Presidential Tapes and Transcripts: Crafting a New Historical GenreHistorians/History
by Philip Zelikow, Ernest May, Timothy Naftali.
Though it has been slow to develop and achieve recognition, it is now becoming apparent that scholarly works based on the extraordinary cache of presidential recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations actually constitute a new and distinct genre of historical investigation.
The history profession is familiar with books that exploit new primary sources, or interpret old primary sources in a fresh way, along with works that are syntheses of primary and secondary sources. There is also an honored place in the canon for books that annotate the private papers of such prominent figures as Woodrow Wilson. Books based on audio recordings, however, are arguably distinct from these traditional categories. The main reason is that the historian shoulders an even larger burden in this new genre. He or she is obviously selecting, deciphering, and making judgments about a primary source, much like the editor of a documentary collection. But, in the process of transcribing a tape recording, the historian is also creating a facsimile—while still endeavoring to produce a reliable, “original” source. In essence, the historian/editor unavoidably becomes the author of a “new” source because even a transcript alleged to be “verbatim&r
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Max Holland - 3/6/2005
The April issue of The Atlantic contains an obit about Rose Mary Woods by Mark Steyn. In the process, Steyn makes an interesting observation about her transcription of Nixon's "abuse of power" presidential recordings. Steyn reinforces Joan Hoff's point about the disservice to history from transcripts that have been thoroughly rinsed.
"Asked to transcribe the tapes, Rose approached them like any other dictation assignment: she cleaned up the stumbles and stutters and folks talking over each other, put everything into proper complete sentences, rendered 'gonna' as 'going to,' and excised the 'yeah's and 'er's and 'um's. That's what you want in a secretary if you're dictating a letter to the chairman of the Rotary Club. But it was a disaster for the Oval Office tapes: the cool, clinical precision of the language makes Nixon and Co. sound far more conspiratorial, ruthless, and viciously forensic than the incoherent burble of the originals."
Maarja Krusten - 2/23/2005
In considering my lawyer analogy, for the Kutler case you would reverse it. Your neighbor sues you & you can only hire his brother-in-law to defend you. Smartphone posting.
Maarja Krusten - 2/23/2005
My postings above describe some of the litigation that surrounded the Nixon tapes held by the National Archives. (Without access to the tapes, there would be no transcription issues to debate.) I referred to that also in the letter to the editor that was published in yesterday's Washington Post.
As you read news accounts of litigation or settlement negotiations over records, do keep in mind that the U.S. Archivist is handicapped by the fact tht s/he cannot speak in court except through lawyers working for the Attorney General. Since the Attorney General is a Presidential appointee and often seems to protect White House interests, this can be a real problem.
It is like you going to court to sue your neighbor and being forced to use as your attorney the brother-in-law of your neighbor. As is the case with the Archivist, in that situation you would not have the option of asking for a different, unbiased, attorney or seeking to hire someone else. You would be stuck with the brother-in-law and might well end up with "your" lawyer substantially weakening your case by presenting it in a way that favors your neighbor, makes selective use of facts, undermines your own testimony, etc.
I rarely see this mentioned in letters or op eds, one reason I shook my head over the arguments in the press about Allen Weinstein's scholarship. The arguments merited some attention but needed to be considered in a broader context which I rarely saw. I never have seen anyone posting on HNN mention it, either. But once Dr. Weinstein became U.S. Archivist, he became a subordinate officer of the President of the United States, not a member of a mythical fourth branch of government.
For those of you who missed my letter, it is available at
Maarja Krusten - 2/22/2005
Yes, I can see that it might be tricky to pick up on vibes, especially if you vist Archives II but once a year. And NARA, like any executive agency, is subject to message discipline, it prefers to speak through its press office.
My late twin sister, Eva, did not work often with researchers, as her specialty was security classified documents. However, depending on what you were looking at, if you visited the Archives before her death in Dec. 2002, you might even have dealt with her!! Whomever you have dealt with, you've met some really good archivists, I am sure.
To some extent, you have to apply the mosaic effect to get glimpses into what is going on at NARA. The Kutler litigstion forced a number of things into view. Sy Hersh wrote about some of them in the _New Yorker_ in 1992 and Jack Hitt in _Harpers_ in 1994. If you have access to Nexis, do a search for my name to see a number of letters to the editor published in the New York Times and Washington Post between 1995 and the present. Actually, as it happens, there is one published in today's Wash. Post. See
Also worth reading is George Lardner's May 19, 2001 Wash. Post article, "DOE Puts Declassification Into Reverse; Reviewers Combing Historic Files at Archives for Data to Reclassify as Secret." This provides a glimpse at some of the disputes between archivists trained in history and contractors hired by DOE. You don't need Nexis for that one as the Federation of American Scientists published Lardner's piece on the web, please see
Robert KC Johnson - 2/22/2005
What you report is, indeed, troubling. I would hope that few (if any) professional historians would support any politicization in NARA, and would do all they can to support professionalization in the agency. Part of the problem, I suspect, is information: for instance, my research takes me to Archives II perhaps for one stint per year, and it can often be difficult to get a feel as to disturbing patterns behind the scenes from sporadic journeys.
Maarja Krusten - 2/22/2005
It goes without saying that I include Dr. Stern among the people who understands and appreciates the role of archivists. He stated that so well himself, above.
Maarja Krusten - 2/22/2005
I'm home now and can post a longer explanation for Dr. Johnson, more than I could earlier this afternoon with my Smartphone. (A longer follow-up post from Maarja, gee, how lucky for HNNers, LOL.)
