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“Anthropologists on Trial: The Lessons of McCarthyism”


Paper Presented at a session co-organized with Bill Peace on “The Intersection of Politics and Anthropology” at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., November 1997.


David H. Price

St. Martin’s College



There is a basic historical truism that goes something like this: Events have to become the past before they can become history—and some events have to become more of the past than others before it is safe for them to become historicized.  The intersection of the Cold War, McCarthyism and anthropology seems to be one of those events which required a prolonged period of decomposition before it could be excavated and examined in an historical light.  


Between 1947 and 1953 five Fellows of the American Anthropological Association—Melville Jacobs, Morris Swadesh, Richard Morgan, Bernhard Stern and Gene Weltfish—were brought before a variety of public and private forums where their loyalties, political affiliations, private views and academic research were questioned and attacked.  After very briefly reviewing the highlights of each of these cases I will analyze the predominant features of the association’s reaction to these series of incidents.  In doing so this paper focuses not so much on the travails of some Fellows of the American Anthropological Association as they became victims of McCarthyism, but instead examines the actions of the association as it slid from a position of appearing to defend members under fire, to a posture best described as a conspiracy of silence.


I argue that there are two clear “lessons” to be learned from these episodes.  First, that it was as much the application of an activist anthropological imagination as it was any real or imagined membership in Marxist organizations that brought the Cold War’s inquisition to bear on these individuals, and second, that traditional arguments that the AAA’s inability to come to the aid of these individuals was due to its commitment to a general apolitical stance are inadequate insofar as they ignore the high level at which the association was con-currently working to assist such political organizations as the Department of State and CIA.  Far from being apolitical, the association was selectively political.


Five Fellows Under Fire: A Bare Bones Summary


Jacobs:   Melville Jacobs was the first anthropologist to be persecuted by a loyalty board in the post-war period.   In 1947, he appeared as a hostile witness before Washington State Senator Albert Canwell’s State HUAC committee.  Jacobs discussed his own political beliefs and past Communist Party membership, but against the advice of legal counsel he refused to discuss the political activities of others.  After appearing before the Canwell committee, Jacobs and five other faculty were brought before the University of Washington’s “Faculty Committee on Tenure and Academic Freedom” where their political beliefs, party memberships and the presence of political indoctrination in the classroom were scrutinized.  In the end Jacobs was allowed to retain his job, but only after the humiliation of being made to testify before this committee, sign loyalty statements, and being placed on probation for two years.  


Morgan:   A few months after the Jacobs’ case, Univ. of Chicago trained archaeologist Richard Morgan was fired from the Ohio State Museum under a cloud of accusations that he was either a communist or a communist dupe.  Morgan’s situation was a complicated one, but briefly it must be understood that he had been using the basement of the Museum as a classroom for a free adult education program for groups of local African Americans, while he, his wife and stepsons were running a radical bookstore as well as working to unionize some local factories.  At one point a house owned by Morgan’s step-son and rented to “an officer of the Communist party” was attacked by a violent mob which “wrecked all the furniture and smashed every window” while the police did nothing to those responsible for the mayhem.


Morgan was fired in March of 1948.  After the AAA appointed a committee to investigate his firing he was temporarily reinstated, and then permanently fired in July of 1948.  After losing a state supreme court appeal over the legality of his firing, Richard and Ann Morgan ran a chicken farm for a few years and later he worked in the insurance industry in Chicago.  Morgan maintained an interest in MesoAmerican archaeology, and he died in Mexico City in 1968.           


Swadesh:   In May of 1949 Morris Swadesh was abruptly notified that his teaching contract at City College of New York would not be renewed—this unanticipated news came five months after “the Department’s Appointments Committee had voted for his reappointment”.  Swadesh felt that this was the direct result of accusations that he was a communist as well as his frank classroom discussions of Richard Morgan’s recent firing.


