|Sylvanus Morley, US Navy Spy|
In my own research on the history of vertebrate paleontology I have found that spying was, if not quite the rule, then at least a common practice among field naturalists at the time. At the American Museum of Natural History alone, at least two field naturalists actively worked for the United States’ government. For example, Barnum Brown, who is probably the most famous dinosaur hunter of all time, did reconnaissance work for the Office of Strategic Services on the Greek island of Samos and eventually helped plan an invasion route during the Second World War. He also routinely lent a hand interpreting aerial photographs of enemy territory.
Another example from the AMNH is even more compelling. During WWI the famous explorer Roy Chapman Andrews worked under deep cover in Mongolia for the Office of Naval Intelligence. He was paid $4 a day to gather strategic information while exploring the highland plateaus of central Asia in search of the origins of modern man. When hostilities had officially come to an end, Andrews’ wife Yvette almost blew his cover when she informed a relative that the letterhead of her stationary—which read “The Second Asiatic Zoological Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History”—was “mere camouflage” and that they had spent the past several years on a secret mission for the United States Government. His wife’s indiscretion caught the attention of a government censor and resulted in the issuance of an order that called Andrews back home. But it was not long before he was back in China planning another trip to Mongolia. Indeed he spent the rest of the 1920s under cover for the Military Intelligence Division as leader of the American Museum’s Third Asiatic Expedition, which employed a number of clandestine army officers as mechanics and other support personnel.
|Camel Caravan from Andrews’ Central Asiatic Expedition|
First, due in part to the success of spy fiction as a narrative genre we tend to have an unrealistic understanding of what it is that secret government agents actually do. My sense is that what occupies most your average government spy’s time and attention is actually rather routine and involves gathering fairly mundane facts about a region’s culture, politics, physical geography, and so on. This must have been especially true before the era of satellites. So the popular image of James Bond type figures racing cars, administering poison, and dodging bullets is rarely if ever a very accurate one. Its dubious historical merits notwithstanding, I suspect that it nonetheless serves to downplay and obscure the true involvement of naturalists in intelligence work. As far as I can tell, the bulk of Andrews’ responsibilities at the Office of Naval Intelligence involved making geological and topographical maps, gathering information on local politics and sizing up a region’s natural resources. Not as exciting as James Bond perhaps, but nonetheless worth taking seriously!
Second, espionage work runs counter to widely held, deep-seated beliefs of who scientists are and what kind of work they are doing. Scientific research is supposed to be open and transparent, not secretive. And scientists are supposed to be motivated by a universalist zeal, working for the good of all mankind rather than a single nation’s government. Of course, this is a naïve and idealized picture, but still an incredibly powerful one, as the Anthropologist Franz Boas discovered.
During World War One, the Columbia University Anthropologist Franz Boas serendipitously learned that Sylvanus Morley and a number of other archeologists were gathering intelligence for the United States Government. After the war, he wrote a strongly worded letter denouncing their actions to The Nation that was published in December, 1919. In it, he argued that espionage work and scientific research were fundamentally at odds, because “the very essence of [a scientist’s] life is in the service of truth.” As such, anyone “who uses science as a cover for political spying … prostitutes science in an unpardonable way and forfeits the right to be classed as a scientist.” As a result of their unconscionable actions, he concluded, “every nation will look with distrust upon the visiting foreign investigator who wants to do hones work,” thus making it all but impossible to conduct serious natural history research. Rather than having it’s intended effect, though, the publication of this letter led to an official censure of Boas by the American Anthropological Association and led to his resignation from the National Research Council.