- Historic Sites
The Paper Trust
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
To begin with, the Presidential libraries do not look like what they are. Each one is, in fact, a miniature Office of Public Records. And scholars who frequent such offices know that they are found in capital cities, in buildings that are heavy, ornamented, slowly discoloring monuments to bureaucrats dead and gone. The National Archives of the United States—America’s public records—are, to give one example, housed in an oversized Greek temple near the intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues in Washington, D.C.
But the six libraries for Presidential papers, which are administered by the National Archives and Records Service ( NARS ) of the General Services Administration, are something else. The Herbert Hoover Library modestly hugs the flat ground of West Branch, Iowa, calculatedly as unpretentious as Hoover’s nearby birthplace or the well-preserved blacksmith shop of his father, where he learned by observation the value of hard work and austerity. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s is in a building that blends neatly into the surroundings of a Hudson River gentleman’s estate at Hyde Park, New York. Harry S. Truman’s spreads itself on a grassy knoll not far from an expressway in Independence, Missouri, once the gateway to the limitless West, now a suburb of Kansas City. A tendency toward expansion becomes visible in Abilene, Kansas. There, in the Eisenhower Center, a library of Kansas limestone and imported marble faces a museum across an open court, flanked by a Place of Meditation (the word chapel being carefully avoided) and a set of monumental pylons presented by the Kansas Daughters of the American Revolution and the Soroptomist Clubs of Kansas. On the campus of the University of Texas at Austin a rectangular, flat-capped tower of pinkish travertine rises from what landscaping will turn into a spacious plaza. To be opened in May, 1971, it will contain the Lyndon B. Johnson Library; an adjoining, lower structure will house the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Both are the architectural creation of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm that has designed many of the steel-and-glass temples of industry on New York’s Park Avenue. Fiscal and other uncertainties have delayed the construction of the John F. Kennedy Library, but eventually an oval-shaped cluster of buildings and malls in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will contain the library itself, the Harvard-affiliated Kennedy School of Government, and possibly a third “related facilities” building.
The new Presidential libraries raise a question: Can the documentary grain be separated from the documentary chaff?
These are a long way from the attics in which Presidents of a simpler day stored their papers; the contents of these libraries, too, are of a magnitude and complexity that stretch the imagination. First of all, there are the actual papers of the Executive Office—row on row, shelf after shelf, of the memoranda, letters, reports, studies, schedules, briefs, minutes, tables, abstracts, lists, projections, drafts, forms, authorizations, and all the infinite variety of documents through which Executive power somewhat soggily asserts itself. Next, there are the truly personal papers—the records of the human beings who briefly occupied the White House and of many members of their administrations. These comprise an incredible miscellany of mail, including thousands of letters from ordinary citizens who reach out to touch the majesty of office in revealing notes that beg, cajole, flatter, and often obscenely condemn the President. In addition there are clippings, photographs, tape recordings, reprints, motion-picture films, sketches, and such minor social records as greetings, invitations, acknowledgments, and farewells. Finally, there is a third category of material, housed in the museum that is part of each Presidential library- the objects accumulated by a President in office: paintings of (and sometimes by) the Chief Executive, statuettes, stamps, ship models, miniature weapons and vehicles, fishing tackle, stuffed animals, dishes, silverware, mugs and goblets, clothing for the First Lady, toys for the First Children, souvenirs of historic occasions, books, cartoons, prints and musical scores autographed by their creators, rugs, tapestries, plaques—the gifts of ordinary citizens and heads of state alike to the representative of the American people.
These unscholarly items have, in some cases, achieved a kind of immortality in their own right—the collar of Roosevelt’s famous Scottie, Fala; the sign on Truman’s desk, T HE B UCK S TOPS H ERE ; John Kennedy’s rocking chair. They arc the items that, when displayed, bring in the tourists by thousands. While the historians, sitting shirt-sleeved in the research rooms and peering quizzically at the documents, may take little interest in the public thronging through the museum displays, the directors of the libraries do not scorn the sightseers. They reason that among the crowds of children in Snoopy T-shirts, Sears jeans, and Keds sneakers, smelling of Howard Johnson’s peppermint gum and Good and Plenty licorice, peering at the cases through Rexall sunglasses, there may be future Morisons and Schlesingers. (The tourists and the researchers do not see each other, but in the Johnson Library the sightseers will be able to see what the archivists are working on. The architect has made the stacks visible from the museum through a glass wall and has decreed that the papers be kept in eye-catching scarlet boxes.)
