Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War

By González, Roberto J. | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War


González, Roberto J., Anthropological Quarterly


David H. Price, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. 352 pp.

Approximately half of all anthropologists in the United States contributed their expertise to the World War II effort. This timely book explores the wide range of roles they played through dozens of accounts profiling their work. The book's methodology is innovative and eclectic. It relies upon an array of sources including declassified documents requested through the Freedom of Information Act, anthropologists' letters and obituaries, government reports, and interviews, among others.

Price begins by providing a historical framework, specifically an analysis of anthropologists' roles in the "war to end all wars," WWI. During this time, Franz Boas developed a " radical ethical critique" in response to American archaeologists who worked as spies in Central America (p.12). According to Price, "Boas's belief in the existence of pure science independent of the corrupting influence of a militarized and politicized nation-state fueled this attack more than his disapproval of American participation in the war" (p. 12). It also set the stage for ethical struggles that would erupt throughout the course of the century.

Subsequent chapters thoroughly cover a wide range of topics. For example, Price examines the role of professional associations (notably the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology), and finds that " few anthropologists had second thoughts about the ethics of applying anthropology to warfare" (p. 49), as the needs of the war effort were assigned high priority by most members of the organizations. Laura Thompson was among the few concerned that some anthropologists had become " social engineers" and " technicians for hire to the highest bidder" (pp. 34, 35).

The book includes a fascinating chapter that analyzes "Allied and Axis Anthropologies," and reveals that Japanese and German anthropologists' "silence was remarkably similar to that which emerged in the writings of the postwar Allied anthropologist victors" (p.71). Another chapter documents the ways in which WWII transformed college campuses, most notably through the creation of foreign language and area studies programs, and, after the war, the creation of the GI Bill. Yet another explores the work of institutions that together functioned as a kind of "brain trust." These included the Human Relations Area Files, the Smithsonian Institution and its Ethnogeographic Board (created to generate information about potential theaters of war), and the Institute of Social Anthropology, among others. Academics were not always able to see the risks that such projects might entail: "The war's needs shone so brightly that they seemed to blind anthropologists to the possiblity that America's interests and those of the cultures they were studying might diverge" (p. 89).

Among the most shocking sections is a description of "social engineers" such as Henry Field (p. 127). Field and several other anthropologists were deeply involved in the "M Project" initiated by President Roosevelt in 1942. The goal was to search the globe for regions where millions of wartime refugees could be resettled. (Ales Hrdlicka, a physical anthropologist, who was an informal advisor to Roosevelt, also gave suggestions on relocating refugees.) Declassified documents reveal that "library bound bureaucrats [were] designing contingency plans to move tens of millions of people thousands of miles away from their native lands. Field and his staff appear[ed] comfortable planning to move inventoried people about the globe like fungible commodities" (p. 126). Even more disconcerting is that fact that "in almost every case, the peoples identified for relocation were victims of the aggression of others (e.g., the Roma, Jews, etc.), as if the reward of being victimized was being moved so that the aggressor could live in peace" (p. …

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