On the 16th of October, 1959, Mark Starr (the director of the New York-based Esperanto Information Center) enthusiastically wrote, in a letter to George Falgier (then delegate for education of the Universal Esperanto Association):
The director of the USIA [United States Information Agency], George V. Allen, was so impressed by the Congress when he was there with Nixon, that he is considering translating some of the foundation documents of the United States into Esperanto. However, he wants no attention to this until the proposal has been carried through.
Earlier that year, in August 1959, Richard Nixon – then vice-president of the US – visited the 44th Universal Congress of Esperanto. The congress was taking place in Warsaw, Poland, when Nixon was in the city for an official visit. Curious about the people walking on the streets displaying green flags and pins with white stars in their shirts and suits, Nixon reportedly asked his aide what country that was. Learning that that was the Esperanto flag and surprised by the sheer number of people displaying those symbols across Warsaw, Nixon asked to visit the congress venue, where he came across a more vibrant Esperanto scene than he could ever think of.
The 1950s were the years in which the history of the US was marked by McCarthyism, a campaign that spread fear of communism and was characterized by the suppression and persecution of individuals and groups accused of being disloyal to the country. Lasting throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the fear of communism in the US culminated in people and institutions being continuously accused of being sympathetic to the Soviet influence. Given Esperanto’s long-standing ties with left-leaning political stances, certainly a number of these Soviet sympathizers and ‘commies’ were present at the 1959 Universal Congress of Esperanto in Warsaw – ironically, perhaps shoulder to shoulder with Nixon.
Also attending the abovementioned congress were globetrotters. Perceiving Esperanto as a tool to turn international travelling into a quasi-permanent lifestyle, several Esperantists used the language to seek hosts and bond with locals when visiting places whose local language they could not speak. Many of these Esperanto-speaking globetrotters produced travel reports on the basis of their explorations of the world. From Tibor Sekelj’s numerous books on his trips to Nepal, India, Japan, and several countries in Latin America and Africa between the 1930s and the 1980s to Joseph Scherer’s international lecture tour in 1931-1932 and Scherer’s many subsequent trips in Europe, Asia, and North America, Esperantists are notorious for turning their travels into written accounts of the world. The books emerging from Joseph Scherer’s world tours – Ĉirkaŭ la mondon kun la verda stelo and Tra Usono kun ruliĝanta hejmo, both published in 1933 – quickly became out of stock, having inspired a number of similar worldly adventures. Several of such globetrotters regularly attended Esperanto congresses, as these gave them opportunities to network with prospective hosts – and, of course, travel again.
Communists and globetrotters have systematically met in Universal Esperanto Congresses since the early Esperanto gatherings. However, in 1959 Warsaw, a third element encountered these two profiles of Esperantists: a US vice-president. Regardless of how ephemeral Nixon’s visit to the congress venue was, for at least a few minutes, Esperanto brought together communists, globetrotters, and a key player in the world’s geopolitics who saw both groups with suspicion.
Coincidence or not, some months after Nixon visited the congress, the radio program Voice of America began broadcasting in Esperanto. The Voice of America was funded by the US government to be broadcast worldwide in several languages, aiming to convey information about American affairs, the US and its culture to non-US citizens. Despite having lasted less than two years, the Voice of America in Esperanto substantiated the claim that this language could play a political role regarding internationalism, in an attempt to ‘meet foreigners halfway’, as stated by an Esperantist in 1960.
Coincidence or not, as the fear of communism in the US surged, Esperantists in the country progressively ceased being associated with globetrotting and became perceived as potential ‘reds’ who used their world connections to receive magazines and spread ideologies coming from the other side of the Iron Curtain. In the late 1950s, the Red Scare also gained prominence among US Esperantists who, at times, reported to the CIA and the United States Information Agency their fellow Esperantists’ ‘unpatriotic allegiances’.
All this information is available at the Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives, located at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in the US, where I spent one month as a Visiting Research Fellow. The Esperanto archives at UMass Amherst comprise four collections: the Allan C. Boschen Esperanto Collection, the Lewis E. Cook Papers, the Esperanto Information Center Records, and the Esperanto League for North America Collection. With letters, postcards, minutes of meetings and newspaper snippets covering the history of Esperanto in the US – from the standpoint of institutions such as Esperanto associations and of key players such as Joseph Scherer and Mark Starr – the bulk of these archives cover the period between 1950 and 1980. This period – which corresponds to the apogee of civil rights and anti-war social movements in the country – attests to how ‘neutrality’ and ‘internationality’ came to bear more politically-laden meanings during the Cold War period and to how Esperanto was, even if secondarily, in a dialogue with the wider geopolitical landscape of the time.
Drawing on this archival research at UMass and on my social anthropology background, I will now work on two academic articles. One of them will cover how Esperanto’s internationalism came to coexist with claims for national sovereignty when McCarthyism nurtured the fragmentation of the Esperanto movement in the US along the lines of patriotic versus unpatriotic allegiances. The second article I plan to write will delve into how travel writing in certain languages has come to constitute ethnography and anthropology as institutionalized academic approaches, whereas travel reports in languages other than English, French, and German – such as Joseph Scherer’s correspondence and books originally written in Esperanto – were left out of academia as marginal collections of curiosities about the world.
Most importantly, looking into the wealth of documentation about this period drew my attention to the lack of scholarship on these themes. The Cold War years seem to be a moment in the history of Esperanto in the US worth exploring while we can still recover private collections of Esperantists active at the time and interview key players who can help researchers make sense of these archives. Without this work to safeguard private collections and record interviews, we may be left with a series of uncertainties – with speculative exercises that can only exist under the guise of ‘coincidence or not’.
The month-long archival research of Guilherme Fians at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was funded by the Esperanto Studies Foundation through its Visiting Research Fellowship program. Guilherme Fians thanks ESF for this financial support and aims to work on publications arising from this research visit in the near future.
This article is also available in Esperanto.