The libraries are the creations of an unusual collaboration. Each has been built by private subscription among the friends of a President (except for the Johnson Library, which Texas will pay for and own as part of its state university campus). The President so honored, on his retirement, deposits his papers in the library, and both building and contents become a gift to the people of the United States. The federal government then puts archivists to work in the role of whitecollar monks, guarding the precious manuscripts against the ravages of time, weather, chance, and desperate men.
With each succeeding Presidency the sheer volume of material has increased. It is estimated that George Washington wrote perhaps twenty-five thousand letters all told. By Franklin Roosevelt’s time the President’s own letters, plus the other documents he had collected during his public life, were measured in the linear feet of space they occupied when boxed and shelved. The total was nearly 2,500 feet—almost half a mile of such records. The Roosevelt Library did not confine itself simply to preserving the papers taken from the White House after Roosevelt’s death. Like the Presidential libraries that followed, it sought and accepted the manuscripts of the President’s coworkers and associates throughout his career in government. As a result the Roosevelt Library now has over twentyone million pages of manuscript on paper, after a quarter-century of growth. But the Kennedy Library, not yet open in its permanent quarters, already has more than seventeen million pages on paper, plus two and a half million on microfilm, representing an administration that lasted less than three years—in addition to a million and a half feet of motion-picture film and more than fifteen hundred sound recordings (both discs and tapes). The Johnson Library has thirty million pages on paper, 5,500,000 on microfilm, half a million photographs (compared to 93,052 in the Roosevelt Library, the nearest competitor in this field), 2,010,420 feet of motion-picture film, and 3,025 sound recordings for the ears of the future.
It is estimated that President Nixon’s records, even if he were to serve but one term, will exceed Johnson’s in volume. What the cost of a Nixon Library (already in the planning stages) will be is uncertain, but since the Roosevelt Library cost $367,000 to build, as against the several millions that the John F. Kennedy Library will require, it may be guessed that the amount will not be small. The expense of maintaining the six institutions—including the two not yet complete—in fiscal 1970 was approximately 1.8 million dollars in appropriated funds, which allowed for a personnel of 146. Certainly it seems a modest sum, nowadays, to care for donated buildings and lands worth many millions, and for papers whose value to history is presumed to be incalculable.
But are the treasures of the Presidential libraries actually priceless? There are some who doubt it, who fear that, if only because of their stupefying massiveness, the Presidential papers will not yield up the shape of the past to future historians in the way that fossil bones deliver the outlines of prehistoric giant lizards to knowledgeable paleontologists. Scattered widely over the country, some argue, the libraries will be visited only by pilgrims who are seeking the relics in the museums and by a handful of scholars who appear seasonally like wildfowl (at every academic vacation) to scrabble for the materials of dissertations. Will the Presidential libraries, in fact, become—in Columbia historian Henry Graff’s speculative phrase—the pyramids of our time? Or will they, as their staffs hope, help in the critical task of preserving the nation’s records so that it may learn wisdom by a searching look at all its yesterdays?
To answer that question demands a review of the nature and history of Presidential papers and a survey of the current limitations on their use. The picture is sometimes discouraging. To begin with, a skeptical American may be pardoned if he believes that gratitude is uncalledfor when a President makes a “gift” of his papers to the public. Why should the people be thankful, he reasons, for being given what is theirs in the first place? For is it not true that the President’s correspondence is a part of the official record of the government? And does it not therefore belong to the taxpayers fully as much as anything else created or purchased with government monies?
Astonishingly, the answer is No. Ordinary civil servants—even Cabinet members—are obliged by law to keep account of their doings, and in so doing to create the fallout of official documents that keeps archivists in prosperity. They may not destroy or remove whatever may be needful for a competent authority later to review their public performance. But the President of the United States is himself an independent government agency. In a sense he is accountable only to God, the Constitution, and the electorate. What comes into his office during his tenure is his alone.
