Military Research and Academe: A Marriage Made in Hell

Military Research and Academe: A Marriage Made in Hell

Allen Bromley, President Bush’s Science Advisor, has said that the 1990s are a time to renew the research relationship between universities (public and private) and the Department of Defense. It is a longstanding relationship which dates back to the 1950s. Shortly after the Sputnik Launch, Congress passed a series of pieces of legislation with names like “the National Security Education Act” and the “National Defense Education Act.” These pieces of legislation implicitly linked ‘national security’ and education: the chief concern of the legislators was that the “education gap” between us and the Soviets in the areas of science and engineering was a greater threat than any bomber or missile gap. Our universities had to be shored up, not to enlighten our citizens to any great universal truths, but to produce a new crop of technologists who would counter the Soviet arms race. Shortly after World War II, science and technology in this country were changing in important areas that would affect all sectors of research, especially academia: a new force that would make science “respectable” had made the scene in the wake of the Manhattan Project.

That force is the consolidation and institutionalization of science as a result of World War II: “the rise of big science.” Most nation-states during the war began to transfer large portions of their GNP toward scientific R & D, resulting in breakthroughs like radar and the atom bomb. The effective result was that, even in the ‘free countries,’ the autonomy of science from the State (to the degree it ever existed) was eroded. Largely, this was due to changes in the nature of physics itself: as ever more powerful accelerators and telescopes were needed, so were larger funds which could not be solicited from private sources. Also, one must also acknowledge that the tension of the Cold War also provoked governments to improve technologies in all areas from surveillance to the Space Race. The government became the premier financier of scientific work, and he who controls the purse pulls the strings… one effective result of World War II was a conflation of the scientific work with the so-called ‘military industrial complex.’ Labs such as the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory arose out of important military ‘search’ projects – in their case, the development of the proximity fuse for the atomic bomb. Scientists working on such projects learned the importance of secrecy, oversight, and haste.

The rise of “Big Science” meant big-ticket, multibillion projects: physicists wanted ever more powerful particle accelerators to probe the fundamental secrets of the cosmos, and other scientists demanded more powerful information processors than the bulky ENIAC of the 1950s. The era of the lone “gentleman scientist” tinkering in his basement was over. But the scientists would not have gotten what they wanted if the military-industrial complex had not seen their value to its own goals. After WW II, it became gospel that technological superiority would win more victories than numerical superiority of forces, stronger firepower, or better tactics on the battlefield. The newly created Department of Defense in 1947 (before, it had been called, perhaps more accurately, the Department of War) immediately began seeking out university researchers to collaborate with on high-tech military hardware projects. Military power would have to be maintained at sea, in space, and in the sky, as well as on land, and that required new technological breakthroughs. The military’s wish list got exponentially more complicated, sophisticated, and expensive.

During the VietNam War, the Pentagon presence on academic campuses was heavily questioned. Students demanded to know why their universities were conducting secret military research on napalm, toxic defoliants like Agent Orange, and improvements in helicopter gunship design. As the draft became more and more unpopular, many campuses were forced to remove their Reserve Officer Training Corps. (ROTC) programs which were largely seen as sources of military recruitment. When Ramparts magazine revealed CIA infiltration of the National Student Association in 1967, many students began to find out their campuses were conducting research on weapons and technologies for use in covert operations, and that professors working for the CIA were using select campuses as recruiting grounds for foreign students for use in foreign intelligence operations in their home countries. It was also revealed that the Army was conducting behavioral warfare experiments with drugs like LSD to see if they had any military value (disorientation of the enemy, etc.) Following many protests, the DoD quietly removed its presence from many campuses, and moved many of its secret operations – such as the MkULTRA and MkSEARCH projects – onto military bases and other locations.

In the more favorable military-industrial climate of the 1980s, the DoD found it easy to make its way back onto increasingly corporatized university campuses such as JHU and MIT. The projects that the military were interested in – “stealth” development and radar invisibility, “ethnic warfare” to target specific populations, “smart” computerized weapons guidance systems, C3I (automation of command-and-control), and militarization of space (the Strategic Defense Initiative) – required the “high tech” facilities of the nations’ campuses. The military agenda of the 80s focused more on brains than brawn – in particular, there were efforts in all areas to utilize computers in various defense systems so as to remove human decisionmaking from the “loop.” The emphasis was on developing weapons with greater range, accuracy, and undetectability – perhaps to allow warfare to be conducted in a more clandestine manner, so as to keep more of “ours” out of danger and to kill more of “theirs,” without “them” being able to know who pulled the “trigger.” Such a strategy was less politically unpopular, as citizen non-concern about the Viet Cong body count from the CIA Operation Phoenix in the VietNam War or the bombing of Cambodia demonstrated.