Dr. Johnson is correct in saying above in his response to me that the Stern-Holland article focuses on transcription of Presidential tapes. So it may seem natural to respond only to that issue. But, unlike with the blogs, where going off on a tangent may be unwelcome, I did not myself feel restricted to commenting only on transcription.
I worry a great deal about political pressure on the colleagues I left behind at NARA. Remember, not all of Nixon's tapes and documents have been released. I and my colleagues went through some harrowing experiences during the elder Bush's administration, not all of which I've described here. Anyone who has faced political pressure on the job should not be surprised that I am fighting hard to protect my former colleagues. I am fiercely protective of them and want them to be spared what we went through.
I feel compelled to use _any_ opportunity I can to do outreach to explain the challenges faced by the National Archives as an executive branch agency. I do not assume that people who have worked primarily in the academic world or in other private sectors jobs automatically know all that can go awry when an executive agency's boss is a subordinate officer of the U.S. President.
As anyone who has been following my postings over the last six months or so knows, I have been trying to educate readers about the difficulties my colleagues and I faced at NARA when we tried to open the Nixon tapes to researchers in the late 1980s. Since few people have posted reactions to my prior postings, I cannot, of course, tell who has read them.
Anyone who has read my many postings since last August has had ample opportunity to express appreciation, either to archivists, or for my explanations of the difficult environment in which Archives' employees work. For whatever reason, today is the first time that I have seen anyone express that appreciation on HNN -- Dr. Johnson in his response to me above and Michael Barnes Thomin in his comment above. Michael even shows this as he notes "let me be the first."
Last week, Gary Ostrower joined me in supporting a de-politicized NARA. Other than in my exchanges with Peter Clarke last August, I haven't seen anyone else state that.
That is _not_ a long list of people who have been willing to publicly state on HNN their support for a nonpartisan, objective U.S. National Archives where employees can follow ethical obligations and professional standards.
As to other antecedents, my previous experiences with historians' message boards were somewhat disheartening. Go to H-Diplo's logs and do a search under "Krusten" for the year 2001, around April and May. You will see some exchanges I had with a number of scholars, including Warren Kimball and Hayden Peake. Peake then wrote:
"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.
I suspect I am not alone in the ability to cite specific examples where an agency has forwarded declassified documents to NARA and for reasons never explained, they remain unavailable to scholars years after their receipt.
There is no need to gain insight into NARA's problems, it is the solution to the scholars' problems that require attention. The need is for NARA to act and make its records available without bureaucratic quibbling."
No one who knows the problems faced by declassification archivists, expecially since the passage of the Kyl-Lott amendment, would say that is a fair assessment. As my postings on the problems in releasing Nixon's tapes demonstrate, bureaucratic foot dragging hardly is the explanation for all of NARA's problems.
Bottom line: Unless HNN's bloggers and posters themselves mention some of the issues that I write about, I have no evidence that they even recognize the problems I describe! Absent affirmative comments or actually, any discussion, at all, for all I know, you all may feel like Hayden Peake. I, and the NARA archivists who may quietly lurk here on HNN, can't read anyone's mind, LOL.
Maarja Krusten - 2/22/2005
Hi, Michael! I really appreciate your very nice note of thanks!!
Michael Barnes Thomin - 2/22/2005
"No one writing about transcriptions refers to the fact that had it not been for the painstaking efforts of government archivists, who listen to Presidential tapes to determine what can be opened and what requires restriction, such tapes would not fall into the hands of historians seeking to transcribe them."
Let me be the first one on here to thank you!
Sheldon M. Stern - 2/21/2005
Excellent point! Thanks.
Sheldon M. Stern - 2/21/2005
Mr. Johnson knows full well that Max Holland was using the yes-no example as a hypothetical illustration. Nonetheless, there are plenty of errors in the HUP and MC editions which have the same effect--namely to reverse the meaning or intent of the speaker(s). The Appendix in my book contains several glaring examples.
Maarja Krusten - 2/21/2005
Dr. Stern mentioned in his original article that he was not an expert on Nixon's tapes. I am. So my comments are best viewed as ongoing outreach to explain challenges NARA faces.
Robert KC Johnson - 2/21/2005
A couple of points in response:
1.) The Holland/Stern article, indeed, did not "assert there is only one right way of doing transcripts." Yet it's hard for me to determine any alternative approach that would satisfy the critiques raised by Holland and Stern other than a transcription of all sounds and a phonetic transcription. I'd be eager to have them spell out their preferred transcription approach, since their article is subtitled "crafting a new historical genre."
2.) As to the reliability point, I admit that I was unaware that any published Miller Center transcript had an error like a president saying "yes" when in fact he had said "no" seven times. I'm surprised that Holland and Stern didn't mention this point in their article; it would strike me as a serious critique of the Miller Center's approach.
Sheldon M. Stern - 2/21/2005
KC Johnson and I had this discussion on HNN a year ago and it is pointless to continue it. We disagree and that's it.
Finally, Max Holland and I stated that the MC transcripts are much better than the HUP edition. The latter is indeed unreliable and should have been withdrawn from publication years ago.
Maarja Krusten - 2/21/2005
If Dr. Johnson did not understand my comments, it may be because I mostly addressed Dr. Dresner's comments. Sorry, but I'm not sufficiently up to speed on the Miller Ctr issues to address Dr. Johnson's post.
Robert KC Johnson - 2/21/2005
I don't understand the comments about my critique of Holland/Stern raised by Maarja Krusten.
