Pissing in the Snow

Steven Rose

  • Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science by Audra J. Wolfe
    Johns Hopkins, 302 pp, £22.00, January, ISBN 978 1 4214 2673 0

As a young researcher applying for a US visa to go to a conference in the mid-1960s, I presented myself at the fortress-like embassy in Grosvenor Square and ticked the boxes affirming that I was not nor ever had been a member of the Communist Party and did not intend to attempt to overthrow the US government by force. But then I was summoned backstage into a private office, where I faced a humourless consular official who began by asking me to list all the organisations I’d ever belonged to, starting, it seemed, with the school chess club. ‘My, you’re a joiner,’ he sighed as I went through the list. When I asked why I had been singled out, he explained that I’d said I was a biochemist and ‘you biochemists are a left-wing lot.’ To issue the visa, he needed to get clearance from the CIA’s European office in Frankfurt. Would I pay for the call? The visa arrived just in time for my meeting, along with a receipt for the cost of the call – in case, the embassy informed me, I wished to claim it against business expenses.

When I told the Biochemical Society that it was regarded as a CP front organisation, a senior colleague suggested this was a tribute to the legacy of J.B.S. Haldane, biochemist, geneticist, Communist Party member and regular contributor to the Daily Worker through the 1930s and 1940s. If so, the CIA’s files needed updating. By the 1950s Haldane had left the party after the furious international dispute among geneticists surrounding the claims of the Russian agronomist Trofim Lysenko to have dramatically and heritably improved crop yields by simple environmental manipulations that flew in the face of conventional genetic (‘Mendelian’) theory. Soviet geneticists critical of Lysenko’s claims were imprisoned or executed. Their fate was seen in the West as evidence of an irreconcilable clash between science in the ‘free world’ and in the Soviet Union. It is with the Lysenko affair that Audra Wolfe begins her history of the CIA’s covert role in promoting the allegedly neutral, objective nature of scientific inquiry as a Western value.

Since the 17th century, Western scientists and their philosophical supporters had insisted that science and its method of acquiring knowledge about the world were value-free, the royal route to truth, best pursued by independent researchers unimpeded by outside direction. That assumption was challenged by Marx, and more emphatically by his followers in the young Soviet Union in the 1920s. They argued not only that the questions scientists asked about the natural world and the methods they used to answer them were shaped by the needs of capitalism, but that the reductionist theoretical framework in which they were located was specific to bourgeois society. A socialist science would ask different questions about the world, and provide a different theoretical framework through which to answer them. The vigorous Soviet debate about what a socialist science might look like was embraced by communist scientists in the West, above all by Haldane (who wrote a preface to the English translation of Engels’s Dialectics of Nature) and by the crystallographer J.D. Bernal in his 1939 book The Social Function of Science. By then, however, Stalin had dragooned science and scientists in the USSR into following a rigid party line, and in 1946 theory was ossified in the claim by Andrei Zhdanov, the secretary of the Central Committee of the CP, that the world was divided into two camps: one Soviet and ‘democratic’; the other US-led and ‘imperialistic’. Science, according to the Zhdanov thesis, both reflected and contributed to these different worldviews.

Historians of the Soviet Union have documented the significance of the two camps thesis for Russian science. Wolfe shows that it was endorsed by the US too. According to American propaganda, just as Nazi Germany’s ‘Aryan science’ had failed to produce an atomic bomb, so the Soviet state’s official endorsement of Lysenko’s fraudulent claims demonstrated that science could flourish only if pursued freely and without ideological constraints.

Wolfe has interviewed the surviving actors and dug deep in the archives to trace the turf wars between the US State Department, the CIA and a variety of military intelligence-gathering agencies that had sprung up during and immediately after the war. Part of the campaign was overt; the propaganda benefits of Marshall Aid, along with its economic benefits to US industry, were explicit. It was a bonus that the Soviet Union and its satellites declined the public offer of aid. But part was covert, and here the CIA won out, channelling funds through a mix of apparently charitable foundations to support journals, conferences, the anti-communist pronouncements of prominent scientists and the ostensibly independent National Academy of Sciences. Among the front organisations were the Asia Foundation, supporting science textbooks for emerging Asian economies, and the Farfield Foundation, best known in Europe for its funding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

The CCF established an office in Paris with a CIA agent as its executive secretary and launched Encounter, initially edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol. It attracted a host of leftish public intellectual luminaries as contributors, including Arthur Koestler, who in 1950 inaugurated the CCF at its opening congress in Berlin with a ‘Manifesto for Freedom’. Koestler, along with Spender and other ex-communists, also contributed to The God That Failed, a 1949 book edited by the Labour MP Richard Crossman. He went on to foster a series of CIA-funded seminars, populated by Encounter contributors, in the Austrian ski resort of Alpbach.

