Sunday, December 24, 2006

Truth marches on

It has been my good fortune to have begun life in a family obsessed with news, and then to have become a professional historian. One wondered, in the 1960s and 1970s, what the real story was about Vietnam, Watergate, the Kennedy Assassination, the Nixon pardon, and much more, and now, little by little, we can find out. At the same time, one must face a somewhat painful paradox: by the time the truth comes out, few people care about it, and if the topic (such as Vietnam) still has political implications, it may easily be shouted down. Today's New York Times includes two revelations about matters I have wondered about for decades.

The climax of the Vietnam peace talks in September-October of 1972 was one of the great shocks of my life. Awakening one morning as a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts, what should I find on the front page of the Boston Globe but the text of a peace agreement, thoughtfully released by the North Vietnamese government before it could be signed? To my utter amazement, it began by reaffirming "the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Vietnam"--an American renunciation of the goal of our whole policy since 1954. Further reading showed that it did not require the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from the South, and that it put the Viet Cong on an equal footing with the South Vietnamese government. In the next few days and weeks, it became clear that the United States, however, was not willing to put the finishing touches on the agreement just yet, and I immediately began to wonder whether Henry Kissinger had negotiated the agreement in Paris without the approval of the President. I remember discussing this with a professor of mine, a member of the Silent generation and a devout believer in proper procedures. He was quite certain that anything Kissinger had agreed to must have been sent to Washington in advance. In succeeding years, however, more and more has come to light to indicate that my guess was right. Nixon didn't like the obvious weakness of the agreement, and that was the main reason that he refused to sign it until he had unleashed one last round of bombing.

The split between the two men is the theme of some brief excerpts from newly published documents in today’s Week in Review. The whole new volume of Foreign Relations of the United States on US-Soviet relations is available on line at, and I am going to quote longer excerpts with expletives undeleted. (Oddly, the Times, like the editors of Nixon’s own presidential transcripts in 1974, makes his language look worse than it was by making certain deletions.)

Nixon. . .If you turn it too much—There’s no greater pleasure frankly that I would have than to leave this office to anybody after having destroyed North Vietnam’s capability. Now let me tell you, I feel exactly that way and I’ll go out with a clean conscience. But if I leave this office without any use of power, I’m the last President—frankly I’m the only President, the only man with the exception of Connally, believe me, who had the guts to do what we’re doing. You know it and I know it. The only man who had the possibility to be President, and Connally’s the only other one who could do what I’m doing. Reagan never could make President to begin with and he couldn’t handle it.

Kissinger: Connally would do it without your finesse though.

Nixon: Well, Agnew, Agnew would—

Kissinger: Agnew. Well, Agnew would have a—Agnew would be in a worse position than Johnson was.

Nixon: But you know what I mean. The point is, as you know, considering electability, I’m the only person who can do it. Now, Henry, we must not miss this chance. We’re going to do it. I’m going to destroy the goddamn country, believe me, I mean destroy it if necessary. And let me say, even the nuclear weapon if necessary. It isn’t necessary.

But, you know, what I mean is, that shows you the extent to which I’m willing to go. By a nuclear weapon, I mean that we will bomb the living bejeezus out of North Vietnam and then if anybody interferes we will threaten the nuclear weapon.

[Omitted here is discussion of domestic opposition to bombing in

Vietnam and of the U.S. Presidential election.]

Nixon: So, all we really need out of this at the present time is enough momentum, enough of this situation where it appears, frankly where we go forward with the Soviet summit because that’s a big plus for us and where we cool Vietnam enough through the summer that after November we can kill them. Make any kind of a promise at all that we’ll do everything to get it past November and then do it. I don’t care whether it’s a year, 8 months, 6 months, whatever the case is.

Kissinger: The only problem is—

Nixon: You see what I’m getting at. Now within that context, however, let me say that if we cannot get that kind of situation, if there is a risk that somebody else will be here after November who will sell out the country, then, by God, I’ll do it. I’ll throw, I’m willing to throw myself on the sword. We are not going to let this country be defeated by this little shit-ass country.

Kissinger: We shall not—

Nixon: It’s not going to happen.

Kissinger: We’ll never have these guys more scared than now.

Nixon: You think so?

Kissinger: The Russians. In November, you’ll be in a good position too, but I agree with you in principle.

Nixon: I see.

Kissinger: My judgment, what we ought to get out of this, if we can get the offensive stopped, Mr. President, if we can get back to the levels of March 29th say—

Nixon: Yes.

Kissinger: —before this started—

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: —get talks started which the Soviets guarantee, have the Soviets engaged—

Nixon: Right. All right.