My piece doesn't talk about the declassification process of the tapes done by NARA archivists, who I've found, over the years, to be absolutely wonderful to work with, both at the LBJ Library and at the Legislative Archives section of the National Archives.
As the Stern/Holland article itself talks solely about the process used in publication of transcript volumes, I confined myself to comments dealing with that issue. If my remarks were perceived as slighting the role of government archivists, I apologize; I did not intend to do so.
Robert KC Johnson - 2/21/2005
A couple of points in response:
1.) I'm not sure if Sheldon Stern is including my piece as part of an "institutional self-defense and perpetual circling of the wagons." If so, I believe he's in error: as I stated, I'm no longer affiliated with the Miller Center, and feel no obligation to defend it. In any case, its staffers do not need me to defend them. I posted my response only because I believed (a) the Stern/Holland piece reflected an approach to transcribing that would not well serve the profession; (b) as someone familiar with the Miller Center's process, I knew that the article's comparison of the Miller Center approach with that employed in Beschloss's Taking Charge volume was outrageous, and called into question the objectivity of the article's authors.
2.) I can understand (and, indeed, support) the position of the National Archives that the archives itself shouldn't be in the business of transcribing tapes, because the transcription process is by its nature imperfect. I reject, however, the position that because it isn't possible for absolute accuracy in the process, and a handful of erroneous transcriptions have been produced, that the volumes thus far been produced are "unreliable." I haven't transcribed any of the Kennedy tapes, and so have no position on whether the passage quoted at the end of his post by Stern is correct, or whether the Miller Center version is. But simply because one historian claims to have transcribed a passage while another deems the passage unclear doesn't mean the transcribed passage is correct.
As to the claim that the Kennedy Tapes three volumes are "unreliable," I've seen no evidence to substantiate it.
3.) Finally, with regard to vernacular and verbal debris, I made the point about false dichotomy only because the Stern/Holland article itself did so, making it appear as if only two options existed when that simply isn't the case. With regards to vernacular, the choice isn't between transcribing b/w the "King's English" and transcribing phonetically; there is a sensible middle ground, as I noted in my piece. Ditto with the verbal debris.
Holland and Stern criticize the Miller Center approach for employing "subjectivity." I disagree with the criticism, but I can see how such a criticism can be leveled. Having made it, however, the article doesn't lay out the logical conclusion of its critique: a transcript in which every word is spelled phonetically and every sound that's uttered appears on the page, rendering the transcript all but indecipherable. Not taking such an approach, however, would mean that the Holland/Stern transcription style itself would be subjective, thus exposing it to the very criticism that it directs at the Miller Center.
Max Holland - 2/21/2005
KC Johnson neatly sidesteps our major criticism of the Miller Center in the essay, and also misrepresents what we wrote.
We don’t need a world where several competing centers are producing presidential transcripts, just as no purpose would have been served by funding competitors to Arthur Link, Alfred Chandler, or Forrest Pogue, respective editors of the Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and George C. Marshall papers. What we do need is for the academic institution that is receiving NHPRC funds to make available an errata sheet on-line—as has been repeatedly promised—so that interested scholars can assist the Miller Center in an admittedly difficult task.
Regarding the methodology of doing transcripts, Johnson is certainly entitled to his views on how they should (must?) be done. We did not, of all things, assert there is only one right way of doing transcripts. In the course of the essay, we simply sought to raise some of the problems involved in producing a “verbatim” transcript. So long as the editorial conventions are made plain and adhered to, various approaches are justifiable depending on the nature of the book, and the intended audience.
By way of illustration, and since Maarja Krusten raised this issue, let’s suppose Richard Nixon answered John Dean by saying “no” seven times. In a research volume intended for generations of scholars, such as the Miller Center’s volumes, one might argue that each “no” should be rendered. In a work intended for a general audience, one “no” might do, or the editor/author might split the difference by putting three “nos” down.
No one would argue though, that if the author/editor rendered a “yes” in place of seven “nos,” or had John Dean saying “no” instead of Nixon, that this was an acceptable transcript. And that was our point.
Sheldon M. Stern - 2/21/2005
Dear Ms. Krusten,
It's a pleasure to read your thoughtful and painstaking comments. I'm sorry we never had a chance to work together in the National Archives.
Sheldon M. Stern - 2/21/2005
I want to respond to KC Johnson's two main points:
Let me begin with his second point: if Max Holland and I disagree with the Miller Center's transcription philosophy that does not mean that we are ipso facto endorsing a false dichotomy or a flawed premise. We disagree and we have made clear in our critiques of the published transcripts, not to mention in our own published work, that this is a serious issue. It would take me less than .05 seconds to make this decision. That does not mean that we reject Johnson's position as illogical or false. We simply disagree. In any case, this point seems to be something of a red herring since neither argument means much if the transcripts themselves are unreliable.
Johnson's first point however is much more serious. He claims that "As the Miller Center project’s director, Tim Naftali, has observed, simply because an outside scholar claims that errors exist in the transcript does not make it so. It turns out that many of the “errors” cited by Stern in the Miller Center transcripts were, in fact, accurately transcribed." This statement is absolutely false. As I made clear in my HNN response to the Naftali statement cited above, four of the six "errors" he cited in my book were NOT IN MY BOOK AT ALL. Naftali erroneously cited my paraphrases (I wrote a narrative not transcripts) and incredibly identified them as transcription errors. Of the two remaining errors cited by Naftali, I disagreed on one and acknowledged that he was right on one--that does not add up to "many" as I understand the word.
