The Cold War and the Militarization of the Academy

It is a widely-discussed problem within higher education that the current job market is, to say the least, a difficult one. Universities are creating fewer and fewer tenure-track positions, relying on adjuncts, graduate students, and limited-term visiting professors for a growing share of the teaching load. Many if not most disciplines produce more PhDs than there are academic jobs to be filled. Public Universities in most states face the constant threat of reduced funding. One of the primary reasons for this state of affairs can be traced directly to the first fifteen years or so of the Cold War. In the years between World War II and 1960, the United States government began a massive and unparalleled investment in higher education, through grants, endowments, and the GI Bill, in order to promote its anti-Soviet agenda. The beginning of Perestroika and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, then, created a problem for American academics—the US university system had grown, over fifty years of federal investment for Cold War aims, to a point that was unsustainable without continued levels of funding. But when the specter of Communism was no enough to justify previous levels of spending, disinvestment began, and as is the case with most large, bureaucratic systems, the American university system was slow to react and adapt.

Three books that look at different disciplines in the years between 1945 and 1960, Jessica Wang’s American Science in an Age of Anxiety, Paul Edwards’s The Closed World, and Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, all point to the unprecedented tremendous investment made by the federal government at that time. Looking at the level to which the academy was, in effect, militarized in order to advance the Cold War cause, it becomes quickly apparent why this level of subsidizing academe would become unsustainable after the end of the Cold War.

Jessica Wang’s excellent American Science in an Age of Anxiety is a history of atomic scientists in the latter half of the 1940s. Wang’s account shows that there was a considerable level of initial trepidation among at least certain circles of atomic scientists about the increasing role of the federal government funding atomic research, fearing “that military patronage would adversely affect the content and character of physics research.” (38) A particularly clear expression of this fear can be found in Eugene Rabinowitz’s editorial “Science, a Branch of the Military?” in the 1946 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which worried about the subordination of scientific research to military goals, the suppression of traditional scientific exchange in the interest of national security, and the impression that such a relationship could give to the rest of the world that the US was determined to continue military buildup and pursue aggressive foreign policies. (39-40) Even further, some scientists initially argued that control and regulation of atomic technologies was too dangerous to be left in the hands of military-governmental bodies at all, and should rather be handled by an international body of dispassionate scientists committed to civilian applications of nuclear technologies.

Such dissenting voices to the direction of US atomic policy were functionally silenced within the scientific community within five years, however, due in large part to scrutiny and sometimes persecution in the name of domestic anti-communism by federal organizations, most notably the FBI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The post-World War II Red Scare had a profound chilling effect on dissident atomic scientists, Wang argues, by splitting the left into two camps—left anticommunists, who put practicality and spectacles of patriotism ahead of ideals in order to maintain their position in the middle of anticommunist paranoia, and the progressive left, who were most often silenced by anticommunist persecution, and often faced tragic consequences when they refused to be silenced.

Beyond the “stick” of blacklisting and persecution, Wang also notes the powerful role of the “carrot” of scientific research funding. While many of the top atomic research facilities were governmentally-founded organizations or semiautonomous institutes dependant on military and federal funding, many other institutes were associated in some way with America’s top universities. Looking at a 1947 FBI memo on the loyalties of various chapters of the Federation of American Scientists, one quickly notices that along with military/industrial centers like Los Alamos and Northern California, many other chapters were located in the cities that were home to some of the US’s top research universities, including Cambridge, Ithaca, and Rochester. (65) Beyond simply funding research institutions, the government also invested in individual students of promise: the Atomic Energy Commission’s fellowship program, for example, “awarded grants to almost five hundred young physicists, biologists, and medical researchers in 1948 and 1949. At the time, it was the largest program for advanced science education in the nation’s history…” (220) By 1950, the prerequisites for the fellowship included a loyalty oath and an affidavit denying ties to the Communist Party. The federal government in this way attempted to assure that the top researchers of the next generation would be properly ideologically vetted and screened while still in training.

