The Paper Trust

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Other historians who deal in primary sources are disturbed at excessive respect for the confidentiality of personal interchanges among the mighty. First, they argue, there is always the possibility that a personal matter—the actual illness of Woodrow Wilson in 1919; the possible illness of Franklin D. Roosevelt in early 1945; the approaching madness of James Forrestal, first Secretary of Defense, in 1949—may be the urgently needed key to comprehending a historical development. Furthermore, the current policy places a tremendous burden on the discretion of the library officials. They must comb the materials and, when a letter contains both public and private materials, make the tricky judgment of which element predominates. They may become overcautious. Or one of them may, through long association with a given President’s history, tend toward becoming a keeper of the flame, unwilling to jeopardize “his” man’s reputation by putting materials in the hands of a known critic.

Moreover, historians do not get an equal shot at the record. It does not remain totally veiled during the years when it is officially closed. Presidents, generals, Cabinet members, White House aides, and staff members often rush to their typewriters to write reminiscences that will make themselves presentable in the history books. They send assistants and clerks ruffling through their papers, often still in official files. They give inside accounts to favored book-writing reporters. In addition, the State and Defense departments (as well as other federal agencies) have official historians who have the insider’s clear track, not only to files but, more importantly, to frequent, familiar, and confidential interviews with the historical actors themselves. The viewpoints that dominate these official histories become in essence those of the commissioning agencies.

Piecemeal, therefore, a version of the recent past, tailored to official and individual vanity, emerges. But the independent historian or journalist, who is most likely to have the training and the perspective to create a useful chronicle and to interpret it objectively, remains shut out from this favored group until a generation has passed. The long-run cost, argue Burns and Herbert Feis, the diplomatic historian, is great. If knowledge of history is to be helpful to people and their leaders, it must be timely. Against the need for security and privacy there stand the claims of the nation, which cannot afford to make its archives, Feis says, like those of totalitarian states —“mortuaries which only licensed embalmers … are allowed to enter.” And, too, he adds, the world has a claim on the keepers of the record. In this era of tragic national behavior, “greater openness, by all governments, might improve the health of the international community by nurturing it on the whole truth, even if it tastes bitter.” Burns and Feis do not argue that restrictions should be abandoned, but only that the record should be opened much more quickly- Burns suggests about eight years after it is made. The Presidential libraries are not specifically blamed for “privileged history” but for involuntarily sharing in the system that creates it.

To such remonstrances the various directors of the Presidential libraries, past and present, have a variety of answers. The first is that they must work within the “givens” of the system. One of these is that, while Presidents may willingly deposit their records in special libraries built to house them, in the foreseeable future there is no likelihood of compelling former Chief Executives to relinquish the papers to public scrutiny on any terms but their own. Even if a law should be passed making the White House files public documents, a President would be within his rights in sifting out exclusively private papers for removal. If NARS officials challenged his judgment on what was purely personal matter, the resulting contests could, in the words of one of them, keep “a whole battery of lawyers busy” for a long time.

Moreover, to insist that anything in the White House’s incoming mailbag ought to be given to the populace for early inspection would chill frankness. As former Truman administrative assistant David Lloyd once wrote, few men would write to a President in confidence and few Presidents would put their private thoughts on paper if the end of the term was a signal for disclosure. “And as a consequence, the ability of the President to function as an independent officer of the Government would be curtailed, if not crippled. …” It is unquestionably true that a good public servant must be allowed to suggest outrageously unpopular courses of action—if only for discussion—without being pilloried for it soon thereafter. (Contemporary public men already worry considerably in crisis conferences about indiscreet colleagues who may already have contracts for their memoirs in hand.)