Race to record cold war's 'inside story'
Call it the encounter-group approach to writing history.Skip to next paragraph
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Some of the strategists behind major cold-war showdowns have been sitting down with old rivals to spill the long-closeted thinking behind recent history's key moments.
Dry facts can give way to drama. At one conference in Hungary this month, ex-dissidents and their Communist-era adversaries talked out the country's 1989 move from dictatorship to democracy.
On a table sat the declassified minutes of Hungarian Politburo and Soviet-Hungarian meetings of the era. But the old opposition was more concerned with intrigue: Wire-tapping, secret agents, back-room negotiations.
They grilled Gyorgy Fejti, the Politburo member who had controlled the Ministry of Interior and its secret police, spies, and informants. The several dozen note-taking historians present were riveted.
The event followed a similar meeting in Hanoi between US and Vietnamese officials.
At the Budapest meeting, the tight-lipped bureaucrat gave his old opponents little satisfaction. "I'm here because 1989 was an exciting time and I'm curious what their perceptions were," he said later. "But I have no desire to earn the everlasting love of these people."
Still, the conference filled in gaps that could never be drawn from archives. Other players explained their actions, motivations, and emotions.
On the heels of the Hanoi meeting earlier this month, it was the latest in a growing number of "collective, critical" oral-history projects that are bringing together players from big cold-war events, from the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, to Vietnam, to martial law in Poland in 1980-81.
As more archives are released, historians hustle to confirm all that they can while "witnesses" are alive to recount their role in history.
"Reality is composed of both fact and perception, so documents alone don't come close to telling the whole truth," says Thomas Blanton, executive director of the Washington-based National Security Archive, a backer of these conferences. "While you can't fully re-create that reality or atmosphere of that period ... you can get close enough by restoring human will and human agency to what happened."
While oral history itself is nothing new - it predates written history - this new trend was spurred by a need to learn the lessons of the past.
In October 1987, with a spiraling nuclear arms race between the US and Soviet Union, a small group of American historians organized a conference in Cambridge, Mass., to discuss the Cuban missile crisis.
Only three Soviet officials turned up, but it was a start. At the next conference, in Moscow in January 1989, the American team was stunned to see a Cuban delegation also in attendance. Three years later, Fidel Castro himself presided over a four-day conference in Havana.
It was there the Soviets revealed that prior to the 1962 crisis, they had placed tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba.
During the mid-1990s, the nonprofit National Security Archive and the Cold War International History Project of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars teamed up to organize a series in Central Europe, titled "Cold War Flashpoints" and addressing the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary in 1956, the Prague Spring in 1968, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland, 1980-81.