Psychological Warfare and Cold War Science

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Historian Audra Wolfe’s new book, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science, looks at the role of science in U.S. psychological warfare during the Cold War. In the interview below, she shares her thoughts with us about how science fits into the United States’ broader campaigns against Communism.



When and why did the United States turn to psychological warfare in the Cold War?

Looking out at the international political landscape of 1947, U.S. policymakers were alarmed at the evident appeal of Communism, particularly in Western Europe. In France, Communism was associated with the resistance. In Italy, the Communist Party seemed poised to win the upcoming national election. Stalin, meanwhile, had effectively occupied Eastern Europe.

The United States’ first response to all of this was to announce a massive economic assistance program for Europe—the Marshall Plan. President Truman and his advisors didn’t necessarily see the Marshall Plan as an act of psychological warfare, but in its intent to counter the appeal of Communism through full bellies, it obviously could be read that way. In response, the Soviet Union re-launched its own international propaganda operation, the Communist Information Bureau (usually known as the Cominform).

Truman’s advisors began exploring the possibilities of launching a counteroffensive. Some of these initiatives, like the expansion of the Voice of America’s operations and the creation of the U.S. Information Agency, were conducted with the public’s knowledge and consent. Others, like the various campaigns being launched by the newly formed CIA, were conducted in secret. In the spring of 1950, Truman publicly committed the country to a “campaign of truth” in an important address delivered to an audience of newspaper editors. Two years later, Eisenhower made the need for stronger psychological warfare programs a repeated theme of his presidential campaign.

In short, by the early 1950s, there was a widespread, bipartisan consensus that the United States had to beat the Soviet Union at its own game, even if that meant using subterfuge or state-run media or something stronger.



‘Psychological warfare’ encompasses such a wide range of ideas and practices: what did it mean in the Cold War context, and was this different from earlier types of psychological warfare? 

Psychological warfare was an extraordinarily capacious concept in the late 1940s. The first document authorizing the CIA to conduct psychological warfare operations, NSC 4-A, did not attempt to define the term, describing psychological warfare activities only as those designed to “counteract Soviet and Soviet-inspired activities which constitute a threat to world peace and security or are designed to discredit and defeat the United States in its endeavors to promote world peace and security.” The following year NSC 10/2 offered more specific guidance, listing propaganda, economic warfare, direct action (including sabotage), and subversion (including support for guerilla and resistance movements). The only thing officially off the table was direct conflict involving recognized military forces.

There was an ideological component to this emphasis on “acts short of war.” If the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in an ideological clash of civilizations, a victory by force would be hollow. The United States not only wanted to win the Cold War, but also wanted to be able to claim that it won by persuading others through their own free will.


To what extent did the psychological professions inform these campaigns, if at all?

In the fall of 1950, foreign policy specialists asked a group of scientists for advice on shaping its psychological warfare strategy. Oddly enough, Project Troy was light on psychologists—instead, it included several engineers and physicists, in part because the government wanted advice on breaking through the Soviet Union’s jamming of Voice of America broadcasts. The most prominent psychologist involved was Jerome Bruner, a veteran of the World War II-era Office of War Information who had since moved to Harvard.


Project Troy’s report included numerous recommendations based on contemporary theories of social psychology, but in the long term, its most important contribution was in establishing close relationships between social scientists at MIT and Harvard and government sponsors at the State Department, the CIA, and military agencies. In the short term, most of the early psychological warfare operations, especially the covert ones, were seat-of-the-pants operations driven more by opportunity than by psychological theory.


If this was ideological warfare, what was the U.S. ideology?

American foreign policymakers resisted the idea that the United States had an ideology. At least at first, they preferred to focus on what they saw as the evils of Communism, on how Communism as a political, social, and economic system abrogated various kinds of freedom associated with liberal democracy. These early campaigns, in other words, focused more on the deprivation of rights rather than the rights themselves.

By the mid-1950s, the limits of a propaganda campaign focused solely on destroying Communism were becoming apparent. Leaders throughout the Global South sought their own path forward, resisting the notion of a world divided into either Communism or its opposite. If the United States wanted to appeal to technocratic elites in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, it needed to specify, what, exactly, its worldview had to offer. And so, beginning in 1955, both the overt and covert arms of U.S. psychological warfare operations began producing materials and campaigns that attempted to define “freedom” for international audiences.

