Secret Society: NSA Recruiting Ads At Brown, 1968


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.

* * *

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:


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.


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.”


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.


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


15 Comments on "Secret Society: NSA Recruiting Ads At Brown, 1968"

  1. I think that an article on what the campus haberdasheries did starting in 1967 to navigate the rise of the counter-culture would be very interesting and note that at that same time-1967-Ralph Lauren began his company despite the changes and that around 1971 Polo merchandise available beyond Manhatten stores, including at May Department stores in the midwest.

  2. JWK
    You could get Polo items in Columbia, Missouri prior to 1969 at Harolds. I image that would be true for all the Harolds stores at many Big 8 schools. Harolds being a Ivy/Trad store originally founded in 1949 near the campus of OU in norman Oklahoma.

  3. 68 was probably the NSA’s last solid recruitment year….maybe. It was a hellofa year. King, then Kennedy and Nam on fire. Shook the nations core beliefs. And if 68 wasn’t enough to “Stop, hey what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down.” Then came 69!!

  4. One of the early public expose’ articles on NSA was written by Jack Anderson in Ramparts magazine sometime around ’73. I remember reading it while doing a shift at my listening post on the Czech border on Mount Eckstein, Germany. It was a hoot.

  5. I was a mathematics major at college. The math department forwarded a note from the NSA every year to all math majors, pointing out that math and linguistics majors, as well as people fluent in any middle-eastern language, were exempted from the first round of tests for recruitment. This was in the early 80s. Of course I didn’t much look forward to a career working in “a secret labamatory under Virginia” – so I never contacted them.

  6. No Polo in Pittsburgh until sometime in 1970-1971 and then just dress shirts at Kauffmans Dept store & Joseph Horne Co, but in 1972 Kaufmann’s main store in downtown Pittsburgh opened a separate store with Polo only managed by Henry Jason that sold Polo suits & other clothing & accessories, aided by the fact that David Farrell CEO of May Dept Stores former. President of Kauffman’s was a Polo customer himself. Polo may have been available elsewhere than Manhatten but not in Pittsburgh. Polo clothing was made by Lanham in Lawrence, Mass and was great!

  7. Good piece. Many thanks.

    I also appreciate M Arthur’s astute observation:

    “…King, then Kennedy and Nam on fire. Shook the nations core beliefs. And if 68 wasn’t enough to “Stop, hey what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down.” Then came 69!!”

    “Shook the nation’s core beliefs.” I agree. Something in the collective American psyche went all to hell. The old establishment institutions and mores were shunned or forgotten. Not to mention ridiculed as quaint. The birthchild was the 80s. And beyond.

    I wonder if, somewhere out there in the Platonic realm of perfect forms, there exists something resembling a unified field theory of what we might call American Collegiate Style and the cultures out of which it grew. We’ve benefited from a few histories/chronicles, but I think there’s more to be said. There’s an authenticity to it–the fabrics, the tailoring (crwftmanship), the soft, natural shape.

    Mr. Press’ comments, especially the observation the style in question was essentially an American take on English clothing with some snob appeal, would likely serve as a foundation.

    It’s fascinating. I know a few young guys and hear about more who are really into the style, but in the same way a collector is into the object of his passion. The real thing is longed for–what was available on tables, shelves, and racks of stores in 1965–but so rarely seen. One allows oneself to hope for it on occasion, but hopes are dashed in the rocky shores of Thom Browne or the Odavia Bros. Marketers and stylists. One can smell the airbrushing and ridiculous mark-ups from miles away. Sad. Pitiful, really.

    It’s being said the Millennnials (presently aged 18-33) crave authenticity. They don’t listen to talk radio or morning t.v. news shows. They’re too bored to smirk. Their humor is dry, biting, and periodically existential. Phoniness, including that of old Boomers who cried “peace” but later preferred profligacy, is the worst of all fates. When their Indie Rock bands “sell out” and go with the big label and big profits, they quit them. They don’t have time for religion that’s more performance than content, and they’re not sentimental about anything.

    It seems a culture that’s tailor made (pardon the expression) for the style that preceded the late 60s. Fabrics woven in small sheds on small Scottish islands. Some hand tailoring. Real.

    But the gaudy, vulgar, and not-easily-embarrassed will thrive among the masses. Because this is America, where that sort of thing is welcome.

