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Associate editor Christopher Sharp follows up on our last post, a slideshow on the Brown engineering department, with these late ’60s recruitment ads from Brown’s college newspaper.

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While perusing the archives of a Brown University student newspaper, I found myself venturing where most traditionalists dare not tread: the late ’60s.

My intent was to investigate how the former captains of cool, the campus haberdashers, navigated the choppy waters of the counter culture. Before long, however, I was distracted by advertisements for Tiny Tim albums and lost myself in pondering how great it would have been to have attended the Cream concert the paper was promoting. Although I never got back on track, I discovered some advertisements that speak not only to their time, but also to ours.

The first advertisement I encountered was for Gant shirts. Rendered in an illustration style associated with the ’60s, the figure is serene in his buttondown shirt as he lights his briar pipe:

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With this image fresh in my mind, a few pages later I was struck by another ad featuring a young man smoking a pipe. Still modern in style, the image of a second smoker also conveys a sense of ease. His pipe, buttondown and rep tie, however, are juxtaposed with state of the art computer equipment. Guess the advertiser. IBM? Rockwell Aerospace? Bell Labs? Nope, the National Security Agency (see top illustration).

The connection between the Ivy League and the CIA is well documented. Apparently, the NSA also found the Ivy League fertile ground for recruitment, and, during a time of growing public distrust in government and increased unrest on campuses nationwide, sought their ideal candidate at Brown University.

Historically, the NSA has been one of the most secretive government agencies. By 1968 the FBI and CIA were firmly ensconced in myth, mystery, and the stuff of spy fiction, while the technological warriors at the NSA flew below the public radar.

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If this hyper-secrecy protected it from preying eyes, it also left no room for anyone to appreciate its history. One of the first documents I found was a redacted early history of the organization, written circa 1973. It became available only as recently as 2007, through a Freedom of Information request.

In 2012 the NSA celebrated its 60th anniversary. To mark the occasion, the agency released a cache of documents, including an historical flip book, an interactive timeline and a recruiting manual from 1960 that states, “An intensive college recruitment program is conducted annually and is the primary source for this agency’s new professional employees.” Liberal Arts students were welcome if they could pass the aptitude test and were selected for “highly specialized work.” An Ivy League recruit would find at the NSA a culture of suits, smoking and silent service.  After all, NSA stood for “No Such Agency.”

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Despite its draconian secrecy, or perhaps, because of it, the agency did seem to have a lighter side. There was the Miss NSA Pageant and the three day Fall Festival. All of it internally documented in the NSA newsletter.

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These photos and newsletters remind us that spies are people, too. Which brings us to the present. We are again at point in the nation’s history were Americans are growing distrustful of their government. The NSA is in the headlines once more. Take a look at the advertisements from 1968 and consider if the agency, and the public perception of it, have changed. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP

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