Anthropology Against Its Subjects

David Price reports in “Counterpunch” on a 1943 OSS (the precursor to the CIA) document he discovered entitled “Preliminary Report on Japanese Anthropology” , a compilation of anthropological research into racial and/or cultural characteristics of the Japanese that could be “weaponized”. The report verges on the genocidal in its cold, detached consideration of means of destroying the Japanese:

The report considered a series of Japanese physical and cultural characteristics to determine if weapons could be designed to exploit any identifiable unique “racial” features. The study examined Japanese anatomical and structural features, Japanese physiological traits, Japanese susceptibility to diseases, and possible weaknesses in Japanese constitution or “nutritional weaknesses.” The OSS instructed the anthropologists and other advisors to try to conceive ways that any detectable differences could be used in the development of weapons, but they were cautioned to consider this issue “in a-moral and non-ethical terms,” with an understanding that, “if any of the suggestions contained herein are considered for action, all moral and ethical implications will be carefully studied.”

Although Ralph Linton and Harry Shapiro objected to these instructions, others — including Clyde Kluckhohn and Ernest Hooten — embraced the project, examining cultural traits like food production as well as “racial” traits like “inner ears morphologies, taste bud densities, laryngeal musculatures, intestinal lengths, and arterial systems”. In the end, little of use was turned up — a slight proclivity for respiratory infections led the anthropologists involved to recommend using anthrax as a weapon, the importance of rice in the Japanese diet and the short viability of stored rice led to recommendations aimed at the destruction of the agricultural system — and the project seems to have been abandoned. But, Price asks, “what recommendations would have been made if significant characteristics had been isolated”? And more to the point, for me: can anthropologists afford to defer the moral and ethical implications of their (our) work, trusting that such implications will be “carefully studied” by others down the line?

20 thoughts on “Anthropology Against Its Subjects

  1. Hmm… rather than touch off a huge flame war, I’ll just ask Oneman — what do you think the answer should have been for the physicists who put together The Bomb? Perhaps there are some comparisons there that would shed light?

  2. “Genocidal”…

    As I understand it, in the twentieth century Nazi Germany and Maoist China make it into the fifty million dead club on the genocide scale; Stalinist Russia makes it into the thirty million dead club; and Imperial Japan makes it into the ten million dead club–and would have mounted up a significantly higher score had the end of World War II not brought an end to the trail of destruction and death wrought by the Imperial Japanese army in China.

    There were real genocides going on during WWII while the OSS tried to figure out what might be possible in the way of genocidal bioterror weapons. They should not be forgotten…

  3. I think that’s exactly the right comparison — and it should be noted that, for many of the scientists involved with the creation of the Bomb, there was no cut-and-dry “answer”. Frankly, if I had been asked to take part in the Manhattan Project, I would have said “no” — which is exactly why I’m an anthropologist instead of an aerospace engineer today. Engineering was my first major, following a childhood fascination with space exploration, but when I realized that my degree was likely to only ever find use in the weapons industry, I bailed. With regards to the Bomb, as an American I’m none too proud to belong to the only nation that’s used nuclear weapons, regardless of whether or not it saved lives in the long run (a contentious issue in itself). I find it intriguing, as well, that many of the scientists who were involved in the creation of the Bomb became some of its staunchest opponents in the years after WWII.

    While I think my personal feelings are pretty clear, I note that this post doesn’t take a strong stand on any particular position. My concern is not that everyone join together in the condemnation of Kluckhohn, Hooten, and the others — you can read Price’s article and agree or disagree as you see fit. I know I’ll be reading some of Kluckhohn’s work in a different light — your mileage may differ. Still, the questions merit asking — who controls the knowledge we produce? What use(s) might such knowledge be put to? Where does our responsibility for the use of such knowledge end? With whom do/should our loyalties lie? I can imagine reasonable enough and maybe even ethical enough answers that differ from my own — but I can’t imagine not asking the questions.

  4. Brad –

    I don’t see where anything I’ve said in any way minimizes the import of the Holocaust, of Stalin’s purges, or of any other realized genocide. We have here an instance of scientists seeking ways of creating weapons explicitly designed to target the particular weaknesses of what at that time would be considered a “race” of people — not a realized genocide, to be sure, but I think the adjective “genocidal” is merited. I note as well that Price points out that while the US was considering the use of anthrax against the Japanese, the Japanese had already moved beyond consideration to use in Manchuria. As I said in my above comment, there are no simple “cut-and-dry” responses here — anyone seeking moral certainty in these affairs (or anywhere else, for that matter) is bound to be disappointed…

  5. Let me add to what oneman says something I learned from John Wager, who contributes to lit-ideas: Ambiguity is a necessary condition of all moral decisions. Where there is no ambiguity, where rules define precisely what has to be done, there is no moral decision to be made. Even in the case of the simplest, apparently black and white decisions, there is no moral choice involved unless the person making the decision feels pulled in both directions. To which I add, we have a word for those who are absolutely certain—we call them sociopaths.

