The Paper Trust

PrintPrintEmailEmail

First of all, since the outbreak of World War II, a vast proportion of the White House files originating in the State Department and the War and Navy (and later Defense) departments have been classified to protect national security. Ten, twenty, and even thirty years after the events with which they deal, their SECRET and TOP SECRET stamps remain as binding as ever. Until they are officially reviewed and declassified—a process compared to which glaciers sprint—they are either entirely closed to scholars or can be studied only under severe reservations. The user must be fingerprinted and his security checked; he must swear that he does not belong to any of a list of subversive organizations; his notes and manuscript must be reviewed by State and/or Defense officials, a process that may take months. Nor is there any court of appeal.

Although the entire classification system (except for Atomic Energy Commission materials, which are classified by statute) rests on Executive Order, a retired President may not disclose the contents of secret papers—even those that he himself wrote. Lyndon Johnson, it is known, had a special team of Defense Department specialists examine his files after he left office, in the hope that they might authorize the speedy release of information that he believes is necessary to understand his actions. Their almost predictable answer was No.

In addition to the papers closed for security reasons, there is another substantial body of material kept from researchers in the libraries. This comprises the communications that, in the language of an official NARS handout for researchers, contain statements “which may be used to injure, embarrass or harass any living person,” or which were “obviously made in confidence,” or which “relate strictly to a person’s private, family or business affairs.” The reason for the policy is clear. Many of the papers received by the President and his associates unsparingly discuss—often on the basis of rumor and gossip—the private fragilities of public men. NARS believes that the neuroses, divorces, diseases, and private financial pressures of key legislators or potential appointees to office are not public matters unless there is clear proof that they affect public performance. Moreover, thousands of letters to the President come from ordinary citizens who pour out their personal agonies in detail to an unknown man whom they see as a superfather. A blackmailer could function briskly simply by frequenting the libraries and using these files.

It is thus a custom for the library staffs to review incoming collections and “close” materials that fall within these categories. Periodically they go over them anew, with a list of recent obituaries at hand, and “open” those items dealing with individuals whom death has put beyond the sting of scandal. (Donors may, however, require that their papers be closed for long periods of time after their death or that of people mentioned in them.) At best, this practice is a compromise between the public’s right to know and the individual’s right to privacy. And like any compromise it yields incomplete satisfaction to both parties.

Yet no scholar can reasonably complain about protecting the human rights of those who serve the nation in government posts and those who correspond with them. Nor are scholars unwilling to help protect the nation from harm through premature revelations: private agreements with heads of foreign powers, reports on the military preparedness of allies, intelligence estimates that name the source of their information. But many responsible historians do resent what James MacGregor Burns, a distinguished biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, calls “the absurd overkill of the present restrictions.” Burns knows whereof he speaks. He has had to run the gauntlet of security clearance in order to see documents that are now twenty-five years old at a minimum.

Furthermore, the restrictive tendency of the classifying authorities appears to be increasing with time. The State Department used to publish its volumes of diplomatic documents, entitled Foreign Relations of the United States , some fifteen years after the events they recorded. The time lag is now nearing thirty years. Perhaps the reason lies not only in secrecy but in the volume of the materials and in staff and budget limitations. But whatever the reason, a middle-aged historian of recent foreign affairs cannot entertain much hope of getting a wholly accurate story in his lifetime. Critics of the security policy also say that it reflects bureaucratic caution as much as it does prudence. The “secrets” themselves are rarely very potent. Many have been revealed in memoirs. Most date rather quickly. The total classified record, Burns notes, “consists of millions of items, none very crucial in itself.” The need for secrecy “after a span of a few years,” he concludes, “is largely a myth.”