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(cover picture) Wax, Dustin (ed.)
2008 Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War: The Influence of Foundations, McCarthyism, and the CIA. London: Pluto.

Notes: ISBN: 9780745325866
(Check out my bio!) Reviewed 24 Feb 2009 by:
Robert Lawless <>
Anthropology, Wichita State University, Wichita Kansas, USA
Medium: Written Literature
Anthropology - History - 20th century
Anthropology - United States - History - 20th century
Anthropologists - United States - History - 20th century
Anthropologists - United States - Political activity
Anthropology - Political aspects - United States - History - 20th century
Science and state - United States - History - 20th century
McCarthy, Joseph, 1908-1957 - Relations with anthropologists

ABSTRACT:    “The contributors show how anthropologists became both tools and victims of the Cold War state during the rise of the United States after the end of the Second World War” —from the accurate book blurb.

Having originated in a panel at the 2003 American Anthropological Association's (AAA) annual meeting, this book covers roughly 1946 to 1964. As Wax correctly states in his introduction, "Few historians in the discipline have been willing to locate the work and ideas either of individual anthropologists or of anthropology as a whole in the matrix of academic institutions, foundation support, state political and military prerogatives, social networks, and police action that supported, encouraged, channeled, and limited anthropological research during these years" (p. 3). Cold War hysteria, nevertheless, had an immediate and penetrating impact on the discipline, as anthropologists became "victims of persecution for their beliefs or... collaborators opportunistically... advanc[ing] their own professional and political goals" (p. 5).

In a section titled "The Second Time As Farce", Wax points out the obvious parallel between the anticommunist paranoia of the Cold War and the equally pervasive paranoia of the so-called War on Terror. A jingoistic hysteria similar to the recrement of the McCarthy era has led to the targeting of "academics in general, and particularly those whose work raises uncomfortable questions about American policy overseas and at home.... Anthropologists, with their relativism and commitment to protecting the rights and livelihoods of the people they study, have been especially targeted" (p. 10).

Unfortunately some anthropologists have been coopted by the nescient patriotism of the current call to arms resulting in their direct participation in the U.S. military and the controversy over the Human Terrain Systems (see, e.g., Perhaps the most notorious anthropologist of this type is Montgomery McFate, who writes primarily for military publications and whose article "Anthropology and Counterinsurgency" appeared in the April 2005 issue of Military Review—and whom Wax treats quite gently (pp. 13-14). A hapless mix of shoddy history and misdirected anthropology, her article has, nevertheless, been reprinted in the 2007 edition of Annual Editions Anthropology—along with articles by Conrad Kottak, Richard Lee, and Ralph Linton, and in the 2009 second edition of Classic Readings in Cultural Anthropology, edited by Gary Ferraro—along with classics by brand-name anthropologists such as Horace Miner, Clyde Kluckhohn, Edward T. Hall, Richard Lee, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Why McFate fits into this august company is unclear.

Apparently some anthropologists have not been able to figure out what the military actually does. Clearly the job of the military is to further the goals of U.S. foreign policy primarily by killing people. Do any rational anthropologists, familiar with the ravages of colonialism and neocolonialism, subscribe to U.S. foreign policies? In addition to their professional ethical obligation to protect the rights of the people they study, anthropologists might well study the contradictions and weaknesses of the military in order to help those oppressed by superpower imperialism. Anthropologists might also engage the makers of U.S. foreign policy and use the knowledge from that engagement to inform their students and the world of the deleterious activities and consequences of such policies.

In his chapter Marc Pinkoski offers an instructive example of an anthropologist caught up in the imbroglio known as the U.S. government. "In 1949 [Julian] Steward began working for the US Department of Justice providing testimony to deny Indian land rights before the Indian Claims Commission [ICC]" (p. 72). Although he worked for the ICC for seven years, the pretermission of this period by most biographers of Steward is largely unexplained, and the reasons for his betrayal of the people he studied are inexplicably unknown.