George Washington, who set so many Presidential precedents, simply took his papers—including all the written matter he had exchanged with members of his official family—back to Mount Vernon with him, presumably to nestle alongside his old plantation account books, and no one was disposed to challenge him. John Adams followed suit because, according to one scholar, he did not want his thenhated successor, Thomas Jefferson, nosing among his letters. When Jefferson himself did the same in 1809, the precedent had hardened. It was not challenged until 1886, when the Senate made bold to ask for certain papers belonging to Grover Cleveland, which were then not even in the White House but on file in the office of the Attorney General. Cleveland characteristically rapped the Senate’s knuckles. “I regard the papers and documents … intended for my use and action,” he wrote, “purely unofficial and private, not infrequently confidential, and having reference to the performance of a duty exclusively mine. … I suppose if I desired to take them into my custody I might do so with entire propriety, and if I saw fit to destroy them no one could complain. …” The senators did not press the matter further.
Presidents came and went. They took their papers with them and did things to make archivists shudder. The precious documents were dumped in attics; rummaged by heirs for autographs and souvenirs to bestow on friends; winnowed of “improper” material by worshipful widows, executors, and official biographers; and scrawled on by playful children. Some were burnt by accident—many of Andrew Jackson’s, for example—and some perished in flames by design, like those of Millard Fillmore (by the deathbed command of his son) and, reputedly, those of Martin Van Buren and Ulysses Grant, who were either indifferent to, or wary of, the curiosity of posterity.
Some, of course, were sold to libraries (often by heirs in need of cash) whose directors sensed the vital importance of the neglected records to historical research. The Library of Congress worked hard at getting a complete Presidential collection and up to 1940 had spent $170,000 in purchases of ex-Presidents’ papers. Universities and state and local historical societies acquired fragments of individual Presidents’ papers.
There were shining exceptions. The family of Rutherford B. Hayes presented his carefully kept papers, as well as the family estate, to the state of Ohio, which built a memorial library on the site. Opened in 1916, it has since become an important center for the study of the Reconstruction era. The bulk of the papers of the Presidents from James A. Garfield through Calvin Coolidge—with the exception of Warren Harding, whose papers are at the Ohio Historical Society, in Columbus—were given to the Library of Congress. Herbert Hoover deposited his in a special library, now known as the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, on the campus of Stanford University; there they joined the materials he had accumulated in a world-ranging career as engineer and famine relief administrator (but as it turned out later, they did not stay there). When Franklin Roosevelt began to think about leaving the White House, he might have followed what has been called the Library of Congress model. But he regarded himself as having a special problem, and, characteristically, he looked for a precedentbreaking way to solve it.
In February, 1938, Roosevelt wrote to his fellow sailing enthusiast and Harvard alumnus Samuel Eliot Morison, asking for advice on the “somewhat ambitious thought” of creating a repository for materials “relating to this period of our national history.” Without a special effort they would be scattered throughout libraries and collections across the entire country. “For example,” Roosevelt noted, “my own papers should, under the old method, be divided among the Navy Department, the Library of Congress, the New York State Historical Division in Albany, the New York City Historical Society, Harvard University, and various members of my family.” Morison quickly replied. He thought that a separate New Deal archive would not be a good idea. But the President’s own papers might well be kept together somewhere—it did not matter where, “as long as the repository is fireproof and the guardians faithful.” In conclusion Morison urged: “But, whatever you do Mr. President, don’t break up the collection, giving some to your children, others to Harvard, etc! Although alma mater would profit, such dispersion offends all my professorial principles.”
Yet even the modest goal of preserving the Roosevelt records, instead of a complete New Deal archive, posed a problem. For one thing, the volume of White House business had mushroomed enormously. As a single instance, F.D.R.’s ability to communicate directly with the public—“My Friends”—had stimulated floods of letters to him: where Hoover had received about four hundred a day, the Roosevelt daily average in 1940 came to over four thousand. Moreover, Roosevelt was a pack rat. “I have destroyed practically nothing,” he told guests at a dinner. “As a result, we have a mine for which future historians will curse me as well as praise me. It is a mine which will need to have the dross sifted from the gold.”
