Keeping the Home Fires Burning: Anthropology Goes to the White House

Price, David H. (2008). Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham and London: Duke University Press. [Chapter 6, Anthropology and the White House War Projects, 117-142]

David Price’s sixth chapter of Anthropological Intelligence approaches three ways in which anthropologists were involved with the White House during the Second World War. The first of these methods was through personal correspondence, the second was through involvement with the Migration, or M Project, and the third was through the preparation of reports for the White House as seen with the case of Philleo Nash. This chapter describes these various projects and involvements as well as provides some criticism of these actions. Despite this criticism, this chapter still lacks analysis of the power structures in these wartime projects, which are part of the ongoing issues with the involvement of anthropologists in the military.

Price begins by discussing the role of “public” anthropologists and makes use of the familiar figure of Margaret Mead to demonstrate how some public anthropologists corresponded directly with the White House during the war (117-118). Mead’s letter, according to Price, demonstrates the zeal with which anthropologists threw themselves into war work, which ties back to previous chapters where anthropologists were eager to engage in war work; however, in many cases they did not consider the broader implications of this applied anthropological knowledge. The role of Aleš Hrdlička is also discussed here in his letters advising President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on possible schemes for resettling refugees after the war concluded. Despite Hrdlička’s overt racism when describing the Japanese as “insular pirates” (118), he was generally pessimistic about resettlement schemes, feeling that the endeavour would be incredibly costly and logistically problematic (122). Despite this, Roosevelt continued to pursue the study of resettlement, which became the core focus of the M Project.

The M Project is the focus of discussion for the second section of this chapter. The Migration Project’s mission was “first, to investigate the complex problem [of migration] in its most minute details without regard for national or international prejudices, sensibilities and jealousies; and second, to suggest ways and means whereby the problem could be solved once and for all- even if it takes from 20 to 50 years to solve it” (125). A central figure in the project was Henry Field, an anthropologist and assistant curator of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago. Field was initially approached by John Franklin Carter, an advisor to the President, and was viewed by Carter as “an academic glory grabber” who overemphasized the direct role of the President in the project itself (125). Despite differing accounts of Roosevelt’s involvement, the M Project still produced 666 reports on migration schemes for refugees after the war. According to Price, many of these reports consisted of dry facts and naïve assumptions about cultures within the studied areas and their history (128).

Moreover, the project relied heavily on the notion that the lands where refugees were to be resettled were empty or under-used, and as such it was within the United States’ interests to bring efficient American management to these under-utilised or otherwise empty lands (127-128). This was coupled with a prioritization of white European refugees over the native populations living there, who were seen as more desirable, especially in the case of Australia who wished to integrate these refugees as new Australian citizens (131). There were clear political issues inherent within the project as it was carried out without regard for political borders. Aside from the case of settling refugees in Australia, the project was cloaked in secrecy. The project was kept secret from fellow anthropologists of allied nations, as seen with the example of the Canadian anthropologists Diamond Jeness and William Mackintosh who were kept in the dark about the purpose of the data they were analyzing (126). Of note is the lack of schemes involving the settling of refugees in the United States, some areas of which were roughly comparable to the areas being studied for resettlement. This was due to the racial biases and eugenicist views of the project’s director, Isaiah Bowman as well as his aspirations to revive areas that were under-performing in an economic sense to benefit the American economy (128).

When the end of the war came, further issues with the M Project continued to emerge. The project grossly underestimated the total number of refugees who would need to be resettled as well as the costs of resettling them. President Harry S. Truman did not continue Roosevelt’s patronage of the project. He described the project’s legacy as truckload of documents and 2,000 pages of unpublished reports (134). Indeed, the only idea to come out of the project that he followed was the resettlement of European Jews in Palestine, creating the state of Israel (142).

After discussing the M Project, Price then examines the work of Philleo Nash, an anthropologist studying racial dynamics at the Office of Facts and Figures (OFF) at the beginning of the war, and later with the Office of War Information (OWI). Nash’s goal was to keep an eye on racial tensions in war industries to ensure that the flow of war goods was maintained and to deliver reports on this to the White House. By keeping an eye on information flowing into the OWI from official and his own network of reporters it was possible to direct resources to local authorities to prevent race riots and ultimately work stoppages (136). Price underlines the fact that Nash did not look at the fundamental reasons for these racial tensions, rather he was interested in maintaining the status quo for the sake of a perceived greater good of keeping the factories running and the home fires burning.

Price also discusses why anthropologists were able to partake in these projects which had ramifications for the cultures that they had been studying. Price argues that war necessitates decisions that would not be normally made in peacetime and creates blind spots in the judgement of anthropologists . In this case the decision was made to fight fascism first, then to turn their attention to the civil rights issues at home because if the fascists won they would all be living in worse conditions (141). In class, this argument came up in discussion. Some questioned whether or not the two issues were mutually exclusive, and if it was really necessary to separate civil rights issues from the fight against fascism. One colleague -Appreciate_America_Stop_the_Fifth_Column-_-_NARA_-_513873wondered how the fear of native and oppressed populations within the United States potentially supporting Fascism or undermining the war effort as a fifth column fed into this notion that fascism had to be defeated first. I believe that this idea bears weight. In the case of “total war”, a term often invoked to describe the wars of the 20th century, widespread tactics of focusing public perception towards benefiting the war effort and ignoring civil rights issues are ubiquitous. This is clearly seen in propaganda posters, and the fear of a fifth column disturbing this status quo is present in the American poster as seen in the image on the right. 

Another issue found within this chapter that was met with agreement in class was the lack of analysis of power structures within these projects. It is briefly mentioned that Field was given a naval commission as a lieutenant when he entered the M Project, but little is made of this military power structure that Field is entering into. This analysis of the power structures the anthropologists of the Second World War were involving themselves in is a major facet of the story that is missed up to this point of the book, a facet of these projects that I would very much enjoy reading about. However, it is understandable if this is simply the result of editing to attempt to present a more coherent reading experience for the reader, or perhaps this is discussed later in the book.



One thought on “Keeping the Home Fires Burning: Anthropology Goes to the White House

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

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