Skip to Content

Charles Murray

Author of The Bell Curve; Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

Charles Murray is one of the most influential right-wing ideological architects of the post-Reagan era. His career began in a secret Pentagon counterinsurgency operation in rural Thailand during the Vietnam War, a program whose stated purpose included applying counter-insurgency strategies tested in rural Thailand to America's own restive inner cities and minority populations. By the late 1970s, Charles Murray was drawing up plans for the US Justice Department that called for massively increasing incarceration rates. In the 1980s, backed by an unprecedented marketing campaign, Murray suddenly emerged as the nation's most powerful advocate for abolishing welfare programs for single mothers. Since then, Murray revived discredited racist eugenics theories "proving" that blacks and Latinos are genetically inferior to whites, and today argues that the lower classes are inferior to the upper classes due to breeding differences.

The recovered history of Charles Murray

  • In high school, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Charles Murray burned a cross on a hill in his Iowa town, according to a New York Times profile of Murray. Murray later claimed he had no idea that his cross-burning had any racial significance.
  • Murray spent the peak Vietnam War years (1965-71) in Thailand, first with the Peace Corps, and then, from 1968 onward, in a Pentagon-contracted counterinsurgency program run by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), which operated under cover of academic anthropology research. In 1970, the New York Review of Books exposed the AIR program in Thailand where Murray worked as a covert military counter-insurgency program run by the Department of Defense's research and development agency ARPA, in cooperation with the CIA. [ 1 ]
  • The American Institutes for Research's own description of its counter-insurgency program included: "assassinating key spokesmen, strengthening retaliatory mechanisms and similar preventative measures" and efforts to "neutralize the political successes already achieved by groups committed to the 'wrong' side. This typically involves direct military confrontation." The AIR program also tested crop destruction and artificially-induced starvation in order to pacify restive populations, described as a "behavior control plan enhanced by crop destruction." Referring to its staffers like Charles Murray, the AIR proposal promised: "The social scientist can make significant contributions to the design of all [these] operations." [ 2 ]
  • Columbia University adjunct professor Eric Watkin's book Anthropology Goes To War: Professional Ethics & Counterinsurgency in Thailand published the names of the military and CIA officials that Murray worked with in the AIR counter-insurgency program. For example, the "Participants in AIR Advisory Panel Meetings" included  Murray's name alongside "Philip Baston, senior U.S. advisor to the Thai National Police Department"; "Coffey, civic action advisor to the Border Patrol Police most likely Raymond Coffey of Development Consultants, Inc (DEVCON), a CIA-front corporation"; "Maj. Gen. Prasart, commanding general of Joint Thai-U.S. Military Research and Development Center"; "George K. Tanham, U.S. Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency"; "Lt. Gen. Yuan, Thai National Police Department." [ 3 ]
  • The AIR counter-insurgency program that Charles Murray worked in was designed to serve as a model for the CIA and Pentagon for counter-insurgency operations elsewhere in the world, including back home in the United States. The AIR proposal to the Pentagon stated: "The potential applicability of the findings in the United States will also receive special attention. In many of our key domestic programs, especially those directed at disadvantaged sub-cultures, the methodological problems are similar to those described in this proposal; and the application of the Thai findings at home constitutes a potentially most significant project contribution.” As one study on anthropology ethics observed, it took "little imagination to recognize the identities of the 'disadvantaged subcultures'" that AIR's proposal was referring to. [ 4 ]
  • In a 1994, New York Times interview, Murray admitted that his work in Thailand laid the foundation for his harsh authoritarian politics and policies he later espoused in the United States under the political label "libertarianism."
