Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Ubiquitous Mr. Hoover

There it was, nested in a notebook between Miss Anna R. Elderkin in Coeur d'Alene and Miss Frances Hoyt of Los Angeles: "Herbert Hoover, 623 Mirada, Stanford University." And I wasn't even looking for it.

Working at the Hoover Institution, I'm often amazed at the number of stories I hear from visitors about their connection to the Institution's namesake. Although the story might be as simple as a dedication written by Herbert Hoover in a book found in their grandparent's library, they all resonate to make this historical figure human. Looking at pages of this little notebook that listed not only names and addresses but ranch expenditures and the number of lemons picked in 1935, I realized I had stumbled across another such story.

Few people understand that archivists don't do research as part of their daily work; sometimes I do it at home after hours. Lately I've been studying a largely overlooked federal Indian agent named Kelsey who worked out of San Jose in the early 1900s. Although Kelsey and Hoover were contemporaries, Republicans, and lived just 15 miles apart, there was no reason that they would know one another.

In pursuit of Kelsey's seemingly lost papers, I tracked down his descendants, who shared with me scanned copies of his few surviving materials. The notebook was among them. When I found Hoover's name, I went back to them for an explanation, and they told me their Hoover story: Hoover's sister and Kelsey were neighbors, and when Hoover visited his sister, Kelsey's young daughter liked to call to him, "Mistah Hoovah! See me t'un ovah!" while playing on her swing.

Although the story is too inconsequential for a published biography, it's the kind of anecdote that makes Hoover human, a brother, a neighbor. And I'm not sure whether it's a Kelsey family story or now my own Hoover story.

Excerpt from notebook in private collection


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Archival History and Family Roots

I grew up on my father’s stories of his youth in Chita, Siberia: walking from one village to the next trailed by a pack of hungry wolves, forgetting to wear his cap (on purpose) and getting frostbit, the flight on foot from Chita to Manchuria during the chaos of the Russian civil war, life as a telegraph operator in Kharbin, Manchuria. Other than the stories, we knew little of my father’s life as a White Russian emigrant traveling from Kharbin to Tokyo and then on to San Francisco, Berkeley, and then the oil fields of West Texas, where I was born.

I am now conducting research for my new book on six families, caught up in the Great Terror of 1937 and 1938, showing how the decisions made by Stalin and his henchmen played out in the lives of ordinary families. I am using the Hoover Archives Fond 17 (Central Committee of the Communist Party) and Fond 89 (Communist Party on Trial) to follow the high-level decisions that set off the Great Terror and then largely unpublished family memoirs to tell the stories of the victims. One such family is that of Alexander Ignatkin, an engineer in charge of the Chita operations of the Transsiberian railroad, with a wife and three children. The youngest, a boy, Yury, wrote an account of the family’s tragic story in 2003. He went on to become a respected mining engineer in Siberia’s goldfields, living in Chita until his death in 2008.

In researching the Ignatkins’ story, I had a number of encounters with my father’s past. Alexander Ignatkin surely would have known my grandfather, who was also an engineer on the Transsiberian. Unlike Alexander, however, he fled Russia in the early 1920s, just as Alexander was getting his first assignment to head a small station outside Chita; his story of itinerant life at various stations in the vicinity of Chita, the headquarters of the Transbaikal line, surely resembled my father’s first years. From my passport, I learned that my father had been born in a place called Khilok, but no one in the family knew where it was. Now I know that Khilok was a small station along the Transsiberian, some two hundred miles west of Chita. Alexander Ignatkin, before his appointment to Chita, served in a number of small stations along the Transsiberian; his three children were born in such villages, which consisted of wooden cottages and a rail station. My father would have been born under similar circumstances in Khilok.

Khilok enters the Ignatkin family story in yet another way: Alexander’s wife, Maria, was arrested on October 7, 1937, not knowing that her husband had been executed on September 29. Shortly after the arrests of their wives, the local newspaper published the list of the 117 executed railway workers (Alexander was 101). The wife of Dianov, the Khilok station head, was arrested in the Chita railway station just after she saw her husband’s name on the execution list (she had traveled to Chita from Khilok hoping to find her husband). Having hidden the list in her shoe she showed it to the other wives, all of whom were confined in one large cell. It was thus that Maria Ignatkina learned of her husband’s execution.

The Chita NKVD headquarters was located in the most imposing building in Chita, Shumovsky Palace, which I learned had served as a prison and hospital during World War I. One of my father’s most vivid memories was having volunteered to transport wounded soldiers on a sled from the train station to Shumovsky Palace); one of them, he said, died before reaching the hospital.

Perhaps the most telling moment of my research was the story of the return of the Kharbintsy, those Russians who, like my father, had fled to Kharbin (now part of China) in the aftermath of the revolution and civil war. There they, like my father, worked for the Chinese Eastern Railroad, which connected the Transsiberian to points east. My father chose to continue east to Tokyo, but many Kharbintsy, promised a warm welcome by Stalin, chose to return. Virtually all were executed or sent into the Gulag under special decrees aimed specifically at them. In Ignatkin’s sector were large numbers of prisoners doing track repairs and coal mining; during his first imprisonment, he was sent to one of those mines. As the Kharbintsy returned to Russia on the Transsiberian, the prisoners called up to them: “Soon you will be joining us down here.” At that very time, my father, one of the “people’s enemies” a Kharbintsy, was working as a petroleum engineer in the West Texas oil fields.


Railroad tunnel in Siberia, Harry L. Hoskin papers, photo file B, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Kozelsk–a Glimpse into a Soviet Death Camp

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the Katyn Forest Massacre, the murder of thousands of Polish prisoners ordered by Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Communist Party Politburo in March 1940. A Polish exhibition commemorating this event, which has been touring Europe and the United States for the past few months, is now in the Herbert Hoover Memorial Pavilion through January 2011. The exhibition consists of forty-three panels of images and text, augmented by selected documentation from the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, home to the largest and most comprehensive holdings on modern Poland outside Poland.

Among the Hoover contributions to the exhibition is the only known photograph of the Kozelsk prison camp, in which more than forty-five hundred Polish prisoners were kept between October 1939 and April 1940, before they were executed and buried in the mass graves at Katyn. The camp occupied the buildings of one of the most important centers of Orthodox Christianity in prerevolutionary Russia, the Optina Monastery, which had been visited by tens of thousands of the faithful, including some of Russia’s leading writers and intellectuals, most especially Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for whom the monastery provided much of the inspiration for his best work, The Brothers Karamazov. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks killed or exiled the monks and turned the monastery into a prison camp. During the time that it housed Polish prisoners, it was identified to the outside world as the “Maxim Gorky Rest Home.” The photograph of the monastery-turned-prison was brought out, folded and concealed in his clothing, by Ludwik Jaksztas a Polish air force lieutenant, who was one of the several dozen prisoners selected by the NKVD, probably for operational reasons, for transfer to another camp and thus spared execution. Who the photographer was is not clear; it may have been made by a member of the camp underground who did not survive or somehow obtained from a Soviet source. It was likely one of several photographs given to individuals as they were being taken out of the camp, virtually all to be executed. The copy given to Jaksztas was the only one that reached the outside world and is now in the Wiktor Sukiennicki papers in the Hoover Archives. Sukiennicki, a Polish legal scholar and later a research fellow at Hoover, was the principal investigator of the Katyn murders on behalf of the Polish government in exile.

