Robert J. Alexander Papers Interview Collection on Microfilm

Collection Number: 6150 mf

Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library


Robert J. Alexander Papers Interview Collection on Microfilm, 1947- 1994
Collection Number:
6150 mf
Alexander, Robert J.
15 microfilm reels
Forms of Material:
Papers, microfilm.
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library
For some five decades, 1947-1995, Prof. Robert J. Alexander (1918-) has been an engage witness and active documentarian of almost all of the major political and social events in Latin America. During his visits to various Latin American countries, prof. Alexander held numerous interviews with people from all segments in society. Alexander kept notes on most (some 12,000) interviews and later typed them out.
Collection material in English


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 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 (YPSL) at his high school. Like many of his generation, Alexander's strongly-held social democratic political beliefs were shaped by his loss of faith in free enterprise as a self-sustaining economic system, his rejection of laissez-faire as a prescription for sound government, and his belief in the positive contribution of organized labor to the cause of social reform. Profoundly influenced by the New Deal and inspired by its leader FDR, Alexander came to strongly believe in both the desirability of an activist state and in the efficacy of government in resolving social and economic problems.
The origin of Alexander's life-long involvement with Latin America, which distinguished him from others of his generation, can be found in the charismatic undergraduate teaching of Austrian-born Frank Tannenbaum (1893-1969) at Columbia University. Tannenbaum, after an early 1914 arrest in New York for anarchist activism, had gone on to get an economics degree at the newly-formed Brookings Institution in 1927 with a thesis on agrarian reform after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. Over the next two decades, Tannenbaum would be widely recognized as an important if heterodox Latin Americanist, a trans-disciplinary figure wo laid the foundations for the scholarly study of the Mexican Revolution as well as for the field of comparative race relations in the Americas.
Under Tannenbaum's influence, Alexander completed a masters thesis in 1941 on labor in Latin America and 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. He spent 1943 to 1945 in England with the US Army Air Force, and it was there that he first demonstrated the remarkable initiative and self-discipline that made him a master documentarian. Fascinated by the British unions and the Labor Party, Alexander not only sought out and interviewed leaders and activists but typed up contemporaneous notes on the conversations.
His war-time experience also shaped his larger political outlook. Having left the Socialist 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. Moreover, World War II furrther strengthened his belief in the essential decency of the policies of the US government, whatever its mistakes. It is not surprising that this strong identification with the "American mission" in the world and his anti-communist social democratic politics would lead Alexander to decisively align himself, as did so many liberals, with the US side of the emerging Cold War after 1946.
After a brief sting at the Labor Relations Division of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs run by Nelson Rockefeller, Alexander returned to Columbia to work with Tannenbaum on a doctoral thesis in economics on "Organized Labor in Chile." With a grant from the State Department, he conducted fieldwork in 1946-1947 during which time he carried out a national industrial relations survey which served as the basis of his still useful but unpublished 1950 thesis. During these six months, he also took extensive notes on the three hundred and forty nine interviews he conducted during this period of intense political and trade union ferment under a Communist-backed government led by President Gonzalez Videla, who would turn on his leftist allies in 1947.
During this initial trip to South America, Alexander also stopped in Brazil and Argentina, nations that were each experiencing a remarkable period of mass political mobilization. In Argentina, in particular, the rise of the charismatic Army Colonel Juan Peron to the presidency in the 1946 election opened an entirely new historical epoch in Latin America that scholars have come to call the Populist Era. A sui-generis figure, the regime of Juan Peron and his eventual wife Evita was vigorously and publicly opposed as fascist by the US government, as well as by social-democratic and communist groups in Argentina and abroad. Given thses concerns, Alexander would make the Peron phenomenon the subject of his first book The Peron Era, published in 1951, that was translated, oft reprinted, and would remain the only treatment in English for the next decade.
Although hostile to Peron, Alexander's book displayed the virtues that grew out of his emerging research methodology based on extensive interviewing with people of all political perspectives and from all walks of life. Reviewers have often commented on Alexander's unique ability to connect with individuals, establish a degree of trust, and then ask the questions that would generate the richest replies. As political scientist Lars Schoultz wrote in 1975, Alexander's "enviable collection of personal interviews with party leaders," and "the wealth of data" they contain, is especially impressive for "anyone who has attempted the frustrating task of elite interviewing."
Joining the faculty at Rutgers University in 1947, Alexander traveled to and within the countries of Latin America hundreds of times over the next thirty-five years (and continued to do so, but more sporadically, until the early 1990s). Even today, he is the only Latin Americanist who has not only traveled in all latin American countries but had visited almost all the countries and colonial dependencies in the Caribbean. Yet this breadth of exposure was not achieved at the expense of sustained and concentrated research. Throughout his career, he specialized in six major Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Peru) which together make up more than half of the region's total population and account for thirteen of his twenty-five published monographs.
