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The 20th-Century Problem: Needell and Biography November 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
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In the history of science, the 20th century is unique in terms of the sheer scale, social importance, and intellectual diversity of the scientific enterprise, and the closeness of its relationship to the development and design of technology.  This can create some intimidating historiographical challenges.

For example, as National Air and Space Museum historian Allan Needell observes in his 2000 book, Science, Cold War, and the American State: Lloyd V. Berkner and the Balance of Professional Ideals, “the Cold War relationships among scientists, politicians, the expanding national security bureaucracy, and advocates of more broadly based technocratic initiatives are extraordinarily complex” (3).  It sounds obvious enough, but it resonates with me—I think it’s that “extraordinarily” that speaks to the sense of confusion following the sobering encounter with the archive, particularly a major one, such as the US National Archives here in College Park, Maryland.  Having seen reams of committee minutes, reports, and correspondence documenting the (often painfully mundane) organizational details of a seemingly endless stream of institutions and initiatives, I know that the question inevitably arises: “What in the hell am I going to do with all this?”

Figuring out what is to be done demands a set of historiographical tools capable of analyzing scientific and engineering work in general ways: it can be extremely limiting to concentrate on singular narratives of significance (say, the history of DNA or elementary particle theory), because it would ignore entire categories of important work that can only be fruitfully analyzed in terms of the evolution of research programs or other general trends, instead of great breakthroughs.  It can feel like—indeed, it is—a real accomplishment to reassemble even a single strand of narrative from the archival morass.  But faced with the insignificance of any individual narrative, it can be depressing to consider the fact that hundreds of similar narratives are playing out at the same time.

A key strategy is to take hold of certain life preservers that pop out of the depths of the archival record, such as familiar players.  In military archives, one is often faced with the frustrating experience of finding lots of mid-level administrators identified only according to some inscrutable abbreviated title (e.g. “ACNS(W)”)  and maybe a messy signature (if one doesn’t have a carbon copy of an original document).  Finding a famous scientist in the mix can seem like meeting an old friend on the street of a foreign country where one doesn’t speak the language.

Needell feels that such figures can serve as a useful guide, observing that the complexities of the historical terrain “strongly suggest … the wisdom of looking closely at the actions and influences of key individuals—those who made the arguments, the decisions, and the compromises that shaped the Cold War interactions between science and the government” (3).

He uses Lloyd Berkner, a radio physicist who (he emphasizes) was not an academic: he was on the Byrd Antarctic expedition, worked at the National Bureau of Standards, the Carengie Institution of Washington, and was president of Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) in the 1950s (an inter-university organization, initially set up to administer Brookhaven National Laboratory on behalf of the federal government).  Berkner was one of the more important scientific movers and shakers in the postwar era, but in that world the importance of any given individual must be considered circumscribed.  Needell is aware of this, noting, “It is my hope that the richness and depth of this account of a single man’s experience and influences will prove useful to at least some ambitious enough to ask and insightful enough to answer [questions about relations between scientists and the state in the Cold War]” (8).

Twenty-four hour party people: Berkner and NSF Director Alan Waterman signing the contract establishing the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (1956), photo credit: Chase, Ltd. Photo, National Science Foundation, from the AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

As a preliminary guide to various postwar projects, Needell’s book is essential, containing information on Defense Department’s short-lived Research and Development Board (RDB), the construction of the DEW Line continental radar defense network, the organization of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58, the State Department’s Project Troy (which worked to develop the technical capabilities and content of Voice of America radio broadcasts), and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (created under AUI auspices).  In fact, Needell’s book was contemporaneous with, and has been followed by, other histories that lend further insight into the RDB, the IGY, and (I believe) Project Troy.

As an introduction to science in the Cold War state, the focus on Berkener presents some danger: as the various initiatives with which Berkner was involved pile up, it can be difficult to place these initiatives in the broader context of quite similar institutions and initiatives not mentioned, or mentioned only in passing.  I decided to read the book cover-to-cover for the first time a week or so ago to see how it would read in light of my other work over the past few years.  I found that my ability to contextualize the episodes Needell recounts was much improved by facts I’d picked up only very recently.

Likewise, it can be difficult to judge the significance of Berkner’s particular role, ranging from interested observer to initiating figure to central player.  Especially in the 1950s, it is important to remember that Berkner’s only position with authority was in AUI, which (as Carnegie Institution president Vannevar Bush noted when Berkner left) was an oddly marginalized place to choose to be, since the organization was a purely administrative entity.  Mainly Berkner was an adviser, which is a position that the historiography has often played up at the expense of examining actual policymakers (perhaps because academics and other publicly known figures tended to occupy advisorial rather than responsible positions).

Given the variable perspective that following Berkner offers, it is not clear how much the details of protracted committee-level negotiations (what I think of as the “view from the archive folder”) contribute to broader understanding.  It is a common style of presentation, and, at a basic level, I know from personal experience that one is loath to simply gloss over the labor involved in reassembling these negotiations.

More importantly, though, the terms of negotiation often seem to be revealing of some larger narrative or set of ideas.  Just as one can use familiar figures as a guide, one can also pick out and follow familiar themes.  In the historiography of post-1945 America, well-rehearsed themes include tensions between patronage and independence, the power of organizations versus the versatility of small projects, the virtues of openness versus the political demands of the Cold War, the benefits of technology versus its limitations and liabilities.  Needell finds in the meat of the negotiations the “balance of professional ideals” in the Cold War state.

The question, though, is whether the local narrative is revealing or reflective.  I like to think of the archive as something like a Greek oracle.  It always answers no matter what you ask it, and if you get a cryptic answer, you always think it’s an answer to the question you’ve asked.  In a sense, the themes highlighted in Berkner’s work are perennial.  Any given organizational decision may reflect these themes, without the problems suggested by them necessarily being in the balance.  It may be that seeing the reflection of large themes in the archive will prevent the archive from revealing issues that are a little less grand, but perhaps of more immediate consequence.  In this sense, I find the less expansive, but deeply-parsed book-length analysis of the postwar V-2 panel by David DeVorkin (also at the Smithsonian) to be a useful stylistic comparison.

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