'Captive of a scientific-technological elite': Eisenhower and the nuclear test ban.

Author:Greene, Benjamin P.
Position::Essay
 
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Those assessing Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential legacy often consider his farewell address's warning about the unwarranted influence of the "military-industrial complex." On the recent occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Eisenhower's most famous speech, scholars and commentarors continued to debate the origins of the term, Eisenhower's purpose for including the warning in his speech, and the lessons it holds for the twenty-first century. Curiously, few noted that his farewell address included a second warning (Bacevich 2011; Janiewski 2011; Ledbetter 2011). Eisenhower also cautioned Americans that the growing influence of government-sponsored scientific research risked making public policy the "captive of a scientific-technological elite" (D. Eisenhower 1961). The departing president concluded with an eloquent expression of his disappointment over the lack of progress on disarmament. This second warning, largely overshadowed by the first, offers significant lessons for the twenty-first century and points to an overlooked aspect of the thirty-fourth president's legacy.

I argue that the president's own public policy on nuclear testing became captive of a scientific-technological elite within his administration who opposed his inclination to pursue a nuclear test-ban agreement. This internal elite, led by Eisenhower's shrewd Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman Lewis L. Straus and influential physicists, such as Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller, strived to convince Eisenhower, Congress, and the American public that a test cessation would imperil the nation's security. Although these powerful figures inhibited Eisenhower's efforts at nuclear arms control for his first several years in office, the establishment in 1957 of an advisory committee comprised of leading scientists and administrators from outside the administration later convinced the president to follow his inclinations and pursue a nuclear test-ban agreement. Eisenhower's efforts to conclude a test ban treaty as a first step in easing Cold War tensions and slowing the arms race ultimately failed. Yet two years later the Kennedy administration signed the Limited Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. Concluded by Eisenhower's successor, the world's first nuclear arms control agreement owed much to Eisenhower's efforts and should be recognized as a part of his legacy. Moreover, this analysis of the nuclear test-ban debate also suggests that Eisenhower's presidential leadership was neither as active as leading revisionists argue (Ambrose 1984; Greenstein 1982) nor as passive as its critics contend (Smith 1997; Smith-Norris 2003; Suri 1997). Finally, the administration's debate over pursuing a test ban offers an important lesson on how science can become politicized and what steps presidents must take to ensure they receive the full range of scientific opinions on controversial technical issues.

Accelerating the Arms Race While Advocating Arms Control

One of the significant interpretive challenges for scholars of the Eisenhower presidency is reconciling the apparent contradiction between Eisenhower's oft-stated concerns about the spiraling arms race and his national security policies that relied upon expanding the nation's nuclear strike capabilities. In fact, the nation's nuclear arsenal increased during Eisenhower's presidency from 1,400 to over 20,000 warheads (Norris and Kristensen 2006). His "New Look" strategy sought to contain the expansion of communism through threats of a massive retaliation from the nation's superior nuclear arsenal (Bowie and Immerman 1998). Moreover, the administration issued veiled atomic threats as part of its response to Cold War crises in Asia. These actions have led some scholars to conclude that Eisenhower's warning about the unwarranted influence of the military- industrial complex was more an admission of guilt than cautionary advice to his successors and that he never took efforts at arms control seriously. In their view, Eisenhower's arms control and disarmament proposals were issued merely for propaganda gains (Brands, 1989; Smith 1997; Smith-Norns 2003; Suri 1997).

Although Eisenhower's actions certainly accelerated the arms race, his words indicated that this development troubled him deeply. Eisenhower spoke passionately, publicly and privately, about his desire to slow the nuclear arms race. His "Chance for Peace" speech remains one of the most powerful indictments of the economic, social, and psychological costs of the Cold War (D. Eisenhower, 1953a). His diary and private letters often dwell on his fears that the costs of waging the Cold War for an indefinite period could drive the nation to a garrison state or a dictatorial form of government. On at least one occasion, he speculated to his influential secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, that they may owe it to future generations to initiate war at the most propitious moment to avoid this fate. The president never seriously considered preventive war, but he did struggle to find a way to arrest the enduring and multifaceted costs of the arms race (Bowie and Immerman 1998; Buhite and Hamel 1990; Bundy 1988; Chernus 2002; Craig 1998; D. Eisenhower 1953b). Although acknowledging the tremendous expansion of the nation's nuclear arsenal during his presidency, several scholars have praised Eisenhower for restraining demands for even greater defense spending following the Soviet launch of Sputnik and not overreacting to charges that the administration had permitted a "missile gap" to develop (Divine 1993; Mieczkowski 2013; Sherry 1995; Snead 1999; Wang 2008).

