Cold War Silencing of Science

In the early Cold War, the United States government at times was amazingly heavy-handed in its use of domestic power.

There was plenty of surveillance, of course. But there was also blatant propaganda with professors, journalists, and artists on the payroll of intelligence agencies, not to mention funding going to writing programs, American studies, etc. Worse still, there were such things as COINTELPRO, including truly effed up shit like the attempt to blackmail Martin Luther King, jr. into committing suicide. There is another angle to this. Along with putting out propaganda, they would do the opposite by trying to silence alternative voices and enforce conformity. They did that with the McCarthyist attacks on anyone perceived or falsely portrayed as deviant or as a fellow traveler of deviants. This destroyed careers and did successfully lead to some suicides of those devastated. But there was another kind of shutting down that I find sad as someone who affirms a free society as, among else, the free flow of information.

When Nikola Tesla died, the FBI swooped in and stole his research with no justification, as Tesla was a US citizen and such actions are both illegal and unconstitutional. They didn’t release his papers until 73 years later and no one knows if they released everything, as there is no transparency or accountability. One of the most famous examples is much more heinous. Wilhelm Reich was targeted by the American Medical Association, FDA, and FBI. The government arrested him and sentenced him to prison where he died. All of his journals and books were incinerated. In the end, the FDA had spent $2 million investigating and prosecuting Reich, simply because they didn’t like his research and of course his promoting sexual deviancy through free love.

These were not minor figures either. Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest scientists in the world and most definitely the greatest inventor in American history. And Wilhelm Reich was a famous doctor and psychoanalyst, an associate of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and a well known writer. Their otherwise respectable positions didn’t protect them. Imagine what the government could get away with when they targeted average Americans with no one to protest and come to their defense. This same abuse of power was seen in related fields. A major focus of Reich’s work was health and, of course, he shared that area of concern with the FDA who saw it as their personal territory to rule as they wished. The FDA went after many with alternative health views that gained enough public attention and they could always find a reason to justify persecution.

I’ve come across examples in diet and nutrition, such as last year when I read Nina Planck’s Real Food where she writes about Adelle Davis, a biochemist and nutritionist who became a popular writer and gained celebrity as a public intellectual. Since she advocated a healthy diet of traditional foods, this put her in the cross-hairs of the powerful that sought to defend the standard American diet (SAD):

“My mother’s other nutritional hero was Adelle Davis, the best-selling writer who recommended whole foods and lots of protein. […] Davis had a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Southern California Medical School, but she wrote about nutrition in a friendly, common-sense style. In the 1950s and ’60s, titles like Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit and Let’s Get Well became bestsellers. […] Like Price, Davis was controversial. “She so infuriated the medical profession and the orthodox nutrition community that they would stop at nothing to discredit her,” recalls my friend Joann Grohman, a dairy farmer and nutrition writer who says Adelle Davis restored her own health and that of her five young children. “The FDA raided health food stores and seized her books under a false labeling law because they were displayed next to vitamin bottles.” ”

In the same period during the 1950s and 1960s, the FDA went after Carlton Fredericks in an extended battle. He had a master’s degree and a doctorate in public health education and was a former associate professor. What was his horrific crime? He suggested that the modern food supply had become deficient in nutrients because of industrial processing and so that supplementation was necessary for health. It didn’t matter this was factually true. Fredericks’ mistake was stating such obvious truths openly on his radio show and in his written material. The FDA seized copies of Eat, Live and Be Merry (1961) for allegedly recommending the treatment of ailments “with vitamin and mineral supplements, which products are not effective in treating such conditions” (Congress 1965) which were “not effective”. They declared this as “false labeling”, despite it never contradicting any known science at the time or since. Then a few years later, the Federal Trade Commission brought a similar charge of false advertising in the selling of his tape-recorded programs and writing, but the allegations didn’t stick and the case was dropped.

A brief perusal of web search results brought up a similar case. Gayelord Hauser was a nutritionist with degrees in naturopathy and chiropractic who, like the others, became a popular writer — with multiple books translated into 12 languages and a regular column in Hearst newspapers read nationwide. What brought official ire down upon him was that he became so famous as to be befriended by numerous Hollywood actors, which elevated his popularity even further. Authority figures in the government and experts within the medical field saw him as a ‘quack’ and ‘food faddist’, which is to say as an ideological competitor who needed to be eliminated. His views worthy of being silenced included that American should eat more foods rich in B vitamins and to avoid sugar and white flour. As you can see, he was a monster and a public menace. This brought on the righteous wrath of the American Medical Association along with the flour and sugar lobbies. So, this led to an initial charge of practicing medicine without a license with products seized and destroyed. Later on, in recommending black-strap molasses as a nutrient-dense food which it is, the FDA made the standard accusation of product endorsement and false claims, and this was followed by the standard action of confiscating his 1950 best-selling book on healthy diet, Look Younger, Live Longer. Now Hauser is remembered by many as a pioneer in his field and as founder of the natural food movement.

Let me end with one last example of Cold War suppression. In reading Nina Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surprise, I noticed a brief reference to Herman Taller, a New York obstetrician and gynecologist. He too was an advocate of natural health. His book Calories Don’t Count got him into trouble for the same predictable reasons with claims of “false and misleading” labeling. He also sold supplements, but nothing bizarre — from bran fiber to safflower oil capsules, the latter being brought up in the legal case. His argument was that, since fish oil was healthy, other polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) would likewise be beneficial. It turns out he was wrong about safflower oil, but his scientific reasoning was sound for what was known at the time. His broader advocacy of a high fat diet with a focus on healthy fats has become mainstream since. Certain PUFAs, the omega-3 fats, are absolutely necessary for basic physiological functioning and indeed most people in the modern world do not get enough of them.

Anyway, it was never about fair-minded scientific inquiry and debate. So $30,000 worth of safflower‐oiI capsules and 1,600 copies of his book were taken from several warehouses. To justify this action, FDA Commissioner George P. Larrick stated that, “The book is full of false ideas, as many competent medical and nutritional writers have pointed out. Contrary to the book’s basic premise, weight reduction requires the reduction of caloric intake. There is no easy, simple substitute. Unfortunately, calories do count.” He decreed this from on high as the ultimate truth — the government would not tolerate anyone challenging this official ideology and yet scientists continue to debate the issue with recent research siding with Taller’s conclusion. According to the best science presently available, it is easy to argue that calories don’t count or, to put it another way, calorie-counting diets have proven a failure in study after study — a fact so well known that mainstream doctors and medical experts admit to its sad truth, even as they go on advising people to follow it and then blaming them for its failure.

If you’ve ever wondered how Ancel Keys’ weak evidence and bad science came to dominate as official dietary recommendations pushed by medical institutions, the federal government and the food industry, the above will give you some sense of the raw force of government authority that was used to achieve this end. It wasn’t only voices of popular writers and celebrity figures that were silenced, eliminated, and discredited. Gary Taubes and Nina Teicholz discuss how a related persecution happened within academia where independent researchers lost funding and no longer were invited to speak at conferences. For a half century, it was impossible to seriously challenge this behemoth of the dietary-industrial complex. And during this era, scientific research was stunted. This Cold War era oppression is only now beginning to thaw.