Collection Spotlight: Leonard Woodcock Papers

(11528) Kennedy, Woodcock, Convention, Atlanic City, New Jersey, 1959

The Walter P. Reuther Library is honored to announce the opening of the The Leonard Woodcock Papers. Leonard Woodcock orchestrated profound accomplishments in a variety of fields, notably as head of the UAW and later as Ambassador to China, making these historical records a valuable resource to a wide range of researchers.

Woodcock was a man of diverse achievements, and his collection at the Reuther Library primarily documents his diplomatic service in East Asia. President Jimmy Carter knew Woodcock's reputation as a steely negotiator and asked him to lead a mission to Hanoi on behalf of American soldiers missing in action during the Vietnam War. President Carter again called on Woodcock’s leadership abilities, this time appointing him the Chief of the US Liaison’s Office in China in 1977. Since its formation in 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had never been recognized by the US government. Despite visits by Henry Kissinger and President Nixon, Sino-American relations remained icy. As the top American diplomat in the region, Woodcock began talks with the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party to find a way to bring about full normalization of diplomatic relations. This was finally achieved in December 1978, and President Carter made Woodcock the first American ambassador to the PRC. Researchers can access a variety of record types from Woodcock’s time as a diplomat, including records from the American embassy, his personal notes from meetings with Chinese leaders, and even a copy of Mao’s little red book. These records, especially the photographs taken by Woodcock and his wife, Sharon, captured China on the cusp of modernity, just before economic reforms transformed the country into an industrial world power.

At the same time, Woodcock possessed deep ties to the Walter P. Reuther Library and Wayne State University. He attended classes here when it was still called Detroit City College until the Great Depression forced him to drop out and join the workforce. Years later, he would return to the school as a founding member on the Board of Governors of the newly formed Wayne State University in 1959. In the following years, he deepened his relationship with the archives, placing the Reuther Library in the History Department and garnering financial support from the University and UAW for a much-needed expansion of the building. This culminated in 1991 with the opening of the Leonard Woodcock Wing in the Reuther Library, and his name still adorns the building to this day.

Woodcock first came into prominence as the Vice President of the UAW and later as its International President. He initially joined the labor movement as a factory worker at the Borg-Warner Corporation, and later became UAW president Walter Reuther’s administrative assistant. He took on increasing leadership roles within the union, and developed into one of the UAW’s most persuasive negotiators. When Reuther tragically passed away in a plane crash, Woodcock accepted the unenviable task of filling his shoes. Over the years, he demonstrated his mettle as International President, leading the UAW through a massive strike against GM and the unprecedented turbulence of the 1970s. During this time, he also oversaw the construction of a stand-alone archive for the UAW on Wayne State’s campus, a project that would later be named the Walter P. Reuther Library.

The papers of many accomplished individuals reside at the Walter P. Reuther Library, but perhaps no other donor has had such a profound connection to the archives. He drove in the shovel at the building’s groundbreaking, made sure the facilities were expanded in the later Eighties, and developed close personal and working relationships with archival staff. The opening of his papers completes a homecoming of sorts, one not possible without the dedication and involvement of his wife, Sharon Woodcock. A woman with her own remarkable life story, Sharon has dedicated considerable time and resources into gathering records spanning all of Leonard’s various careers while taking extra measures to preserve the collection’s most at-risk items. The history within this collection, from leading the nation’s most prominent union to forging peaceful Sino-American relations, is one that stands apart from many of our holdings. The Reuther Library is honored to provide the general public access to the Leonard Woodcock Papers, and we look forward to the fascinating research done with the collection.

Gavin Strassel is the Service Employees International Union Archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library.