More importantly, in the five years since my first article in the Atlantic I have identified hundreds of errors in the HUP and Norton/MC missile crisis transcripts and scholars all over the country have thanked me for helping to set the record straight. What about the Appendix in my book, for example--how many of those nearly 100 "errors" are wrong? In fact, the MC has conceded, in public and in private, that the great majority of my corrections are valid. Zelikow himself twice thanked me at the JFK Library's Tapes conference for my enhancement of their work. Max Holland and I are simply asking the MC to post an errata sheet as promised and acknowledge their mistakes. The point should be professional cooperation towards the best possible transcripts, not institutional self-defense and perpetual circling of the wagons.
Just for the record, I thought readers would like to see an example of a butchered transcription corrected in my Appendix:
Miller Center/Norton edition, Vol. 3, p. 252:
Unidentified: Have you ever seen missile fuel?
McNamara: No. [unclear mentions of 'nitric acid']
George Ball: Kerosene missile fuel?
McNamara: No, fuming nitric acid.
Maarja Krusten - 2/21/2005
Many thanks for the good reply! And I really appreciate your comment about NARA archivists!!! As to "self absorbed historians and other scholars," they certainly do seem to lose sight of what is at stake sometimes, for reasons I can't quite pin down definitively.
Thanks again and best regards,
Maarja Krusten - 2/21/2005
From the ssa.gov website above, also try out the Cabinet Room tape, 105-9a, for an example of a Nixon tape with multiple speakers, all of whose voices you have to identify, in addition to transcribing their words. Again, CAB and OVAL tapes are better sound quality than EOB. Generally, telephone tapes are the clearest, although some had severe signal problems.
Sheldon M. Stern - 2/21/2005
Hi Ms. Krusten,
First let me say that your remarks in general say a great deal about the quality of NARA archivists--who are often taken for granted by self-absorbed historians and other scholars.
As to the question you raised, it's important to remember that the presidential libraries were in a staffing crisis in the Reagan era and actually lost staff members. As a result, the JFKL simply did not have people to take on this complicated task. My work was done largely independently as I was doing background preparation for oral history interviews on foreign policy in the Kennedy admin. This situation did change in the 1990s, esp. when Stephanie Fawcett came on board and really moved things forward.
Maarja Krusten - 2/21/2005
for examples of Nixon tapes. I picked one, Oval 500-26 and saved it to my hard drive by right clicking. I then listened to it in Real Player. The Nixon Oval Office tapes are easier to understand than those recorded in the Old Executive Office Building, which have more ambient noise and interference.
There may be other audio links posted elsewhere. The ones the Washington Post used to have on its Watergate page seem to have outdated links. At any rate, I couldn't get them to work today. I don't have time right now to look for any other audio links, sorry.
The National Security Archive has some interesting materials on the Nixon tapes, including an article written with two NARA Nixon Project archivists at
http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB95/sidebar3.htm. The article notes that:
"In July 1993, former President Nixon obtained a court order forbidding the release of any of the recordings until the National Archives had finished reviewing all of them and returned private or personal materials. But a lawsuit by historian Stanley Kutler and the advocacy group Public Citizen helped accelerate the review process and on April 12, 1996 the Archivist of the United States, the Nixon Estate, and Public Citizen reached an agreement to facilitate the review and release of the remaining Nixon White House tapes in a systematic manner."
Maarja Krusten - 2/21/2005
Nixon's Old Executive Uffice hideaway above obviously was a typo. I meant Nixon's Old Executive Office hideaway. Copied from the National Archives' website, here are the taping stations for the Nixon White House tapes:
"The tapes consist of the conversations recorded in the following locations:
* the Oval Office (February 1971 - July 1973)
* the President's Old Executive Office Building (EOB) Office (April 1971 - June 1973)
* telephones in the Oval Office, EOB Office, and Lincoln Sitting Room (April 1971 - June 1973)
* Camp David (May 1972 - June 1973)"
Maarja Krusten - 2/21/2005
Dr. Dresner refers to oral history transcription and the work of anthropologists and linguists. He describes their efforts and writes of the Stern-Holland article, "But no, Americanists, faced with trunks full of the most incredible sources ever created -- Presidential tapes, for crying out loud -- have to whine about having to use their judgement (or, god forbid, trust someone else's judgement) in editing and using a source."
As someone who has worked both with oral history transcription and the transcription of Presidential tapes, I know the differences between them. So, too, does Dr. Stern, who notes, "the most daunting issue is the frequently poor audio quality of the tape recordings. It can be exasperating to try to decipher something as fundamental as who is speaking, particularly on the tapes from the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, which include many recordings of meetings. Even the most painstaking effort to transcribe the recordings is bound to result in some errors, the present authors’ own attempts included."
I can tell you that Presidential recordings do not reflect the structure of oral history interviews, with neat segements of question and answer. Nor are the conversations rational in the the order of topics discussed. Not only do topics meander, but multiple speakers speak simultaneously, talking over each other. Add to that the ticking clock and other ambient noises present in venues such as Nixon's Old Executive Uffice hideway, evident in released tapes, and you can understand how different the Nixon tapes are from most oral history recordings.
As to the work of anthropologists and linguists, while the matters they study are important and interesting, I doubt Dr. Dresner equates them with what is discussed in the Oval Office. Just ask yourself, do they face the type of pressure the National Archives must endure? I doubt it.
I'm interested to see whether Dr. Stern will be able to reply to any of the points I have made ih my postings. As an "alumnus" of the Kennedy Presidential Library, I rather doubt he will be able to address some of the points I raise. Perhaps he can comment on some of the more generic observations. If he can't, I understand that, more so than someone who has not worked for the National Archives could.
