Paper presented at the 33rd Annual Meeting of CHEIRON, The International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, June 21-24, 2001.

"The Boas Conspiracy": The History of the Behavioral Sciences as Viewed

From the Extreme Right (1)

Andrew S. Winston

University of Guelph

In 1966, American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell wrote an editorial on "propaganda" for his magazine, National Socialist World. He dealt with a number of poor propaganda strategies, and contrasted the feeble efforts of the "right-wing" with what he saw as the highly successful efforts of the Jews:

To give an example of this incredible process, let me cite the method they have used to make it a dogmatic "fact" that there are no measurable, scientific differences between races and, therefore, no races at all! The Jews first got a few of their boys into top university spots (Columbia University being an outstanding, but by no means unique, example) with the express purpose of giving academic respectability to their "there-is-no-such-thing-as-race" lie. One of the first and most important of these was Franz Boas, a Jew heavily involved in communist causes, who sent congratulations to Stalin on his birthdays {Jewish Voice, January, 1942} and whose red record cannot be doubted by any objective observer. This communistic Jew began teaching anthropology at Columbia University in 1896 and dominated the anthropology department there until his death in 1942. Meanwhile he produced one book after another "proving" that there were no such things as racial differences among men.... The whole of Jewry pitched in to boost their boy. Boas was praised in every Jewish-owned newspaper and periodical and given every academic prize they could promote. Little by little, Boas gained such "stature" by this Jewish mutual-admiration society technique that he became an "acknowledged authority" in social anthropology and ethnology. His students and colleagues at Columbia -- Herskovits, Klineberg, Ashley Montagu, Weltfish - as unsavory a collection of left-wing Jews as one might hope for -- spread his doctrines far and wide, deliberately poisoning the minds of two generations of American students at many of our largest universities {Carleton Putnam, Race and Reason (Washington, 1961), pp. 18, 47}. (Rockwell, 1966, online HTML edition, par. 12) (2)

Rockwell's words summarize a view of the development of anthropology and psychology which can usefully be termed the "Boas conspiracy theory." Although the powerful influence of Franz Boas (1858-1942) and the "Boasians" is a part of the standard historiography (e.g., Degler, 1991; Herskovits, 1973; Stocking, 1968, 1979), these conspiratorial notions regarding Boas place him at the center of an imagined effort by Jews to defeat White European Civilization. In this paper, I describe how versions of this "theory" served a range of intellectual and political purposes from the 1950s to the present. This unusual, "alternate historiography" of the behavioral sciences has played and continues to play an important role within extreme, far-right communities. It is essential to locate the "Boas conspiracy theory" within the general contours of antisemitic discourse of the early and mid 20th century. Three critical issues regarding the "Boas conspiracy theory" will be addressed.

First, it might be assumed that these views are from the fringe of American life and have no connection with mainstream activities or with the disciplines of anthropology and psychology. If this were true, "Boas conspiracy theory" would be of little interest to historians of the behavioral sciences. However, the "Boas conspiracy theory" was neither generated by, nor exclusive to such marginal figures in American life as Rockwell and his rather ineffective American Nazi Party (see Simonelli, 1999). As Rockwell indicated, he was heavily influenced by Carleton Putnam's (1961) important segregationist pamphlet, "Race and Reason," which outlined the role of Boas and his students, although not in the crude terms that Rockwell used. Putnam (1902-1998), former chairman of Delta Airlines, received scholarly guidance from his cousin, Harvard anthropologist Carleton Coon (Jackson, 2001). Although Coon (1904-1981) did not necessarily share the conspiratorial view of Boas, he shared Putnam's concern over the supposed "excessive influence" of the Boasians and the de-legitimization of race as a scientific concept. Coon, like others, complained of the "cult leadership" of Boas and the deformation of anthropology by his students (e.g., Coon, 1981).

Putnam was also assisted by Henry E. Garrett (1894-1973), former chair of psychology at Columbia and 1946 APA president (see Winston, 1998). Garrett's International Association for the Advancement of Ethnology and Eugenics (IAAEE) served as an important group for rallying academic resistence to school integration and the Civil Rights movement, and as a place for interchange between committed neo-Nazi leaders and academics who shared their concerns over race. For Putnam and many other members of this small community, the "Boas conspiracy" was a shared understanding that served to explain how their views of race, heredity, and culture had lost both academic and popular support in what Barkan (1992) called "the retreat of scientific racism." Garrett provided "insider" information from Columbia regarding the activities of Klineberg and other Boas students, and he also wrote of the "Boas Cult" (Garrett and George, 1962). The Jewish identity (often described euphemistically as "minority group membership") of Boas, Otto Klineberg, Gene Weltfish, Ashley Montagu, and others, was critical to Garrett's understanding of the situation. FBI (1951) files indicate that Garrett provided information to the FBI on the alleged Communist sympathies of Klineberg, Weltfish, and Benedict. (3) Thus the views held by Rockwell and other neo-Nazi leaders had important sources within academia, and were not the products of diseased minds but of a group effort. Moreover, the direct involvement of neo-Nazi leaders such as Roger Pearson and Robert Kuttner in the IAAEE activities made it likely that this view of Boas would be available to Rockwell and other extremist groups.

