through science and technology. With such a bend toward
the practical, Johnson expected much from science and the scientists.
Johnson made clear his wish for a utilitarian and populist turn in science policy
during his first meeting with PSAC on July 20, 1964. Thanking members for their
service and recalling the Sputnik crisis, Johnson concluded that “the country has
made progress in bringing science and national security together, but it could do
more to utilize the products of science.” He asked his science advisers to advise him
on “how to put science to work on social problems, including urban problems, air
pollution, poverty, etc.”55 “Don’t you worry about how to get it done,” he boasted
confidently, according to York, who reentered PSAC as its vice chairman at the
time. “That’s my job and I’ll take care of it.” He wanted the scientists to help him
make life better for “grandma.”56 Speaking of priorities in PSAC’s own work, Johnson mentioned two things that were “foremost” in his mind: education and health.
If he had his way, the former school teacher said he would “write a full employ-
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964
ment act for education” so that every child would have all of the education he could
take. Education was a key part of his Great Society, and he asked the committee to
help ensure that no person with a scientific capability would be denied education
because of race, religion, or economic circumstances. He also wanted the group
to take the criticism of geographical imbalance in science funding seriously and to
help build up academic strength beyond the East and West Coasts.57
Most PSAC members reacted to Johnson’s vision of science serving a Great
Society with sympathy and enthusiasm. Partly as a result of Johnson’s push for
diversity and partly due to its own initiative, PSAC membership continued the
trend to diversify beyond Cambridge, physical sciences, and national security. As
a New York caucus of Bronk, Garwin, and Rabi on November 5, 1964 indicated,
PSAC recognized the increasing importance of civilian technology:
Characteristics desirable in new members seem to be activism, social conscience, a broad view, and unquestioned prominence in science and in
judgments involving science. Consideration was also given to the need for
engineering representation both regarding military affairs and on the civilian
and governmental side.58
In 1966, PSAC decided to add “behavioral scientist” as a new category of membership to its three traditional ones (scientific generalists, industry, and life sciences
and medicine), and a year later, filled it with the economist and cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon.59 Meanwhile a generational shift in membership brought in
new blood, from the Jason and from some of the young scientists active in the
Scientists for Johnson campaign in 1964.60
The glaring lack of women and minority scientists in PSAC, however, continued during the Johnson years. It was puzzling because Johnson had made a
strong commitment to bring both women and African Americans into prominent
positions in the government as part of his civil rights agenda. As a result and in
contrast to the all-male cast of PSAC, the AEC under Seaborg recruited a woman,
Mary “Polly” Bunting, biologist and president of Radcliff College, and an African
American, Samuel Nabrit, president of Texas Southern University, as commissioners.61 By 1966, the AEC’s GAC also welcomed its first female member, Jane Hall,
from Los Alamos.62 The National Science Board, which had from its beginning in
1950 at least one woman member, boasted three in the mid-1960s.63 The only other
major laggard in this regard under Johnson was the Defense Science Board, which
did not admit either a woman or minority scientist until 1976.64
Why was it so hard for women to crack into the old-boy network of PSAC?
The usual explanation was that PSAC scientists served as advisers to the president,
which required natural cohesion, technical elitism, and camaraderie, and not as
representatives of the scientific community artificially selected by outsiders. In
practice, however, many people, both inside and outside the committee, including the BOB, recognized that PSAC had acquired the symbolic value as scientific
spokesmen. Even if one concedes the primacy of PSAC members serving the
president’s needs, was not a better representation of women and minorities in sci-
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ence policy one of Johnson’s desires? The absence of women in the PSAC world
was likely the result of a combination of institutional inertia and weakness of push
from the outside, including, curiously, President Johnson himself. Despite its growing diversification, the committee was still dominated by physical scientists, where
the percentage of prominent women was fewer than in other fields. Some individuals infl uential in PSAC might have held prejudice against women scientists—the
otherwise progressive I. I. Rabi, for example, was known to feel that women were
not temperamentally suited for creative work in physics—but many others had
actively promoted the cause of women in science. In fact, Hornig was married to
a fellow chemist and Kistiakowsky passed his passion for science to his daughter
Vera, who later became a professional physicist in her own right and started the
national organization Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) in the 1960s.65
Although not making much progress in—or even recognizing the need for—
the promotion of women and minorities in science advising and policymaking,
most PSAC scientists did welcome the new marching orders to make science serve
social and economic goals. Under Hornig, PSAC and the OST did launch numerous investigations into ways to improve education, health, earthquake prediction,
housing, water research and management, desalting seawater, transportation, and
energy supplies.66 Gradually these tasks took on the characters of operational programs and led to a growth of the OST’s role in coordinating them. As a result, the
OST staff gained increased infl uence and importance, whereas that of PSAC and
the FCST declined by comparison.67
In all these new endeavors, PSAC scientists and the OST staff recognized that
their hard-won lessons about the limits of technological solutions applied not only
to military programs, but to the expanding area of civilian technology as well. In
other words, although they identified with Johnson’s goal of using technology to
achieve the Great Society, they were skeptical about the widespread optimism in
technological solutions, even among many of their fellow scientists. After the Alaskan earthquake of 1964, for example, a PSAC panel recommended a $137 million
research program on earthquake prediction. The full PSAC committee, however,
believed that the panel “oversells” the feasibility of prediction at that point. One
member, geophysicist Gordon MacDonald, told his colleagues that “[t]he program
is predicated on an extraordinarily limited understanding of earthquakes,” and that
the chance of setting up a prediction system in ten years was “nil.”68 In the end,
PSAC recommended instead the more realistic goal of research on construction
techniques that would make buildings earthquake safe.69
PSAC’s involvement in oceanography policy was another example of its measured evaluation of a major scientific and technological initiative of the Great
Society. In 1966, against the background of a public and congressional push for
marine development—“the poor man’s space program”—a PSAC panel produced
a comprehensive report on Effective Use of the Sea.70 A landmark in the utilization and the protection of the ocean environment, it led, in part, to the eventual
establishment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.71 The
practical gains from oceanography, it argued, could be equal to, if not greater
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964
than, that from space. In view of “man’s ability to modify and alter marine
environments,” the PSAC panel also made far-reaching recommendations on
the protection of the ocean, including the establishment of “a system of marine
wilderness reserves.” With its message of marine conservation, the report would
have warmed the heart of Rachel Carson, author of both Silent Spring and The Sea
around Us. The board of directors of the Sierra Club immediately endorsed the
report. Compared with other marine advocates, however, the PSAC report sought
to reach a balance between enthusiasm and restraint. PSAC recommended, for
example, against the construction of “deep-ocean airplanes” as not technically
feasible in the near future.72
PSAC was also skeptical of the mushrooming proposals of using nuclear
energy technologies for civilian purposes that were coming from the AEC. They
often evaluated them negatively not for lack of technical feasibility, but for undesirable economic or policy implications. Hornig, for example, tried to curb enthusiasm on an overly ambitious U.S. program to use nuclear power to desalt sea water
both at home and as a technological solution—“water for peace”—to the confl ict
in the Middle East.73 In January 1965, Herbert York questioned the digging of a
new canal across Panama using nuclear explosives that had been promoted by
Edward Teller as part of the AEC’s Plowshare program to turn the nuclear sword
to peaceful uses. Although technically possible, York believed that the project was
“politically unwise” because it might encourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons and would not be cost-effective.74 The statement, made on NBC’s Sunday Show,
however, cost York a position on the Panama Canal Commission.75 Technological dissent, however mild, had its price. By contrast, a speech by Seaborg on the
future technological wonders for housewives, including robots and living-in ape
assistants, delivered to the Women’s National Democratic Club, won widespread
publicity and admiration from both President and Lady Bird Johnson. “Why can’t
you make a speech like that,” she complained to her husband. The next day, at a
budget meeting, LBJ not only granted Seaborg all three projects that BOB wanted
to cut, but also asked him to prepare speeches “like that” for him to deliver.76
In strategic military technology policy, Hornig and PSAC remained infl uential
at least during the early Johnson years, largely through their infl uence with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had, by now, clearly changed his initial
skepticism toward PSAC. “If it did not exist,” he reportedly said in January 1965,
“we would have to invent it.”77 Among other services, PSAC provided McNamara
with valuable independent technical evaluations, especially through efforts by
Richard Garwin, who soon became a legend of technological rationality. Even the
Johnson White House recognized him as, in the words of a staff member, “by all
accounts a genius or near-genius” with “superb analytical ability.”78 Garwin turned
down the position of the deputy director of defense research and engineering in
the Pentagon, but spent about half of his time with PSAC and other governmentrelated work, often with devastating effectiveness.79 A critical PSAC investigation
of the Navy’s Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) program in 1965–1966 under his
direction, for example, found the $3 billion-a-year program to be organizationally
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diff use and technically ineffective. As a result, the Garwin panel recommended a
major reorganization toward enhanced integration of the ASW program, with
the linking of procurement with R&D, and with a reorientation from production
to research. The Navy and the DOD started to respond to it both technically and
organizationally even before the report was finalized, although the whole affair
also “aroused great controversy” within the Pentagon.80
In arms control, Hornig and PSAC pushed for an agreement between the
United States and the Soviet Union to cut back the production of fissionable
materials.81 They also worked for the achievement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty,
the most significant achievement in arms control in the Johnson years. When the
negotiations hit an impasse over Soviet reluctance to agree to certain safeguard
measures to ensure that civilian nuclear activities not be diverted to military purposes, PSAC urged Johnson to persevere and be flexible: “We agree that it would
be very desirable to have a strong safeguards provision in the Treaty. At the same
time, we believe that a Non-Proliferation Treaty without any safeguards provision
would still be a very significant agreement.”82
Once again, as in the Kennedy years, due to the presence of relevant technical
expertise elsewhere in the government, Hornig and PSAC were no longer the main
force behind these arms control measures.83 However, one unique staff arrangement that had started under Kennedy continued during the Johnson administration to help keep Hornig and PSAC in the field of arms control: Spurgeon Keeny,
a member of Killian’s original post-Sputnik staff, worked as an assistant to both
Hornig and the national security adviser. Bundy called him “a really extraordinary
public servant” with good judgment and broad experience who was often more
knowledgeable on weaponry and technical intelligence than McNamara and the
CIA director. “If he did not look like an undergraduate, I think he would already
be emerging into the level of Presidential appointments.”84 Indeed, a strong and
resourceful advocate for arms control, Keeny was often entrusted by members of
PSAC’s Strategic Military Panel, which dealt with nuclear weapons issues within
the committee, to draft their reports. Sometimes his unique access to the national
security adviser allowed him to get PSAC scientists’ input into presidential policy
much more effectively than otherwise possible.
Converts to Space
In space policy, Hornig and PSAC adapted to a reality defined by the Apollo program. On the one hand, several factors—Johnson’s paternal feeling toward the
space program, especially the Apollo project, his exceptional bond with NASA
administrator James Webb, and the latter’s resistance to outside interference—kept
Hornig and PSAC even further out of the space policymaking loop than they had
been under Kennedy. For example, in the wake of the tragedy of the 1967 Apollo
fire that killed three astronauts, Webb successfully staved off calls for an independent investigation by Hornig and PSAC.85 Later, when Hornig accused Webb of
exaggerating Soviet space achievements for budget purposes, Johnson intervened
decisively on Webb’s side and, in a memo that Webb helped to draft, asked Hornig
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964
to drop the matter so as not to impair the usefulness of “your group.”86 Clearly, the
days when presidents saw PSAC as “my scientists” were over.
On the other hand, the lingering tension between the science advisers and
NASA did not preclude effective collaboration at the working level. In 1965–1966
PSAC carried out, for example, a major study on the reliability of Apollo through
its Space Technology Panel, under Franklin Long of Cornell, with cooperation
from NASA. After numerous briefings and visits to major NASA labs and contractors, the Long panel concluded that Apollo was well run both technically and organizationally. NASA’s quantitative goals for the probability of success—0.90 for the
mission and 0.999 for crew survival—were especially striking to the panel. These
requirements meant that thousands of parts of the system had to reach a reliability
of 0.9999999!87 By now PSAC scientists not only accepted the political necessity of
Apollo, but also began to appreciate its significance as a symbol of both human
exploration and technological challenge. That spirit of adventure, as the physicist
Marvin Goldberger, PSAC member in this period, later suggested, was what eventually won over the committee:
Much of what we learned about the moon by sending men there we could
have done by sending instruments. But I think going to the moon was the most
fantastic thing that has happened in my lifetime, and it was something that we
had to do.88
Although praising NASA for its overall operation, PSAC scientists, as ever,
tempered their optimism with vigilance. It cautioned NASA, for example, against
relying solely on statistical analysis and recommended that it consider supplementing it with experimental testing of materials. Concerned about uncertainties of
operating in the lunar environment, the panel advised NASA to plan only minimal crew activity while on the surface of the moon. This meant, the Long panel
argued, “that both the development engineers’ and crew members’ enthusiasm
and self-confidence must be explicitly guarded against.” The panel tried to infuse
as much science as possible into the primarily engineering project. Edward Purcell,
a panel member, helped design a special camera for the Apollo crew to bring with
them to take color pictures of the lunar surface. Finally, the panel recommended
that NASA conduct independent evaluations of computer programs and software
used in the project to ensure their reliability. As an independent corroboration
of NASA’s own studies, the PSAC report must have given Johnson and the space
agency added confidence in the Apollo project while offering constructive advice
on improving its operations.89
Underlining their growing enthusiasm for the space program and their niche
as a planning body within the presidency, PSAC scientists soon followed its report
on Apollo with an even more extensive investigation on the post-Apollo space
program.90 In 1966–1967, the committee’s Space Technology Panel and Space Science Panel joined force to produce a significant report on The Space Program in the
Post-Apollo Period. This report, like the one on Apollo, represented a remarkable
transformation of thinking on the part of leading American scientists who had
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opposed the Apollo decision in 1961. They now not only embraced manned space
programs, but tried to use the public enthusiasm for space as a way to defend
basic research. Both the space program and basic research, they argued, derived
from the human urge to explore the unknown and could not be subject to strict
cost–benefit analysis:
How can we attach a dollar value to the attainment of a position of leadership in space? What of space exploration—what value can one attach to the
excitement and the general stimulation of the national spirit that results from
a manned lunar landing? And what of space science? How can one put a quantitative value to the development of an absolutely new astronomy or to the
discovery of life on another planet?91
Reflecting an unprecedented level of technological enthusiasm, the PSAC
post-Apollo report credited the space program for boosting American national
self-confidence and renewing faith in American power. The public was now convinced that “the United States can mobilize its scientific and technical resources
to attack virtually any national problems amenable to technical solutions.” Such
pronouncements contributed to the technocratic thinking—“If we can go to the
moon,” we sure can solve this or that social problem on earth—that was popular
in the post-Apollo days. As noted in the report, many of PSAC’s recommendations on space now paralleled those of the Space Science Board of the NAS, a
booster of the American space program that had clashed with PSAC over the
Apollo decision in 1961.
In further contrast to PSAC’s views in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the PSAC
panels now set the human exploration of Mars and other planets as the long-term
goal of the American space program, partly because they believed that “the question of extra-terrestrial life to be of great significance to scientists and laymen
alike” and that human presence in space was necessary to answer it. They advocated continued manned scientific lunar exploration after Apollo, a strengthening
of unmanned planetary probes, and, to the later regret of Purcell and some other
panel members, the building of a manned space station. NASA, which had feared
that post-Apollo planning might distract attention and resources from Apollo, now
reluctantly moved in that direction under the pressure of a budget squeeze and
the PSAC report.92
Why this turnaround for PSAC on space? The question was not specifically
addressed in the post-Apollo report, but it might well have been a case of political
pragmatism prevailing over technical rationality. Like Wiesner, Hornig and other
PSAC members recognized that for them to continue to be effective science advisers, they needed to be part of a team and support a project already decided on. It
could also be a strategy of turning a loss in science in policy into a gain in policy for
science: members of PSAC and its panels might have come around to Hans Bethe’s
shrewd argument in the post-Sputnik days that instead of fighting the public’s
“undisciplined enthusiasm” for space, scientists should and could take advantage
of it to advance the cause of science. In addition, new members in PSAC and its
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964
panels might well have been more enthusiastic about the space programs, including manned ones, than were PSAC members in the Eisenhower and Kennedy days.
Physicist Charles Townes of MIT, who served as both an infl uential member of
PSAC and chairman of an advisory committee to NASA in this period, for example,
broke ranks with several people at his institution—Killian, Wiesner, and board
chairman Bush—in his support of the lunar landing program as a worthwhile
effort. He helped to bring NASA grants to MIT to establish a space research laboratory.93 To be sure, the science advisers did not support all space endeavors. Continuing their skepticism toward nuclear energy, Hornig and PSAC, for example, helped
Johnson kill NERVA II, a nuclear-powered rocket project.94 However, the positive
tone of the report on post-Apollo planning reflected both the political reality of
space policy in the 1960s and the scientists’ growing fascination with, and even an
admiration for, the Apollo project as a technological endeavor.95
Science Policy
In science policy, even as the Apollo buildup helped push federal support of academic science to its peak during the Johnson years, countervailing trends threatened to end the post-Sputnik golden era of science funding that PSAC had worked
so hard to achieve. There was pressure from both Johnson and Congress for shifting emphasis from basic research to practical applications. Starting in late 1964,
there was a leveling off in the Pentagon’s funds for university research. NASA faced
a cutback in its post-Apollo budget. In response, PSAC launched a drive, under
Brooks, to justify a 15 percent annual increase in federal funds for academic science
or basic research. Brooks’s reasoning was based on an annual increase of about 10
percent in university enrollment plus about 5 percent in “increased sophistication”
(e.g., more costly computers) and inflation. The BOB bought the formulae in late
1964, which helped to increase the NSF budget for fiscal year 1966.96 Rhetorically,
however, even this victory represented a reversal of the fortunes of basic research:
whereas the Seaborg report, produced amidst the post-Sputnik concern for American science, justified federal support of graduate education on its importance
to basic research, the Brooks formulation explicitly justified federal support of
basic research on its benefits to higher education, which had been established as a
national objective in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
For his part, Johnson did not abandon basic research per se, as many felt, but
he did push for a reorientation of science policy favoring those programs that
could lead to practical applications, contribute to education, or promote a more
even geographic distribution of federal funds. In 1965, for example, he endorsed a
massive campaign to get the entire federal establishment to aid academic science
because of its central importance, as the Seaborg report had argued, to both basic
research and higher education. Originated in the NSF, the initiative eventually
evolved into a promotion of “New Centers of Excellence.”97 Although some wags
dubbed it a “spread the wealth” ploy to “get more schools into the top twenty,”
most PSAC members supported the program as a way to expand the base of
American science, even though most of their own elite universities did not qualify
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for it.98 “It became a big joke in that it became an honor to be ineligible,” recalled
Brooks, who endorsed the program.99 In the same vein, Johnson welcomed and
approved another NSF proposal to make federally funded and operated large
research facilities available to the whole scientific community.100 Thus, PSAC’s
advocacy and LBJ’s sympathy toward science education helped sustain federal support of academic science, at least before the Vietnam War forced a retrenchment.
To Restore the Environment
The new emphasis on making science relevant to social and practical concerns
also led to an extensive and infl uential PSAC investigation in 1964–1965 of environmental pollution. The resultant report contributed to the crucial transition from
the traditional conservationism that emphasized natural resources management to
a modern environmental policy that took a more holistic and ecological view of
the relationship between humans and their environment.101 Like its 1963 report on
pesticides, the new PSAC study marked a milestone in the modern environmental
movement by bringing official and scientific authority to bear on this emergent
public policy issue. It was apparently the first comprehensive government examination on the subject.
The initiative for such a study first came from Hornig in response to a request
from presidential assistant Bill Moyers for legislative proposals that would form
part of Johnson’s Great Society program during the 1964 election campaign. Pollution of the environment, Hornig predicted, constituted “one of the ‘big problems’
of our times.” The quality of air, water, food, and human health increasingly suffered from domestic and industrial wastes, pesticides, smog, radiation, and other
problems. PSAC, Hornig reported, already organized a panel to look at “the entire
problem” following its successful pesticides study in 1963. He suggested making
this panel into one of the task forces that were preparing the legislative agenda for
the Johnson administration following the 1964 election.102
The idea struck a cord in both Moyers and Johnson and PSAC’s panel on
environmental pollution, under John W. Tukey of Princeton and Bell Labs, was
transformed into a Great Society task force. Delivered to Johnson on November
9, 1964, the task force’s report delineated the frightening extent of environmental
pollution and urged the federal government to take major responsibility for its
control. Specifically, it recommended that the government reduce pollution in its
own operations, devise economic incentives for others to do so, and strengthen
environmental research and manpower training.103 President Johnson received the
report with enthusiasm, putting some of its more salient recommendations in his
famous Special Message to Congress on Natural Beauty on February 8, 1965.104
The success of the Tukey task force encouraged Hornig and his colleagues to
continue their efforts in environmental policy. Strong presidential interests ensured
that their endeavors received attention from federal bureaucracies. Thus in early
1965, the Tukey panel embarked on a larger scale examination of environmental
problems. As was PSAC’s tradition, the Tukey panel probed into both the technical and policy realms. Altogether it established eleven subpanels to explore such
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964
issues as environmental manpower, the effects of pollution on man, on other living
organisms, the “greenhouse” effect of CO2, soil contamination, pest control, and
various wastes. Dozens of prominent scientists from all over the country participated in the project.