Roosevelt’s decision on how and where to locate his mine was announced after a luncheon on December 10, 1938, to which he had invited the Archivist of the United States, Robert D. W. Connor; the historian of New York State; two university presidents; the president of the League of Women Voters; such assorted literary and journalistic figures as Stuart Chase, Ernest Lindley, and Archibald MacLeish; and such past and present university professors as William E. Dodd, Frederic L. Paxson, Charles A. Beard, Helen Taft Manning, Felix Frankfurter, and Morison. The President emerged from the dining room to tell waiting reporters that after “consultation” with these luminaries, he had decided to place all of his collected papers, books, and other materials in a building to be erected, at private cost, on a portion of his Hyde Park estate that he would donate to the United States. (Eventually, he added, the entire estate would go to the federal government “to be maintained for the benefit of the public”—as in fact it has.) Within a short period of time a fund-raising corporation was established, and with a speed that later builders of Presidential libraries may well envy, the money was raised (some twenty-eight thousand individuals contributed), the building was constructed, and title was granted to the United States in mid-1940.
Roosevelt’s dream of retiring to putter among his collections was never fulfilled, of course. (In typical fashion, he had jauntily refused at the December, 1938, press conference to say when he proposed to settle down in Hyde Park, leaving his possible third-term intentions as unclear as ever.) But the Roosevelt pattern was destined to endure. This was probably due to Truman’s decision to follow his predecessor’s model; it is the second man in a sequence who turns idiosyncrasy into tradition. One of Truman’s administrative assistants worked with Tom L. Evans, a Kansas City businessman, to raise contributions for the building; the city of Independence gave thirteen acres for a site near Truman’s home; and on July 6, 1957, the Truman Library was dedicated.
The man from Independence immediately took a hand in making it a working institution. He had an office for himself, which he occupied faithfully from nine to five, six days a week, while working on his memoirs. (To the distress of historians he sequestered large bodies of his papers for this purpose, and they have not yet been released for general use.) From time to time, according to the present assistant director of the library, he would bounce out to chat with the librarians, secretaries, and researchers at work amid the file cabinets and would often address visiting classes of schoolchildren in the library’s auditorium for film displays. The staff also got accustomed to the sight of Truman leading distinguished old friends, visitors from all over the world, through his library with proprietary gusto.
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.
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.”
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.)
If the President exerts his right to put his papers in a marble monument built by hometown friends in a location far from traditional seats of learning, the conscientious archivist has no choice but to follow them there, care for them, and display them under whatever conditions are allowed. If he is a truly hard-working archivist—as all the Presidential library directors are—he will urge the President’s co-workers also to deposit their papers there. He is not likely to get such deposits without being able to give assurances that the public will not soon be let into the donor’s inner life; as the mediator between the future historian and the gun-shy subjects of history, his first rule of operation is to get the material preserved. The Presidential libraries have actually hastened a policy of accumulation that would ordinarily have taken generations.
The papers of the First Ladies, too, are an important source of history hitherto ignored, before they became part of Presidential-library collections. In the case of Eleanor Roosevelt, her own independent career generated so large a collection that it is being moved into a new wing of the Roosevelt Library, to be opened in 1971 and to become in itself an important center for the study of the politics, social problems, and philanthropic work of her time.
Galling as the policy of restriction is, the library spokesmen note that a larger amount of Presidential material is open than ever before, and open to all comers, critical or not. (The only entrance test for access to unclassified material is a statement of some reasonable purpose.) One former director of the Roosevelt Library enjoyed pointing out that Roosevelt’s papers were processed and opened for use in 1950, five years after the President’s death. Eighty-five per cent of the material, he declared, was open to inspection. Yet only three years before, in 1947, the Library of Congress had proudly opened a large collection of Abraham Lincoln papers that had been closed until then by the desire of the donor, Lincoln’s son. The papers of both Presidents Adams were not available for public use until the middle 1960’s. Other Presidential papers lay hidden for decades.