But for the record: this was a limited kind of “freedom” that focused on property rights, freedom of expression, and electoral participation for only certainly kinds of people. You would be hard pressed to find U.S. propaganda, c. 1955, that dealt frankly and truthfully with Jim Crow and Juan Crow laws, gender discrimination, McCarthyism, or any number of other ways in which the realities of American life fell short of the ideal.


How does science fit into this?

 The word “science” is strikingly absent from the key documents that established early U.S. psychological warfare operations. What you see instead is an emphasis on “rationality.” The United States would provide “facts” that would allow free-thinking people to decide for themselves between “freedom” and “slavery.” That being said, there is substantial evidence to suggest that U.S. policymakers wanted a larger role for programming specifically about science even prior to Sputnik. Marshall Plan administrators directed significant funds toward rebuilding European scientific research activities, and USIA publications and broadcasts frequently featured material on science.

Beyond this, science found its way into the earliest programs mainly by coincidence, through the interests of the private citizens involved with covert campaigns. Several of the people to whom the CIA and the State Department looked for inspiration, including Arthur Koestler, had longstanding interests in science. Koestler studied mechanical engineering at Vienna Polytechnic University and had a successful career as a science journalist before he started working for the Comintern in the mid-1930s. The plight of geneticists in the Soviet Union made science a particular ripe area for storytelling designed to contrast the fate of science under Communism and science under freedom.


With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, science moved to centre stage. The USIA declared 1958 a “Year of Science,” and a whole host of agencies, from the State Department and USIA down to the Department of Agricultural, brainstormed ways to signal the United States’ commitment to global peace through scientific programming. While many of these campaigns were conducted openly (for instance, the Space Race), others adopted administrative forms that continued to hide the government’s role in promoting scientific freedom.


Many of the campaigns discussed in your book were conducted by scientists who weren’t necessarily working directly for the government. In what sense are these “government campaigns”?

 The US government relied on private partners for many of its psychological warfare campaigns, primarily because it provided plausible deniability. The set-up for the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom was typical for covert operations: The CIA provided money to a the Farfield Foundation (a shell foundation), which in turn funded the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s operations.

Even many of the US government’s overt propaganda projects involved arms-length operations with private partners. In so-called gray propaganda, a government agency backed a project, but willingly ceded credit to a third party. The funding might not exactly be secret, but it wasn’t advertised, either.

 For what it’s worth, many of the US operations were explicitly modelled on the Comintern’s media empire in the 1930s. But the United States also brought an ideological component to its use of arms’-length relationships with private partners: It’s hard to acknowledge government support for hearts-and-minds campaigns if your ideology stresses individual freedom from government control.


More specifically, can you give us an example of a hearts-and-minds campaign involving ideas about science?

Sure. Earlier, I alluded to the situation with Soviet genetics. In 1948, the Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko announced that Soviet Communist Party officials had endorsed his unorthodox views on inheritance as the official interpretation of genetics in the Soviet Union. Attacks on what observers in the West called “Lysenkoism” quickly became a standard part of Americans’ attacks on science under Communism. The Voice of American broadcast a series of interviews with leading American geneticists that cast all of Soviet science as tarred with the brush of Lysenkoism. The first session of the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s landmark conference in West Berlin in 1950 also featured speakers on Lysenkoism. In 1953, the Congress for Cultural Freedom hosted a successful conference on “Science and Freedom” in Hamburg, Germany, that drove home the idea that Lysenkoism showed the impossibility of free scientific inquiry under Communism. Over and over again, whenever American scientists or U.S. officials talked about “science under Communism,” they invoked Lysenkoism.


How and why did these campaigns end?

By the mid-1960s, many of the CIA’s covers had begun to unravel. The lid blew off in 1967, when a series of reports in Ramparts, the New York Times, and the Washington Post detailed the convoluted funding streams that the CIA used to support its private partners. Meanwhile, the United States’ involvement in Vietnam highlighted the absurdity of hearts-and-minds accompanied by bombing runs. As opposition to the war increased, fewer and fewer private citizens were willing to lend their names to the United States’ anti-Communism campaigns. And as more and more private citizens announced their opposition to the government, fewer government officials were willing to trust them with conveying the government’s message. For all these reasons, as well as others related to global geopolitics, this particular version of psychological warfare, so popular in the early Cold War, fell out of favour for at least a generation.


Audra J. Wolfe is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and historian. She is the author of Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018) and Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and the popular podcast American History Tellers. She has also served on the Council of the History of Science Society.