The Cold War is not a trope

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Katherine Verdery. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.025


The Cold War is not a trope

Katherine VERDERY, City University of New York Graduate Center

Comment on Price, David. 2016. Cold War anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the growth of dual use anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

I sometimes hear colleagues speaking of “the Cold War” as if it were merely a trope, rather than a concrete reality involving specific institutions, flows of money, organizations, and individuals such as scholars and politicians, all bound together in specific social relationships. David Price’s Cold War anthropology (2016) proves the latter view beyond any doubt and should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of anthropology, particularly its dark side. This riveting read, based on many years of grueling research in the never-never land of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests as well as in multiple archives, will take its place among the classics of our field—though reader beware: it offers a harrowing experience.

Price’s main task is to show how military and intelligence agencies in the United States shaped the development of anthropology during the Cold War. A principal tool for him is the notion of “dual use anthropology”: research that could serve both to support theoretical work in the field and to provide interpretations useful to the military for waging war. Clyde Kluckhohn and Clifford Geertz, for instance, did not start out to collaborate with the CIA, but their work under its auspices participated in a massive realignment of energies and networks of influence during the 1950s to 1970s. By the mid-1970s, some 5,000 academics were cooperating with the CIA. CIA agents were put on the funding boards of foundations and CIA officers joined university communities under aliases, until exposés of covert operations in the late 1960s caused Congress to begin limiting the CIA’s activities.

Specifically concerning the AAA, in 1951 the CIA approached the board and set up a covert relationship with it, thereby obtaining the membership roster that enabled [448]the CIA to approach individual anthropologists directly and compromised the discipline’s independence. In addition, a CIA front organization, the Asia Foundation, successfully approached the association for help locating Asian scholars. These connections formed “part of a widespread pattern linking hundreds of anthropologists and other regional specialists with Cold War intelligence agencies” (Price 2016: 193).

Among the most important institutions to develop in this period were area studies centers and various seminars such as the Salzburg Seminars in American Civilization, funded by the US government and private foundations (some of them recipients of funds from CIA front organizations). A new culture of applying for grants took hold, with development of the genre of proposal writing that employed specific categories set by the funders (such as those based in the neocolonial idea of “development” or “modernization,” which anthropologists were slow to critique). Through projects based on these themes some anthropologists were drawn into the CIA’s orbit; others went to work for the CIA directly, or developed careers that traversed both CIA and academe.

In one of the most fascinating chapters, Price details how CIA fronts shaped anthropological research and how the CIA tried to “corner a free market” in scholarship, vitiating the notion of open inquiry in the process. Along with the Ford Foundation, the CIA gave funds preferentially to people with the “correct” political views and disseminated “lists of suggested topics” to conferences it funded, hoping to shape the research priorities of scholars attending. Particularly interesting is his discussion of the AAA’s relation to the “Asia Foundation,” a CIA front, and the leadership’s reluctance to sever relations completely even after the Foundation’s intelligence connections had become known. The episode reveals beautifully the articulation of social science with the Cold War’s militarized policies. So also does Price’s lengthy treatment of the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) and its “dual use” relation to the US military, which funded it lavishly. The wealth of detail on these and other projects—such as the infamous Project Camelot and the American University’s Special Operations Research Office (SORO) for work serving counterinsurgency—boggles the mind.

Chapters 12 and 13 discuss at length the questions that increasingly arose in the discipline around complicity with the military in the war in Southeast Asia, culminating in the Jorgensen and Wolf affair and the Mead committee that “adjudicated” it (see below). With their detailed coverage of the politics of these distressing events in the Association’s history, the chapters are required reading for any anthropologist.