Lieutenant Jaksztas escaped the killing fields of Katyn but never made it back to Poland. Released from captivity after the Nazis attacked their Soviet ally in the summer of 1941, he joined the Polish forces loyal to the London-based Polish government in exile. A navigator with the RAF Polish 305 Squadron, his Mosquito bomber was shot down on the third day of the Normandy invasion. He is buried in the Langannerie cemetery in northern France, along with some seven hundred other Free Poles. The Kozelsk Optina Monastery has been returned to its original purpose and, after major restoration, has again become a vibrant center of Russian Orthodox Christianity.

Box 2, Wiktor Sukiennicki papers, Hoover Institution Archives

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Diplomatic Horseplay

After a hard day of high-level talks and shuttle diplomacy, how do diplomats unwind? More than fifty years ago, one did so by spoofing his colleagues on all sides of the table. His account of the 445th meeting of the European Advisory Council, on April 1, 1945, is written in the dry, reportorial style typical of meeting minutes, and is in the John Marshall Raymond papers at the Hoover Archives.

The minutes begin with a review of the minutes of the previous meeting. After a series of amendments to change "will" to "shall" and "labour" to "labor" (with the British representative dissenting), the group moved on the future organization of the Tripartite Council in Berlin. As the chair, the USSR representative opened by announcing that his government had decided to be represented on the council by one member from each state in the Soviet Republic. Because there were sixteen states, he proposed that the council be called in future the Unumdevigintipartite Council.

The meeting quickly recessed so that the U.S. representative could get a Latin dictionary. On reassembling, a counterproposal, that "Novededemipartite" be substituted for "Unumdevigintipartite," generated "a lively but indeterminate discussion" that lasted until noon, when they adjourned for lunch.

At 2:30 "the U.S. representative, being the first back from lunch, took the chair." During the recess, he had consulted both his government and the adviser to the U.S. embassy on ancient languages. The United States was prepared to accept the USSR proposal, he announced, "on condition that his country be represented by one member from each of the United States. There were forty-eight of these (at this point the Br. Representative expressed his surprise and stated that according to his records held in the Foreign Office there were only thirteen). Continuing, after some reference to a schoolroom atlas, the U.S. representative proposed that the Tripartite Council should be called in future the Septemet Sexagintapartite Council. He was also understood to say 'Check,' but since none of the Central European countries was represented at the meeting this remark was considered irrelevant."

At this point the British representative left to make an urgent call, so the meeting adjourned for tea, coffee, and vodka. When the U.S. and USSR representatives returned at 4:30, they found the British representative in the chair making calculations. Resuming the meeting, he announced that his government would accept both proposals on condition that each of the dominions, colonies, crown colonies, and dependencies in the British Commonwealth also be represented, which he figured totaled forty-nine. He therefore proposed that the council be called the Centumestsedecempartite Council. "He expressed his warm feelings of friendship for the other members of the Council and their Governments by saying to the USSR representative 'Mate,' and the U.S. representatives 'Mate to you, too."

Before discussion could continue, a "considerable commotion outside… made further work impossible. On inquiry it was discovered that a foreigner calling himself 'de Gaulle' had attempted to get in but had been overpowered and removed to safe custody." Because it was 5:00, the meeting was adjourned.

Icing the cake, the author classified these meeting minutes Top Secret.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Is Firing Line the New Sex? (with apologies to Mary Eberstadt)

Since its publication in Policy Review last year, Mary Eberstadt's exploration of the effects of unlimited sex and food on advanced nations, "Is Food the New Sex?" has been a perennial favorite on the web. In a shameless effort to transmit that success to our blog, I posit here that Eberstadt's observations about food also apply to William F. Buckley's Firing Line television series. After all, with more than one hundred Firing Line programs available on Amazon.com, additional titles available directly from the Hoover Archives, and just about any transcript available through the Hoover website, Firing Line fans now enjoy a previously unimagined level of abundance. As Eberstadt observes with food and sex, the dramatic expansion in access to Firing Line is due to technology, in this case the Internet, digital copying, and DVD on demand.

Where Eberstadt takes us to the kitchens of Betty and Jennifer, I suggest visiting their living rooms. Thirty years ago, Betty's living room was equipped with only a television to enjoy live broadcasts of Firing Line. No matter how much Betty loved the show, she was limited by the television schedule but was accustomed its enforced scarcity.

Betty's thirty-year-old granddaughter Jennifer pays far more attention to Firing Line and feels far more strongly about it than Betty ever did. Even though Firing Line ended in 1999, Jennifer can watch any title from her library of Firing Line DVDs at any time, and she even proselytizes; on occasion she'll rack up her current favorite episode when friends visit, and when gifts are exchanged a DVD featuring Malcolm Muggeridge is sure to be inside Jennifer's colorful wrapping. She argues the merits of the Allen Ginsberg show with her liberal coworkers and consistently asserts the moral authority epitomized in "Is It Possible to Be a Good Governor?" Jennifer's annual holiday tradition includes viewing "How Does One Find Faith?" Clearly, where Betty felt opinions about Firing Line were a matter of individual taste, Jennifer is certain that her opinions about Firing Line are not only politically correct but also morally correct: she feels that others ought to be as devoted to Firing Line as she is.

Deep down, there has been a revolution in how we now think about Firing Line--changes that allow Firing Line to become a way of life. Over breakfast you can watch program clips on You Tube; sneak a peek at the studio shots on Hoover's Firing Line slideshow when you're at work; during lunch, screen a show on DVD for your coworkers. When you ask someone a tough question, deliver it with your best impression of Buckley's winning smile. En route home on the train, read a PDF transcript and memorize Buckley's best lines to share at your next party. After dinner watch another DVD and then write a review of it on Amazon.com--be sure to match Buckley's elevated discourse and set a higher standard for the social Internet! Before you go to bed, peruse the list of Firing Line's 1,504 programs, send us a request for the next title you'd like to watch, and fall asleep dreaming of it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Fragility of Youth

Today is UNESCO World Day for Audio Visual Heritage 2010 and its theme is: "Save and Savour your Audiovisual Heritage - Now!" Though Hoover's audio collections pose unique problems, our specialists are rising to that challenge.

For some, audio preservation is a black art, and I am not going to help that. From a certain point of view, I’m more concerned with preserving a tape from 2003 of Kid606 than I am a recording from 1971 of Milton Friedman calling the Mont Pelerin Society. Am I being facetious? No. Am I being provocative? Absolutely. Another blog entry has already acknowledged the shock of the familiar in photographs, and in audio recordings there is the fragility of youth.

We’ve got more than 100,000 unique sound recordings in our stacks. How do we decide which recordings to migrate and preserve? As was mentioned in an earlier blog, there are two dominant factors: the stability of the medium and the importance of the recording. With stability, it’s not always intuitive.