The fact is that the historians are succumbing, like others in modern times, to a revolution of rising expectations. More is available to them than ever before, and their appetite grows by what it feeds on. The archivists claim that they encourage rather than deplore this hunger. Each library proudly points to the number of “researcher visits” it experiences each year (around a thousand each for the Roosevelt and Truman libraries from July 1, 1969, to June 30, 1970) and to the growing list of books, articles, and dissertations founded primarily on its materials.
The Truman Library happily cooperates with a privately created and financed nonprofit organization, the Harry S. Truman Library Institute for National and International Affairs, which aims to provide grants-in-aid to scholars using the library, to foster publications based on its materials, and to sponsor conferences on topics stemming from developments of the Truman period. This institute may be a model for other libraries. Former President Johnson is known to hope that his library will also sponsor seminars on social, environmental, and economic problems, which will draw together the experts and the documents. The museum directors, too, attempt to keep their materials on display in a manner that educates as well as attracts the public.
Such activities are a long way from the caginess and record-hugging attributed to the libraries by some critics. But, strangely, the collecting energies of the directors raise some other disturbing reflections. It is possible that the sheer glut of material may defeat historians to come. The information explosion threatens to bury them in documentation. Clicking Xerox machines, microfilm cameras, and whirling tape reels all proliferate information. In point of fact, even if all future Presidents were compelled to leave their official records in Washington, it would be necessary to build completely new repositories to hold them, simply because of the multiplying size of the Executive Department and because its officials, like those of all Washington, are pouring out a rising flood of paper. The National Archives building itself long ago became inadequate as the sole reservoir. In 1950 a program of decentralization was put in motion, designed to set up new Federal Records Centers throughout the country. There are now fifteen of them, housing 10.8 million cubic feet of records. And the torrent is not abating.
But the wrenching irony is that not all of this is gold for history. The duplicating machines immeasurably encourage the preservation of routine papers. And two other inventions—the telephone and the jet airplane—nibble away at the materials of major significance. When Abraham Lincoln wished to say something to General Grant in Virginia, he had to send a telegram or write a note. But when Lyndon Johnson felt the need to speak to General Westmoreland, he had only to pick up the telephone to Saigon—or to fly there himself, or have the General fly to Washington, in a matter of hours. And such face-to-face or over-the-wire conferences may never be recorded.
A certain amount of the crucial business of history has always been preserved only in the memory of those who transacted it. The size and importance of that “unrecorded record” is now growing. This is why contemporary Presidential libraries are undertaking extensive interview programs. The Kennedy Library, for example, already has taped and transcribed about five hundred interviews with such key Kennedy men as Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and Pierre Salinger and with a host of others who knew the President—a cast of great variety, including men like U Thant, Richard Cardinal Gushing, and John Glenn. (Such transcripts are held under the same rules of confidentiality that apply to written materials.)
Oral history fills gaps in the written records. But is it possible to interpret them, with the gaps filled, or does their overpowering massiveness make them impenetrable? True, dazzling technical means of storage and retrieval of information are available. Given the investment of enough money and time, it is perfectly feasible that all Presidential or other documents can be “read” and “memorized” by computers before being microfilmed and filed. Then a historian may be able to give an electronic command to some robot Clio, such as: “Bring me all the materials on assistance programs to rural areas in Southeast Asia from 1958 to 1970.” But what will he do when she faithfully beeps, rumbles, and neatly prints out fifty thousand references on the topic. Will useful synthesis then be possible?
Such a question gets to the root of what history is all about. Modern “scientific” history was born less than a century ago. It aimed to be more than—or at least different from—philosophy and literature. It rested on the happy nineteenth-century assumption that there was a discernible pattern, coherence, and direction in the affairs of humanity- discernible, that is, when the whole record was collected and scanned. The historians were like Roman soothsayers reading the entrails of a sacred beast. The beast was the past. And he who knew the past, in a sense, knew the future as well.
But what will happen when the record is so gigantic as to become an abstraction like infinity itself? Then the Presidential libraries, like all contemporary research libraries, may remain as husks without kernels, like the cathedrals after the high point of the Age of Christianity. They will be souvenirs of time past, but not the active centers of a civilization’s faith.
Their long, loaded shelves may only increase the perplexity of modern man, who, even without a glut of records, is already likely to find history uncomforting and incomprehensible.