  6. I’m used to tendentious nonsequitors from Brad, so his latest comment here was no surprise. However, his use of ‘genocide’ to mean ‘killing a lot of people’ is just so much applesauce.

    The murder of one person is terrible, and that of millions a shocking tragedy. But genocide — the intentional destruction of an kind (genus) of people and their entire way of life — is a horror of a different kind. Or is Brad suggesting that Mao’s goal as the ruler of China was to eliminate all Chinese people everywhere?

    We all wish that the people in the place where we live could never even contemplate genocide, but the sad truth is that this is not the case. John Dower — a distinguished professor whose work has won the Pulitzer, Bancroft, and National Book Awards (to name just the few) — paints a picture in his excellent “War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War” of what was, in the words of one observer, an inclination towards “universal extermination” of the Japanese. Alas, America in the mid-1940s was not a country reluctantly forced to commit large atrocities in order to prevent huge ones. I quote from pp. 54-55:

    A U.S. Army poll taken in 1943 already indicated that about half of all GIs believed that it would be neccessary to kill all Japanese before peace could be achieved… By the final year of the war, one out of four U.S. combatants stated that his primary goal was not to help bring about Japan’s surrender, but simply to kill as many Japanese as posisble…

    It is understandable that men in battle become obsessed with annihilating the foe. In the case of the Japanes enemy, however, the obsession extended to many men and women far removed from the place of battle, and came to embrace not just the enemy’s armed forces but the Japanese as a race and culture. How pervasive and genocidal attitudes became is hard to say, for on all sides there were always a great number of people who simpled desired a quick end to the killings. Public opinion polls in the United States indicated that some 10 to 13 percent of Americans consistently supported the “annhiliation” or “extermination” of the Japanese as a people, while a comparable percentage were in favor of severe retribution after Japan had been deafeated…

    In an often-quoted poll conducted in December 1944 asking “What do you think we should do with Japan as a country after the war?,” 13 percent of the respondents wanted to “kill all Japanese” and 33 percent supported destroying Japan as a political entity (the identical question asked for Germany on the same date omitted the option of killing all Germans, and found 34 percent of the American respondents in favor of destroying Germany as a nation). Like the soldiers who confessed in 1945 that their goal had become killing rather than simply winning, even after the war ended and the Japanses turned their energies to the tasks of peaceful reconstruction, a surprising number of Americans expressed regrets that Japan surrended so soon after the atomic bombs were dropped. A poll conducted by _Fortune_ in December 1945 found that 22.7 percent of respondents wished the Untied States had had the opportunity to use “many more of them [atomic bombs] before Japan had a chance to surrender.”

    Knowledgeable observers who followed American attitudes… certainly concluded that support for an annihilationist policy against the Japanese was extremely strong — probably even more so than the polls indicated. On New Year’s Day 1944, for example, several weeks before the news of the Bataan Death March has been released, the weekly report to the Foreign Office by the British ambassador in Washintgon was already referring to the “universal ‘exterminationist’ anti-Japanese feelings here”…

    More evidence could be adduced.

  7. While agreeing completely with Rex on what he has written, I would like to add a couple of comments in re the quote from Dower.

    It is, I believe, all too easy to see the support for “kill all Japanese” and the omission of “kill all Germans” from the similar survey as nothing but racism. While not for a moment denying that racism was at work, I note the following (summarized from Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword in the chapter on Japan that Ruth and I wrote for Ray Scupin’s new reader, Peoples and Cultures of Asia).

    When Benedict called the Japanese “the most alien enemy,” the difference to which she pointed was no mere prejudice. In the Japanese, the Allies found an enemy for whom, “Conventions of war, which Western nations had come to accept as facts of human nature obviously did not exist.” European and American generals, for example, were used to assuming that an army could be forced to surrender by killing one-fourth to one-third of its troops. The ratio of soldiers surrendering to those who died would be about 4:1. But even late in the war, when the first substantial number of Japanese surrendered, that ratio was 1:5, five times as many troops dying as surrendering, and that was seen as a huge improvement. In earlier battles the ratio had been as low as 1:250.

    On the other side of the case, there is the fact that individuals of German extraction made up a large proportion of US citizens. In Allen County, Indiana, where Ruth grew up, German was, until WWII (WWI? I will have to check), the language of instruction in local public schools. Many Americans, my mother, for example, had German relatives with whom they were still in contact. One of my mother’s favorite stories was the trip to Germany on which my maternal grandfather took his children to meet their relatives during the 1930s.

