The Oakland Army Base: An Oral History
Edited by Martin Meeker. The Bancroft Library, University of California, with the City of Oakland and the Port of Oakland and produced by the Regional Oral History Project at the Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010; 275 pp., softcover.
The Oakland Army Base: An Oral History documents the experiences of a wide range of soldiers and civilians who served at the base over a period of a half-century. This collection of oral history interview excerpts conducted by the renowned Regional Oral History Office of the University of California, Berkeley, typifies the strengths and weaknesses of the oral history genre. As stated initially in the work, it consists of a series of “lively, sometimes intensely detailed recollections” of the Oakland Army Base . . . over the span of nearly sixty years.” But it is “not a conventional narrative marching through time sounding off the accomplishments that occurred on the base and of the people who served there” (p. 1).
Such a study still needs to be written. If the present volume is understood as a collection of primary source material, with all the promise and pitfalls of oral history interviews and contributing towards a balanced interpretive history yet to be written, then this is a valuable effort indeed.
The thematic conception of the volume is good and takes a very broad approach to the facility. In addition to focusing on its core mission of logistical support to the wartime and peacetime Army overseas, the study explores the inner dynamics of the community of soldiers, civil service workers, their families, contract employees, and longshoremen, as well as the effect of the sprawling base on its neighborhood and the community. The work compliments the Regional Oral History website (http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/projects/oab/themes.html).
The website’s crisp divisions into core base function, city within a city, and community ultimately communicates more clearly than this book. For instance, it is confusing to have two successive chapters: one about “the base’s core function” and another about “mission critical Oakland Army Base core functions.” An example of the editor’s interpretation is found in a controversial introductory statement to the chapter entitled “The Oakland Army Base and the American Dream” where it is asserted that “[s]ome scholars now argue that the military must be viewed as one of the most highly developed arms of the otherwise undeveloped U.S welfare state” when the interviewees “reveal how the OAB became a ladder for economic and social mobility for disadvantaged populations” and this is equated with how the “OAB helped them to achieve the American Dream” (p. 105).
A better contextual setting for military bases in the Bay Area from 1941-1995 is needed. Presently, the bibliography must be consulted carefully to get satisfaction in this regard. Works such as Roger W. Lotchin’s seminal Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare, or Gerald Nash’s The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War can serve historians and others as important contextual studies for this important oral history offering.
The strengths of this collection are found in the vivid immediacy with which people describe their own experiences. There is poignancy: “The sad part was that a lot of times the parents would come, because that would be the last place they could see their loved one before they went overseas.” There are quirky analyses of memories of the Vietnam War: “We loaded a lot of soda pop and beer. Sometimes whole ships full of soda pop, beer and cigarettes. And you just kind of got a sense that there was really something going on over there… I saw the nicotine as being a stimulant and I saw the beer as knocking off the edge… Wow, this much beer? This must not be too good.” And there is detailed explanation of how longshoremen worked a ship in the era before “break-bulk” cargo handling was superseded by containerization, a contribution that illustrates the best potentials of oral history (pp. 37, 42).
But a classic weakness is also evidenced when oral history is used to explain complicated trends or to voice an opinion that is unsubstantiated. In spite of the disclaimer that “sometimes patterns in the false or confused memories of people can reveal truths greater than mere facts alone,” false statements, not corrected or at least explained for subsequent users can take on a life of their own. An example of unclear recordation can be found in a portion of one the oral histories “If you remember World War II history, a number of the traitors, particularly in England, were gays. Well, if they know you’re gay and nobody else does, then they use that to blackmail you.” When the introduction to an entire section on “San Francisco Bay Area Politics and the Department of Defense” states that the interviews “offer a fascinating portrait of local conjecture—some of it informed, some of it entirely speculative” without noting specifics, one can only wonder concerning the usefulness of such information (p. 179).
The Oakland Army Base: An Oral History fulfills its goals and the goals of the base closure process that sponsored it, but it is best used in association with other research guides. The broad net it casts over the conceptualization of a large military base within a community and the vivid vignettes captured that would be otherwise lost are valuable contributions to the historical record. While this important work is exactly what it purports to be, it shouldn’t be confused as a broad contextual history of the facility. Hopefully, that too will be forthcoming in the not too distant future.
Stephen A. Haller
National Park Service