Video: “Science in the McCarthy Period: Training Ground for Scientists as Public Citizens” Lawrence Badash
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Chris Petersen: Our next speaker is Dr. Lawrence Badash, Professor Emeritus of History of Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Dr. Badash has been a NATO Post-doctoral Science Fellow at Cambridge University, a Guggenheim Fellow, Visiting Professor of International Studies at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation’s Summer Seminar on Global Security and Arms Control, a lecture on the nuclear arms race at the Inter-University Center of Postgraduate Studies in Dubrovnik, Croatia, along with many, many other decorations. His research is centered on the physical sciences of the past century, especially the development of radioactivity and nuclear physics, on the role of scientists in the nuclear arms race, and on the interaction of science and society. Badash has authored or edited six books and is currently finishing a book on the science and politics of the nuclear winter phenomenon. His talk today is titled, "Science in the McCarthy Period: Training Ground for Scientists as Public Citizens." Please join me in welcoming Dr. Lawrence Badash. [Applause] [1:23]
Lawrence Badash: In 1954, the White House and the Atomic Energy Commission sought to keep secret from Senator Joseph McCarthy the scheduled security clearance hearing on J. Robert Oppenheimer. A frustrated President Eisenhower said "We’ve got to handle this so that all our scientists are not made out to be Reds." He feared that "that Goddamn McCarthy is just likely to try such a thing."
McCarthy was not the only demagogue to try that "thing," namely, to call into question the loyalty of scientists (and educators, public servants, Hollywood actors and film writers, and others whose political philosophy, then or at some earlier date, was liberal, left, socialist, or even Communist). McCarthy behaved with such reckless brutality that he gave his name to a period. But this interval was not his alone. The House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated alleged Communists in the movie industry as early as 1947. This was three years before the senator became a menace on the national scene with his famous attack upon alleged traitors in the State Department (9 Feb. 1950), and six years before he reached the pinnacle of his power as chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee and its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
As late as 1961, the prominent French physicists Michel Langevin and his wife Hélèn Langevin, respectively grandson of the famed physicist Paul Langevin and daughter of Nobel laureates Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie, were refused visas to attend a conference on nuclear physics in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The American State Department feared that they were Communists. This was seven years after McCarthy was censured by the Senate and his power crushed. Thus, the period of McCarthyism, roughly 1945 to 1960, was associated also with legislation, presidential directives, and such men in Congress as Patrick McCarran, William Jenner, Harold Velde, J. Parnell Thomas, and Thomas Dodd.
Paradoxically, the enormous successes of science in this period stirred great fear that the geese who laid such golden eggs might choose also to fill a nest in the Kremlin. Triumphs of science and engineering included thermonuclear warheads, intercontinental ballistic missiles, satellites, expensive accelerators at Stanford, Berkeley, and Brookhaven, and much more. However, instead of carrots as rewards for such achievements, scientists were too frequently shown the stick. This approach took a variety of forms: American scientists wishing to travel abroad were at times denied their passports, foreign scientists planning to visit this country experienced visa denials, there was interference with constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and beliefs, loyalty oaths were imposed, the exchange of scientific information was sometimes blocked, jobs were lost, loyalty investigations were required for employment, grants, and fellowships that involved no classified matter. These barriers to the normal flow of scientific activity popped up so often that a fog of uncertainty settled over the profession. But it is refreshing to see that, very often, scientists fought back. And it is my conclusion that they were more effective than other groups. Let me give just a few examples of such protest.
In most cases, those who suffered the unfairness of bureaucrats and inquisitors learned that polite, quiet negotiations did not work. When a decision was reversed or a demagogue backed off, it was likely the result of unflattering publicity. Even when conditions did not change, public protest might shame the person misusing authority and alert others to the problem. Silence was not golden.
In a famous case, Linus Pauling failed to obtain a passport in 1952, to attend a conference on proteins held at the Royal Society of London. The State Department’s behavior not only astonished and shocked his British hosts, but was publicized by the Federation of American Scientists in its Newsletter, by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and by the international press. Indeed, such a groundswell of condemnation arose in the United Kingdom, France, and across America that, to end this public relations disaster, Secretary of State Dean Acheson overruled Passport Division head Ruth Shipley both to create a formal appeal process and to give Pauling a passport (too late for the London meeting). Protest could change policy.
