Historian Bertrand Patenaude’s new book, A Wealth of Ideas: Revelations from the Hoover Institution Archives (Stanford University Press, 2006), offers an eye-opening portrait of a frequently stereotyped campus fixture. What started 87 years ago as a project to collect World War I documents grew into a world-renowned repository and research mecca meriting its eventual name: the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. Patenaude, MA ’79, PhD ’87, makes the case that above all, the Hoover enterprise is about ideas, a place where scholars of different stripes have grappled with all the isms of the past century or so.
The word archives—and the landmark Hoover structure itself—can bring to mind images of ivory-tower fustiness. Patenaude’s account of the people and events behind the institution says otherwise. Many of the Hoover’s 65 million-odd items—official documents, diaries, letters, newspapers and other publications, photographs and films, artwork, personal effects and more—were secured through subterfuge, networking and arm-twisting, or sheer serendipity by Hoover staff on the ground during the 20th century’s most wrenching upheavals. (The author reminds readers that Herbert Hoover’s work running food relief efforts in war-torn Europe made him an international hero and opened doors for the institution’s collectors, some of whom were Stanford professors and students serving in the armed forces.) And a number of the scholars who have come to campus to access the archives helped make the epic history documented there.
This is a handsome coffee-table book with 300 four-color illustrations—it would have to be large-format to do justice to the Hoover’s treasures—but unlike many books in that genre, the pictures serve the text. Patenaude uses the collection selectively as a window into the two world wars and Russian and Chinese revolutions. A research fellow at Hoover specializing in Russian and modern European history, Patenaude hews to his areas of expertise rather than trying to cover the entire archive, which today represents much of the globe.
Historians often choose between a chronological or thematic structure. Some, including this author, take on the challenges of combining the two. One minor quibble is that occasionally the reader gets a sense of déjà vu when the same event illustrates different themes—or feels disoriented when themes interrupt chronology and vice versa. In this admittedly subjective survey, there also can be inconsistent levels of detail. For example: readers will not learn here that economist Milton Friedman has any connection with the Hoover Institution other than depositing his papers there, although Patenaude deals at length with his intellectual accomplishments. (Friedman is a senior research fellow.) And one wonders how the diaries of Maj. Gen. Joseph Stilwell— who famously dubbed Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek “Peanut” and refers to him as “the little bastard”—were acquired.
That said, readers will find Patenaude’s treatment of complex material engaging and accessible. And although the book never degenerates into a laundry list of curiosities, there are plenty of jaw-dropping interludes when he tells the stories behind some remarkable Hoover acquisitions, including these:
The Okhrana Collection is a complete record of the imperial Russian intelligence agency’s activities abroad from 1883 to 1917. The archive includes some 40,000 reports from agents, mug shots and intercepted correspondence of suspected revolutionaries and 23 volumes listing names and addresses of Russian émigrés. The records were kept in Paris; after the revolution, Vasilii Maklakov, the Russian ambassador to France, secretly arranged to have 17 large crates shipped to the Hoover library while telling the Soviets he had destroyed all records. He insisted they remain sealed until three months after his death. Curators opened them to great fanfare in October 1957.
Hoover curator Frank Golder, a Russian émigré and later a Stanford history professor, went on a three-year collecting trip in 1920, amassing Slavic materials in Europe and the Near East then entering Soviet Russia with Hoover’s relief contingent. For safekeeping, the Russian historian Yuri Got’e let Golder take his diary, a candid chronicle of the revolutionary period from 1917 to 1922. Golder never revealed the diarist’s identity, which stayed a mystery until 1982.
Golder also started a project to bring Russian scholars to the Hoover for a year of research. The first was economist Lev Litoshenko, who in 1926-27 completed a manuscript critical of Bolshevik agrarian policies. He then returned home to find Stalin in power. Golder sought Moscow’s approval to publish Litoshenko in English and bring more scholars to Stanford, but the Soviets refused and eventually banished Litoshenko to a Siberian labor camp, where he died in 1943. Golder had predeceased him in 1929, and Litoshenko’s “anonymous” manuscript languished at Hoover until Patenaude himself identified its author and shepherded its publication in Russia in 2001.
At the end of World War II, a U.S. Army colonel came across two diaries of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, covering 1925 to 1926 and 1942 to 1943, and turned them over to Herbert Hoover in Frankfurt the following year. A translated entry: “I am finishing Hitler’s book [Mein Kampf]. Thrilled to bits! Who is this man? Half-plebeian, half God! Really Christ, or only John?”
Another former Army officer invited Hoover librarian Kenneth Glazier to his Nob Hill apartment in 1968 to bestow on him assorted belongings of Nazi leaders. Among them: a photograph album of Heinrich Himmler’s, showing Hitler and Mussolini in Italy; another album belonging to German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop with snapshots of Stalin at the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939; Hitler’s marriage license; and a set of X-rays of the führer’s head and teeth.
Huang Zhen was a cadre of Mao Tse-tung on the Long March, a yearlong 6,000-mile trek undertaken by some 80,000 and survived by maybe a tenth. Huang made two dozen black-ink sketches of the epic journey and entrusted them to journalists Edgar Snow and Helen Foster Snow. The Snows’ donations also include their candid photographs of Mao and other Chinese Communist leaders.
To coincide with the publication of A Wealth of Ideas, there is a free exhibit of the same name at the Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion adjacent to Hoover Tower through May 6, Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.