    While focusing more on the “carrot” of funding than the “sticks” of anticommunism, Paul Edwards’s The Closed World illustrates the profound impact of the militarization of the academy on scientific research far more varied than Wang’s atomic scientists. Edwards argues that Eisenhower’s notion of a “military-industrial complex” overlooks the important role of the academy in the military, technological, and scientific buildup of the Cold War, preferring an “’iron triangle’ of self-perpetuating academic, industrial, and military collaboration.” (47)

Two aspects of this collaboration he pays particular attention to are research in computers and psychology. While early research into computers was certainly driven by military funding and researchers, as well as corporate players like IBM and Bell Labs, universities like MIT and Harvard were integral in early developments in computer science. Many researchers moved back and forth between private, governmental, and academic research positions. Like atomic energy, the military uses of computers are immediately obvious and it is perhaps not surprising that the federal government would invest large amounts of money into such projects. However, Edward’s discussion of the funding of psychological research yields somewhat surprising numbers. In the years between 1941 and 1960, the American Psychological Association’s membership grew from 2,600 to 12,000.  During World War II, the majority of its membership worked on war-related research, and half of all professional psychologists were employees of the federal government. (177) The government was interested in the uses of psychology for everything from propaganda and public opinion to finding better ways to regulate and control military personnel. Moreover, as Edwards makes quite clear, there was a lot of overlap between some of the earliest developers of computers and information theory and some of the most influential psychologists of the time.

The militarization of the military was not limited to the sciences, however. While his classic That Noble Dream chronicles around a hundred years of the historical profession, Peter Novick’s discussion of historians in the wake of the Cold War bears mention here. Novick notes that there was a sharp rise in diplomatic history in the years immediately following World War II. (305) Moreover, while “private philanthropic organizations… provided initial funding for most of these ventures… as the academic cold war became institutionalized, a program of official government grants became established, mostly under one or another ‘national defense’ rubric.” (310) This new influx of money and interest led to the creation of integrated area studies programs throughout America—twenty-nine had been created by 1950, and by 1965, that number had grown to 153. (310) While the research that came out of these diplomatic histories and area studies programs tended to reflect a strong interest in the narrative of the US as the Free World, diametrically opposed by the Totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, the perception of the field from within was one of absolute objectivity, of history as an account of Truths about the past.

Moreover, another element beyond the investment in the institutions and members of the academy that the federal government was the massive investment in tuitions for many who came back from World War II and later Korea under the GI Bill—according to the Department of Veteran Affairs, GI Bill veterans made up almost half of all college students in 1947, and ultimately, 7.8 out of 16 million veterans of the World War had taken part in education or training programs under the bill.  Such a large infusion of students helped to create demand for a large number of positions throughout higher education, meaning that even academics working outside areas of direct military interest.

Jessica Wang has noted that many scientists, in reaction to the post-Cold War drawback in research funding, are more likely to rail against postmodernist critics of science and general public ignorance than to look back to the historical trends that have created this situation. (290) But what she doesn’t comment on is whether or not this federal and military disinvestment in higher education after the end of the Cold War has put the American academy in an untenable situation. Did the infusion of so much money over half a century artificially inflate the size and number of postsecondary institutions to the point where they cannot structurally adjust to this lessening of funding? How can we maintain—or even responsibly reduce, while maintaining the primary benefits of—the previous levels of research in this new age? America has become a leading exporter of the educated—the number of foreign students coming to the States for an education is higher than ever—but if the primacy in academics that this is built on was the result of Cold War funding, will this disinvestment engender a decrease in the prestige of American higher education—or even of America itself?  Even with a war going on the GI Bill—now the Montgomery GI Bill—is nowhere near what it was in the middle of the twentieth century. Veterans coming back from the Middle East won’t be flooding into our institutions of higher learning on the government’s tab, meaning not only that the money the GI Bill represented won’t be there, but neither will the talent that it provided.

It is perhaps possible that, in framing the “War on Terror” as a generational conflict, the current administration has created a discourse that could serve to frame military and federal funding into higher education once again, but that is uncertain at best, and one cannot in good conscience hope for an outcome that relies on so much potential for human suffering.  All one can say for sure is that this is a discussion that needs to be continued and expanded, and that the history of this phenomenon and its ties to Cold War military spending should be a larger part of the broader public discourse on the topic, as it is so intrinsic to what is at stake.