“Despite the Handicap of Her Sex”: Dr. Cora Du Bois, American Bad-Ass of the OSS in Southeast Asia

March 25, 2016

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, I wanted to share some insights about one of my favorite scholars at war, anthropologist Dr. Cora Du Bois (1903–1991). During the Second World War, Du Bois served with the Office of Strategic Service (OSS)’s Research and Analysis (R&A) Branch. Initially a researcher in the “Chairborne Division” (as R&A was often called) in Washington D.C., Du Bois made her name as Chief of the OSS’s R&A Division at Kandy, Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), under the British-run South East Asia Command (SEAC). She was the only woman, let alone lesbian, to hold such a post. Documents available at the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland, underscore gender biases she faced from her own side during the war, and how she weathered such storms by virtue of her talent, dedication, and service. Her career and service are worth celebrating.

Professional Tom-Girl

Born in Brooklyn on October 26, 1903, Du Bois came from a family of Swiss watchmakers and French entrepreneurs. Her brother was the black sheep, and Cora the star attraction: a brilliant “tom-girl” who liked adventures in the wild and sports as much as school and writing poetry. Her father’s early death from lung cancer shattered the family, but also provided a trust for her future in academia.

Du Bois received her MA from Barnard College in medieval history, but her intellectual curiosity was bound to the rising field of anthropology. She worked with pioneers such as Ruth Benedict, mentor of anthropology “rock star” Margaret Mead. Benedict had a penchant for working with what one sour colleague called “the deviants … the women, homosexuals, and Jewish students.” As Du Bois discovered her own sexuality, she took solace in writing poetry to express her true “nature,” as Oscar Wilde would put it, and gravitated toward anthropology’s more complex view of human culture and, especially, the role of outsiders, individuals, and outcasts.

Du Bois earned her doctorate in anthropology in 1932 at UC Berkeley under L. Kroeber and Robert H. Lowie, and conducted field research with a colleague in Northern California, studying shamans and other unique members of the Wintu people, and, later, the Ghost Dance movement. She also worked at cutting-edge research on the relationship between cultural norms and psychiatry. From 1937 to 1939 she traveled to Indonesia alone to study the native populace of the Alors islands at the village Atimelang, a mountainous region above the island’s northwest coast. There she established rapport with the locals, despised the Dutch’s colonial system and ethos, and gathered material for her landmark work, The People of Alors (1944). To help the locals she administered first aid against infections and “dispensed quinine or castor oil or aspirin.” Over time “the women and children were sufficiently used to my touch to forgive me the size of my body, the whiteness of my skin, and the blue eyes, which looked so frighteningly blind to them. That my nose was long and sharp was, however, to the very end of my stay, a never-ending source of merriment.” She returned home just before Germany’s invasion of Poland.

OSS R&A in South East Asia Command

As for many academics, the demands of the Second World War brought Du Bois into military affairs. In her case, the war also brought her back to Asia. The vehicle for this was the OSS. The OSS was created in 1942 as America’s first global intelligence service. It collected a stunning array of American and foreign experts in diverse subjects ranging from geography and economics to history and languages. “We were picked, one presumed, [because of our] area knowledge,” Du Bois recalled. “Now I had no general Southeast area knowledge, I can assure you. I barely knew Indonesia. My work at Alors certainly did not give me any broad or deep picture of the total heterogeneous Indonesian situation, and I had not been to Thailand and Indochina. I didn’t know Burma. I didn’t know anything, but we all became labeled experts, which was most erroneous in most cases. But we learned as we went along.” That’s putting it mildly.

The brain trust of the OSS was the Research and Analysis (R&A) Branch, a veritable “Who’s Who” of future Nobel laureates and celebrated scholars that would collect data, analyze intelligence, and report on topics critical to the war effort. Du Bois was initially stationed in Washington on the Far East desk under political scientists and Far East expert Dr. Charles B. Fahs, but soon became the head of the Indonesian section. While there she investigated the Netherlands East Indies and Japanese prison camps, and collected data and analyzed Chinese–Dutch post-war relations, among other things.

