This day in 1919: Exposure of Washington’s academics as spies

Franz Boas (1858-1942)

Franz Boas (1858-1942)


Originally published on December 20, 2014

1919 (20 December): Under the heading “Scientists as Spies,” The Nation, a liberal journal based in New York, published on this date a letter by Franz Boas, the father of academic anthropology in the United States. Boas was one of the most prominent opponents of the then popular pseudo-science of eugenics and “scientific racism”, the fascist concept that race is a biological concept and that human behaviour is best understood through the typology of biological characteristics and not social and cultural factors.

Boas publicly charged that four American anthropologists, whom he did not name, had abused their professional research positions by conducting espionage in Central America for the U.S. armed forces during the First World War – precisely when U.S. imperialism had aggressively occupied Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti and was conspiring against the Mexican Revolution. Boas strongly condemned their actions, writing that they had “prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies.” It is perhaps in this letter that he most clearly expresses his understanding of his commitment to science:

“A soldier whose business is murder as a fine art, a diplomat whose calling is based on deception and secretiveness, a politician whose very life consists in compromises with his conscience, a business man whose aim is personal profit within the limits allowed by a lenient law – such may be excused if they set patriotic deception above common everyday decency and perform services as spies. They merely accept the code of morality to which modern society still conforms.
“Not so the scientist. The very essence of his life is the service of truth. We all know scientists who in private life do not come up to the standard of truthfulness, but who, nevertheless, would not consciously falsify the results of their researches. It is bad enough if we have to put up with these, because they reveal a lack of strength of character that is liable to distort the results of their work. A person, however, who uses science as a cover for political spying, who demeans himself to pose before a foreign government as an investigator and asks for assistance in his alleged researches in order to carry on, under this cloak, his political machinations, prostitutes science in an unpardonable way and forfeits the right to be classed as a scientist.”

Although Boas did not name the spies in question, he was referring to a group led by Sylvanus G. Morley, who was affiliated with Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. While conducting research in Mexico, Morley and his colleagues looked for evidence of German submarine bases, and collected intelligence on Mexican political figures and German immigrants in Mexico.

“Anthropologists spying for their country severely betrayed their science and damaged the credibility of all anthropological research,” Boas wrote; a scientist who uses his research as a cover for political spying forfeits the right to be classified as a scientist.

As Boas prophetically wrote, “In consequence of their acts every nation will look with distrust upon the visiting foreign investigator who wants to do honest work, suspecting sinister designs. Such action has raised a new barrier against the development of international friendly cooperation.”

Espionage and intelligence services were an independent and crucial part of the state machinery of the capitalist countries. Boas’ exposé is probably the first revelation of the secret incorporation of the scientist into the machinery of the U.S. state and its covert operations, e.g., in Central America. The bourgeois academics were not only involved in rationalization of the internal capitalist socio-economic order, their bread and butter, but espionage and subversion of other countries. His democratic stand came at the time when espionage and intelligence services were beginning to reach their maximum development in the period of imperialism in connection with the intensification of the external and internal functions of the capitalist state, brought about by the struggle for the partition and repartition of the world, by the attempts to carry out the struggle for world domination and, most fundamentally, by the struggle waged by monopoly capital and world reaction against the forces of revolution, democracy and socialism on the international plane. The employment of a few scientists, intellectuals and academics by the U.S. state would grow thousandfolds.

This explains the ferocity and venom of the hysterical response to Boas by Washington and its sycophantic academics, characterized by character assassination, racist slander and the blacklist.

When Boas’s letter was published, the American government maintained a studied silence, as if there was nothing behind it. At the same time, its academic legionnaires went into action. W.H. Holmes, head of the newly-established National Research Council, wrote to a friend complaining about “the Prussian control of anthropology in this country” and the need to end Boas’s “Hun regime”. On the eve of the state-organized “Red Scare” hysteria of 1919, the state “scientists” pandered to the most base chauvinist, militarist, anti-German and probably also anti-Jewish sentiment. The Anthropological Society of Washington passed a resolution condemning Boas’s letter for unjustly criticizing their much beloved U.S. President Wilson; attacking the principles of American democracy; and endangering anthropologists abroad, who would now be suspected of being spies – a charge that was especially insulting, given that his concerns about this very issue were what had prompted Boas to write his letter in the first place. This resolution was passed on to the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the National Research Council. Members of the AAA (among whom Boas was a founding member in 1902), meeting at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard (with which Morley, Lothrop, and Spinden were affiliated), voted by 20 to 10 to censure Boas.

In a 2000 article, Prof David Price, author of Weaponizing Anthropology and other works documenting the rapid militarization of anthropology, incursions by the CIA and other intelligence agencies onto American university campuses and instances of American anthropologists working for military and intelligence agencies, wrote in The Nation that

“The most significant reaction to this letter occurred ten days later at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), when the association’s governing council voted to censure Boas, effectively removing him from the council and pressuring him to resign from the national research council. Three out of four of the accused spies (their names, we now know, were Samuel Lothrop, Sylvanus Morley and Herbert Spinden) voted for censure; the fourth (John Mason) did not. Later Mason wrote Boas an apologetic letter explaining that he’d spied out of a sense of patriotic duty.

“The censure of Boas by the AAA in 1919 sent a clear message to him and others that espionage under cover of science in the service of the state is acceptable.

“Some of the same anthropologists who spied during World War I did so in the next war.

“Until recently there was little investigation of either the veracity of Boas’s accusation in 1919 or the ethical strength of his complaint. But FBI documents released to me under the Freedom of Information Act shed new light on both of these issues. The FBI produced 280 pages of documents pertaining to one of the individuals Boas accused – the Harvard archeologist Samuel Lothrop. Lothrop’s FBI file establishes that during World War I he indeed spied for Naval Intelligence, performing ‘highly commendable‘ work in the Caribbean until ‘his identity as an Agent of Naval Intelligence became known.’”

Boas resigned as the AAA’s representative to the NRC, although he remained an active member of the AAA. The AAA’s censure of Boas was not rescinded until 2005.

Unbowed, Franz Boas continued to speak out against racism and the state’s use of pseudo-science. When the Nazi Party in Germany, which from the start had brutally manifested to the world its hostility to cultural and intellectual values, denounced “Jewish Science” (which included not only Boasian Anthropology but Freudian psychoanalysis and Einsteinian physics), Boas responded with a public statement signed by over 8,000 other scientists, declaring that there is only one science, to which race and religion are irrelevant.


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