Radiochemist Martin Kamen, was another scientist to be denied a passport. One of the discoverers of carbon-14, he worked in the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory before and during World War II. Sympathetic to left-wing politics, he indiscreetly dined with two Soviet consular officials who were stationed in San Francisco. That error, in 1944, when the Rad Lab was conducting secret research on the separation of uranium isotopes, got him fired. It also provoked the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the postwar period to suggest that he was a member of a spy ring. Kamen sued for his passport in 1954, claiming a lack of due process in its denial, especially a flawed appeal process at the State Department. He was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the council of the Federation of American Scientists. Ultimately, he got his passport, and judicial review of the process was established.
Physicist Ralph Lapp, who had worked on the Manhattan Project and later decided to earn his living as an author, called himself the first science journalist. He was perhaps best known for The Voyage of the Lucky Dragon, his book on the American nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean, in 1954, which contaminated Japanese fishermen. Using only unclassified information and his own educated reasoning, Lapp became a thorn in the side of the Atomic Energy Commission, which preferred a less vigorous dissemination of the news, or, better still, secrecy. Puzzled at the delay when he sought to renew his expired passport the next year, in order to cover an "Atoms for Peace" conference in Geneva, Lapp learned from contacts within the State Department that AEC chairman Lewis Strauss had insisted that his application be rejected. Lapp thereupon declared that he would call a press conference if the passport was not issued within two days. State apparently was annoyed by the AEC chairman’s meddling, realized that it had no basis to deny Lapp the passport, and may have been unwilling to face the publicity that this Washington insider could generate. The passport was issued. The times were changing, and even the threat of bad exposure could rectify an injustice.
Joseph Koepfli, an American chemist who went to Oxford for his doctorate (1928), was US science attaché in London for a year in the late 1940s, held a research position at Caltech, and then was the first science advisor in the State Department, starting around 1950. It was, he felt, in the national interest to bring European scientists to the US for longer or shorter periods, even those with Communist leanings. We should benefit from their skills, not the Soviets. However, the Internal Security Act of 1950, also known as the McCarran Act, was a great stumbling block. It explicitly made American consular officers, who had final say in issuing visas, subject to a $5,000 fine and imprisonment if they violated the law, which was designed to keep out Communists. With good reason, therefore, the consuls were exceedingly cautious in granting visas.
Koepfli spent more than half his time during the first six months of 1951, trying to circumvent the McCarran Act’s restrictions. Primarily, he sought to have the attorney general exercise a provision in the act that allowed entry of such foreigners. Another technique was to pull a file from the backlog in the State Department’s visa division (651 in mid-1950; 6,617 in mid-1951; 9,187 at end of 1951) and hand-carry it through the red tape and ponderous bureaucracy. Koepfli prevailed in a few efforts, such as gaining a visa for a Danish scientist to attend a symposium at Cold Spring Harbor, but successes were all too rare.
Visa denials became notorious after the Federation of American Scientists released a "Report on the visa situation" in mid-1952. A committee chaired by the distinguished MIT physicist Victor Weisskopf assembled information on about sixty denied or indefinitely delayed visas, and estimated the actual number to be more than three times larger. In other terms, this was about half the number of foreign scientists who applied. The FAS report received significant exposure by its publication in a special issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which appended about two dozen examples beyond the several that were taken from the report. These personal stories gave an agonizing human dimension to criticism of the State Department. Coming at the same time that Linus Pauling’s passport difficulties made headlines, the scientific community clearly had abandoned attempts at quiet diplomacy to resolve the government’s intransigence.
International gatherings in many fields followed schedules that could not be postponed because of individual problems. Thus, to preclude the "humiliating and paralyzing delays" anticipated in the visa application process, some meetings were moved from the United States. Simultaneous with the BAS special issue on visas and Pauling’s passport news, the American Psychological Association pointedly invited the 1954 International Congress of Psychology to gather not in New York but in Montreal, where it planned to play host with its Canadian colleagues to the expected 600 scientists from abroad. The International Congress of Genetics and the International Astronomical Union also shifted meetings away from the US.
