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Tech Day speakers review World War II and MIT

Speakers at Technology Day last Friday morning addressed the many contributions that MIT made to the country's efforts to win World War II and the ways that the war in turn transformed the Institute.

Delivering the keynote address was historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for her book on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the home front. She recounted anecdotes and statistics that painted a portrait of the wartime President and First Lady for the capacity audience in Kresge Auditorium.

Roosevelt's defining quality, Dr. Goodwin said, was "an absolute confidence in himself and his country, and in the democratic system of government." Despite his heavy responsibilities, he was also able to relax and enjoy himself at cocktail parties, poker sessions and on fishing trips. "The equanimity he felt within himself freed up psychic resources that allowed him to be extremely receptive to the needs of others," she said. Ironically, the war began with Roosevelt's strength guiding a country at a low ebb; by 1945 America was a world power while its president became ill and died.

Eleanor increasingly used her talents for activism and organization on behalf of social causes during her husband's presidency, traveling the country and acting as FDR's eyes and ears. She made the war "a vehicle for social reform at home. her contributions on civil rights were the most affirming moments in the history of the home front," Dr. Goodwin said. The war era also saw significant gains for women and a redistribution of income that created a middle class for the first tine, she added.

Professsor emeritus Robert C. Seamans Jr. '42 of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics discussed MIT's scientific and engineering work in aid of the military during the war in his talk entitled "World War II Comes to MIT." Dr. Seamans has also been dean of engineering, Secretary of the Air Force and president of the National Academy of Engineering.

As reported in MIT President Karl Taylor Compton's report in 1945, Professor Seamans said, one-quarter of MIT alumni served in the military and 30 percent of the staff took leaves of absence. President Compton himself traveled extensively during the war in his capacity as the chief of field services for the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which was headed by former MIT Vice President Vannevar Bush.

Professor Seamans showed slides of war-related activities on the MIT campus, including the Hunsaker wind tunnel, Dr. Bush's differential analyzer ("The Great Brass Brain") for solving differential equations, "the plethora of radomes protruding from rooftops," and the temporary housing built for students and their families who came to MIT on the GI Bill after the war. There was also research and development at MIT on camouflage, aircraft propulsion, food processing, surgical sutures, synthetic rubber and vitamins, flash photography for reconnaissance, and weather forecasting, he added. Institute staff did not work on the atomic bomb because "the great commitment to radar obviated the opportunity to participate in the most portentous scientific program in all of history," Professor Seamans said, quoting President Compton's report.

"These activities [development of war-related technologies] running under forced draught in an atmosphere of crisis and deep commitment changed MIT fundamentally and irreversibly," Corporation Chairman Paul Gray said in his talk on "MIT's Responses to the World War II Experience." These changes could be seen in the size and composition of the student body ("a preamble to the further democratization of this place that began 20 years later and which is so evident today," he said), in the revamping of the engineering curriculum to emphasize physical and mathematical foundations, and in the marriage of teaching and research with government support that made MIT a paradigm of the post-war research university.

Dr. Bush helped create the government-university partnership that reached its height in the 1960s, a time that some now see "as an exception rather than any kind of rule. an aberration unlikely ever to happen again," Dr. Gray observed. Funding cuts are now resulting from a war on the federal deficit that is "fully as significant as the conflict in World War II" for MIT, he said.

The war and its outcome also served to preserve the capitalist system in the United States and other countries, said Lester Thurow, Lemelson Professor of Management and Economics, speaking on "The Economic Impact on Society." In 1941, the country was radicalized and still mired in 17 percent unemployment; "there was not a single shred of evidence that the US would recover from the Great Depression," he said. During the war, the government instituted wage and price controls and changed the tax structure, resulting in a significant redistribution of wealth. Other post-war economic changes included a sharp rise in foreign aid with the Marshall Plan and the creation of a social welfare system predicated on the belief that when "people are sick, old or unemployed, you do not throw them off the ship of state," Professor Thurow said.

After the war, much of America's foreign and domestic policy including heavy spending on the "space race," was justified on the basis of combating communism, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, "all of the anchor points are gone," he said. "It's easy to be a manager in a crisis. today's political leadership has a much tougher task than in the '30s and '40s because there is no crisis." The overriding question now facing the country, Professor Thurow said, is "Do we have a vision and the ability to march toward it?"

In his remarks on "MIT and the Future," President Charles M. Vest noted that MIT is still making improvements to keep itself a foremost research university but that erosion in government support is clouding the future. "The spirit of Rad Lab is not dead. It is the thought of opportunities that may be missed that fuels our concern," he said.

Three "disastrous policy errors" pose a threat to MIT and other universities, President Vest said. One is an "inaccurate, unhelpful and somewhat partisan categorization of research as `basic' on the one hand and `strategic' or `applied' on the other," and frequent shifts in preference for one or the other by the government. "It is predicated on the notion that research enterprises can turn on a dime-`today we make better toasters, tomorrow we decode the human genome,'" he said.

The second related error is the separation of education and research in federal funding policy (graduate and undergraduate student research "has become a defining element in MIT's institutional excellence," President Vest said), while the third is an increasing tendency to define research and development as a cost rather than a financial and human investment, he said. He urged his audience to help demonstrate MIT's value to colleagues, legislators and the public. "With a new partnership secured, we can be confident that education and research at MIT will contribute to our nation a future that is more secure, prosperous and exciting than anything we have ever known," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 21, 1995.

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