Postwar development of atomic energy discussed

History buffs might think they know everything about the Cold War, but earlier this week professor John Krige shared insights about previously unexplored aspects of America’s foreign policy to an audience at the Hall of Graduate Studies.

About 40 community members and graduate students attended a Monday colloquium on atomic development in Western Europe led by Krige — a Kranzberg professor of science and technology at Georgia Institute of Technology. The lecture, “The Peaceful Atom as Instrument of U.S. Foreign Policy in Europe,” dealt with the United States’ involvement in Western Europe’s atomic energy development during the Cold War. The talk was one of a series of colloquia this year orchestrated by Yale history professor Daniel Kevles.

At the lecture, Krige read a portion of his recent book “American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe.” The book, written in 2006, discusses the ways in which the United States exercised political and economic clout to shape how Western Europe developed its atomic research. He said the basic goal of the United States’ actions was to act as a bulwark against Soviet ideas and sympathies.

Krige’s main focus was Euratom, an organization initially born out of the need to integrate Europe’s atomic resources. The United States was under the impression that they would have at least a three-year technological advantage on the Soviet Union, he said. Euratom, a conglomeration of countries who joined together to pool atomic resources, was created to devote atomic power to peaceful uses across Europe and the United States, Krige said.

On the surface, Euratom’s main purpose was to promote Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” idea, which would ensure that atomic power could be used as the universal fuel instead of the finite fossil fuels that gave the Middle Eastern oil corporations a monopoly, Krige said. He said the arrangement received international disapproval, but Euratom still persisted for several more years.

The lecture culminated in a discussion about how the United States can use Krige’s historical analysis to prevent future political failures like Euratom. Students and community members at the speech debated the differences between Krige’s historical example and the United States’ current foreign policies regarding weapon inspection.

Attendees said they found the discussion particularly interesting because it highlighted the numerous similarities between past and present foreign policy and urged audience members to avoid repeating past mistakes.

“We’re learning from diplomatic history to deal with new atomic powers,” Matt Gunterman GRD ’10 said.

Graduate students came in order to fulfill curriculum requirements for different courses. Gunterman said he was glad he was required to come because the discussion ended up being extremely relevant. He said he thinks the history Krige presented is useful for shaping future diplomatic actions.

But some attendees said they thought Krige focused too much on the political component of the United States’ actions. Todd Olszewski GRD ’08 said he wished the lecture had addressed the ethical concerns surrounding the issue.

“It was purely a political point of view,” he said. “There was a real lack of the moral element.”

Kevles, who is the chair of the Program of History of Science and Medicine, organizes similar events every two weeks. The talks are accompanied by weekly workshops in which graduate students discuss the topics addressed in the colloquia.

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