Researchers now have online access to recordings and transcripts of speeches by everyone from Winston Churchill to Benazir Bhutto as well as reports, journal articles and conference papers after the archive of the foreign policy institute Chatham House was put online.
The Chatham House Online Archive makes vital material available on themes such as the end of colonialism; the development and collapse of communism; and post-war reconstruction. Its launch was celebrated last week with a discussion – luckily not under the Chatham House Rule that prevents identification of speakers – about what we can learn from history.
The negotiations that led to the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, explained Chatham House director Robin Niblett, were “the first which involved experts and academics as well as policymakers – they believed it would produce better results than earlier secret diplomacy. What became Chatham House was set up in 1920 to keep that alive.”
The famous Chatham House Rule was introduced to allow public servants to express their ideas freely and frankly alongside journalists, pundits and academics.
The new resource puts into the public domain, continued Dr Niblett, their “great body of thinking and commentary and debate, including reel-to-reel tapes kept in the vaults which we feared would crumble after a single listening”. Panellists discussed how its resources can illuminate today’s challenges.
David Stevenson, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, described how John F. Kennedy had been keen to learn from the past during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although former UK prime minister Tony Blair told the US Congress shortly after 9/11 that new challenges meant that “there never has been a time when…a study of history provides so little instruction” for the present, Professor Stevenson believed that he had been proved decisively wrong “now that we are back to state conflict and perhaps all-out war”.
Anne Deighton, professor of European international politics at the University of Oxford, turned to the discussions of a Chatham House study group from 1950 looking at the Cold War. At a time when many people argue that the Ukraine crisis amounts to “a new Cold War” or make the case for “containment” as a solution, such discussions can still provide essential insight.
The first module of the online archive, which has been issued by US publisher Gale, covers the period 1920 to 1979 and is now available. A second will follow next month.