[Marxism] American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science (book review)

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Thu Aug 30 15:05:17 MDT 2007

a lukewarm ending, but ok for those interested in history of science.  
in full, since it is behind a subscription.


Science 31 August 2007: Vol. 317. no. 5842, pp. 1173 - 1174  DOI: 

HISTORY OF SCIENCE:  The U.S. in the Rebuilding of European Science 
American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe
by John Krige
MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006. 388 pp. $40, £25.95.
ISBN 9780262112970. Transformations: Studies in the History of Science 
and Technology.

... reviewed by  Jean-Paul Gaudillière*

One day in 1946, the French biochemist Jacques Monod visited the 
laboratories at the marine biological station in Woods Hole. The visit 
made a strong impression on him, as he noted in a letter to his wife:

    Very big laboratories, huge library, three seminars a week,
    impressive organization, etc. The idea that 350 biologists are
    working here, that they accumulate observations; that they complete
    experiments, measurements, weightings; that they operate Warburg
    apparatus, centrifuges, and microtomes while piling up articles. All
    this has a somehow depressing effect on me. I am used to thinking
    that my work is something rare, highly personal, something I have
    almost invented. In my understanding, this is what makes it
    valuable. Here it is no longer possible to cherish such illusions. I
    feel the same way I felt on [Jones] Beach, when facing 50,000 cars
    and 500,000 bathers.

This reaction was not rare. European scientists traveling in the United 
States during the first decade after World War II experienced mixed 
feelings. They perceived the U.S. research system simultaneously as a 
model, a challenge, and a threat.

Such ambiguous relationships are at the center of John Krige's American 
Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe. The issue 
of the role the sciences played in transatlantic affairs after 1945 is 
important. We all suspect that U.S. aid was as crucial to the 
reconstruction of European science as it was to the economic 
reconstruction of the old continent. However, this conclusion is 
unsubstantiated, because historians of science have rarely addressed the 
question. When discussing science and the Cold War, they have explored 
the intellectual achievements of the period, the advent of big science 
as a system of funding, or the material culture of the physics 
laboratory. Krige's novel and timely perspective has been to investigate 
the mobilization of science for general political goals and more 
precisely to explore the uses of science policy as an instrument in the 
construction of U.S. postwar hegemony.

Hegemony is evidently a question of power, but it does not simply mean 
order, control, and command. U.S. elites of the postwar era placed a 
strong emphasis on the intimate and quasi-natural alliance of market 
economy, freedom, and democracy as the essence of American specificity. 
As a consequence, Krige (a historian at the Georgia Institute of 
Technology) suggests, hegemony was not only to be manifested and 
reproduced but also to be accepted by those who had to live with it--and 
to some extent co-constructed with them, at least with those living on 
the old continent. The scientific relations between the United States 
and (Western) European countries constitute a privileged terrain for 
evaluating this thesis because the engagement of the United States, both 
governmental and private, was massive and, the book demonstrates, had a 
substantial impact on the reshaping of European science.

The seven core chapters present case studies based on a remarkable set 
of U.S. archives. They provide immensely valuable and original 
information, especially when dealing with developments that other 
historians have previously analyzed from a European and more 
intellectual perspective (for example, the growth of nuclear physics and 
the rise of molecular biology).

The book contrasts two periods. The earlier one was shaped by the 
Marshall Plan, which first put science on the agenda of postwar 
international affairs. The case of Germany is typical. The initial 
policy was to "cripple down" German industrial and military 
capabilities. That resulted in a tight control of all research 
activities under the occupation forces. Impossible to sustain in the 
context of a mounting Cold War, it was replaced in 1948 with the idea 
that the local scientists should contribute to the defense of the "Free 
World." U.S. authorities adopted a policy of selective grants that 
barred nothing except military research, and the local Marshall aid 
included specific financing for the German scientific instrument industry.