The list from relatively stable (there are no stable audio recordings) to at-risk (yesterday): vinyl discs, cassettes, mini- and microcassettes, polyester open-reel tapes, acetate open-reel tapes, MiniDiscs (MDs), digital audio tapes (DATs), and lacquer discs.

I’m willing to bet a lot of readers may be scratching their heads right now. Many would consider vinyl discs more obsolete than microcassettes, and the word digital in DAT most likely set off a few flags as well. Because audiophiles and hip-hop DJs are keeping alive an interest in the turntable, great turntables are still in production and vinyl discs are remarkably stable. (What’s old is new again, right?) Meanwhile, digital audio tape is incredibly unstable. No company is making new DAT machines, and once those 1’s and 0’s rust particles have fallen off that thin strip of plastic, the recording is caput. MDs are also digital/magnetic devices and are similarly at risk.

Thus on any given day, one might find me digitizing Crusade for Freedom lacquer discs from 1950 and migrating DAT tapes and MDs from this century. Yes, it’s odd.

P.S. For the record, the content of a recording absolutely influences our priorities. That Friedman phone call was digitized years ago. We also make special efforts to digitize things such as Radio Free Europe’s coverage of the Romanian revolution and, on the advice of our curators, a lot of audio on cassettes in collections.

Commonwealth Club of California Records, Hoover Institution Archives

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What's in a Label?

The label said "General Stilwell's talk to Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, Feb. 13 1946," but could it be trusted? I've written about the problems with labels before. This one was attached to a compact sound cassette, which is at least one generation removed from the laquer disc on which a speech given in 1946 would have been recorded. So the person who originally recorded the speech--the most reliable source of information--probably did not write this label.

Any speech given at the Commonwealth Club would be documented in the club's records, which are at the Hoover Archives. (Even Herbert Hoover's nine off-the-record talks at the club show up in various ways in the club's publications and internal files, though the cursory information available lives up to their billing.) Searching this collection for a Stilwell speech yielded only one, by Joe Stilwell Jr. in 1966.

Thinking the speech itself might have clues, I cued a digital copy of the recording on my computer. It begins with applause, and then a man addresses the mayor and friends of San Francisco. He mentions that the war with Japan ended seven months ago, and in closing he refers to the Sixth Army at the Presidio, all of which places the talk in San Francisco in March 1946. This meshes with Stilwell's assignment as commander of the Sixth Army, which was reactivated effective March 1, 1946, at the Presidio of San Francisco (he died there that October). But we still didn’t have a venue.

A speech by a big war hero like Stilwell was sure to get press attention, especially given Stilwell's frank and colorful style. A search for Stilwell in newspaper indexes for 1946 yielded a likely hit, on March 29, 1946. The San Francisco Chronicle's front page barked, "Gen. Stilwell Talks Back: 'Army Caste System Sounds Nasty, but Discipline Is Vital.'" The article reports that Stilwell "covered the caste system, Army brass hats, the atomic bomb, and charges of undemocratic procedures in the Army," which closely parallels the arc of the recorded speech. Stilwell's quotes in the newspaper synched with the phrases I heard, which is about as definitive an identification as we're ever likely to have for this sound recording. And the venue? San Francisco's Chamber of Commerce luncheon on March 28, 1946. So much for labels.

Joseph Stilwell in Burma. Oversize folder m*SSSS,
Joseph Warren Stilwell papers,
Hoover Institution Archives

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hugh Gibson’s diaries documenting Herbert Hoover’s 1946–47 food mission are now available online

With the tragic earthquakes in Haiti and Chile earlier this year, and the recent floods in Pakistan, we are reminded once again of the primacy of food in relief operations for people in distress, whether suffering from natural or man-made catastrophes.

Herbert Hoover spent a great deal of his life organizing such relief, feeding millions of people during and after World War I in more than twenty countries. Then again, after World War II, he coordinated a worldwide effort to fight the famine that was threatening close to a billion people. No wonder his legacy is that of a great humanitarian and master of efficiency.

Hugh Gibson, a U.S. diplomat whose papers are housed in the Hoover Archives, was a friend of Hoover’s and his right-hand man on that postwar food mission. He kept a daily journal, covering both the whirlwind tour of nearly forty countries in the spring of 1946 and a subsequent return trip to Europe in February 1947. These diaries (mentioned in my blog of October 6, 2009) have now been digitized and are available online. Beyond the focus on food, these fascinating and lively diaries cover a wide range of political and social issues. In the words of his son, Michael Gibson, “The result is a dizzying cross-section of the world just one year after the war ended.”

Gibson often relates Hoover’s state of mind and some of his conversations with various heads of state and did, on occasion, paste newspaper clippings into his diary, such as the account of Hoover’s address at the luncheon in Lima hosted by the president of Peru on June 2, 1946. In Hoover’s stirring words:

“This world crisis appeared last March. At that time, President Truman did me the honor to ask for my collaboration in the great crisis that faced mankind. As my first duty, I have journeyed over the world to evaluate the minimum needs of the great famine areas and to discover such additional food resources as possible. I have also endeavored to coordinate and bring about as great a solidarity as possible of the nations to meet this crisis. I was more than glad to undertake this effort, in order to contribute what experience I had gained as the head of the organization which fought the great famine after the first World War. But more than all that, especially did I desire that in this tremendous crisis of human life, there should be a demonstration to my countrymen that, no matter what our other differences in views might be in our opposite political parties, there could be no division of effort in the problem which revolved around the saving of human life, and of civilization itself….

“Hunger today hangs over the homes of more than 800,000,000 people—over one-third of the people of the world.

“…we are not alone faced with hunger, but we are faced with the problem of mass starvation. And by that term I mean whole villages—whole cities—and even whole nations—might be condemned to death did we not make our every effort. So far, we have prevented mass starvation….

“And may I repeat a statement which I have made elsewhere: ‘The saving of these human lives is far more than an economic necessity to the recovery of the world. It is more than the only path to order, to stability and to peace. Such action marks the return of the lamp of compassion to the world. And that is a part of the moral and spiritual reconstruction of the world.’”

For more speeches given by Hoover during the food mission, see his memoirs, An American Epic (volume IV) and his Addresses upon the American Road, 1945–1948 (both available in the Hoover Library and Archives reading rooms), as well as his papers in the Hoover Archives and at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa.

And we have several other collections with material relating to this amazing food mission. Contact us or come to the Archives reading room and ask our friendly staff for assistance!

Hugh Gibson in the devastated Warsaw Ghetto, March 29, 1946. (Courtesy of Michael Gibson)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Preserving History: The Strange Case of the Lakoba Papers

Hoover research fellow Paul Gregory, a specialist in Soviet economics, finds compelling the human aspects of life under the Soviet regime. Gregory, director of the annual Hoover Sino-Soviet Archives Workshop, is a seasoned researcher. In his book Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin's Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Institution Press, 2010), he tells their tragic story. In this guest blog, he relates the story of a family's fearless actions to save a legacy that was subsequently entrusted to the Hoover Archives.

