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Secret Histories

Patricia Sullivan

One of the great delights of this job is finding a well-edited oral history of someone we write about. That was the case with the obit of diplomat James M. Wilson last week. The Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, housed at the Library of Congress, is one of the best.

"Many accounts provide information on what to do when your embassy is blown up, or if one is in the midst of a war or civil unrest. These accounts include those of Robert Dillon whose embassy in Beirut was hit by Islamic extremists in 1983 and Prudence Bushnell whose embassy in Nairobi was blown up by Al Qaeda in 1998," wrote Charles Stuart Kennedy, describing the collection.

In addition to European history, the collection has remembrances from those who served in Indochina, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and "the tale of the son of missionaries in China, who, as a teenager during World War II, joined Chinese guerrillas to fight the Japanese and many years later returned as U.S. ambassador to Beijing."

The Archives of the Museum of American Art also has good digital version of oral histories as do several neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill. Georgetown is starting one. The Washington Press Club Foundation's oral histories have been useful for interviews with some of the female journalists who made a mark in Washington, although some of the interviewees don't allow them to be available online. Some of the National Institutes of Health have great interviews, too, including videos which are posted online.

It's great to hear a person reflecting in their own words about their life; it adds a dimension that is sometimes missing from the straight news or feature articles.

By Patricia Sullivan  |  November 22, 2009; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Patricia Sullivan  
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Correction: The Archives of American Art is a separate Smithsonian unit with its own Director and Board of Trustees - it is not part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Please visit our website at

Posted by: aikensb | November 24, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

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