Threatening Anthropology

McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists

Threatening Anthropology

Book Pages: 448 Illustrations: Published: April 2004

Author: David H. Price

Activism, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, History > U.S. History

A vital reminder of the importance of academic freedom, Threatening Anthropology offers a meticulously detailed account of how U.S. Cold War surveillance damaged the field of anthropology. David H. Price reveals how dozens of activist anthropologists were publicly and privately persecuted during the Red Scares of the 1940s and 1950s. He shows that it was not Communist Party membership or Marxist beliefs that attracted the most intense scrutiny from the fbi and congressional committees but rather social activism, particularly for racial justice. Demonstrating that the fbi’s focus on anthropologists lessened as activist work and Marxist analysis in the field tapered off, Price argues that the impact of McCarthyism on anthropology extended far beyond the lives of those who lost their jobs. Its messages of fear and censorship had a pervasive chilling effect on anthropological investigation. As critiques that might attract government attention were abandoned, scholarship was curtailed.

Price draws on extensive archival research including correspondence, oral histories, published sources, court hearings, and more than 30,000 pages of fbi and government memorandums released to him under the Freedom of Information Act. He describes government monitoring of activism and leftist thought on college campuses, the surveillance of specific anthropologists, and the disturbing failure of the academic community—including the American Anthropological Association—to challenge the witch hunts. Today the “war on terror” is invoked to license the government’s renewed monitoring of academic work, and it is increasingly difficult for researchers to access government documents, as Price reveals in the appendix describing his wrangling with Freedom of Information Act requests. A disquieting chronicle of censorship and its consequences in the past, Threatening Anthropology is an impassioned cautionary tale for the present.


“A formidable study. . . . Price provides depth and detail. . . .” — M. J. Heale, American Historical Review

“David Price has produced an extremely important book. Threatening Anthropology illuminates both the history of Anthropology and the political history of the USA from the late 1930s to the present.” — Susan Drucker-Brown, Cambridge Anthropology

“David Price masterfully reconstructs this dark Cold War history. . . . Threatening Anthropology gives us fair warning of a potentially rough road ahead.” — Roberto J. González, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"Threatening Anthropology contributes important new sources to the history of anthropology, combining valuable historical material with an interpretive framework that will fuel the intellectual culture war rather than challenge its terms." — Ellen Herman, North Carolina Historical Review

"Threatening Anthropology is an opinionated, audacious, and welcome piece of scholarship." — Barbara McMichael, Olympian

"A story that is historically needed and industriously researched. . . ." — Bruce Ramsey, Seattle Times

"[A] timely and critically important book. . . . [A] wake-up call. . . ." — William J. Peace, American Ethnologist

"[A]n important contribution to our understanding of the dimensions of McCarthyism. . . ." — Nils Gilman, Journal of American History

"[C]arefully documented. . . . [D]etailed and illuminating. . . ." — Tim Sieber, North American Dialogue

"[C]learly organized and written . . . . Price's study rests on extensive research in primary sources. . . . In the current national climate, we can use all the guidance we can get from such detailed historical research." — Mark Solovey, American Studies

"Excellent." — Alexander Cockburn The, The Nation

"[M]eticulously detailed. . . . As the Ashcroft justice department threatens to make the McCarthy era look like a stroll in the park, anthropologists and other social scientists should pay close attention to this book and its lessons for the present. Threatening Anthropology will undoubtedly stir debate in some quarters, but if scholars hope to avoid past mistakes, they will think carefully about what Price has to say. This timely, provocative book is long overdue." — Lesley Gill, Academe

"David Price . . . has been carving out a niche as the chief chronicler of the impact of McCarthyism and the FBI on his discipline. . . . His efforts have produced the expectedly chilling glimpse of a federal agency that spied on dozens of scholars . . . and an inquisition and blacklist that directly victimized about a dozen." — Ellen Schrecker, History

"David Price extends our knowledge of how far the House Un-American Activities Committee . . . were willing to go to harass American academics in the name of security." — CAUT ACPPU Bulletin

"Price . . . offers fascinating case studies of the trials and tribulations of several anthropologists. . . . [I]t is his insistence that there was, indeed, something threatening about anthropology that makes his book such a unique contribution." — Greg Beckett, Left History