  • Murray returned to the United States in the early-mid 1970s, and began advising law enforcement agencies to impose harsh zero-tolerance measures on inner-city and minority populations. In 1979, Murray co-authored a series of studies on juvenile crime underwritten by the US Department of Justice, titled "Juvenile Corrections and the Chronic Delinquent" calling for mass-jailings of youths — a plan Murray argued was not "philosophically barbaric and expensive." The Carter Administration rejected Murray's proposals; however, under the Reagan Administration, juvenile and minority incarceration rates soared.
  • In 1982, Charles Murray was hired as a research fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing free-market think tank co-founded by CIA director William Casey. Murray was brought in on the recommendation of Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservativism and a board member at the Manhattan Institute. Murray's position at the Manhattan Institute was bankrolled by well-known rightwing foundations including the Scaife and Olin Foundations, as well as a personal grant from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
  • Two years later, in 1984, Murray published Losing Ground. It was described by the The New York Review of Books as a "persuasive . . . new variation on Social Darwinism." Its central thesis was that all government welfare programs should be abolished, supposedly because welfare hurt the very people it was intended to help by "rewarding bad behavior" such as "illegitimate babies." Murray also called for ending food stamp programsThe New York Times wrote in 1985 that Losing Ground became "this year's budget-cutters' bible" noting, "in agency after agency, officials cite the Murray book as a philosophical base" for slashing social programs. [ 5 ] [ 6 ]
  • Murray's book project proposal for Losing Ground made clear its race-baiting purpose: "a huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It's going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say."
  • To promote Losing Ground, the Manhattan Institute "hired a PR expert to turn the unknown author into a media celebrity" and "paid journalists $500 to $1,500 each to participate in a seminar on Murray and his thought" in a campaign costing six figures. The Nation called it "an extraordinary campaign to sell Murray to the public"; the New Republic concurred, observing, "The Manhattan Institute's canny innovation is to rely as little as possible on chance — and as much as possible on marketing [to promote Murray's book]. Of course, money helps too." [ 7 ] [ 8 ] [ 9 ]
  • Several critics and academics attacked Murray's crude manipulation of data and fraudulent "scholarship" to back up his thesis that liberal welfare programs were the cause of minority poverty, rather than the cure. Lester Thurow, former dean of MIT's Sloan School of Management, called out Murray in the Harvard Business Review for ignoring or distorting data. For example, to "prove" that liberal social welfare spending created poverty, Murray excluded government spending on the elderly from his "evidence." As Thurow noted, in 1983, 86% of federal social welfare spending went to programs to help the elderly; and the poverty rate for the elderly dropped from 25.3% in 1969 to 14.1% in 1983, refuting Murray's thesis. Thurow concluded: "The purpose of Losing Ground is to help President Reagan shoot a silver bullet into the heart of the monster called social welfare spending."
  • In a 1997 speech at an event hosted by the Libertarian Party of Los Angeles County, Murray cheered the explosion of wealth inequality since the start of the Reagan Revolution, noting that greater concentration of wealth meant the rich had much more political power, "making it harder for politicians to bash the rich than it used to."
  • In 1996, Charles Murray's decade-plus campaign to end welfare for single mothers paid off when President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, essentially killing traditional welfare programs with a specific emphasis on cutting welfare for poor families with children. The bill was influenced in large part by Murray's ideas and policy suggestions. Clinton praised Charles Murray: "He did the country a great service. I mean, he and I have often disagreed, but I think his analysis is essentially right. ... There's no question that it would work," Clinton said in an interview with NBC News in 1993, referring to Murray's argument that welfare payments to single mothers incentivizes out of wedlock births.
  • Today, single mothers in America have the least social welfare support in the developed world. Moreover, the US poverty rate in 2005 for children of single mothers was 51%, the highest in the world among similar developed economies, and double the average child poverty rate.