Second, it might be assumed that the "Boas conspiracy theory" developed out of the threat to the established order of segregation posed by the Civil Rights movement, combined with cold war fears of Communism in the 1950s. However, "Boas conspiracy" ideas predate the 1960s activities of Putnam and Garrett. For example, Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, the great supporter of "repatriation" of Black Americans to Africa (Fitzgerald, 1997) wrote in his 1947 book, Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization:

Those people in the United States today who advocate a mongrelized Nation may be called disciples of Professor Franz Boas, who for many years was a member of the Department of Anthropology of Columbia University. Professor Boas, a Jew, brought considerable notoriety to himself during the early years of this century by his efforts to destroy all concepts of race and to encourage and promote miscegenation in this country. (Ch. 10, online HTML edition.)

For Bilbo and others, these events were connected with the alleged evils of the Roosevelt administration, and especially with Eleanor Roosevelt's promotion of civil rights. (4) It is not surprising that Boas would have become a target of conspiratorial ideas by this time, given his activist role in opposing racism and antisemitism in the late 1930s (e.g., see Barkan, 1992). Earlier, Boas had publicly criticised the racial theories of Madison Grant and others in the 1920s, when he assisted Representative Emmanuel Cellar in opposition to immigration restriction. Given that his discussions of racial differences and their plasticity began in the late 1890s, Boas was the most visible opponent of the "old guard" supporters of Nordicism and Anglo-Saxon superiority (see Hyatt, 1990). His writings on the biological amalgamation of the American Negro as a solution to racial prejudice alarmed those who, like Madison Grant, believed that racial mixture produced degeneration to the "lower type," or worse. (5) In the climate of the early 1920s, Boas's views on racial equality and intermarriage combined with his Jewish origins would have lead to suspicions of political radicalism or even Bolshevism despite his attempts to maintain an apolitical, scientific stance. His writings on race and his widely-read public condemnations of Hitler attracted the attention of the Nazi regime, and his books were burned in Germany in May, 1933.

Third, it would seem likely that the "Boas conspiracy theory" would vanish in both extremist and academic circles by the 1990s, no longer useful in a changed social landscape. However, this did not happen. There are a number of paths and institutions by which modern variations of "Boas conspiracy theory" have been maintained. In particular, the continuation of the Mankind Quarterly has permitted its publisher, Roger Pearson (1995) to promote a version which centers on radical politics in the Boas family history. Such ideas were not manufactured holus-bolus; Boas remained close to, and received help from his uncle Abraham Jacobi, who in his youth had ties to German Socialist movements of the mid 19th century (Cole, 1999). Jacobi's continued assistance of Boas when both had relocated to America is taken to be evidence for the conspiracy, despite a distinct lack of revolutionary politics in the life lead by Boas or Jacobi in America. For Roger Pearson, who published extreme antisemitic material in the 1950s (see Winston, 1998), the Boas students remained part of the conspiratorial efforts. Ashley Montagu's attempt to remove the concept of "race" from anthropology was, to Pearson, tied to Montagu's not-so-secret Jewish origins. Born Israel Ehrenburg, the change to an Anglo-Saxon name made Montagu a symbol of the Jewish "chameleon," an old theme in antisemitic discourse.

Within extremist political groups, ideas about Boas and his students were preserved in the writings of classics professor Revilo P.Oliver (1908-1994) of the University of Illinois, whose work had a tremendous influence on later neo-Nazi groups, such as William Pierce's National Alliance. In a discussion of racial differences Oliver noted:

Margaret Mead was the unmaidenly handmaiden of Franz Boas, a twisted and venomous little Jew, who, by intrigues still unelucidated, became a professor in Columbia University and devised "social anthropology" as a weapon against our race. (Oliver, 1993, online HTML edition, par. 5).

Not all versions from the far right were as crude as this. Wilmot Robertson's (1972) The Dispossessed Majority, which became a "bible" for many "White Power" movements and was also admired by academics such as Raymond B. Cattell, gave a much more polite and intellectualized version of the influence of Boas. Nevertheless, the message was clear: by seeking to destroy "race consciousness," the work of Boas and his students paved the way for uncontrolled immigration, the end of ethnic homogeneity, and disaster for Western Civilization.

This message regarding Boas and immigration has been revived in the recent work of psychologist Kevin MacDonald (e.g., 1998). His writings present old ideas of Jewish control over both social science and immigration policy, but cast within a contemporary framework of evolutionary psychology. For MacDonald, the work of Boas helped bring about a Jewish "plan" for a multicultural society in the US. While denying a conspiracy, MacDonald simultaneously argued that Jews acted as an organized, destructive force in America to delay and defeat immigration restriction for the advantage of Jews, while deceptively claiming to work for an end to racism. Other versions of the Boasian domination of social science and alleged "suppression" of the study of race also appear in the work of Philippe Rushton (1995). These academic works are in turn employed and cited by contemporary extreme political groups, such as the openly neo-Nazi National Alliance. A new version of the "Boas conspiracy theory" (McKinney, 1995) in a form little changed from Rockwell's version of the 1960s, is distributed by the National Alliance.

