Home > Research > Research Experiences > People and Themes

 People and Themes

 

Professor Glenda Sluga, University of Sydney, October 2011

One of the most exciting and important dimensions of the new history of the UN is the emphasis on people. The recovery of real individuals acting through and in the UN is expanding our understanding of the institution’s significance and complexity. But tracking those individuals through the archives is not always easy, particularly if they are women.

When I decided I wanted to recover the role in the UN and UNESCO of Alva Myrdal, a famous Nobel Prize winning Swedish feminist, politician, sociologist, and pacifist, I wrote off to the UN New York archives. In reply to my distinct request for any papers relating to Alva Myrdal, I was told that ‘Gunnar Myrdal’s’ papers could be found in Geneva. Gunnar was Alva’s husband. He was also a Nobel Prize winner, in Economics, and had worked in the slightly lower ranks of the UN. Alva and Gunnar had co-authored many books, but as in their real lives, Gunnar has remained the dominant historical figure.

Finding women in the story of the UN is often more difficult than having to remind archivists of their existence. It requires following paper trails through the UN’s many archives, and private holdings. Alva Myrdal at least left us her papers – which one can find in the Swedish Labour History Archives in Stockholm. She is also relatively easy to find in the wonderfully rich and well-organized UNESCO archive in Paris. But finding her only happens when one sets out to look for her. The traditional history of international organizations will give you no indication that she was part of the extraordinary history of twentieth century internationalism. Giving women back their place in that past is a crucial part of the new history of the UN, and a compelling kind of detective work.

 

 

African Americans, Human Rights, and Anti-colonialism
Carol Anderson, Emory University, December 2011

It was like “one hand clapping.” That is how my initial research into African Americans and their role in human rights and anti-colonialism felt. From the papers of black organizations and leaders, from the archival sources of the U.S. government, and from the memoirs of participants, I could see all kinds of maneuvering, shifting, and debating but it wasn’t making much sense. Then I went into the UN documents. Of course, it sounds odd that something as seemingly opaque, dense, and arcane as the United Nations could bring clarity. But it did.

Without the UN documents, it would have been impossible to see and to understand the import of the transnational alliances that emerged as the battle lines over colonialism and human rights were drawn. Cryptic notes about upcoming meetings suddenly took on new meaning. When, for example, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the Indian ambassador called upon the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to provide evidence against apartheid South Africa, it was at a critical juncture when the UN’s Fourth Committee (trusteeship) had wobbled on a key resolution and she was determined to take the fight into the General Assembly. Similarly, without the UN documents, it would have been difficult to discern how Haiti, which is often cast as controlled, trounced on, and pounced upon by the behemoth to the north, systematically defied the U.S. delegation and wielded the strength of its oratory and vote to scuttle an American-backed plan to carve up Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia as Cold War payoffs to allies. Haiti’s defiance also had the venerable Eleanor Roosevelt chastened as she unsuccessfully tried to dismantle the UN Sub-commission for the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities. It was Haiti, as well, that worked with the NAACP to bring an emissary from South West Africa (current day Namibia) to speak before the UN although the British and South Africans had tried mightily to stop him. The richness and nuance of those stories, the skills wielded across national, ideological, and historical narrative boundaries, would have never been uncovered without looking at the UN as a key site of global change.

Because UN documents are so voluminous, however, the research strategy was not to go there first. It was important to have some sense of when the debates happened and what were the key terms the organization used to define an issue. That, of course, is where the discussions in the other sources – NAACP papers, State Department files, etc. – were helpful. Knowing that a key debate was happening in Committee Three (human rights) or Committee Four, or, for that matter, whether it was in the General Assembly, the Commission on Human Rights, or the Trusteeship Council helped me hone in on the correct document series. When I first began researching in the UN papers, frankly, it felt tedious as the debates and resolutions just seemed to drone on and on and on and on and on. . . . Then, it became very clear what was at stake with all of the posturing and the sometimes oblique language. This was how the Afro-Asian coalition in the UN, buttressed with the support of a number of non-governmental organizations, such as the NAACP, the International League for the Rights of Man, the Quakers, the Africa Bureau, and the African National Congress, dismantled the legalistic excuses that the West had used to justify colonialism, apartheid, and racism, and in doing so, this phalanx of the supposedly powerless changed the international norms about what is acceptable in a global society.

 

 

The Dag Hammarskjöld Papers
Aaron Rietkerk, PhD Candidate, The London School of Economics and Political Science, November 2013

The dispersion of the Dag Hammarskjöld Papers among three separate archives offers a unique challenge for any researcher, yet their contents contain invaluable resources for anyone interested in exploring the formative years of the UN and the leadership of a Secretary-General who transformed the UN Organization from a "static conference" to a "dynamic instrument" in the course of his tenure.1 Dag Hammarskjöld served as Secretary-General of the United Nations from April 1953 until his tragic death in September of 1961. Prior to taking up his UN post, Hammarskjöld served in various high-ranking positions within the Swedish government. The diffusion of Hammarskjöld's papers to three locales may be a factor in understanding why this highly influential and remarkable man tends to be—as Hammarskjöld historian Roger Lipsey has described—"more forgotten then remembered.2 However, even a cursory understanding of the basic contents of these archives could help most researchers prioritize any possible visits based on their research aims.

