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  • Scientists at War: The Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research by Sarah Bridger
  • Paul Rubinson
Scientists at War: The Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research, by Sarah Bridger. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2015. x, 350 pp. $45.00 US (cloth).

Fresh off the success of the Manhattan Project and troubled by their role in creating the atomic bomb, US scientists attempted to guide national security policy away from reliance on nuclear weapons. Science advising ‘‘was a chance for nuclear redemption in the form of arms control’’ (24), Sarah Bridger explains in Scientists at War, an analysis of how science advisors ‘‘tried to cope with the ethical burdens of expertise’’ (270) during the Cold War.

Science advisors used their technical expertise to advocate for nuclear arms control and the diversification of conventional weapons as a counter to Dwight Eisenhower’s New Look policy that relied exclusively on nuclear weapons and risked nuclear war. But as Bridger makes devastatingly clear, this influence over policymaking ultimately backfired: the policies and technologies that scientists advocated, such as limited warfare, anti-infiltration systems, and chemical and biological weapons were seen as ethical alternatives to nuclear war, but were ultimately used to unleash incredible violence on Vietnam that was nearly as troubling as Hiroshima had been.

During the 1960s, meanwhile, a new generation opposed science’s connection to the folly and brutality of Vietnam. Along with challenging [End Page 396] science’s links to the defense establishment, younger scientists reassessed their discipline from an activist, ethical perspective, and in the process questioned Pentagon funding, the apolitical stance of professional organizations, and fundamental concepts such as objectivity. According to Bridger, these two generations reconciled their conflicting paradigms when they united to oppose the Strategic Defense Initiative (sdi) in the 1980s, as a near-consensus of scientists young and old opposed the system on both ethical and technical levels.

The book powerfully illustrates the dilemma of political power. On a detailed level, though, nuance is lost. Bridger argues that government scientists used moral language to support their anti-nuclearism, but offers an overly broad definition of ‘‘moral,’’ describing, for example, a scientists’ statement that a nuclear test ban was in ‘‘the best interests of the United States and world peace’’ as a ‘‘moral message’’ (54). Such a claim, however, was typical Cold War pabulum that differed tremendously from the language of outsider scientists such as Linus Pauling, who morally castigated the American people as ‘‘murderers, mass murderers’’ for testing nuclear weapons (No More War!, New York, 1983, 215). In fact, government scientists purposefully distanced themselves from moralists like Pauling. When science advisors produced a study arguing that nuclear weapons would not help achieve US goals in Vietnam, they used language ‘‘scrubbed of any moral or ethical taint,’’ although the conclusions came from ‘‘their values and their moral commitment to preventing nuclear war’’ (133–134). And yet, the choice of words is not irrelevant. There exists a clear difference between arguing against nuclear weapons because they are immoral, and arguing against them because there are more efficient ways to pacify Vietnam.

And what of scientists’ influence over nuclear weapons policy? When universities put up barriers to defence work on campus, Bridger writes, scientists wondered whether that would inadvertently push ‘‘war research further away from their means to restrain it’’ (218). But it remains unclear what, exactly, scientists had restrained in the past. Flexible Response had replaced the New Look, to be sure. But even at the height of science advisors’ influence, weapons scientists had created the hydrogen bomb, intercontinental ballistic missiles (icbms), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (slbms), and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (mirvs), not to mention thousands of nuclear warheads. It is in fact difficult to name advanced weaponry that wasn’t built or at least lavishly funded during the Cold War. One might ask instead why such influential and elite advisors managed to do so little to stem the arms race.

Bridger’s premise that opposing sdi created ‘‘a tentative generational reconciliation’’ (246) is solid enough on its own, but far from the whole story. Unity against sdi was more an aberration than the norm. The [End Page 397] tremendously popular Nuclear Freeze proposal, for...


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pp. 396-398
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