Race to record cold war's 'inside story'

Call it the encounter-group approach to writing history.

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.

A highlight came in November 1997, when Polish Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski was forced to defend his decision to impose martial law. Jaruzelski claimed he was a patriot, not a traitor, who had prevented a Soviet invasion. But the evidence presented at the conference, combined with the live testimony of Soviet military officials, indicated the Soviets would not have invaded.

Meanwhile, since 1995, former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and other Vietnam War-era policymakers have faced off several times with Vietnamese officials to discuss the numerous missed opportunities for peace.

History is typically told by the winners. But today there is a drive to get numerous perspectives. Moreover, until 1989, most American cold-war historians relied on English-language texts based primarily on American or British accounts.

Today, more archives are being translated. And that has triggered a domino effect, says James Hershberg, director emeritus of the Woodrow Wilson project.

"We're creating an international openness movement, where openness is used as ... leverage against closed archives everywhere," Mr. Hershberg says.

AS for the key figures in history, while they can freely publish one-sided, self-serving memoirs of how events unfolded, in these oral history roundtable discussions historians can confront them with the evidence. Such was the case in Budapest, says the local organizer.

"By preparing all those documents, we gave scholars a chance to have an impact on how events are remembered," says Csaba Bekes, director of the Cold War History Research Center in Budapest. Participants "can't just tell us anything, to mislead us as they would like. We ... squeezed more information out of them than they otherwise would have produced."

The Budapest conference and others also overcome the initial suspicion, build trust, and encourage further participation.

"Witnesses" have a vested interest in attending these conferences, say organizers. They cite the case of Jaruzelski, who tried to justify his actions, and Mr. McNamara, who may have tried to expiate his guilt. "History is going to get written one way or another, so you might as well try to influence it," Hershberg says. "If you don't show up, you're leaving your history to someone you may disagree with. Sometimes, just to hear what their counterpart says is incentive enough. We don't have to bribe them with honorariums."

On the agenda this October are conferences in Warsaw and Prague, with others perhaps in Germany, Romania, and Bulgaria. It will all be topped off in 2000 with a mega-conference in Moscow.

There are even talks under way with Iranian officials about a US-Iran conference to discuss the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But don't expect a similar conference on NATO's campaign against Yugoslavia. A "critical mass" is necessary, says Mr. Blanton, of the National Security Archive.

"Unless there is sufficient distance from those events, with enough memoirs written and enough archives released, it may be premature," he says. "We spend a lot of energy trying to generate that critical mass."

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