Protests against the pressure for conformity, or thought control, took a number of forms. The most famous occurred when men resigned from their jobs rather than sign loyalty oaths. In some cases the individual had been a member of a political group that made him ineligible under the university’s or the state’s rules. The other instances involved professors whose politics were not necessarily left-wing, but who deplored discrimination against the teaching profession by the demand that they sign a loyalty oath. Among those who took the latter, principled stance, and left the University of California, were physicist David Saxon of UCLA (who later became president of the entire university), and physicist Wolfgang Panofsky (who had a distinguished career at Stanford, directing the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center). Physicist Edward Teller initially accepted an offer from UCLA in 1950, but then declined it, not wishing to benefit from a post made available by someone who refused to sign the loyalty oath.
Another form of defiance, and of implied disapproval of the inquisitorial behavior of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was the election of physicist E. U. Condon to the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for 1953. Despite years of doubt cast upon his loyalty by HUAC, including forcing his resignation as director of the National Bureau of Standards, members of the AAAS gave Condon an enthusiastic reception at their annual meeting.
The following year, when J. Robert Oppenheimer was publicly humiliated by the loss of his Atomic Energy Commission security clearance, and the act was widely seen as political retaliation for scientific advice certain agencies did not want, there was much fear that scientists would in future be unwilling to advise or work for the government. Withholding their services was perhaps the greatest weapon scientists could make as a form of protest. (In fact, there is little evidence that the threat was carried out.)
Yet another form of disapproval—this time regarding security investigations for those applying for grants from such agencies as the AEC and the Public Health Service to do unclassified research—was the rejection of an award or a pledge not to apply for one. It is almost unheard of to find a vulnerable graduate student involved in these issues, but Barbara J. Bachmann, working toward her degree at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, in 1950 turned down her AEC fellowship when Congress required loyalty vetting. Noted Harvard biochemist John T. Edsall, disturbed by the intrusion of political criteria in PHS awards, in 1955 announced that he would "neither ask for nor accept funds from any Government agency that denies support to others for unclassified research for reasons unconnected with scientific competence or personal integrity."
When Albert Einstein in 1953 urged those summoned before congressional investigating committees to show their scorn and refuse to testify—and some followed his advice—he was criticized by Joseph McCarthy and by the California Republican Party, which called the revered scientist a "free-loading refugee." But Einstein made his point.
Even sarcasm was marshaled to display opposition to the rigidity of the national security state. A physicist assured the chairman of a federal loyalty board that, although he was known to challenge old ideas in science, the board need not fear his unorthodox views, for he did not reject everything. "I am," he said,"a strong supporter of Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, Willard Gibbs, Clerk Maxwell, and various other scientists . . . including Archimedes. I believe in Archimedes’ principles wholeheartedly and without any reservations whatsoever. Some of the details of the legends as to whether he really shouted Eureka when he was taking a bath I don’t know."
An example of a barrier to information exchange occurred in 1955, when the AEC refused to allow Nobel laureate Herman J. Muller to present a paper at an international conference in Geneva because he mentioned the awkward word Hiroshima (and was known as one who believed the danger of radiation from testing was serious). Although barred from the program, Muller attended the meeting and received a standing ovation as he sat in the audience. The AEC immediately recognized its blunder, apologized, and allowed his paper to be printed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The word Hiroshima appeared several times.
Employment could be used as a form of protest, when the scientist resigned from a government position. This occurred in 1948, when physicist Philip M. Morse left the directorship of the newly created Brookhaven National Laboratory and returned to MIT. Morse was distraught that HUAC’s inquisitions poisoned the air such that scientists were unwilling to work for the government (although he claimed that initial press stories overstated that reason).
Another case that illustrates the tensions of the period was that of Paul Lee, a physicist who made his reputation during World War II at the Polaroid Corporation. Around 1950, Lee moved to the Central Intelligence Agency, where he became deputy director for science. In a routine polygraphed interview, he was asked if he had any relatives or friends who were Communists. He replied "no," and added that some were pretty far left politically, but no one had asked him to join the Party. When requested to supply the names of these people, Lee declined, feeling that they had done nothing wrong and should not be on a list of suspected subversives. For this "helluv-an-attitude-for-a-senior-intelligence-officer" he was asked to resign, and told he should not expect to work for any business where he would need security clearance.
