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New International, July 1948


Walter Grey

American Science Goes to War

The Dilemma of the Militarization of Science


From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 5, July 1948, pp. 144–146.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


American society continues to evolve toward increased technical complexity amid a general lack of confidence of all classes in their future security. This is decaying capitalism in crisis which can only seek to maintain itself through whatever outer political form, by increased statification and centralization of government control. This movement toward statification penetrates all aspects of our culture and, not least, science.

This is only to be expected since science together with its practical application, technology, is the great impelling force which has made possible the expansion of capitalism and is now pushing it headlong toward its own doom. The disintegrating and conflicting factors within American society which make such control of science necessary from the bourgeois point of view are worthy of analysis.

Technically, it can be said that science is just now beginning to grow up, to realize itself. Though science is essentially a cooperative intellectual movement, the science of the nineteenth century and earlier was carried out within the workshop (laboratory) of the individual scientist or inventor. But in the twentieth century the unit of coordinated research activity has become the large industrial, university, or government laboratory. Science has become so complex and its technical requirements so great that it can only advance by coordinated research on a national or international scale; capitalism, by its very nature, excludes the latter, but can and does seek a strong nationalistic science.

That such nationally organized research pays off big was driven home to the bourgeoisie by the results of the herculean mobilization of American scientific forces in the research on nuclear fission and the development of the atomic bomb. Likewise in somewhat less spectacular fashion with other military developments in World War II. Now American capitalism endeavors with feverish haste to build a controlled science through federal legislation and government mobilization. In conflict, however, in this process are the basic long-range aims of the capitalist state, the more narrow short-range desires of industrialists for immediate continuing profits, and the ideals of the scientists themselves.

Let us look at science in relation to the basic problems and resources of capitalism in America today. By its very nature capitalism is expansive, but now with its natural resources plundered to the lull extent of its own frontier, with nationalism growing among the colonial peoples, and a devastated Europe and Asia threatened by Russia, the remaining raw material resources of the world are available to the United States only in limited quantities. As a result, one of the forlorn remaining hopes of the American capitalist class for an expanding economy is in the increased sources of energy and materials made available by the advances of science.

It is the deadly dilemma of capitalism, however, that more and more of the facilities of science must be applied to feed the military machine, thereby nullifying the possible healthy effect of an expanding science on capitalist economy. In addition, American science and technology can no longer live on the accumulated basic and theoretical research of Europe. To quote from the Bush report Science, The Endless Frontier:

It [is] imperative to increase pure research at this stage of our history. First, the intellectual banks of continental Europe, from which we formerly borrowed, have become bankrupt through the ravages of war. No longer can we count upon those sources for fundamental science. Second, in this modern age, more than ever before, pure research is the pacemaker of technological progress. In the nineteenth century, Yankee mechanical ingenuity, building upon the basic discoveries of European science, could greatly advance the technical arts. Today the situation is different. Future progress will be most striking in those highly complex fields – electronics, aerodynamics, chemistry – which are based directly upon the foundations of modern science. In the next generation, technological advance and basic scientific discovery will be inseparable; a nation which borrows its basic knowledge will be hopelessly handicapped in the race for innovation. The other world powers, we know, intend to foster scientific research in the future.

Conflicting Pulls on Science

Not for nothing has the American bourgeoisie corralled all the European scientists possible into the United Slates. But this is not enough; for American capitalism to be supreme in the scientific race, a strong basic-research movement must be built on American soil. But this requires money and manpower for both equipment and teaching as well as for the actual research itself. It is the second dilemma of American science that this demand for long-range basic research, which yields no immediate results or profits, must be met with the dwindling resources of a decadent capitalism.

However, the greatest drain on science, as well as American economy as a whole, is the military. In our highly developed society, with the possibility of “push-button” war looming, the needs of expensive military research leave few scientific resources for research which is basic or applicable to a peaceful economy. What little funds are available for such fields as medicine and health are given, albeit with humanitarian phrases, only with an eye to future military manpower.

