Contents and Arrangement Expanded View

Collection Overview

Oberdorfer, Don (1931-2015)
Don Oberdorfer Papers
Public Policy Papers
Permanent URL:
1930-2012 (mostly 1978-2008)
25 boxes
Storage Note:
  • Mudd Manuscript Library (scamudd): Boxes 1-24; 3A


Don Oberdorfer (1931-2015) worked as a journalist for nearly four decades; twenty-five of those years were as a staff member at the Washington Post, where he served as White House correspondent (1968-1972), Northeast Asia correspondent (1972-1975), and diplomatic correspondent (1976-1993). The collection is mostly composed of Oberdorfer's notebooks that chronicle his assignments with the Post, as well as his work post-retirement. The collection also consists of transcripts of interviews conducted by Oberdorfer with both American and Soviet foreign policy officials for his book The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era, The United States and the Soviet Union, 1983-1990 (Poseidon Press, 1991, and Touchstone Press, 1992). Additionally, the papers contain a significant amount of research material and writings related to Oberdorfer's career, foreign policy actions taken by the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, and the political climate of Japan and Korea from the late 1960s into the early twenty-first century.

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

The collection is mostly composed of Oberdorfer's notebooks that chronicle his assignments with the Washington Post and his work post-retirement. Especially noteworthy are Oberdorfer's notes and insights into his overseas travels as the Post's diplomatic correspondent, including his many trips with Secretary of State George P. Shultz. The notebooks also document Oberdorfer's continued interest in foreign affairs after his retirement, particularly in Asia.

Additionally, the collection contains transcripts of interviews conducted by Oberdorfer with both Soviet and American foreign policy officials about events occurring between 1983 and 1990, as well as records detailing those events. Topics discussed include the four summit meetings between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (Geneva in 1985, Reykjavik in 1986, Washington in 1987, and Moscow in 1988); the downing of Korean Airlines passenger jet KAL 007; the zero ballistic missiles option raised at Reykjavik; the Strategic Defense Initiative and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty's reinterpretation in connection with it; the Daniloff spy-swap affair; diplomatic missions of George Shultz and Andrei Gromyko; and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The interviews also detail American and Soviet foreign policy administration and personalities, including Gorbachev's predecessors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

Also included in the collection are typescript drafts of Oberdorfer's unpublished autobiography "Beyond the First Taxi Zone: Adventures of a Cold War Correspondent," which include excerpts from Oberdorfer's notebooks. Oberdorfer's general files of research materials and writings, often compiled in the course of conducting research for his autobiography, also contain excerpts from the notebooks. These files mostly relate to the political climate in Japan and Korea or to U.S. foreign relations under the Ronald Reagan administration. Other files pertain to Oberdorfer's biography of Senator Mike Mansfield.


The collection is arranged into five series.

Collection Creator Biography:


Don Oberdorfer was born 1931 in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from Princeton University in 1952 and served as a U.S. Army lieutenant in Korea, 1953-1954. In 1955 he began his journalistic career as a reporter for the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, becoming the paper's Washington correspondent in 1958. From 1961-1965, he was a Washington editor and contributing editor of the Saturday Evening Post magazine. From 1965-1968, he was national affairs correspondent for the Knight Newspapers chain, covering the Vietnam War both at home and abroad. During the next 25 years, he worked for the Washington Post, serving as White House correspondent (1968-1972), Northeast Asia correspondent based in Tokyo (1972-1975), and diplomatic correspondent (1976-1993).

Oberdorfer won the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for diplomatic correspondence in 1981 and 1988, and Georgetown University's Edward Weintal prize for diplomatic reporting in 1982 and 1993. From 1994-1996, he was president of Overseas Writers, a professional organization of American and foreign journalists who focus on U.S. diplomacy in Washington. Oberdorfer was also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society, and served as chairman of the Advisory Committee of the Washington Center of the Asia Society from 1986-1989.

In addition to The Turn, Oberdorfer is the author of Tet! (Doubleday, 1971; Da Capo Press, 1984), The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Perseus Books, 1997), the D.B. Hardeman Prize-winning Senator Mansfield: The Extraordinary Life of a Great American Statesman and Diplomat (Smithsonian Books, 2003), and numerous magazine articles.

Oberdorfer was a visiting professor at Princeton University in 1977, 1982, and 1986. In 1995, to commemorate Princeton's bicentennial, he authored an illustrated history of the university titled Princeton University: The First 250 Years.

Oberdorfer served as a resident scholar with the titles of Distinguished Journalist in Residence and Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He was named Chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS in September 2006 and became Chairman Emeritus in July 2013.

He was married to the former Laura Klein, and they had two children, Dan and Karen. Don Oberdorfer passed away on July 23, 2015.

Collection History


Don Oberdorfer donated the papers in Series 1 through 3 to the Seeley G. Mudd Library in 1994 (Accession Number: ML-1994-1). The materials in the January 2015 accession were donated by Mr. Oberdorfer's wife, Laura Oberdorfer (Accession Number: ML.2015.003). The materials in the September 2015 accession were donated by Mr. Oberdorfer's daughter, Karen Oberdorfer (Accession Number: ML.2015.030).


No materials were separated from Series 1 and 2. For Series 3, clippings from widely available newspapers and periodicals, unless annotated, were removed from the collection.

From the January 2015 accession, one folder of Mr. Oberdorfer's correspondence with the Mudd Library regarding his 1994 donation was separated to the Mudd Library's internal collection files.

Digital files consisting of drafts and detailed outlines of Mr. Oberdorfer's published works from the September 2015 accession were not retained. Approximately one linear feet of business cards, personal materials, copies of Mr. Oberdorfer's published books, and a copy of his Princeton senior thesis were also removed from this series.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Daniel J. Linke in 1994. Materials were arranged into three series and a finding aid was written by Daniel J. Linke in 1994.

The January 2015 accession was processed by Rachel Van Unen in April 2015. Some materials in the accession were rehoused in archival boxes and folders and all materials were described in the finding aid. The collection-level description of the Don Oberdorfer Papers was also updated at this time.

The September 2015 accession was processed by Rachel Van Unen in 2016. Some materials in the accession were rehoused in archival boxes and folders and all materials were described in the finding aid.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research use.

Conditions Governing Use

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. For quotations that are fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For those few instances beyond fair use, any copyright vested in the donor has passed to Princeton University and researchers are free to move forward with use of materials without anything further from Mudd Library. For materials not created by the donor, where the copyright is not held by the University, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold the copyright and obtaining approval from them. In these instances, researchers do not need anything further from the Mudd Library to move forward with their use. If you have a question about who owns the copyright for an item, you may request clarification by contacting us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

Credit this material:

Don Oberdorfer Papers; Public Policy Papers, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library
65 Olden Street
Princeton, NJ 08540, USA
(609) 258-6345
Storage Note:
  • Mudd Manuscript Library (scamudd): Boxes 1-24; 3A