How the Old Guard at the Nixon Library Hoodwinked Historians


David Marley is an Assistant Professor of History at Vanguard University, which is located near the Nixon Library & Birthplace.

Direct Textbooks Textbook resource center

Nixon's campaign slogan was "Nixon, now more than ever," if historians really want to change things at his library, they should take up the rallying cry, "NARA, now more than ever."

If you listen carefully to all of the noise being made by academics who want to punish the Nixon Library by keeping them out of the federal system, you can hear members of the Nixon Foundation begging not to be thrown into the briar patch. In the past few weeks scholars have been lining up to denounce the library and send petitions to congress. While jumping on a band wagon is always fun, in this case it is doing more harm than good. Contrary to what some have alleged, the ordeal over the Vietnam symposium shows why the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) needs to take control of the Nixon library sooner rather than later.

The cancellation of the conference is a result of a rift between two groups of library employees; the Nixon Foundation loyalists, who want to maintain the status quo, and the scholars who want to mainstream the museum. As anyone who has toured the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace knows, it is the only presidential library that is run without federal funding. This is pointed out repeatedly to visitors and it demonstrates how defensive the museum can be. The library, like the president it celebrates, has taken this pride of self-sufficiency to an extreme. Their pride concerning their status as the only privately funded presidential museum is presented as a sign of greatness, and not as an example of how Nixon was ostracized by history.

Since the museum was privately funded, it could play by its own rules. The board of the Nixon Foundation contains friends and admirers of the former president, and they have created a presidential museum like no other. This has led the museum to bring in politicians who praise Nixon more than academics who might tarnish his image. More than most other presidential museums, the Nixon library has been equal parts historical site and activist center. The museum caters to its elite contributors and to Republican causes. Where else can you see John Dean get blamed for Nixon's Watergate crimes? What other presidential library would invite Oliver North to speak and sell his books?

This elitism even applied to the research aspect of the museum. When the archives opened, it was modeled after the Huntington Library, which granted access only to researchers with Ph.D.'s. The archives were organized in an inconsistent manner, but this was largely irrelevant since all of Nixon's presidential papers were (and are) held by the federal government. The work that was being done on the collections was mostly the work of one person and it would have taken several lifetimes to complete anything significant. The archives seemed to only remind the Nixon Foundation about the president's problems, and it remained understaffed and underfunded.

That all changed a few years ago when archivists were hired away from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in order to set up the archives to NARA standards. These people gave up their federal jobs with all of its benefits and came to work in Yorba Linda in the hope that the museum would become a federally run institution. Now researchers of any age are allowed in and the archives to have the same cataloging system that all other federal archives use. They have also speeded up the cataloging process significantly. These archivists hope to rejoin the ranks of federal archivists and look forward to the day when Nixon's presidential papers are brought west. Therein lies the reason why the conference was cancelled. If the archives department is successful in making the library ready for NARA, then many of those proud Nixon Foundation people who thump their chests and brag about their private funding will lose a lot of power.

The archives staff helped plan the Vietnam war symposium with Whittier College and it was designed to show that the library was a place of scholarship where divergent views could be heard. If the conference was a success, then the archives staff was one big step closer to federal recognition, and the rest were closer to losing their status as the keepers of Nixon's legacy.

No matter which version of the cancellation story you believe, they all end with the Nixon Foundation as the bad guys. Luckily for them, most academics were more than willing to play into their hands by denouncing the library and petitioning Congress to keep the Nixon library out of NARA's control. I suspect that nothing would please them more. These same people who don't care for academic dissent are the ones who will win if the museum stays free of NARA. The best thing historians could do is to push the government to take control of the museum as quickly as possible. This would remove the Nixon partisans from power and allow the museum to become the kind of place it was designed to be. While it is true that the Nixon Foundation would still exist, its power over the archives, and hence the presidential papers, would be nil. Petitions to Congress might make one feel better, but in this case it appears that historians are better at jumping to conclusions and making rash decisions than on trying to achieve their goals. Perhaps academics have become so accustomed to opposing Nixon and his museum that they are no longer capable of doing what is needed to keep this from happening again.

