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author: Geoff Berridge

Frontline Diplomacy: The U.S. Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection on CD-ROM

2000

The ADST is a private, non-profit organization whose mission is ‘to spread knowledge about the practice and history of modern American diplomacy’. To this end, its Oral History Project, created in 1985 under the direction of former Consul-General Stuart Kennedy, has devoted considerable resources to conducting, recording, and editing interviews with retired members of the US Foreign Service, among others.

The CD-ROM under review here is the fruit of this project. It contains the transcripts of 893 interviews in one single, master database. (Of these, 28 are with women ambassadors and ‘conducted from a sociological perspective’.) With such a number it is hardly surprising that it covers US relations with almost every state in the world over the post-Second World War period – and in some cases earlier. The interviews are autobiographical in structure, dealing briefly with the subject’s education and entry into the Foreign Service, and then concentrating (chronologically) on his or her postings abroad or positions in Washington. There is also a second database in which passages extracted from the interviews are grouped together under country headings. These ‘country readers’, of which there are 48 altogether, facilitate the task of a researcher interested in a particular state rather than a particular individual. In addition to this, the CD-ROM has a powerful search engine and a variety of other useful tools. It is also a simple task to print out either whole interviews or (particularly useful) selections from them. There is an easy-to-follow 13-page tutorial that is devoted chiefly to the search engine. Users of the CD-ROM who still have difficulties are invited to contact ADST via its web site.

There is no doubt that this is a fantastic bank of primary source data for anyone interested in post-war international affairs and for international historians and students of diplomacy in particular. To individuals it also comes at no more than the cost of a single book from the law list of the Clarendon Press (well under this for one from Kluwer). It is true that there are minor irritants. The font size is rather small, which makes extended reading on screen directly from the databases rather trying. (However, this can be increased by reducing the number of pixels on the PC’s desktop display, and text can in any case be imported into Word and then manipulated at will.) It is also a pity that only 48 countries get ‘readers’. Researchers whose particular states are omitted may complain, though the handicap is comparatively trivial. I was at first disappointed to find no country reader on Afghanistan because I wanted to obtain information on the nature of the US mission retained in Kabul between 1979 and 1989, when it was finally closed. In view of the murder of the US Ambassador in Kabul, Spike Dubbs, early in 1979 and the impact on relations with the United States of the subsequent Soviet invasion, I was also a little surprised at this omission. Nevertheless, using the list of ‘Foreign Service Postings’ in the excellent ‘Research Guide’, as well as the search engine itself, it was not difficult to find what I wanted.

What is immediately impressive about the CD-ROM is the detail it contains, a lot of it very frank. Perhaps this is in part because the Project’s interviews are conducted chiefly by persons who are themselves retired Foreign Service Officers. They know what questions to ask, have the respect of the subjects, and obviously have no difficulty in conveying that they are on the same side. The interviews are not brief affairs, either, most of them clearly having taken place over several two-hour sittings, and some having gone up to ten. It is also of great value that many of the subjects spent their careers in consular work or held relatively minor positions. What we get, then, is a great deal of information and private opinion – on a vast range of issues and events – from persons whose autobiographies would not otherwise have seen the light of day. It is, of course, impossible to do a proper review of this huge resource. I have barely done more than dip into it. However, I have already found invaluable evidence on obscure topics and find using the search engine quite compulsive. I recommend this CD-ROM with great enthusiasm.

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