Alexander's sustained engagement with Latin America began at a unique moment in the history of the region and of the United States. The US emergence as a truly global economic, military, and political superpower in the mid- twentieth century had a mixed impact on the study of Latin America in the United States. As Mark Berger has shown, the "Good Neighbor" policy of the 1930s and the strategic demands of World War II enhanced government and academic interest in Latin America but this "growth and disicplinary diversification" quickly dissipated after the end of the war. This relative decline in academic interest in the region would continue until the wake-up call represented by the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The 1960s were marked by a vast increase in funding and a greatly heightened interest in the region, whether for political, cultural, or literary reasons, leading to a greater instutionalization of Latin American studies in the US.
The postwar US neglect of the region occurred at a moment when Latin America was experiencing social, economic, and political transformations. During these decades, the region's largest countries embarked on an unprecedented process of industrialization, with a rapid expansion of the urban working and middle classes. This was accompanied by the emergence of the popular sectors, particularly organized labor, in national political life and the flourishing of new political and ideological currents. With acute insight and surprising tact, Robert Alexander established a place for himself as a witness to key episodes such as the rise and fall of Peron, the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, the overthrowing of the Perez Jimenez dictatorship in Venezuela in 1958, the rise of power of Fidel Castro in Cuba, and the turbulent years of the Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei (1964-1970) and the left- wing Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in Chile.
Alexander's extensive travels within Latin America were undertaken under a number of auspices and for different purposes. His 1962 book on organized labor grew out a 1956 grant from the Ford Foundation's Inter-University Study of Labor Problems in Economic Development. And his yearly trips to Bolivia in the 1950s, the subject of his third book The Bolivian National Revolution (1958), were funded in part by consultant-ships with the US aid program to that country. Given his extensive knowledge and contacts, Alexander was also an active participant in the US government policy debate about Latin America during the Kennedy administration. Although he did publish a book on the region with a US Congressman, Berger likely exaggerates when he calls Alexander "a major figure behind the Alliance for Progress."
Yet many of Alexander's most important early trips were not strictly academic at all. As he freely revealed to his readers, Alexander in the 1950s was a combative opponent of both communism and Peronism and their fellow travelers. Throughout his career, his scholarly activities were informed by a clear political agenda: to build support for mass-based reformist parties that would fight the communists "on their own grounds and among the groups from whom they especially drew support." Yet not all such non-communist reformist political movements and leaders would win Alexander's favor, precisely because many tended to be highly nationalistsic and resentful of US predominance and influence. The groups favored by Alexander, as well as US policymakers, were those that combined social reform commitments with a reliable policy of collaboration with the US in the struggle against the Soviet bloc and Communist threat within their own countries.
As a pro-labor US anti-communist, Professor Alexander cultivated friendships with many of the key Latin American political personalities of the "Democratic Left," such as Haya de la Torre, Jose Figueres, Romulo Betancourt, and Victor Paz Estenssoro. Thus he was particularly well-placed to gain special access, at the highest level, to the leadership of the major center-left political parties of Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia (AD, APRA, and MNR). Originating in the student, labor, and popular insurgencies of the 1930s, these anti-status quo parties had briefly risen to power after World War II but were subsuquently ousted and persecuted by rightist military regimes. When these populist parties did return to national prominence, their chastened leaders served as dependable allies of the US in its struggle in the 1960s against the Cuban Revolution.
Thus Alexander was, in any sense, an intellectual engage as well as a direct participant in the bitter political struggles that marked inter-hemispheric political and labor affairs. Going back to 1948, he had worked closely with the American Federation of Labor's regional representative Serafino Romauldi, an anti-communist Italian immigrant. He also collaborated closely, for many years, with the notorious eminence girs of the Cold War, the one-time communist Jay Lovestone who headed the International Department of the AFL and later AFL-CIO. Indeed, at least eight of his trips to Latin America between 1952-1959 were made with funds received through Lovestone, from both government and CIA sources. Whether despite or precisely because of his political militancy, Alexander actively crossed ideological divides to interview even those active in organizations and movements he bitterly opposed such as Communists. Indeed, his reports to Lovestone about his travels contained detailed and frank assessments of the strategic and tactical issues facing their political "camp" in the different Latin American countries.
As a leading Cold War operative, Alexander gained the opprobrium of critics of the United States. To one Soviet scholar, this "reactionary American historian [sic]" was "an apologist for the aggressive policies of US monopolists." Another Soviet analyst particularly objected to his pioneering monographs on labor and communism: "Alexander is noted for his works which distort the history of the labor movement in Latin America. Sponsored by AFL money, he carried on 'research' in various Latin American countries, establishing contacts with renegade and opportunistsic elements ousted from communist parties. Notes on talks with these renegades serve as the main source of Alexander's 'works.'"