Kissinger: —then we will have won this—

Nixon: Then, yes, talks are started—But now wait a minute. Talks are started but are we, but we’re going to insist that they be held back over the DMZ?

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: They won’t do that. But, on the other hand, on the other hand, that’s what you’ve got to insist on. I think we’ve got to get that, they get back from the DMZ and so forth. What I’m getting at—

Kissinger: You see, but—

Nixon: But it mustn’t appear that we gave up the bombing for talks. That’s the thing.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: If we give up bombing for talks, we do what Johnson did.

Kissinger: No, no, but Mr. President, we will continue bombing during the talks. That’s the difference. Now I believe, Mr. President, if the Soviets deliver this package that the North Vietnamese will settle during the summit. They’ll settle because they will have to figure, having thrown their Sunday punch and having been in effect not supported

by the Chinese, not supported by the Russians, in fact squeezed by the Russians, and bombed by us. Why would they be better off next year at this time than this year?

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: Therefore I would bet, if we can get this—

Nixon: They misjudge American public opinion.

Kissinger: Mr. President.

Nixon: You don’t see these people—

Kissinger: No, no. But I will bet that American public opinion—If on Monday night, if everything works well, you can announce this trip, what are the goddamn peaceniks in this country going to say? That a week after, and the talks start again while we are bombing, what are they going to say about bombing then?

Nixon, obviously, plans to compel the North Vietnamese to withdraw from South Vietnam by any means necessary, and Kissinger flatters him that their strategy will succeed. But just a few days later, in Moscow, Kissinger spoke very, very differently to Brezhnev.

Dr. Kissinger: I haven’t yet either. [The Vietnamese] are a heroic people but not a wise people. They are sometimes more afraid of being deceived than of being defeated. They are not prepared to leave anything to history. I know they believe that in 1954 they were deceived by the settlement at Geneva. But the objective conditions between 1954 and 1972 are entirely different. In 1954 John Foster Dulles conducted our foreign policy and he was constructing positions against what he considered Communist aggression all over the world. We were going into countries. But in 1972, when President Nixon is conducting American foreign policy, we are seeking a policy not of confrontation with the Soviet Union or for that matter other major Communist countries, but negotiations. We are doing this in the spirit of cooperation which I described. We are not going into countries to build barriers; we are trying to work out cooperative arrangements. We don’t want any permanent bases in Vietnam.

We have two principal objectives. One is to bring about an honorable withdrawal of all our forces; secondly, to put a time interval between our withdrawal and the political process which would then start. We are prepared to let the real balance of forces in Vietnam determine

the future of Vietnam. We are not committed to a permanent political involvement there, and we always keep our word.

In recent years several similar conversations between Kissinger and Soviet and Chinese diplomats have come to light, in which he indicates that the United States will let events in Vietnam take their course once we have withdrawn—in other words, in which he confirms that his goal was in fact a “decent interval.” Last winter at the JFK Library, Warren Kimball presented a conversation between Nixon and Kissinger later in 1972 in which Kissinger again discussed an eventual South Vietnamese collapse and suggested that the United States could blame it on the Saigon government. Unfortunately, Dr. Kissinger did not show up at the conference until the next day and could not be asked to comment directly. But what is key for my purposes today is the difference between the ways in which Nixon and Kissinger were talking about the problem. While Nixon still wanted to compel a settlement on our terms, Kissinger wanted a settlement on just about any terms. In the end Kissinger got his way after Nixon, in December, bombed as much as American resources would permit (we lost 15 B-52s) and the American public would allow. As one who likes to judge actions based on consequences, I must thank Dr. Kissinger for having gotten us out of that war by outmaneuvering his boss, but I cannot forgive him, frankly, for continuing to blame the Congress and the American people, instead of the South Vietnamese government, for the fall of South Vietnam.

When Nixon finally discussed Vietnam with Brezhnev himself on May 24, he had given up the idea of securing a North Vietnamese withdrawal from the South, but he refused to make any political concessions and threatened once again to end the war by force.

Nixon: Our position now is very forthcoming. We believe it is fair. As a matter of fact, the General Secretary in his conversations with Dr. Kissinger in his visit a few weeks ago suggested the consideration of a ceasefire. All we ask now is a return of and an accounting for our

prisoners of war and a ceasefire. Once that is agreed to, we will withdraw all Americans within four months and cease military actions. We cannot go any further than that. Nothing further is negotiable on that point.

We could talk at great length about the wisdom of the American position in Vietnam. I know the views of the Soviet leaders. You know ours. No useful purpose would be served by going over past history. We now confront the fact that we have taken every step to bring an

end to what is the only major international issue which clouds relations between the United States and the USSR. It is our intention to end the war by negotiations; but negotiations must be fair to both sides.