Koestler’s adventurous past in the Spanish Civil War, along with his explorations of cosmology (The Sleepwalkers) and of the Stalin purges (Darkness at Noon), had made him something of a hero for me, and when in 1961 Hilary Rose and I were invited to a party at his Alpbach residence we jumped at the chance, sublimely innocent of the CIA connections. Despite his by then passionate anti-communism, Koestler was fascinated by the Lysenkoist prospect of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and had a surprising enthusiasm for parapsychology, mysterious coincidences and extrasensory perception; he quizzed me extensively on them. It didn’t take long to recognise that my erstwhile hero had feet of clay, as he waxed sentimental over schmaltzy Hungarian gypsy music and dragged his male guests out to gaze at the moon while pissing in the snow.

In the early Cold War years, ex-communist scientists were especially useful to the propaganda campaign. Haldane kept quiet, simply not renewing his Party card, eventually favouring Gandhian non-violence and moving to India. But others were angrily outspoken. The US geneticist Hermann Muller had emigrated to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, where he was put in command of a large research group. Wolfe sees him as something of an opportunist. A committed Mendelian and eugenicist, Muller offered to dedicate one of his books, Out of the Night, to Stalin. In it he argued for improving the quality of the human race by selective breeding with the sperm of eminent men, including Lenin (any woman, he assured his readers, would be delighted by the opportunity). Stalin was unimpressed, rejecting Muller’s proposal for being too close to Nazi race science and for giving primacy to genetic rather than environmental means of modifying humanity. Muller skipped the country just ahead of the great purges, returning to the US as a vocal anti-communist. In 1946, amid widespread public and scientific concern over the lasting genetic effects of radioactive fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the mutational effects of radiation. This made him particularly attractive to the CIA, and its front organisations promoted his lectures. His staunch eugenicism was undimmed, but he removed Lenin from his list of eminent possible sperm donors in the later editions of Out of the Night.

In 1939, Bernal had argued for state planning in The Social Function of Science. In response the Oxford geneticist John Baker set up a Society for Freedom in Science, with a passionate attack on any attempt to tell scientists what they should work on or the methods they should use. The conflict between Bernalian and Bakerian views of science runs throughout Freedom’s Laboratory. As Wolfe observes more than once, the claim that science is non-political is itself a political claim.

Baker was joined by Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian-born, Manchester-based physical chemist turned anti-positivist philosopher of science. Through the CCF’s Paris office, the CIA approached Polanyi with the proposal that he edit an occasional newsletter, Science and Freedom. Polanyi’s son and daughter-in-law, George and Priscilla, ran it from Manchester and proved surprisingly resistant to sticking to their funders’ anti-communist script. Instead of focusing on attacking the Soviet Union, Science and Freedom took on ‘the problems of the academic community in maintaining its independent status’ in both communist and non-communist societies. Early issues included reports of protests at the University of Göttingen over the appointment of a neo-Nazi as rector, and critiques of university administrators in Alabama, Tasmania and Cape Town. It’s hard, especially in today’s bleak university climate, not to cheer the Polanyis on. Wolfe confines herself to enjoying their blithe refusal to acknowledge the stream of memoranda and directives from Paris until, inevitably, the newsletter was allowed to die, to be replaced by a more formal academic journal, Minerva, which, cast free from its CCF origins, continues to flourish.

Counterposing scientific freedom with state planning was always going to be a tricky argument, especially as the US government had been responsible for the most costly scientific and technical endeavour ever, the Manhattan Project. In 1953, Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace campaign to inhibit other nations from building their own bombs. But the claim that only free science could deliver the goods soon ran into tougher headwinds. The Soviet Union was proving unexpectedly successful, testing its first atomic bomb in 1949, years ahead of US estimates. Then in 1957 came the shock of Sputnik, the Earth’s first orbiting satellite, which prompted Kennedy to commit to placing a US astronaut on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Meanwhile, to the distress of the CIA, the Atoms for Peace campaign was taken up by Western physicists who called for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. In the US this led to the launch of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and in Britain to the birth of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In the Soviet Union, the dangers of nuclear fallout led the geneticists who had criticised Lysenko and survived, now tactfully rebranded radiation biologists, to emerge into the daylight, though Lysenko would not be officially repudiated for many years.

In the interests of nuclear disarmament, and galvanised by the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955, which spelled out the dangers of mutual nuclear annihilation, Western physicists tried to make links with their Soviet counterparts. A prime mover was Joseph Rotblat, the only scientist known to have resigned from the Manhattan Project on moral grounds. He persuaded a Canadian philanthropist, Cyrus Eaton, to bring together leading Western and Soviet physicists for an arms control conference at Pugwash, a small Nova Scotian seaside village. This presented the US administration with a dilemma. Should they allow their physicists to go, even those openly critical of US nuclear policy? They settled, somewhat uncomfortably, on a two-track approach. Pugwash, and its annual successor meetings, would be a channel for back-door diplomacy, and could be cautiously supported by the State Department even though the CIA saw the conferences as communist propaganda exercises and closely monitored the US attendees.[*]

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, recognition began to dawn on both sides of the slowly rusting iron curtain that if nuclear holocaust was to be avoided then intergovernmental communication must be improved. The informal links provided by Pugwash were superseded by official meetings, and the State Department authorised carefully vetted exchange visits between senior scientists, administered through the National Academy of Sciences, though carefully monitored by the security services. On both sides, the ‘two camps’ rhetoric was muted: the NAS was anxious to avoid any hint of criticism of Soviet methods, and Stalin’s successors quietly buried the Zhdanov doctrine. In theory the only science now was the ‘free’ kind endorsed by Western orthodoxy. In practice, the demands of the arms race absorbed an increasing proportion of the science budgets of both the US and USSR – and of the UK, still determined to ‘punch above its weight’ militarily.