But to the rest of the people reading HNN, I would ask you to consider this. Imagine you are working on the first step of opening Presidential tapes--the declassification and restriction review done by the National Archives. To do your job, you would have to depend on everyone in your reporting chain to back you up, but your top boss is a subordinate of the President of the U.S. Could you count on him and his management team to look at issues as historians, or would other considerations come into play? Not everyone I worked for handled the issues the same way.
What about external pressure? What would be your expectation if, for example, a former President's lawyer made snarky comments about you and your colleagues to the press and slammed your work in court pleadings? Would you expect your superior at the head of the agency to speak up to defend his subordinates? Or would he and his managers sit silent, as I have seen happen? How would that affect your work?
I'm fascinated by the fact that the working level archivists I worked with presented a nearly united front in the face of the type of pressures I have described above. It didn't matter that some of us were Republicans, some Democrats, some Libertarians, some Socialists. We understood the importance of the issues at stake and bonded together.
If only historians and academics could set aside their differences, evident in the sniping that one sees among Nixon scholars and HNN's writers. Express your differing viewpoints, by all means, hopefully without too many overtones of oneupmanship, but don't let your disagreements get in the way of uniting to support the National Archives, which safeguards the nation's historical records.
Maarja Krusten - 2/21/2005
Over on the Cliopatria blog, two professors (Jonathan Dresner and Robert K. C. Johnson) have posted reflections on the Stern-Holland article. They have not posted their reactions, or cross references to their reactions, here. Their comments may be missed by readers of the HNN main page or even by Dr. Stern and Dr. Holland. So I thought I would mention them here.
Dr. Dresner notes, "Come on. Anthropologists and linguists and oral historians have been using recorded sources for a few dozen years; why don't we find out how they handle transcription? Why do Americanists have to reinvent the wheel (and then agonize over whether circularity should be defined geometrically or mathematically) when some of us have been merrily rolling about for some time now?"
Dr. Johnson describes his experiences with transcription and explains why he believes that, "In the end, Holland and Stern base their critique on two flawed premises."
No one writing about transcriptions refers to the fact that had it not been for the painstaking efforts of government archivists, who listen to Presidential tapes to determine what can be opened and what requires restriction, such tapes would not fall into the hands of historians seeking to transcribe them. Someone has to work through the declassification process and, in the case of Nixon's tapes, also screen them for privacy, private political-association, and personal-returnable material.
I find it curious that scholars seem to jump over this step, as I know that it can occur under conditions of enormous political pressure which no academic would countenance in his own workplace. But the silence on this seems to imply that somehow, it seems okay that this pressure happens to others.
Perhaps educators and other scholars merely are unfamiliar with the extent of the pressure. Or, they could just take for granted that the National Archives, which administers all the modern Presidential Libraries, has a firewall around it which enables it to act as if it operates in a mythical fourth branch of government. Not so, the U.S. Archivist is a subordinate officer of the President of the United Stastes.
You don't believe that? Consider this. As the National Archives neared completion of its screening of documents most likely to contain Watergate material (the so-called White House Special Files), Nixon's lawyers hired several agents to look through the materials government archivists had okayed for disclosure. 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.
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.'" His letter was released under the Freedom of Information Act and a copy made available in the Nixon Project's research room during the late 1980s.
Under the PRMPA's implementing regulations, a Presidential Materials Review Board considered Nixon's objections to release of the White House Special Files. Jack Anderson reported on July 25, 1989 that the top-level NARA board was split on how to handle "touchy documents." Anderson charged, "Nixon appears to have at least one board member firmly in his corner, John Fawcett. He heads the office of Presidential Libraries-a job that we think should come down on the side of preserving presidential papers for the public. But, in the minutes we saw, Fawcett almost always voted to give papers to Nixon."
After Nixon died in 1994, the board, with several new members, appears to have reversed many of the earlier tentative decisions described by Anderson and most of the contested items were released 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.
The release of contested items showed that Nixon had regarded as "personal-returnable" a Haldeman note of a meeting on Vietnam negotiations that recorded the President's comment to Henry Kissinger, "get best deal let Thieu paddle his own canoe." He also contested release of directives to "uncover Jewish cells" at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nixon even blocked release of some notes on Watergate ("put it on Mitchell - we're protecting him adds up P is protecting John Mitchell.")
When Stanley Kutler filed his lawsuit to gain access to the Watergate tapes, Nixon still was alive and the Review Board had not yet decided whether to keep in government custody or return to him the contested items described above. Nixon's lawyers leaned on the Archives to discard its final review of the tapes, described above, and to re-screen the recordings using stricter privacy standards. Nixon wanted more conservative disclosues to be applied both to the tapes and to the release of documents from his White House files.
Joan Hoff noted at the time in her foreword to _Papers of the Nixon White House_ , "the Archives has basically completed processing the tapes and prepared a 27,000-page finding aid for researchers" but lawyers for Nixon complained that "the review process agreed to in the 1979 'negotiated agreement' has not proven feasible with respect to these controversial secret tapings and that, therefore, they should be reviewed again using stricter privacy standards."
The U.S. Archivist cannot speak in court on his own, he can only speak through lawyers working for the Attorney General. During the Kutler litigation, the Department of Justice and the National Archives referred in pleadings to a collaborative, consultative relationship with Nixon. Kutler's lawyers, from the Public Citizen Litigation Group, zeroed in on the flaw in this characterization:
"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, which confirms that Mr. Nixon uses litigation threats as bargaining chips to convince the Archives to change its archival processing."
