This blog post was written by MK Fuller in fulfillment of a course assignment in Dr. Adrienne Pine's Craft of Anthropology I course (ANTH-601).
The Special Operations Research Office (SORO) was a project developed in the 1950s as the result of a partnership between the U.S. Army and American University’s Anthropology Department professors and faculty. The goal of SORO was to use anthropological methods to study the culture of target societies, primarily in Latin America, in a bid to predict and manipulate social development. The work produced by SORO was part of a greater counterinsurgency program that also recruited sociologists, psychologists, economists, and other academics. Openly, these programs were created to prevent types of social disruption that the military claimed gave rise to insurgency, but they were also used for psychological warfare, propaganda campaigns, and more culturally specific torture techniques1.
This research culminated in the 1964 Project Camelot that, when discovered by South American professors, was protested for its imperialist tactics. U.S. universities, including AU, joined in on the protests, culminating in the Department of Defense canceling Project Camelot just one year after its launch—on the very same day that a Congressional investigation into the program began. However, the DoD continued its research through SORO and similar programs, as well as its successor The Center for Research in Social Systems (CRESS), which was also hosted on American University campus.
The documents2 I analyze here are among the first of many protests against the unethical practices of these research programs. The first 2-page letter comes from Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal. In it he addresses the ethical concerns of using anthropology for coercive and manipulative purposes and pleads with the anthropology department to divorce itself from military aims. The letter, addressed to the AU president, Hurst Robins Anderson, was sent in 1960, four years before Project Camelot’s inception.
In response, Dr. Earl De Long, Technical Director at SORO, drafted a 7-page response for the president of the university to send back to Smith, in which he argues that hypothetically all anthropological research can be used for manipulation, and that “facts are beyond propaganda”. He also implies that this type of research would have occurred without military sponsorship. De Long is dismissive of Smith's concerns and fails to adequately address them; the letter provides a window into how anthropologists involved in SORO justified the work they were doing.
The final page is an accompaniment to De Long's letter, written by Col. Kai Rasmussen, an anthropologist working for AU and later Director of SORO (who was fired from both a few years later for unethically disclosing classified material), to the AU president's secretary, Shelby Thompson, explaining the response and expressing his concern about academics outside of the U.S. and foreign nationals raising similar concerns.
In response to the scandals that enveloped SORO, CRESS, and Project Camelot, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) passed a resolution banning anthropologists from participating in “clandestine intelligence activities”3. But despite the overwhelming condemnation of this type of research from the anthropological community, similar forms of collaboration continued, for example in the Human Terrain System (HTS). Beginning in 2007, the U.S. Army once again employed anthropologists, sociologists, linguists, and political scientists to teach military commanders about the “human terrain” of regions to which they were deployed, much to the same ends as in Project Camelot. And once again the AAA released a statement against the program, calling it an "unacceptable application of anthropological expertise.'' The program ended in 2014.
These programs, and how anthropologists were involved in them, present important ethical questions about what type of work anthropologists should engage in, and the ways in which anthropological research can be wielded against the people being researched.
- Colby, Gerard. “Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon : Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil”. (1996).
- [S.O.R.O. Special Operations Research Office, Project Camelot Box 1] Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, American University Library.
- Rhode, Joy. “Armed with Expertise: The Militarization of American Social Research during the Cold War (American Institutions and Society)”. (2013).