Summary: The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the largest general science organization in the world; judging by the accomplishments of many of its members, it has contributed widely to our understanding of science and technology. But the association also has a long and painful history of “science-activism”—promoting ties to Marxist and other extremist groups, propounding junk science theories, and supporting draconian population control policies.
Rise of the American Association of Scientific Workers
The perfect world supposedly represented by Soviet-style communism was one the science-activists at AAAS couldn’t wait to put into practice. In 1936, the AAAS and its British counterpart hosted a U.K. conference in which members called for a “Magna Carta of Science” and a “Supreme Court of Science.” Radicals pushed for ever greater science-activism, leading to the creation of the American Association of Scientific Workers, or AASW. The AASW, an “uneasy alliance of liberals, socialists, and communists” (as one observer described it), sprang from a 1938 meeting of the AAAS in direct response to the rise of fascism in Europe.
The group apparently operated as the AAAS political wing for the duration of its existence. As CRC vice president Dr. Steven J. Allen has noted (Green Watch, June 2014), at least seven well-known scientists serving as AAAS presidents during the period of 1931-1951 were also members of the AASW: AASW co-founder Franz Boas, Karl T. Compton, Walter Cannon, Arthur Compton, Anton J. Carlson, Howard Shapley, and Kirtley Fletcher Mather. Three even served as presidents of the Soviet front group.
In the late 1930s, branches of the AASW sprang up at universities in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and New Haven (Yale). According to Kuznick, the association attracted many eminent, propaganda-minded American scientists, who produced “radio programs and operated a science press service” as well as a mountain of conferences advocating for supposedly scientific policy changes, including socialized healthcare.
As was common in the pre-World War II West, communists often used anti-fascism as a cover for their own foreign loyalties. The AASW’s Soviet influence grew so apparent, however, that in the late 1930s the socialist philosopher Sidney Hook denounced the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy and the AASW as “Stalinist Outposts,” criticizing their members’ affinity for the Soviet Union. (FBI reports unearthed after the Cold War confirm his suspicions.)
American communists remained dedicated anti-fascists—at least until the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact was signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939. The pact, which was finalized just nine days prior to Germany’s September 1 invasion of Poland, allied two murderous totalitarian dictatorships: Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Unfortunately for American communists, it also muddied the waters of anti-fascism. How should they respond to peace between fascism and communism? Sidney Hook explained it succinctly. In a 1940 letter to then-AAAS president Walter Cannon, Hook quoted an ex-communist and disillusioned AASW member on the Pact:
After the Nazi-Soviet Pact the AASW changed its political slogans and interests in exactly the same way as did the American Communist Party or the American Youth Congress [another group with socialist leadership]. The boycott of German goods, their chief topic at meetings, the slogans “Fight Hitler” and “Collective Security” and related catch phrases [sic] were suddenly dropped like burning embers and silence on foreign affairs accompanied by Keep America Out of War campaigns took their place.
“Before the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the AASW, although quite vehement about persecution of scientists in Germany and Italy,” Hook added, “carefully refrained from any criticism or protest against the just as ruthless persecution of non-conforming scientists in Russia. Since the Pact, it is silent about Germany, too.”
While World War II raged in Europe, the rising communist faction within the AASW successfully pushed for an American “peace resolution,” which was featured in the May 3, 1940, issue of Science. The AAAS/AASW recommended “the wholehearted and unceasing support of all reasonable programs which seek a better understanding of the causes of war, which will preserve peace for the United States and bring peace to the world.” “American scientists,” the resolution read, “can best fulfill their share of this responsibility [as men of progress] if the United States remains at peace”—in other words, American neutrality regarding war with Nazi Germany. More than five hundred scientists signed the peace resolution, which then-AASW president Anton J. Carlson forwarded to President Franklin Roosevelt. Exactly one week later, Germany commenced its invasion of France.
It should be said that the scientific community split over such peace resolutions and over U.S. involvement in the war—a debate the AAAS/AASW were too quick to wade into. Anti-Hitlerists who favored war with Germany like Alfred E. Cohn argued in the New York Times that “there are intolerable situations to which men of certain beliefs will not care to submit, they have no choice except to resist with force.” This argument fell largely on deaf ears in the increasingly left-wing AASW. This was compounded by the United States’ declaration of war on Germany on December 11, 1941, which permanently split the group in two.