An appeal for the intervention of the AES and AAA was launched, to no avail and,  in the end Swadesh lost his job.  He continued his lexicostatistical research under the limited sponsorship of the APS until 1954 when he moved to Mexico City where he became a professor at the National School of Anthropology and History.


Stern:   In December of 1952 Bernhard Stern was subpoenaed to appear before Sen. Pat McCarren’s Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security.  Stern testified that he was no longer a member of the Communist Party, but invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked for details concerning his prior party membership, and his knowledge of other party members.  Four months later, Stern appeared before Sen. McCarthy’s Committee on Government Operations—which was investigating the political affiliations of authors whose books were held in “State Department Information Program” libraries abroad.  Even though Stern was boldly defiant while being attacked by McCarthy and Cohn, he was still able to retain his somewhat marginalized position of lecturing to night classes at Columbia.  A number of prominent scholars vocally and publicly pressured Columbia’s administration to not fire Stern. Gene Weltfish did not fare so well.


Weltfish:    After seventeen years as a Lecturer in Columbia’s Department of Anthropology Gene Weltfish was fired in December of 1952.  Ostensibly Weltfish’s contract was not renewed because of recent policy changes governing the University’s prolonged use of Lecturers, but she was clearly fired because Columbia’s Trustees considered her to be a political liability—especially after an incident on June 5th, 1952 when she was reported in the press to have made claims that the US military had been using Germ Warfare against North Koreans.  The extent to which the FBI had a hand in this firing is as yet unknown, but over the years the FBI had compiled a detailed dossier on Weltfish—many of these materials were made available to Grayson Kirk (then Columbia’s acting president).  There are suggestions that at least one Departmental member may have contributed information to these files.


A few months after Columbia’s Trustees decided not to renew her contract,  Weltfish refused to answer questions of Senate investigators concerning her membership in the CP.  In the Spring of 1953 Stern and Weltfish testified before McCarthy’s Committee on Government Operations. Among other charges, the Committee was trying to determine if communist ideology had filtered into Henry’s Backyard, the children’s book Weltfish co-authored with Ruth Benedict.  After losing her position at Columbia, Weltfish continued to work on Pawnee materials in Nebraska and New York, and took a tenured position at Farleigh Dickinson University in 1961 where she taught until her retirement in 1972.


Activism was the Real Issue

Before discussing the AAA’s reaction to these cases, it is vital to understand that each of these individuals may or may not have been members of a variety of Marxist political organizations, but they each shared a common activist commitment to fighting racial, gender and economic inequality that directly threatened the status quo of stratified American society.   I would argue that it was their work as progressive social activists that drew the attention of Canwell, McCarthy, McCarren and others.  To see the strength of this point consider the plight of then-Methodist seminary student Frank Wilkinson who amassed the largest known FBI surveillance file simply for his work on Los Angeles’ Citizen Housing Council which worked to end racial segregation of housing in the 1940s.  This advocacy work led Hoover’s FBI to compile over 132,000 pages of  a “surveillance and disruption” file on Wilkinson—at an estimated cost of over 3 million dollars.  It was not party membership that led to Wilkinson’s appearance before HUAC and the FBI’s hounding—it was his activist efforts to curtail racial and economic injustice. 


There was a point during Sen. McCarthy’s interrogation of Gene Weltfish where McCarthy revealed that he would have gone after political moderate Ruth Benedict (certainly not a socialist or communist by any stretch of the imagination) had she still been living at the time—simply because of her distinguished work on race and racism in the United States.  Whether it was Jacobs’ vocal opposition to the Hobbs Concentration Act Bill of 1941, Stern’s highly confrontational work opposing various Eugenics groups, Swadesh’s support for Native American rights or Weltfish and Morgan’s work for racial equity: it was activism as much as red politics that brought the spotlight of inquiry upon these individuals.  As Steven Spitzer theorized, deviance is that which threatens a given society’s Mode of Production—and the extent to which these activists moved beyond talk to action demonstrated a behavioral and material threat to the status quo of America’s post-war political economy.


