Ideas alive | March 17, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 17, 2006

Ideas alive

Powerful Hoover archives exhibit and book show how ideas shaped the tumultuous 20th century

by Rebecca Wallace

A photo on exhibit at the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion depicts President Ronald Reagan standing in front of the Berlin Wall, giving his famous "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech.

Below that is an unassuming red and black notebook. It's the journal of Hoover fellow Peter M. Robinson, who was then a speechwriter for Reagan, and the scribbles inside are his notes he took interviewing West Berlin residents while researching the famed 1987 oration.

"If the Russians are willing to open up, then the wall must go," reads one of his notes.

Just around the corner is a 900-pound chunk of the Berlin Wall.

So is the house of history built. Its bricks are thinkers, revolutions, images and objects: broken concrete, yellowed telegrams, battlefield sketches. But most of all, said historian Bertrand Patenaude, history is constructed from ideas.

Communism is doomed. Capitalism is evil. This neighboring land is by rights ours. Regardless of where they lie along the political spectrum, "Ideas have consequences," Patenaude said.

This concept is the framework for "A Wealth of Ideas: Revelations from the Hoover Institution Archives," Patenaude's recently published book, which has inspired a current exhibit at the Stanford University institution.

The book is in essence a history of the 20th century, drawing on the Hoover archives to include such artifacts as letters, telegrams, propaganda posters and photos.

Although less comprehensive than the book, the exhibit travels much of the same ground with the audition of audio and video. On one wall, the Romanovs live again in grainy black-and-white. Elsewhere, you can listen to Radio Free Europe broadcasts or hear Leon Trotsky giving a speech in 1938.

"A Wealth of Ideas" got its start in 2001, when Hoover officials wanted to create a book showcasing the bounty in the archives, which began with Herbert Hoover collecting political materials early in the last century. Patenaude, a Hoover research fellow who teaches at Stanford, was asked to take on the daunting task of creating a 300-page tome by choosing from 65 million artifacts.

"I took a deep breath and a big gulp," he recalled. "There are so many treasures."

The effort was fueled financially by former Sunset magazine publisher Bill Lane and his wife, Jean; and aided by book designer Gordon Chun and other Stanford staff members. Patenaude, who was trained in Russian and modern European history, found his Stanford connections came in handy for learning about such other areas as China.

But down in the archives' basement, flanked by thousands of gray manuscript boxes, Patenaude was on his own. It was thrilling to open a box and not know what was in it; it was painful to have to choose one artifact over another.

"It's like Beck recording 'Sea Change.' At some point, your producer says, 'You've got enough songs,'" Patenaude said with amiable resignation.

Some decisions were easy. Who could pass up Tsar Nicholas II's resignation letter, or the fluid, chilling ink sketches made by a survivor of the Long March, the year-long military retreat by the Chinese Communist Army? (The letter is in both the book and the exhibit. Three of the sketches are in the book and two are in the exhibit.)

Another item chosen for both places perhaps best illustrates the concept of ideas and consequences: an original 1925 edition of Hitler's "Mein Kampf."

"This was a man whose ideas no one took seriously. He was seen as a lightweight even after he came to power, with his ideas about Jews and capturing lands to the east. People thought, 'Well, power will tame Hitler,'" Patenaude said.

In the same dark vein, Patenaude warns that some of the images he has chosen are disturbing. These include photos of the 1937 bombing of Shanghai that are also in the exhibit. They were taken by American journalist Randall Chase Gould, editor of the Shanghai Evening Post.

"One of the most extraordinary snaps I ever made is...of a man whose garments had been blown off. Many ask, 'What happened to him?' I don't know," Gould wrote in one of the captions.

On a more optimistic note, the book and exhibit also look at the beginnings of the international peace movement. Both are divided into such themes as "Peace and War," "Revolutions" and "Tyrannies."

It all starts with Prague native Bertha von Suttner, who was seen as the "mother" of the peace movement in the late 1880s, writing the anti-war novel "Die Waffen nieder!" ("Lay down your arms!"). A photo of von Suttner with a set mouth is accompanied by an early logo for the peace movement. Used by fellow peace activist Alfred Fried, the logo features interconnected gears; he wrote, "This shows cooperation toward a common goal."

An artifact from the peace movement is one of the most visually striking items in the exhibit. A massive poster for a 1917 antiwar meeting in Washington, D.C., is suspended from the ceiling, its words crying: "KEEP COOL: Don't be Stampeded into War." One of the advertised speakers is David Starr Jordan, who was chancellor of Stanford.

There's a lot to intrigue the senses in the powerful exhibit. One movie that plays is "Margin for Victory," a 1962 Radio Free Europe short that uses a sinister voice and threatening map to make its points.

"In less than 20 years, the Communists have captured one-fourth of the world's territories," the announcer booms. The "free world" is still ahead on the economic fronts, he says, then adds, "But what of the future?"

Stirring brass music strikes up, and suddenly the benighted people of "East Europe" have hope again, thanks to Radio Free Europe being piped into their homes.

The exhibit also features other Hoover artifacts that didn't make it into the book, exhibits coordinator Kyra Bowling said. She chose to add more about Nobel prize winners, people honored for peaceful works and endeavors of the mind. For example, the book does have sections about Russian novelist Boris Pasternak and economist Milton Friedman, but the exhibit expounds upon them, she said.

"If you just survey the subject matter and the (exhibit) room, what you take away can be...a lot of very serious and sometimes dark storylines," Bowling said. "It's nice to have a foil to that. There are just as equal stories about freedom of expression, our noble accomplishments, not just on the battlefield."

What: "A Wealth of Ideas," an exhibit of historic artifacts from the Hoover Institution Archives, based on the book by the same name

Where: Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion, next to Hoover Tower on the Stanford University campus.

When:Through May 6, open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Call (650) 723-3563 or go to The book is available locally at Kepler's Books & Magazines in Menlo Park, and the Hoover archives are open to the public (call the above number, or go into the archives, which are in the basement below the exhibit pavilion).


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