The N. A. Lakoba papers, one of the most fascinating collections at the Hoover Institution Archives, contain the personal papers of one of Stalin’s closest friends, Nestor Lakoba, the party boss of Abkhazia (now part of Russian-occupied Georgia) and Stalin’s host on his frequent visits to the Black Sea resort of Sukhumi. The crown jewel of the collection is Lakoba’s personal photo album, filled with candid pictures of Stalin and his retinue hunting and fishing; it also contains Lakoba’s personal papers, including his official health certificate, which indicates that he was almost completely deaf. Most documents are in Lakoba’s own hand, including his personal notebook containing his candid musings. Secret correspondence with and reports from his informers reveal his concern about encroachments on his authority by political rivals, including Georgian boss Lavrenty Beria [Lavrentii Beriia].

Shortly before Christmas 1936, Beria poisoned Lakoba during a dinner in Beria’s home. Lakoba’s body was returned from Tbilisi to Sukhumi by special train; he was buried with full honors in the Sukhumi botanical garden. Beria was among the mourners, somberly carrying a funeral banner in honor of his old friend. In the aftermath of the murder, Lakoba’s extended family was either executed or imprisoned, and those associated with him were accused of being part of his plots to kill Stalin and other Soviet leaders. Before their arrest, the family, having learned of Beria’s plan to burn the body to destroy evidence of the poisoning, secretly reburied his body in an undisclosed location, presumably near his home village. Despite torture, Lakoba’s wife took the secret to her grave.

In reading the autobiography of Lakoba’s sister-in-law (more than a quarter-century his junior), I came across the following account of how the Lakoba family saved his archives from Beria’s grasp and certain destruction:

“In this difficult time, Saria [Lakoba’s wife] and Musto [her younger brother] succeeded in saving Nestor’s archive. In the presence of witnesses, they burned in the courtyard letters from Trotsky and other dangerous letters. Other documents they placed in a box, which they packed in thick paper and then hid in a hiding place under the floor of their house. When Musto [one of the few to survive] returned from prison and exile in 1955, he found that their house had been turned into a dormitory of a technical institute. The package was not in the secret hiding place. Workers, who remodeled the floors, had found the box. Musto began a personal investigation of its whereabouts. He learned that it was in the possession of local authorities (who did not understand what it was), and to his astonishment the box was returned to him. To his surprise, the archives was remarkably well preserved. After Musto’s death, the archives went to his son.”

Lakoba’s sister-in-law thus provides us with one link in the chain of events that eventually brought the Lakoba archive to Hoover and tells us that the family burned documents that it felt would be incriminating, such as the correspondence with Trotsky. The candid photos of the vacationing Stalin have been widely reproduced in many books on Stalin. The collection is also a valuable source on the history of Abkhazia, which, even in Lakoba’s time, had separatist tendencies. Abkhazia and its capital city, Sukhumi, today have a government appointed by Putin and are occupied by Russian troops.

When I read through the Lakoba archive in July, it was in the hands of the capable Hoover Archives preservation staff, who were applying preventive care to the eighty-year-old photographs. It is fortunate that the Lakoba archive ended up at Hoover. In a poorly funded Russian state archive, there is no telling what its condition would be today (or if it would even be accessible).

Paul Gregory's blog

Guide to the N. A. Lakoba papers

Nestor Lakoba, circa 1930s. N. A. Lakoba papers, box 3, Hoover Institution Archives

Joseph Stalin (right) and Lavrentii Beriia on vacation in Abkhazia, circa 1930s. N. A. Lakoba papers, box 3, Hoover Institution Archives

Joseph Stalin (center) and Kliment Voroshilov (right), people's commissar for military and navy and people's commissar of defense, on vacation in Abkhazia, circa 1930s. N. A. Lakoba papers, box 3, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Don’t Mess with Cupid: A Remembrance

The intrigues of international politics are dominated by ambitious and dedicated individuals who relish power and influence. How often, however, do we hear about someone who gave up fame and a promising career for love?

Stefan Olszowski was twice the foreign minister of communist Poland and a Politburo member with a strong pro-Soviet record. His career seemed to be on an upward trajectory until he was suddenly ousted from the Communist Party leadership in 1985, in part because of his affair with a Polish journalist whom he married after leaving his first wife. A man known for actively supporting the suppression of the fledgling Solidarity movement and once a rising star in the world politics, Olszowski left for New York in 1986, when his new wife accepted a staff position at the United Nations. Disregarding his colleagues’ admonitions that it was bad publicity for such a high-profile Communist to be living in enemy territory, Olszowski settled with his wife and their son in a Long Island community near the Hamptons. Could Olszowski have had a sense of the dramatic changes to come in Poland? Or had he recognized that a relatively anonymous life with his son and the woman he loved were far superior to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune behind the Iron Curtain.

Stefan Olszowski’s privacy was recently “invaded” by our Curator for Eastern Europe and the papers and photographs with which he left communist Poland are now in the Hoover Archives. Several examples of these photographs appear below.


Stefan Olszowski (right) with General Wojciech Jaruzelski, prime minister and last Communist leader of Poland, 1983. Stefan Olszowski papers, box 3, Hoover Institution Archives


Stefan Olszowski (left) with Andrei Gromyko, Soviet foreign minister, during his visit to Warsaw, 1983. Stefan Olszowski papers, box 3, Hoover Institution Archives

Stefan Olszowski and wife Zofia in America. Stefan Olszowski papers, box 3, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Man Who Played with Fire

Might Stieg Larsson have taken a page from Theodore Abel? In The Girl Who Played with Fire, Larsson's best-selling detective novel, a reporter is stymied in trying to track down a retired police officer. He has the retiree's e-mail address but no town or street. Veteran reporter Mikael Blomkvist suggests a trick: notify the retiree that he's won a mobile phone that must be delivered to his home address. The reporter takes Blomkvist's suggestion, the retiree takes the bait, and the plot thickens.

An early implementer of a similar technique, Abel sought to track down followers of Adolf Hitler in 1934. As a sociologist at Columbia University, he thought that the life stories of early party members could help make sense of the National Socialist movement. How to locate those people? A contest, of course, in which Abel offered 400 German marks "for the best personal life history of an adherent of the Hitler movement." Limiting the contest to people who had joined the party before 1933, his announcement, distributed at all local headquarters of the party and published in the party press, stated that "contestants are to give accurate and detailed descriptions of their personal lives, particularly after World War I. Special attention should be given to accounts of family life, education, economic conditions, membership in associations, participation in the Hitler movement, and important experiences, thoughts, and feelings about events and ideas of the post-war period."

Abel paid the awards out of his own pocket. Had he been able to offer more money, he thought, he would have gotten more entries. Even so, he received 683 manuscripts, "a result as unexpected as it was gratifying. The wealth and variety of material contained in these life histories fully justified the undertaking." Many of these life histories are among the Theodore Abel papers at the Hoover Archives. If you can't visit to read the originals, try Abel's book, Why Hitler Came into Power: An Answer Based on the Original Life Stories of Six Hundred of His Followers (1938), from which these quotes were taken. I can't truly call Abel the man who played with fire, but he surely played a smart game.

