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  • Make It Rain: State Control of the Atmosphere in Twentieth-Century America by Kristine C. Harper
  • James Bergman (bio)
Make It Rain: State Control of the Atmosphere in Twentieth-Century America. By Kristine C. Harper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. Pp. 304. Hardcover $40.

In her conclusion to Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote that "the 'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man." It was also one of the predominant ideals of the years following World War II. As Kristine Harper notes in her well-researched and fascinating new book, Make it Rain: State Control of the Atmosphere in Twentieth-Century America, this ideal extended even to an icon of uncontrollability: the weather. But weather control in the United States, argues Harper, was more than an ideal; it was a political agent, a tool whose use was in the hands of the American state. [End Page 988]

Harper's book is the second book to take on the practice of weather modification, the first being James Rodger Fleming's Fixing the Sky, but their approaches are different. Fleming examines the longue durée of weather modification, conducting an archaeological dig to examine the rickety foundations of current proposals for geoengineering. Harper also speaks to concerns about climate change and geoengineering, but she is primarily focused on the state's use of weather control as a tool to boost national security and agriculture. She also maintains a tight focus on the first thirty years of the Cold War (save one chapter devoted to the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries), when government interest in and funding for weather control research and development rose in the 1940s and 1950s, peaked in the 1960s, and then faded into the background in the 1970s.

Harper argues that the "entity exerting control via funding and policy decisions was the American state" (p. 7), and weather control research rose and fell on the wave of federal funding. She draws on Brian Balogh's Associational State to argue that the growing enthusiasm for weather control after World War II was part of a transition in the relationship between science and the state from flirtation to full-blown marriage, from the state seeking the advice, and therefore legitimacy, of science, to the state as funder, and therefore controller, of science (pp. 14, 82). However, as with any marriage, this relationship did not mean that scientists and state agencies moved in lock-step with one another. For instance, although one might expect meteorologists—weather experts, by definition—to be the main collaborators with the state on weather control, Harper finds that scientists at the Weather Bureau barely wanted to touch the subject and only grudgingly took part in efforts to gauge its prospects (pp. 62–65, for example). Instead, advocates for weather control, like Irving Langmuir, were not atmospheric scientists but nevertheless projected confidence in their convictions and traded on their reputations in other fields to advocate for its research and deployment (p. 68).

Harper has written a book that will appeal to many different constituencies, particularly those interested in new work on the role of technology in governance, the role of the government in controlling nature, and particularly the relationship between experts and governments. This is especially true because of the many angles she takes in examining state control of nature. The second and third parts of her book are rich in case studies from the perspective of the U.S. Congress, executive agencies, individual state governments, and scientists working for the state. All of these entities endeavored to rein in private cloud seeders with federal advisory commissions and state weather modification boards, to manage expectations and concerns exacerbated by the press, and, perhaps most importantly, to ensure that the United States was ahead of the Soviet Union in weather control. Also fascinating is her examination of weather control [End Page 989] assessment and measurement. Take Project Popeye, the experiment that made way for the weaponization of weather in Project Compatriot. The goal was to test the possibility of increasing rain, and therefore...


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