There cannot be an ultimatum to us to impose on the South Vietnamese a government the North Vietnamese cannot impose by themselves. If the North Vietnamese are unwilling to end the war that way [by negotiations], 6 then I will do whatever I must to bring the war to an end.

Anything we do we will have in mind our desire not to exacerbate the relations between us. To this end we rejected the idea of a blockade which would have involved Soviet ships. During this meeting, for example, we stopped bombing the Hanoi area because of our desire to avoid any incidents embarrassing these talks. We have now reached the point where we see no way to deal with the North Vietnamese except the course I have chosen. Now the choice is theirs. They can have a peace which respects their independence and ends the conflict throughout Southeast Asia. Or we will have to use the military means available to us to bring the war to an end.

Let me be very frank. I am aware of the fact that the Soviet Union has an alliance with North Vietnam. I am aware that the Soviet Union supports the ideological views of the North Vietnamese. Of course, I am also aware that the Soviet Union has supplied military equipment

to North Vietnam. All of this I understand as an international fact of life. We happen to disagree about that area. On the other hand, as two great powers which have at present so many positive considerations moving in the right direction, it seems to me that the mutual interest of both the United States and the USSR would be served by our doing what we can to bring the war to an end. Candidly, I realize that the Soviet Union, because it does have an alliance with North Vietnam and because it supplies military equipment, might be able to influence them

to negotiate reasonably. But up to this point, looking at the evidence, I would have to say we have run into a blank wall on the negotiations front. So the situation is one where we have to continue our military actions until we get some assurance that going back to the negotiating table would produce some negotiating progress. If we can get that, then we might reconsider our present policy.

Let me conclude that I don’t suggest the Soviet Union is responsible for the fact that the offensive took place at this time. I only say that it did take place and we had to react the way we did. So we can see how this kind of situation can be very embarrassing to our relations in the future where the irresponsible acts of an ally could be supplied with arms and get out of control at some future time. I want you to know that I’m very frank on this subject because I know that our

Soviet friends disagree with me, but I know they’d want me to express myself very frankly and I have. . . .

Like President Bush, President Nixon insisted that because our course of action was right, we must, with sufficient will, be able to make it work. But he could not.

The second revelation in today’s Times is on the front page and concerns the life of Sigmund Freud. During the 1980s one of my colleagues at Carnegie Mellon was a Freud scholar named Richard Schoenwald, who kept us up to date on Freudian developments. I remember him showing us an article by another scholar, John Swales, arguing that Freud had had an affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, who never married and lived with the Freud family. His evidence came indirectly from Carl Jung, Freud’s friend and, later, rival, who had spoken frankly with Minna during a visit to the family. Jung said that Minna “was very much bothered by her relationship with Freud and felt guilty about it. . . .From her I learned that Freud was in love with her and that their relationship was indeed very intimate.” I firmly believe that a historian has to be willing to face up to the implications of a single piece of evidence, and I remember remarking that in post-Victorian Vienna, “very intimate” could mean only one thing. Today’s Times confirms it: Another scholar, Franz Maciejewski, has discovered a hotel register in which Freud signed for Minna and himself as man and wife.

That those in high positions conceal the truth, or that brilliant thinkers and politicians are not moral paragons, are two of the simplest lessons of history, yet powerful taboos make the battle to establish them an eternal one. Only a small minority of Americans will ever understand the truth about Nixon and Kissinger and Freud’s secret has been zealously defended by Freudians who should have known better for at least half a century. The market for truth remains a specialty market and a particularly remunerative one, but working in it, for me at least, has unique satisfactions.

Happy holidays to all.


Carmen Grayson said...

"Kissinger: Connally would do it without your finesse though.
. . . .
Nixon: Now, Henry, we must not miss this chance. We’re going to do it. I’m going to destroy the goddamn country, believe me, I mean destroy it if necessary. And let me say, even the nuclear weapon if necessary. It isn’t necessary. . .

By a nuclear weapon, I mean that we will bomb the living bejeezus out of North Vietnam and then if anybody interferes we will threaten the nuclear weapon."
Prof. C., thanks for this post. Even Christmas Day doesn't tamp down the need to check out the news/analysis blogs.

For those of us who matured during (and, perhaps, because of) the Viet Nam war years, Nixon's savage words confirm what we knew to be true about him.

Yes, it's a long wait for the truth to dribble out.

If Nixon in all his "finesse" operated through such primeval categories, imagine how Bush views reality. Well, we don't have to imagine or wait as long for those truths.

