The impact of militarism on anthropology

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Laura Nader. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.028


The impact of militarism on anthropology

Laura NADER, University of California, Berkeley

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

The Cold War and anthropology has long been a muddled story, so much so that I titled a 1997 article on the topic, “The phantom factor: Impact of the Cold War on anthropology.” However, with David Price’s (2016) meticulously researched book, Cold War anthropology, the Cold War as it impacted anthropology is no longer a phantom factor. His examination of the CIA, the Pentagon, and more is more than any other anthropologist to date has done. And there is much that I learned for the first time. The chapter on human ecology research on forms of mind control and brainwashing was funded by the CIA and involved alliances in and out of anthropology from medicine to psychology to biology to computer science. Price documents the dual uses of anthropology more generally. We no longer need to be “Sleepwalking through the history of anthropology” (Nader 2002).

In my 1997 essay, I noted that the story of the Cold War and anthropology included the hearings on Un-American Activities, the UC loyalty oath, The Human Relations Area Files, the OSS and then the CIA, counter-insurgency, nuclear power and the UC weapons laboratories, and the people that we study around the world. During this period, where an anthropologist was living influenced what they knew, or thought they knew. Elizabeth Colson was in Africa, England, and the United States. Nelson Graburn was doing fieldwork in Canada’s north around missile detention stations. Gerald Berreman was examining counterinsurgency, and John Gumperz documented how such activities impacted Native Americans here at home. My Berkeley department was deep in disagreement over much that David [464]Price writes about, especially about the Thai affair he documents. It was personal for anthropologists both at Berkeley and Harvard, although in different ways.

Graduate work at Harvard University was where I became aware of the search for communist infiltrators and spies and the banning of communists from the teaching professions. It was the 1950s and the awareness of the military-industrial complex as President Eisenhower named it was slowly sinking in. At Berkeley, the U.C. Regents had added the loyalty oath to the employment contract, an oath that Cora Du Bois refused to sign, which thereby meant she would not be coming to Berkeley although she had already accepted the position as the first woman to be recruited in our department (Nader 2015). Du Bois went to Harvard and shortly thereafter I came to Berkeley.

The invitation to participate in a cross-disciplinary discussion that would result in the book The Cold War and the university (Chomsky et al. 1997) was a challenge because it was comparative and included biology, linguistics, history, earth scientists, political science, and English literature. I ran a seminar on the subject of the Cold War with ten Berkeley colleagues of different backgrounds, disciplines, and generations. But my own story in 1997 was about the doing of anthropology and the military regulations of our research, both known [465]and unknown to us by the Cold War secret operations. I began to construct the role of funders of anthropological research by the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rhodes Trust, as well as the federal government. Those funded were not often aware of the dual uses that Price writes about. Self-censorship was rampant. At the time anthropologists in other countries described American anthropologists as naive; Cora Du Bois said so of her own participation in her war activity as well as her work in the State Department. Her comment on the University of California loyalty oath was that she was loyal to the founders of our country. In 1960, I must have signed a loyalty act without giving a thought to the chaos it had earlier caused at Berkeley. But some anthropologists benefited from technology of military origins. Trace element analysis, remote sensory, or Geographic Information Systems (GIS) drew archaeologists into institutions not usually frequented by socio-cultural anthropologists, such as national defense weaponry laboratories. In physical anthropology, the impact of the Cold War was barely noticed by biological anthropologists (Nader 1997b). Sherwood Washburn did mention the increased funding for physical anthropologists and the decreasing amounts for socio-cultural anthropologists relative to their numbers.

