The 20th-Century Problem: Krige and National Narrative November 8, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
Tags: Cathryn Carson, Dieter Hoffmann, Gabrielle Hecht, Jessica Wang, John Krige, Kristie Macrakis, Niels Bohr, Philip Morse
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.