The AAA Rolls Over and Then Plays Dead


(1)  Walking on Eggshells: The Post-War Reorganization of the AAA


To understand the AAA’s limited responses to these five cases it is necessary to consider the tenuous nature of the unlikely alliance that had been formed in the Great Restructuring of the association at war’s end in 1946.  There was a general discomfort with the association expressing any viewpoint that could be said to represent the various factions which made up the AAA. 


Among the association’s papers from this period there are many records of members expressing concerns that the association must stay removed from political issues.  For example, in 1949, after the Committee on Scientific Freedom was formed, Harry Hoijer wrote President Hallowell expressing grave concerns that the Committee would overstep its duties in protesting the firing of accused communists.  Similarly, after Morgan had been fired, Emil Haury wrote to President Shapiro (9/16/48), stating that it was his “conviction. . .that our association is a professional one and that we must proceed with the greatest caution in involving either the Board or the membership in matters lying outside of this area.

Of course some members of the Board and the association at large were of the opinion that if these accused individuals were Communists, then they were probably getting their just desserts.”


(2)  The AAA Executive Branch: Fair Weather Civil Libertarians & Ardent Anti-Communists


From the Jacobs case onward, the association was reluctant to get involved in any of the public and private accusations of communist or socialist affiliation.  There was a clear break in the nature of the association’s responses between the Jacobs, Morgan and Swadesh cases in the late 40s and those of Stern and Weltfish in the early 1950s—a cleavage that shifts from a stance of ill-coordinated investigations to a policy of completely ignoring these attacks.


To get a flavor of the change in approaches between the first and second waves of attacks on academic freedom, it is useful to contrast the association’s response to Morgan’s firing in 1949 with that of Weltfish’s firing in 1952. 


After Morgan was fired, President Shapiro  appointed a committee made up of John W. Bennett, Fay-Cooper Cole and James Griffin to investigate the case for the AAA. In reading the correspondence and records of this committee it is difficult to imagine that it was designed to do much more than fail in its inquiry: its charge was at best vague, the calendar governing its actions made its finding of no value to Morgan and his case, the Executive Board did not want to assist Morgan if he was indeed a Communist; and most significantly its only on-the-ground-local representative was a young, untenured junior professor teaching in a highly politicized department at conservative Ohio State University.  Despite Bennett’s best efforts to get the other committee members to come to town neither Griffin nor Cole came to Columbus.  Bennett did conduct a thorough investigation and in some sense placed his own career in jeopardy by advocating for Morgan’s rights in the community where he himself lived.  The surviving correspondence shows the association was less than enthusiastic about supporting Bennett’s efforts to assist Morgan.  Likewise, President Hallowell’s correspondence makes it abundantly clear that he was at best only interested in offering even limited assistance if the accused individuals in such cases were wrongly accused.   For the association, issues of academic freedom were understood largely in terms of how non-Marxists were affected by these loyalty oaths and hearings—there was little concern about the effects of such actions on real live Communists, nor on activists who could be accused of being influenced by the CP.


In March of 1949, President Hollowell confided to board members that he had “deliberately been stalling” in committing the association to any stance defending Morgan’s academic freedom.  Hallowell felt it necessary to establish whether or not Morgan was a communist before any action would be taken, believing that,

“any gesture on the part of the AAA with respect to anyone having direct relations with the Communist Party becomes an extremely delicate matter, to say the least, if not a real danger to the status of our association.” (Hallowell to Exec. Board 3/10/49).


As ill-conceived as these investigations of the late-1940s were, they stand in marked contrast with the stance of complete inaction that emerged in the 1950s.  The association did absolutely nothing to investigate the firing of Gene Weltfish, or the travails of Bernhard Stern, and in striking contrast to the persecutions of the 1940s not a word of their cases made it into the discussions in the Fellow’s Newsletter. The association’s approach to investigations of scholars under attack moved from a position of syncopated incompetence to a stance of distracted indifference.


