PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Public communication of science in the Vietnam war

Peter J. Kuznick   American University, Washington, DC, USA

For scientists, as for most Americans, the Vietnam War fundamentally transformed the nature of politics and discourse during the explosive period from 1965 to 1970. The U.S. invasion of Vietnam split the scientific community in much the same way that it did the rest of American society. Debates over the morality and consequences of U.S. policy surfaced within scientific disciplines and subdisciplines and within interdisciplinary bodies, such as the AAAS. Scientific meetings became politicized. Opponents and supporters of U.S. policy fought for control of scientific journals and professional organizations. Some scientists formed local and national organizations to press their antiwar views.

Although many scientists would have preferred to remain aloof from politics, the impact of the war in Vietnam proved difficult to deny. Research funds decreased as the U.S. government diverted tax dollars from social needs to military ones. Scientists came under attack from students and other antiwar activists who blamed a scientific establishment, which had become dependent upon the military, for perfecting the means of killing and destruction. Recently accorded high status and social prestige, scientists suddenly felt compelled to defend themselves and their enterprise to increasingly strident social critics as campuses swirled with controversy over specific scientific projects and the broader role of science. Hence, while some of the upheaval that rocked the scientific community differed little from that shaking the rest of American society, much of the turmoil focused directly on the social role and military applications of science in a way that forced scientists to become embroiled in the center of the controversy.

Among its many consequences, the war in Vietnam had partially undermined Americans’ traditional faith in science and technology, triggering a national debate over the place of science in modern life. This became apparent in the attempts of scientists to communicate with one another. It also framed a reality that those involved in the public communication of science could ill afford to ignore as scientists’ concerns rapidly spread beyond the war itself to a number of related issues, including chemical-biological warfare, the draft, slashed research budgets, classified and nonclassified government-supported and militarily useful research, scientists’  ethics and social responsibility, government blacklisting, politicized hiring, firing, and tenure cases, and growing anti-scientific sentiment throughout society but particularly among the young. Sensitivity to these issues, especially mounting public hostility to science, increasingly influenced the ways scientists attempted to communicate with both their scientific colleagues  and the broader public in bringing a halt to the Vietnam War and a new understanding of the  social role of science and the social responsibility of its practitioners.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.