Publication Date



Paul Erickson


American Studies (AMST)


English (United States)


This thesis explores the historical backgrounds of two very different conceptions of intelligence: intelligence as an activity and a psychological concept. Both conceptions informed the ways in which intelligence personnel in the military were identified, recruited, and trained during the Second World War. The establishment of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), signaled a shift away from historically decentralized information-gathering and analysis in favor of our modern notion of consolidated and organized military intelligence operations. Therefore, World War II marked the moment when these decentralized operations emerged as a distinct category of “centralized intelligence.” As a result, the recruitment of agents for the wide variety of intelligence activities of the OSS necessitated a multi-factorial assessment system. To fit this need, the OSS employed assessment tests developed by psychologists that embraced a wide and variable conception of human potential. The assessments used during World War II demonstrated a departure from the narrow, linear intelligence models previously utilized during World War I. During the First World War, our conception of intelligence was shaped by the eugenics movement that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Eugenics—which advocated for societal improvement by encouraging the breeding of “desirable” traits—pushed psychologists to find a single metric that would easily and holistically determine human value. Intelligence, defined broadly as “general fitness,” was the answer. To illustrate this early eugenic-based conception of intelligence during the early twentieth century, I examine an early encounter between psychological intelligence and the military. During World War I, psychologists were employed to help with military personnel selection. The military’s embrace of the narrow intelligence metric proposed by psychologists made a great deal of sense given the military’s hierarchical culture of generalists. The goal was to develop officers with basic skills to operate within an inflexible chain of command; specialists were mostly unwanted. A single-factor scale of intelligence, it seemed, provided the perfect method for categorizing humans for the early twentieth-century military. The use of intelligence testing during World War I represented one early interaction between psychological intelligence and the national security apparatus, which served as a foundation for its use during World War II. The establishment of the OSS during the Second World War, thus, represented a new American appreciation for a more inclusive definition of human intelligence. It also indicated a shift in what constituted the category of esteemed qualities. The belief in the existence of one “superior” quality can quickly fade if the institutional context changes. Naturally, on any given day, another “superior” quality may take its place at the top, and consequently reshape our institutions acting within these changing contexts. It is a cycle: a change in circumstance (i.e. conflict or war) produces a change in our understandings of human nature (i.e. intelligence), which may finally reshape our institutions (i.e. intelligence agencies during wartime). Our perceptions of superiority and inferiority are fluid, flexible, and unpredictable. There is no telling when a small revolution might shake it all up.



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