On December 20, 1919, under the heading “Scientists as Spies,” The Nation published a letter by Franz Boas, the father of academic anthropology in America. Boas charged that four American anthropologists, whom he did not name, had abused their professional research positions by conducting espionage in Central America during the First World War. Boas strongly condemned their actions, writing that they had “prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies.” 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.
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.
A variety of extraneous factors contributed to Boas’s censure (chief among these being institutional rivalries, personal differences and possibly anti-Semitism). The AAA’s governing council was concerned less about the accuracy of his charges than about the possibility that publicizing them might endanger the ability of others to undertake fieldwork. It accused him of “abuse” of his professional position for political ends.
In 1919 American anthropology avoided facing the ethical questions Boas raised about anthropologists’ using their work as a cover for spying. And it has refused to face them ever since. The AAA’s current code of ethics contains no specific prohibitions concerning espionage or secretive research. Some of the same anthropologists who spied during World War I did so in the next war. During the early cold war Ruth Benedict and lesser-known colleagues worked for the RAND corporation and the Office of Naval Research. In the Vietnam War, anthropologists worked on projects with strategic military applications.
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.” What is more, World War II saw him back in harness, serving in the Special Intelligence Service (SIS), which J. Edgar Hoover created within the FBI to undertake and coordinate all intelligence activity in Central and South America. During the war the SIS stationed approximately 350 agents throughout South America, where they collected intelligence, subverted Axis networks and at times assisted in the interruption of the flow of raw materials from Axis sources. Lothrop was stationed in Lima, Peru, where he monitored imports, exports and political developments. To maintain his cover he pretended to undertake archeological investigations.