These fundamental considerations, as well as the specific scientific aims of American capitalism, are contained in official government reports for all to read. In addition to Bush, there are the five volumes of the Steelman report, Science and Public Polity. The difficulties encountered in furthering these aims were apparent in the conflict within Congress, and between Truman and Congress, on the passage and veto of S526 in 1947. This bill was to have established a National Science Foundation to promote basic research by increasing the scientific and teaching manpower through scholarships and grants-in-aid. It undoubtedly will be made law in some form in 1948. Conflict relative to the NSF revolved around the following issues:

  1. Administration of the Foundation. Truman desired to have the organization run by a director appointed by himself; but the scientists, influenced by their feeling for “freedom of science” and also the interests of private industry, wished to have the funds controlled by a group of scientists selected by the scientific organizations of the United States. The Republican Congress, wishing to harass Truman and favoring industry control, passed the draft favored by the scientists themselves.
  2. Patents. This is a struggle over patent rights obtained by public funds. The industrialists desire not only the funds for research but also the full right to exploit its fruits. The NSF as passed by Congress favored the continuation of the present patent setup which favors the large industrialists.
  3. Social Science. Both Congress and Truman were in agreement that the spending of money on the social sciences is not necessary. As one senator expressed it, “a pretty good definition” of social science is a “group of individuals telling another group how they should live.” Obviously, the bourgeoisie feels it does not need the help of social science to teach it how to rule the masses.

How the Science Budget Is Spent

Broadly speaking, however, the government does not have to wait for congressional action to mobilize for its ten-year scientific program. It can coordinate science well enough through existing government agencies. Within the existing official research bodies in the army and navy, Atomic Energy Commission, Department of Commerce, etc., applied military research in industry and basic research in the universities can be directed and controlled by the simple means of guiding the flow of funds in the desired direction. To guide this research within government agencies, Truman in December 1947 established the Interdepartment Committee for Scientific Research and Development, and appointed Steelman as his liaison agent for the committee, the scientists and their learned societies.

That scientific activity is directed towards the needs of the ruling class at any particular period of its development has never been more evident than today. The means of this control is no more obscure than the flow of money or funds for research. The analysis of research expenditures past, present and future – will illuminate the direction of science in the United States.

The foundations of science are built with basic or fundamental research which in the United States has been the product of the colleges, universities, and privately endowed research institutions. Now, however, industry and private philanthropy are both unable and unwilling to support this basic research which does not lead to immediate practical results or profits. Rather, industry during the past twenty-five years has been pouring funds into its own applied research and development program from which profits are more assured.

During the period 1930–40 industrial research funds increased from 116 million dollars yearly to 240 million, and scientific research in government (mostly military or semi-applied) from 24 to 69 million dollars yearly. At the same time research in the colleges increased only from 20 to 31 million, and privately endowed research institutes declined from slightly over 5 million to 4½ million dollars yearly.

It is evident that if the colleges and universities are to meet the rapidly increasing demand of industry and government for new scientific knowledge they must be financed by public funds. To carry out the research, large numbers of talented scientists are needed. It is estimated, however, that by 1955 the accumulated effect of the wartime drain on the training of scientists will result in a deficit of 150,000 B.S.’s and 17,000 Ph.D.’s. This deficit, concludes Bush, can only be made up by mass education in the sciences through federal-sponsored scholarships. The possibility of mass unemployment of technicians during an industrial depression is not considered by Dr. Bush, but should not be overlooked by the working-class movement. During World War II the overwhelming expenditure for research in the United States was governmental. Of the total average yearly expense of 600 million dollars during 1941–45, 500 million or 83 per cent was expended by the federal government, 13 per cent by industry, while colleges and other organizations accounted for only 4 per cent, practically all for military purposes. All this is exclusive of atomic-energy research, for which two billion dollars was spent in all forms of activity to bring the atomic bombs to the people of Japan. Until the support of military research during the war the American bourgeoisie had no unified or comprehensive policy on scientific research or on the support of science. With the need of bolstering capitalism and its war aims, the big bourgeoisie can no longer leave scientific development to chance. Also, the need for the expenditure of large sums requires the utmost control and planning by a budget-harassed government.

Capitalist Science in Dilemma

From the bourgeois viewpoint a well-balanced research program would be one which would economically provide for expanding military research and development, an expansive industrial program, and yet support basic research in the universities. The difficulty of obtaining such a balanced program is apparent from an analysis of the 1.1 billion dollars expended for research in the United States in 1947. Of this, 500 million was spent by the War and Navy Departments, overwhelmingly on military development. Another 450 million was spent by industry, almost all on applied research and development. As a whole, then, of the total 1947 “peacetime” research budget, more than 40 per cent was devoted to military purposes; of this over 90 per cent to development and less than 10 per cent to basic science. From the long-range point of view, this is considered even by the bourgeoisie an unhealthy ratio. The dilemma of capitalist science in the United States, to quote Steelman, is:

(1) Our national research propram is unbalanced in the direction of military research and of applied or developmental research.