By their actions, historians are showing the Nixon Foundation that if they want to stay in power, they just have to remain hostile to academics. What we historians need to do is pressure the government to bring in NARA now so that the Foundation members will release their grip on the library and go get jobs at Fox News Channel.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

skipper steely - 2/20/2008

I have had tremendous troubles on my last book, and have seen this coming on for the past 28 years. We writers are the only customers, the only reason these high salaries are paid, but we have to struggle to see the information.


Maarja Krusten - 4/10/2005


Maarja Krusten - 4/7/2005

For some reason, HNN is persnickety about hyperlinking longish URLs. Just copy and paste the two links in the post above, I don't believe they are fully clickable as the hyperlinks may be partial only.

Maarja Krusten - 4/7/2005

Dr. Marley, I understand what you are saying although I don't agree with all of your interpretations. I appreciate your taking my latest comments in such good humor. And I can see why you would be puzzled as to why archivists might leave NARA to go to work at Yorba Linda, as at least some members of the current private library staff apparently have done. I think you mentioned that they used to work at the Reagan Library. I certainly wish them well and feel the situation with presidential libraries deserves some more comment. So, bear with me if you will.

The Presidential Libraries vary greatly. Some have better reputations than others as places to work or to do research. Note what I say in the op ed at about the different libraries.

Also, the law under which the Reagan Library operates is stronger than the Nixon records act because it has a FOIA component. That means there is potential judicial review of archival decisions. And judicial review acts as a brake on potential abuses. It provides a safer environment for archivists than is available for employees who must rely only on their own senior managers to protect them from political pressure. There is no potential judicial review of the actual contents of records under the Nixon records act except as an option for Nixon or now his heirs to sue NARA over what it intends to open.

Also, remember that I left NARA employ in 1990, when the Reagan Library still was staffing up. (Sherrie Fletcher, who now works at Reagan, used to work with me at the Nixon Project at NARA. I liked and respected her.) There wasn’t much buzz about the Reagan Library within NARA at the time I left. Perhaps the archivists who once worked in Simi Valley and now are at Yorba Linda started work too late to hear much about the problems that occurred at the NARA Nixon Project in the DC area between 1989 and 1993. (Sherrie had left the Nixon Project by then as I recall.) Perhaps they thought their Reagan experiences reflected the NARA experience. They may not have known about all the problems that surrounded management of and access to the Nixon records.

Consider also why I, who worked on Nixon’s campaign in 1968 and voted for him in 1972, might now risk so much in speaking out. If it is available at Yorba Linda, ask to see the book _The Inaugural Story_ published in 1969. I am pictured on page 154 along with my late twin sister, Eva. (Permit me an aside about my sis, whom I miss so much. Eva was a supervisory archivist and team leader at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) until her death from cancer in 2002 at the age of 51. She specialized in declassification review of State Department historical records. In a letter sent to her family after her death, John Carlin, Archivist of the United States, noted that Ms. Krusten "was considered as committed a NARA employee as can be found, and gave guidance and assistance to anyone who needed it.” Her news obituary article was in the Washington Post on December 20, 2002.)

If you can get a copy of the Inaugural Story book at Yorba Linda, look at the high school senior standing on the right in that picture from 1969 and compare it to the image at . You should be able to tell that yep, it is indeed the same person--me. How does one go from being pictured at a Nixon Inaugural event to writing to warn people about the problems that surround access to Nixon’s records? Clearly, I feel a strong obligation to protect my fellow archivists, despite my support for Nixon’s policies and my voting record, which was straight Republican through the end of the Cold War. (I don’t reveal my voting record since 1988, given where I have been working since 1990.) Something must be compelling me to speak out again and again, not always easy to do, as you yourself noted.

Why do I feel so compelled to protect my fellow archivists? Part of the answer lies at the end of the article that I published in 1996. If you can get a copy, read my article, “Watergate's last victim,” Presidential Studies Quarterly; New York; Winter 1996. Most of my difficulties with NARA occurred while Don W. Wilson was U.S. Archivist (1987-1993). But I got along very well with his successor, Acting Archivist Trudy H. Peterson, who unfortunately came under attack by the Washington Times. Dr. Peterson is well known and greatly respected here and in international circles and is a former president of the Society of American Archivists.