The final report, Restoring the Quality of Our Environment, was a landmark in
the evolution of environmental study and policy. It took on the whole range of
pollutants and treated pollution as a national issue. An environment without pollution, it declared, should rank with education as a basic human right. The affl uent society should not become the “effl uent” society. The report reasserted the
responsibility of the federal government to take leadership in the field, and backed
its call for action with more than one hundred recommendations that covered all
facets of the environmental problem, many of which eventually found their way
into federal legislation and policy. Most emphatically, the report urged the government to sponsor both basic and applied research on the environment and to help
train environmental scientists and engineers. In his endorsement of the report,
President Johnson made special mention of these last two recommendations
and asked federal agencies to try to implement the report.105 Other suggestions
included the imposition of taxes on polluters and a government program to help
make pollution-free cars.
Perhaps the most striking part of the report, in retrospect, was its warning
about global warming from CO2, produced by a subpanel under Roger Revelle,
then at Harvard. “By the year 2000 there will be about 25% more carbon dioxide
in our atmosphere than at present,” the report predicted. “This will modify the
heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate,
not controllable through local or even national efforts, could occur.” The report
advocated both continued research to understand the problem and “means of preventing or counteracting the changes,” including shifting to energy sources that
produced less carbon dioxide.106 Informed by this PSAC investigation, President
Johnson had sounded the alarm in his “natural beauty” message to Congress in
February that “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere
on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon
dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”107 The PSAC report and the LBJ message
represented the earliest attempts by the United States government to recognize
and address the problem of global warming. Unfortunately, despite these efforts,
the matter received little public attention or federal action; the problem appeared
vague and insignificant compared with other pollutions identified by the panel.
In the media coverage of both the LBJ speech and the PSAC report, the issue of
global change received barely any media coverage and global warming was not
recognized as a serious worldwide problem until the late twentieth century.108
The lack of action on global climate change, however, should not obscure the
significance and the many real accomplishments of the Tukey report. Although
some critics faulted the Tukey report for containing too many recommendations
to be effective, Tukey and his supporters argued that they achieved their goal of
infl uencing federal actions. Half of the job was already done even before the report
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was written, Tukey pointed out, because during the many briefing sessions by federal agencies, policies were already being modified based on suggestions from the
panel members.109 In addition, the report had an impact on the numerous pieces
of environmental legislation in the Johnson administration, such as the Air Quality Act of 1967. The studies reinforced Hornig’s position as the point man in the
White House on environment.110 PSAC later also delved into related problems of
world population and food supply at the request of Johnson.111 Partly as a result of
the PSAC report, the NAS established an Environmental Studies Board in 1967.112 In
view of the general ineffectiveness of the Great Society programs, PSAC’s work on
the environment stood out as a notable success story.113 In all these studies, PSAC
made measured advocacy for the use of science and technology in solving environmental problems, which stood in clear contrast to the approaches of technological enthusiasts such as Edward Teller, who typically proposed to turn his favorite
technology—the hydrogen bomb—to fighting pollution by, for example, boosting
the production of clean-burning natural gas through underground nuclear explosions.114 Even its mixed success with the warning on global warming served to raise
presidential and public consciousness about the problem in the long run.
Stewart Udall, Secretary of Interior, remained a strong ally with PSAC on
environmental issues. He shared with PSAC a strong sense of technological skepticism. In an interview shortly after the end of the Johnson presidency in 1969,
Udall said:
I think we’re seeing the first questioning of the whole basic American attitude
toward growth. . . . I think we just have to think as a nation in terms of limits
on population, on mechanization, on urbanization, on growth. If we don’t
we’re going to find ourselves, increasingly, as we find ourselves today, confronted with major environmental problems.115
This agreement on environmental and technological philosophy led to close
cooperation in the policy process. “They became allies on many issues,” Udall
said, referring to Hornig and PSAC. “They gave considerable help to this whole
movement and the evolution that took place.”116 The partnership between PSAC
and Udall’s Interior Department that had first emerged out of the pesticide debate
spread to other fields of environmental concern. They became mutually dependent: PSAC provided Interior with critical support in terms of scientific expertise,
presidential imprimatur, and independent corroboration, and the department
fought the bureaucratic battles to have many of PSAC specific environmental proposals implemented.
Scientists and Diplomacy
Despite Johnson’s preference for focusing on domestic reforms, he could not, of
course, ignore foreign policy, as witnessed by his increasing obsession with the
Vietnam War. In this regard, the same appreciation for science and technology’s
potentials in bringing practical benefits at home motivated Johnson to use them
as a tool in improving American foreign relations. “We mean to show that this
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964
Nation’s dream of a Great Society does not stop at the water’s edge,” Johnson
declared in September 1965.117 There was an implicit hope that the benevolent
images of science and technology would also help soften the growing criticism of
U.S. policy in Vietnam. For their part, Hornig and PSAC, continuing a long tradition of the scientific community, advocated international scientific and technological exchange as beneficial for both American national interests and international
science. Thus, as a result of LBJ’s interest and of his own longtime passion, Hornig
became much more involved in American scientific diplomacy than any of his
three predecessors.
Hornig undertook his first diplomatic mission when he led a delegation to the
Soviet Union in November 1964 to study its chemical and computer industries and
promote scientific and technological exchanges with the Cold War rival. Two former PSAC members, James Fisk of Bell Labs and Emmanuel Piore of IBM, were
among the six-man group. What Hornig found during his trip indicated how far
the United States had emerged out of the dark shadow of Sputnik as a symbol of
Soviet technological threat just seven years before. Although the Soviets enjoyed a
large and generally competent scientific and technological infrastructure, its centralized organization was “cumbersome, rigid, and therefore sluggish” in translating innovations into economic growth, Hornig reported to Johnson on his return.
Western export control also hampered Soviet technological development.118 Despite
strengths in some fields, such as analog computers, the Soviets lagged behind the
West in digital computers and technology in general.119 Not surprisingly, the Soviets were anxious to engage in technical exchanges with the United States, including
the purchase of American technological products. Hornig urged that the United
States respond favorably on a “selective and step-by-step” basis so as to learn more
about the Soviet economic and technological strengths, gain access to heretofore
forbidden parts of the country, profit from the growing Soviet imports, and reap
political benefits of winning Soviet goodwill.120 Johnson agreed and eventually set
up the East–West Trade Commission to deal with these issues.121
The Soviets also reacted favorably to the Hornig mission, which led LBJ to
decide to bring science and technology further into other bilateral relations. When
Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato came to visit in January 1965, Johnson called
Hornig at home asking for innovative projects that he could propose to the visitors
the next day. What he had gotten from the State Department, Johnson complained,
was “a bunch of crap.” After numerous phone calls overnight, Hornig came up
with the idea of a U.S.–Japan joint medical program to study the diseases of the
Pacific Rim countries. Johnson liked it and the Japanese embraced it enthusiastically. Administered by the National Institutes of Health on the American side, it
turned out to be a very successful program.122
Pleased, Johnson called on Hornig for an encore when Korean president Park
Chung Hee visited Washington four months later. After consulting with PSAC
members, Hornig came up with the idea of the United States helping the Koreans
establish an Institute for Industrial Technology and Applied Science to serve developing Korean industry. To Hornig’s and PSAC’s credit, they did not push for an
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
institution for basic research, as might be expected from their longtime advocacy
for it in the United States and as often desired by scientists in developing countries
themselves. Instead, they insisted on both a focus on applied work to meet the
needs of Korean industry and research at a high level to attract the large number
of Korean scientists and engineers then in the United States. Only “if properly
equipped,” they argued, could the institute help to stem the “brain drain” problem.
At the time, Hornig had found, to his shock, that “their entire college output in
engineering goes to the United States.”123
Both LBJ and Park liked the proposal, and the good will generated by it helped
the negotiation over the American request for increased Korean support for the
Vietnam War in the form of ground troops.124 Consequently, Hornig led a group of
American scientists and industrial executives, including his wife, Fisk, and Bertram
Thomas of Battelle Memorial Institute, to Korea to investigate the feasibility of the
project. On its return, the group unanimously supported the proposal, convinced
that “the Institute will contribute to a more effective transfer of the fruits of modern technology to Korea” and that “it will serve as a model for other countries
in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere.” Hornig persuaded Johnson to commit to
the project about $10 million through the Agency for International Development,
which had resisted the initiative because it was not consulted beforehand and
because it felt that what Korea needed was low-level technical assistance. Hornig
also convinced Park to appoint Choi Hyung Sup, a U.S.-trained metallurgist and
director of Korea’s Atomic Energy Research Institute who had impressed him
during his tour, to be the founding director of what became known as the Korean
Institute of Science and Technology (KIST).125 Designed with input from the Koreans and carefully calibrated to meet their practical needs, KIST turned out to be
one of the most successful American technology transfer projects in Korea. Due to
Choi’s able leadership, the institute did attract many Korean scientists home from
abroad and contributed to the remarkably rapid industrialization of the country in
the following decades.126
These successes boosted the position of both science and the science advisers
in the Johnson White House. It was now convinced, as Busby told Hornig, that
science and technology were the “most persuasive language in establishing rapport
and understanding between the United States and other countries.”127 Thus in 1967
Johnson sent Hornig on yet another tour abroad, this time to Taiwan to advise
the Chinese Nationalist government on its industrialization plan. As a result of
his investigation, Hornig persuaded the Taiwanese leadership to increase its R&D
funding to 1 percent of its gross national product (about $30 million), a move that
was later credited with contributing to the island’s remarkable technological and
economic transformation in the 1970s and 1980s.128
On his own initiative, Hornig also attempted to establish scientific contact
with mainland China, but his overture to Chinese scientists at the centenary celebration of the Romanian Academy of Sciences in 1966, like Wiesner’s at the 1960
Moscow Pugwash, bore little fruit, given the growing hostilities between the two
countries over the Vietnam War and the start of the chaotic Cultural Revolution
“Scientists for Johnson,” 1964
in China.129 In that same year, the U.S. NAS established a Committee on Scholarly
Exchange with Mainland China in cooperation with the American Council of
Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council. Recognizing that the
exchange of personal visits was only a remote possibility at the time, the committee, which included several PSAC members, focused on monitoring Chinese
development and facilitating scientific publications. Although the effort would bear
fruits only later in the Nixon years, it, like many other Hornig and PSAC-inspired
initiatives, demonstrated both the potentials and the limits of state-sponsored scientific internationalism during the Cold War.130
Thus, during the early years of the Johnson presidency before the Vietnam War
overshadowed everything, Hornig and PSAC played a prominent role in meeting
LBJ’s concerns related to science and technology in both international and domestic arenas, despite a sense of unease in their relationship. The scientists did so with
both positive proposals and critical evaluations. In particular, PSAC’s study of the
environment and Hornig’s deployment of science and technology in the conduct
of foreign affairs drew Johnson’s personal interest and were considerably effective.
Publicly, at least, the good show of science in the White House that had received
a boost from the Scientists for Johnson campaign went on. In January 1966, Science carried a report: “LBJ and Hornig: Close Ties Exist as Science Adviser Starts
Third Year.”131
Beneath the surface, however, the relationship between Hornig, PSAC, and the
Johnson White House, and that between American science and the federal government began to shift radically. As the Sputnik crisis receded amid a fragile détente in
the Cold War, PSAC’s linkage of national security and basic research gave way to
new demands for civilian applications of science. Although PSAC scientists continued to exercise a moderating infl uence in both military and civilian technologies,
their sense of technological skepticism appeared increasingly out of touch with a
society enthralled with the unlimited benefits of technological progress, especially
when it came to space and nuclear energy. Above all, it was the Vietnam War that,
as another manifestation of American technological enthusiasm, came to threaten
the political and moral consensus on which PSAC scientists had participated in
national policymaking.
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and
the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
The polite but largely productive relationship between Johnson and his science
advisers took a turn for the worse as the Vietnam War polarized the nation in the
late 1960s. The “poison of Vietnam” introduced questions of loyalty and trust as
each side felt betrayal by the other—scientists criticized Johnson for breaking his
peace promise and the president resented their protest against a war he regarded
as a fight for freedom.1 The tension then further deepened with the debate over
ABMs. Both the war and the ABM controversy sharpened a dilemma that had
always faced PSAC and other moderate scientists in terms of their beliefs in the
potentials and limits of technology. Few PSAC scientists approved the conduct of
the war, but, at least initially, some of them sought technological measures that
would help to win, or at least to moderate, the war. Gradually, however, they
recognized that the question was not what science and technology could do to
contribute to the war effort, but whether there was a technological solution to the
war and, finally, whether the war was morally justified at all. That message also
came out clearly in the fight over the ABM. Yet, to an unprecedented degree, these
debates also threatened to divide not only scientists and the government but the
heretofore consensus-driven scientific circle associated with PSAC, with profound
implications for the future of American science and society.
The Electronic Barrier
Caution and ambiguity characterized PSAC scientists’ early involvement in the
Vietnam War. Although not enthusiastic about the war, the committee initially
kept a low profile because, as Hornig put it, “we had no business, no charter on
Vietnam.”2 Neither did PSAC participate in the early antiwar movement. Thus no
PSAC members took part in the massive national teach-in movement organized by
academics over the war in the spring of 1965.3 Former PSAC members were under
fewer constraints but even they tried to work within the system to moderate the
war.4 Kistiakowsky wrote Johnson on January 13, 1966, for example, to support his
refusal to withdraw from Vietnam—“the broader consequences to our foreign
policy of such a withdrawal would be harmful”—even as he argued for alternatives
to an expected resumption of American bombing there:
I fear that renewed bombing of North and South Vietnam and ground sweeps
by our and South Vietnamese troops at increasing intensity will not be successful in achieving our objectives. . . . I think that we should pursue an essentially defensive strategy that would rest on the establishment and securing of
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
suitable enclaves along the coast and around Saigon including perhaps parts of
the Delta region. . . . Our overwhelming military technology could be put to
better use making attacks on such enclaves totally unprofitable.5
Aware of the limits of any technological solution, Kistiakowsky hastened to add
that he hoped that “we could concentrate our economic and social assistance, as
well as our political efforts, on the creation of a civilian government for the several
million Vietnamese who would live in the enclaves.”6
When such direct appeals to the White House proved ineffective, Kistiakowsky,
Wiesner, and several colleagues at Harvard and MIT sought to infl uence policy
through the formation of a Cambridge Discussion Group on Vietnam. Although
marginalized politically, the group hoped to capitalize on its technical credibility
to moderate the war from the inside. In 1966, it proposed to the DOD a summer
study on alternatives to the massive American bombing of North Vietnam, which,
they argued, had failed to stop the infiltration of materials and personnel from the
North to the South in Vietnam. Were there, in Wiesner’s words, “any technical
means that we could see that might do a better job and be much less destructive”?
Building on Kistiakowsky’s enclave proposal, the Cambridge group came up with
the idea of an infiltration barrier to cut off the supply line.7 Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara, who was himself becoming disillusioned by the bombing,
found the idea appealing and approved the proposal.8 PSAC was asked to sponsor
the study, but Hornig cautiously declined the job, believing that DOD patronage
could expedite the implementation of whatever would come out of it.9 Eventually the Jason group of the IDA managed the study for the DOD. Jason, in turn,
brought in its own members to join forces with the Cambridge group. Logistically
the project was separated into Jason East, mainly the Cambridge group in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Jason West, the Jasons proper at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Thus, even though PSAC itself was not officially involved in the
study, many of the active participants had strong ties with the committee.
Interestingly enough, a split soon developed in the project over the limits and
potentials of technological solutions. Whereas the Cambridge group wanted to
use the barrier only as a means to end the bombing and eventually the war itself,
the younger Jasons tended to be less adamant in their opposition to the war and
more willing to take the project as primarily a technological challenge and therefore an end on its own.10 They elaborated the barrier concept with many new
technological components and made it into a high-tech “electronic barrier.”11
As a result, the Cambridge scientists “were very uncertain of the feasibility of
this scheme,” according to Kistiakowsky, and doubted “whether we should even
present the plan to Mr. McNamara.”12 Finally, under Zacharias’s leadership, both
factions overcame their disagreements to conclude that, first, the bombing campaign had “no measurable direct effect” and, second, that the electronic barrier
should be pursued as a better alternative.13 These analyses from the nation’s top
scientists exerted, according to the Pentagon Papers, “a powerful and perhaps decisive” impact on McNamara, confirming for him the futility of the bombing and
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
possibly the war itself.14 A follow-up Jason study the next year presented, according to the Pentagon Papers, “probably the most categorical rejection of bombing
as a tool of our policy in Southeast Asia to be made before or since by an official
or semi-official group.”15
The military, however, fiercely opposed the barrier project as a substitute for
the bombing campaign. General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S.
forces in Vietnam, called the air war “our only trump card” and resisted any attempt
to stop it.16 The Jason study itself drew attacks from its critics. A staff member of
the NSC called the 1967 Jason study an “intellectually dishonest” exercise, with a
“loaded” membership and improper criteria, in a “deliberate attempt to infer that
the objective of the air campaign was unachievable ‘victory through airpower.’”17
Ironically, when the barrier was later partially constructed, the military actually
used its new detection capabilities to justify increased, not decreased, bombing.18
This turn of events dismayed the Cambridge group of former PSAC scientists.
Although they continued to advise the Pentagon on the project as members of the
so-called Defense Communications Planning Group, doubts grew about the war
and their role in it. As Fredrik Zachariasen of Cal Tech, a participant in the project,
later wrote Kistiakowsky:
I recall telling you . . . that I was not interested in helping with a project that
would be used merely as an additional escalatory step, and that I felt that the
administration had no interest in using the DCPG effort in the way all of us
had originally hoped it would be used, as a part of a general de-escalation of
the war. You said you felt the same way.19
Sadly for Kistiakowsky and his fellow PSAC veterans, their technology of moderation was indeed turned into a technology of escalation and was out of their control. In a way, they were committing the same mistake of seeking a technological
fix to an essentially political problem that they themselves had criticized others
for in the past. To them, any alternative was better than the massive bombing the
United States was pursuing and any technical scheme they could devise to shorten
the war was worthwhile. Yet, in this process they seemed to have ignored a key
thesis they themselves had expounded from the test ban process: the issue at stake
was political, not technical.
“His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”
The “electronic barrier” experiment indicated that many alumni and possibly current members of PSAC harbored increasing misgivings toward the war, but they
could not yet bring themselves to break with their traditional role as confidential
technical advisers to the government. Even though critics in the military-industrial
complex had often accused PSAC scientists of being dangerous saboteurs of technological progress, they were not quite ready to take their technological dissent
out into the public arena. As Kistiakowsky later put it, “You have to be aware that
we thought of ourselves as what might be referred to as His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. We were working through the channels, within the organization, as yet.”20
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
Thus both current and former members of PSAC felt restrained in expressing their
opposition to administration policy. They wanted to stay, as long as they could, as
insiders—both Kistiakowsky and Wiesner remained consultants at large to PSAC—
with access to secret information and policymakers and avoid public, organized
dissent. When Spock tried to reorganize the 1964 anti-Goldwater TV panel to send
a collective protest to Johnson against his Vietnam War policy, Wiesner told him
that it was fine to approach the White House individually but not as a group.21 Even
by early 1967, Kistiakowsky still enjoyed his work with the military.22 Furthermore,
in a society and political structure that continued to believe that experts should be
on tap, not on top, the scientists felt that whatever effects they hoped to have on the
conduct of the war could best be achieved through their technical contributions,
not their moral and political arguments. Finally, leading scientific insiders, as public
scientists, probably also worried that an open break with the Johnson administration over Vietnam would hurt federal support of science as well.
