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Constructing a New Scientific Order: The United States’ Oceanographic Mission to the Developing World and Its Environmental Impact

Sat, April 2, 3:00 to 4:30pm, Westin Seattle Hotel, Vashon


A month before his tragic death, President John F. Kennedy urged a National Academy of Sciences audience that the United States must harness its tools of oceanic exploration “to drive back the frontiers of the unknown in the waters which encircle our globe.” Kennedy stressed that further exploration of the seas and their unknown properties, in time, would affect the United States’ national security posture.
But increased study of the world’s oceans was only a part of the U.S.’s Cold War era oceanographic strategy. Another component involved inculcating new oceanic information to other interested parties, particularly developing world scientists. Both the United States and the Soviet Union ventured into bodies of water, for example the Indian Ocean, to initiate and instruct the nascent oceanographic institutions and fishery nurseries of the newly independent nations that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War.
This paper examines American governmental efforts, with an emphasis on the United States’ involvement in the International Indian Ocean Expedition, to educate developing world scientists about the benefits of Western-based U.S-led science, in contrast to Soviet-style scientific practices. American national security officials theorized that this initial contact would unfold into a friendlier and more collaborative relationship between the United States and developing world nations to better understand the environmental properties of the Indian Ocean. Drawing upon U.S. State Department as well as other federal agencies’ records, this project argues that imparting greater knowledge of the Indian Ocean and its many resources developed into a contested geopolitical forum between the United States and the Soviet Union.