Read my article if you can get a copy (it is in ProQuest and might be at your university library). Consider especially why and how I decided to write to the Attorney General after I testified in the Kutler case, and what happened:

“If personal concerns keep some scholars silent, such considerations are magnified for archivists. Many oppose political deference by Justice Department lawyers or high officials but do not feel able to speak up. This
perceived fear of punishment shows how far NARA has strayed from statutory intent.

Anyone who doubts the Archives' predicament should consider the fact that, while lawyers recently asserted the need to re-screen Nixon's tapes to identify
more "personal" segments, a senior NARA manager privately described this as "a chicken-shit idea." The handling of Kutler's Nixon tapes lawsuit provides a stark lesson in how post-Watergate Washington operates.

Let me illustrate this with a personal note. As a former NARA Nixon Project tapes archivist, I testified in the Kutler case in 1992. After later studying the court record, I approached Acting Archivist Peterson in 1994 with ethical concerns about disinformation and possible witness intimidation in the government's defense of
the lawsuit. Deeply troubled, she encouraged me to turn to the Justice Department.

Concerned that the head of the Archives might suffer political retribution for efforts to correct litigation records, I decided I should bear any potential
retaliation alone. When I spelled out my concerns to the Justice Department, I attempted to protect Peterson by shielding my contact with her from the government lawyers who 'represent' NARA in court. Given the Department's
record, I was not surprised when lawyers brushed me off with a stonewalling response. So ill served by those who should be protecting it, it is little wonder the nation's record keeper has become Watergate's last victim.”

There should be much food for thought there, for anyone inside and outside federal service.

David John Marley - 4/7/2005

I wrote my article because I was only hearing one point of view, and it contradicted what I was hearing from those actually involved in the struggle. I was not suggesting that people who disagreed with me did not know what they were talking about, they just don't seem to have considered the goals of the people who work at the Nixon Library. I think it was very helpful of Maarja Krusten to post evidence to help people think through these issues. Her concerns are valid, and I think they should be understood in the context of what is happening at the Nixon Library.

Contrary to Mr. Greenberg’s assertions, I don’t feel that my article was off base, incorrect, or naive, since it was based on my personal knowledge of the day to day happenings at the museum. I have witnessed this entire event unfold and talked with several of the people involved. I was not making blind guesses.

I was also not thrilled with the prospect of criticizing my fellow historians, since I knew I would get nothing but grief for voicing my opinions. I guess I missed the meeting where we were all told what to say about the Nixon Library. We can applaud ourselves all we want about "keeping their feet to the fire." But the object of our wrath doesn't care, and is actually happy that historians are throwing such a fit. I am sorry if you don't agree, or think I am unable to figure out what is happening, I just reported what I had seen and heard.

To answer Maarja Krusten's question. I would not be worried about working at the Nixon archives when NARA takes them over. What I don't understand is why the current Nixon archivists left the relative safety of NARA to work in Yorba Linda in hopes of getting back into the federal system. They took a bigger risk than anyone else in this debate, and their point of view needs to be considered. That was all I was trying to do.

I appreciate everyone's comments even though I am weary of this debate. In regards to Krusten's last post, don't worry about having typos, this is a casual discusion group and we should be above taking cheap shots at someone for a simple mistake [sic].

Maarja Krusten - 4/6/2005

Please pardon all the typos and glitches in the above, I typed this all too quickly without proofreading, as I'm scrambling to get ready to go to work!! Several typos and of course I meant to write as NARA employee rather than employ.

Maarja Krusten - 4/6/2005

Professor Marley, you seem adamant that your interpretation should prevail over that of someone who has been there as a NARA employ (gee, you can't even say let's agree to disagree on our interpretations, LOL). Well, you are an educator, an instructor, I've seen some curious stances from that side of the history profession in the past on HNN. I, on the other hand, am a research historian, I am used to following the evidence trail rather than standing in a classromm in front of peoiple who know less than I, rather than more than I. So, speaking of evidence, let me ask how deeply you have studied these issues? Specifically, what is your reaction to NARA OIG Report 94-05, 9/2/94, a National Archives' Inspector General report that is publicly available?