The public silence of both current and former PSAC members on Vietnam
was in sharp contrast with the vocal opposition to the war by much of the scientific community. In January 1966, amidst growing signs that the war was putting a
squeeze on the federal budget for science, the AAAS Council, for example, passed
one of the first antiwar resolutions by any scientific society:
Prolongation of the Vietnamese War, with its increasing danger of universal
catastrophe, threatens not only the lives of millions, but the humanitarian values and goals which we are striving to maintain. Besides this concern which we
share with all citizens, we bear a special responsibility as scientists to point out
the large costs of war for the continued vigor of scientific research.23
Biologists were especially vocal in their protest against the war. Albert Szent-Györgyi of Woods Hole, who had been active in the Scientists for Johnson campaign in
1964, for example, quickly became disillusioned by the president’s escalation of the
war in early 1965. He wrote in the New York Times in March that year:
In the last election we scientists stood as one man behind President Johnson,
being afraid of what Mr. Goldwater, as President, might do. Now President
Johnson does in Vietnam what we feared. . . . I feel disappointed, alienated, if
not betrayed. I am sure many of my fellow scientists feel as I do. . . . [I]t is time
for scientists to get together once more, this time to sound a warning.24
In January 1966, a group of twenty-nine scientists, mainly biologists, issued, under
the leadership of Matthew Meselson, John Edsall, and Paul Doty of Harvard
(former PSAC member), a public condemnation of the U.S. use of defoliant and
crop-destroying chemicals in Vietnam.25 By the end of the year, a petition to Johnson for an end of the use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) in Vietnam
had attracted the signatures of about 5,000 scientists. Comparing their potential
destructiveness to that of nuclear weapons, the scientists urged Johnson to declare
an American policy “to refrain from initiating the use of chemical and biological weapons.”26 Szent-Györgyi once again took an active part in the anti-CBW
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
campaign, denouncing, with Salvador Luria of MIT, the Vietnam War as “both
a national catastrophe and a moral blight for our country.” They called on their
fellow scientists to consider “carefully . . . whether cooperation with the Johnson
administration in waging the Vietnam War is consistent with service to the true
interests of our country and of mankind.”27
The Johnson administration not only refused to heed the scientists’ protest but
actually acted to provoke further polarization. In October 1967, for example, Secretary of State Dean Rusk likened antiwar intellectuals to Albert Einstein who was,
in his words, “a genius in mathematical physics, an amateur in music, and a baby in
politics.” “[T]he fact that a man knows everything there is to know about enzymes
doesn’t mean that he knows very much about Vietnam or how to organize a
peace or the life and death of nations.”28 One British scientist who applied for an
American visa to attend a conference was told that “it was now the policy of the
U.S. Embassy to regard all biochemists as likely to have left-wing tendencies.”29 In
1967, the White House, if not Johnson himself, began to impose, for the first time
in PSAC’s history, an explicit political test in the selection of its panel members
based on their attitudes toward the Vietnam War.30 There is no evidence of LBJ’s
personal intervention against having more “Harvards” in PSAC, but the Johnson
White House did try to control the selection of new PSAC members, including
disapproving of some of its nominations.31
For his part, President Johnson was not unaware of the Vietnam War’s damage
to his Great Society programs and his relations with the intellectuals. “Think what
wonders I could perform with that [defense] money if I could put it into agriculture
and health and education,” Johnson wistfully told the NSC staff in May 1966.32 On
another occasion, in an address at Princeton University, he lamented the opposition
to his policy by “men of learning.” Not long ago, he had placed so many of them
on his Great Society task forces that “[a]t any given moment a third of the faculties
of the United States are on a plane somewhere to advise if not always to consent.”
Nevertheless, LBJ refused to budge from his firm stand on Vietnam.33 “[H]aving
decided on this course,” he was, as he told the NSC staff, “absolutely determined to
see it through. No one should be under any illusion that we will be pulling out.”34
Thus, it was not surprising that when he agreed to meet with a group of Harvard
scientists and scholars, including Purcell, he was more interested in “improvement
[of] relations [with] Harvard University” than in hearing their “deep foreboding
about the present drift of the United States policy in Vietnam.”35
Caught in the middle of this widening schism, Hornig found himself ignored
and removed farther away from the president. Such treatment was at times painfully humiliating. In May 1967, for example, Harry C. McPherson, Jr., a White
House aide who believed that intellectuals were “too dangerous to be in opposition,” arranged a pep talk between Johnson and “in-house” intellectuals to
showcase Johnson’s use of natural and social scientists and to improve his communication with the war-protesting intellectual community.36 The highly publicized
event, however, excluded Hornig, who learned of the meeting from the New York
Times. The incident so provoked the science adviser’s usually stoic sensitivity that
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
he fired off an acutely plaintive memorandum to LBJ. The neglect was not only a
personal affront, Hornig wrote, but also a potential blow to the administration’s
relationship with the scientific community:
I was struck, as other people were, by the absence of any scientist of distinction
from the group—and there are a number, such as Glenn Seaborg, who serve
you. It would be a serious error to discount the interest and infl uence of the
scientific community, either in Viet Nam problems or in social progress. They
are among the most worried and hard to deal with in connection with Viet
Nam and we continue to need their support.37
As another indication of the decline of the science adviser’s infl uence, Hornig was
dropped, after 1966, from the all-important Christmas budgetary sessions at the
LBJ ranch near Austin, Texas.38 All these tensions must have worn on Hornig. In
March 1967, he thought of resigning but was dissuaded by his PSAC colleagues and
by Johnson himself, who threatened to put the OST into the BOB if Hornig left.39
As bad as their connections with the White House became, the scientific mandarins did not want to lose its beachhead in the government completely.
Thus, despite setbacks, Hornig and PSAC persisted in their efforts to mediate
the growing chasm between the academic and scientific community and the Johnson White House. When conservative politicians threatened to end student deferment from the draft in 1967, Hornig privately expressed concern to Joseph Califano,
Johnson’s aide on domestic affairs.40 His effort at rapprochement suffered a setback
when it became known that he himself had decided not to appoint William R.
Taylor, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to an OST
panel on education after learning of Taylor’s vehement antiwar position. Among
others, Killian persuaded Hornig that he and PSAC “should actively encourage
contact with dissidents in order to decrease the division in the country.” In early
1968, when the same issue came up with the appointments of three other antiwar
scholars as OST consultants, Hornig personally brought the matter to LBJ and won
the president’s approval to proceed with their appointments.41
In the same spirit PSAC tried, at the height of the scientists’ protest against
chemical and biological warfare, to work within the system to commit the United
States to a “no first use” policy on these weapons. On behalf of the committee,
Hornig wrote Johnson in early December 1966 to inform him that PSAC had
conducted extensive reviews of biological weapons and concluded that “the problems associated with these agents appear to outweigh any military advantages
that might be attained by their use.” The dangers included the unpredictable risk
of endemic infection, new disease, and ecological harms. Such weapons, PSAC
contended, might well be a technological solution in search of a problem: “we
have been presented with no scenarios, nor have we thought of any ourselves, in
which the military value [of these agents] seems significant.”42 On February 14,
1967, when Doty, Edsall, Meselson, and Irwin Gunsalus of the University of Illinois delivered the scientists’ anti-CBW petition to the White House, Hornig and
Adrian Fisher, deputy director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency,
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
accepted it on Johnson’s behalf.43 Once again, Hornig urged Johnson to announce
a “no first use policy” on CBW. The State Department and even the president
himself seemed to be sympathetic.44 However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ’s insistence on keeping the option of using incapacitating agents—to sicken but not
kill the enemy—eventually derailed the effort for the duration of the Johnson
Neither was Hornig successful in stopping the use of defoliants in Vietnam
under Johnson, although MacLeod, his deputy, did work ardently on this and other
biomedical issues related to the war. In a way, PSAC, in either its philosophy or its
makeup, was simply not set up to deal with the problems of the Vietnam War. Dominated by physical scientists, it had long seen its main mission in science in policy to
be the pursuit of nuclear arms control and the rationalization of American technology policy. Thus there was a sense that as abhorrent as the Vietnam War was, the
danger to the world from a nuclear war was far greater and deserved more of their
attention. The relative weak presence of biologists and the total absence of ecologists among its membership—the Ecological Society of America apparently tried, in
vain, to place a member in PSAC in 1968—further diminished both the motivation
and available expertise within the committee in dealing with the issue of defoliants,
despite its successful investigation into the use of pesticides in 1962–1963. Thus the
initiative and drive for the investigation and resultant policy change regarding the
use of defoliants, including Agent Orange, came mainly from outside scientists,
especially Meselson at Harvard and E. W. Pfeiffer of the University of Montana.46
Hornig also tried to bring LBJ into direct contact with scientists in hope of
improving the president’s image among the scientific community. In early 1967,
he and Charles Townes, a PSAC member and president of the American Physical
Society, persuaded Johnson to give a speech at the society’s annual meeting as an
effort to “strengthen your ties to this infl uential community.” Linking science in
policy with policy for science, Hornig assured Johnson that his recent approval of
the 200 Bev accelerator would ensure “a sympathetic audience” at the meeting.47
In his speech, Johnson went to great lengths to praise the contributions of the
physicists—“no group of Americans is more important”—and pledged to negotiate
with the North Vietnamese when they were ready “to sit down at the table and talk
instead of kill.”48 This appeal for peace made headlines and the speech was viewed
as a great success in the White House, but it could not hide the reality of an escalating bombing campaign and deepening American involvement in the Vietnam
quagmire.49 The scientists did get a keen sense of the personal pain that the confl ict
had caused for Johnson but few changed their views on the war.50
Indeed, the polarization over Vietnam intensified. During LBJ’s speech, one
attendee tried to raise a plaque that said “Vietnam,” but he was stopped by others
around him.51 Charles Schwartz of the University of California, Berkeley, proposed
an amendment to the American Physical Society’s by-laws to allow members to
vote on resolutions not only on matters related to physics, but also on political and
social issues. It was rejected by members by a two to one margin.52 Likewise the
American Society for Microbiology was split over a decision by its governing council
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
to disband the society’s advisory committee to the army’s Biological Laboratories
at Fort Detrick in Maryland.53 Scientists might not be happy with the war, but not
many of them were ready to join the radical antiwar movement yet. Meanwhile,
Science carried polemic letters from both those who saw the war as a fight against
North Vietnamese terrorism, and those who regarded American military actions as
acts of terrorism themselves and felt that “American scientists are already far too
closely identified with that military adventure.”54 Inevitably, such tension would
be reflected inside PSAC as its members contemplated their own role and more
broadly the role of technology in the Vietnam War.
PSAC and Technological Solutions to the War
During the early stages of the national debate over Vietnam, Hornig and PSAC
thought that, despite the growing opposition to the war by their colleagues and
students outside the White House, it was still in American national interest and
the interest of the scientific community for them to provide technical advice to the
government on Vietnam. For example, Herbert York, vice chairman of PSAC in this
period, believed that “the war was a bad mistake,” but he also blamed the North
Vietnamese for their aggression against the south.55 Thus initially, PSAC members,
like the Cambridge group, sought to contribute to the war effort to shorten it. In
March 1965, less than a month following the first U.S. bombing of North Vietnam,
PSAC’s military aircraft panel under Garwin started a discussion on “the use of
tactical aircraft in Vietnam,” especially on “the potential of Vietnam as a source
of operational data” for the improvement of the design of these aircraft.56 As the
major venue through which PSAC got involved in the Vietnam War, the panel
conducted studies that led to certain technical improvements in the Air Force’s
operations and in “electronic warfare” in Vietnam. Soon, as the war widened,
PSAC began to devote a quarter of its discussions to the subject, with briefings by
the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others directly involved in the war.
One of its recommendations led General William C. Westmoreland to appoint
William G. McMillan, a chemist at UCLA and Rand, as his science adviser.57
As the war dragged on, even Johnson became dissatisfied with the militarytechnological strategy. At one point he reportedly castigated the Joint Chiefs of
Staff with the shout: “Bomb, bomb, bomb, that’s all you know.”58 In a May 1967
meeting with PSAC, he gave the green light to the committee to get involved
more deeply in the Vietnam War. Hornig established an ad hoc panel on Vietnam
to coordinate the committee’s various activities related to the war. Chaired by
Townes, it consisted of chairmen of all the military panels of PSAC and Garwin,
who was rotated out of PSAC in 1966 but remained heavily involved in its activities as a consultant.59 Several PSAC members and consultants, including Garwin,
Charles Slichter of the University of Illinois, and John Baldeschwieler of Stanford,
made trips to Vietnam to investigate technical-military problems. As a result of
its studies, PSAC came up with a number of suggestions on how to get military
technologies, such as night vision equipment, quickly through the R&D process
and onto the front line. A ground warfare panel was also established under the
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
chairmanship of Sidney Drell of SLAC, a PSAC member since 1966, to assist the
Army with its various technological programs and needs.60
Even as PSAC members undertook these technical evaluations of the Vietnam
War efforts, a profound ambivalence continued to haunt them. On the one hand
they recognized that social, political, and economic measures were more important than technical solutions in ending the war. For example, in summer 1967,
PSAC’s ground warfare panel concluded that “technology played only a peripheral
role in pacification as compared to the social, administrative, and policy problems
that existed within the South Vietnamese government” and between it and the
United States.61 Thus, in December 1967, Drell asked whether it was possible to
beef up the AID programs in South Vietnam to improve the lives of the farmers
so that “they will want to commit themselves to the Saigon government.”62 PSAC’s
military aircraft panel also found that “technology can contribute to political and
economic growth of the country,” but it could not “substitute for effective government organization and honest political programs.” Its conclusion that “a nation
cannot be built with gadgets” echoed that of the GAC in the H-bomb debate as
well as earlier PSAC statements during the battle for the nuclear test ban.63
Yet, at the same time, PSAC scientists felt that their most pertinent contribution to the war efforts had to be in the areas of science and technology. Sometimes, even as they cast doubt on one set of military-technological operations,
they advocated another of their own as a better alternative. In late 1967, Drell
proposed that “technology be given a chance” to show what it could do to improve
border security without “hot pursuits” into Laos and Cambodia. He also urged
PSAC to examine and advocate an increase in technological aid programs, such
as economic-agricultural projects, vocational education, refugee retraining, and a
national TV communication network, to help stabilize South Vietnam.64
In this period, it seemed that at least some of the younger members of PSAC
were caught in a wave of technological optimism of their own. The PSAC ad hoc
panel on Vietnam was convinced, for example, that “science and technology can
make a far more significant contribution to success” in Vietnam. Thus it focused
“on the problem of how to take full advantage of existing and new technologies,
together with associated tactical innovations, in order to improve the effectiveness
of U.S. forces in prosecuting the war and exploiting their superiority in fire power
and mobility over the enemy.” Technological rationality, they appeared to argue,
was a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for winning the war. The panel recognized that policymakers needed to consider broader political and social factors,
but it felt that there had not been adequate considerations of science and technology in either the implementation or the formulation of policy in the war. This was
in sharp contrast with the situation in World War II, it argued, when science and
technology, coordinated by a powerful OSRD, played a prominent role in policy.65
What the panel ignored was the sharp difference in the political contexts as well as
scientists’ morale and motivation in the two confl icts.
The panel pushed for a streamlined military R&D structure to reduce damaging lags from the conception of a weapon system to its deployment in the field.
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
For example, when an order for 75 “personnel detectors” or “human sniffers” came
in January 1968, the Pentagon estimated that it would take six to eight months to
fulfill it. Baldeschwieler boasted that he “could make a chamber for the improved
sniffer in the Stanford shops in an afternoon.” “[A] group of trained machinists,”
he went on, “could easily make 75 of them in a week.” The panel listed about a
dozen other items “badly needed in the field which are immediately available”:
retroreflectors, smoke grenades, tunnel denial devices, microwave mine detectors,
tank-mounted mine detonators, traps, barbed tape obstacles, fragmentation cords
(“works very well as an ambush device”), tunnel periscopes, leech repellants, and
wire detectors. To expedite the delivery of these and other military technologies
for the Vietnam War, the panel recommended a number of measures to strengthen
military R&D. It even saw their benefit beyond that confl ict. Vietnam, it believed,
could serve as a “real testing ground for development of new ideas and technology applicable to military problems which are likely to be facing us many times in
the future.”66 The panel wanted to develop science and technology to fight guerilla wars. In late 1967, Hornig conveyed to McNamara his concern over both the
decline in budget for tactical weapons R&D and “an inadequate rate of application
of new technology to Vietnam.”67
In arguing for a stronger link between American science and technology and
the military, Hornig and the PSAC ad hoc panel on Vietnam echoed the views of
the science advisers in the 1950s. Just as Killian and Fisk called for the military to
“strike deep roots in our civilian scientific community,” the Vietnam panel wanted
“close coupling between the actual military problems in Vietnam and the nation’s
scientific and technological effort.” In both cases, the science advisers labored in
the shadow of science–government tension—it was McCarthyism and the Oppenheimer case in the 1950s, on the one hand, and the rising antiwar movement and
campus unrest in the late 1960s on the other. Clearly not every member of PSAC,
or of its panels, supported the Vietnam War, just as few approved of all the Cold
War measures in the 1950s. Like PSAC members in the 1950s who questioned the
military’s faith in nuclear technological superiority, their successors were skeptical
of the Pentagon’s claims to winning the Vietnam War via air bombing. Yet, in both
cases PSAC scientists advocated a strong science–military partnership as a necessity
in terms of both science in policy—informed scientists needed to infl uence the
course of the war—and policy for science to show the military utility of science
and technology.
Baldeschwieler, although not a full PSAC member yet, was one of the most
active PSAC panel members on Vietnam in this period, and his experiences typified
those of the younger scientists who saw the Vietnam War primarily as a technological challenge and paid little attention to the political dimensions of the confl ict,
at least initially. Baldeschwieler was, like Hornig, a physical chemist by training and
received tutoring in advising the military from Kistiakowsky when he was a young
instructor in Harvard in the early 1960s. With an ROTC background and experience working in the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds, he soon rose to be a member of the Army Scientific Advisory Panel. In 1967, Hornig brought him into PSAC
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
as a member of the ground warfare panel under Drell to work on several projects
related to the Vietnam War. Aware of the strong antiwar sentiment at Stanford,
where he had moved in 1965, Baldeschwieler kept “a low profile” and kept much of
his work on Vietnam secret from all but a few students and colleagues.
He was at the time, as he later recalled, “extraordinarily patriotic” and
“extremely interested in the technology of unconventional warfare” in Southeast
Asia. “My motivation was to make things work and I felt a bond with those poor
guys in the mud.” Although he enjoyed the technical investigations—“flying back
to Washington at least once a week”—he later recognized that “I was an utter neophyte in political and organizational area.”68 In other words, he shared with many
other science advisers—Kistiakowsky, Wiesner, and York, for example—in placing
their trust with the government and in maintaining a faith in technological solutions during their initial forays in Washington. The lure of technological solutions
proved nearly irresistible. The danger, however, was not a fascination with the
“technically sweet,” but a failure to question the ultimate objective of the technology, losing the “big picture” that mattered in the end.
Technological Dissent
Even as Hornig, Baldeschwieler, and other PSAC scientists continued to focus
most of their effort on finding technological solutions to the war, some veterans
of PSAC began to question both the effectiveness and appropriateness of the
approach. In February 1968, Wolfgang Panofsky, for example, wrote Hornig after
attending a special PSAC meeting to express his concern over the direction taken
by PSAC:
I think it is essential that PSAC continue to steer a balanced course between
being part of the “establishment” and advising the President and government
on technical issues and being an independent voice of experienced, primarily
academic scientists in matters affecting national policy. . . . To be blunt I feel
that there is at least as great a need for PSAC to communicate technical facts
which appear not to be known to the highest level so that they can infl uence
policy as there is need to improve technical knowledge and competence in the
military establishment as it relates to Viet Nam.69
What especially worried Panofsky was that PSAC seemed to be condoning or
even itself pursuing the kind of technological fixes that the committee had fought
against during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years: “I feel that PSAC will have to
become even more than in the past the watchdog to limit the natural urge by a
particular federal activity to exploit technology to its maximum in the interest of
preserving greater values.”70
Clearly Panofsky discerned a shift in the ethos of PSAC from the Eisenhower
and Kennedy years. Significant changes had taken place in the committee’s membership and its political context. Largely gone with the transition were veterans of
the World War II generation who had participated in the debates over the use of
the atomic bomb and the making of the H-bomb. Gone with them was also the
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
large number of immigrant scientists who, according to Panofsky, had been more
sensitive to the political dimensions of science and technology than their nativeborn colleagues.71 To I. I. Rabi, another PSAC veteran who had voiced skepticism
about the electronic barrier, the younger generation had unduly limited their
vision to the technical issues at hand, as he later recalled:
I was sitting there and said this may stop the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but only push
the war into Cambodia. . . . You’re extending the war. You are not going to stop
it. I think that marked a difference. The younger group that came in did not
have the views and objectives as the original group.72
Indeed, by the end of the Johnson administration, all PSAC members were LBJ’s
own appointees and most of them belonged to the younger generation that grew
up professionally in the post-World War II period. Several of the PSAC members
under Johnson, such as Garwin, Drell, Marvin Goldberger, Gordon MacDonald,
and Murray Gell-Mann, were also active in the Jason group and thus were experienced in dealing with controversies involving military R&D. Many of them,
especially Goldberger in his capacity as president of the Federation of American
Scientists, had campaigned alongside PSAC for the nuclear test ban in 1963. Few,
however, had been tested in a national public controversy like the use of the atomic
bomb or the making of the H-bomb. For them, the transformation from the technical to the political would take place during and after the Vietnam War in general
and the electronic barrier experiment in particular.