The "rules of evolution that Steward devised are regarded as foundational in the history of American anthropology because of their presumed objective, scientific method for understanding social organization and cultural change" (p. 65). Yet numerous ipsedixitisms and internal inconsistencies pervade his arguments to the ICC. And these arguments were not minor occurrences in the Native Americans' fight to claim their land. As Pinkoski points out, "Reams of documents in Steward's archives demonstrate that Steward had an intimate relationship with the US government in the creation and presentation of their legal arguments before the ICC" (p. 72).

For example, in convoluted and illogical writings for the ICC that are actually in striking contrast to his published writings for anthropologists Steward argued that the Paiute "had no cohesion, leadership, or common identity" and that therefore "the traditional lands... were in a jurisdictional vacuum" (p. 75). Pinkoski explains, however, that Steward, in one of his important early works, The Economic and Social Basis of Primitive Bands, published in 1936, stated, "All bands are 'politically autonomous,' 'communally landowning,' and have rules for 'land inheritance,' and concludes that all people live in this state of social organization, at a minimum" (p. 76).

Why he would misrepresent both himself and the people he studied remains unclear, and Pinkoski offers no explanation, but this shameful episode does provide a reminder that even the best of anthropologists may sometimes subvert their own work for political purposes.

The chapter by Susan Sperling focuses on the poltroonery of Rutgers University's dealings with Ashley Montagu. With recent access to correspondence between the Rutgers administrators and Montagu as well as recent access to FBI files on Montagu, Sperling sheds new light on Montagu's departure from academia.

Sperling states, "There are at least three different narratives of which I am aware about Montagu's departure from Rutgers: Montagu's own account; the 'story' told by his FBI file and correspondence between Rutgers administrators in Montagu's private papers; and the tale told by Rutgers colleagues and administrators" (p. 25). She does not choose among the three but instead points out the complexities of the McCarthy era and the difficulties of academicians dealing with them.

In particular, Sperling laments the loss the academic world suffered when Montagu left Rutgers. Sperling points out the sad irony that anthropology at Rutgers is now usually associated with the biological reductionism of Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger rather than the sophisticated investigation of the complex links among culture, history, and biology that Montagu championed (p. 31), concluding, "Montagu's career is instructive not only because of what he was able to accomplish as one of the preeminent public intellectuals of mid-twentieth-century America, but because of what he was not able to accomplish within ivied walls" (p. 19).

Sperling cautions, "As Americans experience the resurgence of governmental attempts to manipulate scientific practice and scrutiny of the ideas presented in its universities under the new security state as codified in the Patriot Act, the McCarthyism of the past may be a prologue to new, perhaps more sophisticated, forms of political control over scientific practice" (pp. 18-19).

In his chapter, David H. Price comments on the counterintuitive fact that Karl Wittfogel "as a fanatical anti-communist... was afforded the rare opportunity openly to practice materialist analysis and cite Marx in his works in ways that other scholars could not" (p. 54). In addition to fawningly cooperating with the McCarran committee, Wittfogel championed a tortured version of Marxism, arguing "that the elimination of private property and the implementation of state-managed works inevitably lead to despotism—a point he used to argue that Communist states were inherently tyrannical" (p. 29). Price points out that Wittfogel also used his friendly relations with the McCarthyite witch-hunters to "betray friends and trusts" (p. 75) and further his personal agenda; "a few words laced with innuendo to McCarran did more to derail an intellectual opponent than any number of footnotes or well-constructed volleys of logic" (p. 29).

Perhaps more to the point for the contemporary discipline, anthropologists were drawn to Wittfogel's Marxist interpretation of the relationship between irrigation and political systems. In the end Wittfogel's perspective seems to have faded into obscurity; his theory suggests that villagers gave up their autonomy to officials who would oversee an irrigation system necessary for the survival of the culture in that region. In all the arguments that have been advanced in favor of the hydraulic theory and in all the critiques against it, one point stands out: all of Wittfogel's examples had the state before the irrigation system—so it is a little difficult to imagine how adoption of irrigation systems caused the state.

