In Sputnik's Shadow: The President's Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America

In Sputnik's Shadow: The President's Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America

In Sputnik's Shadow: The President's Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America

In Sputnik's Shadow: The President's Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America


In today's world of rapid advancements in science and technology, we need to scrutinize more than ever the historical forces that shape our perceptions of what these new possibilities can and cannot do for social progress. In Sputnik's Shadow provides a lens to do just that, by tracing the rise and fall of the President's Science Advisory Committee from its ascendance under Eisenhower in the wake of the Soviet launching of Sputnik to its demise during the Nixon years. Members of this committee shared a strong sense of technological skepticism; they were just as inclined to advise the president about what technology couldn't do--for national security, space exploration, arms control, and environmental protection--as about what it could do.

Zuoyue Wang examines key turning points during the twentieth century, including the beginning of the Cold War, the debates over nuclear weapons, the Sputnik crisis in 1957, the struggle over the Vietnam War, and the eventual end of the Cold War, showing how the involvement of scientists in executive policymaking evolved over time. Bringing new insights to the intellectual, social, and cultural histories of the era, this book not only depicts the drama of Cold War American science, it gives perspective to how we think about technological advancements today.


Even though I grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, I did not escape the shadow of Sputnik. Just as it sent a shock wave of apprehension through the West in the bitterly divided Cold War, the satellite stirred a great euphoria for the socialist system in the East. In China, Communist leader Mao Zedong, armed with party scientists’ supposed “scientific proofs” (dissidents had been crushed months earlier in the Anti-Rightist purge), launched the country into an ambitious but ultimately disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign of rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization. My own parents barely survived the resultant famine, but millions of others were not so lucky. When I was born in 1963, the so-called years of natural disasters were just over but their effects could still be felt.

Officially, however, Sputnik and the Great Leap Forward remained positive milestones of the march of communism in China during the decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) when I went to school. It was not until I went to college that I learned on my own—as physics majors we were not taught much beyond technical subjects—the full-scale destruction of the campaign and not until I turned from physics to the history of science in my graduate studies did I understand the crucial role that Sputnik played during the Cold War.

This book, however, did not start as a study of the impact of Sputnik per se. It had its origin partly in my own political baptism when I took part in a debate between liberal and conservative scientists over the relationship between science and politics in China in the early 1980s. At the time I was a graduate student at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, studying the history of modern physics with historian of science Xu Liangying and astrophysicist Fang Lizhi. Their advocacy of science and democracy as the pillars of modern society had a great appeal to young people of my generation. When Fang and Xu were attacked by party philosophers for deviating from orthodox Marxism in their historical interpretation of modern science, my fellow graduate students and I joined in the fray on our mentors’ side. The experience left me with two questions, one historical and the other political: What had shaped the relationship between scientists and the state in history in different cultural and national contexts? What should be the proper role of science in a democratic society? By the time Xu and especially Fang were embroiled in Chinese politics leading to the Tiananmen Square tragedy in 1989, I was already in the United States as a PhD candidate at the University of California trying to decide on a dissertation topic with these two questions in mind.

With fresh memories of the tension between the Chinese scientists and the state and with growing interest in American science and society in mind, I eventually chose, under the wise guidance of my advisor Lawrence Badash, to . . .

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