The Paper Trust


By that time President Dwight Eisenhower had agreed to deposit his papers in a library-and-museum complex at Abilene. Herbert Hoover’s friends, after an eightieth birthday party for him in West Branch, had launched a drive to build the Hoover Library, to which the papers of his Cabinet and Presidential years would be transferred from Stanford. And in 1955 Congress—which had allowed the government to accept the Roosevelt Library by special joint resolution—passed a general Presidential Libraries Act. Under it, the Administrator of General Services (the business arm of the federal government) could accept the papers of any President or former President, as well as “any land, buildings, and equipment offered as a gift to the United States for the purposes of creating a Presidential archival depository,” and could likewise, if need be, agree to operate such a depository even if title to the property remained with some state, political subdivision, foundation, or institution.

Even before the tragically abrupt end of the Kennedy administration, plans were afoot for the Kennedy Library, and the subject of where to locate the Johnson Library was also on the White House staff agenda long before 1968. Both Presidents had initiated record-keeping and record-compiling programs within Executive agencies, the first rough sketches for the historical portraits of their periods of tenure.

A foundation was set up in 1969 to select a site for a library for President Nixon in southern California. The exact location (which the President will have to approve) is a matter not only of local pride but of dollars and cents. For like all the other libraries this one will bring tourists, motels and restaurants to shelter and nourish them, and bulldozers leaving ribbons of concrete highway trailing behind them—all developments of much interest to real-estate promoters. And on some date in 1973 or 1977 the Nixon papers, like those of every President before him since Franklin Roosevelt, will be truckloaded (at government expense) to the waiting library or to a federal warehouse if the library is not yet completed. The haul will include not only the tiny percentage of papers actually originated by the President and signed by him, but all others in his files. Carbon copies of most of them will be available in the agencies that sent the originals—but it is conceivable that the President might, wittingly or not, take with him the lone copy of some document vitally needed by his successor. [See “How Harding Saved the Versailles Treaty” in the December, 1968, issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE .]

For several years thereafter, government-paid archivists will sort, label, catalogue, index, and otherwise tame the paper wilderness and provide it with signposts and pathways for historical explorers. Meanwhile, the Nixon Library —and other Presidential libraries which may have been set up by then—will continue to grow by accession. Its director will, like his colleagues in charge of the existing libraries, want to make his library a center for study of the entire era of “his” President. He will try to collect papers—and at least tape-recorded oral history interviews—from members of the Cabinet, heads of Executive agencies (like the FCC or OEO ), unofficial but major advisers and close friends, party committeemen, deputy and assistant-deputy officials, key legislators, journalists, associates of pre-Presidential years, and so on down the line to minor types, the water-bucket carriers and rubdown specialists of the Presidential team.

Finally the Nixon Library will be a mature, fully functioning archive, like the six that precede it in time—and, perhaps, like those to come after it, if post-Nixon Presidents do not return to the casual records-disposal practices of an earlier day.

At that point, it would appear, the historians should have cause to rejoice. The key American records—manuscripts, films, and tapes—of the central decades of the twentieth century will be neatly on file in protected surroundings, instead of laid up in attics “where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through.” This year, presumably, the Roosevelt and Truman libraries (respectively in their third and second decades of use) are already helping to unravel such mysteries as what happened at Yalta and Potsdam, how much influence brain trusters and cronies had in domestic policies, and who planted the seeds of “containment.” By 1981, therefore, the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson libraries may be expected to make an open book of equally gnarled questions: the U -2 flights, the Bay of Pigs affair, and Vietnam. And so the Presidential-library system will stand vindicated and blessed by scholarship.

Alas, as even the directors of the libraries themselves are aware, the scenario does not read so smoothly. For there are severe limitations on the use of the Presidential papers now, and unless they are overcome, they may leave tomorrow’s historians, despite the archival machinery at their disposal, even more frustrated than yesterday’s, who had to grope their uncertain way to long-lost trunks full of mildewing papers.