Greene, Eisenhower, Science Advice…

Published by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in Technology and Culture 48:4 (2007), 892-893

Eisenhower, Science Advice, and the Nuclear Test-Ban Debate, 1945-1963. By Benjamin P. Greene.  Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007.  Pp. xiii+358. $65.

Dwight Eisenhower never succeeded in negotiating a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing with the Soviet Union.  Benjamin P. Greene offers an intriguing argument to explain why the president failed.  The book is carefully-crafted, is methodologically sound, and makes a genuine contribution to scholarship on the politics of science and technology in the Cold War. Greene’s conclusions, however, are bound to be controversial because of what they say not only about science advice but about Eisenhower’s control over his own administration.

Greene takes aim at scholars who doubt Eisenhower’s sincerity in trying to achieve a comprehensive test-ban.  Greene judges that Eisenhower believed by 1954 that a test-ban was the necessary and desirable first step in disarmament.  But the president lacked the confidence to overrule his closest advisors, and his style of leadership—based on consensus—prevented him from pursuing his true aims.  Eisenhower deceived and misled Americans and the world, claiming that tests were necessary while secretly wishing he could ban them.  He wanted a test-ban as much as his 1956 election opponent, Adlai Stevenson, but he felt unable to admit it publicly.  Greene paints a portrait of a frustrated president trapped by his own leadership style, his mistrust of the Soviets, a lack of pressure from his allies and advisors, and most important of all his “understandable confusion with the complex technical issues” (p. 3).

As improbable as the scenario sounds, Greene has done an admirable job making the case.  The villain of Greene’s story is Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss, with supporting roles played by politically-conservative scientists Edward Teller and Willard Libby.  These men monopolized scientific advice during the first five years of Eisenhower’s presidency.  Virtually all their advice emphasized the need for more testing.  Only after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, and the subsequent creation of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), did Eisenhower begin to receive a broader range of scientific advice.  PSAC’s support for a test-ban, the exit of Strauss from the AEC, and the willingness of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to support a test-ban, all gave the president enough confidence to pursue the ban openly.  Still, the objections of Strauss and Teller prevailed, because of uncertainties about differentiating earthquakes from nuclear tests. Ultimately, the president ran out of time on the job.

Some scholars may be uncomfortable letting Eisenhower off the hook as a frustrated and befuddled victim of scientific manipulation.  Greene’s conclusions may derive from his focus on the scientific controversy about detecting nuclear tests, rather than the controversy about nuclear fallout.  These were two distinct issues, but are intertwined here as the “test-ban debate.” One was an obstacle on the path to disarmament.  The other was a warning from biologists who feared cancer and predicted mutations in future generations.  If Eisenhower sincerely wanted to work toward disarmament, then his frustration with scientists on the issue of test detection makes sense.  But there is little evidence that he agonized behind the scenes and agreed with his opponents—during, say, the election of 1956—about the dangers from fallout.  Eisenhower knew of geneticists’ claims but played them down in order to continue testing.  If he later was frustrated by the politicization of science, a cynic might conclude that he was simply hoisted by his own petard.

Greene’s book, which is nearly identical to his 2004 Stanford dissertation, is a provocative indictment of those who control scientific advice, but it is also a disturbing apologia for Dwight Eisenhower.  The president appears as a moral man wishing to do the right thing, with his hands tied by narrow-minded ideologues.  Greene insists that Strauss misled the president and was the dominant influence upon him until Eisenhower finally was freed by PSAC scientists.  Was he really such a creature of Lewis Strauss?  Was Eisenhower truly so timid that he could not open a newspaper and read other scientists’ views?  And most of all, did he wish throughout most of his presidency to ban nuclear testing despite openly criticizing those who advocated it?  Greene does not lay these issues to rest, but he has forced us to reconsider the roles of key individuals who controlled expertise, and to rethink Eisenhower’s control of his own presidency.

 

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