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26 January 2008

Revisiting primary sources – the Allen Dulles collection at Princeton

We have been recently quite frustrated by the continued reliance of those in the intelligence studies field on secondary and other derivative works for academic purposes – particularly when so much primary source material has been recently declassified and digitized. We feel there simply is no substitute in many of the great matters of controversy to a student actually reading the original documents themselves, with derivative works used to provide commentary and illumination. It does require one begin to acquire the skills of piecing together fragments of documents – never a bad thing for a prospective intelligence professional. But the technique also illustrates sharply the true nature of one’s limited knowledge when discussing these matters in an unclassified forum, even decades after the events – a lesson many students (and a good number of their less humble professors) would be well advised to internalize at an early date. There will always be pieces of the profession which any particular individual will not see, and the sooner a scholar learns to work within these constraints, the better off that student will be – and the less likely to make a fool of themselves through wild assumptions or arrogant airs.

It is thus with great interest we note that Princeton University has opened a digital archive of the private papers belonging to former DCI Allen Dulles. The variety and volume of materials is simply extraordinary, and although it is organized by librarians (rather than intelligence professionals or modern search engine experts) it is well worth the time to explore these virtual stacks. Given that the gentleman’s 1963 text The Craft of Intelligence, is still reprinted for use as a basic text at many university level programs, these further materials are both substantively illuminating and historically invaluable. Of particular interest are the French and German language items, which may never have been previously referenced in depth during intelligence studies research on the matter.

We of course would be remiss if we did not mention one of the more valuable secondary texts which would provide a framework to the scholar seeking to interpret these materials. James Srode’s text, Allen Dulles : Master of Spies, is a modern and accessible work that covers Dulles’ career and legacy, and can prove a valuable guide to the nearly undifferentiated mass of the digitized documents.

The entire collection is over 1.5 gigabytes of data. One day very soon we will no doubt laugh at this as a trivially small volume in the age of the exaflood – but for now, please do be kind to the university’s servers and stagger your requests over time if you choose to download sections for your perusal. They do run a pretty fast pipe, but we would not wish to see a tragedy of the commons deny this resource to other researchers.

We would love to see these kind of digitization efforts other libraries holding such vital collections of import to the intelligence studies field – and hopefully in conjunction with a good OCR and search capability such as Google Books or its counterparts now offer. We can think of few greater wartime contributions that the intellectuals of this country may offer than to assist in the rebuilding and expansion of its intelligence capabilities for the Long War.

We also hope to see a commensurate response from the intelligence studies academia itself. There is easily enough material for countless numbers of good journal articles and even a thesis or two, plus a large selection of case studies focusing on aspects operational and analytic tradecraft. Let us hope that the investment of the field’s thinkers will equal that of the library’s digitization program.

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