Friday, February 12, 2010

Erik Rau on Terry Christensen on Cold-War Liberals

Posted by Darin Hayton on 02/12 at 05:50 PM

Friday afternoon Terry Christensen presented the latest PACHS colloquium: “Twin Sons of Different Mothers: John Wheeler, Edward Teller, and the Cold-War Quest for Peace through Military Hegemony, 1948-1983.” The PACHS colloquium has adopted a new format.1 Still based around a pre-circulated (and, it is hoped, pre-read) paper, now the event opens with a commentary by a scholar whose expertise dovetails with the presenter’s. This evening that scholar was Erik Rau from Drexel University.

Terry’s paper, in fewer than 50 words: How do we account for the differences in the reputation of Edward Teller (reviled and distrusted) and John Wheeler (liked and respected), when their politics were largely indistinguishable, when both were “Cold-War Liberals”?

Erik organized his commentary around three themes/sections in Terry’s paper: “the milieu,” “citizenship,” and “motives.” With respect to the milieu, he raised questions about the role of universities as degree mills in post WWII America. He asked about the relationship between pro-industrial physicists as opposed to pro-academic physicists. He wondered about the importance of personal connections and reputations. Erik then turned to the question of citizenship: what is the nature of scientific citizenship? What is its relationship to citizenship in general? Does our picture of these Cold-War physicists change when we view their work against the backdrop of different social values and agendas? Finally, and closely related to the questions about citizenship, what are the motivations at play in this story? How is science related to democracy? Does democracy serve science or does science serve democracy? And what would happen if we switched out Wheeler for a different physicist? Would Teller look as bad as he does when compared to Wheeler?

Erilk’s comments were concise and fluid. He both pointed to problems in the paper and also drew attention to its contributions. Erik’s analysis was carried forward by numerous gestures to Cold-War histories and relatively recent scholarship on Cold-War science. For members of the audience who do not work on the Cold War, it would have been helpful if Erik had slowed down a bit and more clearly linked these bibliographic references, both to each other and to particular parts of his analysis. How do these works complicate Terry’s paper or what critical tools do they provide that Terry could use to extend his work.2

Erik, on the left, offered his commentary, while Terry listened carefully.

Terry took just a few minutes to respond to Erik’s comments and then turned to the audience for questions. During the Q&A, which lasted about an hour, Terry fielded a number of questions both factual and theoretical. A number of people asked Terry to more clearly state his argument: Whose conception of Teller and Wheeler is Terry portraying in this paper? Which physicists vilified Teller while praising Wheeler? Which community of physicists? Academic? Industrial? Students? Peers? What advantages does Terry see in using this method of comparative biography? How can you [Terry] move this beyond the details to a study of Teller’s and Wheeler’s political philosophy? Is the difference between Wheeler and Teller based in the fact that Wheeler chose to became a public figure whereas Teller shied away from this role? Or is it the case that the difference between these two is, in fact, not all that large? Was Wheeler, in fact, just as bad as Teller, though we don’t normally recognize it?

Terry clearly knows his material. In replying to these questions he drew innumerable facts and details. Where and when Teller, Wheeler, or one of their colleagues made some statement, how they testified in some hearing (most famously the Oppenheimer Affair), or what position they adopted on various political issues. The Q&A often tried to push Terry out of the minutia, prodding him to step back and see the forest instead of the trees. Terry’s truffle hunting approach has produced a wealth of detail. The audience was asking for him to present more the parachutist’s view.

In the question period one topic that arose was this category the “Cold-War Liberal.” Terry seemed to define the term as somebody who was socially liberal who supported labor projects and New Deal social programs (Terry used Henry Jackson as an example) but who were, at the same time, in favor of building weapons systems and developing nuclear and national defense programs. For Terry, this combination of socially liberal and militarily hawkish ideologies seemed important. It would have been nice to hear him explain what made this combination differed from liberals before and after the Cold War. To be sure, we no longer think of liberals as pro-military. But how recent is the divorce between these two positions? Moreover, Terry’s definition of Cold-War liberal seems to differ from other definitions of the term that combine socially liberal politics with anti-Communism and an aversion to imperialism, which may or may not be militarily hawkish. Here names like Reinhold Niebuhr and Georg Kennan come to mind, as does the U.S.’s commitment to NATO. It would have been nice to know why Terry defined Cold-War Liberal as he did, and how that did work for him. Were Cold-War physicists always pro-military? Did Cold-War liberals become more hawkish from the late 1940s to the 1960s? Did the increasing nuclear threat and the spread of communism through the 1950s prompt liberals to become more hawkish? Did the increasing political voice of nuclear physicist, who almost certainly had vested interests in Cold War politics—Erik had asked about how universities had become degree mills for industry—shift liberal politics? It seems that Terry’s focus on liberal physicists as part of the political landscape in the 1950s and 1960s could shed interesting light on the development of liberal politics during the Cold War. If he can take a step back from his details, if he can adopt the view of the parachutist, he might see the broader historical contours and patterns his study seems to promise.

On a side note, Terry’s colloquium attracted some interesting people. At least one member of the audience asked questions from his own position of having worked with both Teller and Wheeler. Another member of the audience was John Wheeler’s son, James Wheeler (who is a professor of medicine at University of Pennsylvania’s medical school).

James Wheeler (in the red sweater) was in the audience to hear the paper about his own father.

1Yesterday wasn’t the first time PACHS had used this format, nor is it unique to PACHS. But it now seems to have become the standard, at least for these PACHS events.
2Here my ignorance of the field, both the general narrative of Cold-War science and the historiography on it, limited what I could take from Erik’s commentary. The laundry list of books and historians, which no doubt conveyed meaning to people familiar with Cold-War historiography, were merely names to me. Looking around the audience, I suspect a number of us would have appreciated it if Erik had occasionally paused as he ran through his references.

Tags: cold-war science, edward teller, john wheeler, pachs colloquia