Another PSAC veteran went even further than Panofsky and Rabi in renouncing the effort of finding technological solutions to the Vietnam War. In late 1967,
increasingly frustrated with Johnson’s policy, Kistiakowsky decided to sever all ties
with the Pentagon as a protest against the continuation of the war. The news was
first reported in Science in February 1968 and soon received nationwide publicity
after it was picked up in the New York Times.73 Kistiakowsky took this unusual step
after having worked on the barrier project full time for several months in 1967 in
the hope of using it to deescalate the war, especially the bombing, in Vietnam. He
was disgusted not only by the continuation of the bombing and the war, but also
the apparent purge of those, such as McNamara, who came to question the war
policy. As Kistiakowsky later recalled:
[A]t the end of ’67, particularly after seeing that Mr. McNamara was essentially
fired from his job, I reached the conclusion that it was completely futile to continue. At that point, I resigned, and resigned in what might be called a tactless
way. In other words, I didn’t claim illness or family business or fatigue. I just
wrote that I vehemently opposed the present Vietnam policy and could not be
even a minor party to it anymore.74
It was the closest to a public moral stand against the Vietnam War that any scientist
associated with PSAC took in this period. In a way, the situation resembled that
following Oppenheimer’s security case in the 1950s. Even though there was no
mass exodus of scientists from the government—Kistiakowsky himself advised his
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
fellow advisers to stay on—his action sharpened their dilemma in dealing with an
administration with whose policy many of them disagreed.
Not a radical himself, Kistiakowsky’s action nevertheless helped pave the way
for the emergence of such groups as the Scientists and Engineers for Social and
Political Action (SESPA, later renamed Science for the People), which, under the
leadership of Charles Schwartz, criticized Jason and PSAC members for serving,
wittingly or unwittingly, the military during the Vietnam War.75 For his part, Kistiakowsky decided, a few months after his break with the Pentagon, to seek a direct
political solution to the Vietnam War. He helped organize the Scientific Advisory
Board to Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was the first Democratic candidate to
run against President Johnson for the party’s nomination on an antiwar platform.
In this endeavor Kistiakowsky was joined by York, Purcell, and Zacharias, all fellow PSAC alumni and comrades from the Scientists for Johnson campaign four
years earlier.76 Finally, as they had done in the debate over nuclear testing, they
moved decisively beyond the technical and into the political in their effort to end
the Vietnam War.
Indeed, the two issues were not completely separated. To Kistiakowsky and
fellow dissidents on Vietnam, no technological solution to the war appeared more
menacing than an attempt to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. To their shock in
early 1968, a senior U.S. general in Vietnam appeared to advocate exactly that. He
reportedly threatened to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to relieve the U.S. forces
in Khe Sanh, then under siege by North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive. The irony must
have flashed through Kistiakowsky’s mind that four years earlier it was the fear of
Goldwater’s use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam that had driven him to support
Johnson. Greatly alarmed but lacking direct access to the Johnson White House,
Kistiakowsky asked Rabi and Killian to join him in sending a telegram to Eisenhower asking him to intervene with Johnson against the deployment of nuclear
weapons. Any such use would be disadvantageous to the United States, and “could
lead to general nuclear war,” they warned the general. LBJ happened to be visiting
with Eisenhower in Palm Desert, California, at the time and as a result of their
discussion, Johnson asked McNamara to call the three scientists individually to
assure them that there was no plan to use nuclear weapons.77
Gradually, Hornig and PSAC members, half of whom, according to York, were
opposed to the war in private, also began to sound the alarm about the conduct
of the war more loudly within the administration. Hornig often conveyed his and
PSAC’s views to Johnson via memos and to McNamara during their biweekly
luncheon meetings.78 In late 1966 and early 1967, for example, Hornig repeatedly
voiced his concern over the Pentagon’s artificial rainmaking in Laos and Vietnam
as a way to block the Ho Chi Minh trail. Although agreeing that the program was
“technically sound” and thus acquiescing reluctantly to its going ahead, Hornig
nevertheless saw serious political problems if it leaked to the public: the United
States would be accused of initiating “a new type of warfare—meteorological
warfare”—and thus opening a “‘Pandora’s box’ of threats to future civilization”; it
would create a “revulsion” in the international meteorological community, inflame
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
“our highly disaffected general scientific community,” and disrupt international
cooperation in that field. The induced floods would, contrary to the Pentagon’s
claim, “provide a hazard to life, health and sanitation” for civilians in Laos and Vietnam. He further doubted that the program, even if technically successful, would
materially reduce the North–South transport of supplies. Finally, he worried about
the “potential damage to our world position” as the country added another dubious “first” to its list of technological warfare that included “the atomic bomb, riot
gases, defoliation, napalm.” It would make the United States look like “a nation
flailing out with every tool at its disposal.”79
If Hornig felt so strongly about weather warfare, why did he acquiesce in it
and not resign in protest? He probably recognized the futility of an open break
with administration policy. Perhaps even more important, by then the science
advisory system had become such a captive of the postwar science–state partnership, which it had helped to establish, that what was at stake was not only
scientists’ position in the White House, but also the federal funding of science.
In the end, Hornig’s misgivings barely dampened the technological enthusiasm in
the Vietnam War machinery. His warnings only led to a tightening of secrecy in
the weather warfare, which continued, even though it ultimately failed, as Hornig
predicted, to make much of a difference in the war.80 A separate, smaller project
to render the trail impassable by making soil sticky proved equally ineffective but
it did not prevent William Sullivan, U.S. ambassador to Laos, from exclaiming that
“chelation may prove better than escalation. Make mud, not war!”81 When Hornig
opposed the Pentagon’s introduction of a powerful “fuel-air-explosive” because it
might become, in the eyes of antiwar protesters, another “indiscriminate terror
weapon” or example of “expanded chemical warfare,” John Foster, the DDRE,
brushed aside the charge with the comment that “none of our weapons discriminate between friends and foe, unfortunately.”82 Clearly the days when the ODDRE
worked together with PSAC and the science adviser to moderate the military
technological momentum were over. Instead of applying checks to demands from
the individual services, the ODDRE became the chief defender of the Pentagon’s
technological turf.
Like the Cambridge group, PSAC’s road toward dissent started with the question of the effectiveness of the bombing of North Vietnam. In July 1966, for example, its military aircraft panel reached a conclusion about the bombing campaign
that was similar to that of the Jason group:
[T]he Panel reviewed the most recent assessment of the effectiveness of air
power in Vietnam. We were concerned that so many of the criteria by which
progress is being measured relate to the magnitude of effort and reflect little
consideration of the actual effect achieved.83
In other words, the bombing, although causing much destruction in the North,
had not achieved its main objective of stopping the infiltration of supplies and personnel to the South. Following yet another meeting with Johnson on February 19,
1968, PSAC delved further into the question of the effectiveness of the bombing.84
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
Its studies reinforced the committee’s strong skepticism toward the bombing campaign, and contributed to Johnson’s decision to halt the operation on March 31 (he
also announced on that day that he would not run for reelection).85
PSAC tried to prolong the bombing pause. Its investigation found, for example,
that bombing North Vietnam reduced only about 10 percent of the supplies that
went to the South, because the North could rely on China to import much of its
strategic materiel. The American interception rate was higher in Laos, reaching 25
percent, due to the absence of anti-air weapons by the North Vietnamese forces
there. Conversely, the panel found that the cutback in bombing during the pause
“did not measurably increase the enemy’s ability to move supplies.” Thus PSAC
recommended against the resumption of bombing because it would not “significantly cut down” North Vietnam’s buildup. When Hornig presented the PSAC
report to Johnson, the president’s first reaction was: “Are you saying that the Air
Force has been lying to me” about its effectiveness in stopping the supplies?86 In the
end, it was unclear how much PSAC contributed to Johnson’s decision to continue
the bombing pause; it was at most one among several voices in that direction. Nevertheless, this PSAC study and those from the Jason group and others within the
Pentagon made it increasingly clear that strategic bombing and other technological
“trump cards” faced severe limitations in the Vietnam War.87
Even though Panofsky and other PSAC veterans must have welcomed PSAC’s
return to its “watchdog” role in Vietnam War policy, its activist turn met with
alarm from not only the Pentagon but also President Johnson’s pro-war advisers within the White House. Walter Rostow, for example, asked Johnson to limit
PSAC’s policy role:
I doubt the wisdom of launching PSAC further into the bombing business. For
what it is worth, my own judgment is that they should be told to help the Department of Defense in rapidly applying science and technology to this field rather
than continuing to try to operate as bombing analysts and policy makers.88
In other words, the prevailing view of scientists’ role in the Johnson White House
returned to the pre-Sputnik days when Robert Cutler wanted them to be “on tap,
but not on top” or to Gordon Gray’s admonition in 1958 that they restrict themselves to making technical contributions to security. The “electronic barrier” and
other experiences during the Vietnam War, however, taught the younger generation of science advisers inside and outside PSAC that if they restricted themselves
to technical solutions to military problems, they would likely be doing someone
else’s bidding and serving the interest of neither science nor the country. How
President Johnson felt about PSAC’s renewed desire to play a policy role is not
clear, but there were indications that he was no more receptive to it than Rostow.
According to Frederick Seitz, president of the NAS and a member of PSAC who
had supported Johnson on the war, LBJ planned sweeping changes in his science
advising setup had he run and won a second term.89
In the national trauma that marked American involvement in Vietnam under
Johnson, PSAC and other scientists played only a small part. Yet, the confl ict cast
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
a shadow on American science and society that surpassed even that of Sputnik.
The war caused unprecedented division not only between the scientists and government officials, but also among the scientists. Even within the community of
moderate scientists represented by PSAC, there were those, like Baldeschwieler,
who tended to identify with the war and who found it imperative to work within
the system and try to help win the war with their technological ingenuity, on the
one hand, and those who, admittedly belatedly, questioned the conduct or the aim
of the war, on the other. As the barrier and other projects demonstrated, PSAC
scientists still hoped to infl uence policy through the use of their technical expertise and reputation, not, at least initially, moral or political appeals. Only a very
few scientists associated with PSAC eventually opposed the war by joining their
radical colleagues in denouncing it and withdrawing their technical assistance.
As in the struggle for arms control, even though PSAC scientists were generally
skeptical of technological solutions to political and social problems, they were
not averse to using and even inventing technological fixes when they believed that
such measures would help to moderate, instead of escalate, the war. In a way, they,
like Oppenheimer in the early 1950s, succumbed to the allure of the “technically
sweet.” Unfortunately for them, however, there seldom was an inherent distinction
between these two kinds of military technologies, just as there was no clear-cut
differentiation between offensive and defensive nuclear weapons. Once a technological scheme left their hands, the scientists could not always control the direction
of its application.
The ABM Debate
In contrast to their sometimes contradictory stands on military technology during the Vietnam War, PSAC scientists felt that they stood on firmer ground in
the concurrent debate over the ABM, which they regarded as another example of
a misguided technological fix to an international political problem. What drove
them to oppose the ABM were not only the technical problems associated with
a particular system, but a concern over the military and strategic implications of
missile defense in general. Any ABM deployment would, they believed, destabilize
the arms race with the Soviet Union, “[n]o matter how much we advertise the fact
that the defense is directed at the Chinese,” as the PSAC’s strategic military panel,
chaired by Goldberger, concluded in its October 1965 report on a proposal by the
army to install an anti-Chinese “thin” ABM. The vicious cycle would accelerate as
the Soviets and Americans tried to expand their missile forces to counter each other’s ABMs. In addition, because of the dynamics of the arms race and the military
technological momentum, an ostensibly “thin” ABM system would likely escalate
into “the single most complex military systems ever undertaken” in American history, involving huge expenditures, enormous organizations, and possibly renewed
demand for a massive civil defense program.90 In any case, the proposed ABM,
dubbed Nike X and under construction by Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL),
was not appropriate in handling the perceived Chinese threat: it was overkill for
the current, primitive Chinese nuclear force but inadequate in dealing with future
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
Chinese improvements. The panel thus urged the Pentagon to explore alternatives, such as a simpler system with off-the-shelf components as a response to the
Chinese threat, but, above all, to rely on its strategic offensive force as a deterrent.
Finally, as a hedge against any Soviet ABMs, the panel advocated continuing R&D
on ABMs, and “vigorously” increasing efforts on penetration aids. 91
Following PSAC’s traditional practice, the Goldberger panel ventured beyond
the technical to comment on the international political dimensions of the ABM
decision. It believed that an American anti-Chinese ABM might enhance, instead of
diminish, China’s strategic status in the Asia-Pacific region. Allies might doubt the
U.S. resolve to protect them if the United States appeared to retreat to its “Fortress
America.” Again, as in the test ban debate, the Goldberger panel justified its consideration of both technical and political factors as integral parts of policymaking.92
Hornig forwarded the report to McNamara, noting that both he and the full PSAC
endorsed it.93 The recommendation also received public support at a White House
Conference on International Cooperation a few weeks later, when a committee on
arms control and disarmament chaired by Wiesner publicly proposed a three-year
moratorium on ABM deployment.94
As with the test ban, the ABM debate was not just over the merits of a particular technology, but over the potentials and limits of technological solutions
to the Cold War and who got to decide on these issues. The Joint Chiefs of Staff
vehemently disagreed with PSAC not only over its specific recommendations, but
also over its attitude toward the role of technology in national security and the
scientists’ role in defense policymaking. A simpler ABM system as suggested by
PSAC would lead to an “inferior and inadequate system” without taking advantage of available technology, the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued, implicitly equating
technological progress with national security. It also believed that PSAC underestimated the Chinese threat and overlooked “military and political considerations
that go beyond the scope of scientific appraisal of the Nike X system.”95 Senator
Henry Jackson, in his defense of the ABM, viewed the Cold War as a technological
race where “the superior industrial and agricultural power of the West might yet
be a trump card,” echoing the justification of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for massive
bombing in North Vietnam.96 McNamara, however, was more sympathetic to
PSAC’s position.97 In his memorandum to President Johnson on the FY 1967 DOD
budget he recommended against the deployment of Nike X, even as he approved
the continuation of a considerable R&D program.98
A White House Showdown
The PSAC–McNamara technical-strategic argument prevailed in 1965–1966, but
they knew that the pendulum could easily swing the other way under the pressure
of domestic and international developments. Indeed, scientists were drawn back
into the debate when McNamara disclosed, in early November 1966, that the Soviets had apparently deployed a missile defense system of its own.99 Like the Soviet
announcement of nuclear test resumption in 1961, the news of the Soviet ABM
quickly changed the dynamics of the debate. It galvanized the pro-ABM forces.
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
George Romney, Republican governor of Michigan and potential presidential candidate, charged the Democratic administration of an ABM gap.100 The Joint Chiefs
pressed their case during a crucial pre-Christmas meeting at the LBJ Ranch in Austin, Texas, despite McNamara’s continued opposition.101 Meanwhile Eisenhower
advised Johnson to get advice from, among others, former presidential science
advisers.102 All of these developments paved the way for a dramatic showdown
between the science advisers and military leaders in the White House on January
4, 1967. Organized by McNamara, the meeting brought together the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, all the former and current science advisers—James Killian, Kistiakowsky,
Wiesner, and Hornig—and successive directors of defense research and engineering to debate the ABM in front of LBJ.
The White House meeting revealed the depth of the disagreement between
the scientific and the military leaders. At the outset of the meeting, McNamara
presented three options, according to notes taken by Rostow: “do nothing;” “set up
a limited so-called ‘thin’ system” to protect against Chinese missiles, accidentally
launched missiles, nuclear blackmail, and to furnish additional protection for the
Minuteman missiles; and “install a system capable of protecting our population
against heavy sophisticated Soviet attack.” After the chiefs made their case for
the third option to protect about twenty-five American cities, the scientists spoke
strongly and unanimously against the “heavy” ABM and, to a lesser extent, against
the “thin” system.103 The first two science advisers set the tone. Regarding an ABM
race as “extremely dangerous,” Killian was “not persuaded about the need” for
a thin system, although he recognized its political advantage in negotiating with
the Soviets. Kistiakowsky went further by opposing any ABM deployment: a thin
system would inevitably be expanded into a heavy one and radically accelerate
the arms race. In addition, he doubted that the thin ABM would be effective even
against the Chinese: “They would prove ingenious and could turn, for example, to
submarine-launched delivery systems, or to a dirty bomb exploded, say, 50 miles
off shore.” What the United States should undertake instead, he urged, was “a
major diplomatic effort to persuade the Soviet Union to stand down” while continuing some ABM research for the purpose of bargaining with the Soviets.
Confirming his reputation as a passionate advocate for arms control, Wiesner
renounced the ABM completely. Missile defense, he asserted strikingly, would lead
to “greater casualties in a nuclear war, not less,” because of the tendency of both
sides to overbuild offensive forces to offset their opponents’ defense. Elaborating on the Goldberger panel report that he helped to draft, Wiesner argued that
the United States could rely on “normal deterrence” in dealing with the Chinese
threat. Noting that he had studied nuclear defense much of his mature life, he was
now convinced that “in the game of nuclear deterrence, defense doesn’t work. The
offense will always overcome.” Alone among all the scientists Wiesner opposed
any form of ABM, even, apparently, R&D efforts.
Opposition to the ABM continued with the last two scientists who spoke.
Hornig, as the sitting science adviser, concurred with his predecessors on the
anti-Soviet ABM, citing three PSAC studies that had recommended against it. As
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
to the thin system, he did not see a need for it in countering Chinese nuclear force
either, but he allowed that it might be useful for the other reasons McNamara
mentioned or as a bargaining chip with the Soviets.104 York, then at the end of his
second term on PSAC, joined Wiesner in categorically opposing both the heavy
and thin ABM—“Let’s do nothing now.” Like Wiesner, York believed that an ABM
would put more American lives at risk because it would intensify the arms race.
He also warned against what he would later call “the fallacy of the last move”: “If
the installation of our defensive system were the last move in the arms race, then,
of course, less lives would be at risk. But that would not be the last move, and in
the end, more U.S. lives would be in jeopardy.”105 York supported, however, “a very
vigorous R&D effort” to create “a better potential ABM system” for the future
when, presumably, arms control negotiations would have changed the dynamics
of the arms race.
For his part, McNamara demonstrated a profound ambivalence. On the antiSoviet ABM, he sided with the scientists by arguing that any protection would be
offset by increased Soviet offense. He saw “marginal” ground for the deployment
of an anti-Chinese thin ABM, to deter China from launching any ICBM attack on
the United States in retaliation for American bombing in North Vietnam, or as
a bargaining chip with the Soviets. However, he knew the danger of escalation:
“once you start you are pregnant. It will be virtually impossible to stop.” By the
end of the meeting, he joined Wiesner in arguing that “No defensive system could
be effective.” On becoming the secretary of defense, he had been surprised to find
that 85 to 95 percent of U.S. bombers could have penetrated Soviet defenses. He
dismissed the Soviet ABM as making no military sense, representing only an “irrational bias towards defensive systems.” His equivocation did not help Johnson, who
was baffled: “The Chiefs wish to go all the way; the scientists say No; but if we go
we should go with a thin system because it might help our negotiations with the
Soviet Union.” He thanked everyone and promised to take their views into consideration in making a decision. Somewhat reassured by McNamara’s opposition to
the ABM, the scientists left the meeting feeling that their technological skepticism
had carried the day.106
Outside of the White House, PSAC scientists’ opposition to the ABM aroused a
backlash from the military establishment that echoed those from the debates over
the nuclear-powered bomber, the nuclear test ban, and the bombing in Vietnam.
Shortly after the January 4 meeting, General Nathan F. Twining, former chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly blasted what he called an “antinuclear clique
of moralists, pacifists and academic dreamers,” naming, specifically, Wiesner.
That coalition, he argued, had prevented technological advances, slowed weapons
development, and weakened American nuclear deterrent. “These people may be
sincere, concerned, and patriotic,” he allowed, “but they have never been able to
acclimate themselves to the nuclear age.”107 Apparently even former weaponeers
were not immune to accusations of being Luddites. Once again, as in the space
debate, PSAC scientists were painted as a force of technological dissent out of
touch with the age of technological enthusiasm.
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
“Mad Momentum”
Even more shocking to the science advisers than the attack from the military establishment was what came out of McNamara, their perceived ally in the ABM fight.