The AASW continued to support the Soviet Union through the Cold War—opposing the so-called “red scare” and U.S. nuclear weapons testing—albeit with diminishing influence. Among its more famous members were chemists Harold Urey and Linus Pauling, and physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer (of Manhattan Project fame) and Robert S. Mulliken. The AASW still exists today. In 1985 it changed its name to the U.S. Federation of Scholars and Scientists (UFSS), but its affiliation with the AAAS remains in place.
One documented communist front group connected to AAAS and AASW was the World Federation of Scientific Workers (WFSW). The group originated in 1946 in Great Britain as a collection of mainly French, British, and American Marxist scientists backed by the Soviet Union, according to a 1972 congressional inquiry. It operated as a pro-Soviet organization opposed to NATO’s testing of nuclear weapons. Its initial president was Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie, a French communist and son-in-law to the famed discoverer of Radium, the Polish-French scientist Marie Curie.
Roger Dittmann served as WFSW’s executive board member and its United Nations representative. Dittmann, who became professor of physics at the California State University, Fullerton, in 1964, is also a former executive board member of the Pacific Division of the AAAS. (Interestingly, WFSW survives today as an official partner of UNESCO. The group’s website makes no mention of its socialist history, instead innocently maintaining that it “engages in struggles for peace and disarmament, solidarity between peoples, social and sustainable development, and for a world economic order.”)
Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action, or SESPA, was another prominent far-left group to infiltrate the AAAS during the Cold War. The organization’s origins are unclear; but according to former members Sue Tafler and Kathy Greeley it began in 1969 when “a caucus of dissident physicists introduced an antiwar [sic] resolution at the American Physical Society convention.” Those physicists soon joined with another group of scientists in California and various Boston-based engineers to form SESPA. The group published a magazine—Science for the People—documenting much of its activity, which called itself “a vehicle for antiwar analysis and activity.”
Almost from the start SESPA activists set their sights on infiltrating various science groups, like the National Science Teachers Association, the American Chemical Society, and the Eastern Psychological Association. A 1972 Washington Post article by Victor Cahn documented SESPA’s attempt to “enlist the 27,000-member American Physical Society” to oppose the Vietnam War. SESPA conspiracy theorists bizarrely charged “that the government has already used weather modification as a weapon in Indochina, and has made geophysical war a ‘high-priority project.’”
One of SESPA’s top targets was the AAAS. According to Tafler and Greeley, “[r]eorganization of the AAAS itself has been one immediate goal of [the group].” Confirming their point, the March 1972 issue of Science for the People featured a cartoon of a dejected AAAS scientist following a grizzled, peace sign-adorned hippie wielding a sign that read, “Science for the People!” Captioned above the scientist were the words, “The times certainly are a’changin’.”
The takeover campaign initially saw members protesting outside AAAS’s annual conventions, but beginning in 1976 SESPA altered its AAAS-related tactics from Hippie-inspired protest to professional courtship. Activist Steve Cavrak co-headed SESPA’s 1976 AAAS Coordinating Committee, which “targeted” AAAS Boston conference attendees with a “Research for the People” workshop and leaflets “revealing the class nature of science, and showing how the current crisis reinforces this class character.” As Cavrak later bragged in the May 1976 edition of Science for the People:
At the AAA$ [sic] meeting, we met a lot of people who are interested in working with Science for the People. We have names, chapter contacts, and a national organizing committee. We have activity groups and ideas for new activity groups. It is important that all of us help bring the two together; that we all take part in building a science for the people.
The magazine celebrated SESPA’s “six-year tradition” of organizing at the annual AAAS meetings; in fact, that edition was entirely geared around the group’s participation in the conference. Britain’s Nature wrote at the time that “Science for the People—a radical group that can see very little right in American science, it seems—has almost made it into the Establishment of the AAAS.” The AAAS officially recognized the group in 1976—and it was welcomed by many in AAAS’s leadership.
