The Ethnogeographic Board was established during the Second World War. It was established primarily to act as a clearinghouse for government wartime needs. During the three and one-half years of its existence (June of 1942 through December of 1945) the board provided ethnogeographic information on the non-European areas of the war, notably Africa, Micronesia, Melanesia and Indonesia. It aided in the location and mobilization of area and language specialists, especially anthropologists. It was jointly sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, the National Research Council and the Smithsonian Institution. The Board utilized facilities and other technical assistance provided by the latter. William Duncan Strong served as the Board's Director from 1942 until 1944 at which time he was succeeded by Henry B. Collins Jr. The salaries of both men were provided by the Smithsonian.
The original Board consisted of six members and until 1945 met semi-annually as an advisory and policy making body. In addition, five separate committees worked closely with the Board. These included the Committee on African Anthropology; the Committee on the Anthropology of Oceania; the Joint Committee on the Latin American Studies; the Intensive Language Program; and the Smithsonian War Committee. A sixth, the Committee on Asiatic Geography, was formed as a result of a Board-sponsored conference. Each committee remained an independent entity, although theoretically the Board was supposed to integrate the work of all of these committees. The Board received its financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and its own sponsoring organizations. Of the latter, the Smithsonian contributed the largest portion.
Five major undertakings were of sufficient magnitude to be designated as projects. The most important of these was the "Survival Project." At the request of the United States Navy, the Ethnogeographic Board and the staff of the Smithsonian prepared the manual Survival on Land and Sea in 1943. Several editions were published and by 1944 970,000 copies had been printed and distributed to the armed forces in the Pacific Theater.
In September of 1942 the Board sponsored a conference on Bolivian Indians in New Haven. Its purpose was to discuss those factors relevant to the use of Indians as industrial labor in the mines and to encourage greater agricultural output from this group. A thirty-five page report resulted from this conference and was subsequently distributed by the Board. Though this project was less extensive than the "Survival" project it was significant because it was designed to serve as a model for other similar projects.
In January of 1944 under the direction of Research Associates Bacon and Fenton a third project was initiated. The subsequent "Survey of Area Studies in American Universities" was undertaken to analyze the foreign area courses offered at selected universities. A total of 27 universities from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts were included, and reports on about one-third of these were completed.
In March of that year the Board members discussed the feasibility of writing a history of the Board's activities. It was agreed that such a record was necessary and eventually Board member Wendell Clark Bennett was designated to draft this account. This fourth project, covering the activities of the Board up to June of 1945, was completed in August of that year.
In June of 1945 the last major undertaking was initiated. At that time the executive committee considered compiling a list of all war-related documents provided by the Board. Homer Barnett was assigned late in 1945 to survey those documents concerned with the Pacific Area. This project was combined with the never-completed Pacific Survey Project under Barnett's direction.
Although not considered a major undertaking, the "World File of Area and Language Specialists List" might better be described as an ongoing Board project. Approximately 5000 names were included on this roster. The sources from which they were gathered were numerous and included the Committee on Latin American Anthropology; the Committee on Asiatic Geography; the Intensive Language Program; and the Smithsonian War Committee. The lists provided by the Committees on the Anthropology of Africa and Oceania formed the backbone of this roster. The geographic areas of primary concern included Africa, Indonesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. This roster was used extensively by the government and other agencies throughout the course of the war.
Besides its own projects, the Board participated in a number of others in conjunction with various organizations and institutions. The Board assisted in the preparation of a manual entitled "Jungle and Desert Emergencies" with the Air Corps. The Quartermaster General's Office worked with the Board on a "Reconnaissance Report on Concentrated Rations of Primitive Peoples". Cooperating with the American Council of Learned Societies, the Board aided in the development of a program to train personnel in the Russian language. Other projects initiated but never completed included the Pacific Survey Project, the Area and Language Notes Project and the Research Committee Project.
Though the Board continued to operate until December of 1945, the first three years of its existence were those of the greatest activity.