Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Archives and the Cold War in Latin America

Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniela Spenser (eds.), In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008)

Reviewed by
Joel A. Blanco, PhD student, Archival Studies
University of Pittsburgh

Scholarship about the Cold War has mainly focused on the clashes between the United States and the Soviet Union and between capitalism and communism. However, recent scholarly work has been pointing out the necessity of looking beyond and studying the social, political, economical and cultural struggles of the people in the countries that experienced the effects of this period. This includes, for example, an analysis of the Cold War in Latin American. In that regard, In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War, a collection of essays from scholars from North America, Latin America and Europe, is an excellent source.

The main goal of the book is to contribute as ‘an intellectual “rapprochement” with the Cold War in Latin America’ (p.7). This different approach is presented through three main sections: 1) ‘New Approaches, Debates, and Sources,’ 2) ‘Latin America between the Superpowers: International realpolitik, the ideology of the State, and the “Latin Americanization” of the Conflict,’ and 3) ‘Everyday contests over culture and representation in the Latin American Cold War.’

Constantly present throughout the book, and explicitly stated in the essays from the first section and the concluding essay by Daniela Spenser, is the fact that this different approach to study the Cold War is significantly related to the availability of new documentation from U.S. declassified records, truth commissions, the discovery of hidden archives in Latin America, and access to archives of post-Communist countries and Cuba. This availability of records not only helps scholars to expand the study of the Cold War from varies perspectives, but as Spenser explains, it also contributes to read ‘“old” and “new” sources alike with fresh eyes’ (p. 383).

From an archival perspective, the most important contribution comes from Thomas S. Blanton’s essay “Recovering the Memory of the Cold War: Forensic History and Latin America.” Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, provides an excellent account of how the recently available documentation have been important not only for scholarly research, but perhaps most importantly, for memory construction, historical justice efforts, and accountability. In Blanton words, ‘the ongoing recovery of archives and memory in Latin America makes possible new landmarks in the universal jurisdiction of history,’ and therefore, ‘Cold War history can perhaps learn the most from Latin Americans, their truth commissions, their exhumations, and their resurrected files’ (p. 68).

Although Blanton’s work is the only one that focuses entirely on archives and records, these themes are also address in other essays. For example, Eric Zolov’s “¡Cuba sí, Yanquis no! The Sacking of the Instituto Cultural México-Norteamericano in Morelia, Michoacan, 1961” describes how protesters destroyed cultural resources like archival records and film collections from the institute as a symbolic act against the U.S. invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. And Seth Fein, in his essay “Producing the Cold War in Mexico: the public limits of covert communications,” brings an interesting issue related to archival custody when he explains that to obtain access to films from one of Mexico’s leading newsreels in the 1950s he did not find them in the film archives from Mexico, but rather through Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Department of State (the newsreels were part of a U.S. funded program).

From this book, archivists and records professionals can learn about the importance of archives and records in the study of the Cold War, and the struggles for historical justice and accountability. Furthermore, the approach of the book to give special emphasis to social, political and cultural conflicts can also be applied to study how these same conflicts affects records creation and destruction, and how they shape the archive.