Monday, September 08, 2014

The Power of Voice: Dean Rusk on the Atomic Bomb

In the spring of 2014, Russell Library student assistant Chelsea Harvey began indexing oral histories using software developed by the University of Kentucky's Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. With the help of their Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS), Chelsea began listening to the personal tapes of former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and organizing audiovisual content by indexing headings and tags. By labeling content with related tags and breaking full interviews into smaller sections, OHMS allows researchers to discover specific stories within larger themes.

In the fall of 1984, former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk sat down with his son Richard and began recording the stories that had shaped his life and his political career. For the next five years, both father and son would together record over 170 tapes of interviews.

In these tapes, Rusk recalls growing up on a farm in Cherokee County, serving as part of the India Burma China Theater in World War I, and making some of the decisions as Secretary of State that would ultimately guide America into the era of the Vietnam War.

In an interview recorded some time in 1985, Rusk discusses the history of the Rockefeller Foundation, an organization for which he served as president from 1952 to 1960. Rusk explains that during the 1930s, the Foundation funded a number of private research projects concerning nuclear physics and other sciences, including a "cyclotron" at the University of Berkeley that would later be used to create the world's first atomic bomb.

DEAN RUSK: "… among other things we had put some money into the cyclotron at Berkeley. Then along about 1941, the Foundation was called by the director of the laboratory at Berkeley and told that they needed something like a quarter of a million dollars urgently and that they could not tell us why. And the then-trustees of the Foundation decided to go ahead and give them that money. They were somewhat abashed a little bit later, after the war, to discover that what they had done had been an integral part of launching the Manhattan Project."

Rusk goes on to say that many of the projects funded by the Rockefeller Foundation during that time concerned research the American government did not have the budget to fund, creating a tension between the needs of government and those of bureaucracies like the Foundation.

Listening to the tape, it becomes difficult to focus on this clip; Rusk slows his speech, often taking pause before stringing together sentences. While the content is both interesting and relevant, its potency is lost in its clumsy delivery.

Compare this with a story told earlier on a tape in January of 1984, remembering the "flash" of news that the atomic bomb deploying in Hiroshima:

DEAN RUSK:  "I was at my desk in the Operations Division of the General Staff and the flash from Hiroshima was the first I heard about it. I remember, when that flash came in an Air Force Colonel sitting at the next desk exclaimed, 'This means that war has turned upon itself and is devouring its own tail. From this time forward it will make no sense for governments to try to settle their disputes by war.' Well, we haven't fully brought that instinctive insight of his into reality but I have always remembered his remark."

The content itself is nothing new: a powerful, white American male reflects on the emotional impact of the first atomic bomb's physical destruction. But something in Rusk's voice, in his reflection, captivates. There is a quality to the audio content that extends beyond that of the transcript; his stoicism is haunting.

In the case of oral history, audio-visual content captures something missing from the same words transcribed on a page.

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