Sarah Bridger

  • Fellowship year:2010-2011
  • University: Columbia University
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: United States
  • Dissertation Title: Scientists and the Ethics of U.S. Weapon Research, 1957-1991
  •        My Dissertation charts the trajectory of scientists’ views on weapons work in the context of the changing political economy and culture of the post-Sputnik Cold War. Through extensive research in government, university, and organizational archives, as well as the personal papers of dozens of prominent and mid-level Cold War scientists, I describe and analyze the activities and ideas of three overlapping groups: weapons scientists who worked explicitly on military projects; scientist-activists who criticized or endorsed specific weapons technologies; and scientist-advisors who offered their services and expertise to the U.S. government. I track how scientists used their intellectual status to steer public debate and policy decisions, how their influence waxed and waned through wartime and peacetime, and how ideas about weapons research and government work teetered and then crashed on the fulcrum of the Vietnam War. Though primarily an intellectual and social history of scientists, my research also sheds light on several broader aspects of the Cold War: the impact of the state in guiding scientific research, the ethics of military science and weapons development, and the influential position of scientists in American society.
        My dissertation addresses three fields of controversy—nuclear weapons, biochemical weapons, and aspects of the computer command-and-control systems pioneered in the Massachusetts defense industry—and emphasizes the actions of scientists who worked on these projects, as well as scientists in the same general fields who publicly commented on them or advised decision-makers about them. I focus on the post-Sputnik period, which has received less attention from historians, in order to reexamine the ethical questions first raised by the Manhattan Project generation in the context of the space and arms races, the Vietnam War, the Reagan buildup, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Throughout, it is the scientists’ own views and internal debates—for example, whether to promote or protest nuclear weapons work, whether to prohibit classified military research on university campuses, and whether to accept employment in fields relevant to weapons development—that form the basis of my narrative.