Theses Doctoral

Scientists and the Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research

Bridger, Sarah

This dissertation examines scientists' views concerning the ethics of U.S. weapons research and military advising, through the changing politics and economy of the Cold War. After the development of the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project generation of physicists posed a series of troubling ethical questions: To what extent are scientists responsible for the military applications of their work? What are the political obligations of technical experts? What are the ideal relations among academia, industry, and the military? During the post-Sputnik science boom, many elite physicists used their policy influence to encourage government support for scientific research and to secure stronger arms control measures, an effort that culminated in the ratification of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963. But after the enthusiastic expansion of science advising in the late 1950s, the war in Vietnam sorely tested scientists' support for weapons research and government work.

Key controversies that elicited substantial ethical debate included the use of chemical defoliants and gases in Vietnam and the participation of the secretive Jason scientists in developing an electronic barrier to prevent North Vietnamese incursions into South Vietnam. By the end of the decade, campuses and professional societies were riven by clashes over defense contracting and academic "neutrality" in the context of the war in Vietnam. Whereas ethical debates in the aftermath of the Manhattan Project tended to be framed in individualist terms, the controversies of the late 1960s and early 1970s took place on the much larger scale of governments and institutions. The upheaval produced some changes in university contracting policies, but with ambiguous results, and the public disaffection of some top scientists led the Nixon administration to dismantle the entire Eisenhower-era presidential science advisory system. The ethical debates of the Vietnam era cast a long shadow, shifting popular attitudes toward science and heavily influencing the character of scientists' opposition to the Strategic Defense Initiative during the 1980s.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Foner, Eric
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 28, 2013