The year is 1961. Although you’re due to attend a lecture on the Old English language — a required course for English majors like yourself — you decide instead to visit the dean of students, William Lippincott ’41. This morning, you found a card in your mailbox asking you to see him about a “confidential matter.” You find him reviewing documents in his office. You show him your card. He steeples his fingers, frowns, and asks, “How would you like to serve your country in a different way?” 

Among intelligence agencies like the CIA, the phrase “the P source” — short for professor source — used to be code for the professors and university administrators who recruited on their behalf. For a time, Ivy League schools like Princeton supplied “a disproportionate amount” of the new employees to the CIA and predecessors like the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, according to the CIA’s in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence. These pipelines informed the culture and reputation of intelligence agencies: FBI agents called OSS analysts “Oh, So Socials,” a crack about their genteel grooming in eating clubs and secret societies. (In turn, OSS analysts called their flatfoot FBI colleagues “Fordham Bronx Irish.”) 

The P source shaped those agencies in another way, as well. Today, intelligence agencies recruit heavily from computer science departments. But for much of the 20th century, they recruited in large numbers from departments of English, history, and the social sciences — and they relied on professors in those departments to help turn data into usable intelligence. Humanities scholars moved in the hidden world of spies, and spies, in turn, shaped major institutions in the humanities. 

The story of this unlikely alliance began with Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a Wall Street lawyer and World War I veteran who loved throwing himself into dangerous situations. Donovan organized and headed the OSS in 1942 at the direction of President Franklin Roosevelt, who told him to learn what he could from British intelligence agencies (which at least had functioning departments and an organizational memory, in contrast to what the Americans had) and build such an agency for the United States. 

As it happened, the OSS was in many ways a Princeton operation. In World War II, the bureau chiefs in New York, Berlin, and London were Princetonians, as were its general secretary and its chief cryptologist. Col. David Bruce 1919, followed by James Russell Forgan 1922, was the agency’s leader in Europe during the war, second only to Donovan himself. In later years, as Richard Harris Smith notes in a 1972 book on the OSS, Bruce liked to recount his memory of pushing into Normandy on D-Day with Donovan at his side: 

“David, we mustn’t be captured. We know too much,” Donovan said. “I must shoot first.” 

“Yes, sir, but can we do much against machine guns with our pistols?” Bruce asked.

“Oh, you don’t understand,” Donovan said. “I mean if we are about to be captured, I’ll shoot you first. After all, I am your commanding officer.”

A subordinate later said of Donovan, “His imagination and audacity were without limit.” Donovan presided over a company of memorable characters: burglars, forgers, speakers of Sanskrit — anyone with a strange gift that could be pressed into the nation’s service. But his most audacious move was to look for those strange gifts among humble drudges in the archives. In need of expert knowledge, he had less time than any spy chief has ever had to master the vast terrain of geopolitics. “Donovan’s greatest insight, perhaps,” writes the historian Barry Katz in a 1989 book, “was to recognize that this body of expert knowledge already existed, dispersed throughout the nation’s universities, libraries, museums, and research institutes.” He even had the librarian of Congress, the poet Archibald MacLeish, help him find recruits.

Mixing the work of historians and spies was something new in the world of spycraft. The Research and Development branch of the OSS, which employed researchers in the applied sciences — chemistry, engineering, fields that prepared one to build weapons and spy gear — was a long-established type of institution in other countries. But the Research and Analysis (R&A) branch, which pulled researchers from humanities departments in universities, had no equivalent in other spy agencies. Working first in an annex building of the Library of Congress, then, as the branch grew to more than 900 members, in bases across the U.S. and Europe, the historians, philologists, psychologists, economists, and other humanists of R&A examined materials that ranged from scholarly books to classified documents, novels, trash, and “Aunt Min photos,” or vacation photos from ordinary Americans that showed a loved one (“Aunt Min”) waving cheerfully in front of some building in Europe that the OSS now wanted to burgle or demolish. 

