Thu, 28 Sep 1995 13:47:51 EDT

The Censure of Franz Boas--1919

By the time the United States entered World War I the Boasian
discourse on race all but eclipsed discussions in cultural
anthropology stemming from the Harvard and Washington axes. The
ascension of the Boasian discourse was wedded to the veritable
hostile takeover of the American Anthropological Association (AAA)
by Boas and his students. By 1905, the anthropologists who were
aligned with Boas wielded two thirds of the Executive Board votes of
the AAA. Boas did not orchestrate these maneuvers single-handedly.
While the coalition that Boas organized held the balance of power
within the AAA , it was loosely-knit and fragile. Boas depended on
support from his current and former students and was indebted to the
staunch and loyal backing of Robert Lowie and Alfred Kroeber who
were two of his most powerful former students (Stocking 1968:285).
For a while, Kroeber emerged as a key consensus builder and quelled
the grumbling that was heard from Washington and Cambridge.

One locus of tension was the Department of Anthropology at Harvard
University. By 1910, Harvard was focused on Central American
archeology. It was engaged in massive research projects excavating
the Mayan ruins. The so-called Maya group simply wanted more
control and input in the direction of the AAA. Tozzer from Harvard,
Kroeber from University of California at Berkeley, and Boas worked
out an amicable relationship for awhile, but the Harvard
anthropologists seized the opportunity to censure Boas when given
the opportunity. Kroeber also negotiated with the less numerous,
but more vocal, government agency Anthropologists from Washington.
The so-called Washington group had exercised control over the
American Anthropologist and remained influential within the
organizational leadership until late in the decade. The Washington
group simply felt that their power and influence had been usurped by
the Columbia group. Animosity towards Boas was mounting outside of
the formal organizational structure of the AAA as well. In 1916 the
National Research Council (NRC), which was established as part of a
national war readiness program, organized a Committee of
Anthropology to help fulfill its mission. Boas was an adamant
pacifist and an outspoken critic of the war. He was a German Jew
and obdurate in his stance against eugenics, which the NRC seemed to
take as their research program of choice. Scholars like Charles B.
Davenport, Madison Grant, and Ales Hrdlicka were all influential in
organizing the Committee on Anthropology. Explicitly, the committee
organized to articulate a discourse on race that opposed the
discourse that the Columbia group advanced. George Stocking has
noted that the NRC explicitly tried to undermine the Columbia
anthropologist's anti-racist program during the most pervasive
nativism in the history of the U.S. (Stocking 1968:289). The
strategy to undermine the Columbia group was to challenge the
legitimacy of cultural anthropology as a science. It was attempted
by biologists, eugenicists, and other so-called hard scientists
associated with the NRC.During late 1918 and early 1919, the
scientific reaction against cultural anthropology was a matter of
some concern to the Boas group. The main organization locus of the
reaction was the Galton Society of New York. Organized by Charles
Davenport and Madison Grant in March 1918, the Society was dedicated
to the study of 'racial anthropology,' and its membership was to be
confined to 'native' Americans who were anthropologically, socially,
and politically [correct or] 'sound.'(Stocking 1968:289). Boas would
have failed on every criterion, given his counter-hegemonic pursuits
and ethnic background. Members of the Galton society, Harvard
University, and government agencies each had a vested interest in
realigning the discipline in a way that would be congruent to
growing nativist, racist, and patriotism prior to and following the

Boas became a maverick and consistently denounced the War by
repeatedly writing editorials and newspaper articles outlining his
position that the war was undeniably a war of imperialism (Lesser
1981:13). Boas' relentless outpouring of righteousness fueled the
mounting tensions which finally exploded into a punitive censure at
the 1919 AAA meetings in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

On December 20, 1919 The Nation published a letter written by Boas to the
The letter called Woodrow Wilson a hypocrite, said that Democracy in
the United States was a fiction, and alleged that several scientists
had abrogated their calling and worked as spies during the war.
Boas held little back. The headline read "Scientists as Spies."
[exact text of letter]
To the Editor of The Nation,

Sir: In his war address to Congress, President Wilson dwelt at great
length on the theory that only autocracies maintain spies, that these
are not needed in democracies. At the time that the President made
this statement, the government of the United States had in its employ
spies of unknown number. I am not concerned here with the familiar
discrepancies between the President's words and the actual facts,
although we may perhaps have to accept his statement as meaning
correctly that we live under an autocracy, that our democracy is a
fiction. The point against which I wish to enter a vigorous protest
is that a number of men who follow science as their profession, men
whom I refuse to designate any longer as scientists, have prostituted
science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies. A
soldier whose business is murder as a fine art. . .accept[s] the code
of morality to which modern society still conforms. Not so the
scientist. The very essence of his life is the service of truth. . .
By accident, incontrovertible proof has come to my hands that at
least four men who carry on anthropology work, while employed as
government agents, introduced themselves to foreign governs as
representatives of scientific researches. . .Such action has raised a
new barrier against the development of international friendly
cooperation (Boas 1919:79)

This letter ignited a furor and gave the factions that were brooding
over Boas' radical positions and institutional power the excuse they
needed to level him. Just days after The Nation published his
letter, the American Anthropological Association issued a public
censure of Boas. The censure was leveled at the behest of the
Anthropological Association of Washington but ratified, in part, by
the large number of Harvard constituents who attended the meeting.
The censure was used as a device to usurp his power and publicly
attack his anti-American and anti-scientific (read: anti-racist)
research strategies (Lesser 1981:18; Stocking 1968:274).

Boas, Franz
1919 Scientist as Spies. The Nation 109 (2842):79.

Lesser, Alexander
1981 Franz Boas. In Totems and Teachers. Sydel Silverman, ed. Pp.
1-34. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stocking, George W.
1968 Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology.
New York:The free pres