Nazi Party Biography of Wilhelm Schmitz, Box 1, Folder 3, Theodore Abel papers, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Microfilming: A Meticulous Preservation Process

Someone said that “today’s activity is tomorrow’s history.” That is certainly true at the Microfilming Department at the Hoover Institution, where we preserve documents for future reference. Over the years, many people who have visited our lab, whether they had used microfilm before or not, said they had never realized what a thorough process microfilming was. As a result of witnessing our work, they appreciated and had a better understanding of microfilming as a meticulous preservation process.

I won’t go into the many technical details in this short article, and even though preservation and access go hand-in-hand, I will deal only with preservation here. I will begin with the preparation aspects of the process.

Ideally, all the documents should be ready to be microfilmed when they come to our lab. There are times, however, when we have to do some document preparation before filming, including removing fasteners, staples, paper clips, pushpins, etc. Depending on the age of the documents, the fasteners may be old and rusty (first photo below). We don’t use staple removers (second photo) to remove the metal fasteners, since they could leave marks. Instead, we use micro-spatulas and other tools (third photo). Once the metal fasteners are removed, we replace them with plastic clips (fourth photo). Finally, the documents are ready to be microfilmed.


To give you an idea of the extent of the preparation, the following photos show the number of fasteners removed from 110 boxes from September 2009 through mid-March 2010. Their total weight came to 2.866 pounds. (The total number of each type of fasteners was approximated by weighing all the removed fasteners and approximating the percentage of each type from the total.) The breakdown is as follows:

Each metal paper clip weighed 0.0881 ounces. There are 500-600 metal paper clips. Each pushpin weighed 0.0352 ounces. There are 150-250 pushpins. Ten staples weighed 0.0352 ounces. There are 2,000-25,000 staples.


I hope you can now appreciate all the work that goes into microfilming.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

You Have Been Warned

Hoover fellow Mark Harrison is one of the first researchers to delve into the recently acquired Lithuanian KGB materials. When he heard about a law that would expand the powers of Russia's FSB (Federal Security Service) if enacted, his immersion in these materials became even more material. Mark's blog entry, You Have Been Warned, tells how the KGB files have informed and enriched his understanding of the proposed law.

A draft law before the Russian Parliament (since passed) gives new powers to the FSB (Federal Security Service), the successor to the KGB. It allows the FSB to issue binding warnings to citizens suspected of creating conditions, through negligence, passivity, or incitement, in which crimes might be committed or facilitated. A warning that is ignored can be followed by an unspecified penalty, even though the actions that led to the warning may not be offenses in themselves.

This provision of the draft law restores the legal basis of a function once widely exercised by the KGB. This function was known in Russian as profilaktika, which translates directly as "prophylaxis" or "prevention."

Across the Soviet Union in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, the KGB subjected around 15,000 people a year to profilaktika, more than half of them for displaying some sort of overt political unreliability, or having connections with foreigners leading to suspicion of disloyalty (see Rudol'ph Pikhoia, Sovetskii Soiuz: istoriia vlasti, 1945–1991: Moscow 1998, pp. 365-366.) In proportion to the population, this would be about one in 10,000 adult Soviet citizens in each year.

What did profilaktika mean? Evidence of many, many individual cases can be found, for example, in the Lithuania KGB collection of the archive at the Hoover Institution, where I'm working now. How did they work? You could imagine it like this. Out of the blue, you get a call to come into your local KGB office. You really don't know what it's about, but you're on your best behaviour. Sitting behind his desk is a KGB colonel. He asks you what you think of the Soviet Union. Wonderful! You declare. Good, he says.

But in that case, he goes on: How come you told this anti-Soviet joke to your colleagues in the office on Thursday? And on Friday in the bar you repeated the news you heard the day before on Radio Liberty? And on Saturday you were heard cursing your Soviet-made automobile and wishing you had a BMW?

At first you bluster and deny everything. Inside, however, your world is collapsing. You're realizing just how much trouble you're in; your job and your home depend on the state and both are on the line. But that is only the start. Worse, it's dawning on you that your colleagues, your friends, maybe even your family members have been telling tales about you to the KGB. You're on your own.

You crumble. You start to make excuses: You were tired and under stress, you've always been a bit of an ignorant big mouth, you've been promoted above your competence and this has put you under pressure. You didn't realize how wrong it was. But you do now. Yes, you do, you do.

You promise you will never, ever do such things again. And you really mean it because, short of being physically beaten or locked in a cell, nothing is worse than the state of mind that this profilaktika has put you in. You've been exposed, hurt, humiliated, compromised, and isolated from society: From now on you will trust nobody, not even yourself. In fact, the only honest person in the room is the man in front of you.

The colonel listens as you stammer out your explanations. He is calm and nods a lot. He accepts what you say. When you've done, he closes the file. Go away, he says, and change your ways. We'll keep the information but, as long as you do the right thing from now on, we'll never have to look at it again. As you leave, you thank him for putting you back on the right track.

After you've gone, he makes a note to keep a special watch on you for a few months or a year, just to be sure that you meant it.

Profilaktika was applied to all sorts of cases, from loose morals and rowdy behaviour to indiscreet or unauthorized contacts with foreigners, petty smuggling or currency violations, and to adolescents who, in a place like Lithuania, might get caught up in the romance of anti-Soviet fly-posting or dreams of emigration. In such cases profilaktika was applied to the parents as well as the children.

More than half of all the cases of profilaktika were carried out in the privacy of the KGB offices, but there was also another version of the drama. This was enacted in public meetings. In this case the psychological beating was administered by your own colleagues, your student peers, or the pillars of your neighbourhood community.

For a police state, profilaktika was relatively humane. For hundreds of thousands of people it took the place of arrest and imprisonment, which would have been their fate in Stalin's time. It was also very effective in causing people to change their behaviour. In eight years, according to Pikhoia, out of more than 120,000 people subjected to such treatment, only 150 were subsequently taken to court for an actual offense. That's one eighth of one percent, a recidivism rate that western penal systems can only dream about.

A durable police state cannot be built out of bricks alone. There are building blocks like the security police and civilian police, border controls, the control of public assets, the distribution of taxes and resource rents, and media monopolies. In addition, binding agents are needed to assemble the blocks and glue them in place by controlling and coordinating the everyday behaviour of citizens at work, at home, and in the streets. Profilaktika was part of the mortar that held the bricks of the KGB state in position. Looks like it will do so again.

Professor Harrison's blog


Her home telephone having been disconnected by the KGB, Arina Ginzburg calls the U.S. embassy in Moscow; fellow dissident Sergei Moshkov ensures that no one enters the telephone booth. In the background, a KGB woman watches. Undated, Aleksandr Ginzburg papers, Hoover Institution Archives

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Fiftieth Anniversary of the Confederation of Iranian Students

As long as archivists keep processing new collections, the tale of a single historical event or personage is never quite put to rest, which was certainly my experience when processing the Hamid Shawkat collection. Unfortunately, for an Iranian-American, my knowledge of modern Iranian history is fragmented, at best: Mosaddeq was thrown out, the shah came to power, the shah was thrown out, Khomeini came to power, and the Islamic Republic of Iran was formed. Often it takes a modern phenomenon to awaken interest in a now distant historical event. Last year's contested Iranian election provided the fuel for a generation of Iranian students to slip beyond their firewalls and, for a brief moment, converse with a world that has otherwise labeled them as other, distant, and disconnected.

