‘Anthropology As A War Weapon’: The Instrumentalization of Anthropological Knowledge During WWII (Review of Chapter 5)

Price, David H. (2008). Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham, NC:Duke University Press.

At first glance, David Price’s “Anthropological Intelligence” can appear exceedingly descriptive. This is particularly glaring in chapter 5: “American Anthropologists Join The Wartime Brain Trust”, where critical inquiry is seemingly lacking as Price outlines the relations between anthropologists and various academic institutes, government agencies and private interest during the Second World War. However, hidden within the politicking and workings of the wartime era, is insight into how the discipline of anthropology was instrumentalized during the Second World War, and it’s utility in the postwar growth of American imperialism. It’s also important to note that conversely, the war also proved to be instrumental to anthropology as well. Not only did it help ‘legitimize’ the discipline beyond the academic realm, it also brought forth discussions of how and when anthropological knowledge should be used, and for whom. In brief, if read between the lines, this chapter provides readers with enticing questions to the nature of the discipline, the boundaries of objectivity and the ways in which knowledge is, and can be, weaponized.

In July of 1945, reporter Charles R. Walker penned an article available to the general public, titled “Anthropology as a War Weapon”, disseminating the notion of the militarization of anthropological knowledge during the Second World War (p.95). It accredited regional U.S military successes to sources provided by the ‘Cultural Bank’, a resource stocked by anthropologists and their knowledge (ibid). Much of the military uses of anthropology came from anthropologist George Peter Murdock’s “Cross Cultural Survey” (CSS), a project aimed at systematically gathering and sorting data from various cultures in order to test various cultural theories. It came into effect after Yale University established the Institute of Human Relations (IHR) in 1929. The CSS became the IHR’s most notable contribution, particularly in its uses as a cultures resource both during the war, and after, by various military agencies and private groups, notably the Rockefeller Foundation, who provided millions of dollars in funding. While the events of Pearl Harbor called for the formation of anthropological research units to provide information on various Pacific islands for the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Rockefeller Foundation was funneling money to the IHR to create a “Strategic index of Latin America” (p. 92).

Both the U.S. government and the Rockefeller Foundation had tactical uses for the information collected by anthropologists: On the one hand, it provided the military with resources that would aid in facilitating the occupation of Japanese-held territories and in acclimating their soldiers to new cultures and aiding in traversing the human terrain. Interestingly, Price notes that even before the war ended, the US government was making preemptive efforts in establishing a postwar administration of Micronesia (ibid). On the other hand, Nelson Rockefeller merged his interests with the American government in scoping out the loyalty of different Latin American loyalty, and whether there were chances of them joining the Axis against the Allies. Rockefeller was appointed director of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and under his monitoring, the CIAA’s concerns were cultural and economic. They engaged in propaganda methods aimed at Central and South Americans to promote and foster goodwill and benevolence amongst the people towards the American government (p.107-109).

Rockefeller interest isn’t new. As we saw in Jack Goody’s (1995) “The Expansive Moment”, they’ve had a long history in funding specific forms of research in strategic locations, oftentimes in line with colonial and imperial efforts. Rockefeller’s wartime involvement in South America was twofold: to guard natural resources being sent to the States for the war efforts, and to secure personal investments in the postwar period. In fact, he told his staff that “their job was to use the war to take over Latin American markets… (and) to monopolize Latin America’s raw materials” (p.109). Cultural knowledge of people and places became an important commodity for him, and helped in gaining access to the cheap labor of Latin America’s native population (p.111).

For the anthropologists involved, there were many reasons as to why they would join the wartime braintrust, and quite literally weaponized anthropological knowledge. As the world went to war, feelings of nationalism and national duty rationalized their input into the CSS, which provided standardized classification systems of various cultures that were of interest to the government that could be used by intelligence agencies easily. While the ethnographic information provided an efficient means to cultural knowledge, it also erased cultural nuances and rehashed stereotypical and ethnocentric views of various peoples. The handbooks in which anthropologists had a hand in creating facilitated military occupation and domination, and aided in the American victory.

Some anthropologists also viewed their input as enacting the “good neighborhood policy” (p.110), especially in relation to Latin America. Through their eyes, the information they provided supposedly “help” these people, and overlooked power struggles that ensued fro personal political and economic purposes. The American involvement also gave certain anthropologists their first encounter with Latin America, building relationships which were capitalized upon during the postwar years, where many continued their own anthropological work. The spatial and temporal context in which these connections were made no doubt had an influence on the knowledge they produced and the methodology employed.

Price’s chapter is a great resource in materializing the various insidious relations between academics, government agencies and private interests, and the kinds of knowledges and discourses they produce. Science and scientific knowledge isn’t produced in a vacuum, but is embedded within the political and economic discourses of the societies who produce and consume it. This chapter provides a glimpse to the importance of being critical of the discipline’s history and the ways in which it has influenced contemporary knowledge production, and aided in proliferating American imperialism through Rockefeller’s economic interest. Furthermore, it demonstrates how anthropology itself was legitimized in the public as it provided utility for wartime efforts.

It also highlights that as anthropologists and scientists, we try and maintain objectivity, yet we are sites of conflict and biases that inform our research. This chapter also points to our complacency in following specific anthropological research trends that may or may not be guided by state or private interests. Price notes throughout the chapter that many anthropologists weren’t knowingly helping the government and Rockefeller in missions of domination and conquest; many different reasons and convictions coalesced that enabled their willingness. This makes us wonder how we, today, are influenced by similar means. The chapter also raises the question who should have access to anthropological knowledge and what are the ethical issues involved when institutes of power can potentially use it as tools of domination. Can consent by those studied even be given within that framework? As noted during the seminar, the act of publishing our work gives wide access for whomever to consume the knowledge it produced, including bodies of government. Do anthropologists limit access, or should we provide our perspective to counteract biased information produced by who have strategic interest in different cultures?

Our seminar also raised the question about the validity of directed research. Do specific intentions and directions always influence research? Who is laying out these research paths, and can it ever be independent? As such, can both the discipline and anthropologists truly be objective in the work they conduct? This all ties back to the notion of how knowledge can be weaponized. While we often think of knowledge as abstract, divorced by tangible consequences, this chapter has shown how anthropology was, and can be used, to inflict and aid in violence against the peoples and places studied. As someone during the seminar pointed out, Price’s term “weaponizing anthropology” presupposes that there’s an anthropology that isn’t weaponized. Considering its history, the conception of anthropology itself was a weapon in domination and subordination in colonial efforts. Nonetheless, this term reveals how knowledge can be mobilized to have concrete effects, as demonstrated in this chapter.

Mentioned: Goody, Jack. (1995). The Expansive Moment: The Rise of Social Anthropology in Britain and Africa 1918-1970. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press



One thought on “‘Anthropology As A War Weapon’: The Instrumentalization of Anthropological Knowledge During WWII (Review of Chapter 5)

  1. Pingback: 2015: Just Another Year for Empire | ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY

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