And -- poor old Freud. He too, and his reputation, have had to shuffle toward the truth. Some deservedly tough scrutiny has come his way in the past two decades.

Thanks for the work you put into your excellent blog.

Anonymous said...

I have framed on my wall a Jules Feiffer cartoon from the early 1970s that recalls the disclosures from the Pentagon Papers and other purloined documents and ends with this punch line: "In a Cold War society, if you want lies, you go to a press conference. If you want the truth, you steal it." .. Or, I suppose, wait 30-plus years.
KJ. Washington, D.C.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Kaiser, you write

"That those in high positions conceal the truth, or that brilliant thinkers and politicians are not moral paragons, are two of the simplest lessons of history, yet powerful taboos make the battle to establish them an eternal one. Only a small minority of Americans will ever understand the truth about Nixon and Kissinger and Freud’s secret has been zealously defended by Freudians who should have known better for at least half a century. The market for truth remains a specialty market and a particularly remunerative one, but working in it, for me at least, has unique satisfactions."

No one understands the truth about a President better than the people charged with disclosing it. I once was employed by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). I worked with President Nixon's undisclosed tapes and documents, screening them to determine what could be released to you, the public. I know many of the people who currently are doing this work for NARA. Naturally, I read with interest anything that is posted on the Internet about Nixon's records. Of course, I pay special attention to what historians write about the process of getting information released to the public.

Dr. Kaiser, do you think the general public knows enough about what NARA goes through in its efforts to release what you refer to as the truth? It seems to me that this is an area where historians largely have let down those who labor on their behalf at the National Archives. Nixon scholars such as Stanley Kutler and Joan Hoff have written about some of the difficulties NARA has faced. So too have journalists such as Seymour Hersh and Jack Hitt. But most of these articles are over ten years old and largely seem to have fallen off of the public's radar screen.

I am fascinated by the fact that all too often, more recent references to the release of historical information are very vague about the challenges NARA faces -- if they mention NARA at all. Little wonder posters respond, as they did to your posting, by writing about truth dribbling out.

Obviously, materials such as you cited do not just fall by some magical process like manna from heaven into the laps of historians. Someone has to determine what is on the tapes, what portions can be disclosed under applicable statutes, and, finally, to negotiate the release of the information with all the stakeholders, including former Presidents or representatives of their estates. That process centers on the employees of NARA's Nixon Presidential Materials Project (soon to become the Nixon Presidential Library).

Their boss, the U.S. Archivist, is a subordinate official of the executive branch of government. He, his present staff, my former colleagues, and I have had to apply many difficult balancing tests under challenging circumstances. On the one hand, historians are out there, clamoring for speedy access to records. On the other hand, President Nixon and his lawyers sought to halt, limit or delay release of some historical information. As you know, representatives of Nixon's estate to this day retain the right to object to the release of any historical information that the National Archives seeks to release to you, the public.

As you probably know, most of the people charged with processing Nixon's records at NARA have graduate degrees in history. My colleagues and I worked (and present NARA employees still work) under circumstances many academic historians would find extremely difficult. (See the entry for December 28, 2003 on the Miller Center's website at The link is to a letter published in the New York Times which provides a tiny glimpse into the challenges faced by NARA.) I know that members of NARA's Nixon presidential materials staff are grateful when historians include in the acknowledgements of their books a reference to the battles to release Nixon's records. Or at least refer in some way to the civil servants who apply complex statutes to historical records sought by researchers.

A writer from the State Department's history office notes in the preface to one of the Nixon FRUS volumes that "[a]ccess to the Nixon White House tape recordings is governed by the terms of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (P.L. 93-526; 88 Stat. 1695) and an access agreement with the Office of Presidential Libraries of the National Archives and Records Administration and the Nixon estate." S/he notes also that "[t]he Nixon Presidential Materials Staff is processing and declassifying many of the documents used in this volume, but they may not be available in their entirety at the time of publication."

I am glad to hear that working with records once placed in my care has provided you so much satisfaction. Clearly, the honorable and hardworking federal employees employed by NARA who go through many, many difficult challenges to screen and open in an objective and nonpartisan fashion historical records deserve the thanks of all members of the public who later work with them. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how those outside NARA, especially historians, can help educate the public about archival issues.

Anonymous said...

The Miller Center link in the post above is missing the final character. Here is the correct one.

J. said...

Great post. Really like the statement by Nixon "The only man who had the possibility to be President, and Connally’s the only other one who could do what I’m doing. Reagan never could make President to begin with and he couldn’t handle it." Ah, the irony.