The power of the Iranian student uprising, however, is not without precedent. In 1960, a group of students came together to form what would become the most organized and democratic student group Iran had ever seen: the Confederation of Iranian Students (CIS). Originally made up of members of the Tudeh Party and the National Front, CIS expanded in 1961 to include members of the Iranian Student Association of the United States. Armed with the unifying goal of denouncing the shah and the human rights violations of the secret police, the confederation was seen by some as the only political organization capable of representing the needs of the Iranian people in a time when opposition groups were being forcefully eradicated.

To uphold this responsibility, CIS produced an assortment of printed materials, including journals, newsletters, and newspapers, that strengthened the network stretching across Europe and the United States. Those materials, many of which are included in the Hamid Shawkat collection, offer a rare glance into the organized student front that helped promulgate the tumultuous political climate that gave rise to the Iranian revolution in 1979.

In 2010, we are proud not only to have access to these records but to recognize the fiftieth anniversary of the Confederation of Iranian Students which, for the most part, has escaped the narrative of modern Iranian history.

"Nameh Parsi" Published by the
Confederation of Iranian Students,
Box 9, Hamid Shawkat collection,
Hoover Institution Archives

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

You've Got V-Mail

When a colleague encountered something unfamiliar while working on a collection of documents and asked me if I knew anything about "V-Mail," I thought she must be referring to some new and exotic form of electronic mail. I was unaware that the term “vmail” was currently used by some people as shorthand for voice mail. But rather than the present, her question led to the past and a form of mail devised in exceptional circumstances—World War II—and making use of technology, albeit of a non-electronic kind.

A little digging and a helpful web page turned up a wealth of details on the subject of V-Mail. It turned out that the V stood for Victory, a word ubiquitous in the discourse of the Allied war effort, which had already seen the promotion of Victory gardens (to grow vegetables on the home front) and the sale of Victory bonds (to raise money from the public). V-Mail referred to a process whereby correspondence being sent to troops overseas was microfilmed to reduce its physical volume so as to free up space on cargo planes for war material.

The basic V-Mail program was fairly simple. One used standardized stationery on which to write letters; the letters were then microfilmed, and the microfilm was then shipped overseas, where it was developed and then delivered. But behind this lay a formidable logistic undertaking. Processing centers had to established, both in the United States and abroad, requiring significant amounts of personnel and equipment. Eastman Kodak was awarded the contract for the microfilm machines, and V-Mail detachments were created in the postal units of the armed forces. Three regional centers were established in the United States (San Francisco, New York, and Chicago) to process V-Mail, along with numerous stations overseas.

The archives has a number of promotional posters that stress V-Mail’s reliability and speed and suggest that it was the “most patriotic” way to send mail to troops. One poster details the savings that V-Mail created in terms of cargo space. Its morale-boosting importance was another theme, captured in the slogan “You write, he’ll fight.” Of course, like other mail sent during wartime, V-Mail was subject to censorship.

The V-Mail program lasted from June 1942 until November 1945, but the mail itself has survived and thus remains available. The same may not hold true for e-mail, at least in its electronic form. As technology and formats change, files may not always remain recoverable, a challenge with which archivists are beginning to grapple.

A fuller description of the specifics of the V-Mail program can be found at the National Postal Museum section of the Smithsonian Institution’s web page.


Political Poster Collection, US 7299, Hoover Institution Archives

Political Poster Collection, US 7298, Hoover Institution Archives

Political Poster Collection, US 7297, Hoover Institution Archives

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Rhythm Road Ambassadors

It’s Sunday, June 20, 2010. It’s a beautiful day in San Francisco: the sun’s shining, birds are chirping, guys are in t-shirts and girls in sundresses, and I’m stuck in a laundromat on Oak Street. Life isn’t always glamorous in the City’s hipster neighborhoods, but I digress.

Catching up on the previous week’s human-interest news, I was surprised, amused, and happy to see an article on musical ambassadors in the June 17 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Immediately, my mind recalled our Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) collections and the slideshow my colleague Brandon Burke assembled. Fifty years ago, America sent musicians to Europe, and it’s great to see that, today, the same is happening in the near East. Though, as an ardent fan of rock and roll, I was bummed it wasn’t one of the mentioned genres.

The Journal article highlights some differences between the programs. Were one to visit the Archives, one could hear Dizzy Gillespie talk to RFE’s Bulgarian service about Jazz at Lincoln Center. Or hear interviews with British punk rock fans from 1977. Or—forgive me for the self-serving nod—Phil Woods blowing sax in an RFE exclusive recording. I would invite the listener to then contemplate how it compares to today’s world.

Sometimes history repeats, and during those times, it’s fascinating to look at what happened before.

British beat group the Creation in the studio with RFE disc jockeys Janos Havel (left) and Jan Tyszkiewicz (right). Box 117, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Broadcast Records, Hoover Institution Archives.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bulk Freezing

Although it's not cryogenics, freezing is a tool for archival preservation. Collection materials that are damaged by water in a disaster such as a flood or burst water pipe can be frozen to retard further deterioration. The frozen materials can then be thawed in small batches and treated. This is a job for preservation professionals, as you'll see from these leaflets about salvaging wet papers and wet photographs.

Freezing can also be used to eliminate insects and other pests from newly acquired collections. That's just what we did in December with a collection that had been stored in a barn. All magnetic media--audiotapes, videotapes, floppy disks--had to be removed first because they can be damaged by freezing. Each box of papers also had to be bagged in plastic, with excess air eliminated and the bag tightly sealed. By eliminating as much air as possible and freezing the materials very quickly, few ice crystals form. When the materials are gradually returned to room temperature while remaining in the bag, moisture condenses on the outside of the bag but not on the materials inside. This prevents any water damage to the materials that are frozen.

What I like about this use of freezing is the mass-treatment approach. Five pallets of boxed papers received preservation treatment as a big group--that's a cost-effective process! This is the way archivists approach many aspects of our work. It's when we have to deal with items individually, be it applying intensive conservation treatments to each or describing every single document individually, that our systems break down and our backlog grows exponentially. In archival work, we're always looking for an aggregate approach.

Supplies were at the ready as we prepared an archival collection for freezing.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Antiques Roadshow at the Hoover Archives

What's it like hosting a camera crew from a major television show? At Hoover we've dealt with them before, including a team from Phoenix TV in China who taped the Stilwell diaries at Hoover for a documentary about Joseph Stilwell. Even so, we were excited when a crew from PBS's Antiques Roadshow was scheduled to tape a segment at Hoover. The show highlighted a few political posters chosen from the more than one hundred thousand in Hoover's poster collection. The segment is scheduled to air on Monday, May 24th 2010 as part of three hours of programming from San Jose; nearly ten million people watch each episode.

