Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI's Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists

By Gill, Lesley | Academe, September/October 2004 | Go to article overview

Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI's Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists


Gill, Lesley, Academe


Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI's Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists

David Price. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004

We live in troubling times. The Bush administration uses a campaign of war without end to justify the erosion of civil liberties, to equate political opposition with support for terrorism, and to rationalize intrusive forms of government surveillance. On many college and university campuses, people are asking what academic freedom means under the USA Patriot Act. In order to understand the tactics of the U.S. government in such a frightening period, and their consequences, it is useful to revisit the last time the government persecuted scholars.

Threatening Anthropology provides us with a meticulously detailed account of how liberal and progressive anthropologists were investigated by the Federal IJureau of Investigation (FUI) and dragged before a variety of security and loyalty committees in mid-twentieth-century America. David Price does not beat around the bush: the FBI, he argues, investigated scores of anthropologists because of their activism for racial equality and economic justice-not because of their membership in the Communist Party or their Marxist beliefs-and, when confronted with the assault on its members, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) sat on its hands. His unsettling account of government censorship, professional complicity, and ruined lives, compiled from thousands of documents recently declassified through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), provides a disturbing reminder of the fragility of academic freedom.

Anthropologists were not the only academics that suffered the intrusive practices of J. Edgar Hoover's FUI, but their discipline's understanding of race and its insistence on the equality of all peoples made them targets, whether or not they belonged to the Communist Party or other progressive organizations. For the guardians of America's national security state, the view that differences between American racial groups rested on social and cultural rather than biological differences was quite radical, as it undermined prevailing beliefs about white privilege and challenged the basis of southern Jim Crow laws. The diverse anthropologists who had the misfortune of catching the attention of the FUI shared one particular quality: all used the teachings of anthropology to work for social justice causes. This was why, according to Price, the P131 investigated anthropologists as different as Margaret Mead, Oscar Lewis, Kathleen Cough, and Philleo Nash and considered them threatening to the status quo. Yet anthropologist Leslie White's Marxist-inspired theory of cultural evolution and his ties to the Socialist Labor Party did not interest the FUI, because, Price maintains, White steered clear of activist engagements, and his view of culture made no room for people to actively change the world.

As the tensions of the McCarthy era mounted, the AAA ignored anthropologists who were being Bred, blacklisted, and intimidated into silence. Price argues that the AAA understood academic freedom only in terms of how non-Marxists were affected by the show trials and loyalty hearings. It offered a few scholars limited assistance that was usually too little and too late, but those proven to be "communists" were left to fend for themselves. To distance itself from the defense of real communists and those who could not escape the communist label, the association made the pathetic argument that political involvement was unbecoming to a scholarly organization. Yet the AAA was a profoundly political animal. Even as it shunned beleaguered members, the organization developed ties to the War Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other agencies of the national security state to ensure that it remained relevant to cold war America. …

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