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Herbert Hoover’s Archive for Peace: The Hoover Institution

Hoover Tower
The Hoover Tower at Stanford University in Palo Alto

July 27, 2015

In this series, we will be highlighting archives and museums that specialize in Russia, East European and Central Asian Studies (REECAS) related material. Along the way, we hope to explore themes of memory, representation, culture, and the interplay of history and the present. How can academic and archival institutions responsibly collect, display, and educate? What is the relationship between sources and interpretation? We will consider a number of various collections across borders and time. In this entry we will consider the Hoover Institution and its archives, the history of the library and the Russia and Eurasia Collection, which is one of the largest in the world.

by Michael Brinley

Herbert Hoover, the Library's benefactor with his dog, King Tut.

Herbert Hoover, the Library’s benefactor with his dog, King Tut. Herbert Hoover, Stanford’s most presidential alumnus, had the idea for the archive while traversing the Atlantic during WWI.

As the story goes, future president Herbert Hoover was reading the memoirs of Andrew D. White, the co-founder of Cornell University while crossing the North Sea in late 1914. White, a historian, lamented the lack of documentary material that could help sort out the incredibly controversial legacy of the French Revolution. Hoover, enmeshed in Europe’s then current conflagration, feared a similar fate for the memory of WWI and undertook a far-flung enterprise to gather precious primary source material on the conflict  this, four years before the war even ended. He was unusually successful in his effort. Enlisting a number of regional experts, most prominently, Frank Golder, Hoover acquired a rich swathe of material, especially on the region of the collapsing revolutionary Russian Empire. The Russia collection at the Hoover Institution today is a testament to the quality of work done in the early twentieth century, representing the most extensive Russian archive in the West. From the kernel of WWI, the Hoover continued to gather documents and repositories of various Communist Party official organs, smuggled out bureaucratic residue, and personal papers. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, representatives of the Hoover Institution collaborated with the Russian State Archives to pay for the microfilming of 12 million pages of Soviet Communist Party documents. In 1992, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev visited the Hoover and helped establish the collaborative rapport that allowed for the massive transfer of Soviet era material to the United States (albeit primarily copies). Today, nearly every historian of the Soviet twentieth century spends time at Stanford’s Hoover Institution for archival research. In the shadow of the university’s most distinctive landmark, the Hoover Tower, preeminent scholars scurry between buildings, chatting about projects on Civil War era Siberian despots, Boris Pasternak’s poetry, 1950’s Radio Free Europe, and perestroika’s political advisors. The main stacks of the Russia collection are housed in the first nine floors of the Tower itself, an obelisk dedicated to inquiry.

But the Hoover Institution is more than just a library. The founder and benefactor said as much in his address to the Board of Trustees in 1959, from which the Institution continues to take its mission:

This Institution supports the Constitution of the United States, its Bill of Rights and its method of representative government. Both our social and economic systems are based on private enterprise from which springs initiative and ingenuity…The overall mission of this Institution is, from its records, to recall the voice of experience against the making of war, and by the study of these records and their publication, to recall man’s endeavors to make and preserve peace, and to sustain for America the safeguards of the American way of life. This Institution is not, and must not be, a mere library.”

The Committee for Relief in Belgium in Lille, France

Through his role as the chairman for the Commission for Relief in Belgium, Herbert Hoover was uniquely placed to gather documents on World War I and the Russian Revolution.

This begs the question: What kind of role can a library play in “preserving peace?” The Hoover Institution has been proposing answers to this question for the better part of a century now.  Eric Wakin, the associate director of the archive since 2013, in what he called the “kumbaya moment” of an address to Stanford’s Board of Trustees in January 2014 said the corrective to understanding the Hoover’s role is “that people on both sides of the political spectrum can realize that the archive is a space where there are things kept for all sides to look at and preserve for generations, and that’s a good thing.” In the same speech Wakin mentions the fact that the archive is open to the public and that it is constantly being used for an impressive variety of research by scholar of all political stripes. Many genealogists utilize the Hoover’s extensive collection of interviews with Poles in the aftermath of WWII who had been in the Soviet concentration camps to track down lineages that would otherwise be lost.

