By Kayla Matzek
Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and historian Audra J. Wolfe says everything is political, even science, and the notion that science in America is apolitical was developed as a propaganda message during the fight against global communism.
“Once you start seeing these links between Cold War propaganda and scientific freedom, you can’t un-see them,” Wolfe told a UC Santa Barbara audience.
Wolfe discussed her recent book Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science as part of the Lawrence Badash Memorial Lecture Series, sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center.
“Who wins and who loses when scientists claim the unique ability to operate free of politics?” she asked. Wolfe explained that her book attempts to make sense of this question for scholars, journalists, policy makers, and scientists.
Wolfe has a PhD in history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of another book titled Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America. Woolfe’s academic articles have appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate, and a podcast called American History Tellers.
In her latest book, Wolfe examines how scientists participated in psychological warfare and propaganda campaigns against communists, both of which then shaped Cold War cultural interactions and diplomatic policies.
For example, international scientific and cultural organizations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) and the Asian Foundation feigned interest in science—having scientists present at their conferences, writing newsletters for them, and even allowing them to help in running their organizations—in order to spread knowledge of its unintentionally anti-communist message. Scientists, however, were unaware of the organizers’ motives beyond the discussion of science. Wolfe said hers is the first book to uncover the prominent relationship between the U.S. government and American scientists in cultural efforts toward victory in the Cold War.
As U.S. propaganda efforts intensified, policymakers produced and promoted the idea of change through science, emphasizing scientists’ independence from government control.
“My book’s fundamental confirmation is to insist that science was central to U.S. cultural diplomacy programs during the Cold War,” Wolfe explained.
“This book is also in some way a confession,” Wolfe said. She thought she had a deep understanding of the relationship between science and authority in the United States, but realized that she misunderstood the influence that this language of scientific freedom had during the Cold War.
“I came to realize that the book that I was writing could be read as a how-to guide for how to conduct overt cultural diplomacy,” Wolfe said.
Many historians of science, including Wolfe, misunderstood the actions of some scientists during the McCarthy era, who stood out as oppositional figures but were actually more than happy to support the U.S. government’s work if it advanced powers for their country. As a result, Wolfe realized that she was writing on a history of power as opposed to writing about the conditions that made those expressions of power possible.
Kayla Matzek is a third-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Writing and Literature. She is a Web and Social Media Intern with UC Santa Barbara’s Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.