Article ID: CBB524773854

Intelligence, Ignorance, and Diplomacy in the Cold War: The UK Reaction to the Sverdlovsk Anthrax Outbreak (2021)


Drawing on perspectives from “ignorance studies,” this article examines a case of multiple types of expertise and ignorance within the geo-political context of the Cold War. It revisits a suspected breach of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). In 1979, an outbreak of anthrax occurred in the Russian city of Sverdlovsk, killing numerous people; Sverdlovsk was also the site of a military facility suspected by the West of undertaking biological weapons research. As news of the outbreak reached the West, first the USA, then the UK approached the USSR seeking clarification. The diplomatic path followed by the two nations involved a tricky balancing act, requiring attention to the souring of East-West relations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the integrity of the BWC, and the remote possibility of ratifying the SALT II nuclear negotiations. Diplomatic tactics depended on epistemic issues: How to tell whether the disease outbreak was natural or a military accident, how to decide what evidence was needed? I argue that although officials and scientists did not welcome ignorance and uncertainty, they recognized it as an inevitable and highly problematic epistemological issue (can we know what happened?) and tempered it into a less problematic, or at least more manageable, pragmatic issue (is there sufficient evidence to follow a particular course of action?).This article is part of a special issue entitled “Histories of Ignorance,” edited by Lukas M. Verburgt and Peter Burke.

Included in

Article Lukas M. Verburgt; Peter Burke (2021) Introduction: Histories of Ignorance. Journal for the History of Knowledge (pp. 5-5). unapi

Citation URI

This citation is part of the Isis database.

Similar Citations

Article White, Luise; (2004)
Poisoned Food, Poisoned Uniforms, and Anthrax: Or, How Guerillas Die in War (/p/isis/citation/CBB000750329/) unapi

Book Susan Colbourn; (2022)
Euromissiles: The Nuclear Weapons That Nearly Destroyed NATO (/p/isis/citation/CBB508430688/) unapi

Article Slotten, Hugh Richard; (2012)
The International Telecommunications Union, Space Radio Communications, and U.S. Cold War Diplomacy, 1957--1963 (/p/isis/citation/CBB001200574/) unapi

Article Barth, Kai-Henrik; (2006)
Catalysts of Change: Scientists as Transnational Arms Control Advocates in the 1980s (/p/isis/citation/CBB000670751/) unapi

Article Beatriz Martínez-Rius; (2020)
For the Benefit of All Men: Oceanography and Franco-American Scientific Diplomacy in the Cold War, 1958–1970 (/p/isis/citation/CBB421077621/) unapi

Article Simone Turchetti; (2020)
The (Science Diplomacy) Origins of the Cold War (/p/isis/citation/CBB037105279/) unapi

Article Rubinson, Paul; (2011)
“Crucified on a Cross of Atoms”: Scientists, Politics, and the Test Ban Treaty (/p/isis/citation/CBB001231508/) unapi

Book Jones, Susan D.; (2010)
Death in a Small Package: A Short History of Anthrax (/p/isis/citation/CBB001031342/) unapi

Book Holmes, Chris; (2003)
Spores, Plagues, and History: The Story of Anthrax (/p/isis/citation/CBB000630187/) unapi

Book Domaradskij, Igor V.; Orent, Wendy; (2003)
Biowarrior: Inside the Soviet/Russian Biological War Machine (/p/isis/citation/CBB000471194/) unapi

Book Endicott, Stephen; Hagerman, Edward; (1999)
The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea (/p/isis/citation/CBB000112031/) unapi

Book McNeill, John R.; Unger, Corinna R.; (2010)
Environmental Histories of the Cold War (/p/isis/citation/CBB001034124/) unapi

Book Weiner, Sharon K.; (2011)
Our Own Worst Enemy? Institutional Interests and the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Expertise (/p/isis/citation/CBB001221236/) unapi

Article Griswold, Robert L.; (2012)
“Russian Blonde in Space”: Soviet Women in the American Imagination, 1950--1965 (/p/isis/citation/CBB001320683/) unapi

Book Brzezinski, Matthew; (2007)
Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age (/p/isis/citation/CBB000830132/) unapi

Article Claudia Aradau; Tobias Blanke; (2021)
Algorithmic Surveillance and the Political Life of Error (/p/isis/citation/CBB470749472/) unapi

Book Elisabeth Roehrlich; (2022)
Inspectors for Peace: A History of the International Atomic Energy Agency (/p/isis/citation/CBB775978058/) unapi

Article Roland Wittje; (2020)
Engineering Education in Cold War Diplomacy: India, Germany, and the Establishment of IIT Madras (/p/isis/citation/CBB454141989/) unapi

Authors & Contributors
Aronova, Elena
Balmer, Brian
Barth, Kai-Henrik
Brzezinski, Matthew
Domaradskij, Igor V.
Endicott, Stephen
Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Diplomatic History
Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences
Journal of Social History
Science as Culture
Johns Hopkins University Press
Cambridge University Press
Cornell University Press
Durban House Pub
Indiana University Press
Prometheus Books
Cold War
Foreign relations; diplomacy
Nuclear weapons; atomic weapons
Science and war; science and the military
Biological warfare
Science and politics
Huxley, Aldous
Tereshkova, Valentina
Huxley, Julian Sorell
Time Periods
20th century, late
21st century
20th century
19th century
United States
Soviet Union
Great Britain
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras

Be the first to comment!

{{ comment.created_by.username }} on {{ comment.created_on | date:'medium' }}

Log in or register to comment