This logic of heavily political aid did not only determine the 
initiatives of the U.S. government such as those of the Office of Naval 
Research, one of the first federal institutions to send researchers on 
European tours to evaluate needs and possibilities. Private 
philanthropic foundations also took up the prospects of restoration. The 
book's two chapters on the Rockefeller Foundation's policy in France are 
especially enlightening. They show how the foundation quickly resumed 
its prewar practices of close partnership with a core of elite 
scientists, whom it supported with travel and equipment grants, and also 
adapted to the new circumstances. Rockefeller officers thus agreed to 
give the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (a 
governmental agency gathering full-time researchers in state 
laboratories outside the university) major grants to be administered 
collectively. Giving the French physicists and biologists access to the 
most recent instrumentation--in a continuation of prewar Rockefeller 
Foundation policies supporting the development of physical and chemical 
techniques for the study of life--was deemed an essential mean for 
reshaping and modernizing a system plagued with isolation, poverty, and 
a rigid hierarchy.

One major paradox of the period is that an emphasis on academic freedom 
and purity and the absence of political engagement flourished among U.S. 
scientists and policy-makers precisely at a time when researchers' ties 
to the state and the military had become stronger than ever. A peculiar 
equation linking good science, liberal democracy, and the market economy 
justified policies that would have been considered unacceptable 20 years 
earlier. The liberals in charge of the Rockefeller Foundation thus 
gradually adopted the notion that "red" or even "pink" scientists could 
not benefit from grants, that a researcher with communist inclinations 
could not (by definition) be a good and free scientist. Thus, in spite 
of his intimate knowledge of the United States and his prewar 
acquaintances there, the French biochemist Boris Ephrussi had a very 
difficult time defending the prospect of a major grant for the creation 
of a genetic institute in a country where the communist party benefited 
from a quarter of the votes, where the Atomic Energy Commission was 
under the lead of Frédéric Joliot-Curie, a party member, and where (the 
New York officers thought) left-minded geneticists might well support 

The reconstruction that Krige discusses reached a turning point in the 
second half of the 1950s. In the context of the 1956 uprising in Hungary 
and the consciousness that any nuclear war would annihilate both 
empires, U.S. officials understood the launch of Sputnik as a portent of 
a coming scientific supremacy of the Soviet Union, a supremacy that was 
to be avoided by all means. They sought to solve the alleged western 
"manpower problem" in a transatlantic rather than an American way, with 
the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the leading role. During the 
1960s, NATO started to distribute fellowships and organize meetings on a 
grand scale, supporting the biological and the social as well as the 
physical sciences. The book vividly describes how NATO collaborated with 
the Ford Foundation in turning CERN into a truly collective platform 
visited by dozens of U.S. high-energy physicists engaged in an ongoing 
and highly competitive dialog with their European colleagues.

All projects were not so successful. Krige's fine-grained analysis of 
the 1960s plan to create a "European MIT" shows how misconceived were 
some plans aiming at a simple transposition of U.S. practices. The MIT 
model was defined as an international teaching institution: autonomous 
from the local universities, promoting interdisciplinary research, 
combining the acquisition of knowledge and the development of 
technologies, and strongly linked to industry. This NATO-backed European 
MIT did not die because de Gaulle opposed its creation, although the 
deterioration of relations between France and NATO during the 1960s did 
play a role. Rather, it failed because the project met strong resistance 
in universities in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom because it 
would drain some of the best brains out of the national research systems 
precisely at a time when these institutions were experiencing major 
reorganization and rapid growth.

Krige's account provides strong support for his concept of a co-produced 
hegemony. He convincingly combines the idea of an American empire 
engaged in the defense of free-market economy, individual rights, and 
political democracy with the perception of a science radically changed 
by the Cold War. The hegemony the United States exerted was consensual 
in the sense that important segments of the scientific elite in Europe 
shared the values associated with the permanent mobilization of research 
and therefore willingly participated in the design and implementation of 
"Atlantic" policies. American hegemony nonetheless meant uneven power 
and uneven access to resources, with the unavoidable failures that 
originate in one-sided views.

Is this co-produced hegemony purely a thing of the past? One must 
recognize that the nature and ways of operating of the "empire" have 
been dramatically altered in the 1980s and 1990s through an increasing 
emphasis on global markets, technological innovation, and corporate 
research and development. Nonetheless, the example of the failed 
European MIT offers a good reminder that history matters when looking at 
contemporary science policies.

The reviewer is at Centre de Recherche Médecine, Science, Santé, et 
Société (CERMES),  Villejeuif Cedex, France.

<mailto:gaudilli at vjf.cnrs.fr>

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