American Higher Education’s integration into political economy: Think-Tank Era

In the years following the Second World War, American higher education went through a revolution of sorts. Rebecca Lowen, in her book about Stanford  Creating the Cold War University, claims that “During the cold war, the nation’s leading universities moved from the periphery to the center of the nation’s political economy…the postwar university was a wholly new institution, one that was uniquely responsive to the society of which it was now very much a part.” No longer an ivory tower, the uses of the university” were championed, and much of what we now take for granted about government sponsored university research came into existence. Lowen’s book primarily focuses on the integration of select universities into a collaborative R&D infrastructure with the Department of Defense. The hard sciences have their counterpart in the social sciences, and it was in these disciplinary forums that think-tanks emerged. The prototypical Cold War think-tank was the RAND Corporation. Affiliated with the U.S. Airforce and many notables from Henry Kissinger to Condoleezza Rice, RAND generated  many signal policy prescriptions of international and domestic variety. David Jardini’s book Thinking Through The Cold War chronicles RAND’s transition from an international policy hub to a center for domestic policy in the 1960s, a step that yielded lucrative results and demonstrates the important reality of international and domestic integration. There are no national vacuums.

Solzhenitsyn Hoover Institution Honorary Fellowship

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn giving a public address at the Hoover Institution in 1976 after his secret stay in the archives was discovered. He received an honorary fellowship.

The Hoover Institution in the 1960s grew under the leadership of W. Glenn Campbell as it embraced a policy “think-tank” identity and decisively sidled up to the neo-liberal economic policies that would inform the Reagan administration. The “domestic turn” of the formerly international affairs minded institution was representative of a broader shift that was occurring in other places, like the previously mentioned RAND Corporation. Nobel Laureate, Milton Friedman, most strongly associated with the University of Chicago and a critique of Keynesian economics, became a fellow at the Hoover. The Institution’s endowment grew into the hundreds of millions and began to attract names that had served and subsequently would serve in high level positions in government. The fascinating complexity of the Hoover Institution’s mixed conservative political profile can be seen in the appointment of three “honorary fellows” by the year 1980: Ronald Reagan, Frederick Hayek, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The Hoover, in one organization, represented a nexus of the dominant “conservative” strains of political, cultural, and academic life on a domestic and international scale.

Solzhenitsyn’s case is especially fascinating. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was probably the highest profile “insider” critic of the Soviet Regime and the publication of his A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich provoked a decades long censorship war, with the Soviet Ideology Department on one side and critical authors on the other, assisted often times by connections with foreign press.  As the cantankerous dissident compiled his extensive history of the Gulag network in the Soviet Union   what would become Gulag Archipelago   he was restricted from access to most, if not all, government archives. (side-note: Solzhenitsyn was eminently quotable, he ruffled many a feather in his day and demonstrated a unique brand of Slavic pessimism. For example, this gem: “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die.”) He was able to communicate his need for certain documents to the Hoover Institution, who in turn, obliged him by smuggling the requested documents into the Soviet Union from the archive. This constituted one of the most daring ILL requests of the twentieth century. When he eventually arrived in the U.S. at Stanford’s invitation he spent a significant amount of time at the Hoover Institution actually living on the 11th floor of the Hoover Tower, initially under secrecy, but the story broke when a student spotted him (not hard to do, considering his Eastern Orthodox sartorial choices and massive beard.) In a public address upon receiving his honorary fellowship, Solzhenitsyn remarked upon the benefit of having such an open historic archive, whereas even his benign requests from the Soviet government had been met with rejection. At that point in his speech he quoted an old Russian saying, realized that it was being mistranslated and heaved a sigh of dismissal. What he said roughly translates as “Look close enough at any happiness and you’ll find it was brought about by unhappinesses.”