What would have happened had Nixon not died in 1994. Would most of the contested Special Files documents been removed from government custody and returned to him? Would the tapes have been screened under extremely conservative disclosure standards. Keep in mind that Nixon's lawyers had a long public record of seeking to limit what the public would see.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Nixon's lawyers had sought to delay disclosure. From the start there were clues that they would focus on "personal privacy." In 1981 the Los Angeles Times reported that Mr. Nixon's lawyer argued that all of Mr. Nixon's conversations, without exception, should be kept private. "If he elects to be profane with an adviser, solicitous of a particular congressman or contemptuous of a political adversary, he can do so without being inhibited by the specter of the prying eye or uninvited ear," Nixon's lawyer claimed.
During the 1970s, Mr. Nixon's lawyers argued in court that the mere review of his records by government archivists would "chill expression because he [Mr. Nixon] will be 'saddled' with prior positions communicated in private, leaving him unable to take inconsistent positions in the future." They objected to public access screening by the National Archives because their client's "most private thoughts and communications, both written and spoken, will be exposed to and reviewed by a host of persons whom he does not know and did not select, and in whom he has no reason to place his confidence. This group will decide what is personal . . . and what is historical, to be opened for public review."
When the Supreme Court upheld the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act in 1977, "lawyers for Nixon were encouraged by the possibility of developing the idea of a right of political privacy. 'Many people don't realize,' one of the lawyers said hopefully, 'that 99 percent of what a President does is political.'" (Washington Star, June 29, 1977). This presaged the later effort to recover as "personal" documents and tapes dealing with Vietnam, Watergate, and other governmental matters.
I would be curious to see how scholars, who often write about academic freedom and intellectual rigor, would react in the face of the type of political pressure that government archivists, most of whom also are trained historians, have faced and potentially face in the future. If a role reversal occurred, roles, with the people writing or posting on HNN taking over the job of my NARA colleagues, how many tapes would reach the scholarly community, for its members to argue over how best to transcribe them? Many of them would start out with good intentions, I'm sure, but could they negotiate all the pitfalls and implement those intentions in the environment I have described?
Given the fact that scholars seem to take for granted the historical information the Presidential Libraries release, I, for one, am not optimistic that the National Archives will have any more protection in the future than it has in the past.
Joan Hoff - 2/21/2005
Thanks for trying to place the transcription and use of presidential tapes in some reasonable historical perspective.
Maarja Krusten - 2/20/2005
I have a question for Dr. Stern on NLJFK staffing and a comment on historians listening to the actual tapes versus using transcripts.
1. You write that
"In 1981, the John F. Kennedy Library (JFKL) began processing the recordings of the ExComm meetings during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and in 1983 started releasing them to the public. It took years to review and declassify all 22+ hours of recordings largely because the audio quality was frequently very poor. Consequently, more than 17 hours (77 percent) of the ExComm recordings were not released until 24 October 1996 (15+ hours) and 17 February 1997 (2 hours). Some of these last releases were among the hardest to transcribe."
The start date fits with what I know, as I remember having some contact with Megan Desnoyer in the early 1980s when I still worked at NLNS at NARA. Does the Kennedy Library allow you to reveal how many people worked on processing the Kennedy tapes you describe above? How many archivists and other employees? Did they work on the project full time? If you can't divulge any of that, I understand, no problem.
The information may or may not be part of the public record, I have to confess I have not yet taken the time to do a Nexis search. The Kutler case forced into the public arena an unprecedented amount of information about the handling of Nixon's tapes. For the most part, historians get their glimpses at other Presidential Libraries through news stories or conference papers presented by NARA employees. I enjoyed the Stern-Holland article and thank you for writing it and thank Rick Shenkman for posting it on HNN. If you have time, please do read my commens above on the Nixon tapes and some of our experiences with them.
On the question of staffing, in the Kutler case, NARA's July 1992 interrogatory responses listed the names of eight employees, mainly archivists and archives technicians, who had worked with the Nixon tapes from 1977 to 1992. I wouldn't take that as definitive, although the responses were filed by the Office of Presidential Libraries, as there actually were 16 people in various job series (mostly the two I just mentioned) who had worked on the tapes during that time span. I tend to think that particular error occurred because NL didn't ask the right people for information in compiling the responses filed with the court. The court filings have other errors as well, for whatever reason.
NARA at one time planned to have as many as 100 archival staff working on the Nixon Project, tapes and textual processing, as noted in the 1975 report to Congress. But Reagan-era reductions-in-force and budget cuts made that impossible. During the years that I worked at the Nixon Project, the total number of staff didn't rise much above 30 or 35. At one point, it was as low as 17 or so. A far cry from what originally was hoped for in terms of resources.
2. I strongly encourage historians to actually listen to Presidential tape recordings, and not only because of the issues with transcription that are described so well by Dr. Stern and Dr. Holland. The written word does not convey emphasis or shades of meaning, such as sarcasm, etc. Consider, for example, the different meanings between saying "I don't want to work on that project with HIM" as versus "I don't want to work on THAT project with him." One might convey a lack of confidence in the man, the other a dislike for the project at hand. You hear that in the spoken sentence but you don't get that difference in the written word. I used to always use that example when I worked for NARA's Nixon Project and gave briefings to researchers.
