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How US Anthropoligists Planned "Race-Specific" Weapons Against the Japanese


During the Second World War, over two dozen anthropologists worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the institutional predecessor to the CIA, performing a variety of tasks ranging from covert-ops to desk-bound propaganda analysis. For the first time, I can now describe one 1943 OSS document, the “Preliminary Report on Japanese Anthropology,” which which reveals that World War II-era anthropologists were recommending culture- and race-specific means of killing Japanese soldiers and civilians. This report sought to determine if there were “physical characteristics in which the Japanese differ from others in such a way as to make these differences significant from the point of view of carrying on the war”. The person who write this report remains remains classified, but a list of scholars consulted by OSS includes anthropologists such as Clyde Kluckhohn, Fred Hulse, Duncan Strong, Ernest Hooton, C. M. Davenport, Wesley Dupertuis, and Morris Steggerda.

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.” Prefiguring the findings of Stanley Milgram’s later “shocking” obedience experiments, most consulted anthropologists abandoned their moral authority and complied with the OSS’ request.

Two anthropologists, Ralph Linton and Harry Shapiro, objected to even considering the OSS’ request ­ but they were the exceptions. One Harvard anthropologist, Ernest A. Hooton, recommended that the OSS undertake a “constitutional study of Japanese prisoners or of native-born males of military age in the relocation centers, [to] yield useful information regarding the weak spots of Japanese physique.” Another Harvard anthropologist, Carl Seltzer, recommended that physiologists, hygienists, anthropologists, psychologists or sociologists examine Japanese “specimens” to find desired weaknesses.

Hooton and Seltzer’s views aligned with Harvard’s racial anthropology of this period. Months before this report, anthropologist Melville Jacobs wrote to Margaret Mead complaining, apropos his difficulties in joining the war effort (likely because of his Communist past) that “the thought that members of the Hooton-Harvard bunch, with their racist slantings, should get in on any army or governmental services that may be already or might in the future be set up to do a job with a racial bearing gives me the itch.”.

Medical data on the fundamental physical differences in the Japanese “race” were reviewed, and differences in inner ears morphologies, taste bud densities, laryngeal musculatures, intestinal lengths, and arterial systems were evaluated. But no “useful” morphological differences were isolated, and the recommendations proffered were of the run of the mill indiscriminate-extermination variety, advocating the use of “anthrax bacilli which attacks the respiratory tract, a known weak spot in the Japanese body, [as] the most effective agent.” One Harvard Medical School professor was by OSS to:

‘think aloud’ on the possibility of introducing some disease among enemy troops that might catch them by surprise, but against which our own troops were well protected. Most ailments caused by flukes or protozoans he dismissed as impractical; plague virus he thought could be introduced by dropping infected mice or rats, possibly by parachute; typhus might be spread by the device of having louse-covered but immune volunteers submit to capture; and ticks infected with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever might be released among our opponents, but this would scarcely be effective since the disease is not transmitted from man to man by contagion. The professor then launched into a spontaneous discussion of anthrax, whose introduction he regarded as entirely practical and highly effective, despite the fact that anthrax, too, is not contagious… Furthermore, it is possible to raise highly virulent strains of Bacillus anthracis and to spread them widely throughout any enemy concentration, as the spores of the bacillus are virtually indestructible and could even be distributed in bombs. In addition, the effects of anthrax are very rapid and dangerous since the bacilli enter into cuts, or abrasions, prevent wounds from healing, and induce pneumonia.

The report conceded that one downside of unleashing anthrax on Japanese populations was that it could easily spread to livestock populations, and thus entire regions would (deleted comma) “remain dangerous for many years.” The threat of such an uncontrolled spread of anthrax led the OSS to caution against using anthrax weapons. (I should add that such concerns did not stop Japan’s Manchukup Unit 731 from having already developed and used anthrax and other bio-weapons against the Chinese and Russians on the Mongolian-Manchurian border and in Central China.)

In examining the potential of a general collapse of dietary and hygienic stability on the Japanese home front, the OSS report “the bulk of the Japanese population lives on the ragged edge of dietary deficiency.” It was, therefore, recommended that “the susceptibility of Japanese men of military age, especially under the strain of active warfare, to [beriberi] should be exploited to the full.” Even more deaths by malnutrition could be inflicted by making “a continuing and concerted effort to sink every enemy fishing boat that is sighted.”

Finally, the OSS report contemplated destroying the Japanese rice supply, observing that next to eliminating access to fish,

equally important would be a planned attack on our opponent’s rice supplies. Since stored rice tends to lose much of its Vitamin B the Japanese cannot readily build up large reserves, so that our energies should be directed towards the object of destroying growing crops that are about to mature. Furthermore, it would be more rewarding if rice fields in Japan proper were attacked whenever possible as this would force the enemy to rely more and more on imported rice, thus adding materially to his increasing shipping problems.

Several procedures for interfering with rice production may be suggested. Concentrations of rice fields might be subjected to bombing, particularly with missiles that spread laterally and tear up a good deal of ground; irrigating devices should be consistently destroyed; the acid concentration best suited to growing rice plants should be chemically upset whenever possible; and the introduction of rice-destroying diseases should be seriously considered.

The report recommended consideration of a species of fungi, Sclerotium oryzae, which had attacked Japanese rice varieties in the early years of the Twentieth Century, because “the advisability of systematically destroying the enemy’s rice plants, as well as his fish supplies, can scarcely be questioned.”

The report’s conclusions identified “no significant structural, physiological, or constitutional variations on the part of the Japanese as compared with other races. Attempts to exploit such minor differences as do exist are almost certain to prove futile.”

Posterity is left to wonder what recommendations would have been made if significant characteristics had been isolated. If the OSS had access to the Human Genome Project’s dataset, it would certainly have been analyzed to see if any genetic anomalies could be exploited in Japanese populations.

Americans were not the only anthropologists drawn into such decisions during the war. Important new scholarship by Gretchen Schafft documents how German anthropologists informed Hitler’s views of race and carried out Nazi atrocities, and Nakao Katsumi and other Japanese scholars are now documenting how Japanese anthropology assisted in the brutal military campaigns of the Pacific War. To some, OSS anthropologists’ contemplation without implementation of “race”-specific weapons is insignificant in comparison to Joseph Mengele’s applications of his anthropological training while others may find it incongruous to fuss about contemplated-but-not-used bio-weapons against a civilian enemy that was firebombed and atomized. All the same, these anthropologists’ willing compliance with the dark desires of the OSS left American anthropology positioned but one fianchetto removed from complicity in genocide.

DAVID PRICE teaches anthropology at St. Martin’s University in Olympia, Washington. He is the author of Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Duke, 2004). His next book is entitled: Weaponizing Anthropology: American Anthropology and the Second World War. He can be reached at:

As his last paragraph attests, he loves the word fianchetto. It means “small step.”




David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

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