What David Price has achieved in the last of his trilogy and the chronicling of interactions between anthropology and military intelligence is the refinement of methodologies for the discovery of the history of our discipline that has never before been achieved by anyone in or out of the field—an ethnographic history. Price probably knows more about how to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) than anybody in anthropology. He filed hundreds of requests with the CIA, FBI, and the DOD. As one can see from his acknowledgements, he consulted widely, has mainly been self-funded, and worked on his project for over twenty years. His dedication is apparent but his achievement is nothing less than awesome, proving that one can do such work without big funding—academic freedom at its best. His conclusion that “anthropologists need to consider the high price of surrendering intellectual independence for the projects of others with high agendas both known and unknown,” was in part behind my 1969 essay, “Up the anthropologist—Perspectives gained from studying up.” It was a call to study power, which is what Price is doing, in part. I say in part because the consequences of studying the CIA, the DOD, et cetera could be to shame such secret and possibly criminal behaviors, as not only antidemocratic but as a threat to academic freedom and the trust that the public has in the academy. Decreased funding of public universities by state legislature in part reflects public distrust, which in turn reverberates into increased costs of higher education and student debt. We need such comparisons across disciplines on these issues in order to comprehend the broader consequences.

The Cold War and the university (1997) spoke about a variety of disciplines in relation to the Cold War, and we need always to place anthropology in a larger context. The reviews of the book did just that. One such review by Hannah Gray (1997), former president of the University of Chicago and a historian, titled her review “Cold War universities—Tools of power or oases of freedom?” She notes, “The history of American University over 50 years cannot be comprehended through a single theme” and chides us for not celebrating “genuine academic freedom for all.” Academic freedom, as with a democracy, will always be impacted by politics as Price notes regarding the post–9/11 situation in the United States. It is not as Gray suggests either/or, rather a constant struggle as longer histories of American academics have pointed out (Furner 1975).

Would that David Price be moved to write a fourth book, making his work a quartet, examining the threat of anthropology as seen in present times. In 1951, during the McCarthy era, Cora Du Bois proclaimed her loyalty to the founding fathers of this country, not their present-day enemies (Nader 2015), and we might make similar moves today. I say this because during the present period of American exceptionalism and endless wars, the mission of anthropology as Mirror for man (Kluckhohn 1949) can be seen as threatening to the military industrial process. To see ourselves with all the warts of a weak democracy challenges the present state of denial. But should David Price undertake such a project it should not be underfunded. It should be funded with no strings attached—academic freedom from the funding sources.


Chomsky, Noam, Ira Katznelson, R. C. Lewontin, David Montgomery, Laura Nader, Richard Ohmann, Ray Siever, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Howard Zinn. 1997. The Cold War and the university: Toward an intellectual history of the postwar years. New York: Free Press.

Furner, Mary, O. 1975. Advocacy and objectivity: A crisis in the professionalization of American social science, 1865–1905. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Gray, Hannah, H. 1997. “Cold War universities—Tools of power or oasis of freedom?” Foreign Affairs, March–April: 147–51.

Kluckhohn, Clyde. 1949. Mirror for man: The relationship of anthropology to modern life. New York: Whittlesey House.[466]

Nader, Laura. 1969. “Up the anthropologist—Perspectives gained from studying up.” In Reinventing anthropology, edited by Dell Hymes, 285–311. New York: Pantheon Press.

———. 1997a. “The phantom factor: Impact of the Cold War on anthropology.” In The Cold War and the university: Toward an intellectual history of the postwar years, edited by Noam Chomsky et al., 107–48. New York: The New Press.

———. 1997b. “Postscript on the phantom factor—More ethnography of anthropology.” General Anthropology 4 (1): 1, 4–8.

———. 2002. “Sleepwalking through the history of anthropology: Anthropologists on home ground.” In Anthropology, history, and American Indians: Essays in honor of William Curtis Sturtevant, edited by William L. Merrill and Ives Goddard, 47–54. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology 44.

———. 2015. “Review of Cora Du Bois—Anthropologist, diplomat, agent, by Susan Seymour.” Los Angeles Times Book Review, September.

Price, David, H. 2004. Threatening anthropology—McCarthyism and the FBI’s surveillance of activist anthropologist. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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


Laura Nader
Anthropology Department
University of California, Berkeley
232 Kroeber Hall, Berkeley, CA