"Price has produced an important work that scholars interested in the Cold War and the history of anthropology will find of enormous interest. His detailed research from diverse, often difficult to access sources provides a unique and valuable text." — Susan R. Trencher, Journal of Anthropological Research

"That Price had the drive, the stamina, and the imagination to pursue this arduous task for more than a decade is an effort for which all anthropologists, and all of those interested in the history of the McCarthy years, must be profoundly grateful. . . . Price's book . . . is an illuminating contribution to 'anthropology's understanding of itself'-one that should be on the shelf of every serious student of the history of U.S. anthropology." — George W. Stocking Jr., American Anthropologist

"This book is a spellbinder, a creative contribution to the history of anthropology, to understanding post-9/11 reactions, and to recalling threads of repression in American society that are continuous. It is a provocative, seminal contribution to scholarly history." — Laura Nader, The Historian

"This exhaustively researched volume convincingly argues that McCarthyism deeply impacted the profession, 'limiting both the questions anthropologists asked and the answers they found,' while demonstrating the pathetic inadequacy of the American Anthropological Association's attempts to shelter academic freedom." — R.J. Goldstein, Choice

"This is a depressing, terrifying, and ultimately maddening book! Nevertheless, those interested in anthropology’s past and those concerned with its future need to deal with the pain and anger that reading this book should engender. Indeed, it is incumbent upon them to share with their colleagues and students the lessons learned from Price’s scrupulous research and meticulous documentation. . . . [K]udos to Duke University Press for publishing a book that not too long ago would have been considered too subversive to touch." — Robert Lawless, Anthropology Review Database

"This provocative book represents groundbreaking scholarship on an urgent topic for academics and all other analysts of society, culture and history." — Tim Sieber, Labor History

“An enthralling expedition into the heart of academic darkness. David H. Price brilliantly confirms that there are no depths to which policemen and professors will not sink.” — Alexander Cockburn, coeditor of CounterPunch and columnist for The Nation

“David H. Price’s painstaking account of political repression in anthropology after the Second World War is a unique contribution to the history of the field. More than that, it may foreshadow what some today may entertain. Let us hope not, but let us not be naive.” — Dell Hymes, editor of Reinventing Anthropology

“Threatening Anthropology is a bold piece of scholarship, one that breaks the silence on many issues in the American trajectory that have changed only a bit since the Cold War and—given recent indications—might still come to the foreground in such a way as to make the McCarthy era look like play.” — Laura Nader, University of California, Berkeley


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

David H. Price is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Saint Martin’s College in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of the Atlas of World Cultures: A Geographical Guide to Ethnographic Literature.

Table of Contents Back to Top

1 A Running Start at the Cold War: Time, Place, and Outcomes 1

2 Melville Jacobs, Albert Canwell, and the University of Washington Regents: A Message Sent 34

3 Syncopated Incompetence: The American Anthropological Association’s Reluctance to Protect Academic Freedom 50

4 Hoover’s Informer 70

5 Lessons Learned: Jacobs’s Fallout and Swadesh’s Troubles 90

6 Public Show Trials: Gene Weltfish and a Conspiracy of Silence 109

7 Bernhard Stern: “A Sense of Atrophy among Those Who Fear: 136

8 Persecuting Equality: The Travails of Jack Harris and Mary Shepardson 154

9 Estimating the FBI’s Means and Methods 169

10 Known Shades of Red: Marxist Anthropologists Who Escaped Public Show Trials 195

11 Red Diaper Babies, Suspect Agnates, Cognates, and Affines 225

12 Culture, Equality, Poverty, and Paranoia: The FBI, Oscar Lewis, and Margaret Mead 237

13 Crusading Liberals Advocating for Racial Justice: Philleo Nash and Ashley Montagu 263

14 The Suspicions of Internationalists 284

15 A Glimpse of Post-McCarthyism: FBI Surveillance and Consequences for Activism 306

16 Through a Fog Darkly: The Cold War’s Impact on Free Inquiry 341

Appendix: On Using the Freedom of Information Act 355

Notes 363

Bibliography 383

Index 405
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3338-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3326-5
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