Krige, American Hegemony…

Published by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in Technology and Culture 49:2 (2008), 489-491

American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe. By John Krige.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. Pp. viii+376. $40.

When the United States undertook the reconstruction of Europe in the late 1940s, American scientists hoped that scientific institutions would be part of the plan.  Brains had been draining out of Europe since the rise of Hitler, and many of the best minds now were migrating to the United States, attracted by better pay and facilities.  Economic hardship left European laboratories impoverished, while American science entered its golden age.  But some Americans wanted Europeans to stay put.  Physicist Isidor Rabi observed that American scientists needed “civilized people to talk to,” recalling the pre-war era when there were multiple poles of intellectual activity.  Ultimately American institutions did try to strengthen science in Western Europe.  John Krige sees this as “part and parcel” of the American construction of empire (p. 256).  He sees this empire—or as his title suggests, hegemony—as co-produced by the Europeans who willingly enabled it and negotiated its limits.

Krige’s story has a couple of conceptual threads.  One is the encouragement of a scientific style in Europe that better reflected American democratic values, with a decentralized community enabling competition and openness.  As Krige points out, this was a tall order for the hierarchical, centralized traditions in Europe, particularly France.  The other thread is that American and European scientists mimicked American foreign policy aims—especially in confronting the Soviet Union.  To illustrate his points, Krige presents case studies on the creation of laboratories, the policies of philanthropic organizations, and the science committee in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Krige is at his best revealing the descent of the Rockefeller Foundation into policies that mirrored the anxieties of American politics.  The director of the Natural Sciences Division, Warren Weaver, struggled with the implications of awarding financial grants based on political affiliations.  Colleagues in Europe felt that one should be judged on science alone, not politics.  In England and France many of the leading scientists were communists or sympathizers, including the top French atomic scientist Frédéric Joliot-Curie.  The Rockefeller Foundation did not want to politicize science, yet American political leaders abhorred giving money to communists.  The result was some logical acrobatics: denying support to communists was not a political act, it was a scientific one.  Weaver and others reasoned that communists were the ones who allowed political views to seep into their science, and thus it would be irresponsible scientifically to fund them.  The rise of agronomist Trofim Lysenko in Russia, with his Lamarckian views so obviously tailored to appeal to Stalin, reinforced this justification.  By the 1950s the foundation routinely used Congressional blacklists as guides for refusing grants.

The Ford Foundation was a slightly different beast than Rockefeller, having scant prewar history of support for science.  Its postwar agenda followed cold war politics much more explicitly, providing money to European institutions even if Eastern bloc scientists visited them.  According to Krige, this was partly on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Its support for the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva was designed to spread American scientific values and to gather intelligence on the enemy.  Crucial to Krige’s argument is that eminent European scientists like Niels Bohr were not dupes. Instead, Krige writes, “they were witting instruments of American foreign policy” (p. 185).  Indeed, Krige shows Bohr in particular meeting with American government officials and changing his research proposals to appeal to the foundation’s goals, emphasizing not research but rather the exchange of personnel and ideas.

The book is not a comprehensive study, and it is confined to a few countries in continental Europe.  Krige has written on these topics before, but this is the first attempt to unify them in a point about American hegemony.  Although the NATO story is important in showing how well Europeans negotiated the term of their “co-produced” empire, Krige is most compelling when discussing the foundations.  It is fascinating to read how transformative an influence these large-scale private organizations—bearing names imprinted with American capitalism—had upon European institutions and practices.  For those seeking to globalize their understanding of science policy and to see the inextricable links between American worldviews and contemporary European science, Krige’s book is the place to begin.


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