jump to navigation

The 20th-Century Problem: Krige and National Narrative November 8, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In my last discussion of the challenges involved in writing about the history of science in the 20th century, I noted that local narratives can be taken to be revealing of broader issues, but that such narratives can also simply reflect back some larger narrative already understood to exist.  In this post we take this consideration to the case of the national narrative.

John Krige’s 2006 book American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe is, I would say, an important step in the establishment of a historiography of post-1945 science on the European continent.  Until recently, the history of scientific Europe in this period has not been systematically explored.  1999’s Science under Socialism, edited by Dieter Hoffmann and Kristie Macrakis (who just joined Krige at Georgia Tech this year), etched out a picture of science in East Germany.  Cathryn Carson has written on science in West Germany (publications list here).  In 1998’s The Radiance of France (out in a new edition this year), Gabrielle Hecht wrote on the development of the unusually important nuclear power industry in that country.  The object here is not to put together a complete bibliography, but if anyone wants to add to the picture of this historiography, please do leave a comment.

Krige’s book covers a lot of important bases, looking at the Marshall Plan, NATO, the State Department and CIA, the activities of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and the establishment of CERN (on which he has written more extensively elsewhere) as institutions linking American and European science and politics.  (Here one should also make note of Ron Doel‘s ongoing project to study American science’s diplomatic uses.)  Similar to Needell’s book on Lloyd Berkner, the emphasis here is on individual cases.  In this case, different deliberations are marshaled into a narrative linking the “reconstruction” of scientific Europe to the larger narrative of America’s political “hegemony” in western Europe as part of an effort to build a bulwark against Soviet influence in the east: “The case study approach I have followed does not make for an integrated narrative.  Each example throws into relief a different facet of the process of empire building.  Underlying them all is the struggle to contain Communism” (256-7).

The book walks a line between confrontation and conservativeness in its claims: “This book is not ‘anti-American.’  My argument is permeated not with hostility to the United States but with a sense of the Realpolitik and its meaning in the Cold War.  I reject as morally arrogant and self-deceptive that view of American exceptionalism that hold that whereas ‘other states had interests, the United States had responsibilities’: all great powers have both” (14).  Krige is challenging Geir Lundestad here.

The book’s thesis and its analytical focus on archive-level negotiations seem designed to persuade those who might be convinced of an utter lack of self-interest and a complete purity of idealism in American foreign policy.  The term “hegemony” is used to reject such a position; the term’s definition is watered down in such a way that the story cannot help but stick.  Hegemony, Krige emphasizes, is “co-produced”, meaning that European beneficiaries of American scientific assistance not only agreed to its terms, but enthusiastically so.  He further details American elite scientists’ respect for European autonomy, with the obvious constraint that American resources not be used to support communism.  That such measures were insufficient to allay all criticism, including French reluctance to commit to transatlantic alliances (as expressed most clearly in de Gaulle’s 1966 withdrawal from NATO) can be seen as further evidence that such forms of intervention constituted a hegemony.  The lack of overt exercise of power merely serves to render that hegemony less visible.

The overarching picture Krige presents is surely correct: the American scientific model was both highly influential, and American resources were not provided free of American approval of the ends to which they would be put.  I suspect this argument is unlikely to reach an audience that needs to be convinced of it.  This, to my mind, makes the focus on national narrative unfortunate, since it tends to take on an overriding importance in the presentation of more local narratives.

That scientific diplomacy was designed to accord with American foreign policy goals is obvious; that diplomatic goals were in the balance in the intricacies of scientific politics is not, yet the presentation continually takes it for granted that they were.  This results in some strained presentation, as when Krige suggests on p. 185 that Niels Bohr might have ethically erred in the mid-’50s in not informing international guests at his Copenhagen institute—if, indeed, he didn’t; “we will probably never know”—that he was being funded by the Ford Foundation, and that his Ford Foundation contact, Shepard Stone, was explicitly aligning the Foundation’s programs with those of the CIA’s ironic (but, Krige allows, sincere and unalloyed) plot to promote an image of the United States as a supporter of open dialogue between nations.  (It was of course expected that this dialogue would result in new strategically-useful information on what was happening in science behind the Iron Curtain.)

A similar sensibility inhabits Krige’s presentation of the development of NATO projects, wherein particular suggestions presented by Americans automatically become identified with the American hegemonic project, and rejection of said suggestions becomes anti-hegemonic “European” resistance.  Thus, when American NATO representatives present a scheme for an international MIT-like technology institute, its defeat is taken to be of clear significance in the narrative arc of American techno-hegemony, as well as clear evidence of the blindness of Americans to “local specificities and to existing European strengths” (225), even though the proposal was widely embraced by European representatives, even though the scheme’s opponents had no objections to the kind of education to be offered, and even though the eventual scuppering of the proposal seems to have been on the rather mundane grounds that it might negatively impact existing universities.