Joseph Volpe, a former general counsel of the AEC and a distinguished Washington attorney, represented Lee at a hearing in the federal courthouse in New York City, and convinced the board to restore Lee’s clearance. About a dozen scientists testified on Lee’s behalf, one returning from Europe and another arriving on a stretcher, indicating how important they felt the issue to be. But the key to overturning Lee’s loss of clearance seems to have been the strength of his legal case and the weakness of the government’s. With an implied threat to sue for damages to his future earnings, Lee’s protest succeeded. He did not ask to be restored to his old job at the CIA, but did test his reinstated clearance by requesting and obtaining an appointment as a consultant to the Agency.
Chemist Joseph Koepfli had left his post as science adviser in the State Department and returned to Caltech. At the end of 1953, almost a year after the Eisenhower administration took office, the U.S. News and World Report ran a six-page story entitled "Turmoil inside State Department: Acheson men cling to power, Republicans struggle to get in." It was a stunningly vague article, full of insinuation and innuendo. An anonymous official was quoted as saying that the "Science Adviser’s office was a stink hole of out-and-out Communists." His addition of the modifier "I think," did little to undo the damage. In Koepfli’s mind, the reference had to be to his past efforts to bring foreign scientists to the US, circumventing the denial of visas by consuls. Outraged, this lifelong Republican threatened to sue the magazine for slander. U.S. News and World Report owner and editor David Lawrence quickly printed a retraction: "Our investigation indicates that there are not and were not any Communists in the Science Adviser’s office and we regret the publication of the material quoted above." Once again, vigorous protest of outrageous charges (and fear of liability for damages) could lead to their withdrawal.
What was the effect of these several examples of vigorous protest? A job was protected here, a passport was issued there, a visa was gained somewhere else, an investigating committee backed off yet elsewhere. In sum the victories were relatively few and minor. But the precedents were important: fair procedures, judicial review, protection of rights, appeals to public opinion. In time they snowballed to end the McCarthy period. I believe that scientists had an effect upon the politics of the day.
The reciprocal, the effect of these troubled times upon science, is harder to gauge. The turmoil, distraction from the business of science, and animosities between scientists of different political persuasions surely were counter-productive. Similarly, we cannot calculate the losses to science of Americans forced abroad for jobs, foreigners prevented from holding posts in American institutions, fellowship and grant applications that were not approved, and the numerous shackles on scientific communication. It is impossible to tally discoveries that were not made or to balance them against what actually did occur.
But the very oppression of the scientific community was a mark of its importance, while individual and group protest against the evils of the McCarthy period signified their attainment of political maturity. It is here that I would like to suggest that the scientific community benefited a bit. After the limited foray into the science-society relationship in 1945-1946, when scientists sought domestic and international control of the atom, the community was brought back by 1950 into greater engagement with the rest of society. In following years, scientific societies enlarged their traditional role beyond conducting meetings and publishing journals. Soon, they issued reports (on reactor safety, ballistic missile defense, etcetera) and made public statements. Some professional groups even took stands on non-technical issues, such as whether to hold conferences in states that had not voted to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. The McCarthy period, ugly as it was, was a training ground for scientists as public citizens, a skill that continued to be needed. [Applause] [27:08]
Chris Petersen: Any questions for Mr. Badash?
Bassam Shakhashiri: I’m curious if there were interactions between Linus Pauling and Glenn Seaborg, either while Seaborg was chair of AEC, or any other time with respect to issues related to the use of nuclear energy or nuclear weapons.