Despite his forceful argument against missile defense at the White House meeting,
McNamara’s agony continued as the pressure for at least a thin ABM mounted. He
felt the stress not only for himself, but also for Johnson, who was still expected to
run for reelection in 1968—“I didn’t like to face him with such a difficult choice.”108
The White House meeting with the scientists seemed to have bolstered McNamara’s resolve against ABM, but he knew that politically it was nearly impossible to
stem the tide. As one of the largest and most complex weapons systems in American history, the Nike X ABM had behind it a huge military-industrial complex all
of its own, involving, according to one report, about 3,000 companies that were
putting pressure on the administration, especially through their congressional representatives, for its deployment.109 As McNamara explained to Johnson in a phone
call following the meeting with the scientists:
I still favor doing nothing as we initially recommended three or four weeks
ago, but it would be a helluva political crisis if you did nothing. The forces
pushing you to do something are very, very strong indeed. But I myself agree
fully with Killian and the science advisers. I don’t think we’ll buy anything
worth going ahead. But if we’re to go ahead, then I think the best thing to do
is the “thin” system.110
Before giving in, however, McNamara tried a last-ditch effort to convince Johnson
to fight the ABM momentum:
LBJ: So what it adds up to is you’re against contingencies and really if you were
in my position, you’d do nothing.
McNamara: I guess, Mr. President, what I mean to say is that I’d go down
fighting, and I’m damn sure I’d go down. [He laughs.] A lot easier for me
to say.
LBJ: Do you think that’s wiser for us to do?
McNamara: Well, I don’t know, I don’t know.
McNamara, of course, did know that a fight over the ABM would be politically
damaging to Johnson; it would upset the military and allow the Republicans to
campaign on the ABM gap. It would disappoint powerful conservative Democrats
as well. Senator Richard Russell, McNamara warned LBJ, “is just going to tear us
apart this year,” demanding the ABM and “just a lot of other things.” McNamara
urged Johnson to wage “a tremendous publicity campaign” with editors, scientists,
and opinion leaders to win public support for a decision to do nothing on ABM,
but he knew that he was probably engaged in wishful thinking. He could count on
Hornig, PSAC, and much of the civilian leadership in the Pentagon to back him up
but they could hardly hope to prevail.111 A final blow to McNamara came in June
1967 at a U.S.–Soviet summit in Glassboro, New Jersey, when he failed to convince
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
the Soviet leadership about the urgency or even rationality of putting limits on
defensive nuclear systems.112
Meanwhile, watching a Chinese propaganda film in March 1967 added a visceral
dimension to McNamara’s perception of the Chinese nuclear threat. The film,
recently captured by American intelligence agents, showed ecstatic Chinese reactions to nuclear tests in the country’s remote northwest, including scenes of cavalry rushing into the test site in the shadow of the mushroom cloud.113 McNamara
was horrified that China treated the bomb as a “usable weapon”—“it just scared
me to death,” he later recalled. When he brought the matter up at Glassboro, the
Soviets responded: “If you’re worried about the Chinese reaction, how do you
think we feel?” Ironically, the perceived Chinese threat had a paradoxical effect on
the ABM negotiation: it might have made the Soviets more reluctant to give up
their ABM but, in the long run, might have also contributed to a Soviet–American
mutual understanding and common interest that aided their arms control efforts.114
Equally important, the Chinese film reinforced the image of Chinese leaders as
irrational players in the use of nuclear weapons.115
Under these circumstances and facing renewed pressure from the military following Glassboro, McNamara decided, apparently on his own, in the summer of
1967, to announce a decision to go ahead with a thin ABM in a forthcoming speech
in San Francisco.116 On August 2, Rostow conveyed the news to Johnson, “assuming
you approve his recommended decision.”117 A week later, Rostow wrote Johnson
again about a new intelligence estimate that indicated higher Soviet and Chinese
nuclear capabilities. “The situation it describes is not alarming,” he told Johnson,
“but I suspect it will be exploited as a political issue in 1968.” The president’s critics would charge that the Soviets were “closing our nuclear superiority gap,” and
so Rostow recommended that “you may wish to begin to work out with Bob
McNamara how we deal with the political problem which may arise.” LBJ wrote
on the memo: “Ask him [McNamara] to do this,” meaning, presumably, the ABM
deployment. Two days later, Rostow added “8/10/67 done by WWR.”118 Rostow’s
intervention on Johnson’s behalf no doubt helped McNamara’s position amidst
opposition within the administration.119
This examination of the ABM decision making demonstrated the marginal
position of PSAC in strategic policy by the late Johnson administration. It confirms the long-held belief that the Johnson administration decided to deploy the
thin ABM mainly on domestic political grounds, even though it also indicates that
McNamara’s part was more complicated than that of an innocent victim of LBJ
maneuvers. Johnson did infl uence McNamara’s decision, first implicitly by declining to take up his challenge to “go down fighting,” and then apparently explicitly
through Rostow, but it is also clear that the secretary of defense harbored profound
ambivalence on the issue on his own and was not nearly as sanguine over the Chinese nuclear threat as the scientists thought. For their part, PSAC scientists were
left out of the final process of the ABM decision because the decision was viewed
largely as a political, not a technical, issue. Keeny did make a last-minute effort
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
behind the scenes to stem the tide on ABM, but the most he could do was to help
moderate the draft of the McNamara speech.120
Despite their lack of input in the final decision, the science advisers and DDREs
nevertheless figured prominently in McNamara’s San Francisco speech. Speaking
eloquently about the folly of the arms race, including missile defense, McNamara
named the seven scientists and disclosed that they had “unanimously” recommended against a heavy, anti-Soviet ABM, with which he agreed. Yet, “[h]aving said
that,” McNamara declared that a thin system could protect the American ICBMs
and fend off a possible Chinese attack on American cities. Echoing Wiesner, he
acknowledged that “China has been cautious to avoid any action that might end
in a nuclear clash with the United States,” and that the United States, if provoked,
could destroy “completely” the Chinese nuclear forces and “devastate her society.”
But he evoked the “crazy Chinese” argument—“China might miscalculate” and
might resort to “irrational behavior”—to support his decision.121
As he went ahead with the $5 billion thin ABM, McNamara also tried to forestall the $40 billion heavy, anti-Soviet ABM that he knew would be pushed by the
military-industrial complex. “There is a kind of mad momentum intrinsic to the
development of all new nuclear weaponry,” McNamara warned in his speech.
“The danger in deploying this relatively light and reliable Chinese-oriented A.B.M.
system is going to be that pressures will develop to expand it into a heavy Sovietoriented A.B.M. system.”122 That was, of course, the intention of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff from the beginning and it seemed to be getting its way. On November
14, McNamara officially announced the renaming of the anti-Chinese ABM as
Sentinel, retaining the name Nike X for an R&D program on a heavy ABM.123 The
pregnancy that McNamara had warned about in the White House meeting was
indeed underway.
As expected, McNamara’s ABM announcement triggered a national controversy. Many recognized it as a transparently politically motivated decision. The New
York Times editorialized that “Mr. Johnson has thrown a $5 billion fish to the cats,”
but “will it quiet the country’s military-industrial complex and its Congressional
spokesmen?”124 Remarkably and unusually, the frail Eisenhower, now increasingly
celebrated by antiwar protesters for his warning against the military-industrial
complex, spoke out against the anti-Chinese ABM. In an interview published in
Vista, magazine of the United Nations Association of the United States, the former
president questioned the value of the thin ABM in protecting the United States and
warned about the inevitable escalation of its cost.125
For their part, some of the science advisers felt betrayed by McNamara: he cited
in his speech only their argument against the heavy but not those against the thin
ABM, giving the impression that they had all supported the latter. Judging from the
Rostow notes of the meeting, it is clear that only Killian and Hornig had grudgingly
allowed for some form of a thin ABM deployment, whereas Kistiakowsky, Wiesner,
and York were against any ABM deployment. Even the former had supported a
thin ABM not as a defense against a Chinese attack, but as a bargaining chip with
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
the Soviets, which McNamara did not mention in his speech. According to Killian,
McNamara had called all the scientists from the White House meeting individually in advance of his speech to assure them that “he was not seeking to give an
indication that we were supporting his changed position.”126 But Wiesner, at least,
recalled being “greatly surprised” by McNamara’s speech and its “extremely misleading” representation of the scientists’ views.127 Kistiakowsky publicly denied that
he supported the decision to deploy the Sentinel system. Likewise, Hans Bethe,
who had worked on the ABM problem as a member of the PSAC military strategic
panel for many years, was “profoundly shocked” by McNamara’s speech and disappointed that PSAC was not consulted on the decision.128 Once again, as in the case
of the electronic barrier for the Vietnam War, scientists felt that their technological
advice and input were abused by the administration. A desire to work within the
system and stay in the channels had led them to collaborate with McNamara on
both the Vietnam War and the ABM, but now they felt that they needed to speak
out as citizens, not remain silent as privileged insiders.
“No Technical Escape”
The national debate over the Sentinel ABM that followed McNamara’s speech
marked the first time in the post-Sputnik era when leading American science
advisers to the government began to voice their dissent on a major military-technological project in public. Bethe had criticized, mildly in 1960, what he perceived
as the Eisenhower administration’s lack of courage in the pursuit of a nuclear
test ban, and then, more directly in 1962, the military’s push for nuclear weapons
development in general.129 The scientists were engaged in organized lobbying on
nuclear weapon issues during the 1963 debate over the ratification of the limited
test ban, but in this case most of the insider scientists were speaking out for an
administration policy. The Sentinel debate in 1967–1968 led several prominent
scientists who were still part of the PSAC circle of science advising to break with
the administration openly on a major, specific weapons system on which they had
offered advice.
Wiesner hesitated before speaking out on the ABM. Having always worked
within the system through his involvement in PSAC and as the science adviser,
he was concerned both about his own continuing infl uence as an adviser to the
government and about possible negative impact on PSAC (if not MIT) if he voiced
criticism of administration policy. Yet, convinced that the ABM decision would
trigger a new round in a vicious arms race, Wiesner decided to articulate his reasons for opposing Sentinel’s deployment in an article for Look magazine in November 1967. In it, Wiesner called the logic of the ABM decision “mighty tortured,”
and predicted that the system would be regarded as ineffective even before it was
installed. He discounted the fear of the “irrational or unstable” Chinese, arguing,
once again, that “[a]lthough the words of China’s leaders have been inflammatory
in the extreme, in action, they have been exceedingly cautious.” He further noted
that China had renounced first-use of nuclear weapons and had shown “signs of a
growing sophistication in nuclear matters,” probably as a result of learning more
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
William Fulbright, who opposed the ABM, and his conservative colleague Senator
Russell, who openly advocated an anti-Soviet heavy ABM. Fulbright was especially
incensed over the fact that no outside scientist critics testified in Russell’s Armed
Services Committee hearings on ABM. When Russell responded that “they did not
request to come before the committee,” a floodgate was opened: The FAS quickly
wrote Russell to request “the opportunity to provide witnesses to testify at any
further hearings” on ABM.136 By the end of 1968, Congress was on the verge of calling in, for the first time in the nuclear age, scientists from outside of the government to testify on a specific, major nuclear weapons system. Open dissent by these
former PSAC members would soon help turn the ABM controversy into a second
scientists’ movement and a national debate over nuclear weapons.137
The End of the Golden Era
By the end of the Johnson administration, the debates over the Vietnam War and
the ABM not only created tension in the science–government relationship, but
accompanied a closing of the golden era of the post-Sputnik boom in federal funding of science. The squeeze on science funding would probably have come without
the Vietnam War. The rate of the post-Sputnik boom (15 percent annual increase
in R&D funds) was simply not sustainable. As Hornig himself acknowledged, had
the trend continued, eventually “every man, woman, and child in the United States
[will be] doing research.”138 But there was no doubt that the war did hasten the
leveling off of science funding, and the rancorous debates over both the war and
the ABM compounded the fiscal pain for everybody involved. In 1966, for example,
congressional actions reduced Johnson’s FY 1967 request of a 10 percent increase in
funds for academic research to 6 percent. The picture got only worse in the next
two years: Congress reduced the FY 1968 request of an 11 percent increase to less
than 2 percent and threatened to turn a 13 percent boost to a net loss for FY 1969.139
The crisis in federal funds for science meant that the science advisers had to fight
battles not only over science in policy but also policy for science.
As federal money tightened, the NAS finally entered national science policy
to suggest priorities within various scientific fields.140 Its efforts were helpful but
still could not prepare the scientific community for the first cutbacks in federal
funds in a decade. Beginning in 1967, federal R&D expenditure leveled off at
about $16 billion, and decreased in the next several years. Funds for basic research
followed a similar curve and remained static at about $2 billion in current dollars
and less in constant dollars.141 Compared with the R&D cut in the mid-1950s, this
retrenchment hit universities all the harder because it followed on the heels of a
spectacular boom. The fl uctuations threatened national security, McNamara testified in Congress. He asked for an increase in defense funding for research from $371
million in 1967–1968 to $450 million for 1968–1969. His argument confirmed PSAC’s
longtime conviction that the military needed to support academic scientists not
for their particular research findings, but for their expertise, the building of which
required continuity of effort. “In fact, without such continuity, we cannot expect
to retain their interest in our problems.”142 Once again, the DuBridge–Rabi–Killian
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
doctrine on the necessity of the military keeping in touch with scientists came
back to prominence when arguments of national prestige and even utility receded
in importance.
Not everyone in the Pentagon, however, was as sympathetic to the scientists
as McNamara. Even as McNamara appealed to Congress for increased support
for academic science, some of his managers of research contracts decided to
confront those scientists who publicly opposed the war. In 1967 and 1968, 345
mathematicians signed a paid advertisement in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society advising job seekers to “regard yourself as responsible for the
uses to which your talents are put.” “We believe this responsibility forbids putting
mathematics in the service of this cruel war,” it concluded. As a result, the Army
Research Office and the Office of Naval Research sent letters to several of the
signers of the statement that they might find their funding from these agencies
terminated, as a mutually acceptable solution “consistent with both our positions.”143 Uproar ensued from many scientists and their congressional supporters.
Although a memorandum from John Foster, the DDRE, softened the threatening
tone of these warnings—he asked program managers to try to “preserve our
mutually beneficial relationships with the academic research community” in their
review of contracts—this incident clearly illustrated that the military–science
partnership that PSAC had long labored to maintain was strained in terms of both
science in policy and policy for science.144 It also indicated that not just PSAC but
rank-and-file scientists found that they were, in a way, trapped politically by their
dependence on military funding.
The Pentagon–scientists clashes also fueled the long-brewing congressional
debate over military funding of science. In early October 1968, Senator Mike
Mansfield proposed and the Senate passed his amendment to the 1969 Defense
Appropriations Act to limit indirect costs (“overhead”) that recipients of defense
research grants and contracts could charge to 25 percent of the direct costs,
which came as a shock to universities used to rates ranging from 30.5 percent for
Columbia to an astounding 80 percent for Princeton. Mansfield’s move was in
part a response to criticism that high overheads favored elite, private universities
on the coasts, at the expenses of smaller, land-grant institutions in the South and
Midwest. More significantly, Mansfield and his supporters regarded it as a way
to demilitarize American science. He would rather see academic science draw
funding from civilian agencies like the NSF, whose “primary purpose [was] the
improvement and furtherance of higher education” and “educational freedom.”
Although some university administrators might be sympathetic toward Mansfield’s intention, most of them feared, like DuBridge in the 1950s, that the measure
would push them over the brink of bankruptcy.145
In a letter to Mansfield, Hornig argued that the existing system, first implemented in the mid-1960s, had worked well and the new policy would be “contrary
to the best interests of the government and the country as a whole.”146 Partly due
to such lobbying, the amendment was deleted during the House–Senate conference. However, conferees did pass a resolution asking for studies on the matter of
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
overheads not only in Defense but in the “entire Government.” Mansfield was not
done with the matter of military funding of science.147
Ironically, in view of Mansfield’s hope to shift federal science funding from the
Pentagon to the NSF, the latter also suffered reduction in its FY 1969 budget, which
threatened to interrupt many of its multiyear grants already made to universities.
Hornig, on the eve of his departure from the White House, found himself in the
same position as Kistiakowsky in 1959—trying desperately to raise the budget of
the NSF. Pleading directly to President Johnson, Hornig argued that the “good
faith” of the U.S. government was at stake and that he would be happy “to nominate candidates for a $40 million cut from other agencies” to fill the NSF’s gap. To
persuade LBJ, Hornig tried both honey and vinegar: “Mr. President, so much has
been accomplished during your administration that I think it would be a mistake
to allow your successor to take the role of ‘rescuer of science’ for what is peanuts
in the total budget.” PSAC added its own separate appeal to Johnson to stem “a
deepening crisis.”148 Johnson thought Hornig “grossly overstated” his case, but
agreed to grant an increase to the NSF budget when the BOB, at Hornig’s urging,
also pitched in.149 Once again, the incident demonstrated that if PSAC had any
parochial interest in the federal government, it was the NSF. However, the special
relationship was maintained at a cost to the science advisers because it reinforced
the growing perception around the White House that they were more spokesmen for science than dedicated servants to the president. The problem of dual
allegiance intensified.
The partnership between American science and government, as PSAC best
symbolized, clearly weakened during the late Johnson years. As Don K. Price
pointed out in his presidential address at the AAAS meeting in Dallas in December 1968, American scientists faced challenges from both conservative critics and
young romantic rebels.150 Hornig, in his own address at the meeting, deplored the
failure of the scientific community to communicate the significance of scientific
research to the public. He called for measures, such as the establishment of a
Department of Science, to represent the voice of science and manage those science
programs not directly related to the missions of agencies, and the strengthening of
the presidential science advisory system.151 However, the DST drew little support
either among the scientists or in the government. As the Vietnam War continued
to polarize the country and drove a countercultural challenge to the establishment,
and even to science and rationality, American public scientists who took on the
job of defending science found that the post-Sputnik golden era had gone and an
uncertain new age began to take shape.
The 1968 Election
The dismal prospect of science funding weighed on scientists’ minds during the
1968 presidential election, even though the debates over the Vietnam War and the
ABM dominated their public discussion. As in the 1964 campaign, liberal PSAC
alumni helped organize active political groups, this time to defeat President Johnson. In December 1967, a group of prominent academic scientists and scholars,
PSAC, the Vietnam War, and the ABM Debate, 1964–1968
including former PSAC members Purcell and Zacharias, announced their opposition to LBJ by supporting the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. The Scientists and
Engineers for McCarthy’s ad urged a redirection of national efforts away from the
Vietnam War and toward solving domestic problems, including the shortage of
funding for science. The name of the group was deliberately chosen to send a message to Johnson, according to Purcell: “We were all for you then. We’re not now.
It isn’t we that have changed.”152 The scientists’ opposition probably played only a
very minor role in Johnson’s decision to withdraw from the race, but his memory
of their voracious campaign against Goldwater in 1964 certainly did not make running against them appealing.
Scientists for McCarthy continued to gather momentum even after LBJ’s withdrawal. By May 1968, it reached a membership of 5,000, with an elite science advisory board that featured several of the leaders of the 1964 Scientists for Johnson
campaign, including Kistiakowsky and York.153 Wiesner did not formally endorse
McCarthy but worked to help the senator’s campaign behind the scenes on arms
control issues.154 Remarkably, few prominent scientists endorsed Vice President
Hubert Humphrey’s candidacy during the primary, chiefly due to his refusal to
disavow Johnson’s Vietnam War policy. An early supporter, Philip Handler, chairman of the National Science Board and a former member of PSAC, withdrew his
name shortly before the Democratic convention. He did so on the grounds that
he now regarded group endorsements of candidates by scientists “ill advised” and
divisive in the scientific community, and that as chairman of board for the nonpartisan NSF it was inappropriate for him to engage in partisan politics.155 However,
his stand proved more the exception than the rule as scientists actively participated
in election politics.
When the chaotic Democratic convention in Chicago resulted in the selection
of Humphrey as the party’s nominee, his ambiguity on the Vietnam War once
again kept away many prominent scientists, such as Kistiakowsky and York, who
were otherwise attracted to his candidacy. Others were more appreciative of his
strengths and understanding of his dilemma. His interest in science and his record
on arms control, including support for a comprehensive nuclear test ban, won
him several key scientific backers. These included Hornig, who predicted that
Humphrey’s election would give the “government scientific machinery the lift
that a good coach does a football team,” and Bethe and Wiesner, who believed that
Humphrey would try to end the Vietnam War once he was elected president.156 By
the time of the election, both Humphrey and his Republican rival Richard Nixon
formed their own scientist groups. Humphrey’s grew to be a formidable who’s
who of American scientific leadership, including no fewer than eleven Nobel winners, seventy-six members of the NAS, and about a dozen former PSAC members.
Even those who declined to join the Humphrey group formally (e.g., Kistiakowsky
and Purcell) declared publicly that they would vote for him, largely on his arms
control credentials.157 On the GOP side, Strauss and Teller organized a far smaller
group of scientists, engineers, and executives for Nixon, mostly associated with
the military-industrial complex.158 Not surprisingly, in contrast to the Humphrey
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
group’s emphasis on arms control, the Nixon camp vowed to build up American
defense R&D, citing a “research gap” with the Soviet Union.159 In return, Wiesner
characterized the Strauss committee as the “dinosaur wing of the scientific community” intent on fanning the nuclear arms race.160 Once again, it was doubtful
that scientists made any major difference in the outcome of the election, but their
involvement did further politicize and polarize the scientific community.
