Jack Sargent Harris: Anthropologist and UN official who fell foul of the McCarthy hearings

In 1946, Jack Sargent Harris, the American anthropologist and former secret agent, had settled into a quiet life as Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago when he received a telephone call from his friend, the future Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Ralph Bunche, offering him a job in New York with the newly created United Nations Division of Trusteeship, established under the UN Charter to transform and eliminate colonialism.

Bunche had been responsible for Harris's earlier career as secret agent with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which at the outbreak of the Second World War had recruited from the US academic élite for unconventional intelligence gathering and covert operations. Harris, who had conducted fieldwork among the Ibo in Nigeria, took up the offer and served the OSS in Africa, initially under cover of anthropological research.

At first conducting spying missions in the Gold Coast, he later went to South Africa, where there were strong pro-German sympathies. He became the head of a US intelligence network in South Africa that was monitoring Nazi diamond smuggling and his achievements led to changes in South Africa's wartime policies. At the end of the war, Harris became seriously ill with liver fluke and after treatment in the United States he was offered a job with the successor to the OSS, the Central Intelligence Agency. He turned down the CIA, saying that the agency had broken a promise to one of his wartime contacts.

Harris accepted Bunche's offer to work for the UN and moved from Chicago to settle outside New York with his Australian wife, Shirley. With outspoken anti-colonialist views he cut a distinctive figure in the Secretariat. He was handsome, fiercely intelligent and self-assured. In 1948 he was a member of the first trusteeship mission to Ruanda-Urundi (Rwanda and Burundi), under Belgian control, and Tanganyika, under British. The eventual report caused uproar. It condemned the British for African poverty and recommended that to pay for health and education, a tax should be levied on the export of diamonds.

The Belgian government was castigated for the practice of whipping in its territories, especially during forced labour. Bot h European governments dismissed the report as mischievous political propaganda. And although Washington disagreed with its European allies over colonisation, it was increasingly worried about the radical nature of the trusteeship department.

Harris's associations with Bunche may have brought him to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, for it transpired that Bunche had been monitored by the Bureau, which had started to investigate UN personnel in 1949. A civil rights supporter, Bunche had been involved in drafting the sections of the UN Charter dealing with the post-colonial world and was the first head of the UN's Trusteeship Division. Bunche, a prominent African-American, achieved worldwide acclaim for concluding the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Palestine and Israel. His high profile may have saved him further FBI scrutiny, but Harris was not so fortunate.

In autumn 1952 he received a subpoena to appear before the US Senate Internal Security Sub-committee investigating espionage, sabotage and the "unmasking of UN reds". Harris, the all-American hero who had risked his life for his country, was denounced as part of a Communist conspiracy to "enslave the US". When asked at the Senate hearing about Communist affiliations, Harris invoked his constitutional right to silence. At this, Senator James O. Eastland, a plantation owner from Mississippi, accused Harris of having betrayed his country.

One of 30 UN employees of US nationality called to the committee, Harris was one of 18 who invoked the Fifth Amendment. Eastland said they were not people of high calibre and they should be removed from the UN – which is what happened. Staff members with permanent contracts who had pleaded the Fifth Amendment were suspended and eventually fired.

Harris was among a group who appealed through the UN's Administrative Tribunal, where lawyers argued that the UN had breached the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, denying standards of freedom it sought to promote elsewhere. The group won damages, but only after the International Court of Justice advised the UN that it had to pay compensation for wrongful dismissal. The largest award was to Harris, for "out-standing professional competence".

Harris was blacklisted. He never opened a book on anthropology again. He moved to Costa Rica, tempted by the country's UN delegate, Edmond Woodbridge, a member of the first trusteeship mission to Africa. Harris made Costa Rica his home and he would become a major contributor to its development. He had never before read a balance sheet but after creating a taxi company he built a cement factory and then established a development bank. A naturalised Costa Rican, he was known as "lucky Jack", for he said it was to luck he owed his fortune.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Romania, Harris was one of six children who grew up in two rooms behind a small grocery store in Chicago run by his parents. For three years he was a merchant seaman, but a former classmate persuaded him to apply to Northwestern University in Illinois. It was there he discovered anthropology and wrote his thesis on the White Knife Shoshoni of Nevada.

Harris is credited as one of the first anthropologists to focus on agriculture and the role of women. He was one of the first US anthropologists to do fieldwork in Africa. He earned his PhD in 1940 at Columbia at a time when radical anthropologists were working for social justice and arguing the inherent equality of all people. Harris was a life-long progressive, keenly aware how academic freedoms were as much at risk today as during the blighted McCarthy years.

Linda Melvern

Jack Sargent Harris, anthropologist and industrialist: born Chicago, Illinois 13 July 1912; married 1946 Shirley Oates (two sons); died Escazu, Costa Rica 2 August 2008.

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