//Ad libs: Right place, right time

Friday, March 17, 2006

Right place, right time

So I'm walking through the "A Wealth of Ideas" exhibit at the Hoover Institution on Stanford campus, eyeing a chunk of the Berlin Wall, grainy old photos from World War I trenches, and a first edition of "Mein Kampf."

Love the exhibit, and it made a great Weekly cover story, but I keep wondering: How the heck do the Hooverites get their hands on these things?

Historian Bertrand Patenaude, who wrote the book that sparked the exhibit, says it's a little bit of luck and a lot of the right connections. For instance, the Hoover archives got film footage of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings because it was donated by a physicist who was on the plane that came along for the ride with the Enola Gay.

Then there's that noble breed: the intrepid American on an overseas treasure hunt. Take historian Frank A. Golder, who in 1921 was chomping at the bit to get into Soviet Russia to score documents. Fortunately for him, Herbert Hoover sent in relief workers to aid famine victims, and Golder tagged along. His gem of a reward: a rare personal diary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, written by Moscow historian Yuri Got’e.

But it’s not just the enterprising Yanks who bring in the goods. Sometimes it’s citizens of other nations who leak documents about their own country to Hoover for safekeeping.

One such person was
Basil Maklakoff, who was ambassador to France for the Russian Provisional Government in 1917. When the Bolsheviks came a-knockin' at the Paris embassy a few years later, Maklakoff decided not to turn over a stash of files about Tsar Nicholas II's secret police to them. Instead, he claimed the files had been burned -- but instead shipped them to Hoover.

S0 17 wooden packing cases showed up on Stanford’s doorstep, detailing the work the secret police had done keeping a, shall we say, rather close eye on emigre revolutionaries plotting against the tsar. The files included surveillance records and a scruffy mug shot of
Leon Trotsky, among their other wealth.

There was a catch. Maklakoff required that the files be sealed for 30 years. When 30 years had passed, he changed the rules again, saying Hoover had to wait until after his death.

The former ambassador, wrote Patenaude, “may not have counted on living a long life, and … apparently had no desire to go out with a bang.”

So it wasn’t until 1957 that the Hoover Institution finally
opened the collection and then held a press conference announcing that the files existed.

Wish I could have been there with my notebook.

Pictured: An American propaganda poster from the First World War exhorts Yanks not to sleep through the war effort. The poster is included in Bertrand Patenaude's book "A Wealth of Ideas."