A Diplomatic Gift

Maria Rentetzi

On August 15, 1958 the New York Times reported that “A mobile laboratory was loaded yesterday aboard ship for the international atoms-for-peace show to be held in Geneva in September.” The short but informative article about “the first of its kind” mobile laboratory, came with an impressive picture of a more than ten meters long, bus-like vehicle hanging from a crane in front of the American Archer, a US container line ship built only four years earlier. The photo caption was telling: “This mobile training laboratory is one of two the US is giving to the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

Strongly aligned with US political and diplomatic interests, the gift to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), this massive technoscientific artefact, was one of the country’s technological miracles designed to instruct up-and-coming scientists and engineers across the globe in detecting and measuring radioactive materials. The aim was to familiarize science students in different countries with US-made instruments and techniques in handling radioisotopes in a number of vital economic sectors such as agriculture, medicine and industry. For the USA, supplying the IAEA with gifts was not only the cost of “doing business” in the new nuclear international setting of the Cold War but also indispensable in maintaining authority, a camouflaged way of keeping the upper hand within the IAEA and in the international regulation of nuclear energy. This gift-giving, however, also allowed the receiver, the IAEA, to use the gifts for its own political and diplomatic ends by making available the mobile laboratory to specific nations and with specific interests in mind. Introducing the diplomatic gift as a useful category of analysis in history of science enriches our understanding of the multilateral and multinational nuclear diplomacy that emerged in the early 1960s.

Link to the publication: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160932721000090

Caption: On April 23, 1958 Robert McKinney, the US representative in Vienna, presented the small-scale model of the Mobile Radioisotope Laboratory to IAEA’s Director General Sterling Cole during a session of the Board of Governors and before the press. (Photo courtesy of the IAEA Archives)