Scientists & the Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research

A review of Scientists and the Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research, by Sarah Bridger.

Sarah Bridger’s dissertation provides a survey of scientists’ debates over the ethics of weapons research from the post-Hiroshima moral reckoning of the Manhattan Project scientists to the widespread condemnation of Star Wars on technical and strategic grounds. Scientists struggled over the ethics of Department of Defense funded research in public speeches; letters to the editors of mainstream newspapers and of scholarly journals; confidential government memos and earnest private correspondence; the meetings of professional societies and of university committees. Bridger contextualizes this broad range of responses to the “moral and scientific challenges of the Cold War,” which she shows revolved around “two fundamental questions — whether to work on scientific research with weapons applications, and how to deal with ‘the strongest hands’ that controlled key military decisions” (pp. 10, 4-5). Her central argument is that the terms of this debate evolved from an “individualist response” during the Eisenhower administration to a structural critique during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The unpopularity of the Vietnam War caused many scientists to question the efficacy of the postwar focus on the individual conscience of researchers who remained committed to working within the system, and led to a broader institutional critique of Pentagon funded research.

Bridger’s research in a dozen archives demonstrates just how seriously scientists took their ethical responsibilities. If science ceased to be a vocation in the postwar decades, it certainly appears to have remained something more than a job for these scientists — mostly, but by no means exclusively, physicists affiliated with elite universities or serving as distinguished government advisors. Indeed, one of the dissertation’s greatest strengths is that it reveals the depths of scientists’ internal struggle with the ethical implications of their behavior. For example, in a 1966 letter regarding an invitation to participate in one the Jasons’ famous summer studies, George Rathjens, the head of the Institute of Defense Analysis’ Weapons System Evaluation Division, wrote:

I am extremely upset about the whole Viet Nam business. This has been one of the things that has made the IDA job so difficult for me… I now have the feeling that I am to a substantial degree an instrument of a policy with which I am very much in disagreement but which I have damned little chance of influencing. The bombing of the North just about brought me to the point of resigning despite my commitment to stay two years, but I have stayed on arguing with myself that I have, or may have, more opportunity to influence things than if I left abruptly. But the hell of it is that I’m not sure whether this is really right or just a rationalization for doing the easy thing. (p. 182)

As Rathjens’ letter and a wealth of other poignant quotations show, the debate over the ethics of weapons research remained painfully personal even after the terms of the debate had shifted to an institutional critique. Bridger’s extensive research rules out a straightforward, linear narrative. There were loud and influential dissenters at every stage of the broad transition she has identified. Especially during the crucial Vietnam years that lie at the heart of this study, conflict not consensus over the ethics of weapons research defined the scientific community.

Scientists and the Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research consists of four sections organized chronologically. The first section, “From Bomb to Test Ban,” begins with a brief introduction that sets the stage by reviewing the vast literature on Manhattan Project scientists’ reaction to their awful success. As the rest of the study shows, the precedent of the atomic scientists’ movement and the prestige that scientists’ work in World War II earned loomed large in the moral calculations of the Cold War generation. Chapter 1, “Government Scientists, Sputnik, and the Test Ban,” describes how scientists during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations pushed for government investment in science, especially nuclear research, while at the same time using their positions within government to urge arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. During these years, the ethical questions raised by military research appear to have been entirely confined to nuclear weapons. Thus, when the new Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara noted in a budget review, “‘We are doing too little research and development on non-nuclear weapons’ and called for a ‘substantial increase’ for non-nuclear armaments,” Bridger concludes, “Arms control scientists suddenly had an ally at the very top of the Pentagon” (p. 50). In Bridger’s account, presidential science advisors and other well-positioned scientists made a substantial contribution to the adoption of the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. In contrast to other scholars who have criticized Kennedy’s science advisors for compromising “their ethical commitment to arms control by choosing technical arguments over political and moral statements,” she argues that they continually counseled that the key variables were political, showed a “dogged insistence on keeping a comprehensive ban in the picture,” and explicitly saw a test ban as a first step towards broader arms control agreements (p. 72). There was little question, however, of these science advisors stepping outside official channels to publicly criticize government policy; their responsibility was to serve the nation, and thus the Free World, by serving the President.

The next two sections analyze the profound change in scientists’ thinking caused by the quagmire in Vietnam. The first of these sections, “The Science of Vietnam,” describes the diverse ways scientists contributed to the war effort and analyzes the dramatic broadening of the types of activities that appeared ethically problematic in the context of a limited yet brutal war. “Chemicals and Ethics” examines the development and use of defoliants and toxic gases. Similar to the focus on nuclear weapons in the 1950s, many scientists chose to define their opposition to military policy in terms of a specific category of weapon. Bridger suggests that, while scientists like Barry Commoner’s opposition to CW was genuine, the public criticism was motivated by opposition to the war itself. And, she argues, this tactic was effective because scientists’ statements about the technical aspects of defoliants were more credible than their political critiques of geopolitics would have been. But these critical analyses still had limited effect because they were grounded in the “murky field of ecology,” rather than basic questions of feasibility. And when critics did pose broad moral arguments, advocates for defoliants and tear gas relied on technical classifications to exempt these categories from the Geneva Protocol, which the United States finally ratified a half a century after its drafting.

Chapter 3, “Advising the Pentagon,” analyzes the ethical thinking and political ramifications of three groups of scientists deeply enmeshed in government work: the President’s Science Advisory Committee; the Institute for Defense Analyses’ Jason group; and in-house military scientists. It documents the astounding proliferation of topics on which policy-makers sought scientists’ advice — as well as the ease with which generals, presidents, and their advisors simply brushed aside reports that contradicted their favored policies. Indeed, under Johnson the desire for scientific advice that supported predetermined policies, rather than provided an independent critical perspective, began undermining the whole rationale of the President’s Science Advisory Committee and eventually led its dissolution under Nixon.