Lots of interesting stuff in the Nixon tapes. I have yet to find out why Nixon decided to unilaterally take biological weapons off the military's capabilities, other than the findings of the NSC report. Not much in written record as to Nixon's personal feelings (but if you see anything, give me a holler).

Maarja Krusten said...

Yes, the truth “dribbles out,” there is lots of “interesting stuff in the Nixon tapes,” and “working in [the market for truth] for [a history professor] at least, has unique satisfactions.”

Some detailed comments, blog entry length in and of themselves, longer actually, simply for the record (I really don’t anticipate any responses, the issues are arcane and awfully difficult to tackle). I do not have a blog and do not plan to establish one. But I constantly am on the lookout for opportunities to provide an archival perspective and appreciate the chance to post here.

It is not surprising that Nixon applied pressure on the Archives. And that NARA’s employees faced enormous challenges in releasing Nixon’s tapes, a process that still is ongoing. (Of approximately 3,700 hours of recorded conversations, of which during my 14-year career at NARA I listened to approximately 2,000 hours, about 1,000 hours still are undergoing processing.) The (ongoing) transition from private to public control of Presidential records has been difficult. There are, after all, human beings involved every step of the way.

Imagine that you make the mistake of bugging your office. You accumulate thousands of hours of tapes. You get in trouble on the job and try to cover up. You fail in the cover-up and have to resign.

You try to take your tapes with you, but the government seizes your records. You are told that federal archivists will listen to your tapes and identify for public release all segments dealing with your misconduct and the cover-up. Abuse of power segments are to be released first, followed later by other information of historical significance.

This is what happened to President Richard Nixon. It must have been painful for Nixon as well as his associates. In an interview published in the Chicago Tribune on May 26, 1986, the President’s former counsel, John D. Ehrlichman, recounted his last conversation with Henry A. Kissinger. “Henry said, ‘John, you know, you and I are going to look pretty stupid when those tapes are all out. Nixon’s going to be sitting there saying perfectly outrageous things and we are not protesting. . . How are we going to explain to history that there was a unique way of working with Richard Nixon?’ I said, ‘Well, Henry, I’m less concerned about that than you are.’ And he said, “Yes, I’m very concerned about that.’” Elsewhere, Ehrlichman noted that Nixon had expected to sit by the fire after he left office, sorting through his records and burning some of them.

Nixon had every expectation that he could control what historians saw or heard from his records. Until Watergate, Presidential records belonged to their creators. A President could take them with him when he left office and selectively donate portions to Presidential Libraries administered by the National Archives. After Watergate, Congress passed a law which placed presidential records under public control. The law directed the Archives to reveal "the full truth" about Watergate abuses and to open other information of “general historical significance.” While still in graduate school, I joined the Archives as an employee in 1976 to work on these important assignments. (Most archivists have graduate degrees in history.)

Nixon fought release of his records every step of the way. Although a court opinion noted that “the public trust historically attaching to official Presidential materials and a President's assumption of a public role undercut the reasonableness of a President's expectation of privacy in official materials,” Nixon repeatedly challenged the government’s disclosure standards. Historians largely remained silent, although Stanley Kutler courageously filed a lawsuit and took considerable heat for his efforts to get NARA to open Nixon’s tapes while the former President still was alive. The tapes remained closed and only after Nixon died did NARA work out with the former President’s estate a settlement of Dr. Kutler’s lawsuit.

You know the broken window theory, developed by criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling. The theory centers on disorder. If a window is broken and is not fixed, people walking by will start to think no one cares. No one seems to be in charge, although the problem initially seems isolated. But then, more windowns are broken, trash accumulates, troublemakers congregate, and the neighborhood succumbs to blight.

We all look at things through the prism of our individual experiences. For me, the fragility of post-Watergate records-related reforms is reflected in NARA’s failure to release Nixon's tapes during his lifetime. Archivists finished their screening of Nixon’s tapes in 1987. H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman wrote in separate articles around 1986 that the National Archives' processing of the Nixon tapes was "virtually complete" and a public opening imminent. (Haldeman had visited the National Archives in the mid-1980s and established good relations with its archivists, I among them. I respected Bob although I didn’t agree with the way he always had handled his job as the President’s chief of staff. He clearly had given a lot of thought to lessons learned from the Watergate cover-up.)

But Nixon challenged NARA’s disclosure standards and the processed tapes remained on the shelf for nearly ten years after we finished our public access review of them in 1987. Given Nixon’s success in blocking historical disclosures during his lifetime, it does not surprise me that other Presidents have sought to regain control over what is released from their records.

