Peter Mandler. Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War. 384 pp., illus., bibl., index. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. $45 (cloth)

Ruben Flores. Backroads Pragmatists: Mexico’s Melting Pot and Civil Rights in the United States. 360 pp., illus., index. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. $45 (cloth), $45 (e-book)

These two ambitious recent books offer models for historians of social science to assess their subjects’ influence. Narrowing their scope to key individuals in order to trace their paths carefully, Mandler and Flores paint vivid pictures of social scientists pursuing agendas for cultural renewal through political channels. While their conclusions are ultimately ambivalent, both authors have given us carefully researched volumes on the influence, and lack of influence, of anthropologists and other social scientists from the interwar period to the early 1950s. Anyone interested in anthropology’s relationship to the state should read these books.

Peter Mandler’s Return From the Natives is about four anthropologists who tried very hard to find a place for their discipline in the world of international politics. It is both a history of their government work during and shortly after WWII, and a history of their ideas about national character. From the late 1930s to the early 1950s, Margaret Mead and her collaborators—in particular Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson, and Geoffrey Gorer—turned the anthropological gaze inward. As studies like Middletown had already begun to do, they used methods developed in colonial territories to assess the national character of large Western countries. Through monographs, lecture and radio series, manuals for soldiers, and reports for intelligence agencies, they attempted to bolster Allied morale, support the war effort against the Axis powers, and—most importantly, in Mandler’s view—to advocate for a culturally pluralist vision of the postwar international order. By war’s end, it seemed, they had gained a foothold for this vision in popular opinion and policymaking circles. At the least, they had secured institutional backing from a few government agencies. But as the Cold War began to gather momentum, the “democratic universalists” with whom they had made common cause against fascism rejected their warnings against arrogant attempts at wholesale cultural reconstruction.

Mandler self-consciously takes on “post-Vietnam” images of social scientists as manipulative social engineers, and government work as inevitably corrupt. Mead and Benedict, he argues, gave up their shot at influence by sticking to their principles. He does an excellent job of showing how their patrons and colleagues became increasingly skeptical, and their competitors increasingly venomous, after the close of hostilities. The book is successful, however, precisely because it does not try to mitigate its protagonists’ shortcomings. Mandler is frank about the methodological irresponsibility of their fast-track national character sketches, and the personal irresponsibility of some of the wartime intelligence work they did. Nor is it clear whether any anthropologists contributed meaningfully to Allied victory. Further limiting their impact, Mandler (quite appropriately) frames his story as one of many. The view from Ruth Benedict was very different than the view from George Murdock, whose positivism and Cold War anticommunism serve as an occasional foil.[1] Mandler does an effective job outlining the “scene” throughout, drawing on existing literature as well as his own research to lay out who was working for which agencies, and where they got their support. Consequently, he does not use his four protagonists to characterize the whole discipline (in stark contrast to the overgeneralizations of the national character studies he discusses). While these decisions do limit the book’s analytical reach, its stated goal is to demonstrate the existence of genuinely pluralist and democratic possibilities for anthropology in WWII—and this it does.

Return From the Natives has the advantages and disadvantages of intellectual biography. Individual stories allow careful reconstruction of ideas in their development, with attention to contextual details that would otherwise be overlooked. Class background influenced Mead et al.’s ideas by limiting their gaze and making possible a homogeneous vision of entire nations. Gender allowed Mead and Benedict to do less aggressive “white” propaganda comfortably, while it pushed Bateson and Gorer to the dark side, attempting to break enemy morale through subversion rather than bolster the home front. The reader also sees how the anthropologists’ own relationships entered into their methodology, as Mead and Bateson applied their psychological categories playfully to friends, acquaintances, and each other. Finally, these relationships had professional consequences, as when Mead fruitlessly defended Gorer’s methods to her colleagues, damaging her own reputation in the process. At times, however, the biographical lens feels constraining. While Mead’s normative vision—of “culture consciousness,” pluralism, and international harmony—remained a constant motivating factor, and while cultural relativism protected against the universal categories of psychoanalysis, the positive content of her thought feels largely like a product of personal circumstances.

When one door closes, another opens. Mandler leaves very little space for the reader to imagine anthropologists as independent actors in the halls of power—it is too easy to shove their ideas into the anterooms whenever they seem inconvenient. But as he continually hints, public opinion remains a viable court of appeal. Thus, Margaret Mead did not get on the phone with Franklin Roosevelt to argue the importance of retaining the Japanese Emperor. On the other hand, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword has some claim to be one of the most effective ambassadors for cultural relativism published in the twentieth century.” This is true, however, only “if it also looked that way to the wider readership” (172). And if, in turn, we take this book as a dispositive account of anthropology’s bureaucratic frustrations, then the reception of anthropological ideas among that wider readership is where we ought to direct our attention in order to gauge the discipline’s political impact.