  • Murray's most famous — and notorious — book, The Bell Curve (1994), co-authored with Richard Herrnstein, promoted racial eugenics theories claiming that whites and Asians are genetically superior in intelligence to blacks and Latinos. Like his previous book, The Bell Curve was also made possible by the generous support of ultra-rightwing foundations, including the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation which dished out $100,000 per year as he worked on his book at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Murray's home since the early 1990s.
  • The Bell Curve's research was criticized by the scientific community as a fraud. “I believe this book is a fraud, that its authors must have known it was a fraud when they were writing it, and that Charles Murray must still know it’s a fraud as he goes around defending it,” wrote a researcher in an article published in The American Behavioral Scientist journal. This is a pattern in Murray's work: academic fraud and data manipulation. [ 10 ]
  • As FAIR's Jim Naureckas reported, The Bell Curve heavily depended on research funded by the notorious Pioneer Fund, described as a "neo-Nazi organization" by the Telegraph. The Pioneer Fund's founder, Wickliffe Draper, advocated shipping blacks back to Africa, and the fund's first president, a notorious white supremacist named Harry Laughlin, spearheaded the campaign in the early 1920s to restrict Jewish immigration, testifying before Congress that 83% of Jewish immigrants from eastern and southern Europe were feeble-minded. In The Bell Curve, Murray describes Laughlin as "a biologist who was especially concerned about keeping up the American level of intelligence by suitable immigration policies."
  • ABC News reported in 1994 that almost half of the footnotes in support of "The Bell Curve's most controversial chapter that suggests some races are naturally smarter than others refer to Pioneer Fund recipients." One example: Murray and Herrnstein wrote in the acknowledgements that The Bell Curve "benefited especially from the advice of" a Pioneer Fund eugenicist named Richard Lynn. As FAIR reported, Richard Lynn wrote, "What is called for here is not genocide, the killing off of the population of incompetent cultures. But we do need to think realistically in terms of the 'phasing out' of such peoples.... Evolutionary progress means the extinction of the less competent. To think otherwise is mere sentimentality." Another Pioneer Fund researcher, Philippe Rushton, received nearly $800,000 to study the correlation of penis, breast and buttocks size to intelligence. "It's a trade-off: More brain or more penis. You can't have everything," Rushton told Rolling Stone. [ 11 ] When asked about his sources, Murray responded by accusing ABC of waging an "intellectual witch hunt."
  • Despite its fraudulent scholarship and its promotion of quack racial eugenics, The Bell Curve received glowing reviews in the mainstream press. The New York Times swooned: "The government or society that persists in sweeping their subject matter under the rug will do so at its peril." Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen rushed to Charles Murray's defense: "Both Murray and Herrnstein have been called racists . . . Their findings, though, have been accepted by most others in their field, and it would be wrong—both intellectually and politically—to suppress them." Newsweek told readers not to worry: "the science behind The Bell Curve is overwhelmingly mainstream." Andrew Sullivan, as editor of The New Republic in 1994, published a 10,000 word article by Charles Murray and co-author  Richard J. Herrnstein drawn from The Bell Curve. In fact, the "science" behind The Bell Curve has been thoroughly debunked.
  • In 2005, Murray wrote a lengthy op-ed defending then-Harvard President Larry Summers after Summers falsely asserted that women are genetically inferior to men in math and science intelligence. Murray described criticism of Summers as "Orwellian disinformation."
  • During the 2012 presidential elections, Charles Murray wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal supporting Mitt Romney's candidacy because Murray believed that the wealthier the person, the more qualified they are to be president. “Who better to be president of the greatest of all capitalist nations than a man who got rich by being a brilliant capitalist?”
  • In 2012, Murray published his newest variation on eugenics, Coming Apart, arguing that wealth and poverty are a product of breeding, and that the poor are poor because they're genetically inferior types who interbreed with each other, while the rich are getting richer because they are genetically superior types who are increasingly interbreeding with each other. New York Times columnist David Brooks, author of Bobos in Paradise, gushed: "I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society."
  • The Reason Foundation's 2000 report lists Charles Murray on its Academic Advisory Board. The Reason Foundation was one of the earliest Koch brothers libertarian projects; it publishes Reason magazine.



