Unlike what is often presumed, scientific internationalism persisted through the First World War and its aftermath. Although many scientists aligned themselves with their belligerent nations after 1914, and although Germany and Austria were excluded from international meetings after 1919, the rhetoric celebrating the universally fraternizing nature of science continued as if no such ruptures existed. In this article I argue that this persistence was rooted in the war itself, and particularly in the massive mobilization of academics in wartime propaganda and diplomacy. In these activities they used internationalist arguments and their own supranational status as scientists to defend their countries’ war causes and defame those of the enemy. I illustrate this by following the diplomatic work of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. From the start of the war Bergson presented himself as a neutral scientific arbiter, developing a philosophy of the war (based on his work on life and evolution) as a battle of German barbarity versus universal (not just French) civilization. His government took note and sent Bergson on several diplomatic tasks, most notably a secret mission to the United States, early 1917, where he was to speak to President Wilson to persuade him to enter the war on the French side. Bergson’s universalism and his stature as a philosopher should appeal to Wilson’s dislike of partisanship and craving for the moral high ground. After the war, Bergson-style universalism continued and was institutionalized in the League of Nations and its International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation—with Bergson as its president.
This essay is part of a special issue entitled Science Diplomacy, edited by Giulia Rispoli and Simone Turchetti.