At any rate, Price makes the point that "anthropology's decision not to acknowledge Wittfogel's contributions to McCarthyism [and his various calumnies] was both caused by and perpetuated a false understanding of the role of economic and political forces in the production of scientific knowledge" (p. 57). In the final analysis "the committee hearings provided Wittfogel with a perfect opportunity to challenge the scourge of totalitarianism he so passionately hated. But Wittfogel joined rather than challenged this totalitarian movement, an act that undermined not only his personal character, but also his professional judgements" (p. 57).

Frank A. Salamone's chapter rehearses some of the well-known ethical issues in anthropology using the Rockefeller-funded Institute of African Languages and Cultures as an example of the collaboration of anthropologists and colonial governments. Although in 1998 the AAA retreated from the tough ethical standards that it had established in 1971, Salamone suggests, "It is time now for the AAA to find the courage to make it clear, once again, that secret research under the guise of fieldwork is just wrong" (p. 105).

In his chapter, Eric B. Ross takes a critical look at the Cornell-Peru Project at the Andean hacienda community of Vicos and points out, "Despite its reputation as a classic case of benign 'applied anthropology,'" (p. 108) the Vicos Project must be understood within the context of modernization theory, which "sought to place innovation in the hands of market-oriented large landowners—or 'outside agents'" (p. 109). Anthropology "helped create the myth that peasants—regarded as a threatening source of radical political change throughout the Third World—were nevertheless too conservative in their cultural values to be autonomous agents of rural change, let alone of agricultural innovation" (p. 109). In addition, this project ensured "that Cornell in general, and its anthropologists in particular, would be credible allies of Washington policy-makers and major US foundations through the Cold War years" (pp. 111-112).

Although anthropologists praised the Vicos Project "out of all proportion to its substantive achievements" (p. 112), it was clearly a political venture that favored the Latin American policies of the U.S.A. over the needs of those whom it studied. By providing an alternative to radical agrarian change, the Vicos Project gave modernization theory an elevated status that it did not deserve.

The chapter by Wax analyzes the rarely examined post-World War II work of Sol Tax that shaped the institutional context within which anthropologists practice even today, a context that continues to function in favor of U.S. interests.

In a chapter on the so-called Mundial Upheaval Society, William Peace deals primarily with the initial efforts of graduate students at Columbia University to deal with the chasm between the humanist Ruth Benedict and the materialist Julian Steward. The article also illustrates the social networking of a group of influential anthropologists at the dawn of the Cold War.

In the last chapter, Robert L.A. Hancock reports on Ralph Beals's establishmentism and influence and comments on the presentist and historicist positions in the writing of the history of anthropology. He concludes by asking, rather rhetorically, whether anthropology is a pure, objective science "unconcerned with the impact of its research and theoretical pronouncements and unwilling to acknowledge the political and ethical choices that undergird them" (p. 175) or is anthropology an ethical and moral journey that must recognize its impact on those it studies and on those who study. The answer will frame the historiography of anthropology.

Two of the eight contributors are doctoral students, and several of the others are still early in their careers. My own doctoral training spanned the years from 1968 through 1975 at the New School for Social Research, at that time a hotbed of Marxist scholarship and politics, so I do hope that the current generation of anthropologists emulates those who fought the good battles in the late 1960s and early 1970s rather than those who revised the ethical standards in the 1990s.

Wax is to be congratulated on organizing the AAA panel and seeing this book through to its final published form. I'll conclude this review with a telling quotation from Sperling:

Political interference in science has escalated since September 11, 2001 under the Bush administration's national security agenda. In 2004 the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a long report, signed by many notable American scientists, detailing attempts by the administration to manipulate and interfere with American science.... What happened a half century ago to many university faculty, and to the research they had hoped to pursue, has pressing lessons both for those interested in academic freedom and for practitioners of science today (pp. 32-33).

Required reading for those interested in the history of the discipline, this book joins other important works, such as Price's Threatening Anthropology, on the deleterious effects of the Cold War on anthropology. It could also be used as a supplemental text in a history of anthropology course, perhaps more profitably for graduates rather than undergraduates.