The heart of this chapter, however, is the Jasons, the rather mysterious group of elite physicists who advised the Pentagon on everything from counterinsurgency strategy to missile defense. An invitation to join the Jasons carried enormous prestige, and the problems the often young physicists tackled could be fascinating intellectual puzzles. But members were also motivated by an ideal of patriotic service. Contrary to the searing criticism of contemporary antiwar intellectuals, however, Bridger’s research reveals that this patriotism frequently manifested as challenges to the military’s own analyses and as attempts to mitigate US reliance on overwhelming violence. So while a review of Vietnam intelligence reports generally endorsed their conclusions, it emphasized that the intelligence community’s methodology was “deeply flawed” because of “the assumption that key aspects of the war could be calculated and predicted with any meaningful reliability” (p. 187). In fact, one senses a general disdain for the scientism of Kennedy-era modernization theorists. And, in a sadly ironic twist, a Jason report on the use of tactical nuclear weapons became a focal point of outraged attacks on the group from the left, yet the classified contents of the report presented a rigorous analysis demonstrating that no circumstances justified the use of such weapons. Indeed, Steven Weinberg later reflected that despite the report’s careful avoidance of ethical issues, his motivation for participating in its preparation was “almost entirely ethical” (p. 202). Even if the contents of the report had been leaked, however, it probably would not have done much to affect the Jasons’ reputation in the antiwar camp: “A new era of ethical calculation was dawning, and it rendered insufficient and archaic the old Los Alamos ideal of patriotism tempered by personal conscience” (p. 251). The individual’s room for moral maneuvering now appeared to be confined to the choice to perform any military research.

The third section of the dissertation, “Institutions and Neutrality in Wartime,” analyzes this new era’s ethical debates over weapons research. Chapter 4 focuses closely on MIT and the March 4 Movement, while Chapter Five broadens the lens to examine the controversy over whether scientists ought to perform military sponsored research in professional societies and at other universities. Bridger situates her analysis within the now quite rich historiography of the Cold War university, and extends the basic narrative established by Stuart W. Leslie in The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). The radical structural critique, developed most completely by Noam Chomsky and student activists affiliated with SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and other groups, succeeded in getting some but not all Pentagon funded laboratories relocated off-campus and officially redesignated as independent non-profit organizations. Despite these changes in policy and funding structures, however, weapons research, with student participation, continued. Moreover, the hostile environment of elite university campuses contributed to the rise of suburban research firms and defense research at second-tier universities likely to attract less public attention. Yet Bridger salvages some optimism regarding the efficacy of the New Left praxis, which “pushed the ethical dilemmas of weapons research, university-military relations, and institutional responsibility into a broader national political discussion” (p. 313).

The final chapter of the dissertation is an epilogue titled “Science, Politics, and Ethics after Vietnam.” It examines scientists’ reactions to the antinuclear movement in the 1980s and Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, “Star Wars”). Bridger contrasts the broad-based dissent against Star Wars with the virtual stalemate in the scientific community over weapons research during Vietnam. This anti-SDI consensus resulted from scientists’ overwhelming pessimism regarding the feasibility of a comprehensive antiballistic missile system and their discomfort with the strategic implications of a move away from standard deterrence theory. But Bridger suggests that the willingness of individual scientists and professional associations to publicly criticize government policy owed a debt to Vietnam-era public debates over the ethics of weapons research.

Another positive outcome, from some perspectives at least, of the emergence of the structural critique during Vietnam might be the development of science studies as a dynamic research field. In Chapter 5, Bridger describes Princeton’s response to student and faculty protests of military and classified research. Thomas Kuhn chaired the counsel charged with investigating the extent of such research and recommending reforms. In the process of investigating other elite universities’ experiences, Kuhn surprised several administrators with the naïveté of his understanding of the effects of patronage on the direction of scientific progress. Kuhn worried that military funding was causing an insidious “drift” away from the proper development of scientific knowledge. His correspondents pointed out that there was no natural direction of scientific progress; any patron would influence the types of problems scientists researched. Indeed, much of the debate over the ethics of weapons research during Vietnam came down to the question of whether scientific neutrality or values-free research was possible and where to draw the line between pure science (if such a thing even existed) and applied science. When Paul Forman’s landmark 1987 article “Behind Quantum Electronics” incited a debate over the effects of military patronage with Daniel Kevles, Bridger points out that it was these same issues they reprised (Paul Forman, “Behind Quantum Mechanics: National Security as Basis for Physical Research in the United States, 1949-1960,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 18, 1987, pp. 149-229; Daniel Kevles, “Cold War and Hot Physics: Science, Security, and the American State, 1945-56,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 20, 1990, pp. 239-264).

It is hard not to be impressed with the sophistication, sincerity, and diversity of scientists’ reflections on the ethical dilemma being a Cold War physicist posed. Sarah Bridger provides a sympathetic and nuanced historical ethnography of the scientific community’s moral relationship with the US national security state, and her dissertation is an invaluable contribution to the history of Cold War science.

Perrin Selcer
History Department
University of Texas-Austin

Primary Sources

American Institute of Physics
Caltech Archives
Chemical Heritage Foundation
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library
Institute Archives and Special Collections, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2011. 400 pp. Primary Advisor: Eric Foner.


Image: Front cover of Science for the People magazine, August 1970.

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