As you might expect, many hours of staff time were invested in what will be a clip lasting just a few minutes. That process began months in advance, when we were initially contacted by Roadshow staff, who already knew they wanted to focus on our posters. After the go-ahead was given, our reference staff assisted the Roadshow people. A production scout team visited during the week of the shoot. They looked at possible taping locations in the archives and provided the final list of three posters for the shoot. Their focus was the "pointing finger" motif in World War I recruitment posters.

The day of the shoot was a long one, with the production team at Hoover from 8:30 to 4:30. Much of the morning was spent setting up; the final footage was taped just before lunch. After lunch a smaller Roadshow crew remained to shoot B-roll footage in the stacks and other locations. Two of our staff members signed waivers before being taped in action shots such as typing at a keyboard and opening a poster drawer. We had to deal with some last-minute changes, such as moving the shoot location to a different room. (If Roadshow ever visits your facility, you'll need a room where the air conditioning can be turned off so that its noise does not affect the sound quality.)

Of course, what you're really interested in is the appraisal. The appraiser, Nicholas Lowry, specializes in posters. He said that our poster of Lord Kitchener pointing his finger is the earliest instance of this motif in a recruiting poster. In all Lowry's years of work, he had only seen reproductions of this poster; ours was his first original. Its appraised value? Watch on May 24th.

Political Poster Collection, Italy 17,
Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How to Turn Eight Hours into Three Minutes over Nine Months

Last August, as part of their field trip segment, the crew from PBS’s Antiques Roadshow descended on the Hoover Archives to look at a few of the 120,000 posters we have in our Political Poster Collection. We’d spent time prepping the Roadshow’s advance team with descriptions of some of the most vivid and famous posters, their dimensions, and their histories. They narrowed their search to three.

A film crew of a dozen or so, including series host Mark L. Walberg and appraiser Nicholas Lowry, showed up at 8:30 on a Friday morning. The sound techs and camera operators checked out locations throughout the archives, looking for the right combination of lighting, acoustics, and authentic archival aura.

Then the fun began: as Mark and Nico discussed and appraised the three posters, the director repositioned the stars, the posters, and the cameras to achieve just the right camera angle. Simple, right? They shot film until 4:00 in the afternoon! Then we were cautioned not to get our hopes up—that the Hoover portion of the program would be edited down to about three minutes.

Nine months later, on Monday, May 24, 2010, the Antiques Roadshow episode containing the Hoover segment will air on most PBS stations at 8:00 P.M.

Be sure to watch and see this World War I poster (featuring British Lord Kitchener) and more next week on your local PBS station.

Political Poster Collection, UK 473,
Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Working at Hoover: An Intern's View

Our student interns, often from San Jose State's library program, bring fresh perspectives and energy to the Hoover Archives. Some interns process archival collections, and others catalog audio recordings. This year Oanh Tran, a capable
and enthusiastic cataloger, has been working with us. She wrote this guest entry:

"If I ever conduct a survey asking my friends and relatives what they know about archival institutions, I am sure their answers would be very simple and short. How do I know that? I know that because I was one of them. I also had an extremely limited knowledge of what an archive really was. I knew the definition of the term ‘archive’ and that archives were where historical materials were stored. I did not know how the work was done on those materials in order for them to be usable. I did not know how archival materials were stored, and neither did I know there were archival collections in different languages. There were so many things I did not know about archives.

"Luckily for me, I was accepted to do my internship at the Hoover Institution Archives. It has been an eye-opening experience for me to be able to learn so many things I did not know about. On the first day of my internship, I was taken on a tour to be introduced to the staff. As I listened to the title of each person, I realized the survival of this archive not only depended on the administration but also on many people with different skill sets and specialties. I realized that everyone at the archives worked well together to create its current success. Then I was even more amazed to have a tour in the basement, where I could see how the archival collections were stored. It was a pleasure for me to look at the types of collections available, the types of materials and how they were carefully taken care of by the staff at the archives. I felt very happy after that tour because it helped broaden my knowledge.

"My main task as an intern at the archives is to catalog the audio recordings in the Commonwealth Club of California records, something I have enjoyed doing very much. By reading the summaries of the recordings, I am actually learning about the issues that were important to our country back in the 1980s. In addition, I have become more experienced with cataloging. Sometimes I would encounter certain small problems such as choosing the appropriate Library of Congress subject headings. That is when I turn to my supervisor and the archives’ cataloger for guidance. They have been a great resource in helping me do my job more successfully.

"I am still doing my internship at the Hoover Institution Archives. Each day of my internship is still as exciting and another great learning experience for me. I am proud of having finished cataloging the last half of the Commonwealth Club's audio recordings for 1980. I am currently working on the recordings for 1981, and I have set as my goal cataloging all of them before my internship ends. I am looking forward to achieving that goal and making my experience at the archives a great asset for my future career.”

Accessing the Catalog of the Commonwealth Club of California Records, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Good Librarian

Because of the collecting scope of the library and archives, the original impetus for which came from Herbert Hoover's determination to document World War I in hopes that future conflicts could be prevented, many of its materials relate to
episodes of collective violence: the mass deportations and executions under Stalin; the Holocaust; and various wars, large and small. One can't help being struck by the extent of the inhumanity that is recorded in such documents, bringing to mind a line spoken by one of the characters in James Joyce's Ulysses: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Fortunately, one also encounters examples of individuals and groups who worked to alleviate suffering or help the victims of catastrophes. In preparing materials to show the ambassador of Lithuania on his visit to the archives, I had a chance to look again at a small collection pertaining to a woman who, at great risk to herself, rescued Jews in German-occupied Vilnius during World War II. That the woman, Ona Šimaitė, was also a university librarian made her story even more compelling; she was concerned with preserving not only the printed word but human life.

Using the cover of her profession to visit Jews in the Vilnius ghetto, Šimaitė brought them books and also food, medicine, and clothes. She was able to rescue a number of Jewish children, bringing them out of the ghetto hidden in potato sacks. She also acted as a courier for the underground resistance to the Nazis. Šimaitė paid a high price for her actions: arrested by the Gestapo, she was tortured and eventually sent to the Dachau concentration camp but somehow survived.

After the war, Šimaitė settled in France, where she continued to work as a librarian. Having adopted one of the Jewish children she had saved in Vilnius, she and her daughter eventually moved to Israel. Šimaitė was presented with a medal by the State of Israel in recognition of her rescue efforts. She died in France in 1970.

The Ona Šimaitė papers in the archives contain a small album of photos and clippings, as well as notes she made during the German occupation of Lithuania. It also contains correspondence, including letters written to her by Vytautas Landsbergis in 1968. A musicology student at the time, Landsbergis would later become famous as the leader of the independence movement in Lithuania, serving as the country's first president in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Although Šimaitė’s story was little known outside of Lithuania, a recently scholarly article on her, written by Julija Sukys, can be found in the summer 2008 ( 54, no. 2) issue of the journal, Lituanus.