In a final chapter, Price asks the tough questions concerning the shift from anthropology as contributing to a war against totalitarianism to anthropology as the handmaiden of neocolonialism in alignment with military and intelligence organizations. Did the CIA and the Pentagon get what they paid for? His answer is, mostly yes. In fact, both sides gained from the situation of the Cold War. A lot of expertise was produced, some of which proved useful for military purposes, and many anthropologists received funding for their work, as “unwitting subcontractors” to questions of governmental interest (Price 2016: 353). The Cold War proved a gold mine for anthropologists, making available otherwise-unimaginable levels of funding and many nonacademic jobs. Is it any surprise that we were a bit lazy about tracking down the exact sources of those funds and their influence on our profession? It is vital that Price has done so now, lest we find ourselves once more the handmaidens [449]of the current form of the militarizing security state. He asks us to analyze the ways in which our field is affected by regimes of power, so that we can view militarization as more than just an ethical question but also a political one. Contemplating the dire funding and employment situation of anthropology in the present, Price proposes that rather than engage yet again with the forces of war, as in the Cold War period, we should organize for independent funding of social science—yet he recognizes that in a society so devoted to warfare, that is unlikely. His argument has theoretical underpinnings, as he calls for an end to “vulgar Foucauldianism” (360) and a return to “metanarratives of the power relations that expose recurrent episodes of the weaponization of the field” (365). Most importantly, he keeps returning to the question of the cost of a heedless pursuit of funding sources, and he sees that cost in the potential damage to the autonomy and interests of the people we study—and to what should be our primary commitment: to our research participants.


For an already long book, it is churlish to object that some things are missing. Nonetheless, I find it odd that under the title Cold War anthropology there is virtually no mention of the anthropology that was done in the very center of the Cold War power relation: the Soviet bloc. We can assume that the funding streams fueling CIA-inspired projects in Southeast Asia and Latin America would readily have flowed toward research inside Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as well. Perhaps Price leaves it out because relatively little ethnography was done there in the 1950s–70s, compared with other world areas. Or perhaps it is because the whole point of the Cold War struggle was for both capitalist West and communist East to win over peoples elsewhere in the world, and it was for this that military and intelligence organizations in the United States sought anthropological knowledge: to bring cultural material to bear on combatting insurgencies that might enlarge communism’s hold. That was rather beside the point in countries already governed by communist parties.

This said, Price’s book raises important issues for the anthropology of the formerly socialist world. Between 1973 and 1988, I and a number of other scholars made several trips to Romania with funding from the organization IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board), founded expressly to facilitate scholarly exchange between the United States and the Soviet bloc. I occasionally asked IREX staff what its funding sources were and was told what can still be found on various websites: grants from the Ford Foundation, the State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as funds from the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies (see, for example, http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/f-aids/IREX.pdf, pp. 2–3). It did not occur to me then to wonder which of these might itself be funded by CIA front organizations, yet now I learn from Price that the Ford Foundation, inter alia, was a channel for a great deal of money whose sources I would not have wanted to have associated with my research. His emphasis on the unwitting collaboration of anthropologists with the CIA adds a new dimension to my recent research in my Romanian secret police (Securitate) file (Verdery 2014, forthcoming a), from which I have learned that the officers saw virtually all US scholars as CIA agents/collaborators, and they spent enormous amounts of time searching for evidence to prove that we were spies. Reading Price’s book, I find their view even [450]more plausible than I had at first and am grateful to him for calling this possible collaboration “unwitting.”

In any case, the pointed questions he raises concerning anthropologists’ privileged relationships with those they study are every bit as—if not more—relevant to those of us who worked in socialist countries. In my own case, I would now say, as I would not have before reading this book, that my research in the 1980s was tantamount to the product of a struggle between the CIA/Ford Foundation/Department of State and the Securitate to control representations of “communism” for US audiences. As it turned out, although most of us working in Romania at the time did not intend to denigrate Romanian communism, our representations—mine, certainly—did not present a flattering picture that would lure our readers toward this “radiant future.” Even while thinking we combatted Cold War ideology, we played roles this ideology dictated.

