Immunology and Culture

AAI Protesting the Politicization of Science

by Bryan Peery and John S. Emrich
November/December 2013, page 18

This article originally appeared as an inset article in “A Legacy of Advocacy Is Born as AAI Confronts McCarthyism.”

“Our scientists, it seems, are well schooled in their specialties but not in the history of Communist tactics and designs,” wrote staunch conservative Rep. J. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ) in the weekly magazine Liberty in June 1947, a few months after he was appointed chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). “They have a weakness for attending meetings, signing petitions, sponsoring committees, and joining organizations labeled ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ but which are actually Communist fronts.”

Thomas’s criticism was aimed at those scientists who actively resisted the secrecy and isolationism that he and many other politicians sought to impose on scientific research in the United States after the Second World War. One scientist, in particular, became the object of Thomas’s criticism—well-respected nuclear physicist and pioneer in quantum mechanics Edward U. Condon. On March 1, 1948, Condon, then the director of the National Bureau of Standards, became the subject of the first high-profile loyalty case involving a scientist when a HUAC subcommittee chaired by Thomas called him “one of the weakest links in our atomic security.”

During the Second World War, Condon had served briefly as associate director of Los Alamos under J. Robert Oppenheimer but resigned after only six weeks in protest of some of the more stringent Manhattan Project security practices. He had accepted the need for security measures, such as fingerprinting and pre-hire background interviews, but protested others, especially the compartmentalization policies that prevented researchers from knowing what research teams working on other aspects of the same project were doing. Despite his disagreements with security officers at Los Alamos in 1943, Condon’s security clearance remained intact, and he continued to serve as a consultant on the Manhattan Project until 1945, when he was confirmed, without dissent, as director of the National Bureau of Standards by the Senate.

After the war, however, Condon’s aversion to secrecy and his support for international scientific cooperation appear to have been enough to attract the attention of Thomas and his HUAC colleagues. In terms of specific charges against Condon, the subcommittee report made much of his membership in the American-Soviet Science Society, an organization formed during the war to foster scientific cooperation between the two allied nations, but which was now deemed a communist front by HUAC.

AAI and four of the other five Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology member societies were among the first scientific organizations to protest the mistreatment of Condon. Meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on March 15, 1948, the AAI Council approved a strongly worded resolution declaring that it “deplores the accusations made against American scientists” by the HUAC subcommittee. “At a time when there is increasing need for scientists of the highest caliber in the Government service,” the resolution continued, “we regret the use of methods which lack the elements of fair play inherent in the American concept of democracy and resemble more the very tactics of those foes of democracy the Committee is striving to guard against.” The resolution was sent to HUAC, and copies were mailed to AAI members so that they might forward them to their members of Congress.

In the short-term, Condon and his supporters were victorious. In addition to the outpouring of support he received from scientists, he was also publicly defended by President Truman, who invoked executive privilege and refused to hand over any files related to the loyalty program to members of Congress. Without access to the files, Thomas and HUAC dropped the investigation. In July 1948, the Atomic Energy Commission renewed Condon’s security clearance, and the case faded from the headlines.

Although no longer chaired by Thomas, who resigned his seat in December 1949, HUAC subpoenaed Condon in August 1952. No new evidence was presented in the hearing, but the committee’s report nevertheless declared that Condon was unsuitable for any position that required a security clearance. As individual agencies, not Congress, granted security clearances, the report was nonbinding. When Condon, in his capacity as director of research and development at the Corning Glass Company, applied for a new clearance to work on a contract with the U.S. Navy in June 1954, he initially received it. In October, however, the secretary of the Navy revoked the clearance and ordered a second security review after the Republicans used the Condon case as political fodder in the mid-term election. Fed up with having his loyalty questioned repeatedly, Condon retired from Corning and sought an academic appointment. Yet even in academia, the HUAC accusations impeded his search for permanent employment, and several universities withdrew their offers before he settled in at the University of Colorado at Boulder.



  • Carr, Robert K. The House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1945–1950. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1952.
  • Thomas, J. Parnell. “Reds in Our Atom-Bomb Plants,” Liberty. June 12, 1947.
  • Wang, Jessica. American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Wang, Jessica. “Science, Security, and the Cold War: The Case of E. U. Condon.” Isis 83, no. 2 (1992): 238–269.
  • “Biologists Assail Thomas Committee.” New York Times. March 20, 1948.
  • Minutes of the AAI Council. March 15, 1948. AAI Archive, Rockville, MD.

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