    In these circumstances, the idea that to end the Pacific War all Japanese would have to be killed while the Germans could be defeated less drastically, was not as preposterous as it may now seem to us.

  8. I don’t think his comment was a non sequitor.

    I am at a loss to figure out how one might try to evaluate the moral justification of working on weapons projects during WW2 without comparing the harm being pursued (attacking the food supply of a besieged nation, using biological weapons, etc) with the actual harm being wrought every day the war continued, and with the possible harm of losing the war, or of failing to win it decisively.

    I also find it interesting that you define genocide in terms of a biological definition of race. Mao most certainly was trying to destroy an entire people’s way of life. A vast number of people who held to that way of life were killed in the process. But that’s not genocide because he didn’t go after all “chinese?”

    On a separate note, though, what bugs me personally about these sorts of discussions is the refusal to come to grips with the implied critique of people who actually participate in morally difficult jobs, who are of course implicated much more heavily by these lines of reasoning than are the hypothetical creators of hypothetical anthropological superweapons. Soldiers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, police officers, and so forth. There’s a larger point here with greater implications that’s being sublimated.

  9. Sorry, I was unclear in my last post. My use of the term ‘genus’ was intended to point to the way attention to the etymology of the word ‘genocide’ helped clarify its meaning and special content. I tried this same strategy in a “recent post on indigeneity”:/2005/11/20/ancient-people-we-are-all-modern-now/#comment-2156 (which, btw, shares a root with genocide) and it also didn’t work. I guess it’s too telegraphic a strategy — I’ll try to be more explicit in the future. Clearly I believe Chinese citizens to be of the same biological genus (and species!) as me.

    Incidentally, Patrick, don’t you think the thing that made Mao’s reign so terrible was not that he attempted to remake China in a place inhabited only by peasants, workers, and soldiers (although this was obviously a bad idea) but that so many workers, soldiers, and peasants ended up dying as well? In other words, not that he targeted a group of people but that huge amounts of people died for random and arbitrary reasons?

  10. Re: “I’m used to tendentious nonsequitors from Brad, so his latest comment here was no surprise.”

    It’s not a non-sequitur: the horror at what the Nazis were doing in Europe was, I have been told, a very important reason for people working on the Manhattan Project to conclude that the job was worth doing. The same may well apply here. You do your readers no good service when you neglect the really existing genocides that were then going on in Eurasia.

    David Price is certainly a hanging judge here. His article closes: “anthropologists’ willing compliance with the dark desires of the OSS left American anthropology positioned but one fianchetto removed from complicity in genocide.”

    A more honest Price would admit that the situation is more complex: not doing everything possible to get Japan out of China may well leave one complicit in genocide as well.

  11. I’m not sure the complexity of the situation changes the genocidal aspect of the work Price describes. Your (Brad’s) argument seems to be that if genocide was necessary to prevent worse atrocities, then so be it — but please don’t call it “genocide”. That the anthropologists who signed onto this project may have had their own reasons for doing so is not enough to exculpate them for the potential ramifications of the project, any more than the Manhattan Project scientists’ reasons for their involvement relieves them of any responsibility for the real-world effects of the various uses to which their invention has been put. They may well have weighed the consequences of the actions they took versus the consequences of not taking those actions and found a way to justify and live with their choices — that doesn’t mean that we have to accept their reasoning as our own!

  12. I do agree with Brad that David tends to be both extremely judgmental and often not as nuanced as some would like (readers of Threatening Anthropology will know what I mean). Of course you may find this to be an ADVANTAGE of David’s approach if you go in for his sort of thing.

    How Brad’s remarks on Eurasian genocide and (more recently) the Manhattan project fit in to a conversation on anthropologists and the Pacific War is still beyond me. However I am sure he will not be surprised to hear that I, like everyone who lost family in the Holocaust, believe it is an event that should never be forgotten.

    My point was simply that genocide is one thing and killing enormous amounts of people is another and that this needs to be seperated. In comparison with the atrocities committed by Europeans like Stalin and Hitler the 1 million Tutsis killed in Rwanda seems like a small number (although again, it is terrible to even contemplate the organized murder of even a fraction of this many people). It is the genocidal aspect of it that makes it even more horrible.

    Genocide and mass death thus are not always the same thing. Stalin and Mao were — modulo persecution of ethnic minorities — mass murderers but not particularly focused on genocide. In the case of a significant number of Americans during the war, genocide was the intent, even though ‘only’ a million innocent civilians were killed by bombing at Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Tokyo, Kobe, etc.

  13. It seems that, in terms of a debate about the justification of assisting the allied military during world war two, you have gone through a great deal of effort to create a distinction without a difference.

    Are you trying to claim that there is some sort of difference here, as in, it would be a different question whether to help the allies “kill lots of people who happen to be japanese through racially neutral techniques,” or to help the allies “kill lots of japanese people through techniques that target characteristics intrinsic to being japanese?”