Similarly, when MIT physicist Philip Morse worked with NATO to spread operations research (OR) in European militaries in the early 1960s, his scheme to promote a pedagogy of OR not unlike that offered in his burgeoning program at MIT (which included instruction in advanced mathematical techniques) was rejected.  This is taken to represent a rejection of an “American” model of OR in favor of a British model.  What Krige does not note is that at that time American military OR was essentially identical to British OR, and that what Morse was promoting was still a fairly peculiar vision for OR training as it pertained to the military services.  Most of my own research on this subject is not widely published, and none of it was in 2006, so this should by no means have been clear (and I’m willing to accept counter-arguments).  However, more caution in equating the Morse model with an “American” model might have prevented confusion as to the larger meaning (or lack thereof) of the success or failure of this or that model of OR.

The incidents portrayed in Krige’s book are important contributions to the historiography.  In the area of OR, for instance, there is no other material on OR in NATO, and I myself have not researched the specific topic so it is useful to me personally.  Krige also makes important contributions to the historiography of the impact of anti-communism on scientific work (as in the work of Jessica Wang): anti-communism clearly became Rockefeller Foundation policy in the early 1950s—against the Foundation’s avowed lack of concern for scientists’ political beliefs—as Foundation officials worried that mainstream biologists with communist sympathies would use Foundation funds to promote Lysenkoism.  However, this book also reinforces my feeling that the labyrinthine 20th-century archive tends to reflect more than it reveals when read too strictly in view of pre-posed concerns, such as national narratives.



1. Will Thomas - November 22, 2009

I just got back from HSS where they had a session dedicated to discussion of this book. Also, I had the terrific luck to meet John Krige on my way to the conference on the Phoenix light rail, and we later had a really excellent conversation, including discussion of most of the points above. I won’t say too much since I don’t post on conference papers (except if they’re good and I want to highlight them) or on private conversations, but I will modify and clarify this post in light of what I learned.

First off, re: Niels Bohr, I missed the key point that Bohr agreed not to host physicists from communist countries (at least without permission). The degree of significance of the episode remains unclear for me: when contextualized against the politics of restrictions on travel and the staged politics of east-west exchange in the ’50s, how does the situation at the Bohr Institute fit in? Does it seem particularly unsavory on account of the second-hand CIA association? Alternatively, am I among those who are prepossessed to “save” the Niels Bohr phenomenon?

Second, Krige wanted to emphasize the widespread acceptance in political history circles of American “hegemony”, seeing it as a toning down from an alternative language of “empire”. As noted above, I do think the overarching picture of hegemony, defined in the way it is, is correct (though apparently others have questioned it). The question that sticks out to me is how individual incidents can serve as evidence of this hegemony.

Krige agreed that there is nothing innately American about suggestions made by Americans as there is nothing innately European about positions taken by those questioning those suggestions. He noted that the terms of American-European tension appears in the archive; suggestions by Americans become “American” by virtue of the fact that they are presented by American representatives. I can be convinced of this point, but I also feel it would place the meaning of the incident in the hands of those who invoked this tension as a rhetorical resource to support or resist certain suggestions. To me, the details of support or resistance seem at least as pertinent a context as the overarching context of national and international narratives, and are too important to leave their meaning to those with a stake in imbuing the suggestions with the significance of a national narrative.

Taking this perspective, how is the “hegemonic” situation produced (or co-produced, to stick to the book’s terminology) if individual incidents cannot so clearly be read as evidence of its formation? To take a shot at answering the question, it seems to me to be a way of describing a coincidence of a few phenomena: American scientific models exerting a strong influence in the development of European science, the more-or-less successful alignment of American and Western European postwar politics, and certain patterns of a rhetoric of influence and resistance used by certain actors.

I don’t think this position and Krige’s are so different—it turns out he loves a good historiographical debate as much as I do, and he wanted to make sure I wasn’t backing down when I emphasized this point. So, if I were to encapsulate the differences in the positions, I think that while we would both view hegemony, as defined, as a kind of emergent phenomenon, I would tend to view it as purely (or at least mainly) emergent, meaning that when considering any individual event, that event will more meaningfully be understood in terms of much more local contexts that do not identify a certain position on a certain issue (except for obvious bits like not having a nuclear reactor at CERN or the Bohr episode) as being a clear episode in the advancement of an American hegemonic project.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s