To understand the importance attached to Boas, Klineberg and Montagu by neo-Nazi and other extreme groups, it is necessary to see the "Boas conspiracy theory" in the context of Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy theories dating from the early 20th century (Bronner, 2000; Cohn, 1996; Winston, 2000). Within this view, the Bolshevik revolution was seen as under direct Jewish control and was viewed as the most recent step in the secret and ancient Jewish plot to control the world, outlined in the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. In America, the strategy of the Jews was seen as the encouragement of race-mixing, thereby destroying the intellectual and cultural superiority of White America. (6) The result would be chaos, paving the way for total cultural domination that had begun through alleged Jewish control of both Hollywood and Wall Street.

Although these ideas declined in popularity during the 1930s, they have always retained an important following (see Bendersky, 2000; Winston, 1998, 1999). Within these extreme groups, the Civil Rights movement was generally viewed as a Jewish-led campaign, with the prominent Jewish founders and leaders of the NAACP, such as Joel Springarn, as primary evidence. Nazi Leader George Lincoln Rockwell affirmed in a Playboy magazine interview with Alex Haley (1966) that the Jewish plan for world control was to keep themselves "pure" while destroying White civilization through encouragement of race-mixing.

Withstanding the Jewish-Bolshevik menace required support for the concept of race, the study of race, and White racial consciousness. Given the very real and successful efforts of Boas, Klineberg, and Montague to de-legitimize race science, they were the "natural enemy." As Jews, they could be identified as key to the conspiracy. Thus the "Boas conspiracy" writings demonized Boas for "brainwashing" American youth and caricatured him as an extreme environmental determinist, which he was decidedly not.

In the extremist view of Boas, his Jewish identity was essential for explaining his position on race and culture, despite the fact that Boas did not practice Judaism or participate in organized Jewish life. His identity was as a German who believed in full assimilation for secular Jews with Enlightenment values (see Glick, 1982). But extremists were not the only ones to use "Jewishness" in order to characterize Boas as a poor scientist or a propagandist. Anthropologist Leslie White (1966) presented a view of the Boasians as a closed Jewish clique from which Gentiles were actively excluded, a claim challenged vigorously by Opler (1967). (7) Frank's (1997) analysis of Jewish identity in Boas and other anthropologists indicates the serious difficulties that attend the use of "Jewishness" as an explanation for an academic career. Boas's status as an assimilated German Jew is certainly important for historians to consider. However, the insidious assertions of White (1966), which resonated with old ideas of too many Jews with too much influence, lend themselves readily to a clearly antisemitic message: Jews are thought to function as a unit, and speak with one voice. (8)

The careful examination of the Boas myths illustrates the permeable ideological boundaries between cloistered academic settings and the world of political extremism. Arguments about the destructive role of Boas for Western Civilization moved quickly and easily from mainstream academics, to "concerned citizens" like Putnam, to extremists such as Rockwell. Alliances between academics and neo-Nazi activists were facilitated by the belief that the study of race could be a politically and ideologically neutral enterprise, and it was therefore unnecessary to inquire into the politics of those who shared one's negative view of Boas. The present examination of the "Boas conspiracy theory" is a part of a larger study of such alliances and their meaning.


1. This research was supported in part by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Please direct correspondence to Prof. Andrew S. Winston, Dept. of Psychology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario N1G 2W1 Canada,

2. Rockwell gives the impression of quoting from Putnam, although Putnam's version in Race and Reason has a much less conspiratorial tone compared with Rockwell.

3. The FBI material on Klineberg was generously provided to the author by Dr. Benjamin Harris. Gene Weltfish was dismissed from Columbia in 1953, after 17 years as a lecturer. President Grayson Kirk clearly stated his intent to "rid ourselves of Dr. Weltfish" due to her involvement in allegedly "Communist-front" groups and her refusal to testify before the Senate Internal Security Committee (Lewis, 1998, pp. 257-260; see also Frank, 1997).

4. The source of Bilbo's views on Boas is, at present, unknown. His views on a Jewish-Communist conspiracy were shared by his colleague from Mississippi, Rep. John Rankin, who may have influenced Bilbo (see Shapiro, 1987).

5. There is some disagreement about whether Boas actively encouraged racial "intermixture." See Degler (1991, pp. 78-80) and Hyatt (1997, p. 89). In some cases, Boas was responding to the newly passed anti-miscegenation laws, which he believed were scientifically undesirable. On Boas and race, see also Baker (1998).

6. The theme that the International Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy used race mixing as a weapon was a common idea in the 1920s, and appears in Mein Kampf.. Lothrop Stoddard (1920) argued in The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy that this was the strategy of Bolshevism, but omitted the common identification of Bolshevism with the Jews.

7. According to Frank (1997), about half of the "first generation" of Boas students were Jewish.

8. See Opler (1967, pp. 743-744) for a discussion of this issue.


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