Vital Signs

The Perils of Politically Incorrect Research

In March 1969, at 32 years of age, I was by far the youngest of the ten chairmen of Foreign Area Studies at American University—and certainly the one with the least impressive credentials. Among my colleagues were not only well-known scholars, but former advisors to Presidents, reputable writers, a man who had launched a program that resulted in the surrender of tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers during the Korean War, and former members of the military staffs of Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Patton. Integrity was the dominant trait among us. But within about a 20-month period (1968-1970) there was a massive hemorrhage of talent from our 90-person organization, which had for years developed a reputation for producing some of the most accurate books in the English language about many non-European countries.

As far as I could determine, the trouble began when the Saudi Arabian government found out that a Washington-financed Area Handbook had described the slave markets, which were still a regular occurrence in the small towns of that kingdom. The Saudis had, I was told, threatened to break off diplomatic relations, in spite of having been shown the foreword to the handbook, which stated that the views expressed were those of the authors and not of the United States government. This incident, it was explained to me, triggered the "sensitivity review process" that was responsible for massive deletions in subsequent handbooks.

Still...

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