*

The CIA’s cover was finally blown in 1967, when the radical West Coast magazine Ramparts exposed its funding of the National Student Association just as the wave of campus activism against the Vietnam War was building. In damage-limitation mode, President Johnson declared a deadline for the CIA to end its secret subsidies to private US organisations, leaving a clutch of ‘orphan’ charities, several of which ended up being openly funded through the State Department. As for Encounter, with the CIA’s long-suspected funding of it confirmed, Spender resigned his editorship. Despite other resignations and the loss of funding, the magazine staggered on until 1991.

Wolfe has little to say about the institutional militarisation of science in the West, instead concentrating on the efforts of US scientists to live up to their claims of independence and internationalism. In the Soviet Union, as the memory of the years of Stalinist terror slowly retreated, a privileged intellectual elite became activist human rights campaigners, demanding respect for the formal liberties provided by the Soviet constitution. This was an easy cause for US scientists to endorse, and Wolfe devotes a chapter to their efforts.

Many of the Soviet human rights dissidents were scientists, possibly because of the privileged position the USSR gave to science in deference to the needs of the arms race. Even so, dissident scientists were arrested, exiled and incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals. Their Western peers campaigned vigorously for their release, to the embarrassment of the National Academy of Sciences, which was keen to preserve the diplomatic niceties of the formal high-level exchanges. The best-known dissident was the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, the ‘father’ of the Soviet atomic bomb. He argued that the USSR should trust America in negotiating a test ban treaty, and in 1964 used his status to oppose followers of Lysenko being elected to the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Too prominent to be arrested, he was eventually exiled to the closed city of Gorky and forbidden to travel to Oslo to receive his Nobel Peace Prize.

The courage of these dissidents was matched by their ingenuity. In 1969 the biologist Zhores Medvedev reopened an old wound by publishing an account of Lysenko’s rise and fall, first in samizdat and then in translation in the West. Medvedev was diagnosed as schizophrenic – on the grounds that he was interested in two things at the same time, biology and society – and confined to a psychiatric hospital. The wave of international protests that followed led to his swift release. He and his twin brother, Roy, a historian, wrote a book describing his hospital experience, A Question of Madness. Hilary Rose and I had been in correspondence with him over Lysenko (he hadn’t realised we were married but thought we were male twins like him and Roy), and in 1971 I was able to smuggle copies of the English translation of the new book into Moscow. I hadn’t told him where I was staying, but I had barely put the luggage down in my hotel room when he appeared at the door. ‘They always put up foreign conference delegates here,’ he explained. I asked what he would have done if he had not been released. He said that friends had arranged to get him a key (‘the same key fits all the doors’) and a white coat, and he would simply have walked out. Learning that I had received no royalties from the pirated Soviet edition of one of my books, he insisted that he accompany me the next day to the publishers, and not leave until they had paid me my due according to Soviet law – which I then passed over to him in lieu of his own frozen UK royalties.

Defending Soviet dissidents – and Jewish refusniks trying to leave the Soviet Union for Israel – was well within the levels of activism palatable to the US scientific establishment. Less acceptable was the wave of campus activism against the war in Vietnam and against the part scientists had played in creating cluster bombs and defoliants. Science for Vietnam groups, sometimes led by students but including more senior scientists, sprang up across America. In the late 1960s these single-issue groups morphed into a wider movement, Science for the People, sharing a root-and-branch critique of science under capitalism that went beyond the nuclear concerns of physicists or biologists’ anguish over the use of chemical weapons.

Similar things were happening in Britain. As Wolfe records, in 1969 ‘an elderly Bernal attended the first meeting of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science’ – a group we had been involved in setting up. Though partially paralysed by a stroke and almost unable to speak, Bernal came back to a party at our house afterwards. To the younger generation of radical scientists gathered in the room the visit felt significant, as if a legacy was being handed down.

These movements of the 1970s no longer saw science as inherently progressive, as scientists in the 1930s had done. Capitalism was not the only enemy. Scientific racism had re-emerged and we contested it vigorously. Feminist critics, meanwhile, confronted both the entrenched patriarchy of scientific institutions and the sexist assumptions embedded in masculinist science. Sociologists, philosophers and historians of science were inaugurating a new research field, the social studies of science; they were questioning the basic ontological claim of natural science to be discovering universal truths. All this was of endless interest to government agencies, and they weren’t always shy about showing it. One of the first science studies units in the UK was established in Edinburgh in 1964. Among those attending the opening was a delegate carrying an elegant briefcase with the letters ‘CIA’ embossed on it.

[*] It wasn’t just the CIA. The FBI was in on the act too, closely monitoring scientists – from Einstein and Hans Bethe to Alfred Kinsey and Isaac Asimov – for possible communist affiliations. A selection of FBI files, released in response to FoI requests, has recently been published as Scientists under Surveillance (MIT, £20).