  14. If this were a debate about “the justification of assisting the allied military during world war two” then of course the distinction would not be particularly relevant. However, that is not quite the issue is it? Insofar as this is a debate about the implications of certain kinds of anthropological thinking, the distinction is entirely valid. I doubt that the (hypothetical) revelation that an anthropologist served as a fire-bomb releaser over Japan during the war would merit much discussion given the historical context. In the current instance it is the implication of anthropological ideas, assumptions and methods in a programme of near-genocidal intent that is of disciplinary interest – not whether or why anthropologists wanted to be involved in the war or not (and incidentally I very much doubt that what the Japanese where doing to the Chinese was particularly motivating).

    Personally I dont find these revelations very academically useful except insofar as they help illuminate some aspects of what certain historical figures were really thinking. The most interesting aspect of this revelation to me is that it was anthropologists whose theoretical perspectives matched (and may have been influential on) the authors of the OSS programme that actually became involved. Note the letter from Melville Jacobs to Mead as cited by Price – he complains that the crappy racist theories of the Harvard academics are likely to get them jobs in the war effort. He is frustrated that they will get jobs rather than him. He wants to join the war effort but is pissed that he is not attractive to the army! One thing that Price does not appear to consider is that those who rejected the OSS request may have been those who did not think they could be of any use, or who had theoretical orientations that made them think such an endeavour was pointless or unlikely to succeed. He implies, but doesnt give any evidence to support, that they simply found the prospect morally repugnant.

    I can just see Jacobs writing a report on how to demolish the Japanese by introducing class conflict, or dropping leaflets pointing out the inherent contradictions of the Imperial state… and the US generals tossing it in the bin with a “Goddamn Red!”

  15. Oh yeah, it also occurs to me that Kluckhohn’s name has been included because of recognition value rather than any condemnable involvement – Price simply says his name is on the list of those ‘consulted’. Most of the rest seem to be bio-anth and medico people, whose theories are already widely condemmed for exactly the kinds of implications that lead to requests such as that of the OSS.

  16. Two points that I see missing from the discussion so far.

    1. The attempt to assign values to numbers killed in the absence of the calculations that resulted in those deaths misses the possibility that even when X die their deaths may have been the result of actions that saved Y where Y>X. Thus, the argument FOR the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is generally predicated on the assumption that had a conventional invasion of Japan resulted in similar proportions of casualties to those in the battles for Iwojima and Okinawa, the resulting death toll would have been far larger that the number who died in those two cities.

    2. One can’t help noting the one-sidedness of arguments that some anthropologists’ contributions to the war effort were potentially genocidal while simply ignoring the possibility that other anthropologists’ contributions may have had positive effects, e.g., on the decision to leave the Japanese Emperor in place, limit purges, and work with (while in some cases modifying) bureaucratic structures in place—in contrast, for example, to the current clusterfuck in Iraq.

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  18. Rex says: “How Brad’s remarks on Eurasian genocide and (more recently) the Manhattan project fit in to a conversation on anthropologists and the Pacific War is still beyond me.”

    He doesn’t understand that the context in which people think and act–the turning of large parts of Eurasia into an abattoir by some of the nastiest and cruelest governments in human history–affects how people think about moral issues?

  19. Price gave an excellent paper on this same report at the AAA meetings last week in a session with Alexander Cockburn and Sidney Mintz. His conference paper had some of this narrative but he directly attacked several anthropologists who are advocating working for the CIA in the present. The conference version of all this was quite good and disposed of the arguments that McCreery and others are trying to make here. Price clearly argues that much of American anthropology in the war was needed to stop fascism. He is not condemning all of anthropology war work. But he also is not messing around when it comes to evaluating some of the unethical things done by anthropologists during the war. I talked to him after the session and he said he’s got a new book on anthropology and World War Two being brought out by Duke, with a CIA book still in production.

  20. Brad Delong writes,
    the turning of large parts of Eurasia into an abattoir by some of the nastiest and cruelest governments in human history—affects how people think about moral issues?

    Weren’t you part of the Clinton Government? Rwanda happened during Clinton’s admin? Did you do something? I don’t care about whispering behind the publics back about how bad the situation was in Rwanda, I mean taking some sort of ‘nuanced’ ‘moral’ stance so we all know you could be depended upon to not turn right around and ethically and morally kill hundreds of thousands yourself.

    You have argued in other places it was just dandy with you to kill all those commies in Indonesia in the sixties. So you have a moral blindness issue somewhere in there someplace.
    Doyle Saylor

  21. Doyle Saylor writes: “You have argued in other places it was just dandy with you to kill all those commies in Indonesia in the sixties. So you have a moral blindness issue somewhere in there someplace.”

    Doyle Saylor is a liar.

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