(3) The Crux of the Biscuit


Finally, it would be misleading to conclude that the AAA did so little, to defend these five victims of (what Stanley Kutler called) “the American inquisition” because it was somehow an apolitical organization—though this is the currency through which arguments for its inaction have generally been made.  It was in fact a very politically active association during this period.  This is a crucial point.  There are many examples of the association’s direct political involvement that could be used to make this point but one of the more sobering is to be found in a consideration of the extent to which in 1951 President WW Howells and Executive Secretary Frederick Johnson actively colluded to broker a secretive deal with the Central Intelligence Agency to use the CIA’s IBM computers to compile and sort a comprehensive roster listing the linguistic and geographical expertise of the AAA membership.  The CIA wanted this done without having their name made public, and the association’s Executive Board willingly complied. The degree to which this was done in secret, with back channel communiqués is startling (see Appendix One).


The frank correspondence which survives clarifies that while Weltfish and Stern were passively left to fend for themselves, Howells and Johnson actively circumvented the association’s bylaws in order to railroad a back-channel means by which America’s Cold War Policemen could best profile our membership for recruitment, blind funding or whatever suited their purposes.  At times such as these the association’s official and unofficial politics went beyond supporting the status quo through inaction, and actively supported the formation and stabilization of the growing national security state.


Appendix One: Basic Details Surrounding the Howells and Johnson’s Efforts to Collaborate on a Roster with the Central Intelligence Agency.


This entire episode is discussed in thorough detail elsewhere (Price 1997C), to substantiate the statements made here I offer the below passages from correspondence between President Howells and Executive Secretary Johnson:


On the secrecy of the CIA’s involvement in this project:

“In searching for the ways and means of setting up a roster of Anthropologists I have a general proposal from Central Intelligence Agency.  This agency is reluctant to have its name connected with the proposal.  It will do the work as generally and tentatively outlines below provided the association with sponsor the project” [note: “sponsor” appears to be a euphemism here for “fronting” the project, as the CIA came up with the extraordinarily expensive computer time and manpower needed for the completion of this project]. (1951, memo no. 4 from Exec. Sec. Johnson to Exec. Board of AAA)


On Johnsons and Howell’s circumvention of association bylaws & railroading the Executive Board:

“May I make a suggestion about protocol?  That is that if you send out proposals to the Board accompanied by “ballots”, so marked, it looks like a motion being made and seconded by the Executive Secretary instead of from within the Board, which is unconstitutional, and we might get our line tangled.  E.g., it sometimes might embarrass me in trying to act in your behalf, as in the previous paragraph [note: the previous paragraph discussed appointing a committee which would work as a liaison between the association and the CIA.], when I think you ought to be put on the committee.” (Howells to Johnsons).


In Johnson’s reply (3/6/51) he notes that this idea “concerning protocol is certainly food for thought. . .[and] it should be given careful consideration.  When I write you again soon I will attempt to work out a “system”.


As discussed elsewhere (Price 1997C) they did work out a “system”.  This system included a protocol whereby anthropologists working in the academy could be selected for recruitment for CIA work, and methods whereby Johnson and Howells could coordinate efforts to control the agenda of board meetings. 


On March 7, 1951, Johnson wrote to President Howells confiding that he had superseded meeting protocol in his enthusiasm to get the association to work with the CIA finding himself “on the verge of tacitly committing the association to an activity “ [e.g. working with the CIA on the roster project] (Johnson to Howells 3/7/51).  After clarifying that the secretive deal with CIA had not properly been submitted to the AAA Executive Board, seconded and voted on Johnson wrote that,

“In my brash way I have short-circuited [procedure—by submitting] the “motion” for a vote.  I have done this in the interest of saving time and correspondence.”


This “motion” that was voted on (passing with a vote of 5 for, 1 against with 2 abstentions) was of course not a legal motion at all, but was the independent work of Frederick Johnson.


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