Lawrence Badash: Seaborg became chair under Kennedy. I once had the pleasure of meeting him and he told me he was atomic energy chair longer than anyone else and under three presidents: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. I don’t know how politically active he was prior to his going to Washington. Most of Linus Pauling’s activity, collecting signatures on anti-bomb-testing petitions was in the mid- to late-1950’s. So I don’t know how much overlap there was; I don’t know of any specific occasion when they discussed these things. Seaborg has published quite a number of books. He often farmed these out to people who wrote the books for him and then he put his name on them. So it’s hard to know how much is accurately Seaborg and how much is what other people have construed. The Seaborg literature is difficult stuff to go through. I just don’t know about the connection to Pauling. [28:45]
Bassam Shakhashiri: It’s striking to me that two such giants in science and chemistry, who had an influence on our government and our daily lives, did not talk about the question that I asked. Maybe it’s there and we don’t know about it. I once asked Glenn, when he was on my advisory committee at the NSF (Professor Herschbach was on the committee too), I asked him privately about Linus Pauling and he didn’t say anything. And I felt it was inappropriate to follow through. My question was out of context; we were talking about something else and it just flew out of my mouth. [29:38]
Audience Member: You mentioned that silence isn’t golden. Do you think that the process that involves the use of publicity in order to change agencies’ [behavior] . . . still works, given the change that has taken place in the media? Can one actually use the media, as certain scientists did, to shame the government into…[trailing off]
Lawrence Badash: Well, if not shame the government, one can certainly use the media to get a point across. Carl Sagan was another person who was well known for being a "media darling," so to speak, who always had something quotable to say. There are some people who have that talent. Basically, you’re not going to get things done by keeping quiet. So you use whatever tools you have to get your point across. Sir. [30:49]
Audience Member: Is there any analogy between the McCarthy Era and Homeland Security?
Lawrence Badash: Any analogy between the McCarthy Era and Homeland Security? That’s worthy of a symposium itself. I would say that suppression of information, particularly scientists’ information, by political appointees in the current administration could qualify as one of those comparisons. And just an anti-scientist attitude, among a lot of the public and administration, might be another point. I’m sure you could find many differences but, yes, I do see some similarities. [31:46]
Audience Member: Do you think that the Sputnik [launch] helped to put an end to the negative perception of scientists?
Lawrence Badash: Did Sputnik’s lofting in 1957 put an end to the suppression of scientists? Somewhat yes, but mostly no, because I think the process was well under way by that time. McCarthy had been censured, the Supreme Court was coming down with a ruling, somewhere in the mid 50’s, saying that American citizens have a right to a passport. It’s not a privilege, it cannot be denied, except for a very, very good cause. So there were a lot of things going on and I think the American public was tiring of this oppression. Another comparison now and then is fear mongering. If the administration wants to get its policies followed, it picks an enemy—communism then, terrorism now—and fear mongers. It says that we have to do these dreadful things, violate the Constitution, to protect ourselves. So we protect ourselves out of our rights. There are these similarities. But I think enough was going on by the mid-1950’s that the McCarthy period and its oppression had come to an end.
However, in a book I’m writing I’m making the argument that that was just a rather high point on a series of oscillations throughout American history, of looking at people who are a bit different and criticizing them and oppressing them. You had the Wen Ho Lee case a few years back of someone who was "other" and defined as a scapegoat. During the Reagan administration you had foreign scientists forbidden to attend American scientific meetings that were open, where classified material was not discussed. These were open meetings, but foreigners could not attend for fear of technology transfer. So there’s always something going on and we react by closing in and protecting ourselves against the free flow of scientific information. And it turns out that it cycles a lot. The McCarthy period was so notorious that it became a high point, but it’s not unique. [34:37]
Chris Petersen: One more, over here…
Audience Member: I would like to add a little local flavor about how people are still adverse to Linus Pauling, unfortunately, here in the Corvallis community. A lot of us had full confidence in our school board, that they would make the right decision and name the new middle school Linus Pauling Middle School. Unfortunately, we were all surprised that the McCarthy Era had kind of reappeared, and the school board voted unanimously to name the school after Avery, the town’s founder, instead of Linus Pauling. It was infuriating, so we woke up and went to the school board meetings. They retracted their decision and decided to name our new middle school Linus Pauling Middle School. [Applause]
Chris Petersen: Ok. Well, its break time, so we’ll take about twenty minutes and reconvene at ten till. Thank you. [35:39]
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