(2) It is undesirable and impracticable, at least in the immediate future, to reduce our national expenditures for either military or industrial research. It is entirely possible, in fact, that the military sector will have to be increased.

(3) The balance cannot be redressed immediately by the expansion of our basic-research program or of non-military research and development because the supply of trained manpower is not adequate for the expansion of the magnitude required.

And, continues Steelman,

“we cannot substantially increase the expenditures of any sector of the research triangle in the next year or two without reducing the output of the other sectors. This is the inescapable logic of the current manpower situation.”

To resolve, the difficulties of the “inescapable triangle” is the purpose of the ten-year science program, to be complete in 1957. This program calls for a total yearly budget by 1957 of well over two billion dollars, to be composed of 20 per cent basic research, 14 per cent health and medical research, 44 per cent non-military development, and 22 per cent for the military.

To a Marxist, such a science budget in America today can be nothing but a capitalist mirage. With a society whose increasing concern has been only preparing for or fighting a war, research funds will be overwhelmingly military, from the 40 per cent of 1947 to the “practically all” of World War II or III.

The exact mechanism by which the federal agencies direct science within industry and the colleges is plain from the manner in which they spent their 625 million dollars in 1947. Less than a third was actually spent within federal laboratories, the remainder being given to industry and colleges under the contract system. This is particularly true of the War and Navy Departments’ funds, which were 80 per cent of the 625 million, and of which four-fifths was paid out to college or industry-conducted research.

Science’s Class Basis

The army and navy penetration of American research continues apace. Thus in 1948, 75 per cent of the air force fund of 149 million dollars for research will be for commercial companies with main emphasis on heavy bombers and guided missiles, radar, aircraft armament, and supersonic flight. At the same time, however, research in the government laboratories is not neglected. In such ordnance centers as Aberdeen, Frankford, Picatiny, as well as the White Sands Proving Grounds, research on tanks, artillery, ammunitions, proximity fuses, rockets and guided missiles is hastened. Interesting also are the potentialities of toxicological warfare, incendiary materials and flame agents. “Civilization” can look forward to startling developments in these fields. The distribution of navy research funds in 1947 clearly shows the trend. Practically all was spent on ships, aeronautics, ordnance yards, and docks, with less than one per cent applied to medicine and surgery.

Though controlled by “non-military,” the Atomic Energy Commission’s research overshadows all others. Its activity has pervaded all parts of American science. Government agencies, industrial concerns, universities and other research organizations have been brought into the program under contracts and agreements. Thus, the Argonne National Laboratory with research centers in the Chicago area is operated by the University of Chicago with the participation of twenty-nine midwestern universities and research institutions. The Oak Ridge Clinton Laboratories are operated under contract by Carbide and Carbon Chemical Co., while -the Hanford Works (Oregon) run during the war by DuPont, is now operated by General Electric. In the East, on Long Island, the Brookhaven National Laboratories are administered by nine northeastern universities.

In contrast to the above large military expenditures for research is the meager sum spent for the health and safety of the masses of the people. The whole Bureau of Mines research budget for 1947 was only 12 million dollars, of which that devoted to safety in the mines was only about $700,000.

Thus, not only materially does the American bourgeoisie mobilize science but also ideologically. By witch hunts, loyalty tests and other means, the scientists are to he “cleansed” and brought into line. The Condon case, which will be followed by others, clearly illustrates the efforts to incorporate “thought control” in American science. Accordingly, it should be increasingly apparent to clear-thinking scientists that, although scientific methodology and knowledge may be “classless,” the control and utilization of science today is on a class basis.

And since science, above all else, is a means of production, its ownership by a ruling class which is decadent and reactionary can only result in the negation of the very spirit of science itself. The material effects of the reactionary control of science arc even more evident in the possible impending destruction of our civilization. The implications to all sincere scientists as well as the revolutionary working-class movement should be obvious.

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Last updated on 8 July 2017