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Freedom's Laboratory

, 312 pages
November 2018



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Freedom's Laboratory

The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science

Scientists like to proclaim that science knows no borders. Scientific researchers follow the evidence where it leads, their conclusions free of prejudice or ideology. But is that really the case? In Freedom’s Laboratory, Audra J. Wolfe shows how these ideas were tested to their limits in the high-stakes propaganda battles of the Cold War.

Wolfe examines the role that scientists, in concert with administrators and policymakers, played in American cultural diplomacy after World War II. During this period, the engines of US propaganda promoted a vision of science that highlighted empiricism, objectivity, a commitment to pure research, and internationalism. Working (both overtly and covertly, wittingly and unwittingly) with governmental and private organizations, scientists attempted to decide what, exactly, they meant when they referred to "scientific freedom" or the "US ideology." More frequently, however, they defined American science merely as the opposite of Communist science.

Uncovering many startling episodes of the close relationship between the US government and private scientific groups, Freedom’s Laboratory is the first work to explore science’s link to US propaganda and psychological warfare campaigns during the Cold War. Closing in the present day with a discussion of the recent March for Science and the prospects for science and science diplomacy in the Trump era, the book demonstrates the continued hold of Cold War thinking on ideas about science and politics in the United States.

Audra J. Wolfe is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and historian. The author of Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America, her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and the podcast American History Tellers.

"A strong contribution to the history of modern science."

"A wonderful, well-researched book evoking deep questions of science, freedom, and democracy."

"In Freedom's Laboratory, Audra Wolfe does a remarkable job resurrecting the covert and overt ways during the Cold War that the CIA and the US government influenced science—and the way science, in turn, influenced the Cold War, from Iowa cornfields to genetics to biology textbooks. In doing so, she offers an important meditation on the true boundaries and meaning of 'scientific freedom' in the titanic battle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Writing with the eye of a journalist and the authority of a scholar, Wolfe delivers a compelling new look behind the curtain of a still shadowy moment in history."

"Marvelously crafted, terse, and sprightly, Freedom's Laboratory is also original, utilizing new archival material and drawing on a wide and impressive range of primary and secondary sources. One of the first full-length treatments of the relationship of science, American democracy, and foreign policy, the book will appeal to broadly educated general readers and will very likely be widely utilized in courses on the Cold War and recent science."

"In this fascinating and deeply researched work, Audra Wolfe reveals the role of science in US cultural diplomacy, showing the way the idea that science was politically neutral enabled the pursuit of forms of scientific internationalism that served US Cold War interests. An important contribution."

"Historian Wolfe (Competing with the Soviets) offers a thoughtful, thoroughly researched history of how the American government employed science and scientists to improve world opinion of liberal democracy during the Cold War... readers with an interest in the conjunction of science and politics will find her book an informative one."

"Cold-war history, Wolfe writes, is not a heroes-and-villains narrative: it must be told in 'shades of gray.' The government used scientists' ideals for its own political reasons. And the scientists, who saw themselves as apolitical, used the government's political messages and support to question, observe, conclude, write and speak — freely and in accord with their ideals."

"One of the common misbeliefs about science is that it is apolitical. Actually, as historian Wolfe reveals in her well-researched and closely argued study, during the Cold War, American scientists were often deeply involved in promoting American cultural values to other parts of the world in an effort to defeat the communists at the same game... [Freedom's Laboratory is] an excellent study on a topic that deserves more attention."

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