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  • Nuclear SynthesesAudra J. Wolfe, Competing with the Soviets; Martin V. Melosi, Atomic Age America
  • Russell Olwell (bio)

Works of synthesis in any historical field can indicate several different things for a topic. First, the development of synthetic works can be a sign that a field is maturing, and that the time has arrived to take stock of its historical scholarship and advances. Second, it can be a signal that a field has amassed enough articles and monographs to need a fresh look at what broad organizing principles unite the field. Finally, it can be a sign that a historical field is becoming widely taught and gaining student enrollment sufficient to generate book sales through assignment in undergraduate or graduate classes.

While works of synthesis are widely appreciated by scholars and teachers in a field, they are not always considered among the most cutting-edge of projects. Unlike deep dives into the archives in search of evidence for a new monograph, wading through articles and books can seem an unglamorous task. Worse still, the genre can have a reputation for lack of creativity, with accurate summary being the goal and with few surprises for those who know the field well.

Two recent works of synthesis address the topic of postwar American science and technology, taking on the issue within the context of the cold war and arms race. Audra Wolfe’s Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. Pp. 176. $40.50) is one of the few works of synthesis that actively creates creative and novel interpretations, and it applies these to a well-developed historical literature. Wolfe begins her work with Edward Teller’s quote on Project Plowshare: “If anyone wants a hole in the ground, nuclear explosives can make big holes.” Rather than using this as the setup for a dark joke, she unpacks the tension that the quotation [End Page 723] reveals—that Americans had great optimism in science and technology during the postwar era, but that doubts about it were always close at hand.

Wolfe begins with a chapter on the Manhattan Project, then moves on to the concept of the military-industrial complex. She points out that military spending dominated scientific and technological research in postwar America, creating hybrid institutions that stood between the military and universities. She points to project SAGE as a prime example of a technological project with massive reach: its main contractor, the Systems Development Corporation, at one time employed half the computer programmers in the United States.

Even chapters on relatively conventional topics, such as big science, are used by Wolfe to advance creative arguments. Her chapter on the so-called golden age of federal science funding ends with the caveat that while defense research declined as a proportion of total research spending, every area of science and technology was touched by the cold war, writing that “[e]very scientific discipline and technological undertaking became a site of competition with the Soviet Union, an arena for the United States to avenge the humiliation of Sputnik.”

Wolfe’s account extends far beyond what is conventionally thought of as science and technology. Her book addresses both the physical sciences and social science, examining topics like research into economic development, U.S. international aid programs, research into racism and poverty, and the turmoil around sponsored research in the 1960s. She closes with the space race and the Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s, thus bringing the account up to the end of the cold war. While any book that attempts to address such a wide range of topics will have uneven results, each chapter crackles with arguments and perspectives that keep the reader engaged, and will surprise even those who have been in the field for decades.

Wolfe’s chapters are full of examples of conventional historical thinking that she is able to investigate and debunk. For example, in the wake of Sputnik, the idea that Americans were “behind” in producing scientists and engineers became a national consensus, leading to numerous programs of fellowships and curriculum development in these areas. Wolfe points out that U.S. university production of physics doctorates...