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A Special Supplement: Anthropology on the Warpath in Thailand


On March 30 of this year, the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam submitted documents to us implicating American social scientists in counter-insurgency activities in Thailand. We shall summarize these documents in this article, but it is important first to make clear the situation in which we received them and the controversy which has arisen over them among scholars.

At that time, one of us, Wolf, was chairman and the other, Jorgensen, a member of the Ethics Committee of the American Anthropological Association, a committee which had been set up in the aftermath of a Statement on Problems of Anthropological Research and Ethics adopted by the Fellows of the Association in 1967. Clearly, this statement had been framed against the immediate background of the war in Vietnam (the Association condemned the war in 1966), but more generally it sought to guard the integrity of anthropologists whose specific knowledge and experience, based on field work in the third world, obviously commend them to the executors of government policy for counter-insurgency and related forms of clandestine research.

The problem that confronted the Association and the Ethics Committee has dogged anthropologists from the inception of the discipline. European conquest and colonialism had, after all, provided the field for anthropology’s operations and, especially in the nineteenth century, its intellectual ethic of “scientific objectivity.” But “scientific objectivity,” we believe, implies the estrangement of the anthropologist from the people among whom he works. LĂŠvi-Strauss has defined the issue very well:

Anthropology is not a dispassionate science like astronomy, which springs from the contemplation of things at a distance. It is the outcome of an historical process, which has made the larger part of mankind subservient to the other, and during which millions of innocent human beings have had their resources plundered, their institutions and beliefs destroyed while they themselves were ruthlessly killed, thrown into bondage, and contaminated by diseases they were unable to resist. Anthropology is the daughter to this era of violence. Its capacity to assess more objectively the facts pertaining to the human condition reflects, on the epistemological level, a state of affairs in which one part of mankind treats the other as an object.1

On the other hand, anthropology, as Stanley Diamond has pointed out, was inherently “a revolutionary discipline,”2 which, in the tradition of Montaigne and Rousseau, radically questioned the pretensions to superiority of Western civilization, while seeking alternative visions of man. This latter aspect of the anthropological consciousness has always been recognized in the United States, to the enduring credit of such men as Franz Boas, Robert Redfield, and Paul Radin. Throughout the history of the profession anthropologists have condemned the assault of the American government on American Indians (although the “solutions” they suggested were not, and perhaps could not have been, better than those from any other source); and the Association has defended the social and cultural rights of minority peoples, and taken early and unequivocal positions against fascism and racism. The Nazis, it should be noted, understood this aspect of the discipline in Europe and systematically sought to cut the heart out of German anthropology, reducing it to a reflex of the regime. They were not, of course, impressed by any claim to scientific objectivity.

Most recently, anthropologists have been in the forefront of the protest against the war in Vietnam. The concept of the teach-in was in fact invented by an anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins of Michigan; Eric Wolf was a founder of the movement, and anthropologists contributed disproportionately to the organization of the first teach-ins on campuses throughout the country. Therefore, although we did not solicit the information that was handed to us by the Student Mobilization Committee, it was understandable that they should have contacted us.

Immediately afterward, the SMC held a press conference in Washington which was covered by The New York Times in a confusing report. Nevertheless, some anthropologists had now been alerted to the issue. On April 2, excerpts from the documents were published in a special issue of the Student Mobilizer, an SMC publication which was devoted exclusively to the exposure of counter-insurgency research in Thailand. Copies of the Mobilizer were subsequently distributed at the annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies in San Francisco: names were given, reputations were questioned, tempers flared, and, once again, the integrity of social scientists was challenged.3

Independently, and without any knowledge of the steps planned by SMC, Wolf, as chairman of the Ethics Committee, privately wrote to each of four anthropologists whose names were most prominently and repeatedly mentioned in the documents, asking them for clarification and assuring them that the “announced purpose of the Ethics Committee [is] to deal with cases on as anonymous a basis as possible, in an effort to develop an approach—without penalizing any individuals.” With these letters we enclosed the following statement:

Since these documents contradict in spirit and in letter the resolutions of the American Anthropological Association concerning clandestine and secret research, we feel that they raise the most serious issues for the scientific integrity of our profession. We shall, therefore, call the attention of the American Anthropological Association to these most serious matters.

Predictably, our request for clarification provoked a storm of protest—not from all, but from those who felt themselves maligned by the disclosures. Therefore, on May 2, at our regularly scheduled meeting in Chicago, the Ethics Committee speaking as a group announced formally that:

Our examination of the documents available to us pertaining to consultation, research and related activities in Thailand convinces us that anthropologists are being used in large programs of counter-insurgency whose effects should be of grave concern to the Association. These programs comprise efforts at the manipulation of people on a giant scale and intertwine straightforward anthropological research with overt and covert counter-insurgency activities in such a way as to threaten the future of anthropological research in South-East Asia and other parts of the world.

This statement was part of a communication addressed by the Ethics Committee to the president, the president-elect, and members of the executive board of the Anthropological Association. Shortly thereafter, in response to our initiative, the executive board reprimanded both of us for actions beyond the charge of the committee, and instructed the committee to limit itself “to recommendations on its future role and functions.” We rejected what seemed to us a bureaucratic interpretation of the role of the committee, an interpretation which would have the effect of keeping professional peace at the expense of substantive issues, and, in a detailed statement published in the Association’s newsletter this past September, we resigned from the committee.


The documents we had received were not classified in the legal sense, but they were copied from the personal files of an anthropologist at a university in California. That is to say, we were presented with Xerox copies of the originals. We regret this action, and would certainly hot have taken it ourselves, nor would we have encouraged anyone else to do so. But the documents seemed to us of such significance that, while taking care to protect the names of those mentioned, we none the less felt compelled to pursue the questions raised by them because of our concern for the integrity of our profession.