Finally, I believe historians owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the archivists who work in Presidential Libraries and at the Nixon Project with White House tapes. They do challenging work under extremely difficult circumstances. I spent 14 years of my 32 year (and counting) Federal career as an archivist and the last 15 years as a government historian, so I know both sides. Steve Ambrose, Joan Hoff, and Stanley Kutler all were or have been good about thanking archivists and I appreciate that. I'd rather not comment on disputes among historians themselves, I'll leave that to others, but I think we all can agree that without the achivists, historians would be in big trouble, LOL.
Maarja Krusten - 2/20/2005
NARA has just redesigned its web site, the Nixon project now has tape logs and transcripts available on line. So you can go there as well as to the SSA website, which has been up for over 5 years. In looking at the Watergate Special Prosecution Force transcripts on the NARA website, keep in mind that the WSPF made these during the investigations during the 1970s, prior to NARA gaining control of the tapes. As NARA notes, its archivists did not prepare these transcripts. There are errors in some of them. . . .
As long as the above posting was, I didn't tie up all the loose ends. Here's how the court case was "resolved."
After Nixon died in 1994, the parties in the Kutler lawsuit worked out a settlement. The settlement spared NARA from further twists and turns in attempting to explain why and how final processing turned into mere initial processing and why tapes were not opened starting in 1991. Although a senior NARA manager remarked privately that it was a "chicken shit idea," the National Archives bowed to pressure and agreed to re-screen all 3,700 hours of tapes. Releases of tapes, although delayed more than ten years from the time we finished processing them, to date by and large have reflected similar standards to those I applied when I worked for Graboske.
In November 1996, the National Archives, under new Archivist John W. Carlin, finally opened the 201 hours of Watergate "abuse of governmental power tapes" that triggered the Kutler lawsuit in 1992. In 1998, it released excerpts from Nixon's Cabinet Room tapes. Finally, in 1999, five years after Nixon died and 8 years after Hastings had planned to start the first such release, NARA began chronological openings of White House tapes, first disclosing segments from those recorded in February 1971. By all accounts, the present director of NARA's Nixon Project, Karl Weissenbach, is liked and trusted by his subordinates and respected by historical researchers.
PS - Something more to look out for. Problems cropped up for NARA when George W. Bush ran for President. The Chicago Tribune reported in 2000 that Archivist John W. Carlin stood up to pressure from Bush operatives who sought to delay disclosures from the tapes. Many archivists applauded Carlin's courage, but in December 2003, the White House reportedly dictated a letter of resignation for the Archivist.
Carlin had hoped to serve a full ten years but was forced out prematurely. Although required by law to give a reason for removing the Archivist, the White House did not do so. Allen W. Weinstein replaced Carlin as Archivist on February 16, 2005, when he was sworn in.
Some Nixon tapes remain to be opened to the public. See
http://nixon.archives.gov/index.php and especially
Maarja Krusten - 2/19/2005
As you all know, I once was employed by the National Archives to determine what was on the Nixon tapes and to decide what could be opened to the public. So, naturally I would like to offer my perspective. Warning, this is LOOOONG.
1. In considering estimated ratios for transcription offered by the National Archives, please keep in mind that, at least with the Nixon tapes, our experiences with transcription primarily derived from having to do transcriptions in court cases. During the late 1970s, I was one of the archivists who transcribed selected segments of the Nixon tapes for some court cases. Obviously, we tried to make as an accurate a transcript as possible, there was no option of cleaning up language or collapsing sentences. (I remember holding both hands above a desk and lightly setting down a finger each time Nixon said "no" to calculate how many times he said, "no, no, no, no, no, no." )
Examples are available in the tape transcripts on the Social Security Administration's website. (Don't ask me why the SSA historian chose to post some of the transcripts he obtained from NARA, I'm just glad he did because it is the only place so many are available on the web.) Please note that although we tried to get down every word, we did not claim 100% accuracy.
At the time, we had no word processors, so typing and re-typing added to our calculations of transcriptions time. We then calculated a ratio of 300 staff hours per one hour of tape. (See page 6, Maarja Krusten, The Nixon Tapes at the National Archives, May 1993 (REV. July 1994), a paper circulated to the Presidential Materials Review Board in 1993 in its earlier version. My paper later was made available by Acting Archivist Trudy H. Peterson to Richard Nixon's attorney in Kutler v. Wilson (Civ. A. 92-662-NHJ)).
As NARA gained the ability to use word processing equipment, the estimates of transcription ratios decreased somewhat.
You can find copies of our transcripts by typing in the following search terms in Google or another search engine: "ssa.gov" "nixon" "demonstrators" A couple of examples are at
As does Dr. Hoff, I tend to favor transcription that is as close as possible to what actually was said. The National Archives did not transcribe nor is it transcribing now the Nixon tapes released to historians. (Not all the disclosable portions of the tapes have been released yet.) Rather, it uses tape subject logs, a format which I developed along with Frederick J. Graboske around 1978-1979. This enables archivists to show the flow of a conversation without requiring transcription. For an example, see www.ssa.gov/history/Nixon/oval528.rtf. The format gives historians a good sense of what is on an individual tape, so they can decide whether to request a copy or invest in transcribing a conversation.
2. Dr. Stern quotes Dr. Hoff on matters such as the archivists' ratios for transcription of Nixon's tapes. There actually are articles available by the archivists themselves. Several are NARA Career Intern Development Papers, which should be available through the agency's library. See, for example:
a. Eva Krusten, "NARA and the Law: The Peculiar Problems of Processing the Nixon Presidential Materials," Career Intern Development System paper, May 30, 1986. Copy in NARA library and in author's files. (Eva Krusten was my twin sister. A senior declassification archivist at NARA from 1983 to 2002, Eva died of cancer 12/16/02.)
b. Paul Schmidt, "The Opening of the Nixon White House Tapes: Procedures and Problems," CIDS Paper, NARA, May, 1985.
c. "Processing the Nixon Tapes," Maarja Krustin, CIDS Paper, NARA, September 14, 1979. (I worked at NARA with the Nixon tapes and documents from 1976 to 1990.)