As 1968, the most tumultuous year in recent American history, and the Johnson
administration, drew to a close, with the election of Nixon, the relationship
between American science and the government came near a breaking point. The
twin pillars that had formed the foundation of PSAC scientists’ participation in
public policy—federal support of basic research and nuclear arms control—came
under attack from many fronts. The former was weakened by both a growing
demand in the Johnson White House and in Congress for practical applications as well as the inevitable budgetary cutback in federal science funding that
accompanied the escalating Vietnam War, whereas the latter was threatened by
the prospect of a new, more deadly round of the nuclear arms race fueled by the
pursuits of ABM.
Ironically the relaxation of the Cold War tension that followed the signing of
the Limited Test Ban treaty also threatened to undermine PSAC scientists’ strategy
of linking basic research with national security or national prestige. Their criticism of the ABM and eventually of the Vietnam War was based on their long-held
beliefs about the limits of technological solution to international politics, but it
not only failed to stop these Cold War ventures; it also caused a backlash that
threatened to further marginalize their role in national security policymaking.
Even though Hornig and currently serving PSAC members tried to voice their
views within the system and tried to infuse a certain technological rationality into
the management of the war, the outspoken opposition to the administration policy
by former members of PSAC—in essence, Eisenhower’s PSAC—inevitably began
to taint the committee itself with a color of dissent, particularly in the eyes of the
White House and the national security establishment. Thus, PSAC, together with
the rest of the scientific community, entered the Nixon years, once again, as in the
pre-Sputnik days, with grave concern over both the health of American science and
the course of the Cold War.161
The Politics of Technological
Dissent under Nixon, 1969–1973
Surprisingly, when Richard M. Nixon won the presidential election in 1968, the
troubled relationship between American science and the government seemed to
take a turn for the better. To the delight of many scientists who had opposed him
during the election, Nixon not only called for increased and stable support of basic
research, but also selected Lee A. DuBridge, retiring president of Cal Tech and
former chairman of the ODM-SAC, as his science adviser. Nixon took other wellpublicized steps to improve his image within the scientific community: he restored
$10 million to the NSF’s budget ceiling and met with the National Science Board
during his first month in office.1 Yet, no sooner did the honeymoon begin than it
was over. Before long, DuBridge left the White House in a less than happy mood;
his successor, Edward David, Jr., scarcely fared better. In 1973, Nixon summarily
abolished both the OST and PSAC, thus ending an era in the history of the relationship between American science and the government.
What led to this turn of events? The open clashes between PSAC (and other
American scientists) and the Nixon administration over the war in Vietnam and
controversies over technological policies, such as the ABM and the Supersonic
Transport (SST), in this period certainly aggravated a fragile relationship, but was
there more behind the force that drove scientists out of the White House? To
what extent, for example, was PSAC scientists’ technological skepticism viewed as
a form of dissent by the Nixon administration in its search for technological solutions for myriad social problems? This chapter charts the deterioration of the science–state relationship that eventually led to the demise of PSAC and explores the
changes in the broader social and political environment—in terms of both science
in policy and policy for science—that underlay this process.
The Honeymoon
The hostility between Nixon and the liberal scientific leadership can be traced at
least to the McCarthy era in the early 1950s when Nixon thrived on anti-communism. In 1954, for example, he publicly boasted of getting the secretary of the Navy
to suspend the security clearance of Edward U. Condon, a prominent physicist.2 In
the 1960 election, as we have seen, no current or former members of Eisenhower’s
PSAC publicly endorsed his vice president but several joined the Kennedy camp.
Glenn T. Seaborg, the one PSAC member who was listed by Newsweek as one of
“Nixon’s idea men,” actually was a lifelong Democrat and voted for Kennedy.3
Teller was among a very few prominent scientists who supported Nixon in both
1960 and 1968.4
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
Following the 1968 election, Nixon tried to improve his image by wooing the
scientific and academic community. His early announcement of the DuBridge
appointment brought a collective sigh of relief among scientists who had feared
that he would pick, as rumored, Willard F. Libby, the politically conservative
chemist then at UCLA.5 Nixon also publicly endorsed DuBridge’s statement that
he would make the strengthening of American science his “first interest,” adding
that he wanted DuBridge to bridge the gap between the scientists and the politicians.6 He even promised to meet with DuBridge once a week for half an hour and
authorized him to attend cabinet and Urban Affairs Council meetings.7 For another
key science appointment, Nixon retained Glenn Seaborg as AEC chairman.8 By the
end of his first one hundred days in office, Nixon had not only supported the NSF
with a boost in its budget ceiling and a meeting with the National Science Board,
but also planned a meeting with the Council of the NAS.9
Nixon won further approval from the scientific community early in his presidency when he established the EPA, renounced the first use of chemical warfare,
and announced a complete ban of biological warfare in response to a campaign
by Matthew Meselson of Harvard and other scientists with close ties to PSAC.
In a public statement on chemical and biological weapons, Nixon acknowledged
the contributions “from the scientific community through the President’s Science Advisory Committee” and claimed, in language strikingly similar to that of
Oppenheimer’s GAC in its advice against the H-bomb, that “By the example we
set today, we hope to contribute to an atmosphere of peace and understanding
between nations and men.” Ironically, it took a Cold Warrior to set a precedent of
unilateral disarmament. Scientists applauded these moves as wise decisions to curb
the harmful effects of technological excesses.10 To many scientists, there appeared
indeed to be a “new Nixon,” reasonable, not overtly partisan, and presidential.
Nixon’s honeymoon with science in turn boosted the status of the science
adviser’s office as it continued to take on important new responsibilities, especially
in the area of the environment. During his confirmation hearings as director of the
OST, DuBridge told the senators that he had three priorities: analysis of weapons
systems, the environment, and the utilization of science and technology in the
government.11 The Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, a major milestone in modern
environmental history, soon gave special meaning to the environmental role of
the science adviser. The disaster started on January 29, when a Union Oil Company
platform six miles from shore in the Santa Barbara Channel experienced a blowout.
Natural gas and oil shot out from a drill hole. As workers tried to cap the hole,
pressure built up under the ocean floor and eventually several breaks in a fault
burst out with oil and tar from deep beneath the earth. In eleven days, it blanketed
800 square miles of the channel and thirty-five miles of the scenic Santa Barbara
coastline, devastating fish and wildlife in the area.12 Stewart Udall, secretary of the
interior under Kennedy and Johnson who blamed himself for authorizing the drilling project, called it the “conservation Bay of Pigs.”13
The Santa Barbara oil spill had a profound impact not only on American environmental policy but also on the broader discourse on science, technology, and
The Politics of Technological Dissent, 1969–1973
the environment. By attracting national and international attention, the oil spill,
like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, raised the American public’s environmental
consciousness; on its first anniversary in 1970 Earth Day was born. It also made the
environment a prominent political issue. In the White House, President Nixon put
DuBridge in charge of an investigation of the oil spill and later made him executive secretary of a new, cabinet-level Environmental Quality Council, chaired by
Nixon himself. “We have become victims of our own technological genius,” Nixon
announced. Interestingly, the Nixon statement, which DuBridge probably helped
to draft, blamed “technological development” for creating some of the problems but put his faith in “scientific developments which will help us protect our
resources.”14 Such expressions were close to PSAC’s own articulation of how basic
research could help alleviate technological deficiencies and excesses.
Although these gestures by Nixon were calculated as much for political gains
as for real improvements, they raised hope, within PSAC and elsewhere, for reducing the gap between government and science. In early 1969, Science reported that
the president seemed to have accorded “uncommon respect and access” to his
science adviser.15 At a press conference on February 13, 1969 in the White House,
DuBridge, encouraged by all the positive developments, declared his desire to heal
the “breaches” between the Pentagon and the academic and scientific communities. Despite the protest of 182 graduate students and faculty members from MIT,
who urged him to bring science closer to the civilian, not military, federal agencies,
DuBridge obviously had not wavered from his beliefs, last expressed in his capacity
as ODM-SAC chairman in the 1950s, that a close science–military partnership was
mutually beneficial.16
“This is War”
The reignited ABM controversy, however, soon dashed any such hope for a harmonious science–government partnership. On March 14, 1969, three days before a
scheduled meeting with PSAC, Nixon announced that he would replace Lyndon
Johnson’s Sentinel ABM system with the so-called Safeguard system, shifting the
objective from the protection of the population to the security of retaliatory forces
on land, and moving ABM sites from cities to places near ICBM silos.17 The modifications mollified community opposition around Sentinel sites in several major
cities, but they failed to address scientists’ concerns, both inside and outside of
PSAC, about the technical feasibility of Safeguard, which used essentially the Sentinel hardware, and its destabilizing effects on the nuclear arms race. What further
irritated Nixon’s critics was the fact that few scientists outside of the Pentagon,
including PSAC members, were consulted during the monthlong review leading up
to the decision. Several PSAC alumni began to speak out publicly against Nixon’s
Safeguard proposal. The debate once again brought the relationship between scientists and the government back to a tense standoff, with grave implications for
the fate of PSAC.18
Even before Nixon made his ABM announcement Killian, Kistiakowsky, and
York had appear before Senator Albert Gore’s Subcommittee on Disarmament
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to make their case against Sentinel,
and after the Safeguard decision, they continued to oppose the new version. It
marked the first time that scientists who were former insiders at the highest level
in government spoke out publicly against a major weapons system in testimony
in Congress.19 Later, Wiesner and Hornig also testified before the Gore subcommittee against Safeguard, making the former science advisers’ opposition to ABM
unanimous. Fighting these PSAC alumni on the witness stand were Teller and
Wigner, who argued that the United States needed the ABM to counter Soviet
buildup in ICBM.20
The ABM became a prominent national issue in early 1969, second only to the
Vietnam War. This was especially true for scientists, whose conferences featured
debates on ABM, anti-ABM petitions, and in the case of the American Physical
Society’s 1969 meeting, a protest march to the White House.21 On March 4, universities throughout the country organized a daylong research stoppage, initiated
by faculty and graduate students at MIT, to debate science’s ties with the military,
scientists’ social responsibilities, and the nuclear arms race, in particular the ABM
issue.22 At a rally at MIT, Bethe told the audience, half-jokingly, that “You’re here
because you’re against the ABM. I’m here to tell you why you are.”23 In Washington, the Council for a Livable World, an arms control political action committee
founded by Leo Szilard, organized educational seminars for senators on ABM.24
The FAS remobilized itself to a degree not seen since the Scientists’ Movement for
civilian control of atomic energy in the mid-1940s and its drive for the ratification
of the limited test ban in 1963. It orchestrated, for example, the appearance before
the Gore Subcommittee of the several former PSAC members, including York,
chairman of the FAS at the time. Star-studded with many prominent former PSAC
members, the FAS became the PSAC in exile.25
The ABM debate in Congress turned out to be as much about the decision-making process as about the decision itself. Anti-ABM senators, especially Fulbright,
sharply criticized the Nixon administration for failing to consult non-Pentagon
scientists. At one point, David Packard, deputy secretary of defense, mentioned
Wolfgang Panofsky as an outside scientist to whom he had talked about the ABM
decision. A few days later, however, Panofsky testified that Packard’s supposed
consultation with him was in fact no more than a chance encounter at an airport.
After such a devastating refutation of the Packard story, Panofsky went on to give
what became widely acknowledged as the most convincing argument against the
deployment of Safeguard at the time: he endorsed the objective of defending the
U.S. deterrent but questioned Safeguard’s technical maturity, effectively reinforcing an argument made earlier by Bethe.26 Later, Detlev Bronk, another scientist
supposedly consulted by the Pentagon, wrote Gore that he heard reports on the
ABM only as a consultant at large of PSAC and felt “dangerously unqualified” to
testify on it.27
As the hearings went on, Fulbright and several of his colleagues in Congress
became convinced more than ever that the military-scientific complex was working against the nation’s best interest. Ironically, the linkage between science and
The Politics of Technological Dissent, 1969–1973
national security that Killian and several PSAC members had advocated in the
1950s might have worked too well. Yes, military funding of science ensured a ready
supply of science advice and science advisers to the Pentagon, but where could
Congress find independent scientists to give an unbiased evaluation of the DOD’s
proposals for new weapons systems? To Fulbright and other critics, military support of basic research served to corrupt science instead of providing the leverage
point from which an alert citizenry could counterbalance the military-technological
momentum, as Eisenhower and PSAC had originally hoped. In addition, the secrecy
requirements for military-sponsored projects meant that sometimes even university
presidents could not be privy to the nature of faculty contracts they were approving. Such an incident actually happened, ironically, to Malcolm Moos, who had
helped draft Eisenhower’s farewell speech warning about the military-industrial
complex. In 1967, as newly appointed president of the University of Minnesota, he
was asked to approve “on faith” a project without being given details of it; only
from a newspaper report did he learn that it dealt with methods of interrogating
prisoners of war. Moos objected to it as a secret project but the regents overruled
him. When the news reached Eisenhower, he saw in it an ominous confirmation of
his fear about the government control of universities that he had so often voiced
to ODM-SAC and PSAC scientists in the 1950s.28
Both the ABM debate and the death of the former president in late March 1969
helped rekindle discussion of the military-industrial complex. Senator Fulbright
proposed to cut off all DOD funds for basic research unrelated to its mission.29
When the amendment, which eventually assumed the name of its other champion,
Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, passed in late 1969, the science in policy
was once again linked to policy for science.30 Intended to avert the militarization
of American science and society, the Mansfield Amendment, however, ironically,
compounded the plights of science. Nixon, by now soured by scientists’ opposition
to his ABM decision, ordered other agencies, including the NSF, not to pick up
what the DOD dropped.31
The ABM battle drove a deep wedge between the Nixon administration and
his science advisers. Although previous studies and memoirs by participants all
indicated the damaging effects of the ABM debate on the science advising process,
the full extent of Nixon’s personal disaffection with the scientists due to their
opposition to his ABM decision became apparent only with the recent opening
of the records of the Nixon White House, especially those handwritten notes of
meetings with Nixon by H. R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, and John Ehrlichman,
his domestic adviser. These files make it clear, for example, that, contrary to the
beliefs by DuBridge and others, it was Nixon, not his staff, who cut the science
adviser off from the White House and sought to oust him and PSAC.32
The turning point came on March 11, 1969, when DuBridge reported PSAC’s
opposition against ABM deployment to Nixon in a meeting in the Oval Office.
He argued that Safeguard “can’t really do the job” and would lead inevitably to
“great waste.” He suggested that ABM deployment be postponed for one year to
allow for a thorough study of the issue, while R&D continued. Nixon interrupted
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
DuBridge, questioning sharply, “What more will [we] know in a year—scientifically?”33 Clearly Nixon had made up his mind about the ABM on political grounds;
he saw little value in further R&D. For him, the issue was less one of substance
than symbolism: it was a test of his political infl uence with the public and in
Congress as well as, equally important, a test of the political loyalty of his staff,
including the science advisers.
In a way, Nixon’s disregard for technical argument on the ABM furnished a
good example of what political scientist Yaron Ezrahi has called the transition
from the politics of “instrumental meliorism,” which relied on scientific and
technological rationality in the making of public policy and solving of problems
and reached its height in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, to that of “symbolic
equilibrium,” which gave up such hope. In the new, “postmodern condition” that
became evident especially in the Nixon years, public policymaking was perceived,
according to Ezrahi, “more as a form of ‘pluralistic accommodation’ than of rationally directed and managed process, [and] scientific research lost much of its earlier
aura and policy relevance.”34 In part, one can attribute the change to the striking
difference in personalities of the presidents: whereas Eisenhower was fascinated by
explanations of scientific aspects of space and elementary particles, Nixon rarely
had such interest or patience. In this context, it is worth noting that even a special
message from the dying Eisenhower—the former president “totally disapproved
of ABM and urged no deployment,” no doubt on both technical and strategic
grounds—could not change Nixon’s mind.35
Stung by scientists’ and congressional criticism of his deployment decision,
Nixon declared to his staff that “this is war—[we] have to get it organized.”36
On March 17, as part of the White House’s strategy to sell the ABM, DuBridge
signed—with arms twisted, in view of the earlier meeting—a public letter endorsing Nixon’s decision as “reasonable, feasible and necessary.” An unprecedented
move by the science adviser, it met with strong criticism within and outside of
PSAC. The committee, as a group, refused to make a public statement for the
ABM.37 This was not the first time that PSAC took a stand against a White House
policy supported by the science adviser—witness, for example, the Apollo decision under Kennedy—but it took on a new significance under Nixon: instead of
a straightforward policy disagreement within the liberal consensus, it turned into
a matter of partisan political loyalty and fatally eroded the already fragile trust
between the two sides.
Meanwhile, the scientists’ own disaffection toward Nixon dramatically deepened in early April when Nixon vetoed the nomination of Franklin A. Long as
NSF director on the grounds that he had earlier opposed Sentinel.38 Even though
Long had refrained from commenting on Safeguard once he was approached for
the NSF position, the White House felt that nominating a known critic of the ABM
would weaken its case for Safeguard in Congress. Vocal opposition to Long from
Congressman James G. Fulton (R-PA), who had his own candidate for the NSF
position, and from Everett Dirksen (R-IL), Republican majority leader in the senate, further complicated the matter. The White House at first tried, via DuBridge,
The Politics of Technological Dissent, 1969–1973
to get Long to issue a public endorsement of Safeguard, but Long refused. The
White House therefore withdrew its offer to him. The incident, when reported in
Science in early April 1969, enraged scientists who had viewed the NSF directorship
as traditionally nonpolitical.39
Nixon tried to defend his position at a press conference on April 19 by citing
Long’s “very sincere beliefs opposing the ABM” and the administration’s concern
that his nomination “would be misunderstood.”40 It failed to quiet the growing controversy. The Federation of the American Societies for Experimental Biology called
the Long incident “unfortunate and an error,” with “potentially serious” long term
effects on American science. All four former science advisers found it a troubling
sign that the Nixon administration attempt to politicize the NSF and exclude any
dissident voice. I. I. Rabi, for one, discerned a weakening of DuBridge’s infl uence
with Nixon: “Is he serving as ‘yes man’ or can he express himself ?” Rabi asked.41
The FAS warned against the prospect that the Nixon administration would accept
only scientific advisers “who are trained seals rather than intelligent men of independent scientific judgment.”42 Most unusually, the National Science Board, which
had originally nominated Long, issued a formal statement that it “deeply regrets”
the “break” with the nonpartisan tradition of NSF directorship.43
Two weeks later, however, to everyone’s surprise, Nixon, under pressure of
the controversy, publicly admitted, in a meeting with DuBridge and the National
Science Board, that the White House was wrong to apply political tests in the
selection of the NSF director. DuBridge, who had reportedly told Long that he was
“really sick” about the whole incident, apparently was able to see Nixon shortly
after his April 19 press conference and convince him to change his mind.44 As a
result, Nixon formally reoffered the position to Long. Long expressed appreciation
for the gesture but, citing the possible detrimental effects of the controversy on
the foundation, declined the job. The National Science Board then nominated and
Nixon approved the appointment of biologist William McElroy of Johns Hopkins
University, another former PSAC member who had actually supported Nixon’s
Democratic rivals during the 1968 election, as NSF director. It was the first time
that the nonpartisan nature of the NSF directorship was tested and reaffirmed.45
In the short run, Nixon’s quick reversal won him some accolades from within and
outside of the scientific community, but in the long run, as Eugene Rabinowich,
editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, pointed out, “it could not quite undo
the damage.”46 As the first clear sign, to the scientists at least, that the new Nixon
might not have departed that far from the old Nixon of intense partisanship, it
exacerbated his already sour relations with the scientific community.
The Long affair left in its wake a bitter aftertaste not only with the scientists,
but with Nixon, too. Despite his well-received gesture of reversing the Long
decision, Nixon privately was angry about having to make the move. He vowed
to bar scientists from playing a role in public policy. There should be a “new
understanding,” Nixon declared, that “political people stay out of science and science people stay out of politics.”47 At least one leader of the scientific community,
President Frederick Seitz of the NAS, agreed with Nixon that scientists should not,
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
as professional groups, venture out of science and into politics.48 For DuBridge,
however, the “new understanding” spelled the end of ready access to the president.
According to Haldeman’s notes on April 21, Nixon discussed with him the matter
of “Long + duB.—now have the problem. P. feels must move now.”49 Thus, even
though DuBridge succeeded at persuading Nixon to reverse his decision on Long,
it came at a great cost to his, and PSAC’s, political standing in the White House.
The ABM debate also triggered Nixon’s intensely personal battle with Jerome
Wiesner, who came to represent the liberal scientific and academic community.
