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Waging War in the Name of Anthropology

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Peter Mandler explains how the anthropologist Margaret Mead, author of best-selling studies of ‘primitive’ peoples, became a major influence on US military thinking during the Second World War.

Margaret Mead with a Manus mother and child during a visit to the Admiralty Islands in 1953. Corbis / BettmannAfter the 24-year-old anthropologist Margaret Mead returned to New York from Samoa in 1926, bearing tales of free love from the South Seas, she rapidly became one of the most famous women in the world. In her international bestsellers, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and Growing Up in New Guinea (1931), she showed the western world not only that so-called ‘primitive’ peoples had rich and coherent lives of their own, but also that they had found alternatives to the supposedly inevitable neuroses of the human condition. It was a message that the West, after the traumas of the First World War and the Great Depression, was eager to receive. Towards the end of her life, in the 1960s and 1970s, she had become what the New York Times described as a kind of ‘grandmother to the world’, a source of sage wisdom on the full gamut of civilisation’s troubles, from divorce and sexuality to racial and generational conflict, from the discontents of the suburban housewife to the horrors of nuclear war. Though her reputation fell off rapidly after her death in 1978 – partly due to sensational ‘exposés’ of her alleged research mistakes by the Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman, but largely because later, disillusioned generations no longer wanted sages – in the mid-20th century she was a shining beacon of moral authority.

Yet, during her lifetime, rumours of a different sort circulated, quietly but insistently: that she had used her anthropological knowledge to make magical predictions that could alter the course of history, that might even have won the Second World War for the Allies. One such rumour alleged that Mead and her mentor and lover Ruth Benedict had done a study of Japanese morale which concluded that bombing the Imperial Palace and killing the emperor would only drive the Japanese into an ever more murderous frenzy. Mead got on the phone to President Roosevelt to say ‘our anthropological studies prove’ that only the emperor could end the war and, so the story went, ‘He said, “you’re right, thank you for calling”.’ Another rumour, more malicious, went in the opposite direction: Mead and Benedict had claimed that the Japanese would never surrender, thus justifying the dropping of the atomic bombs: ‘one of the greatest miscarriages of a little smattering of knowledge about human nature in the history of the world’, as the rumour-monger put it. Mead was not above hinting at such goings on herself. Trying to fend off attacks from a colleague in 1950, at a time when she was turning her attentions to the Cold War, she warned him ominously in a private letter that ‘continuous misrepresentations’ of her work would cost lives, just as ‘in World War II, many millions of lives were saved through a proper handling of the Japanese’.


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