From Scientist-Politicians to an Anti-Science Demagogue: America’s Tragic Descent Into Madness
By Wayne Madsen
October 12, 2020
Several of the founders of the United States were gifted scientists and scholars of the Age of Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin was not only a statesman, but he was known as one of the leading scientists of the world in his own right. Franklin, who had to deal with his age’s numerous religious extremists, medical quackery, and various misanthropes, would have little time for the anti-science foolishness of the Donald Trump administration. In fact, taking the political appointee sector of the Trump administration as a whole, the United States enjoyed more scientific expertise in government during its early days than it does today.
Early American presidents like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and George Washington were all committed to scientific pursuit. Jefferson was a mathematician, agronomist, and paleontologist. Franklin and Jefferson were inventors. Franklin invented bifocal lenses and the mid-room furnace known as the Franklin stove. Jefferson invented a sophisticated cipher machine. Madison had an interest in the environment and was keen on how “vital air becomes noxious.” Adams had a knack for astronomy. Washington was intent on relying on the epidemiology of the era to save his Continental Army from a smallpox epidemic, a pathogen that he had survived in his youth. In 1777, during the height of the War of Independence from Great Britain, Washington ordered his entire army to be inoculated against smallpox, the first such action in military history. Washington saw the mortality rate from smallpox among his army’s ranks drop from 17 percent to 1 percent.
Washington had a better understanding of viral epidemics during the Revolutionary War than Trump does today with COVID-19. Washington was assisted in his smallpox inoculation program by Surgeon General of the Continental Army and signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush. A chemistry professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Rush would later teach a future president of the United States, William Henry Harrison.
A commitment to science has marked, from one degree to another, every presidential administration from Washington to Obama. That commitment ended with Trump, a person who has demonized America’s leading government epidemiologists, vaccine specialists, and public health officers, not to mention scores of climate scientists and environmentalists.
In April 1961, President John F. Kennedy, in a speech to the National Academy of Sciences, a body founded by President Abraham Lincoln, said, “In the earliest days of the founding of our country there was among some of our Founding Fathers a most happy relationship, a most happy understanding of the ties which bind science and government together.” President Theodore Roosevelt was such a committed environmentalist and conservationist, he founded the U.S. National Park System, which Trump and his mining, drilling, hunting, timber, and fracking business cronies are busy destroying.
In a July 25, 1944 letter to the Office of Scientific Research and Development, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged those involved with American military research and development to “make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge.” Roosevelt, a polio sufferer, was particularly interested in launching a “war of science against disease.” Roosevelt also wrote, “The fact that the annual deaths in this country from one or two diseases alone are far in excess of the total number of lives lost by us in battle during this war should make us conscious of the duty we owe future generations.” Roosevelt would have been horrified to know that a future successor in the Oval Office would contribute so directly to the deaths from COVID-19 of over 212,000 Americans due to malfeasance, incompetence, and reliance on medical quackery.
After his retirement from the Army, Dwight Eisenhower gained an appreciation for science and research from his stint as president of Columbia University in New York. The friendship that developed between Eisenhower and Columbia physicist I. I. Rabi would lead to Rabi becoming Eisenhower’s White House science adviser. It was Rabi who helped launch a national space effort, particularly after the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. Eisenhower passed the space technology torch to John F. Kennedy. On May 25, 1961, Kennedy told the U.S. Congress, “. . . I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”