The direct clash between the two over the ABM took place at a White House meeting on space shortly after the Safeguard announcement. When Nixon intimated
to Wiesner that “I need the system as a bargaining chip with the Russians,” the
latter responded that “That’s an awfully expensive bargaining chip.” “A look of
anger came to his eyes,” Wiesner later recalled. “He stared at me a moment, then
turned abruptly and moved away.” Wiesner believed that this incident contributed
as much to Nixon’s animosity toward him and MIT as his continued opposition to
the ABM.50
The Safeguard ABM eventually won Senate approval in August 1969, but only
with a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Spiro Agnew. The slimmest margin of
victory left Nixon with little choice but to proceed cautiously with only limited
deployment in South Dakota. As a bargaining chip, it probably did help the United
States negotiate with the Soviets the ABM treaty, signed in 1972, that limited ABM
deployment to two sites in each country. In 1976, after its value as a bargaining
chip was achieved, the United States abandoned its only ABM site when Congress
refused to provide funds for its operations, thus ending one of the most significant national debates in recent American history.51 In the end, both sides of the
ABM debate could claim some measure of achievement: the Nixon administration
pointed to the ABM treaty as evidence that its bargaining chip theory had worked,
and its critics, who believed that a better alterative could have achieved the same
results, drew satisfaction from the nondeployment of any ABM.52
The ABM debate was rich in meanings and implications for both American
science and the Cold War. It was perhaps the most prominent public policy that
energized and polarized American scientists since the first Scientists’ Movement in
the 1940s. Although the debate was not directly linked with the Vietnam War, many
scientists clearly used the ABM debate as an opportunity to voice their dissatisfaction with American foreign policy and the militarization of American science. The
National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), which had been established
shortly after Sputnik in 1957, launched an ad campaign in 1969 against the ABM.
One of its posters featured military generals setting off a nuclear missile, under the
caption “From the People Who Brought You Vietnam.”53
The ABM debate also marked the first time that scientists worked against a
major nuclear weapons system both from within the system and outside of it. The
active participation of former science advisers and former PSAC members in the
public debate resulted from failure of their insiders’ approach. The ABM debate
allowed them to recapture a prominent role for scientists in national security and
The Politics of Technological Dissent, 1969–1973
public policy that so far had been overshadowed by the Vietnam War. It also provided a chance for scientists to reassert, as they did in the post-Sputnik test ban
struggle, the image of science for peace, not just weaponry, and of its role in easing
the Cold War, not escalating it. They did this at the price, obviously, of worsening
the relationship with the Nixon White House, where PSAC scientists were increasingly seen as “disloyals.”
“Cut DuBridge’s Wings”
Despite his public support for Safeguard, Lee DuBridge lost much of his infl uence
in the White House. Nixon and staff came to regard him as a single-minded advocate of funding for science who did not display total loyalty and could not rally
strong support in the scientific community for Nixon’s programs. The battles over
the ABM and the Vietnam War led the president, as Haldeman noted, to “slip back
to the old ways” of intense partisanship.54 Several months into his term, Nixon, as
his biographer Stephen Ambrose noted, began to show that he “preferred his own
vengeful and vindictive side to his reasonable, intelligent, let’s-take-every-thinginto-account side.”55 He began to take out his growing anger toward his scientific
and academic critics on DuBridge. On April 21, 1969, Nixon instructed his aide
Peter Flanigan to keep a virtual surveillance on DuBridge, screening his requests
for meetings with the president and accompanying him “always” at such meetings.56 Declaring that he needed a “loyalist in every key place,” Nixon on July 21
told his “hard core group,” which consisted of Haldeman, national security adviser
Henry Kissinger, and Ehrlichman, that “DuBridge has to go soon.” In addition to
the question of loyalty, Nixon felt that “none of the research types is broad enough
or tough enough” to help carry out his programs.57 “Lee doesn’t understand the
process,” Nixon said on another occasion. “Once a decision is made—he must be
behind it.”58 Nixon wanted his staff to “work out [a] plan for getting him out [by
the] end of year.”59
The White House devised various ways to force DuBridge out. First, Kissinger
and his NSC staff cut the science adviser and PSAC off from arms control policymaking; Kissinger simply started his own informal scientific advisory group on
technical nuclear issues. Ironically, it consisted of former PSAC members—Paul
Doty, Panofsky, Drell, and Garwin. As another indication of PSAC scientists’ lingering preference for working inside the system, these veterans were willing to serve
Kissinger under the circumstances in hopes of infusing whatever little technical
rationality they could into the arms control process.60 Then, Nixon asked to have
environmental policy taken away from DuBridge. “Cut DuBridge’s wings,” Nixon
instructed, “[we] can’t have good grey men doing exciting things.”61 DuBridge,
however, refused to take the cue and bow out, believing that it was Haldeman,
Ehrlichman, and Kissinger, not Nixon, who created his hostile environment.62
Why didn’t Nixon fire DuBridge outright if he was so unsatisfied with
his science adviser’s performance? Even his critics in and out of PSAC would
have to agree that the position of the science adviser, in contrast to that of the
NSF director, was a political appointment and the president had every right to
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
choose an aide to serve his political purposes. Partly, Nixon’s reluctance to confront DuBridge publicly derived from his personality. As Ambrose noted, Nixon
“hated—and always resisted—firing people. . . . He could say the most awful
things about people behind their backs, but he found it difficult to make even the
slightest criticism to their faces.”63 Nixon certainly was saying awful things behind
DuBridge’s back, but because he never communicated his dissatisfaction directly to
his science adviser—he actually maintained an outwardly cordial relationship with
him—DuBridge remained ignorant of the extent to which Nixon tried to force him
out.64 Another consideration that prevented Nixon from reaching for the axe at this
point was probably the White House’s concern over reactions from the scientific
community and their impact on Nixon’s reelection in 1972.
Nixon’s drive to oust his own science adviser intensified, nevertheless, in early
1970.65 When indirect pressure failed, Nixon chose a more radical approach. At the
time, the President’s Advisory Council on Executive Organization, headed by Roy
Ash, had just completed an investigation of the Executive Office of the President.
Citing the diminished usefulness of the science adviser and PSAC to the president,
the Ash council recommended reorienting them away from presidential policymaking and into long-term planning, which, in the lexicon of the Nixon administration,
equaled banishment.66 When Nixon read the Ash report, he told Haldeman and
Ehrlichman to use it to “reorganize and abolish” the position of science adviser and
OST. “[We shall] also see if there aren’t others to get rid of.”67 However, a sweeping
reorganization of science advising necessarily took time to implement. “[H]ow do
we get rid of DuBridge?” he asked Haldeman and Ehrlichman impatiently in March
1970.68 At one point, he suggested moving up DuBridge’s deputy, Hubert Heffner, an
electrical engineer from Stanford, to replace DuBridge, but that was never carried
out.69 Although DuBridge publicly denied loss of infl uence, citing the president’s
inviting PSAC members to a garden party, Nixon privately called it a “therapy session” for DuBridge and ordered Haldeman to tell his science adviser: “Don’t raise
q[uestions] of campus research grants.”70 At another point, Nixon thought of getting himself “out of having to advise with scientists” by abolishing the president’s
science adviser and changing PSAC into a National Science Advisory Committee,
to advise all parts of the government, but it did not go anywhere.71 Like Johnson,
Nixon was never comfortable in the presence of these elite scientists whose advocacy of both arms control and academic basic research he found irritating.
As he tried to clean house by eliminating dissident science advisers, Nixon also
attempted to discredit his scientific critics in the ABM debate in general. In a speech
at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs on June 4, 1969, he called those who
questioned his Vietnam War and ABM policies “skeptics” and “isolationists,” and
their views as antidefense and even unpatriotic. Twisting Eisenhower’s farewell
address, Nixon called his academic critics the “scientific-technological elite”—he
probably had PSAC and its alumni in mind specifically—who created a rising fear
of the “military-industrial complex” and caused great upheavals in American society.72 To drive the point home, Nixon ordered the White House to “have the military give [the speech] widest distribution possible”—disseminate it to the “whole
The Politics of Technological Dissent, 1969–1973
mil[itary]-ind[ustrial] complex.”73 PSAC veterans would probably have accepted
Nixon’s new definition of the “scientific-technological elite” as a fairly accurate
label and with pride, but Eisenhower must have turned in his grave. The contrast
between the views of the two former running mates on these matters could not
have been more striking.
The SST Controversy and Its Fallout
As if the ABM debate was not divisive enough, Nixon soon acquired fresh evidence
of the “scientific-technological elite” damaging the military-industrial complex
in the controversy over SST. Almost concurrent with the ABM debate, the longsmoldering controversy over SST policy burst onto the national scene in 1969 over
the question: Should the federal government continue a massive program, with the
nation’s aerospace industry, to build a passenger aircraft that would travel at speeds
exceeding that of sound? From the beginning of the program in the early 1960s,
PSAC-OST had advocated its slowdown, citing unbearable supersonic booms as
a major objection.74 By the time Nixon became president, the SST was due to
enter the expensive prototype-building phase. Nixon had to decide whether to go
ahead with the program. He requested advice from DuBridge in March 1969, and
DuBridge in turn formed an ad hoc SST review committee of the OST, headed by
Richard Garwin, now a returning PSAC member and former chairman of PSAC’s
military aircraft panel who had studied SST for President Johnson, to assess the
technical and economic factors involved.75
The Garwin committee conducted an intensive investigation and completed
its report on March 30, 1969. The conclusion, which received endorsement from
PSAC and DuBridge, was unmistakable: unsolved sonic boom problems, possible environmental damage to the ozone layer from SST emission, and poor
cost-effectiveness led the panel to recommend termination of the development
contracts and the withdrawal of government support from the SST prototype
program.76 President Nixon, however, ignored this and several other studies when
he announced his support for the SST in September 1969.77 The decision was based
on political considerations and did not, as he later told his aides, “depend on noise
or cost.”78 With the SST, as with his “War on Cancer,” Nixon hoped to rally the
country around an exciting new technological initiative in the fashion Kennedy
did with the Apollo Project. He wanted to create and capitalize on a new wave of
technological optimism.79
Although he accepted Nixon’s decision, Garwin, who had voted for Nixon in
1968 for his promise to end the Vietnam War, believed that the administration
distorted the science advice in its communications to Congress and to the public.80 As a most unusual step for a current PSAC member, he decided to testify in
Congress in the spring and summer of 1970 against the SST, using, as he claimed,
information in the public domain.81 However, his insider status and the fact that he
did have access to government information bolstered whatever assertions Garwin
made. Partly due to his opposition, Congress voted to terminate the SST program
in March 1971.82 The episode, of course, worsened PSAC’s relations with the White
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
House.83 Categorizing SST opponents as “environmental fanatics [who] want to
destroy the system,” Nixon was now more than ever determined to get rid of his
dissident science advisers.84
Garwin’s open opposition to Nixon’s SST policy also polarized PSAC. Several
committee members disagreed strongly with Garwin’s action as inappropriate for
a sitting PSAC member. They felt that he should have resigned his membership
before speaking out against the administration position. Garwin, however, did
not think resigning “would do any good.” He likened his situation to that of a
lawyer who worked with two different clients—in this case the president and Congress—and he believed that he kept confidentiality in his work for them. He knew
that Wiesner had asked DuBridge before testifying against ABM and was told by
DuBridge, who apparently checked with Nixon, that Wiesner should not resign
as consultant at large to PSAC. So Garwin took that as a precedent. It was not an
easy decision, Garwin acknowledged years later. He went ahead with his testimony
knowing that his act would probably doom PSAC:
I don’t say that was a good thing to do. I thought carefully about whether doing
this testimony would injure PSAC. You tend to feel, well, if the system is so bad
that the committee has been corrupted, then it wouldn’t be the worst thing in
the world if the committee were dis-established.85
In other words, to Garwin and probably some other members, the value of PSAC
itself as a “beachhead of science” had diminished to the point that it no longer was
the dominant consideration in regulating their public political behaviors. So, did
Garwin’s public dissent on the SST bring down PSAC, as it has been commonly
believed? It certainly intensified the tension with the Nixon White House and, perhaps more important, struck fear in future presidents about the risk of confidential
advisers contradicting them in public. However, Nixon’s own drive to get rid of the
science advisers, as mentioned earlier, had started during the ABM debate, long
before Garwin’s testimony on SST.
The Vietnam War, even more than the ABM and the SST, divided PSAC scientists, especially during the national turmoil that followed the Cambodian invasion
and bombing of Laos, including the killing of several students at Kent State University in early 1970. Edward Purcell of Harvard, who had remained a member of
PSAC’s panel on reconnaissance after his PSAC membership expired in 1965, broke
his PSAC ties. Years later he recalled not only his outrage with the war but also a
sense of critical self-reflection:
I didn’t sever all my connections with PSAC until the middle of the Vietnam War
when I finally wrote a letter just resigning flatly from everything. I’m ashamed
to say how late it was. I think it wasn’t until maybe the bombing of Laos, and
then I just withdrew from all government connections . . . here the government
was engaged in a crime, which we were all a little slow in recognizing.86
At its meeting on May 18, 1970, devoted to Vietnam, PSAC members debated
not only the war but also the appropriateness of members speaking out publicly.
The Politics of Technological Dissent, 1969–1973
Frank Westheimer, for example, regarded it as his moral responsibility to speak out
against the war, as he wrote DuBridge after the meeting:
In my view, the U.S. invasion of Cambodia was a grievous mistake. I have
said so publicly, and intend to continue to do so; no other course seems to me
consistent with my obligations as a citizen. . . . Several members feel that your
permission to members to speak for, but not against a Presidential position on
which PSAC has given advice is inconsistent with scientific integrity.87
Westheimer acknowledged that other members held different views. Patrick Haggerty of Texas Instruments, for example, “made a case for our refraining from any
political comments, pro or con, on anything at all.” Westheimer also recognized
that “the problems of reconciling PSAC effectiveness with conscience are difficult,”
but he vowed that he would continue to speak out on Cambodia.88 In his reply,
DuBridge defended the policy of allowing PSAC members to speak for, but not
against, administration policy on the need to preserve “the future credibility and
value of PSAC.” “After all,” he wrote, echoing Robert Oppenheimer’s Scientific
Advisory Panel to the Interim Committee in 1945, “PSAC makes its recommendation largely on scientific and technological aspects of a given issue and the President must consider many other factors, often beyond our competence.” 89
The rules and understanding laid down by DuBridge might have seemed reasonable and accepted without much controversy during and following World War
II, even in the immediate post-Sputnik era. Indeed, PSAC members had testified in
the Senate and otherwise campaigned for the Kennedy administration’s proposed
limited nuclear test ban treaty in 1963, without, of course, the need to explicitly
forbid dissent. However, in the highly politicized context of the Vietnam War they
stirred up a storm. Some PSAC scientists saw these rules as unjustified, politically
motivated restrictions on their roles and on their service to the government. They
continued to speak out against certain policies of the Nixon administration, both
those on which they advised, such as the ABM and the SST, and those on which
they did not, such as the Vietnam War. Their public dissent made Nixon and his
political staff more determined than ever to drive the rebellious scientists out of
the institution of the presidency.
From DuBridge To David
As the first step of Nixon’s plan to tighten political control over science advising,
DuBridge was, finally, forced into retirement in the summer of 1970. Without consulting DuBridge, presidential aides selected Edward E. David, Jr., of Bell Labs, to
replace him. David, then 45, was a young and rising communications scientist and
engineer respected by his peers. As executive director of communications systems
research at Bell, he had just been elected a member of the NAS for that year (he had
been a member of the National Academy of Engineering since 1966). William O.
Baker, as vice president of Bell Labs, a former PSAC member, and an infl uential
adviser in the Nixon administration, had recommended David to the White House.
Yet, David’s appointment to the highest position of science in government surprised
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
many scientists. Unlike his predecessors, he was neither an academic scientist, nor a
former member of PSAC, although he did serve on some PSAC panels.90
There was concern in the White House that PSAC might not elect David chairman of the committee as a way to express its displeasure at Nixon’s action. As
Flanigan explained to Nixon shortly before David’s swearing in:
It is a tradition that the President’s Science Adviser is always elected Chairman
[of PSAC]. However, it may be that some of the current members of PSAC
who prefer an older and distinguished academician as the President’s Science
Adviser, may try to break this tradition.91
To prevent such an outcome and to “show his confidence” in David, Nixon personally presided over the latter’s swearing in on September 14, 1970, in the presence
of PSAC members.92 He then met with the whole PSAC in the Cabinet Room to
hear their reports on science policy, biomedical research, and educational R&D.
When Haggerty proposed on behalf of PSAC that the office of science adviser be
reorganized and strengthened into a Council of Science and Technology Advisers,
along the lines of the Council of Economic Advisers, Nixon appeared receptive
but noncommittal. He was interested even less in PSAC’s work in other areas. He
concluded the meeting by asking PSAC members to read and comment on Alvin
Toffler’s Future Shock, which forecast great social and cultural upheavals as a result
of rapid technological changes. Clearly Nixon found the meeting with PSAC far
less engaging than did Eisenhower more than a decade ago.93
In fact, Nixon’s war with his scientists continued under David. In his next, and,
as it turned out, last meeting with PSAC, on February 23, 1971, Nixon discussed
with his science advisers his newly launched “War on Cancer.” The project was
an example of both technological faith and what the historians called “historical
analogizing”: If we could make the atomic bomb and put a man on the moon,
we surely could cure cancer if we poured resources into the making of the necessary technology.94 Such a “technological fix” was anathema to the thinking of the
PSAC, however, even though its members’ sense of technological skepticism was
not quite as strong as in the Eisenhower and Kennedy days. Many PSAC members
seemed skeptical toward the war on cancer and advocated more basic research on
the biology of cancer. At the meeting, PSAC diplomatically worded its criticism
by requesting that the crusade be integrated into the National Institutes of Health
(NIH) and into basic biomedical research. Nixon, however, defended his preference for the applied, disease-oriented approach, for it provided a necessary symbol
of federal action for the public. He wanted both the NIH and the NSF to adopt a
more practical bent and abandon the “more of the same” approach in their traditional emphasis on basic research.95 (A year later, however, Nixon would himself
acknowledge that the War on Cancer was a “bust” with $100 million lost largely
because, as PSAC had pointed out, the basic biomedical mechanism of cancer was
not yet understood.96)
With the David–DuBridge transition, Nixon also attempted to reshape the
mission and form of presidential science advising and science policy. He wanted
The Politics of Technological Dissent, 1969–1973
to reorient federal funds away from academic science and more into applied or
industrial research. “Cut the money out of soft science and put it into applied
science,” he demanded.97 Indeed, Nixon saw OST and NSF as focusing on “professor subsidy” and producing “no results.”98 He slashed federal aid for universities.
