Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Science and War in the 20th century

“Our national policies will not be revoked or modified, even for scientists. If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of contemporary German science, then we shall do without science for a few years.”
Adolf Hitler’s Reply to Max Planck (President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science) when he tried to petition the Fuhrer to stop the dismissal of scientists on political grounds.

The Fuhrer’s seeming indifference to the welfare of German science and technology, at a time when Germany was in the middle of a huge rearmament program and feverishly preparing for war, from the point of view of the 21st century,  seems to show an appalling lack of common sense to say the least. But at the time, in the 1930s, the relationship between science and war was quite different from what it is today; so much so that the flaw in Hitler's attitude would have been seen only by the more farsighted. It was however approaching a series of events that would alter it forever- namely World War II, closely followed by the Cold War and its associated conflicts. The Second World War would form a watershed, beyond which the realm of warfare would become completely dependent on scientific advances. So much so that by the end of the Cold War, somewhere between a quarter and a half of scientists and engineers worldwide would be engaged on military projects.
In the first half of the 20th century many scientists remained wary of cooperating with government, fearful that military need would come to dominate research priorities. For their part, many in the military still failed to recognize the utility of science. James Conant, a chemist and later president of Harvard University, recalled that when, at the outbreak of World War I, the American Chemical Society offered its services to the government, the secretary of war noted that the War Department already had one chemist and did not need more. This attitude prevailed among many in the military even well into World War II.

In the USA,federal funding for science before 1940 was sparse, usually non-existent. In the Politics of Pure Science (1967), Daniel Greenberg writes that “...prior to 1940, not only was there mutual aloofness between the federal government and ... the scientific community, but there were strong feelings on both sides that separation was desirable.

The American scientist Vannevar Bush wrote in 1949 that prior to World War II “Military laboratories were dominated by officers who made it utterly clear that the scientists and engineers employed in these laboratories were of a lower caste of society….[The] senior officers of military services everywhere did not have a ghost of an idea concerning the effects of science on the evolution of techniques and weapons….”   

However, World War II would change all this.

 It was in Britain that the winds of change were first felt. From 1938, plans were laid to identify and allocate scientists to defence work. A ‘Central Register’ for scientists was set up. The university vice-chancellors and the Royal Society submitted lists of qualified scientists to an 'Earmarking Committee', while new graduates were interviewed by representatives of the Register. By late 1939 7000 people had been listed, believed to be some 90 per cent of all the qualified scientists in the country.

In the USA, the mutual mistrust of scientists and the military began to change in 1940. When France fell to the Nazis in May, 1940, a group of American scientists mobilized. They were led by Bush,  then chairman of NACA and president of the Carnegie Institution. With the support of Bush and a number of prominent colleagues, President Roosevelt established the National Defense Research Committee in June 1940. By mid-1941, Bush had recruited — and the government had funded — some 6,000 physicists, chemists, mathematicians and engineers, a number that grew to 30,000 by the end of the war.

These developments marked a difference between the Second World War and previous conflicts. In the First World War science had certainly played a huge part in chemical synthesis for explosives, poison gas, aeronautics and much more. But in that war scientists had been brought in late. Now experienced academics and new graduates were allocated to all the important areas of defence research, including radar, electronics, aeronautics and so on.

 In World War Two the scientific community was thoroughly mobilised to serve the state for military ends, and this led to the continuing close connection between science and the state in the following decades. [Between 1945 and 1955, research funding in the US rose from $920 million to $3.45 billion, with 80% of all federal R&D funds going to the Department of Defence ]

 Mutual interest in winning the war, reinforced by financial support, permanently linked the military and science in a web of cross-fertilization that continues today. And the exposure of all these scientists to advanced electronics and new techniques was to prove a powerful stimulus on postwar research in many fields.

Govind Menon

1.On Bush-"As We May Think"
2.Science, Politics, and Computers- Cynthia H Null, 1988
3.The Military's Role in Stimulating Science and Technology: The Turning Point- Kathleen Broome Williams, 2010
4.Science and War-Brian Martin
5. The Politics of Pure Science- Daniel Greenberg, 1967

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