Wednesday’s Books Review: “The National Labs”

National LabsThe National Labs: Science in an American System, 1947-1974. By Peter J. Westwick. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003, xii, 403 pp. $49.95, ISBN 0-674-00948-7..06

To help win the cold war the United States created a set of research institutions throughout the United States with the mission of ensuring that cutting edge science and technology found its way into the defense establishment. This set of “National Laboratories” had become so powerful by 1961 that President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address warned the American people not only about the “military-industrial complex” but also of the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” These laboratories have been under the nominal authority of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and later the Department of Energy (DoE). They included several entities associated with the Manhattan Project of World War II—Argonne, Berkeley, Brookhaven, Los Alamos, and Oak Ridge—as well as later additions, such as the Lawrence Livermore installation. Together, these facilities undertook extensive strategic weapons research and development during a forty-year cold war.

This collection of laboratories, manufacturing plants, test sites, and think tanks possesses a complex origins and evolution and has attracted sustained historical inquiry. The National Labs is a fine addition to this extensive and sophisticated literature. It works best as a synthesis of previous arguments about the role of these weapons labs in recent American history and as a vehicle for understanding the relationship between American science and the modern federal establishment.

Author Peter J. Westwick coins a new term, systemicity, as a unifying theme in this study, in the process emphasizing his contention that these facilities may only be understood as a diverse collection unified by a common goal and head but with significant centrifugal tendencies. For Westwick systemicity involves a changing set of alliances and rivalries central to the evolution of these weapons labs, negotiations abounding among those representing the various facilities and divergent priorities. These labs jockeyed for position and specialized or diversified in various areas to ensure primacy within the system. Their competition ensured the honing of skills perhaps not possible otherwise.

No doubt, systemicity as Westwick defines it has long been present, although one could question the value of advocating new jargon for what may be viewed as an obvious set of interactions. Similar interlocking themes may be seen in other distributed organizations ranging from such federal entities as NASA and the FAA, private corporations such as General Motors, and public/private entities such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or Intelsat.

Regardless of Westwick’s creation of jargon The National Labs makes an important contribution to knowledge about the evolution of this set of research institutions between 1947, when the AEC began operation, and 1974, when DoE took over responsibility for overseeing them. He traces the evolution of the labs from their origins as the developers of nuclear weapons, reactors, and other technologies of destruction to diversification into physical, biomedical, and other types of research.

Throughout, these labs have profoundly affected ours lives and our understanding of nature. The broadness of their research, the high costs associated with operating them, and the importance of discoveries coming out of them ensures that this is an important subject of study. Westwick’s synthesis is a valuable entrée into how these scientific institutions both altered and reflected the values of United States during the Cold War.

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One Response to Wednesday’s Books Review: “The National Labs”

  1. Roger says:

    Thanks for your blog, Roger. It presents a diverse number of topics and information.


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