Ruben Flores’s Backroads Pragmatists also draws tightly focused individual portraits against a very broad landscape. Again, four individuals stand out, with supporting roles for close associates and guiding lights. Moisés Sáenz, Lloyd Tireman, George I. Sánchez, and Ralph Beals anchor the book, with important sections on lesser-known figures Marie Hughes, Montana Hastings, and Catherine Sturges. Flores convincingly demonstrates that for many US intellectuals, the Mexican government in the interwar period was a promising experiment in the capacity of the state to engage in social reconstruction. Just as their contemporaries traveled to Europe to see social democracy in action, and to the USSR to see socialism in action, so these thinkers traveled to Mexico to observe an attempt to forge an ethnically integrated national body through rural public education. Most importantly, they brought the ideas they found there back with them, using Mexico’s example in their scholarly work, in laboratory schools, and in expert testimony in civil rights cases.

As Mandler’s book does, Backroads Pragmatists picks out characters who rub against narratives of manipulation and elitism. While all four appear in the book, Flores cares more about Moisés Sáenz than Manuel Gamio, and more about Ralph Beals than Robert Redfield. As the title indicates, Flores most often chooses to follow people who drew inspiration from the philosophy of John Dewey. This decision is, on the whole, a salutary one, not only lending coherence to the narrative but opening up new vistas. Gamio, along with José Vasconcelos, is sometimes used as a stand-in for Mexican nationalism in toto, and Redfield’s proto-modernization theory is sometimes taken as the inevitable tendency of the acculturation framework. Casting our attention toward decidedly more pluralist voices shows the varied possibilities at work in the interwar and early postwar period. Naturally, this narrowing comes at the cost of the ability to make sweeping generalizations. While Flores establishes beyond question that Dewey’s influence existed and crossed the border both ways, he does not give an accounting of its relative importance as compared to other intellectual trends: positivism, Marxism, anarchism, aesthetic modernism, etc. Like any good research, this book gives a sense both of illumination and of the great distance yet to travel.

The material on Ralph Beals will be of most interest to historians of anthropology, and provides a useful capsule of the book’s narrative arc. While Flores briefly describes how work on acculturation built on earlier work on culture areas, he stresses Beals’s socialist background and formative experiences traveling in Mexico when explaining his interest in culture change. Above all, he narrates Beals’s ambivalent attitude toward state power. His negative view of industrial modernity made him cautious, but his ethnographies in Mexico convinced him that local cultures could thrive, resisting attempts at assimilation, while still accepting developments like public education as they proved themselves useful. Seeing a relatively weak central state prosecute a relatively robust campaign of rural reconstruction convinced Beals that the “scientific state” had value. In the book’s final chapters, Flores shows Beals testifying in favor of school desegregation as part of a program of Americanization—but a pluralist one, rooted in a vision of constructive and not destructive culture contact.

These conclusions leave open many questions about anthropology’s role in the political scene. As Flores notes, just because Beals argued his case a certain way does not mean the court took his version of Americanization as its goal. Such questions about intellectual transmission recur throughout the book, raising once more the problem of how to interpret reception among the “wider readership.” Frequently, the jump from an individual’s intellectual development to the surrounding context drains keywords like “experience” of their technical meaning for Pragmatist philosophy—just as educators themselves frequently felt schools failed to live up to their standards. Institutional connections, however, are very clear. Indeed, Backroads Pragmatists joins a number of studies that have examined the connection between anthropology’s anti-racist agenda and civil rights causes, and such relationships may well be more fruitful an angle than a broader history of cultural reception.[2] In the same vein, the increasingly frequent references to private foundations in Mandler’s book make one think of current research on that front.[3] Much more remains to be done in all these areas.

These two books give excellent accounts of the hopes, possibilities, ambiguities, and frustrations of politically engaged scholarship. Ultimately, they should provoke historians to attend to the variety of subtle and mediated ways in which the social sciences have exerted influence. If the anthropologists could not find their way from academia to the state directly, neither will their historians.


[1] For more on Murdock and his influence, see Rebecca Lemov, “Filing the Total Human: Anthropological Archives from 1928 to 1963,” in Social Knowledge in the Making, ed. Charles Camic et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Lemov, World as Laboratory: Experiments With Mice, Mazes, and Men (NY: Hill and Wang, 2005). On his McCarthy era anticommunism, see David H. Price, Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[2] See especially the work of Lee D. Baker: Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). More work, however, addresses this connection as a part of civil rights history than as history of social science. See for instance, Bradley Glenn Shreve, Red Power Rising: The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011); Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (NY: Oxford University Press, 2009); Daniel Cobb, Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2008).

[3] Mark Solovey, Shaky Foundations: The Politics-Patronage-Social Science Nexus in Cold War America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013); Inderjeet Parmar, Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power (NY: Columbia University Press, 2012).

John Gee: contributions / / Department of History, Harvard University