Among the many lines of inquiry this book opens up is more nuanced consideration of what is meant by the “national security state.” Price uses this expression without telling us what he means, glossing both the period of World War II and the Cold War years with the same term. For anthropologists, the two periods meant quite different things, as he points out. For those who worked in the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and other departments that employed numerous anthropologists, the wide consensus that this was a “just war” motivated them to lend their energies to the war effort readily, and they were not condemned for doing so. They tended to look favorably on uses of the discipline for government ends, thus distinguishing themselves from the generation that came of age in the 1960s, at the height of military and intelligence efforts to use ethnographic knowledge in counterinsurgency programs in Latin America and Southeast Asia. This clash of experiences and visions, which was joined in the conflict over Joseph Jorgensen and Eric Wolf’s 1970 article concerning counterinsurgency research, “Anthropologists on the warpath in Thailand” in the New York Review of Books (Jorgensen and Wolf 1970), very nearly broke the AAA apart.

But in talking about the implications of Price’s book for thinking about the national security state I mean more than just this, which he himself covers in luxuriant detail. World War II arguably set the United States on the path to its present status as the preeminent security state in the world. It involved an unprecedented mobilization of the populace in the cause of security and the development of techniques and organizations toward that end (see, for example, Masco 2006 and 2014). The war was a harbinger of the increasing militarization of society that followed upon it, using new modalities of power to influence research. We might imagine a project that would characterize these two periods, along with the present era (post–9/11, 2001), and perhaps set them beside what we are beginning to learn about the security project of the Soviet bloc and whatever has succeeded it, toward a comparative study of security states. What variables distinguished the security state of World War II from those of the Vietnam War and post–9/11? How was knowledge mobilized differently in each of them, and with what consequences for our field?

Scholars such as Zygmunt Bauman (Bauman and Lyon 2013) or Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson (2000) have written of “surveillant assemblages.” I have written of security or surveillance regimes (Verdery, forthcoming b), distinguishing the socialist surveillance regime from the “modern” one familiar from Foucault and [451]from a neoliberal one of the present, on variables such as labor- vs. technology-intensive modalities of surveillance, forms of data (corporeal vs. virtual), forms of monitored body (corporeal vs. cyborg), aims of information gathering, and so on. Whether “assemblage” or “regime,” these concepts could become a frame for thinking about the relation of security ideologies to the production of anthropological knowledge, encouraging us to protect ourselves from the “unwitting collaboration” of which David Price so urgently warns us in his book.

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the United States has been pursuing an ever-intensifying politics of warfare. That requires repeated reminders of the costs of militarization for the anthropological endeavor. As such a reminder, David Price’s book is exemplary. Arguing forcefully for the return of metanarratives that will enable us to describe the consequences of the relationship between anthropology and the military and intelligence arms of government, he has given us a remarkable text concerning the rise of the current national security state, with sobering implications for anthropology into the future.


Bauman, Zygmunt, and David Lyon. 2013. Liquid surveillance: A conversation. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Haggerty, Kevin D., and Richard V. Ericson. 2000. “The surveillant assemblage.” British Journal of Sociology 51: 605–22.

Jorgensen, Joseph G., and Eric R. Wolf. 1970. “Anthropologists on the warpath in Thailand.” New York Review of Books, November 19, 26–35.

Masco, Joseph. 2006. The nuclear borderlands: The Manhattan project in post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

———. 2014. The theatre of operations: National security affect from the Cold War to the war on terror. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Price, David H. 2016. Cold War anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the growth of dual use anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Verdery, Katherine. 2014. Secrets and truths: Ethnography in the archives of Romania’s secret police. Budapest: Central European University Press.

———. Forthcoming a. My life as a spy: Investigations in a secret police file. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

———. Forthcoming b. “Thoughts on surveillance regimes, with examples from Romania.” In Securing spaces: Security as an ethnographic object, edited by Setha Low and Mark Maguire.


Katherine Verdery
Program in Anthropology
City University of New York, Graduate Center
365 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10016