The growing amount of military funding for university research in the 1980s was defended with a number of curious rationalizations. University presidents would often assert that DoD-related research would produce technological civilian ‘spinoffs’ of great economic value to the college. Unfortunately, that is most often not the case, because military-funded projects are often carried out under a veil of security classifications that prevent researchers from sharing their findings with other colleagues, and most DoD projects are very focus-oriented, to the point where the very idea of using similar technological principles for civilian usage is not even considered. The other rationalization these administrators would make was more frank and to the point: the DoD is “where the money is at.” During the 1980s, the academic provision budget of the DoD and the DoE for nuclear-arms development exceeded almost every other federal research R & D budget – particularly renewable energy and conflict resolution studies. Universities who could not “afford” to maintain black studies or womens’ studies programs through the 80s eagerly turned their physics and engineering departments over to DoD bucks.

The wave of university remilitarization met with many sudden shocks during the beginning of this decade. Steven Rose, president of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), was asked to resign because of his ties to CIA research interests. Antiapartheid activists began to see signs of research collaboration between the U.S. and South Africa on “riot control” technology. The extensive use of “smart” electronic systems used in warfare in the Persian Gulf War developed on college campuses, and the revelation of Saddam Hussein’s effort to obtain the “Supergun” created by inventor Gerald Bull, revived debates about the marriage of science and warfare. Journalist Tim Weiner revealed that the Pentagon’s “Black Budget” included projects such as a sattelite coordination system for fighting WW IV (called MILSTAR), a second-generation swept-wing stealth bomber (which is being tested secretly in the Nevada desert at “Area 51” right now), and a supposedly foolproof bunker to protect our nation’s precious leaders from nuclear war. For these and other reasons, students in the 90s are beginning to raise their voices in protest against the militarization of education.

Largely due to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests during the middle 1980s, Baltimore activists discovered that the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab was doing classified research on the AEGIS radar system, some technical aspects of SDI, and systems testing of the guidance and propulsion systems of the Navy’s Cruise, Trident, and Pershing nuclear missiles. The purpose of such testing is to improve the targeting accuracy, velocity, and “hard penetration” (i.e. destruction of underground emplacements) of these missiles. Such improvements make these missiles easier to launch quickly and effectively so as to pre-empt retaliation: making a nuclear “first strike” feasible, and nuclear war all the more likely. (If one nation has “first strike” capability, its enemies must upgrade the “alertness” potential of their own nuclear forces, resulting in a greater possibility of an accidental attack.) The lab’s directors claimed they “did not build anything that went boom.” That is true. They merely increased the lethality of things that go boom and made them more likely to be used.

Even with the Cold War over, the Applied Physics Lab continues to do roughly 50% ‘civilian’ work (biomedical, nautical, and electronic projects) and 50% Navy-funded projects. Due to an agreement Hopkins signed with the Navy, APL has no choice: it must do what the Navy tells them to do, or the lab becomes the property of the Navy rather than the university. The focus has mostly shifted from nuclear missile guidance to other “smart” forms of conventional warfare and a “limited” SDI. Other divisions of the university are known to have done military research. The Johns Hopkins Hospital maintained tanks of deadly chemical agents (mustard gas) on its property in order to do tests it was paid to conduct by the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to see if the gas could be neutralized or detected. (That this put JHH patients at risk seemed to have been an afterthought.) Some of the current academic Arts & Sciences Departments doing non-classified DoD funded research include cognitive science, behavioral biology, biology, psychology, physics, computer science, materials engineering, and math sciences.

Due to a reorganization of counseling services on campus, one of Johns Hopkins’ most vociferous critics of the APL research agenda, campus Chaplain Gretchen van Utt, may be silenced this year. She is being demoted to “Director of Religious Counseling” and will have to report all her funding and programming to the supervisor of the university’s new “Macro-Counseling Center,” which will utilize 10 generalists to do the work of what 14 separate specialized university offices (each with their own staff) were doing before. The university has never enjoyed the Chaplains’ in-house criticism of its policies, and always wanted to have a veto power over her programming. This counseling reorganization – which is going to hurt students in many other ways – provides a means for them to do so. The reason why the Chaplain is often a “lone voice crying in the wilderness” is that so few people know about the APL because it is located more than a half hour away from the main Homewood campus of Hopkins in Howard County, Maryland. It was relocated to there in the 1940s when its work on the atomic bomb radio fuse came under severe criticism from concerned faculty: “out of sight, out of mind” was the hope of the lab’s directors.

