From Sputnik to Silicon Valley: Presidential Leadership in Cold War Science Investment

            Central to this year’s presidential election has been the role of government in bolstering economic growth. On one hand, Republicans have extolled the virtues of private sector leadership, low taxes, and reduced government expenditure. On the other hand, Democrats have pursued relatively higher expenditures, tax rates, and a strong role for the government in encouraging growth. This conversation has spilled over into our discussion of how the government can support entrepreneurs and innovators. Talk of Solyndra, ‘picking [technology] winners’, and other government interference in innovation doesn’t play well with a culture used to the image of the lone entrepreneur tinkering away in his mom’s garage before crafting something truly extraordinary.  While working for the State Department in Moscow and observing Russia’s nascent attempts at innovation, I came to be a little suspicious of this narrative. Further research indicated that America’s history with innovation– and the curious long-term effects of Cold War defense spending- was a little more complicated than our culture gives credit for. I want to examine how presidential decisions about research and technology spending in the ‘50s and ‘60s laid the foundation for broader growth throughout the Cold War.

            Before the Internet, personal computing, or any number of contemporary conveniences, the primary customer for cutting-edge goods was the US military. In order to successfully develop the ‘nuclear triad’ (the mixture of sub-launched missiles, ICBMs, and strategic bombers necessary to ensure a second-strike capability), enormous R&D outlays were used to develop the requisite technologies. These projects, along with a number of others, created thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue for researchers in advanced labs, especially around Harvard/MIT and Stanford, laying the foundation for the present-day Route-128 and Silicon Valley innovation clusters. Now, the important thing about this spending wasn’t only its large size; the type and structure of American R&D gave us a substantial advantage over the Soviets (who had greater problems than I have time to detail here). As I move forward on examining the role of government in Cold War innovation and the roots of Silicon Valley, I need to branch out to different topics. In particular, I haven’t looked at the legal and educational sides of the question, even though those are areas of substantial presidential policymaking.

            It’s my hope that, when my research is finished, I’ll be able to come up with concrete policy recommendations for moderates looking for a nuanced position between government-led research and a pure free-market position. Mostly, I’m excited to bring more of this story to light and highlight the positive role our government (and the defense sector in particular) has for encouraging and protecting America’s position as home to the most creative, entrepreneurial people on Earth.                                                                                                                                                                                       

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One Response to From Sputnik to Silicon Valley: Presidential Leadership in Cold War Science Investment

  1. Hmm, this sounds like a very interesting research topic. (It’s certainly born of an interesting experience—The State Department in Moscow! I’d love to hear more about that in November…) I’ve traditionally fallen much more on the side of the free-market position, but it’s not something I’m particularly dogmatic about, so I’ll be keen to see where your research leads you. Good luck!

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