"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Oct 8, 2007

Anthropology Goes to War, Part 2

Anthropology, colonialism and covert operations

Recent march to remember the "disappeared," tortured and murdered after the
US-supported coup in Guatemala in 1954

This is the second part in a three part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Petition for anthropologist's non-participation in counterinsurgency

If Thomas Jefferson was indeed "a friend to the Indian" then the indigenous peoples certainly didn't need any more enemies.

However, later liberals were somewhat more conciliatory. According to Francis Edgar Williams, Oxford-trained Rhodes scholar and 17-year government anthropologist for Papua New Guinea, the role of applied anthropology in 1933 was one of “tidying-up, purging, reconciling, blending, and developing” those primitive cultures that were “more backward [and] more restricted than others.” 11 While, he says, anthropologists might be tempted to allow indigenous societies the freedom to manage their own affairs, this was simply not possible.

“His [the indigenous person’s] way of life must somehow enter into relation with the affairs of the world. It is hoped that we may leave him his fair share of freedom; but to leave him entirely to himself would be to funk the issue and neglect our duty.” 12

This duty that anthropologists had towards indigenous societies was emphasized at a 1936 conference, praised by anthropologist Felix Keesing, concerning the cultural education of Pacific colonial dependencies.

“[I]t is the responsibility of the governing people, through schools and other means, to make available to the native an adequate understanding of non-native systems of life.”13

This “understanding” would then allow the native groups to make an informed choice about the kind of society they wanted to live in. The fallacy of course is that, time and again, indigenous peoples would make their choice obvious by avoiding the colonizers, running away when captured, or resorting to violence when pushed too far.

This is easily seen in Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro’s 14 statement that “in order to pacify these groups the Indian Protection Service has had to face trials of every sort,” 15 such as having “more than a dozen IPS workers fell pierced by arrows as they went about their work of pacification.” 16 However, the indigenous Brazilians eventually came to understand, “descending to conditions of utter destitution and losing their happiness with their independence.” 17 Unfortunately, despite their high ideals, the

“heroic effort to bring peace to further tribal groups, [was] a source of frustration to its very authors . . . for the Indians have not even been assured possession of the land and peaceful co-existence has brought them hunger, disease and disappointment.” 18

World War II and the resulting Cold War (although frequently hot, being referred to as World War III by such divergent political figures as Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army 19 and Clinton CIA Director James Woolsey 20) changed the form of Western colonial policy but not the substance. American anthropologists were acutely eager to participate in these policies directed towards the defeat of fascism and, what was called, communism. During the war this participation was so great that

“Over one half of the professional anthropologists in this country [were] directly concerned in the war effort, and most of the rest [were] doing part-time war work.” 21

At least twenty anthropologists were also involved in clandestine activities for the OSS. 22 This level of commitment continued after the war with the American Anthropological Association (AAA) making a secret arrangement with the CIA in 1951, in which a cross-listed directory of AAA members was created demonstrating geographic and linguistic expertise. 23 Presumably, this database was desired in order to quickly locate a researcher with the appropriate skills. AAA President William Howells wrote,

“The CIA proposal is ideal. We should go along with it. . . If a reasonable questionnaire, suitable to both parties, can be worked out, we will both get what we want.” 24

The deal went through. Three years later, when the CIA overthrew the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala 25, it was an anthropologist who contacted the State Department concerning the political affiliations of prisoners taken during the coup. 26

In fact, the Church Hearings of the early 1960s found that

“CIA funding was involved in nearly half the grants [excluding the “Big Three” Rockefeller, Ford & Carnegie foundations] during this period in the field of international activities [and] more than one-third of the grants awarded by non-“Big Three” in the physical, life and social sciences.” 27

It is unknown how many anthropologists knew where their funding had come from or that their research had caught the interest of the State Department. However, anthropologists were also directly involved in covert operations in the Korean War, the Vietnam War and in counterinsurgency across the globe. 28 This set the stage for the largest controversy and best documented account of anthropologists involved in clandestine research as a "crucial new weapon": counterinsurgency in Thailand between 1964 and 1970.

Click here for Part 3


[11] Francis Edgar Williams, “The Vailala Madness” and Other Essays, University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1977, pp. 409-10
[12] Ibid., p. 417
[13] Felix M. Keesing, The South Seas in the Modern World. Institute of Pacific Relations International Research Series, John Day, New York, 1941, p. 84
[14] Ribeiro would later sign the Declaration of Barbados in 1971, proclaiming support for Indian self-determination
[15] Darcy Ribeiro, “The Social Integration of Indigenous Populations in Brazil,” International Labour Review, 85, 1962; cited in Bodley, Tribal Peoples & Development Issues; p. 53
[16] Ibid., p. 57
[17] Ibid., p. 58
[18] Ibid.
[19] Subcomandante Marcos, "The Fourth World War Has Begun", in Tom Hayden, ed., The Zapatista Reader, Avalon Publishing, 2000, p. 270.
[20], 04/03/03
[21] Fred Eggan, The American Anthropological Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science Bulletin 2(5), 1943, p. 38; cited in David Price, “Lessons From Second World War Anthropology,” Anthropology Today, 18:3, 2002, p. 16;
[22] E. Wyllys Andrews IV, William Bascom, Gregory Bateson, Lloyd Cabot Briggs, Carleton Coon, Cora Dubois, Anne Fuller, Nelson Glueck, Gordon Hewes, Frederick Hulse, Felix Keesing, Alexander Lesser, Edwin Loeb, Alfred Metraux, George Murdock, David Rodrick, Morris Siegel, Richard Starr, David Stout and Morris Swadesh; Ibid., p. 17
[23] David Price, “Anthropologists as Spies,” The Nation, Nov. 2, 2000b, p. 2;
[24] David Price, "A Private Face of Anthropology: The CIA, The AAA & The Comprehensive Roster of 1952", paper presented at a special Presidential Panel of the Annual Business Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, San Francisco on November 16, 2000a;
[25] Gerald K. Haines, "CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals 1952-1954", CIA History Staff Analysis, 1995, National Security Archive;
[26] Price, 2000b, p. 2
[27] Church Committee Reports, Book 1.X. The Domestic Impact of Foreign Clandestine Operations: The CIA and Academic Institutions, The Media, And Religious Institutions, p. 182
[28] Chris Bunting, “I Spy with My Science Eye,” Times Higher Education Supplement, April 12, 2002

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