Statutes and laws have a bloodless and clinical quality to them when you read them. But they are not easy to apply. In all honesty, how many ordinary people, including those in academe, simply would transfer wholesale to professional archivists the detailed records of all their actions on the job. And, knowing that some of their choices in handling complex mattrs were questionable or would appear hard to understand, simply say, "Ok, go ahead and release these for research use in a nonpartisan, objective fashion. Let the chips fall where they may." As I noted earlier, there are human beings involved every step of the way in the process of releasing archival records.

The Nixon records act calls on NARA to return to Nixon (now his estate) "personal" material but to open disclosable information of general historical significance. There was, and remains, ample potential for conflict between the two requirements. Representatives of the former President (and now of his estate) have the right to review materials the government has okayed for disclosure and formally to file objections to release through a regulatory process.

Meeting notes (the “H notes”) written by H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, are part of the White House Special Files held by NARA. During the mid-1980s, Nixon hired agents to look through what we archivists had marked for release to you, the public.
In 1987, when the National Archives sought to open to the public the White House Special Files, Nixon’s lawyers blocked release of some of them. Some 42,000 documents, which government archivists had designated as releasable to historians, sat in limbo as the former President sought to have most of them removed from government custody and returned to him.

Nixon’s lawyer, R. Stan Mortenson of Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, argued in 1987 that the Nixon records act’s regulations were “capricious and constitute an abuse of discretion . . . the regulations too narrowly define ‘private or personal’ materials as those ‘relating solely to a person's family or other non-governmental activities.’”

After Nixon died in 1994, instead of returning all of the contested documents to his extate, NARA released most of the contested items to the public in 1996. Of the items Nixon’s agents sought to remove from government custody, the National Archives retained 33,199 documents and returned to the Nixon estate 8,992 documents. Of the retained documents, NARA opened to the public 28,035 documents

Later disclosures showed that Nixon's agents had applied far more restrictive standards to Haldeman’s files than did the government. For example, archivists had determined in their independent review that all but about 10 pages of “H notes” for November 17-December 21, 1972 should be opened for research. But Nixon’s lawyers had asked that the entire 270-page folder for November 17-December 21 be withheld from historians, and portions withdrawn from government custody, as “private,” “personal,” or “privileged.” The folder remained closed until after Nixon died.

Subsequent disclosures showed that Nixon had blocked the release of information about governmental actions. Two examples represent the type of information he blocked us from releasing, one about Watergate (“put it on Mitchell”) the other about Vietnam ("tell Henry get best deal -- let Thieu paddle his own canoe"). I left NARA employ in 1990 and took a job as historian at another agency. As a researcher on my personal time, I went to the National Archives’ public research room in the late 1990s to examine the file of once contested items in Haldeman’s files. But I know of no other historian who has written since 1996 about the extent to which Nixon disagreed with NARA’s disclosure standards. And what might have happened had he prevailed.

As historians, the archivists of my generation keenly felt the burden of guarding and properly handling records which contained historical truth. Archivists take seriously the need to apply laws and regulations in an objective, nonpartisan fashion. They understand all too well that they guard the truth. Although I had worked on Nixon’s campaign as a senior in high school in 1968 and personally had supported many of his policies while an undergraduate at a university in DC, it troubled me in 1987 when Nixon kept us from opening thousands of documents. And when he fought us on efforts to release historical information from his tapes.

I wished then that we in the National Archives had received more support, both within the government (from the Department of Justice which represents NARA in court) and from outside. (I have described some of my concerns about NARA’s position as a subordinate agency within the executive branch in some of the 12 letters that I have been lucky enough to have published during the last ten years in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, Richmond Times, Los Angeles Times, and other outlets.) Fortunately, there were no blogs in existence during the 1980s and 1990s to reveal to us how academic historians viewed the government’s efforts. Now that more and more historians have blogs, my successors at NARA have a much better sense than we did of how historians view the ongoing efforts of their fellow history majors within NARA to apply complex standards under challenging circumstances. Of course, I wish my former colleagues at NARA well, especially as they and Nixon's tapes and files are relocated from Archives II in College Park, MD, to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA. They and NARA rely on us for support as the endeavor to treat historical records properly under law.

Maarja Krusten said...

Those of you who have been following the release of the FRUS volumes probably already have read in published minutes what John Powers has stated on the record during meetings of the Historical Advisory Committee. John, a senior archivist and one-time acting director of NARA's Nixon project, exemplifies the dedicated, knowledgeable and trustworthy historian-archivist now still employed by NARA. You may find of interest this glimpse of his work with the Nixon tapes at on the William and Mary website.

Maarja Krusten said...

