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The Robert J. Alexander Interview Collection
John D. French
Pioneering Latin Americanist Robert Jackson Alexander (1918-) was a central player in U.S.-Latin American labor, political, and scholarly affairs after World War II. For some five decades starting in 1946, Professor Alexander traveled extensively as an engaged witness to, and active participant in, many major political events in Latin America and the Caribbean. The unique documentation Alexander created and assembled (the largest and most important private archive of its sort) is deposited with the Special Collections and University Archives of Rutgers University.1 The crown jewel of this remarkable collection are his contemporaneous notes on over ten thousand interviews he conducted with presidents, politicians, trade unionists, businessmen, government officials, military men, diplomats, and scholars. Although specialists knew of these interviews, few historians have realized the scope of this comprehensive multinational resource, which documents modern Latin America's tumultuous political and diplomatic history.
Robert J. Alexander's Latin American Interests
Born in 1918 in Canton, Ohio, and raised in New Jersey, Robert J. Alexander was the son of a university professor. His life trajectory was rooted in the tumultuous [End Page 315] years of the Great Depression (the "Red Decade," as it came to be called), when he served as a leader of the Young People's Socialist League at his high school.2 Like many of his generation, Alexander's strongly held social- democratic beliefs were shaped by a loss of faith in free enterprise, a rejection of laissez-faire, and a strong belief in the positive contribution of organized labor to the cause of New Deal-style social reform.
The origin of Alexander's life-long involvement with Latin America stemmed from his exposure, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, to the charismatic teaching of Austrian-born Frank Tannenbaum (1893-1969). An important, if heterodox, Latin Americanist, Tannenbaum would be widely recognized for laying the foundations of scholarship on the Mexican Revolution, as well as for helping to create the field of comparative slavery and race relations in the Americas.3 Under Tannenbaum's influence, Alexander completed his masters' thesis on labor in Latin America in 1941. He then discovered, as he says wryly, that he was now "'an expert' on Latin American labor for the simple reason that no one knew anything" about the subject. During the war, he spent a brief stint at the Labor Relations Division of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs run by Nelson Rockefeller, spending 1943-45in England with the U.S. Army Air Force, where he sought out and interviewed Labor Party leaders and activists.4
His wartime experience also shaped his larger political outlook. Having left the prewar Socialist Party because of its pacifist position, Alexander became convinced that the transcendent issues involved in international politics (democracy versus totalitarianism) were inseparable from the domestic political conflicts within countries. World War II also strengthened his belief in the essential decency of the policies of the U.S. government, whatever its mistakes. His strong identification with the "American mission" in the world and his anticommunist social-democratic politics would lead Alexander to decisively align [End Page 316] himself, as did so many liberals, with the U.S. side of the emerging cold war after 1946.
Alexander returned to Columbia University after the war to work with Tannenbaum on a doctoral thesis in economics entitled "Organized Labor in Chile." With a grant from the State Department, he conducted fieldwork in 1947-48, which included a national industrial relations survey that served as the basis of his still useful but unpublished 1950 dissertation. During these six months he also recorded extensive notes on 349 interviews, conducted during a period of intense political and trade-union ferment under the Communist-backed government of González Videla, who would turn on his leftist allies in 1947.5
During this initial trip to South America, Alexander also stopped in Brazil and Argentina, nations that were each experiencing remarkable periods of mass political mobilization.6 In Argentina...