Repeatedly, he ordered cutbacks on MIT’s federal research funds as retaliation
for Wiesner’s “anti-defense bias.” However, his staff, handling it like a hot potato,
dragged their feet.99
In line with his distrust of academic scientists, Nixon also tried to change PSAC
from within, pushing his favorite scientists for membership.100 From the beginning,
the Nixon White House applied political criteria in the selection of new members
for PSAC and its panels. In April 1969, for example, several Nixon aides went over
DuBridge’s recommended list of new PSAC members and made notations: Garwin (“anti-ABM”), Murray Gell-Mann (“Brill[ant], not way-left”), Patrick Haggerty
(“good”), and Land (“left”). Making the final decision and apparently disregarding
Garwin’s anti-ABM stand, Flanigan approved all except Land, who was eventually
replaced by physicist Gerald Tape of Associated Universities, Inc.101 Such departure
from the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, when PSAC effectively selected its own
members, was not new; the Johnson White House had already started political
checks. However, the practice became all the more overt in the Nixon administration, especially after the DuBridge–David transition. Nixon pushed David, for
example, to get Edward Teller into PSAC. The move would be largely symbolic,
of course, because Nixon could and did often turn to Teller for science advice in
preference to his formally appointed science adviser and PSAC.102
David, hailed at his swearing-in ceremony by Nixon as “a very practical man,”
made a valiant effort to satisfy both Nixon and his academic skeptics. He launched
technological initiatives, supported the SST vigorously, and persuaded Nixon to
issue the first ever Special Message to Congress on Science and Technology. At
Nixon’s request, David also tried to devise ways to assist unemployed aerospace
scientists and engineers, whose plight came as a result of cutbacks in defense and
space projects and was highly publicized in the media.103 At a White House meeting on February 22, 1971 that was secretly recorded in a new taping system, Nixon
asked David to consider taking $100 million out of the NSF’s $600 million to “take
care” of aerospace scientists and engineers, instead of giving them to MIT and
Harvard as “subsidy” to professors. “Send some of these [unemployed] guys to
Antarctica,” Nixon half-jokingly suggested, or “let them play with those mice; it
didn’t really matter much who does it.”104 He did not want a massive effort, but
mainly the political symbolism “to indicate that we care about them and have a
concern for their future.”105 As a result, David did put together some programs to
retrain or relocate these unemployed engineers.106
David also responded, although cautiously, to Nixon’s demand for a PSAC
membership for Teller. He first asked Teller to join PSAC’s panel on science and
technology policy and serve as a consultant to himself on military R&D. Deeply
aware of the divisive legacy of the Oppenheimer hearing and of the long-running
animosity between Teller and most PSAC members, David, however, stopped
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
short of recommending Teller to PSAC for full membership. As he explained to
Nixon, pushing Teller into PSAC “could cause an explosion” among liberal scientists whose support he needed and only slowly began to earn.107 The White House,
however, did succeed in making Patrick Moynihan, a social scientist and Democratassistant to Nixon, a PSAC member.108
In the mean time, David also reached out to academic scientists, the traditional constituency for PSAC, because, as he later recalled, he soon realized that
he could not get things done in matters of science in policy without their help.109
David eventually won praise from liberal PSAC members and alumni by his quiet
and moderately successful approach to the Office of Management and Budget to
increase the budget for basic research.110 Philosophically, his views on the potentials
and limits of science and technology differed from some of PSAC’s traditional
beliefs but agreed with them in other respects. Reflecting his interdisciplinary
background, David rejected the assembly-line model of technology feeding on
science, advocating instead that they feed on each other. As the social impact of
both science and technology grew, society would, he predicted, try to shape the
direction of both. Such societal interventions were not all bad: “There have been
some astounding successes in goal-oriented efforts.” Even the fiascos, he argued,
could be turned into justifications for basic research: “Failures in technology often
encourages fundamental science.” Echoing PSAC’s technological skepticism,
David dismissed wild technological enthusiasm—“because we can put a man on
the moon, we ought to . . .”—as ignoring “the problem of timing and the limits of
both the technological state of the art involved and the fundamental knowledge
available” or even laws of nature. Thus, to ensure that the social pressure did not
lead to technological dead ends, David argued that “scientists and engineers must
be active in decision-making where goals are set.”111
Nixon, however, grew increasingly impatient with the kind of technological
skepticism traditionally associated with PSAC’s argument for arms control. At his
June 1969 Air Force Academy speech, he had already accused “the skeptics and
the isolationists” as timid and short-sighted. To him, any restraint on technological progress meant being dangerously “soft”—just as he had accused the Democrats in the early 1950s of being soft on communism. At one point, when a staff
member urged him to educate the public that “the hyper-individualistic—‘We’re
No. 1’—frontier American philosophy is bankrupt and outdated,” Nixon scuffled:
“Wrong on this—Typical Ivy League.”112 When the Senate voted down the SST on
March 24, 1971, Nixon declared the decision “both distressing and disappointing.” It
not only threatened jobs and world leadership of the American aerospace industry,
but “[m]ore deeply,” Nixon argued in a statement, “it could be taken as a reversal
of America’s tradition of staying in the vanguard of scientific and technological
advance.”113 Shortly afterward, in September 1971, Nixon brought in William M.
Magruder as his special consultant in charge of a “New Technological Opportunities Program” to turn up technical fixes for national problems. A former test pilot
sporting a Ronald Reagan-esque tough-guy look, Magruder had spearheaded the
administration’s fight for the SST and clashed with Garwin in their testimony in
The Politics of Technological Dissent, 1969–1973
Congress. His appointment demonstrated Nixon’s desire both to act on his technological enthusiasm and to send a signal about his displeasure with PSAC-OST’s
trademark advocacy of technological moderation.114
Thus, despite David’s fence-mending activities, PSAC-OST’s relationship with
the Nixon White House remained strained. The problem was as much institutional
as personal. Shortly after the off-year election in 1970, Nixon told his aides that he
still “wants OST out of here.” “Defense, NASA, AEC,” Nixon said, “will support
research adequately.” His comment indicates that by then he thought of PSACOST scientists purely in terms of policy for science and, worse yet, as lobbyists
for federal funding of science. PSAC-OST’s vital role in providing independent
technological evaluations completely escaped the president’s attention. Nixon did
not think the reactions in the scientific community would be too bad if the timing
was right. “Do OST at time of budget in which research is upgraded,” for example,
through increases in NSF budget, he cunningly instructed.115 He knew just as well
as PSAC scientists that he could manipulate the dialectics of policy for science and
science in policy to his advantage.
Having made up his mind on the abolition of PSAC-OST, Nixon further
removed his science advisers away from major policies, including arms control
and scientific diplomacy.116 Neither David nor PSAC were involved in the historical reopening of relations with China that Nixon and his national security adviser
Henry Kissinger orchestrated in 1971–1972, even though scientific exchange would
soon play a key part of the burgeoning bilateral relations.117 Several former PSAC
members, such as Wiesner, Panofsky, and Seaborg, and one current member, Garwin, however, saw the China reopening as a great opportunity not only to reestablish bilateral scientific relations, but also to bring China into the international
system of nuclear arms control. Under the sponsorship of the FAS and the NAS,
they visited China in the early 1970s and engaged Chinese scientists and officials in
valuable discussions on arms control amidst the turbulent Cultural Revolution. In
other words, they sought to do, via nongovernmental channels, what PSAC used
to do but could not now do under Nixon.118
During the 1972 presidential election, scientists were once again divided up into
partisan groups around Nixon and his Democratic rivals. The scales of scientists’
involvement did not quite match those in 1964 and 1968, but the intensity remained
as high. At one point, Kistiakowsky, for example, vowed to offer his service “in the
cause of retiring Mr. Nixon to almost anybody that the [Democratic] convention
might nominate.”119 That turned out to be Senator George McGovern (with a PhD
in American history), who promised to withdraw American troops from Vietnam
if elected. In contrast to 1968 and especially 1964, this time former PSAC members
lined up on both sides of the campaign: in addition to Kistiakowsky, Bethe, Purcell,
and York joined the Scientists for McGovern, whereas William O. Baker helped to
organize, with industrialist Simon Ramo, a Science and Engineering Council as
part of Nixon’s reelection committee. It now boasted, in addition to Baker himself
and former Goldwater supporters Libby, Wigner, and Teller, another former PSAC
member, Gordon MacDonald, and two current members, Haggerty and Howard
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
Turner, a construction industrialist. Ominously for the future of PSAC, the Nixon
campaign, when announcing the formation of the Baker–Ramo group, declared
that it would not only work to support the president’s reelection, but probably live
on after the election to serve as “another link” between the scientific community
and the Nixon administration.120 Among the proposals the council forwarded to
the White House for Nixon’s consideration was a study on “the feasibility of damming the Bering Strait as a means of controlling the climate of North America and
Siberia.”121 If PSAC remained skeptical of several of the president’s initiatives, here
was a group still full of technological enthusiasm.
Attack From the Left
Ironically, just as moderate scientists associated with PSAC were marginalized by
their conservative critics within the Nixon administration, they ran into angry
protests by antiwar radicals as well. The countercultural and New Left movements
challenged not only the Enlightenment ideal of scientific rationality, but also scientists’ role in the military-industrial complex behind the Vietnam War. Under attack
were both those scientists on the right such as Edward Teller and those insiders
who had considered themselves liberals or moderates.122 After the revelation of the
Jasons’ role in the making of the electronic barrier project in the Pentagon Papers
in 1971, for example, many radical students, sometimes under the sponsorship of
SESPA, staged protests against known members of the scientific group. A massive protest at Columbia in late April 1972, for example, demanded that Columbia
Jasons resign from that group or from the university. Garwin, as one of the best
known Jasons and an adjunct professor at Columbia, faced protestors both in his
office and outside his home, despite his prominent role in opposing Nixon’s SST
program.123 Calling it a McCarthyist drive for political purity, Garwin refused to
quit Jason. In a May 1972 statement, he asked his critics on the Columbia faculty to
rethink their support for removing professors with Pentagon ties:
Remember the State of California Oath of 1950 and the long and degrading history of political tests for membership in a university. Which faculty member is
sure that, ten years hence, 50 faculty members could not be found to demand
either his own recantation or his dismissal? I long for an end to the Viet Nam
War. But lies and violence here at home and the attempted denial of legal rights
of individuals (by antiwar activists or by others) will only injure further our
society, which sorely needs all our energies turned toward improvement of its
mechanisms and substance.124
It was a typical clash of the New Left, impatient for radical changes, and
those moderates who clung to the liberal consensus on anticommunism abroad
and improving society through incremental reforms at home. For Garwin, both
his work on military technology in Vietnam and his opposition to Nixon’s SST
were part of the same technological rationality that he believed was crucial to
the functioning of a democratic government and society. To the radical protesters, however, PSAC and Jason stood for a system that was hopelessly corrupt, a
The Politics of Technological Dissent, 1969–1973
Cold War technological establishment that upheld values that were anathema to
morality and social justice, their technological skepticism and advocacy for arms
control notwithstanding. To them, PSAC and Jason might have questioned the
means, but not the ends of the Vietnam War or the Cold War—they were still part
of the establishment. “Jason’s counsel to stop the bombing of the North was on
the basis that it wasn’t working, not on the basis that it was better for Vietnamese
to live than to die,” charged Charles Schwartz and his colleagues in the Berkeley
SESPA chapter, apparently discounting the moral anguish about the war that had
motivated Kistiakowsky and several others to propose the barrier project in the
first place. What mattered to the New Left and the countercultural activists was
not technological rationality or objectivity, which they regarded as contested concepts, but political and ethical choices.125 Thus, whereas Garwin and his colleagues
viewed their science advising as a way to improve American society’s “mechanism
and substance,” SESPA saw it as misguided and counterproductive instrumentalism: the science advisers’ objectivity “can help the earnest McNamaras and their
generals to accomplish their objectives better.”126 The two sides clearly had different understandings of what it meant to speak truth to power in a time when political consensus was no longer possible.
Garwin was not the only PSAC veteran to face the radical rebellion and not
all such interactions were turned into confrontations. Panofsky, for example, actually succeeded at Stanford in channeling some of the student protest into such
constructive causes as arms control.127 Others tried to engage in dialogues with
the rebels to varying degrees of success. Perhaps most typical was the experience
of Rabi, who, when caught up in the confl ict at Columbia, attempted to communicate with the young protesters during a well-publicized encounter outside his
office. But this effort failed. Years later, Rabi reflected on both this incident and his
PSAC experience:
I had no word to reach them. But it did teach me something, sort of too late.
I’d go to Washington to all these committees and things, but I only gave my
courses the straight material and never brought in anything extraneous, so I
never told them, or my colleagues, what I was doing in Washington.
Partly it was the culture of secrecy, the scientists’ elitism, their preference for
working within the system that was to blame for their reluctance to engage in a
broader discussion with their students and the public about the role of science in
policy, about their technological skepticism, about their opposition as well as their
support for American Cold War policy. When Rabi realized that “I didn’t have to
betray any secrets” to tell students about his experiences and his views on scientists’ social responsibility, “it was too late. They wouldn’t listen.”128
The Demise of PSAC
Unfortunately for Rabi and his PSAC colleagues, neither would the Nixon White
House. By the time of his reelection victory in late 1972, Nixon was determined
not to have “more of the same” in presidential science advising. His suspicion
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
of disloyalty of PSAC-OST, frustration at their ineffectiveness in promoting his
technological programs, and, increasingly, a desire for self-seclusion amidst the
Watergate scandal, led him to abolish the whole presidential science advisory
structure in December 1972.129 During the postelection conferences with his aides
on government reorganization at Camp David, Nixon first considered moving
PSAC and OST to the NSF, but finally decided to abolish both.130 Apparently
valuing David’s service, Nixon offered him the AEC chairmanship, but the latter
declined, knowing that the Nixon administration was planning to break the AEC
up into two separate agencies.131
PSAC, unaware of Nixon’s abolition decision but sensing danger, belatedly
fought for its own survival. Its members first tried to make the committee more
relevant to Nixon’s technological programs.132 Then, in a letter to Nixon on December 19, 1972, PSAC defended presidential science advising as a channel of ideas independent of the bureaucracy and as a vital instrument of planning, an early-warning
radar that could help the government “detecting incipient failures early in technical
programs.” The committee also promised loyalty, vowing to “avoid outside discussions and public testimony regarding its work.” It pledged to be “responsive to the
President and his national programs and policies,” rather than to “the scientific
community, industry, academia, labor, or the interests of any agency or bureaucracy.”133 Theoretically, the president was, of course, entitled to such confidentiality
in his advisers, and in normal times such pledge of loyalty would probably have
been taken for granted. But under the circumstances, it was a sad commentary on
the polarization of American society and on the science–government partnership
that the science advisers had to choose between the president and the scientific
community or the society at large as if their interests would fundamentally collide.
The post-Sputnik days when representing the voice of the scientific community was
viewed as a positive, not a negative, service to the presidency were gone. Instead,
the letter pointed to an erosion in the faith, deeply held among many American
scientists and scholars during World War II and the early Cold War, that there was
a fundamental identity of the objectives of the American state as an embodiment
of democracy and the ideals of science.134
PSAC’s effort came too little too late. Its letter never reached Nixon. On
January 2, 1973, David resigned from his position as science adviser to become
vice president of Gould, Inc., an electronics firm.135 Shortly afterward, Nixon
announced his “Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1973.” It abolished the OST, and
implicitly with it, PSAC. They were no longer needed in the Executive Office
of the President, Nixon said, because of the growing scientific strength in other
parts of the government that they had helped build. The plan transferred much
of the OST’s science policy role back to the NSF. As an afterthought, Nixon, at
Baker’s suggestion, requested the NSF director, H. Guyford Stever, to take added
responsibility as his science adviser to coordinate civilian and international efforts
in science.136 Stever would report not to Nixon but to George Shultz, secretary of
treasury and Nixon’s special assistant for domestic affairs. Stever’s main support
unit, the Science and Technology Policy Office, would be located in the NSF, not
The Politics of Technological Dissent, 1969–1973
in the Executive Office of the President.137 On January 26, 1973, Nixon signed a
letter to every member of PSAC in which he announced, after praising their past
service, that he had decided to disband PSAC by accepting their pro forma resignations.138 Thus, a major institution of American science and government, which
President Truman initiated during the Korean War, which President Eisenhower
revitalized in the aftermath of Sputnik, which helped him and Kennedy curb the
runaway nuclear arms race with its technological skepticism, and which helped
hold American science and state together for two decades of the Cold War, ended
unceremoniously in the Nixon administration after a steady decline during the
turbulent Vietnam War era. PSAC scientists set out to serve both science and the
state in the interest of society, but in the end, largely failed to please either side
of the partnership.
On June 15, 1973, it fell to David Beckler, the unsung hero of the post-Sputnik
presidential science advisory system, to announce to former members of PSAC the
official closing of the committee and the OST. By then he had served as executive
officer of the committee for twenty years, dating back to 1953, when he first started
in that position with the ODM-SAC, and as trusted chief of staff for all the science
advisers since 1957. A devoted public servant and able administrator, Beckler had, in
many ways, personified the institutional continuity of presidential science advising
to the hundreds of scientists and engineers who went through the PSAC system in
its two decades of existence. Now, as acting director of the OST, Beckler thanked
past PSAC members for their contributions to “the cause of good government and
a better and more peaceful life for all.” Quoting Eisenhower’s comment during
his last meeting with PSAC in December 1960 that “Washington has no monopoly
on brainpower,” Beckler promised that he would continue his effort of linking
scientists and the government in his new position as assistant to President Philip
Handler of the NAS.139
Among the PSAC oldtimers, Beckler’s letters evoked a renewed sense of nostalgia, sorrow, and rage toward the Nixon administration. Rabi, for example, wrote
Beckler that “your farewell letter moved me very deeply.” Recalling their associations since the early 1950s, Rabi tried to console Beckler:
You grew gray in the service and gave it your best years. The achievement was
great and only marred by the abrupt ending brought on by a barbarian invasion
into the highest level of our government. . . . When we look back and think of
PSAC our thoughts first go to you and to the quiet self-effacing leadership and
solid support you gave us through your unwavering faith in the importance of
our tasks and our objectives.140
Many other scientists were also shocked and dismayed by Nixon’s decision to
disband PSAC-OST, yet there was surprisingly little public, organized protest. Perhaps they were resigned to the reality that one could not force science advice on a
president who did not want it. There was also a sense that the setup had, as Garwin
believed, long been corrupted or ceased to be effective anyway—Science characterized the scientific community’s reaction “rather like an amputee whose phantom
T h e P o l i t i c s o f T e c h n o lo g i c a l S k e p t i c i s m
feet continued to hurt long after the leg is gone.”141 A few weeks later, the NAS
held a reception “in memory of OST.” It was attended by, among others, Jerome
Wiesner, the first OST director. “It was,” as Beckler reported to James Killian, “a
sad, but heartwarming occasion” that lent “dignity to the departure of an organization that has made so many vital contributions to the nation’s welfare.”142
Clearly, Nixon’s political style, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the ABM and
SST debates helped to doom PSAC. The politicization of science did not start with
Nixon, but there was no doubt that it reached a new intensity during his term.
Nixon viewed every activity in the White House from its political impact, often
ignoring the need for judicious deliberation necessary to anticipate problems and
make wise choices. He let his political disputes with several PSAC members on
ABM and SST to obscure the vast resources and expertise in PSAC and in its panels
on national security, on defense and space programs, and on the environment, with
far-reaching impact not only on the presidency, but on the whole government.143
When Nixon abolished PSAC to get rid of dissenting scientists from his circle, he
also removed, with the same stroke, a significant presence of independent, outside
expertise from many levels of the federal system.
Yet, Nixon’s personality and personal politics were not the only factors that led
to PSAC’s demise. Its decline also fit in the larger historical context of the radical
transformation of American society and the changing relationship between American science and the Cold War. The surging African American civil rights movement, which spread into the fights for equality for women and other minorities as
well the environmental movement, ended the long postwar liberal consensus that
had built on the foundation of anticommunism abroad and incremental reforms,
particularly through technological and economic progress, to solve social problems at home. As American society polarized to the poles on the right and left,
PSAC, which was perhaps, in many ways, a quintessential institution of that earlier liberal consensus, was left stranded at the dead center. The coming of détente
also brought a lessening of post-Sputnik Cold War tension in the late 1960s and
early 1970s. It diminished the national security role of scientists, including those in
PSAC. It gave rise to increasing demands for a new science policy that emphasized
practical results. The public became disillusioned with the technocratic visions of
the post-Sputnik era. Many Americans, especially youths, joined the counterculture movement to question the social, political, and philosophical values of modern science. Science was now less associated with abundant nuclear energy and
exciting space exploration, and more with technological excesses leading to mass
bombing in Vietnam and widespread environmental destruction at home (and also
in Southeast Asia). The failure of American scientists, including PSAC, to articulate
their case for basic research adequately and to convince the American public of the
relevance of their pursuing it undermined the social contract between American
science and state that had first been drawn at the end of World War II and the
beginning of the Cold War.
The Politics of Technological Dissent, 1969–1973
The counterculture movement also deprived PSAC of a unique voice in the
critical period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. During the late 1950s, PSAC had
stood as virtually the only effective, technically competent advocate for technological restraint in the Eisenhower administration. By the late 1960s and early 1970s,
PSAC’s moderate critique of technological enthusiasm had given way to a widespread public questioning of science and technology. Perhaps not coincidentally,
scholars have widely pinpointed this period as the end of an era of American technological enthusiasm.144 Thus PSAC’s demise might have marked the beginning
of the decline of science and technology’s role in legitimating American public
policy, even though the need for critical evaluation of technology by experts did
not lessen.145 Indeed, just as PSAC was driven out of the White House, the Office
of Technology Assessment was being established on a bipartisan basis in Congress,
reflecting both a need for legislative science advice and widespread public opinion
that technology was to be regulated, not just promoted.146 However, the division
of American society during this anti-Vietnam era was such that, instead of the
countercultural movement giving PSAC a much-needed constituency, their philosophical affinity worked to erode the credibility of PSAC inside the White House.
The Nixon administration, as we have seen, increasingly espoused a resurgent
technological enthusiasm and viewed PSAC as a symbol of the antiwar academic
elite pouring cold water on its technological drive. Ironically, the efforts by PSAC
during the David days to be responsive to Nixon’s agenda made it appear, to much
of the public and some in the scientific community, to be part of the reactionary
status quo. As one Nixon administration official put it shortly after the demise of
PSAC-OST, “If science has been downgraded, it is because it has been downgraded
by society—and by the people making the reorganization plan.”147 All these developments reinforced not only Nixon’s hostility, but even more his indifference, to
his science advisers, which in turn helped doom PSAC.
In part, both the rise and fall of PSAC demonstrated that the workings of
science advising, as much as those of science and politics, depended on trust.148
It was the consensus about the need for a strengthened science–state partnership
that brought the initial group of scientists together in the ODM-SAC in the aftermath of the Korean War but the lack of Truman’s trust in them—perhaps due to
the H-bomb debate—severely limited their freedom of action. What finally made
PSAC scientists into what Kistiakowsky called a “coherent, thinking organism” in
the post-Sputnik era was both their internal agreement on the need to increase
federal support of basic research and to pursue arms control and Eisenhower’s
endorsement of these goals and consequent trust in his science advisers. Indeed, as
mentioned before, James Killian, for one, eventually came to regard Eisenhower’s