December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
Ever since May, 1948, a remarkable operation has been going forward at Columbia University in New York, a program aimed at one of the most perplexing problems facing modern historians. In an age almost drowned in words, printed and broadcast, one of the great sources of history is drying up: eminent men are not writing letters or keeping diaries as they did in the past. They deal on the telephone, they meet face to face; they are too busy to keep records.
The Columbia Oral History Project was launched by Professor Allan Nevins, who is also Chairman of the Advisory Board of this magazine, in an attempt to refresh at least a part of this wellspring of history. With a small endowment from the Bancroft Fund of Columbia and the Littauer Foundation, a trained staff has quietly been interviewing hundreds of important personages of our era, recording the often lengthy sessions on tape and then filing them away in what Assistant Director Dean Albertson calls a “deep-freeze of current American history.” To assure complete candor, the interviews remain confidential for as long as the personage concerned requests. Even after that, the material is available generally only to historians.
Some of the memories reach far back—Lawyer Charles C. Burlingham’s dimly to the Civil War draft riots; Ella Boole’s over the long history of the W.C.T.U.; Henry L. Stimson’s over many administrations. Movers and shakers like Herbert Hoover, Henry Wallace, John Foster Dulles and the widow of Fiorello LaGuardia have given their time. Many of those interviewed are less known to the general public but have played important parts, often behind the scenes, in political, economic and social history. In fact, when the students have finished with this material—if they ever do—there will have to be revisions, and additions, in many textbooks.
One of the most absorbing of all the files of the Oral History Project is that on Albert Lasker. We are grateful to the Project for the opportunity to present selections from it, the first material from the Project to be published.