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  • Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science by Audra J. Wolfe
  • James Schroeder
Audra J. Wolfe, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2018. 302 pp. $29.95.

Cold War histories focusing on race, culture, gender, and geopolitics frequently acknowledge the importance of science as a tool of government policy, but the ideological underpinnings that define, legitimize, and perpetuate concepts of scientific freedom are seldom explored. Audra Wolfe innovatively addresses this gap in Freedom’s Laboratory by examining how the U.S. government targeted the Soviet Union from 1947 to 1989 using the concept of “scientific freedom” (p. 2) as a form of ideological containment. Paradoxically, Wolfe argues that apolitical science and the free exchange of information were political constructions perpetuated by U.S. officials and academics seeking to win “global hearts and minds” (p. 7) by contrasting Western scientific benevolence and objectivity against perceived statist biases tainting the Soviet scientific establishment. Although many American scientists relied on government contracts, she claims few saw any conflict of interest with their commitment to apolitical science. Wolfe convincingly demonstrates that concepts of scientific freedom constituted critical elements of Cold War cultural diplomacy conducted on disparate fronts by scientists, journalists, and government officials. [End Page 234]

Wolfe argues that these ideological divisions formed in response to Joseph Stalin’s persecution of geneticists in the 1930s and the notorious Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko’s subsequent rise to power in the Soviet scientific community. This controversy spawned “Lysenkoism” (p. 18), a term Wolfe defines as the perception that Soviet science was corrupt and brutally politicized. Wolfe focuses much of her research on how the field of genetics influenced concepts of scientific freedom, and U.S. geneticists such as Hermann Joseph Muller and H. Bentley Glass assume various roles as social commentators, ideologues, and scientific advisers. Wolfe concludes that Lysenkoism merged with a general critique of statist science inspired by Nazi Germany’s failed nuclear program and that together these sentiments justified convictions that scientific progress lay with the free and democratic exchange of knowledge.

Scientific freedom easily translated into “scientific internationalism” (p. 9), a nebulous term Wolfe uses to define the international exchange of scientific information and the cultivation of a transnational scientific community. She argues that this concept was overtly incorporated into U.S. foreign policy in the 1950s through the establishment of State Department science attachés. Ostensibly assigned to cultivate international scientific networks, the attachés were also instructed to investigate foreign scientific developments. Wolfe concludes that inherent contradictions within this dual overt and covert program ultimately led to its failure once attachés found themselves distrusted by foreign colleagues and U.S. anti-Communists alike. As a result, Wolfe writes that U.S. intelligence organizations reduced their reliance on science attachés even while increasingly incorporating the ideology of scientific freedom into covert programs.

These connections are apparent in Wolfe’s analysis of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an ostensibly private organization covertly funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Although many historians have examined the CCF, an organization that sponsored private publications and conferences with the intention of influencing Europe’s intellectual environment, Wolfe argues that scientific freedom formed an important element of these broader propaganda campaigns. Coordination between the CIA and private individuals proved unwieldy however, exemplified by difficulties the CCF main office encountered when pushing affiliate Michael Polanyi and his family-run periodical Science and Freedom to publish harsher critiques of Communist countries. For Wolfe, Polanyi’s case is indicative of the awkward positions U.S. intelligence agencies were in when cooperating with private citizens and foreign nationals to mask governmental interference.

The Asia Foundation had fewer internal problems, in part because, as Wolfe argues, it was wholly operated by the CIA. Drawing on carefully mined Asia Foundation records, Wolf details how this organization funded the production of U.S. Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) textbooks in the 1960s as part of broader U.S. modernization and development initiatives in Asia and Latin America. She argues that BSCS Director Arnold Grobman and officials at the Asia Foundation were...


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