Professors accustomed to spending years to produce a book now found themselves huddled together in basement rooms, writing reports with deadlines mere hours away, as the historian Richard Dunlop notes. But they got the job done, supplying far-reaching analyses of such topics as unrest in Hitler’s military, Axis activities in North Africa, and the covert goals of Axis radio broadcasts. They produced intelligence that was not merely operational, or short-term and tactical, but strategic: long-term, complex, analytical. Agents called R&A the “Chairborne Division.” 

These scholars transformed the world of secrets forever. The OSS, and beginning in 1947, the CIA, took from the British the idea that an intelligence service should, even in peacetime, meddle in other countries’ affairs, treating geopolitics as a game that spies trained for on the playing fields of elite schools. America’s distinctive addition to modern intelligence was to find another training ground in the library. “During World War II,” the historian Michael Warner writes, “American academics and experts in the Office of Strategic Services ... virtually invented the discipline of intelligence analysis — one of America’s few unique contributions to the craft of intelligence.”

Small wonder, then, that humanities scholars should play such a big role in the first quarter-century of the CIA. When they returned to campus after the war, researchers from R&A reshaped their disciplines. Alumni of the OSS were everywhere. A Princeton student looking for advice from someone with intelligence training could visit professors Carl Schorske in history, Edward Cone ’39 in music, Manfred Halpern in Near Eastern studies, William Lockwood in public and international affairs, or Blanchard Bates *41 in Romance languages, to name just a few. He could consult Wesley Fesler, the head basketball coach, or the Rev. Henry Cannon, the University’s Episcopalian chaplain; or he could walk down the road and visit the historians Edward Mead Earle and Felix Gilbert at the Institute for Advanced Study. 

University personnel had engaged in spycraft both on and off campus. In 1938, John Whitton, a professor in Princeton’s politics department, tested the idea of systematically analyzing radio propaganda by running a secret post for monitoring Axis broadcasts from a hotel room in Paris. The next year, a few people including Whitton and psychology professor Hadley Cantril set up an office for analyzing Axis broadcasts in a house on Alexander Street, which became known as the Princeton Listening Center. Expertise in psychology helped the center’s staff to use the enemy’s propaganda to understand their weaknesses and even predict military actions. For example, they figured out that when Axis propaganda started discussing things that would interest German troops in North Africa, the troops were about to mount another offensive in that region. 

Farther afield, archaeologist T. Cuyler Young *25, who had served as a Presbyterian missionary in Iran after getting his master’s degree from Princeton, worked in Tehran during the war as a research analyst for the OSS. He later became the chairman of Princeton’s Department of Oriental Studies. Even though Young spent long stints in Iran after the war, which might have made him a valuable CIA agent, the CIA declined to recruit him. In a memoir, an Agency man named Kermit Roosevelt Jr. — grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt — explained that a man identified by a pseudonym but believed to be Young, “a crusty, quixotic, opinionated professor who spoke fluent Farsi,” was a logical recruit for the OSS, which filled its ranks with rogues, brainiacs, and oddballs, but not for the more sensible CIA: “He knew far more of Iran and of the people than any of us actually in the agency did — or probably ever would. But he was a character with an unpredictable mind of his own; he would run things his own way whatever the rest of us might think. So we ... decided that [he] was far more than we could handle.”

In Athens, German and Italian soldiers ransacked the villa of Princeton professor Theodore Leslie Shear — an archaeologist who had led the excavation of the Acropolis in Athens — perhaps suspecting he worked for Allied intelligence. If so, they were right; but Shear’s intelligence work was the ink-stained archival sort that Americans had recently invented. The Institute for Advanced Study subscribed to all of the Greek-language newspapers in the United States, which Shear, together with the Institute’s Benjamin Meritt *25, read on behalf of the OSS, looking, in part, for the textual equivalent of “Aunt Min” photos: local knowledge about Greece that seemed trivial enough to use as color details in newspapers, but that might be crucial for intelligence purposes.

These experiences would influence Princeton for generations. The historian Gordon Craig ’36 *41 worked in Washington during the war as an OSS researcher; in 1944 and 1945, he worked on the Strategic Bombing Survey, a comprehensive analysis of the effects of Allied bombing in Europe. When he began teaching at Princeton in 1946, he turned his research to the problem of how Nazism had been able to take over Germany, publishing several books on German military history. Students from these years, many of them veterans returning to finish their educations, looked impossibly young — all “baby fat and bomber jackets,” as a University of Chicago professor put it — but devoured their classes like old men seizing the quick of youth.

