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Cold War Archives in the Third World

Cindy Ewing historian

The Third World in the Cold War has become one of the most dynamic areas of current historical scholarship.

Cold War Archives in the Third World

The Third World in the Cold War has become one of the most dynamic areas of current historical scholarship

Since the publication of Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War in 2007, new histories of the Cold War nearly always address the spread of the conflict into the former Third World. The volume edited by Robert McMahon, The Cold War in the Third World (2013), demonstrates the richness of possible inquiries into the ways in which the bipolar conflict shaped the histories of the Third World, or in turn, the ways the Cold War was shaped by momentous events occurring outside of the United States and the Soviet Union. For example, the Cold War intensified anticolonial struggles in Asia and Africa throughout the 1950s and 1960s. New research on the intersection of these two historical arcs is exemplified by Leslie James and Elisabeth Leake’s edited volume, Decolonization and the Cold War (2015).            

Tying together this vast body of new research is a patient excavation of sources from an increasingly wide array of archives. While multi-lingual and multi-archival research has long been a hallmark of international history, this method has proved indispensable to scholars looking at the global Cold War, especially as archival collections from the former Third World begin to open and permit foreign researchers to access them.

At once clarifying and confounding, multi-archival scholarship raises a host of practical concerns. The sheer difficulty of such research—wrought by time, expense, and inconsistent access—is brought to the fore when considering the Third World.

Moreover, the scholarly debate over the origin of the term, the Third World, captures a core issue embedded in the enterprise: how can one identify what sources to study when no consensus exists on what the Third World was? This conceptual challenge has confronted scholars since its first use by the French geographer Claude Bourdet in 1949. Many leaders of the Third World resented being designated as such and even suggested alternate spatial configurations for talking about the global South. And yet, the use of the Third World as a political or spatial framing device continues to animate Cold War scholarship.

Scholars have been careful to address the location problem, but certain sites continue to appear in many treatments of the Third World. Because of the important role neutralist and non-aligned states played in organizing other Third World leaders, some of the most exciting archival research in the new Cold War history comes from these countries. These include the Archives of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, the National Archives of India in New Delhi, and the Foreign Ministry Archives of China in Beijing, recently reopened but with limited access to diplomatic materials.

Nonetheless, repositories in American and European countries continue to be essential resources, often containing key post-independence records of Third World states, chronicling a territory’s independence struggle and the terms of the transfer of power to the post-colonial government.

However, several lesser known archives offer important perspectives from the Cold War period, illuminating the diplomacy and politics of the Third World from within. The National Archives of Myanmar, the National Archives of Sri Lanka, and the National Archives of Cambodia all have generous admission policies for researchers, provided one has some knowledge of the relevant native or colonial languages. These three countries played key roles in advancing the neutral platform during the Cold War and assumed different degrees of engagement with the superpowers. Together, the histories of these neutralist states suggest a broader and more complex spectrum of Cold War correspondence than is conventionally considered.

Third World leaders also waged their own Cold War campaigns inside their territories. For example, the eruption of near-simultaneous communist insurgencies across Southeast Asia in 1948 brought the Cold War to the region early. While histories tend to concentrate on the Indochina and Vietnam wars, it would be fruitful to consider materials on worker protests, student organizations, and political parties excluded from post-independence national government.

While it is notoriously difficult to obtain a research visa to Indonesia, the National Archives of Indonesia does offer visiting researchers a one to four-week admission pass with full requesting privileges, including to the archive’s extensive oral history recordings. Among its more sizeable paper collections is the personal archive of Nico Palar, the Indonesian diplomat who represented the country at the United Nations from 1950 to 1953. Palar appears in the Burmese, Sri Lankan, and Indian archives, connecting the major neutralist nations that planned the now-mythologized Asian-African Conference of 1955.

As is the case with many post-colonial countries, diplomatic and political networks reach back to the colonial power, in part because many nationalist elites received their education and training there. Large holdings on India’s nationalist movement and Burma’s leading newspapers are held at the British Library in London. The Senate House Library has also opened a new special collection of leftist political pamphlets, covering protests and campaigns across Europe and into Africa and Asia. The International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam contains press reports of worker activism in Indonesia during the 1970s and 1980s. Some of the most thorough correspondence collections of Cambodia’s monarch, Norodom Sihanouk, can be found in the diplomatic archives of France in La Courneuve on the outskirts of Paris.

The Cold War archives of the Third World certainly tell the national story of a people in the twentieth century, but they also connect that country to broader geopolitical currents and political projects that challenged bipolarity. This post launches a mini-series of archives reports to some of the key countries of the Cold War’s Third World. As our knowledge of this period continues to deepen, it has unremittingly widened. By extending the scope of our own archival geography, we can extend the Cold War’s political geography as well.

About the Author

Cindy Ewing historian

Cindy Ewing

Member, History and Public Policy Program Advisory Board;
Assistant Professor of History at the University of Toronto

Cindy Ewing is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on modern South and Southeast Asia and the global connections between decolonization, human rights, and the Cold War.

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