Alexander's political alignments were equally suspect in some conservative US and Latin American circles in the 1950s, especially given the dubious and often "communist" origin of many of his favored political parties and their record of revolutionary-sounding rhetoric. In 1963, for example, the ultra-conservative US scholar J. Fred Rippy attacked Alexander, known for his "slanted views of US policy," as a man "well known by members of his profession as a champion of radical causes and of public contributions to them." After the 1958 ouster of Venezuela's Perez Jimenez, the military dictator's US supporters issued a red-baiting report that condemned the new AD President Romulo Betancourt as a crypto communist. In classic McCarthyite fashion, they profiled the subsersive background of his US supporters, including Alexander and other members of the Inter-American Foundation for Democracy and Freedom; this "extreme leftwing group," they reported, was full of "communists, pro-Communists, fellow travelers, Socialists, and left wing liberals."
When Latin American studies did finally boom in the 1960s, however, the new generation of scholars had little patience for the "Cold War liberalism" that had led Alexander to support the 1954 coup against the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala or to oppose Fidel Castro as early as 1959 (after which point he was barred from travel to the island). Faced with the leftward shift in the political climate in both Latin America and the United States in the 1960s, Alexander remained firm in his anti-communist and pro-US foreign policy alignment in the region. He was not swayed even by the bloody 1973 military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected Popular Unity (UP) coalition headed by President Salvador Allende. In his 1978 book The Tragedy of Chile, he emphasized that the UP had used "democratic means to achieve a totalitarian society." He also discounted the evidence of CIA complicity in the destabilization of the Allende government that was documented by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the famous "Church Committee report" of 1977:
Whatever the ITT did or did not do, whatever the CIA did or did not do, whatever certain US military personnel did or did not do, whatever economic policies the United States followed or did not follow with regard to Chile--all of these factors had only the most marginal impact in generating the economic and political crisis of the Allende regime in its final months. And they had nothing to do with the Chilean military leaders' decision to oust the Unidad Popular Regime
Not surprisingly, such tough-minded views won Alexander few friends among the new generation of academics working on Latin America. His work was increasingly criticized for its openly partisan political commitments and absence of scholarly rigor, which had increasingly become the norm with the professionalization of Latin Americanist research and scholarship. In 1979, a young Chileanist historian Peter Winn described Alexander's 1965 monograph on labor as "the most accessible" version of "a liberal anti-communist interpretation," but he went on to criticize its "frequently tendentious interpretations [based] upon a slender body of research." Another group of labor studies scholars in 1964 had criticized his embrace of the simple-minded "anti-Communist line of both the United States government and the AFL-CIO" that presented simplistic stories of "good guys (i.e. 'democrats') and bad guys (i.e. 'totalitarians')." In their eyes, Alexander's "cold war anti- Communist perspective" prevented him "from objectively considering the strong appeal of Marxist ideologies in Latin America." Yet even these young critics nonetheless recognized that his book on communism was "rich in information drawn from interviews and newspapers."
The 1980s would witness a greater appreciation for the acuity of some of Alexander's assessments of the socio-political affairs of the countries he visited. Alexander, "writing from a liberal, anti-communist perspective," was praised by Charles Bergquist in 1986 for being the only one of his generation of scholars, whether US or Latin American, who "consistently stressed the importance of organized labor in the modern historical development of the region."
"Until the mid-1960s," another historian observed, "Latin American labor history remained a curiously neglected field, with the exception of a few relatively isolated figures, such as Robert Alexander." Indeed, "without his immense work there simply would not exist any account of the development of the various Latin American labor movements."
Even the scale of his scholarly production and the extent of his political activism was not made clear until the publication, in 1991, of an eighty-four page bibliography of his work. Not counting translations or reprintings, Alexander wrote at least twenty-five major books, edited two collections of Latin American documents by Romulo Betancourt and Haya de la Torre, and served as the major editor for two reference works on political parties and politicians in Latin America. In addition, he published almost fifty book chapters, eight pamphlets, four hundred newspaper and magazine articles (largely of a non-scholarly sort), two hundred book reviews, and seventy-five encyclopedia and yearbook entries.

Alexander, Robert J. (Robert Jackson), 1918-2010.

Politics and culture--Latin America
Politics and culture--Africa
Politics and culture--Caribbean
Politics and culture--Cuba
Labor union members--Latin America
Labor union members--Africa
Labor union members--Caribbean
Labor leaders--Latin America
Labor leaders--Caribbean
Labor leaders--Africa
Labor movement--United States

Geographic Subjects:
Latin America--Officials and employees
Caribbean--Officials and employees
Africa--Officials and employees
Cuba--Officials and employees

Form and Genre Terms:


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Cite As:
Robert J. Alexander Papers Interview Collection on Microfilm #6150 mf. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library.


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