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American Quarterly 56.4 (2004) 851-888

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The Postwar Suburbanization of American Physics

In class, status, and self-image, [the American intellectual] has become more solidly middle class, a man at a desk, married, with children, living in a respectable suburb.
C. Wright Mills, White Collar, 19511

The Cold War University as City or Suburb?

In his 1963 Godkin Lecturesat Harvard on "The Uses of the University," Clark Kerr, then chancellor of the burgeoning University of California, observed that the faculty of the emergent cold war universities had become "affluent," and that their "salaries and status have risen considerably." Most telling of all, their roles and ways of life had changed palpably from the prewar days: "A professor's life has become, it is said, 'a rat race of business and activity, managing contracts and projects, guiding teams and assistants, bossing crews of technicians, making numerous trips, sitting on committees for government agencies, and engaging in other distractions necessary to keep the whole frenetic business from collapse.'" In short, Kerr concluded, the cold war university was neither a village nor a town, as older colleges and universities had been modeled, but rather a city—he called it a "City of Intellect" and a "city of infinite variety"—full of distinct subcultures, complex economies of operation, and vast managerial infrastructures. Kerr celebrated the modern, urbanized university, "rat race" and all.2

Other commentators read a different lesson into these structural changes in American higher education. The cold war university was not a grand and exciting city, they contended, but rather the ultimate suburb—and, as such, hardly deserving of praise. Irving Howe, for example, lambasted postwar literary intellectuals in a scathing 1954 Partisan Review article titled "This Age of Conformity." Intellectuals, Howe charged, had succumbed to the "temptations of an improved standard of living" and had sunk "into suburbs, country homes, and college towns." With this descent into suburbia came a "desire to retreat into the caves of bureaucratic caution" and "intellectual conformity."3 [End Page 851] Howe was hardly alone. Just a few years earlier, the iconoclastic sociologist C. Wright Mills had drawn similar conclusions about the new spate of suburban living, bureaucratization in government and the business world, and the fate of American intellectual life. Drawing on examples from his own field of sociology as well as from economics and political science, he castigated postwar academics as all too typical of the nation's new class of middle managers—bureaucratic in operation, bourgeois in outlook, and increasingly irrelevant intellectually.4 More than three decades later, Russell Jacoby argued in The Last Intellectuals that American intellectuals' postwar migration to the suburbs—"from the cafés to the cafeterias"—had fostered the narrowly specialized, jargon-filled prose that passes for academic writing in everything from literary theory and history to sociology, economics, and political science.5

It is curious that Howe, Mills, and Jacoby restricted their scrutiny (not to mention their ire) to the humanities and social sciences, because many of the transitions within the cold war university that they loathed were felt first, and at their most extreme, by scientists and engineers, and often by physicists in particular. Wartime projects, such as the atomic bomb and radar, had thrust American physicists into new relationships with federal (mostly military) patrons.6 In the afterglow of the atomic blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki—which most Americans credited with ending World War II—physicists moved to center stage in ways that no group of academics had ever done in this country. "Physical scientists are in vogue these days," announced a commentator in Harper's a few years after the war. "No dinner party is a success without at least one physicist." Physicists young and old—including those who had played no role in the wartime projects—found themselves "besieged with requests to speak before women's clubs" and "exhibited as lions at Washington tea-parties," reported a bemused senior physicist in 1950.7 Physicists' mundane travels became draped with strange new fanfare. Police motorcades escorted twenty young physicists on their way to a private...