Post-Soviet Acquisitions

On November 6, 1992 Boris Yeltsin took a bold step and categorically outlawed the Communist Party in Russia. Yeltsin had come to power in the freshly minted Russian Federation by collaborating with other Soviet Socialist Republics to dissolve the Union in December of 1991 in the Belavezha Accords. His controversial decision to outlaw the party was challenged in the Constitutional Courts and a trial emerged. In effect, the controversy became an opportunity and attempt to “put the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on trial.” This was conducted with no small amount of irony and ultimately, unsuccessfully. Throughout the Soviet period the Communist Party had perfected the “art” of the showtrial, and what goes around, comes around, so to speak.  A special fond (a Russian archival term) was put together, Fond 89 in the GARF (State Archive of the Russian Federation). Fond 89 became an assembly of evidence with the expressed intention of proving that “the Communist Party showed a complete disregard for human rights and international law.” Although the Communist Party was returned its legal status, the controversy surrounding this kind of use of the opened state archives provoked a lively debate in historical journals   What was the proper way to deal with sensitive information attached to a now defunct state mechanism? How could they avoid arbitrariness? How could they protect individuals and families from witch-hunts or prevent the tragic, archival discovery induced suicide? One of the more perplexing problems had to do with the fact that Russia was the sole inheritor of all of the Soviet central archives, which meant that they would continue to have sensitive material about the 14 new independent and “sovereign” republics that the new governments did not have. The dissolving Soviet institutions faced similar “national” questions in many realms, not just in regards to splitting boxes of documents, most poignantly with the Black Sea Fleet.


The Reading Room of the Hoover Archive. Much of what we know about the Soviet Union was learned here.

Slavic Review dedicated large portions of its 1993 publications to this discussion. Iurii Afanas’ev, a Russian historian and one of the committee members on the board responsible for the transfer of KGB archives over to new Russian state institutions, expressed concern over what he called the “sale” of Russian treasures to the west. Certain German newspapers were offering underpaid Russian archivists $20,000 for specific documents. In early 1992, the Sunday Times paid a “reported $145,000 fee for acquisition of Joseph Goebbels’s diaries,” which were compiled by a right-wing historian who had previously claimed that Hitler was not involved in the Holocaust. In this sensationalist atmosphere, the Hoover Institution’s project to microfilm millions of pages encountered some backlash, although Terence Emmons, a Stanford based Russian historian and overseer of the project, assured detractors that the documents were only being copied, not bought outright and that the project would aid in preservation for Rosarchiv as well as Western scholars.

Ultimately, the period of collaboration would only last for a few years and the microfilming project would fall short of its 25 million document goal, having to settle for a mere 12 million. This curtailed amount still makes the Hoover the best archive on twentieth century Soviet Union outside of Russia. And with changing political climates and varying degrees of intellectual freedom in Russia, Russian scholars at times don’t have access to documents in Russia that they can acquire with ease in Palo Alto. As Afanas’ev presciently noted in 1993 in Slavic Review, “Since all of [the documents] will be available at the Hoover Instituion, only researchers in Russia will not have access to them. Or the historian will have to go to California. The Hoover Institution has the right to charge a fee for access to these documents. So, an historian from Russia will have to go to California and pay to use our own archival resources. This is the absurdity of the situation.” Twenty two years later, the Hoover does not charge for access to the documents, but accessibility differences have emerged as Russian archives have tightened up. Political debates surrounding archival access have become a staple of Eastern European news cycles, as examples of “lustration” and exposing collaboration with the KGB becomes a card in the hands of competing politicians. Russia has largely avoided these dilemmas, but at the cost of transparent government and the respect of Western scholars and society.

As U.S. relations with Russia continue to shift in relation to global current events, the Hoover Archive will continue to provide access to a rich collection of primary material for Western scholars. The Institution and its Press wing is engaged in international policy prescription. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson’s Strategika has dedicated issues to the topic of “steps to take to curb Russia’s ambitions.” Policy prescriptions from the Hoover Institution are certainly augmented by the presence of the library, but it is not evident that they in any way corrupt the academic mission of the archive itself. In many ways, the vast collections serve as a neutral force, as they are accessible to any scholar. As the title of Eric Wakin’s address, Who Owns History? The Uses and Abuses of the Hoover Archives, suggests, misuse is possible, and even likely. But the overall benefit of having such resources at our disposal is imperative to the healthy functioning of social responsibility and the historical discipline. Archives like the Hoover Library exist on the fault-line of state projects and national identities, raising questions about responsibility and knowledge that can be tricky to untangle. But the archival impulse, the institutional preservation of memory and history is one of the best tools and barometers that modern society has for the preservation of intellectual freedom, and hopefully, the preservation of peace.