Professors John Whitton and Hadley Cantril set up an office for analyzing Axis broadcasts in a house on Alexander Street, which became known as the Princeton Listening Center.
Illustration by Jeffrey Smith, based on a photograph of, from left, Brunson S. McCutchen ’15, Professor John B. Whitton, and Harold N. Graves ’35 monitoring short-wave radio broadcasts at the Princeton Listening Center

Like most crises, the war had changed the catalog of essential skills. Laine Faison Jr. *32, an art historian at Williams College, had served as the head of the Art Looting Investigation Unit of the OSS, where he used the methods of art history to track down art that the Nazis had stolen. He was working for the Naval Air Force in Indiana, teaching pilots to use visual memory to distinguish specks as different kinds of planes, when an official called from Washington to ask, “Would you be interested in duty involving knowledge of art — and duty in Europe?” He was. His unit followed networks of robbery, coercion, and graft across Europe, tracing trade routes that he had studied at Princeton. Faison later mentored waves of students — jokingly called the “Williams art mafia” — who became the heads of major museums. 

Inevitably, many of the students of former intelligence agents became intelligence agents in turn. For decades, Princetonians followed tunnels that led straight from the seminar room to the CIA. Princeton’s director of career services, Newell Brown ’39, told the Princetonian in 1976 that his office kept an eye out on the Agency’s behalf: “We are aware of the kinds of people they [the CIA] look for, and when we run into the type, we tell them to send a résumé.” Today, the Agency continues to seek those with degrees in the humanities, says David Petraeus *87, a former director. “The CIA has always placed a considerable premium on individuals who can think critically, conduct detailed research and analysis, and communicate effectively in writing and through briefings,” he tells PAW. “Those skills are often found in those with degrees in the humanities, including English majors.”

The American alliance between secret intelligence and the humanities did not just change universities and three-letter agencies. It also changed institutions like galleries and museums — so profoundly, in fact, that one could say that American art in the 20th century was shaped largely by CIA imperatives. 

Here, too, Princetonians played a prominent role, as the historians Joel Whitney and Frances Saunders document. Alfred Barr 1922 *1923, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, developed the museum’s vision of modern art in conversation with the museum’s quiet relationship with the CIA; for instance, endorsing Abstract Expressionism as a manifestation of the “artistic free enterprise” of the United States — which had the best art, Barr implied, because it had the best system of government. C.D. Jackson 1924 moved between the world of intelligence and the media giant Time Inc., eventually presiding, as the publisher of LIFE magazine, over suites of images that celebrated the riches of “The American Century”: ingenue actresses, charity fashion shows, White House parties, and handkerchief-waving crowds at Ivy League football games. 

The CIA helped to fund and shape the institution of the MFA program in creative writing. In the mid-20th century, as the literary historian Eric Bennett writes in Workshops of Empire, the CIA, together with other government entities such as the State Department and the United States Information Agency (USIA), began a program of investment in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which had been founded in 1936 to build an American home for the world’s literati. The workshop’s director, Paul Engle, argued in fundraising campaigns that the Workshop could tame restless intellectuals from the U.S. and abroad by nurturing them in the heartland. Engle, who celebrated Midwestern wholesomeness in magazine articles with titles like “Iowa: the Heart of America’s Heartland,” boasted about the Workshop’s diplomatic value: “In the last few years, we have had students from Ireland, Japan, Formosa, South Korea, the Philippines, Canada, England, Sweden, all of whom go back to their native lands with their view of the United States greatly enhanced because they have found a place for their talent in the University of Iowa, in the heart of the Midwest. It is important that these most articulate of their generation should write and study far from both coasts, where foreign students have tended to concentrate. Here they learn the essential America.” 

By the late 1960s, intelligence agencies were supporting literary and intellectual journals such as Daedalus, Partisan Review, Poetry, Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, and the Hudson Review, co-founded and edited by Frederick Morgan ’43. The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which the CIA founded as an anti-communist front, bought thousands of subscriptions to these magazines and distributed the issues abroad. Many alumni and affiliates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop became affiliates (with or without knowledge of what they were getting into) of the CCF, including Robert Lowell, Norman Holmes Pearson, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate, who had been poet-in-residence at Princeton and founded the creative writing program. 