I mentioned in a comment posted yesterday the broken window theory in which indifference to a seemingly small break eventually leads to widespread blight. Here's a question about NARA's efforts to release Presidential records, now and in the future. Some context first is required. The issues are complicated, bear with me, please.

I give credit to Stanley Kutler for not being indifferent to what was happening within NARA during the 1980s as we fenced with Nixon. Had Stanley Kutler not filed his lawsuit to force release of Nixon's tapes, and brought into the open some of the struggles consequently detailed by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, there is no telling what segments of the historical record might have been removed from government custody and returned to Nixon by NARA.

Of course, in 1992, I underwent two days of questioning under oath by Nixon's attorneys during the Kutler litigation. The deposition transcript in Civ. A. 92-0662-NHJ shows that Nixon's lawyers alluded to the potential outcome of a then still ongoing review by a NARA review board of Nixon's objections to release of the White House Special Files. If the review board sided with Nixon and tightened disclosure standards, I believe his lawyers planned to call for re-screening under new standards of the tapes NARA already had finished processing in 1987.

Kutler's attorney went to the heart of the matter in a pleading in which she stated

"While the Archives characterizes the relationship between Mr. Nixon and the Archives as a ‘consultative relationship,’ under the Archives’ regulations, former President Nixon does not serve as a consultant to assist the agency in its processing of the Nixon materials. Rather, he is a potential challenger of the Archives’ processing decisions. . . It is hard to imagine someone who is more of a past and potential adversary of the Archives. . . it is in the context of such litigation threats that Mr. Nixon is attempting to influence archival decisions, as is borne out by the Mortenson Declaration, [R. Stan Mortenson was one of Mr. Nixon's attorneys] which confirms that Mr. Nixon uses litigation threats as bargaining chips to convince the Archives to change its archival processing.”

Objecting in 1987 to the release of some 42,000 documents and in doing so, criticizing regulations for too narrowly defining privacy, was one form of pressure from Nixon on NARA. Prior to the filing of the Kutler lawsuit, Jack Anderson had reported on July 25, 1989 that the top-level NARA board was split on how to handle Nixon's objections to the release of "touchy documents" marked by archivists for disclosure from the White House Special Files. Anderson charged, “Nixon appears to have at least one board member firmly in his corner."

I did what I could to bring these matters to the attention of historians. As the review board continued to consider Nixon's objections to the release of the "H notes" and other items in the White House Special Files, I jousted in the Chronicle of Higher Education with John H. Taylor, executive director of the Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation. Taylor asserted in a letter in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1996 that the contested items "were
of the sort that are routinely withheld at other Presidents' libraries." Of course, as a former NARA employee, my sense of ethics kept me from speaking about what I knew was in the contested Haldeman files. But I did what I could to counter what Mr. Taylor and the Nixon estate's lawyers were asserting about releasability of records held by NARA.

Bob Haldeman had expected that NARA would release his diaries. I did some work with him on them during the 1980s. (The original cassettes of Haldeman's diary are in NARA's custody. Unlike the "H notes," the diaries did not fall under the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, but rather were Mr. Haldeman's property. Nixon consequently had no right to object to the release of the diaries. A deed of gift signed by Haldeman covered their transfer to NARA.)

When NARA failed to release Haldeman's diaries during Mr. Nixon's lifetime, Bob arranged for them to published them on his own in 1994. Historians who have worked with the diaries know that they contain similar information and chronicle many of the same events covered by the separate "H notes" held by NARA under the PRMPA. After the diaries were published, I carefully compared the published diary entries against the withdrawal sheets in the "H notes" which showed where Nixon had requested deletions. The withdrawal sheets were public and available for perusal by anyone who showed up in NARA's research room. I then filed a petition with NARA, late in 1994 or early in 1995, I haven't looked up the date recently, arguing that its review board should reject some of Nixon's objections because the entries in the published Haldeman diaries indicated some of the meeting notes potentially covered information about Watergate, Vietnam, and other governmental matters. After Nixon's death, NARA released most of the materials, including the portions of "H notes" for which I had claimed in my petition there appeared to be no basis for withholding them from researchers or removing them from government custody for return to Nixon.

I believe it still is possible for researchers to assess the extent to which Nixon sought to reclaim materials from NARA and to influence the standards applied by us during the 1980s to review of his documents and tapes. NARA's availability list of Nixon's records states that:

"Prior to the opening of the Special Files to the public in 1987, President Nixon objected
to the release of approximately 150,000 pages from these files. He viewed these documents as either purely personal or political in content or that their release would
constitute an invasion of his privacy. These documents were pulled from the Special Files for review by the Presidential Materials Review Board (PMRB). These documents became known as the “Contested Documents.” After review, the PMRB decided to
release most of the documents to the public in 1996. These Contested Documents reside in a separate series that parallels the original Special Files series. Researchers using the Special Files will find yellow document withdrawal forms and the PMRB determination sheets in the front of folders where documents were removed. Based on the PMRB decision, researchers may find the document in this parallel series."