A close analysis of Eisenhower's consideration of a nuclear test-ban agreement lets us resolve the interpretive challenge posed by the disconnect between the president's desires to slow the arms race and his decisions that accelerated it. For the president, a nuclear test ban agreement would ease Cold War tensions, slow the arms race, and serve as an important first step in building the mutual confidence necessary to reach more tangible arms control agreements. As early as 1954 Eisenhower was inclined to pursue a test ban agreement as an important first step, but he faced the near unanimous opposition of his national security advisors. Ultimately, the president failed to achieve his core disarmament goals, resulting in the "definite sense of disappointment" he expressed in his farewell address (D. Eisenhower 1961; Greene, 2003) Scholars examining Eisenhower's consideration of a test-ban agreement have identified several factors that frustrated his efforts, including leadership style, bureaucratic rivalries, domestic politics, alliance disputes, and Cold War suspicions (Divine 1978; Greene 2007; Hewlett and Holl 1989; Jacobson and Stein 1966; Smith 1997). Yet another factor, the control of science advice on the classified and complex technical issues related to nuclear testing, offers the strongest explanation for why he moved tentatively and belatedly toward a publicly stated goal he genuinely desired. In the struggle over who would frame the technical issues lies an answer to the puzzle of why a president eager to ease Cold War tensions sharply expanded the American nuclear arsenal.

Eisenhower's Skepticism of Scientists as Policy Advisors

Eisenhower's thoughts on science and his attitude toward scientists serving as policy advisors greatly shaped his approach to the nuclear age. For Eisenhower, the scientific inventions transformed the strategic environment in ways that reached beyond his substantial military experience. Earlier, as a military planner between the world wars, Eisenhower possessed sufficient education and understanding of the salient issues to prepare with confidence America's industrial base for mobilization. In his view, the nation's industrial might played a central role in the ultimate defeat of Japan and Germany during the Second World War (Erdmann 1999; Irish 2006).

As president in the still-new nuclear age, Eisenhower inherited a transformed strategic environment. Scientists had created weapons beyond his comprehension, challenging his ability to master matters of the gravest significance to his national security strategy. Significantly, Eisenhower encountered several complex scientific matters as he considered pursuing a nuclear test ban agreement. The nation's leading scientists disputed whether or not atmospheric testing posed acceptable health hazards and whether an international agreement could be adequately monitored. These were separate and complex technical problems that often defied scientific understanding and solutions. It was an era of "post-normal science"--the facts were uncertain, values were in dispute, and stakes were high (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1992).

Apart from the complexity of emerging science, Eisenhower recognized in the new technologies other issues of secrecy, power, and control. He believed that the scientists' unyielding quest for new knowledge would not only lead to the development of evermore dangerous weapons, but also result in disastrous security leaks that would spread the danger to America's enemies. Moreover, he entered office deeply skeptical of scientists who drew political conclusions from their inventions. Eisenhower in 1953 expressed concerns about the role of scientists as advisors. According to records of National Security Council (NSC) discussions on the report from a disarmament panel formed by the Truman administration, Eisenhower thought that it was "strange that two eminent scientists had been put on the panel." He observed that the scientists, Vannevar Bush and J. Robert Oppenheimer, had "immediately moved out of the scientific realm into the realms of policy and psychology." Eisenhower not only suggested that the scientists lacked the appropriate background in politics and diplomacy to provide sound policy advice, but he also observed that their professional norms posed a potential threat to national security. Eisenhower...

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