Anthropologists as spies

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Nov 3 07:48:01 MST 2000

Anthropologists as Spies


In 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

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.

>From his arrival in Lima in mid-December 1940, Lothrop was dogged by
constant worries that his communications with Washington were being
intercepted by British, Peruvian, Japanese or German intelligence
operatives. By August 1941 he became concerned that his lack of significant
archeological progress might lead to the discovery of his true work in
Peru. Lothrop reported his fears of being detected to FBI headquarters: "As
regards the archaeological cover for my work in Peru, it was based on the
understanding that I was to be in the country six months or less. It is
wearing thin and some day somebody is going to start asking why an
archaeologist spends most of his time in towns asking questions. This won't
happen as soon as it might because the Rockefeller grant for research in
Peru makes me a contact man between the field workers and the government."

Lothrop was referring to the Rockefeller Foundation, which financed twenty
archeologists who were excavating in Peru, Chile, Colombia, Mexico,
Venezuela and Central America. He also used his ties to a variety of
academic and research institutions--including Harvard, the Peabody Museum,
the Institute of Andean Research and the Carnegie Institute--as cover in
Peru. Archeologist Gordon Willey, who worked on an Institute of Andean
Research Project in Peru and had some contact with Lothrop at this time,
recalled that "it was sort of widely known on the loose grapevine that Sam
was carrying on some kind of espionage work, much of which seemed to be
keeping his eye on German patrons of the Hotel Bolivar Bar."

In fact, Lothrop was considered a valuable agent who collected important
information on Peruvian politics and leading public figures of a nature
usually difficult to secure. An FBI evaluation reported that headquarters
"occasionally receive[s] information of sufficient importance from Mr.
Lothrop to transmit to the President." Lothrop's principal source was an
assistant to the Peruvian minister of government and police. In the spring
of 1944 this informant resigned his governmental position and began
"working exclusively under the direction of Dr. Lothrop." In May 1944 the
US Embassy reported that Lothrop's principal informant was fully aware of
Lothrop's connection to the SIS and FBI. Lothrop's cover was compromised by
four Peruvian investigators in the employ of his top informant. His
informant had been heard bragging to the Peruvian police that he made more
by working for the US Embassy than the police made working for the Peruvian

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Louis Proyect
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