The documents consist of the following:

1) Minutes of the Jason Summer Study, Institute for Defense Analysis, Falmouth Intermediate School, Falmouth, Massachusetts, June 20-July 6, 1967;

2) A proposal to the Advanced Research Projects Agency, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, entitled “Counter-Insurgency in Thailand: The Impact of Economic, Social and Political Action Programs,” American Institutes for Research, December, 1967;

3) Trip Report for a visit to Amphoe Nong Han, Changwad Udon, May 28-June 6, 1969;

4) Agenda for an Advisory Panel, American Institutes for Research meeting, June 30-July 4, 1969;

5) Amendment to a Contract between the United States of America, represented by the Agency for International Development, and the Regents of the University of California, to facilitate advice and assistance on the part of the academic community for the Academic Advisory Council for Thailand, September 1, 1968;

6) Minutes of the Academic Advisory Council for Thailand, October 19, 1968-July 24, 1969.

The meetings at which these documents were formulated or presented were not technically classified as “secret,” but were private meetings of which the profession at large was unaware. The proceedings were sufficiently suggestive to cause the participants to worry about a repetition of the notorious Project Camelot4 which had not only sullied the reputation of North American social scientists in Latin America but also had grave political repercussions in itself.

The data themselves give a curious and chilling perspective on the uses of social science. Take, for instance, the first set of papers, which describe meetings of a Thailand Study Group made up of government officials, physical scientists, and members of what the minutes call the “SS Community,” the community of social scientists. The meetings were organized at Falmouth, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1967, by the Institute for Defense Analysis, and designated a “Jason Summer Study.” The IDA was organized in 1955 to coordinate warrelated work on the nation’s campuses; its special Jason Division was set up to involve academics in the solution of military problems. The purpose of the Falmouth meetings was specifically to explore the usefulness of creating an “SS” Jason, complementing the already existing Jason studies carried on by physical scientists.

The minutes reveal a surprising ambiguity of motive: Is the government soliciting social scientists, or is the SS community soliciting government? They raise no doubt, however, about the hardheaded approach to knowledge taken by the government officials present. When one of them is asked if he desires from the SS community “dialogue and indices,” he replies bluntly: “I want tools.”5 He wants hardware, he is not interested in discussion. Repeatedly, participants are dismayed that most social scientists do not want to work for the government. Their feeling is due, some argue, to the “priority” of “ethical” values, i.e., loyalty to the profession or to the country or to a job.6 Others blame the Vietnam war, the unfortunate experiences with Camelot, the difficulty of squaring classified research with the “university’s mission.”7

But, as the minutes of the conference make clear, there are devices for getting around these difficulties: increased salaries, congenial companionship, “interesting problems like existence of Thai communists”; professional opportunities and prestige; support of military officials at universities; closer ties of government with universities; greater support for RAND and Army think tanks; the hiring of top professionals at high costs to enlist and serve as a model for others; the development of administrative anthropologists who, on the British and French design, would become advisers to Empire.8 In the assistance social science can give to counter-insurgency, anthropology can be particularly useful. “Given the apparent importance of local factors to the recruitment of the Northeastern [Thailand] insurgents, it is important to learn the detailed content and credibility of communist recruitment, training, and propaganda messages.”9

  1. 1

    Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Anthropology: Its Achievement and Future,” Current Anthropology, vol. 7, 1966, p. 126.

  2. 2

    Stanley Diamond, “A Revolutionary Discipline,” Current Anthropology, vol. 5, 1964, pp. 432-437.

  3. 3

    The preceding year (October, 1969) in Montreal, the annual meeting of the multidisciplinary African Studies Association disintegrated for analogous reasons. Although the black protest that disrupted the meeting had unfortunate racist overtones, it nevertheless helped to reveal how deeply flawed were African studies in the US. The charges made were not entirely new ones. In the October-November, 1967, issue of Transition, Pierre L. Van Den Berghe of the University of Washington had written:

    Africa offers, of course, a very promising field for the study of counter-insurgency. Last year I was myself approached by one such research corporation led by a man who had received a German doctorate in geo-politics during the Nazi era. I was bluntly asked whether I would sell my knowledge to help the US Defense Department in planning military intervention in a certain African country. (Incidentally, the country in question was not South Africa, Zimbabwe, or the so-called Portuguese territories). I declined…. When I later talked to my colleagues about it I discovered that perhaps one-third to one-half of American scholars in the African field had been solicited by this Agency or similar ones of ethically questionable research. The Octopus is omnipresent, and quite a few scholars are taken in. [italics added]

    At the Montreal convention the African Research Bureau of Cambridge, Massachusetts, distributed copies of a survey, African Studies in America: The Extended Family, which attempted to show that a network of educational institutions, foundations, and government agencies had compromised to some degree the great majority of established Africanists. For a pointed commentary on the African research scene, see “The Responsibility of Scholars” in Stanley Diamond, Nigeria: Model of a Colonial Failure, American Committee on Africa, 1967, pp. 1-6.

  4. 4

    See Irving L. Horowitz, The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot (The MIT Press, 1967).

  5. 5

    Jason Summer Study, Minutes, June 30, 1967, p. 5.

  6. 6

    Ibid., June 27, p. 2.

  7. 7

    Ibid., June 20, 1967, p. 1.

  8. 8

    Ibid., July 5, 1967, p. 3; June 27, 1967, p. 2.

  9. 9

    Ibid., July 3, 1967, pp. 3, 8.

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