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Competing with the Soviets

, 176 pages

15 halftones

January 2013



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Competing with the Soviets

Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America

For most of the second half of the twentieth century, the United States and its allies competed with a hostile Soviet Union in almost every way imaginable except open military engagement. The Cold War placed two opposite conceptions of the good society before the uncommitted world and history itself, and science figured prominently in the picture. Competing with the Soviets offers a short, accessible introduction to the special role that science and technology played in maintaining state power during the Cold War, from the atomic bomb to the Human Genome Project.

The high-tech machinery of nuclear physics and the space race are at the center of this story, but Audra J. Wolfe also examines the surrogate battlefield of scientific achievement in such diverse fields as urban planning, biology, and economics; explains how defense-driven federal investments created vast laboratories and research programs; and shows how unfamiliar worries about national security and corrosive questions of loyalty crept into the supposedly objective scholarly enterprise.

Based on the assumption that scientists are participants in the culture in which they live, Competing with the Soviets looks beyond the debate about whether military influence distorted science in the Cold War. Scientists’ choices and opportunities have always been shaped by the ideological assumptions, political mandates, and social mores of their times. The idea that American science ever operated in a free zone outside of politics is, Wolfe argues, itself a legacy of the ideological Cold War that held up American science, and scientists, as beacons of freedom in contrast to their peers in the Soviet Union. Arranged chronologically and thematically, the book highlights how ideas about the appropriate relationships among science, scientists, and the state changed over time.

Audra J. Wolfe is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia.

"An impressive synthesis of a massive quantity of sources. Wolfe writes forcefully and clearly with occasional sparkles of wit, while managing to navigate a balanced course through some rather heated historiographical disputes. She succeeds brilliantly."

"Wolfe's book is the more traditional alternative to the case study: a synthetic overview. And it is a reminder of how valuable a clear, well-researched synthesis—one sophisticated, holistic take on all those little case studies—can be."

"A book that is particularly easy to read, and hence one that I strongly recommend to anyone with a burgeoning interest in the study of Cold War science."

" Competing with the Soviets is engaging, and its style of scholarship will intimidate no one. Despite being a synthesis of a huge range of events and sources, the book is slim and easily digested, and readers need no prerequisite science to evaluate the author’s ideas. Wolfe takes us from one constellation of promises to the next, showing how scientists tried—and quite often failed—to apply their world views to a multitude of society’s problems."

"Wolfe has done a marvelous job of X-raying the field, grounding the larger narrative with important case studies... The task ahead lies in challenging and enriching—with new topics and novel periodization—the settled framework for interpreting American science in the Cold War. For novice and expert alike, Wolfe’s beautifully presented guide is an excellent place to start."

"In Competing with the Soviets, Audra J. Wolfe provides an excellent overview of Cold War science. She accomplishes the difficult task of synthesizing a massive amount of both history and historiography into a highly readable arrative."

"Audra J. Wolfe's short and smart introduction to the history of Cold War science and technology, Competing with the Soviets... pulls together a tremendous number of secondary sources, folding the complexities of this period into a broad overview that takes the reader through many familiar, and some less familiar, topics."

"Competing with the Soviets is one of the few works of synthesis that actively creates creative and novel interpretations..."

"[Competing with the Soviets] is a perfect companion text for a variety of courses that examine the postwar world and a valuable source of information for professors putting together lectures on the Cold War... it is a definitive source for separating myth from reality in translating military projects into commercial products available for mass consumption."

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