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  • A State of Rumor:Low Knowledge, Nuclear Fear, and the Scientist as Security Risk
  • Jessica Wang (bio)

In January 1954, Alan T. Waterman, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), invited Charles B. Hunt, executive director of the American Geological Institute, to serve as a consultant to the NSF’s earth sciences program. Hunt declined, partly because of constraints on his time, but also because he had grown impatient with the regimen of loyalty and security checks required for such positions. “In recent years,” he informed Waterman, “I have become increasingly fed up with the fact that the government seems to be incapable of determining the dependability of a citizen without insulting him. And, I have become increasingly fed up with the fact that the iron curtain of secrecy has been lowered around many scientific activities that are not related to national security. Such an environment simply is distasteful to me, and so much so that I want no more of it.”1

Such frustrations among scientists were far from unusual in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as loyalty and security tests, once nonexistent, became commonplace in American scientific life. Depending on their political proclivities, most scientists viewed such tests as either a patriotic duty, a necessary [End Page 406] evil in the face of Cold War exigencies, an annoying indignity imposed by anticommunist hysteria, or, at worst, a system of political repression that ruined reputations, careers, and lives. The loyalty-security system’s dependence on secretive and highly personal forms of inquiry, whether through interviews with friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, tips from informants who believed they had witnessed something suspicious, or direct forms of state surveillance, heightened the sense of exposure and vulnerability to forms of information that, in essence, amounted to opinion, rumor, and gossip. A petition signed or thought to have been signed, a certain book or magazine sighted or thought sighted in one’s home, a meeting attended, a cause backed, an untoward political utterance, an unfortunate family relation, a purportedly dangerous friendship or acquaintance, a suspect organizational affiliation—all were grist for the bureaucratic rumor mill that produced judgments about loyalty.

Historical analyses of Cold War anticommunism have generally divided along normative lines between those who criticize the affronts to civil liberties and open political debate committed in the name of security, and those who defend anticommunism, at least in its Cold War liberal variant, as a rational and reasoned response to Soviet-sponsored espionage and other real security threats. My own earlier work has allied itself strongly with the former, but here I wish to ask a different set of questions about the Cold War loyalty-security system and its post–Cold War permutations. This article attempts to understand gossip, rumor, innuendo, political and ethnic stereotypes, and other forms of what we might call “low” or vernacular knowledge—that is, all of the aforementioned grist for the mill—as types of information that undergird state practices. Although the rise of the modern bureaucratic state created expectations of expanded technical rationality and governance through expert-based knowledge, vernacular knowledge has also remained very much part of both American political culture and the machinery of the state.2 As much as the Cold War state created a pretense of intelligence, security analysis, loyalty investigations, and other creations of the national security state as highly professional exercises in data-gathering and reasoned inquiry, they have remained deeply rooted in political traditions in which low forms of knowledge also continued to shape perceptions and evaluations of threats to the nation and its citizens.

I develop this analysis in three parts. The first makes the case for moving the study of vernacular knowledge from the domain of society to the history of the modern state and suggests some starting points from the period of the [End Page 407] early republic to the era of American state-building in the early twentieth century for developing a fuller historical account of low knowledge and state practices in the United States. The sections that follow focus more closely on scientists, security, and nuclear-age politics in the Cold War and post–Cold War eras in order to explore three issues: the...


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pp. 406-446
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