Ona Šimaitė with Antanas Liutkus, 1969, Ona Šimaitė papers, Hoover Institution Archives.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Six Degrees of Separation

Unless one is an expert on the politics and economics of East Africa, one’s not likely to recognize the name William X. Scheinman.

Unless one followed developments in postcolonial Africa, one’s not likely to recognize the name Tom Mboya.

Every American and most people throughout the world, however, recognize the name Barack Obama.

What’s the connection?

In the late 1950s, Scheinman, an American businessman, and Mboya, a politician, an advocate for democratic development, and a leader of labor and independence movements in Africa, became fast friends. Mboya, knowing education was the key to independence and a vibrant democracy, was looking for a way to get young Africans (mainly Kenyans) a university education in the United States and Canada. With Scheinman’s help, connections, and financial support, Mboya created the African American Students Foundation: the vehicle that helped thousands of Africans to come to America.

One of those young students who came to the United States under the umbrella of the African American Students Foundation was none other than Barack Obama Senior.

Both Scheinman’s and Mboya’s papers are housed in the Hoover Institution Archives. In processing those papers, we ran across thank-you letters from the senior Obama to Mboya. Here are several excerpts from one of those letters:


Barack Obama Sr. to Tom Mboya, May 29, 1962,
Tom Mboya Papers,
Box 41, Hoover Institution Archives.

Mboya went on to become a minister in the cabinet of Kenya’s first independent government in 1963, and many believe the history of Kenya would have been very different had Mboya not been assassinated in 1969.

Despite the important role Mboya played in the African independence and labor movements, it is sometimes the other things in collections that catch one’s eye, the Obama letters being a case in point.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Speaking of Labels…

Lisa brings up a good point in her post, labeling materials is quite often a major challenge. Not only are we at the mercy of whatever labeling systems creators use to describe their items, but we sometimes don’t get much in the way of labels. These recordings, for example, which are part of our largest collections, came to us lacking both individual “clamshell” boxes and any sense of order whatsoever. (And yes, that’s a Christmas tape in there.)


Our first move was to untangle the tapes and put each reel in its own clamshell box. Because there are 260 reels in this collection, we separated them and organized them by date range (1997, 1998, 1999, etc.).


From there, making do with what little descriptive information we had (at least they all had dates), we created labels with the date of each recording. (Hint: Don’t buy cheap labels. Get foil-backed labels from an archival supplier. They employ a much stronger adhesive than your standard Avery/office labels, meaning that they’re less likely to end up on the floor of your stacks in a few years.)

Here’s a shot of the tapes as they appear now:


Want to hear them? Give me a holler!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Present at the Creation

In a long and distinguished career as a French diplomat, Jacques Leprette occupied a number of important posts, most notably as his country's ambassador to the United Nations (1976–82) and to the European Community (1982–85). His papers in the archives document important aspects of French foreign policy in this period; they also record Leprette's intimate knowledge of American society, a product of his lengthy stay in the United States as a junior official with the French embassy in Washington.

Among the materials in the collection, however, it was a document from the earliest part of his career that seemed to have been singled out by Leprette as an item of special significance: an original draft of the treaty establishing the Council of Europe, signed in London in May 1949. Leprette was part of the French delegation at the London conference that negotiated the treaty and subsequently served as a counselor at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

The draft in the Leprette papers has handwritten corrections to the French version of the treaty, as well the signatures of the various heads of delegations present at the council’s creation, including Ernest Bevin from the United Kingdom and Robert Schuman, from France. Given the document’s intrinsic value as an artifact and the subsequent importance of the Council of Europe in the story of European integration, it was decided to give it special treatment so that it could be both preserved and shown to visitors to the archives. Among the staff of the archives, such presentation items are known informally as “treasures”; it was nice to be able to add something to this select category.

The archives’ Preservation Department designed and made a portfolio to house the treaty draft. The portfolio encapsulated the draft and a photo depicting the treaty’s signing. The resulting whole allows the items to be easily presented and also protects them from any possible harm.

The Leprette papers contain other documents relating to the Council of Europe, including transcripts of proceedings held during the first years of the council’s existence. The Council of Europe went on to establish the European Court
of Human Rights and continues to play an important role in promoting cooperation among its member states in the areas of common legal standards and democratic governance.


Photograph depicting the signing ceremony for the founding treaty of the Council of Europe, London, May 5, 1949, Jacques Leprette Papers, Hoover Institution Archives


Last page of draft of Council of Europe treaty, with the signature of Ernest Bevin, the British representative, Jacques Leprette Papers, Hoover Institution Archives


Cover of special presentation folder for Council of Europe treaty, Jacques Leprette Papers, Hoover Institution Archives


Expanded view of presentation folder, showing encapsulated photograph and treaty, Jacques Leprette Papers, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Off the Record" and the Archival Record

It's no secret that Herbert Hoover talked to Commonwealth Club audiences at nine "off- the-record" events between 1936 and 1947. He also gave four formal speeches at the club, most of which were published. But wouldn't it be interesting to know what he said off the record?

Those talks consisted of informal question-and-answer sessions at the club’s dinner meetings. Only club members and their male guests could attend; all understood that Hoover was not to be quoted. The press was not invited, and the events were not recorded. Hoover "felt that second-hand statements of such informal opinions as he proposed to give were never satisfactory either to the one quoted or the one informed," as one reporter who was shut out of the 1936 event explained the blackout. This is where the Commonwealth Club records at the Hoover Archives come into the picture. Could they contain accounts of Hoover's comments?

The club's files certainly indicate that the conversational dinner meetings with Hoover were a big hit. Seven hundred and sixty-six people attended the 1936 dinner; another two hundred were turned away (the next most popular dinner meeting of that year, the club's annual evening of literature and music, drew just 233 people). Some of the other dinners with Hoover had even more attendees, peaking at 875 in 1947.

The club used a form to evaluate its speakers; one doting evaluator wrote of Hoover's 1945 appearance, "Tops in every way--Everybody said, 'What an evening!'" Not to be outdone, the same evaluator wrote of Hoover's next talk, "Probably the most successful meeting the Club ever held." Apparently Hoover was entertaining as well as knowledgeable; under the checkbox for "Humor" on the form, another evaluator checked "Yes" and then underlined it for good measure.

The club provided Hoover with a list of prospective questions a day or two in advance. A couple lists of questions have been preserved, but they are far too numerous to have all been covered in the ninety or so available minutes. Among those for 1945 were Can Europe feed herself this winter? What is the future of synthetic rubber? Will there be an effort to internationalize the Suez and Panama Canals?

Food for the dinner meeting was an issue in 1945. A note in the files indicates that it was 95 percent likely that the entrée would be fish (mutton was the alternative) but that nearly all fish, except salmon, as well as poultry and mutton, were only available on the black market. (It was hoped that barracuda or sea bass would be off the black market by the time of Hoover's talk.)

That's about all we know; because the club honored Hoover’s terms, we don't know what he said. Unfortunately, it's the kind of archival dead end that researchers often encounter in their work.


Announcement of Hoover's "off-the-record" talk for August 7, 1947. The Commonwealth, August 4, 1947 (box 624), Commonwealth Club of California records, Hoover Institution Archives.