“I think the kids have finally discovered what AAAS is all about,” then-AAAS board chair and anthropologist Margaret Mead said. “AAAS has had ‘science for the people’ since before they were born.”
In April 1970, SESPA was placed on a classified FBI watch list as a “revolutionary activity or New Left” organization, according to hundreds of documents released by the FBI in 2007 as part of a FOIA request. The declassified reports reveal a number of SESPA-organized demonstrations opposing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War staged in the early 1970s at various universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). During these demonstrations, activists passed out leaflets decrying “moral irresponsibility at MIT” for purportedly supporting military research during the Vietnam War. One of those protests led to the founding of the left-wing Union of Concerned Scientists.
Interestingly, reports made in 1971 by undercover FBI agents declassified in the mid-1990s reveal more of SESPA’s campaigns to “non-violently take over the AAAS convention[s]” in Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. The reports also confirm that “the AAAS has granted SESPA a major portion of the convention in order to appease their [SESPA’s] past tactics.” Confidential sources and former members of the Communist Party USA also reported to FBI agents that SESPA’s Chicago chapter, the Science for Vietnam group “is coordinating SESPA’s program of furnishing scientific information and research to the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam,” or communist North Vietnam, during the war.
According to another Science for the People article, the “Science for Vietnam project grew out of a visit to Hanoi in December 1970 by Richard Levins as part of a delegation of western scientists sponsored by the World Federation of Scientific Workers.” As one Science for the People article put it:
The Science for Vietnam project is one way in which scientists can give practical as well as symbolic meaning to a people-to-people peace with Vietnam. It is a start of reparations to a country that is being devastated in our name [emphasis original]. By openly collaborating with those whom our Government [sic] calls the enemy, it dissociates us from the war and serves notice that we are looking for new ways of resisting…
Science for the People even published a running list of items “needed for struggle against U.S. imperialism” in Vietnam, asking readers to submit materials requested by North Vietnamese scientists such as oscillographs, microbial stamps, and seismographs. Tafler and Greeley noted that Science for Vietnam had multiple chapters soliciting such requests in several U.S. cities—in other words, advocating treason by aiding and abetting the enemy during wartime.
Richard Levins, who died in January 2016, was a Harvard University professor and an avowed Marxist. An article by Levins in the July/August 1986 edition of the Marxist publication Monthly Review confirms his political views. Another article in that issue further connects the AAAS to SESPA: “Members of SESPA were then invited to make a presentation at the 1969 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to be held in Boston.”
George Salzman, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a self-described “anarchist physicist,” wrote in his online blog in September 2006 that, besides himself, SESPA was initially headed by scientists like Charles Schwartz, Richard Lewontin, John Beckwith, and Steve Cavrak—all future university professors (and at least two of them AAAS fellows).
Other contributors to Science for the People included future professors and/or notable scientists Ruth Hubbard, Kostia Bergman, Garland Allen, Phil Bereano, Theodore Goldfarb, Chandler Davis, Edward Loechler, Jeanne Gallo, Ragni Piene, Dave Kotelchuck (later appointed to the Obama administration’s Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health), and John Froines (a chemist and Students for a Democratic Society member who was tried for making an incendiary “stink bomb” at the so-called 1969 Chicago Conspiracy Trial; he later served as OSHA’s Director of Toxic Substances in the Carter administration), and outspoken communist and economist Scott Nearing. Many of these individuals later became AAAS fellows.
Interestingly, the FBI reports also detailed abuses of Democratic politicians. In the 1971 convention, former Johnson administration Undersecretary of State William Bundy “was interrupted at various times by shouts of obscenities and arguments by members of AAAS, SESPA, and VVAW [Vietnam Veterans Against the War]” while speaking before a collection of Vietnam War veterans. In the same convention, SESPA activists “attempted to disrupt Senator [and former vice president] Hubert H. Humphrey as he spoke” before AAAS conventioneers. Later, George Salzman flippantly confirmed the report: “In my mind is a photo of Hubert H. Humphrey being ‘bombarded’ by paper airplanes thrown by you know who.”
In the next installment of Mad Science, we explore the politicized agenda of the modern AAAS.