Smithsonian in Wartime

Find out how the Smithsonian shared its expertise, staff, and funds during times of national crisis.

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WWII: Mobilizing for the War Effort

Just as the Smithsonian rallied around America’s wartime needs in World War I, in World War II the Smithsonian stepped up to the plate to aid the armed services as they mobilized for war.  Secretary Charles G. Abbot quickly created the Smithsonian War Committee to facilitate optimizing the Institution’s resources and knowledge for the armed services.  As Secretary Charles D. Walcott did during World War I, Secretary Abbot led Smithsonian staff’s activities in nation-wide efforts to bring scholarly research to the aid of America’s war effort.  The Smithsonian’s role in the Ethnogeographic Board facilitated access to vital information about the Pacific that was critical to America’s role there.  This work also produced a survival manual for soldiers and sailors in strange and remote locations, putting the Smithsonian’s scientific knowledge to work for the men who were risking their lives for the United States. 

The War Committee

Dr. Charles G. Abbot
As the United States entered World War II, the Smithsonian promptly considered what it could do to support the country. Early in 1942, in the first months following America’s declaration of war, Secretary Abbot created the Smithsonian War Committee (see pg. 2).  Established to organize the Smithsonian’s work related to the war, it not only facilitated access to Smithsonian experts, but also canvassed Smithsonian staff for ways they could help the war effort. The war committee facilitated connections between the Smithsonian and Naval Intelligence and encouraged informal, direct access to Smithsonian experts. Rather than create another level of bureaucracy, the War Committee encouraged staff to respond directly to military inquiries and later inform the committee of their service. This ensured speedy responses when action was time-sensitive and conditions could change at a moment’s notice. Though the War Committee’s main focus was facilitating access to the knowledge held by the Smithsonian, they also created guidelines for war related projects. Staff were told to avoid duplication of work done by other agencies, something that became easier with the creation of the Ethnogeographic Board, and to not let war work completely disrupt their curatorial and research duties.1 This directive was balanced by giving priority to publishing war related research already in progress, and recommendations for strategic geographic regions for Smithsonian staff to focus on. The War Committee helped staff carefully balance their duties to the Smithsonian – the increase and diffusion of knowledge – with their civic duty to support America’s war effort. Carefully guiding the Smithsonian staff towards projects that fulfilled both goals, the War Committee aligned the Smithsonian’s mission with the needs of the country.  

The Ethnogeographic Board

Department of Anthropology Staff, 1931
The Ethnogeographic Board was a cooperative effort of the National Research Council, which the Smithsonian was active in during WWI, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Council of Learned Societies to organize anthropological and geographic information for the military.  Created in early 1942, Secretary Abbot offered the board space, supplies, money, and staff – an irresistible offer.  The Ethnogeographic Board opened its doors (see pg. 2) in June of 1942 in the Smithsonian Castle.2 The Smithsonian had a long history of research in the Pacific, which the Ethnogeographic Board was able to build upon. As early as 1920, the Smithsonian sent representatives to the Pacific Sciences Congress, a conference for science in the Asia-Pacific region.3  Rather than structuring work on traditional disciplinary boundaries – geology, anthropology, botany, etc. – the Ethnogeographic Board structured its work by region, focusing on creating and compiling as much holistic information about the peoples and countries of the Pacific as possible. This approach encouraged an informal, collaborative style that helped make connections across disciplines and build a useful database of information for the armed services. 

The Ethnogeographic Board quickly became a clearing house (see pg. 3) for information between academia and the military. Typical of the board’s style, they encouraged government agencies to contact experts directly rather than through the board and facilitated these contacts by publishing lists of experts around the country on various topics and regions.  Another major project of the Ethnogeographic Board was a questionnaire on the cultures, traditions, and customs of Pacific peoples.  The work of Anthropologist George Peter Murdock of Yale’s Institute on Human Relations, the questionnaire provided the basis for a series of strategic bulletins on Oceania.  The critical work of the Ethnogeographic Board was useful to the actions of the armed forces and the many agencies that support them in the Pacific.  Though Smithsonian researchers and scientists may not have joined the armed forces, their work to increase and spread knowledge about the Pacific was a vital support to America’s war effort. 

Survival on Land and Sea

"Survival On Land and Sea" Published by the Ethnogeographic Board and the Smithsonian Institution, 1944
Another major effort of the Smithsonian during World War II resulted in Survival on Land and Sea. The Ethnogeographic Board compiled an extensive bibliography of survival information that the Smithsonian put to use in the production of this short booklet summarizing basic information on survival skills. In order to be useful in a wide range of regions and situations, Survival on Land and Sea contained a little bit of everything. It showed soldiers how to estimate their latitude from the location of Polaris, how to make fire with a bow drill, and identify edible or dangerous plants and wildlife, among many other skills. This 187-page manual was pocket sized and waterproof so that soldiers and pilots could carry it on them at all times. At the request of the Navy, it was compiled in just three months. This book was an impressive feat of coordination and scholarship from Smithsonian experts. By the end of the war, almost one million copies were distributed to servicemen, making it one of the proudest accomplishments of the Smithsonian in its time.4 

Survival on Land and Sea. Pg. 69




1 Pamela Henson “Smithsonian Goes to War,” in Science and the Pacific War: science and survival in the Pacific, 1939-1945, Roy M. MacLeod, ed. (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000), 29. Return to text

2 Pamela Henson “Smithsonian Goes to War,” in Science and the Pacific War: science and survival in the Pacific, 1939-1945, Roy M. MacLeod, ed. (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000), 5. Return to text

3 “The PSA Congress & Inter-Congress,” Pacific Science Association, 06/23/2016, Return to text

4 Pamela Henson “Smithsonian Goes to War,” in Science and the Pacific War: science and survival in the Pacific, 1939-1945, Roy M. MacLeod, ed. (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000), 36. Return to text