  1. Counterinsurgency Goes To War cites several documents that list Charles Murray (C. A. Murray) as a participant in meetings with U.S. State Department/Department of Defense as a representative of the American Institute for Research regarding AIR's counterinsurgency work in Thailand. []
  2. A 1970 Ramparts magazine investigation into counter-insurgency operations details the effects of such behavior control crop destruction programs on a rebellious minority hill tribe, the Meo, during the period that Murray participated in the counter-insurgency program in rural Thailand: "Conditions in the Meo resettlement villages are harsh, strongly reminiscent of the American Indian reservations of the 19th century. The people lack sufficient rice and water...Physical hardship and psychological strain have taken a heavy toll on these people. They are gaunt and sickly; many are in a permanent state of semi-withdrawal stimulated by the shortage of opium to feed lifelong habits. Yet the decay of the Meos' spirit is even more distressing than the deterioration of their bodies. It is hard to associate the pitiful inhabitants of Ban Song San (a resettlement village) with the defiant rebels remaining in the mountains." []
  3. Ibid., pp.100-101 []
  4. When leaked to the public, AIR's direct collaboration with the with military caused a scandal in the winder community of American anthropologists, and is now cited by anthropology ethicists as a textbook example of unethical behavior. []
  5. Then-president of the Manhattan Institute William Hammett described Murray's book in his personal notes: "Every generation produces a handful of books whose impact is lasting; books that change basic assumptions about the way the world works . . . Charles Murray's Losing Ground could become such a book. And if it does it will alter the terms of debate over what is perhaps the most compelling political issue of our time: the modern welfare state." []
  6. According to professor Lucy A. Williams' Decades of Distortion: The Right's 30-Year Assault on Welfare, welfare for black single mothers became the major focus of an anti-government campaign in the late 1960 and early 1970s: "Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) or "welfare" was a New Deal program, enacted in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act. But it was always a program that differentiated among its recipients based on race. In its early years it served primarily white widows and their children, who were seen as the "deserving" poor. Gradually, the welfare rolls became predominantly single mothers and their children. States had wide discretion to determine eligibility and many states conditioned the receipt of welfare on the sexual morality of the mother, using "suitable home" and "man in the house" rules to disqualify many African American single mothers. In the 1960s, as a result of the civil rights movement, welfare rights organizing, and several Supreme Court decisions striking down state mandates, the rolls were opened to African American women . . . Although the vast majority of those receiving welfare continued to be white, it was this increase in African American welfare recipients that triggered the Right's focus on welfare as a magnet to unite various sectors of the Right. The Old Right developed a critique of AFDC that linked it with street crime, busing, deteriorating neighborhoods, and centralization of power in the hands of the federal government. That critique was a central theme in Senator Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign and in Old Right publications such as those of the John Birch Society and the influential right-wing publication Human Events." []
  7. 3/25/85, Chuck Lane, "The Manhattan Project" New Republic []
  8. Eric Alterman's 1999 article in The Nation goes into more detail: "Two years before his book became the handbook on handling welfare, Murray was living in obscurity in Iowa, having written nothing more than a few pamphlets. According to Michael Joyce, Murray sent an article to Kristol at Public Interest, whereupon Kristol immediately called Joyce, who was then running the Olin Foundation, and scared up the money necessary for Murray to turn his article into a book." []
  9. The Institute for Public accuracy lays out some of the funders of  Murray's first big project: The Manhattan Institute "spent $125,000 to promote Murray’s book and pay him a $35,000 stipend, most coming from Scaife [Foundation], which gave $75,000, and Olin, $25,000. Upon publication, it sent 700 free copies to academics, journalists, and public officials worldwide, sponsored seminars on the book, and funded a nationwide speaking tour for Murray that was made possible by a $15,000 grant from the Liberty Fund." []
  10. Co-author of Bell Curve, Herrnstein, was caught in 1973 using “data that was faked” for his 1971 report arguing that intelligence is inherited and racial. []
  11. Rushton also believes that "Mongoloids (Asians), Caucasoids (whites) and Negroids (blacks) are ranked in that order in average brain size, intelligence, family stability and sexual restraint." []

Updated on April 9, 2014

Sign up for our mailing list:

Latest Profiles

Radley Balko

Support S.H.A.M.E.

Want to pitch in? Support us now, and help strike fear into the hearts of corporate trolls. Contribute using PayPal or WePay