The vast majority of the Hammarskjöld papers (61 linear feet) are found at the National Library of Sweden (Kungliga biblioteket) in Stockholm. This also means the collection contains arguably the best material for a serious study of the Secretary-General. The collection is divided into two parts, one containing more personal papers taken from Hammarskjöld's residences in New York and Sweden, the other more political and obtained from the Secretary-General's New York office filing cabinets upon his death. As expected, much of the political material relates to various peace and security issues like the Suez Crisis, UNEF, the Lebanese/Jordan crises, UNOGIL, and the Congo Crisis to name a few. Yet it was also among these recourses that I discovered Hammarskjöld's (a self-proclaimed ex-economist during this UN years) ubiquitous interest to expand the UN's role in economic and social development in newly independent and often underdeveloped countries.  Most of the UN-related material is in English. The finding aid (mostly in English) is comprehensive, offering an adequate description of the contents of each box. With the finding aid as one's guide, researchers are encouraged to do most of the "digging" themselves. Advanced ordering of the Hammarskjöld material is recommended. The special reading room offers great working space and great views of Humelgarden Park, (which I can only assume is beautiful during a large portion of the year, but unfortunately I visited during the first week in January when darkness and snow dominated the landscape). The staff are generally friendly and efficient in retrieving material, which is important since cameras are not allowed in the special reading room.

Next, the Andrew W. Cordier Papers held at the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscripts Library (6th Floor of the Butler Library) in New York are the second main source of Hammarskjöld-related material. Cordier served as Hammarskjöld's executive assistant and trusted adviser. His position within the Secretariat made him privy to most of the key political decisions as well as the originator of a great deal of policy himself. For these reasons, Cordier is often described as the most important behind-the-scenes figure during Hammarskjöld's tenure in office. His papers offer a crucial, and altogether unique, window into the UN and Hammarskjöld during the 1950s and early 60s. Cordier seemed to have kept almost everything from his time at the UN and the </Hammarskjöld portion of the Cordier collection numbers 36 linear feet. The online finding aid offers tantalizing descriptions of its contents but one must proceed with caution. Many parts of the Cordier collection, as it relates to Hammarskjöld, remains closed. Many of the boxes/folders that relate to the more controversial issued faced by Hammarskjöld/Cordier—like those related to the Congo Crisis, relations with Guinea and Cuba, private meetings with the S-G, etc.—remained inaccessible. Some, most recently myself, have petitioned for the restriction to be lifted, though the decisions are made by the corresponding UN department of origin. Still, what is available is substantial and worth a look. Ordering your boxes ahead of your visit is a must since the collection is held offsite and can take up to a week to retrieve. The Rare Book and Collections reading room is also where one can access the transcripts for the Columbia University Oral History Collection. This collection includes a 'Dag Hammarskjöld project' with interviews from Andrew Cordier, Brian Urquhart, and others who reflect on the Secretary-General.

Finally, the last few boxes of Hammarskjöld's paper are contained at the UN archives (UNARMS) in New York. The collection consists of a very small portion of records left over after transferring the bulk of his material to Sweden or Columbia. In my opinion this would only be worth a look if one is already in New York. Also, much of what's contained here can also be found in Sweden or at Columbia.

As a note, although it is now a little dated, any serious Hammarskjöld enthusiast should consult, "A Bibliographic Essay on Dag Hammarskjöld" by Larry Trachtenberg, in Robert S. Jordan's edited work, Dag Hammarskjöld Revisited: The UN Secretary-General as a Force in World Politics (Carolina Academic Press, 1983).

1. Introduction to the Annual Report of the Secretary-General on the Work of the Organization, 17 August 1961, (A/4800/Add.1) 1.

2. Roger Lipsey, "Dag Hammarskjöld and Markings: A Reconsideration," In Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 11, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 85.

 

 

The Organization and Publication of Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Papers
Jean Krasno, Yale University, December 2011

The project is a joint program of Yale University and the City College of New York to organize and publish the public and declassified private papers of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The project has been formally authorized by the Secretary-General and a letter from Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been received to that effect. The project began January 2006 and publication of the five volume set is expected in spring 2012. Dr. Jean Krasno, is the principal investigator and is currently a member of the faculty at the City College of New York in the Political Science Department and Distinguished Fellow, International Security Studies at Yale University. She has written extensively on the UN, participated in the organization of Pérez de Cuéllar's papers, and has been involved for several years with an oral history of the UN conducted at Yale University. A selected set of the papers will be published in book form by Lynne Rienner Publishers and a loose-leaf set of the Annan papers will be housed at the Yale University Archives and Manuscripts Library.

The purpose of the project is to provide an organized historic record of selected official papers of Secretary-General Kofi Annan in order to make more accessible to scholars, students, and policy makers the breadth and depth of the work of the Secretary-General. It is important for the future benefit of the United Nations and multilateral cooperation to have a greater understanding of how this Secretary-General has managed his leadership role within the constraints and opportunities of the office. Managing peace efforts in today's complex environment is a daunting task. The "good offices" of the Secretary-General can play a pivotal role in determining whether mediated or negotiated settlements to dispute can prevent violence or deter further escalation of a conflict.

The concept of collecting the papers of a UN Secretary-General did not begin with this publication. Andrew Cordier, former executive assistant to the first two UN Secretaries-General, diligently organized and edited the public papers of Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjöld, and U Thant, comprising six volumes published by Columbia University Press. Charles Hill, former political adviser and speech writer to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, selected and edited the papers of Boutros-Ghali, published by Yale University Press. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s papers were not published nor were the papers of Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. His papers were organized in order to assist in writing his memoirs, but only the loose-leaf copies of the papers are housed in Yale University’s library. In the past, if someone did not take on the task of organizing the papers of the Secretary-General, the papers would be packed in boxes and taken to the UN Archives where the policy has been not to release them for 20 years, and then only upon request.

The papers are organized in chronological order. Some documents include a brief historical background explanation, for example, to explain to whom a letter was written, if identical letters were also sent to others, and to explain attached documents to the letters. The goal is for the readers to use the documents for research and information and to form their own analysis, not to attempt to interpret or direct a particular point of view.