  8. S.E.
    I agree with most of your assessment of the style, but most Millennials I know only buy what’s available and what they see in the media. How else does one understand the suitings at J. Crew?

    Where I disagree is when Americans started disassembling institutions. I mark it from WWII, it culminated in 1968 in Chicago.

  9. Okay, good point. Yet, as I reflect, J. Crew actually offers a lot of really well made kit. Mackintosh, Alden, ties made of Stephen Walters silk, and so on. Still, a lot of crap too.

    WWII, eh? Interesting. You may be right.

    I think younger people with values I tend to admire really long for another America. Bygone days. They basically despise the 80s and continually mock the 90s. In their defense, there’s a lot to hold in contempt.

    Someone will surely rejoinder, “So, they’d like to return that time when women and minorities were treated horribly?” Well, no.

  10. I heard the other day (grapevines, grapevines) that what Matt Weiner (Mad Men creator) has been up to all along is to show a little bit of how and why America became as shallow, vulgar, and “phony” as some among the GenY crowd are now recognizing. Makes sense.

  11. @ S.E.

    “Phoniness, including that of old Boomers who cried “peace” but later preferred profligacy….”

    Nicely put. I had a friend who, in 1970, had long hair and a beard, and wore peace beads, bell-bottoms, and tie-dyed psychedelic-colored t-shirts. In the early ’80s he made a fortune selling junk bonds for Drexel, Burnham, Lambert.

  12. S.E.,

    Fascinating and well-articulated thoughts. Thank you.

    Someone will surely rejoinder, “So, they’d like to return that time when women and minorities were treated horribly?” Well, no.

    That’s part of the modern mythology of the past, that in those evil, unenlightened times, “The Man” kept wymyn and persons of color down by means of a well-placed boot on the throat. Nothing of the sort is true, but that’s the myth. Furthermore, as you well know, no one who admires our ancestors for the orderly, well-functioning society they created and maintained has ever advocated a reintroduction of the “oppression” of women, minorities, etc.; it’s an anti-reactionary straw man set up by “progressives” (i.e., radical leftists).

    NB to those who disagree: I am speaking in generalities, which always have exceptions. Look at the larger picture, and try, just try, to contain your nominalism for a moment.

  13. Great article, but my favorite part is the Gant add directing customers to Harvey, Ltd., with locations in Providence and St. Louis. A St. Louisan myself, I prematurely inherited (read: stole) an old Harvey jacket from my dad a while back. About ten years older than I am. Along with that jacket, one of the last Harvey remnants in town is Sal Falcone, a Sicilian gentleman who was the St. Louis store’s in-house alterations tailor. He left before the final bell and now runs an eponymous bespoke tailor shop, with his brother Giuseppe, which produces beautiful clothes. The shop is one large room, divided by a screen into halves: one for business (cash register, books of fabrics, examples of Sal’s work on dummies), the other for work (tables full of thread and scissors). The best part of the place is Sal’s patience with aspirational not-yet-customers who stop in to talk.

  14. I realize these ads came from Brown where I recall back in the day one could take a Pass/Fail term grade AFTER one’s final exam. Still the translations of “speaks your language” on the NSA’s second ad are either strange or incorrect. Of course, the languages are the boogies of the times: Vietnamese, Chinese, and Russian (L to R).

    Whoever did the Chinese characters didn’t know how to write them, and then used both simplified and traditional in the same sentence. Not typical for a native speaker, or even for a non-native one, and especially not in a public announcement. Is there a signal there? Who knows, because the the Russian and Vietnamese are grammatically incorrect: NSA “speak YOU language” is wrong even in English. Strange and disgraceful…not that I’m surprised given Americans’ inability to speak more than one language. Are there US citizens who wonder why America hasn’t had much import in international affairs? QED.

    But that NSA beauty pageant…THAT is an embarrassment which should have been didacted. If there’s any Ivy League clothing around, somebody’s been reading way too many Blackford Oakes mysteries.

  15. Vern Trotter | May 6, 2014 at 6:12 am | Reply

    For Andrew Eastman: I used to be a customer of Harvey Ltd in St. Louis (Clayton) and am glad to hear their tailor is still around. I have this day directed my friend, attorney Gerald Warren, an attorney in Clayton, to him.

    Thanks for the input.

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