Reading as a historian entails learning how to look for information about how people put together the information you’re looking at. Allen Dulles 1914, the first civilian director of the CIA, was a history major at Princeton. In 1941, he started working for the OSS in Switzerland, sending covert reports to his classmate, John C. Hughes 1914, the head of the Service’s New York bureau. (His brother, John Foster Dulles 1908, majored in philosophy before making his way, too, to the OSS and eventually becoming secretary of state under President Dwight Eisenhower.) Allen Dulles rose through the CIA’s ranks in the 1950s; throughout his career in the Agency, he sought insights from humanities scholarship. During the 1960s, he met several times a year on Princeton’s campus with a group of humanities professors, whom he called the “Princeton Consultants,” who helped to produce the “blue books” of intelligence analysis that the CIA sent to the White House. 

Dulles often gave talks at Princeton in which he stressed the value of studying history. He discussed the craft of writing well in documents like the President’s Daily Brief. (“How do you get a policymaker’s attention?” he asked. “Just as you get the Princetonian sold. Make it readable, clear, and pertinent to daily problems.”) He noted that reading a text’s plain language is not enough to assess its meaning: For example, “many Soviet formal documents — constitutions, laws, codes, statutes, etc. — sound quite harmless, but in execution prove very different than they read.” Here, he suggested why the innovation of recruiting humanities scholars changed spycraft — and why his CIA recruited so heavily from departments of English and history. Cryptography is not the only way to make codes. Irony, implicature, politesse, euphemism, ambiguity, hyperbole, allusion, and deflection are also codes: They are ways of saying one thing and meaning another. 

Today, these may be the last codes to resist high-tech “crypto cracking” and digital trawling techniques like keyword searches. Twitter users have perfected subtweets, or tweets written about someone who goes unnamed so that a search won’t find the post. That much is harmless, but consider another form of covert meaning-making: weaponized irony. On some extremist websites, onlookers have warned, writers use irony to convince new readers that they mean their threats as jokes — indeed, to attract new readers who find the jokes daring — while longtime readers know they are deadly serious. Or consider the Chinese government’s censorship of certain puns online — the reason being that internet users in China have had great success in using wordplay (the kind that uses kiss the sky to mean kiss this guy) to discuss forbidden subjects without getting caught in internet filters. Such games with language command the attention of students of history and literature, who know that we toil mightily to make words mean what we choose them to mean. 

Ultimately, the humanists who labored among stacks of books for the OSS profoundly shaped not only the course of the war, but much of note in the postwar world. Historians have called World War II “the physicists’ war,” referring to the fact that physicists worked on major research initiatives like the Manhattan Project. For similar reasons, stories of spycraft often emphasize cool toys and glamorous field operations: women firing bullets from tubes of lipstick, men planting charges to blow up trains, scientists building wonders in secret labs. Things that go boom are exciting. But the lesson that America taught the world of intelligence is that we might get a greater impact from things that rustle: monographs, photographs, newspapers, index cards. We could, with just as much justification, call World War II “the humanists’ war.”

Today, as the world’s digitization prompts critics to question the place of the liberal arts in higher education, we might do well to keep that history in mind. What students learn in universities is far-reaching and subtle: the rhythm of a discipline’s methods, the language of its insights, which may fuel a life of surprises in any field. “Analysts [who are] born rather than merely assigned to the job,” the intelligence expert Thomas Powers has said, “have a glutton’s appetite for paper — newspapers and magazines, steel production statistics, lists of names at official ceremonies, maps, charts of radio traffic flow, the text of toasts at official banquets, railroad timetables, photographs of switching yards, shipping figures, the names of new towns, the reports of agents, telephone directories, anything at all which can be written down, stacked on a desk, and read.” This is the traditional task of the historian: sitting for days and months in archives, riffling through the evidence until the evidence starts to whisper.  

Elyse Graham ’07 is the author of You Talkin’ to Me?: The Unruly History of New York English.