While much of the criticism of the APL came from outside – in particular, from the APL Conversion Project headed by activist Max Obuziewski (I always butcher your name, sorry, Max…) and the pacifists of Jonah House – the Progressive Student Union on campus, working with members of the Baltimore Student Coalition, tried to publicize the activities of the lab to an apathetic student body. Articles about the “Death Lab” appeared in the Hopkins News-Letter , and heated, vocal anti-APL protests occurred during the Persian Gulf War. Shortly after the war, other students and I performed a mock ceremony entitled the “Wedding from Hell” which was to ‘commemorate’ the marriage of academia to the military-industrial complex, ‘celebrating’ the union of the Pentagon and the university. Students witnessing the ceremony watched a parade of former presidents come to offer their blessings on the joyous couple, offering monologues that explained their role as matchmakers. The play was devised by Umass. student Jim Leavitt to protest the military on their campus, and adapted to the situation at JHU.

The militarization of education is a threat to academic freedom, and a much greater threat than any other nebulous wave of ‘political correctness’ you may have heard as having seized control of your literature or history departments. By doing DoD funded research, universities sacrifice their academic freedom at the altar of the war-fighting State. Military research is contrary to the necessary openness of universities, and to their mission in improving the quality of human life. It is also a waste of research resources that could be better directed at civilian scientific projects to clean up the environment, fight AIDs, cancer, and other incurable diseases, improve public health, and peacefully explore space. Now that the Cold War is over, secret military research to fight nonexistent (or imagined) enemies or to explore scenarios for waging impossible wars is a waste of taxpayer money that no one should have to subsidize. Of all the government agencies, only the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (covert-action wing) and the Pentagon get a “blank check” to spend as they will. Universities are benefitting from their largesse, at our own expense in a sagging economy.

The Big Lie of our time is that science only progresses through warfare. We are told of the birth of civilization through hunting and warfare in the Neolithic Age, of advancements the Greeks made through fighting the Persians, of Leonardo da Vinci’s siege engines that he built for the dukes of Italy that ushered in the Renaissance, and of the achievements of WW II which paved the way for exploring space. Science can and should progress for reasons other than ‘national security’ and education should be promoted for reasons other than shoring up ‘national defense.’ As the Earth Summit revealed, we need a global scientific effort to fight the problems facing our planet, and universities should be leaders in that effort, rather than puppets of overarmed nation-states. Knowledge is an end in itself, not a means to upgrade the arsenal of a planet already spending more of its resources on the arms race than health care, and possessing enough armaments to blow itself to kingdom come and back numerous times. Militarizing education means making education like the military: less questioning and more following orders. We need to be asking more questions of our leaders, not less, beginning with: “What is education for “?

If you want to get involved in researching (and fighting) the military presence on your campus, contact the University Conversion Project in Cambridge. Feel free to contact them at

P.O. Box 748, Cambridge, MA. 02142

, or call Rich Cowan at (617) 354-9363. The project, which is part of the War Research Investigative Service (WRIS), can help you in filing FOIA requests and publicizing that information. It is a clearinghouse that can help you get in touch with other organizations working on demilitarizing campuses and with activists working on over 100 other U.S. campuses to fight the DoD presence there. Don’t assume that just because you are on a small, secluded, rural, or public college that there is no military-related research being conducted there. You may be surprised at the classified work that is going on right under your nose. Departments you might never suspect of doing DoD work (sociology, mathematics, biomedicine, etc.) might be doing any number of specialized Pentagon projects. With your help, we can turn the tide against militarization of education.

Steve Mizrach, aka Seeker1


About elloborojo

Okay, as the subtitle states, this is a notebook from what I call a New Mexico diaspora (look up diaspora if you are asking). I was a former resident of New Mexico, now living elsewhere, but New Mexico is still my homeland. To get more in touch with your homeland one must be away from it. This is my attempt to understand it. I was a former anti-militarism activist in the Albuquerque area. Still believe that United Snakes militarism is the greatest threat to the world, as do the majority of the worlds population. Uncovered much information about the ties in New Mexico, but never processed it all. This blog is an attempt to do that. Also hope it may come of use to others with similar interests.
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