The Nixon records statute called for early release of the "full truth" about Watergate. We at NARA interpreted that as a mandate first to release "abuse of governmental power" segments of his tapes, to be followed by chornological releases of the rest of the tapes. As I mentioned earlier, we finished our public access screening of all of Nixon's tapes in 1987. Joan Hoff and Steve Ambrose then referred to the completion of our work in publications during that time period. Haldeman and Ehrlichman also mentioned publicly NARA's plans to start opening tape segments then. However, as Dr. Kutler said in an interview after settlement of his lawsuit, Nixon was determined to have no disclosures from his tapes while he still was alive. See (if you copy this link, please make sure it reads htm at the end) on the Washington Post's website.

Many people argue that Watergate proved "the system works." Given what I've described here, I am interested in hearing what other historians think of the likelihood that NARA in the future can release historical information that a President is determined to block -- during his lifetime. And what actions historians can take to help the agency. Or have too many windows been broken and opportunities to counter pressure ignored? Are the patterns set, on all sides of these issues?Obviously, I've learned many lessons over the course of my career, the hard way. (Jousting with former Presidents' lawyers never is easy.) Of course, we do not yet know the impact of E.O. 13233.

Maarja Krusten said...

Dr. Kaiser, I just saw your earlier posting where you said you would not be blogging next week. Fortunately (or not!) I've managed to recount in my lengthy essays everything I wanted to share about NARA and its vulnerabilities. You may remember the exchange that Warren Kimball and I had on H-Diplo in 2001. Seeing his name in your posting in the same week that another (political) blog was filled with diatribes against the National Archives in the Sandy Berger matter reminded me of how little people know about the nation's record keeper.

For the benefit of those who did not see it on H-Diplo, Warren Kimball wrote on April 19, 2001 on H-Diplo that "My over ten years on the State Dept. Historical Advisory Committee leave me convinced that NARA -- as an organization and a bureaucracy, and despite the best and courageous efforts of some individuals within NARA -- is too
weak, too timid, too unimaginative, too lacking in purpose and commitment, too hidebound and procedural, to be an effective force for declassification."

I replied that in order to help NARA, scholars need to understand its position within the government. I responded to Warren Kimball's comments by asking,

"Is this a fair assessment? Having worked at the National Archives and still having many friends at NARA, I know that it is not. To understand NARA's position, you have to look at where it stands in relation . . . to other federal agencies.

Warren Kimball supports creation of a new declassification agency along the lines suggested by former Senator Pat Moynihan. But it is not the guidelines and the NARA officials and employees that are the problem. Instead, it is the lack of support within the rest of government for
declassification that has hindered NARA."

Hayden Peake then pooh-poohed my posting on H-Diplo, responding that:

"Maarja KRUSTEN asks whether Warren KIMBALL's comments about NARA in his recent post are "a fair assessment?" and goes on to say: "Having worked at the National Archives and still having many friends at NARA, I know
that it is not....Before attacking NARA as an ineffective force for
declassification, scholars need to recognize...."

Prof. KIMBALL could not be more accurate in his assessment and the KRUSTEN reply is a wonderful example of the bureaucratic thinking that makes him correct. To argue that scholars have to understand or recognize NARA's
position is the bureaucrat's response to avoid taking action. It is NARA that needs to understand that its bureaucratic foot dragging is the problem."

The Peake and Warren Kimball postings were an eye opener for me. I had assumed, wrongly, it seems that historians had been following more closely battles to open government records. And had considered where the pitfalls lay. And that they showed the same interest in the activities, limitations, and culture of NARA, including its relations with other agencies, as they showed towards other executive departments and agencies which they studied. (I've never seen an academic historian write about a federal agency's activities based on press releases and newspaper articles.)

Much of what I describe above is captured in the court record of Dr. Kutler's litigation, except for the petition I filed for release of documents Nixon had blocked NARA from releasing. Perhaps some day scholars will study that court record. At any rate, since 2001, I have been on the lookout for venues in which to explain NARA's struggles. Of course, you are well aware of the NARA "reclassification" controversy that was revealed earlier this year.

I appreciate having been able to post here and hope that now, for you and your readers, or in the future, for others who stumble across them, my comments provide some insights into the struggles and goals of those who guard the records of historical truth.

Goodbye and Happy New Year!