A word of warning. What the National Archives said about the Nixon tapes changed drastically during the Presidency of George H. W. Bush, especially after Dr. Kutler filed his lawsuit in March 1992. If you read the papers listed above, it is clear that NARA intended to start opening the Nixon tapes to the public in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Schmidt's paper actually centers on -- and carries a title referring to -- what then appeared to be imminent opening.
When Kutler asked when the tapes would be released, the government presented changing stories about their status. Some of the stories conflicted. John Fawcett's initial letter to Kutler said all integral file segments about Watergate had been released, without mentioning the existence of some 200 more hours of "abuse of power" conversations. Fawcett testified in 1992 that the tapes might have to be re-reviewed to apply the guidance formulated by the Presidential Materials Review which was considering Nixon's objections to the release of thousands of Special Files documents. (Fawcett retired in 1994. In 1996, the board upheld the archivists' release or retention decisions in about 75% of the contested documents.)
By contrast, NARA's counsel, Gary Brooks, gave yet a different explanation, stating that "it was understood 'all along that there would be a subsequent review'" of all the tapes. The two explanations cannot be reconciled readily. Either a second review of the tapes had been planned "all along" (Brooks) or re-review was triggered by receipt of Nixon's objections to the opening of the White House Special Files series (Fawcett).
Court documents filed by the Department of Justice on behalf of NARA claimed that the tapes processing done during 1979-1987 represented merely a first archival go-around with the tapes and that a second review was forthcoming before Nixon's agents got a crack at them. But subpoenaed documents tell a different story, pointing to completion of final review of the tapes in 1987. Documents also show plans for chronological releases of the tapes in phases, starting in 1991 with tapes recorded in 1971.
The court record in the Kutler litigation includes many internal NARA documents. These show that beginning in 1982, Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries James E. O'Neill and Nixon Project director James Hastings sent a series of letters that informed Nixon's attorneys that "we have completed final review" of segments of tapes in monthly increments, beginning with February 1971. (The Nixon White House taping system was in operation from February 1971 until June 1973.) As archivists completed their review of each monthly segment, O'Neill or Hastings sent Nixon's lawyers a letter saying that "final review" of the segment was complete.
The court record also shows that the Archives' internal work plans referred to completion of "final" review of the tapes in 1987. Indeed, the Nixon Project's Fiscal Year 1987 Annual Work Plan stated that "final archival review and technical processing of the White House tapes will be completed during the second quarter of FY 87." During the 1980s, researchers were given informational hand-outs, which stated that "archival processing" of the tapes "will be completed in 1987." I know that for a fact, I used to work with researchers and hand out the information sheets.
I cannot more strongly warn researchers to be on the lookout for discrepancies between what the Justice Department said in court in "speaking for" NARA during the 1990s, and what is reflected in contemporaneous documents from the 1970s and 1980s. You don't need to even go to the court record. Some of the differences show up in articles published in the 1980s as compared to the 1990s. H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman wrote in separate articles during the late 1980s that the National Archives' processing of the Nixon tapes was "virtually complete, " implying that public opening would occur within a year or two. Steve Ambrose and Joan Hoff both noted in separate publications during the elder Bush's administration that NARA was ready to release the tapes ("the Archives has basically completed processing the tapes;" "four thousand hours of White House tapes, although processed by the Archives. . . which is ready to release them")
But a National Archives spokeswoman claimed in 1991 that an army of archivists was busy transcribing the tapes so it would be a long time before they could be released. There's just one problem with that. NARA had decided in the late 1970s not to do transcripts. And any historian who has worked with the since released tapes knows that we archivists produced outline logs, not transcripts. So where are the transcripts which the army of archivists supposedly was producing during the elder Bush's administration? Hmmmm, makes you think, was the story put out as a stall during a time when Nixon was pressuring the Archives to change its disclosure standards?
So, historians would do well to compare and consider carefully what the National Archives said during Robert M. Warner's tenure as Archivist (and James O'Neill's as Presidential Libraries' chief), during the mid-1980s, against what it later said during Don Wilson's tenure as Archivist when George H. W. Bush was President.
3. Context - I would urge historians working with the tapes to read all the available books written by Nixon's aides; to study chief of staff H. R. Haldeman's diary; and to wade through the millions of pages of contemporaneous documents in the released portions of the Nixon White House files at NARA. I do not know whether NARA has yet released the fascinating oral history interview that we did with H. R. Haldeman around 1987. If it has, pay special attention to what Haldeman says, he was unsually reflective and insightful in his comments.
President Nixon was an extremely complex person who governed during an extraordinarily difficult time in the nation's history. In secondary sources, I've read nothing yet that really does him justice, although some historians do better than others. Of the 3,700 hours of Nixon tapes, I listened to some 2,000 during my career at NARA, to determine what should be released to the public and what required restriction or deletion. Oddly enough, despite recognizing the enormity of the Watergate abuses of power, I retain some protective feelings for Nixon as a human being, probably because I know him so well. And, of course, I worked on his 1968 campaign and voted for him in 1972 so I never was and never will be a "Nixon hater."
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