Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI's Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists, by David H. Price

Reviewed by
Michael Blim

Don't dare be a liberal – never mind, a leftist. That was the message of McCarthyism and its ideological cousins through the Seventies in anthropology. If you tried it, the FBI and CIA would see to it that you paid dearly. This is the major finding of David Price’s Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. Price finds that the state campaign against the left - during and after the Second World War - was prosecuted against liberal do-gooders as much as against Communists, fellow travelers, and former Communists. Imagine, the Feds emptied and searched the garbage of Margaret Mead too.

First, they had to get the right “Mead.” Not being avid Redbook readers, the authorities mistakenly pounced on an Oklahoman Margaret Meade whose heinous crime was serving as head of the League of Homeless Women in the thirties. The other Mead’s belief in cultural relativism, the joys of adolescence, and relief for working mothers did get her into trouble, though. There is a certain irony here, as Mead was the coldest of Cold War liberals in anthropology, capping her career with a vigorous defense of the Vietnam War. She even offered Henry Kissinger advice as to how to use local Vietnamese workers in support roles so as to make the US presence more palatable. Mead had been vetted for government work no less than five times. She worked on grants from the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Rand Corporation. The latter published her book on Soviet life that Price describes as containing “crude personality and cultural generalizations of Soviet society … closely aligned with the American government’s anti-Soviet stance.” (257)

Mead’s experience suggests that working for the state is just as dangerous as having liberal views. The lesson is that if you don’t have a record, working for the state will start one. Nota bene all of you interested in calling up your “file.” if you don’t have a file, your action will start one. After all, why would a citizen above suspicion even ask?  The tools used, according to Price, included interviews with the target and anyone who conceivably might have knowledge of her/him, wiretapping, mail openings, garbage sifting, and assiduous reading of leftist materials.  If you need a native language dictionary, go to the Mormons. If you need indexes of leftist periodicals, check with the FBI, who unfortunately for scholars are much less generous with their research than the Mormons.

Most of the skullduggery was under direct supervision of J. Edgar Hoover and his boyfriend Clyde Tolson. They kept four rooms of private files on potential subversives, and put numerous persons on preventive detention lists that would become operable in a national emergency. They along with congressional committees stoked political hysteria and witch hunts on college campuses across the country. Their investigations impugned the reputations of many. Some scholarly targets were fired, other fled abroad, and still others left the field while young researchers and graduate students. Some succeeded in exculpating themselves. Others, Price infers, kept their academic mouths shut, avoided public pronouncements and self-censored their writing.

It was ugly, though at times perversely comical. Rutgers fired the internationally renowned anthropologist Ashley Montague on the word of a contact of a trustee who had heard him speak at the Women’s Club of Milwaukee. His attack on Joe McCarthy, averred this trustee and vice president of the Hanover Bank, “coincided with the usual Communist theme song.” (280) Montague, this mortal threat to America,, went on to become a favorite guest of Johnny Carson. When television media ethically outrun the academy, think of the level of degradation visited upon colleges by their business-dominated boards and weak-kneed, timeserving administrators. 

There were plenty of quislings. Karl Wittfogel’s anti-communist campaigns against former colleagues and competitors are well known. Perhaps the most perfidious anthropologist Price turns up was George Peter Murdock, who took it upon himself to write Hoover directly in 1949 and name seven persons as Communists. The American Anthropological Association’s staff and leadership (with the exception of 1950 AAA president Ralph Beals) claimed professionalism prevented its mixing in politics, even when reputations and jobs were at stake. One AAA president, A. Irving Hallowell, made it clear that Communists were on their own. So did the ACLU for that matter.

McCarthyism in anthropology - if, following Price, we take the term to refer to the general campaign against liberal and left activism - continued through the seventies. In Price’s concluding chapters, he recounts how people are harassed for advocating racial equality, while others were persecuted for opposing American foreign policy. Few universities, whether great or small, escaped the McCarthyism dragnet. Yet, it was actually Harry Truman who started the insidious ball rolling with a 1947 executive order requiring loyalty oaths of all federal employees. His courageous effort was followed by many states and organization, including in 1949 the University of California. Thirty university professors were fired for refusal to sign. In anthropology at Berkeley, one of the traditional top five departments in the nation, anthropologist Cora DuBois’ refusal to sign cost her a job offer and Berkeley an outstanding chair. Again, FBI files form the most complete documentation of the conflict between DuBois and President Robert Sproul. Despite the fact that DuBois served three years during World War II as a ranking officer of the Office of Strategic Services, the immediate predecessor to the CIA, she was investigated again as a candidate for a job at the World Health Organization. Hoover ordered an even more exhaustive, full-scale investigation of DuBois after she refused to sign the California loyalty oath. 

Repression continued apace through the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. For instance, Kathleen Gough, one of the finest anthropologists of the postwar period, was let go from Brandeis after a campus speech against the US policy toward Cuba in 1962, the text of which was preserved for our edification by the FBI. Faced with a hostile climate once more because of their ant-Vietnam activities and generally leftist views, Gough and her husband David Aberle left the University of Oregon for Simon Fraser University in Canada. There Gough was caught up in a 1969 political housecleaning engineered by the university to rid itself of 14 leftist faculty members in the social science department of which Gough was a part.

As luck would have it, Cora DuBois was president of the American Anthropological Association during the Gough episode and appointed an ad hoc committee to investigate the charges against Gough at Simon Fraser and the university’s tenure procedures. The committee’s recommendations came down decisively on Gough’s side, and they suggested the need for greater AAA vigilance in defense of anthropologists. Nonetheless, Gough was fired, in 1970 and subsequently received nominal support for her research from the University of British Columbia where Aberle had found a post. Price quotes Gough’s conclusion on the costs of the affair both to her and Simon Fraser: “(SFU) was censured and boycotted for 15 years by most professional associations in the social sciences worldwide. The result for me, however, was the I could not find a regular teaching position locally until 1984.” She died in 1990.

Throughout this period, the FBI by express authority of the Attorney General, compiled and kept a “Security Index” beginning in 1946 that consisted of those persons to be detained without due process in the event of a national security crisis. Price reports that there were many anthropologists on the list, the result of personal decisions by Hoover. Usually, membership was for life, and as these were top-secret designations, the persons targeted had no idea they had been marked for preventive detention.

Price has written a well researched and necessary book. He filed over 500 Freedom of Information Act requests, and challenged more than 250 record denials. He includes copious and revealing information from the files he recovered. He also reveals how much information is still censored or withheld, even in cases that would strike the ordinary citizen as trivial. Having examined how the stick of repression was used against political activists was used in anthropology in the postwar period, Price now is writing on the topic of how the state helped shape political consensus with the carrot of research funding. Using this volume as a yardstick, it promises to be another important book. Emerson’s adage that all it takes for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing is here confirmed. Based on Price’s book, one might also add: “if you try to change your society, trust not your state, your university, or your profession.”


Michael Blim is Professor of Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center.