However, the OSS wanted research from the operational theaters to feed the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s intelligence reports, one of R&A’s chief tasks. Additionally, OSS operations abroad wanted their own R&A capabilities on-the-ground. Du Bois had proven she was a triple threat — excellent at research, administration, and leadership — so when she asked to be transferred abroad, her request was granted. In February 1944, she was sent from D.C. to Kandy to work as the chief researcher for the OSS’s embryonic R&A Team in the Far East.

No Man Good Enough

In any event, however, the Far East theater was second fiddle to the European theater of operations for people, resources, and attention. On top of that, American ignorance of Asian people, history, and culture was massive. Expertise and cultural understanding like Du Bois’ was at a premium, and provided opportunities denied women in other theaters.

Du Bois began her research in the region under Capt. Joseph Spencer, a noted geologist with a relentless work ethic. When talk of a separate OSS branch in China emerged, Spencer, an expert on the country, was the most likely candidate for the R&A position. But the commander of OSS units in the Far East, Col. Richard Heppner, utterly disdained Spencer as a bitter nut who complained too much. Heppner in turn was despised by Col. Robert Hall, another geologist OSS officer with eyes on an influential position in China.

From November to December 1944, historian Dr. William Langer, head of the R&A Branch in Washington D.C., was bombarded with letters full of these personality conflicts. As discussions raged, Du Bois continued to impress at SEAC, and not just with her research. Heppner, Spencer, Col. John Coughlin, future commander of the OSS in SEAC India/Burma, and Col. Edmond Taylor, Coughlin’s intelligence officer and an early expert on the Nazi use of terror, held Du Bois’ work and capacity as administrator in high regard. Tough, smart, and capable in a theater that required physical stamina to go with smarts, Du Bois’ stock rose as the boys argued. In November, Fahs wrote to Langer: Who should head R&A in SEAC or China? As Spencer prepared for the job he believed he was due, Du Bois was soon made acting chief of R&A in SEAC.

A document at the National Archives shows that Langer discussed Du Bois’ career possibilities with Brig. Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, founder and director of the OSS. Langer noted that Coughlin believed she should continue as head of R&A in SEAC. “She has done a superb job, despite the handicap of her sex, which alone makes it impossible to name her head of the branch in the China-Burma Theater.” The Chinese theater, it turned out, was off limits to foreign women. Spencer was sent to China to head up R&A under Heppner’s glare, and Du Bois was left as “acting chief” in Kandy until a suitable man was found to replace her.

Despite the Advantage of His Sex

Du Bois made R&A at SEAC a thriving concern. She utilized a network of researchers and associates, from the R&A “City Team” dispatched to participate in the liberation and occupation of Rangoon, Burma, to experts working overtime on long-range studies on guerrillas in Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand, to map makers and target analysts loved by Supreme Commander Lord Mountbatten and his team for their aid in bombing runs in Burma and Thailand. She was particularly proud of Lt. N. Deakes, R&A’s chief interrogator in New Delhi, who worked with captured and deserted Japanese soldiers all too ready to tell their secrets.

By May 1945, no man had filled Du Bois’ shoes, and she was finally made full chief of R&A in SEAC India/Burma. When Col. Taylor was absent, she was even made acting intelligence officer of the OSS in theater. Both feats were unparalleled in the OSS’s short but dynamic history.

Du Bois did all this while most decidedly ruffling feathers. She was never one to hold back her opinions and she was a strong, persistent, and aggressive champion of her team’s efforts. The same month she was made R&A chief in Southeast Asia, she and other senior OSS members in the region were astonished to discover Washington had such a poor grasp of their efforts. The irony was that the home office never tired of telling the outposts that they served the needs of the Washington headquarters first, and only afterwards the operational or tactical needs of commanders in theater. So Du Bois went on the offensive in a letter (also available at the National Archives), laced with sharp edges and unsubtle jabs that targeted Fahs, Langer, and Donovan for their ignorance. In it, she rattled off a litany of rhetorical questions to make her point clear:

Do you see our Outpost Letters regularly? … We assume you know that “Z” reports represent operationally procured data. That means that endlessly detailed planning (in which R&A participate) men’s lives have gone into procuring this information for you. … Are you all aware that biographical material has started to flow in your direction from IBT [India-Burma Theater] due to Mrs. Hastings good offices? Have you tried to follow up on the very fine collection of books, newspapers and magazines on India which Major Nordbook and his … Staff have been sending back to Washington? Do you see either the originals or the microfilms of captured documents we have been sending home? …

Du Bois knew China was the favored son of R&A in the Far East, thus she had to be the klaxon for her unit’s efforts, leading to her final words to D.C. from her “riot act” letter above: “We can’t expect the China-Japan wallas to be excited about our area. We should appreciate, however, an effort to understand and follow our situation.”

At the end of the war, Du Bois was awarded the Army’s Exceptional Civilian Service Award for her efforts in Southeast Asia. The citation reads in part, “[b]y virtue of her high ability, professional knowledge, forceful leadership and devotion to duty, [Cora Du Bois] contributed in a determining degree to the success of 18 major clandestine military operations against the enemy. … [That she is] the only woman to whom a position of similar responsibility has been entrusted by the OSS is clear indication of the high quality and value of her work.”

Into the Cold War

After the war, Du Bois worked for the State Department until 1949, becoming a sage voice on the growing trouble in Indochina. But as anti-communist paranoia spread, some of her close friends and even lovers became targets of whisper campaigns and malice and investigations, and the State Department never gave her the freedom and respect that the OSS had. By 1950 she had left government service for good.

Du Bois was offered the chance to head the anthropology department at UC Berkeley. There was one snag: Since 1942, the university had required a loyalty oath. She refused to take it unless the anti-communist clause was cut. As she wrote to UC Berkeley President Robert G. Sproul, “However futile gestures against such means may sometimes be, not to make them is the beginning of personal and social degradation. In all conscience I cannot feel that I would be loyal to our country if I abet the adoption of methods used by ideological systems antipathetic to those of our democracy.” Berkeley’s loss was Harvard’s gain. She was the second Zimurray Chair at Radcliffe College, the first woman tenured in Harvard’s Anthropology Department, and the second woman tenured in the Faculty of Arts and Science. Later she became president of the American Anthropological Association and the first female president of the Association of Asian Studies. All the while she was creating a rich body of work within her field and training legions of excellent graduate students.

I often think of what Du Bois might have accomplished had she stayed in government service into the 1950s. Would she have found a home in the CIA? Perhaps not. Would her life have been ruined under McCarthyism’s hideous pall? More likely. Would her voice have been drowned and career destroyed because of her sexual orientation as she continued to vocalize her concerns over Indochina? Little doubt. Would she have made as big a difference in the Cold War as she did against the Axis? I would like to think so, but she never really had the chance.

What is known is clear. In Cora Du Bois, the United States witnessed the ascent of talent, dedication, and service over bias and prejudice, a woman who had both physical and moral courage to serve abroad in wartime, and who overcame the stigma against her gender and orientation to become a leading figure in intelligence analysis at the dawn of America’s rise as a global power. It is a legacy worth celebrating.

 

Dr. Jason S. Ridler is a military analyst and historian, writer, and improv actor. His book, Maestro of Science: Omond McKillop Solandt and Government Science in War and Hostile Peace, 1939-1956, was published in 2015 by the University of Toronto Press. He is currently writing a monograph on unconventional scholars involved in military. An adjunct professor at Norwich University, he also runs Soldiers & Scholars, a Facebook page dedicated to soldiers and academics involved in military affairs and history. This work was made possible in part thanks to the Smith Richardson Foundation. The author would also like to acknowledge the stellar biography of Du Bois by Dr. Susan C. Seymour, also integral to this work.