Given what the IG report says, as a hypothetical, would you be comfortable resigning your current job and going to work at the library at Yorba Linda as an employee after it is incorporated into NARA? If so, I and other historians would be counting on you to do the right thing, historically, ethically, and as a government employee sworn to uphold the law. We certainly would be happy to have you fight difficult public access battles on our behalf, as I once did on your behalf as NARA employ.

PS -- Any reaction to today's news story about another cancelled forum at another presidential library, see (registration required)

David Greenberg - 4/5/2005

Contrary to Mr. Marley's claims, many of us, myself included, have indeed used the Yorba Linda archives and those at College Park, as well as other presidential libraries, and know whereof we speak.

He is also incorrect to suggest that the Nixon Library wants to remain separate from NARA. They want both the federal funding and the legitimacy that come from being an official presidential library.

He is also off-base in talking about encouraging "those people who will loose [sic] if NARA takes over"; on the contrary, historians and librarians are admirably holding the Nixon people's feet to the fire.

Above all, he is naive to think that being under NARA's control would mean an end to political influence. The point isn't the honest or professionalism of NARA's archivists but the reality that dicey political situations inevitably arise at the libraries. Maarja Krusten highlighted the key offending sentence in Marley's draft: "While it is true that the Nixon Foundation would still exist, its power over the archives, and hence the presidential papers, would be nil."

Ms. Krusten has spoken from experience. What does Mr. Marley say to that experience of political interference in a supposedly apolitical enterprise?

David John Marley - 4/5/2005

I was going to wait until comments stopped coming in before I replied, but it does not look like that is going to happen in my lifetime. Since Maarja Krusten has apparently taken two days off from her barrage, I am going to jump in now.

I wrote my piece because most of the people who are afraid to let the archives have the material in question live on the east coast and have no, or little, first hand experience with the situation in Yorba Linda. I lived in the "beltway" for five years, so I am familiar with the idea that little scholarship happens west of the Blue Ridge. With that in mind, allow me make my main point nice and clear.

The idea that historians want to punish the museum by keeping materials from them, just encourages the behavior of those people who will loose if NARA takes over. Does anyone really believe that Nixon foundation people are going to walk into a federally run archive and start shredding documents, or that they will limit access? The idea is beyond silly. When NARA takes over, the Nixon foundation will not be able to hire or fire anyone at the archives, so how will they control it? Do they have psychic powers to control men's minds? Have any other presidential archives been ruined by a board that supports the museum? I have seen no evidence to explain this fear.

The fact that historians and conservative Nixon Foundation members want the same thing, should be a giant red flag. These kinds of protests guarantee that the Foundation will cancel anything that they don't like, and thereby stay in control a bit longer. I know it is our nature as scholars to look at the past, but in this case, it is more helpful to look towards the future and see the archives as a NARA run haven of academic freedom.

People interested in this case should tour the enitre Nixon facility and talk to people on both sides of the issue who work there. Then they will understand the situation a little better.

Nathaniel Brian Bates - 4/3/2005

I went to the Nixon Library. I had a good time. It was an aesthetically moving experience.

There was no question, however, that nothing was objective. We saw pictures of dirty, filthy hippies and nice clean people who voted for Nixon. The Clinton Library would have a different slant. That is a matter of fact when we are talking about Presidential libraries.

What I do believe, however, is that Historians should have full access.


Maarja Krusten - 4/2/2005

You probably have been following the news story about the Sandy Berger case. Last year, when the story of Berger's mishandling of classified documents at NARA first broke, Fred Kaplan of Slate wrote, "Two U.S. archivists, who asked not to be identified, told me that they don't know of any cases in which ex-officials sneak documents home (and sneak them back in) but that they'd be surprised if it never happened." Moreover, "....the two U.S. archivists tell me that the archive's guards almost never inspect ex-officials' briefcases when they leave the vaults or the building."

The New York Daily News last year reported on Berger and the NARA controversy. The Daily News reported that "Former national security adviser Sandy Berger repeatedly persuaded [Archives] monitors assigned to watch him review top-secret documents to break the rules and leave him alone, sources said Wednesday." Also, "Berger, accused of smuggling some of the secret files out of the National Archives, got the monitors out of the high-security room by telling them he had to make sensitive phone calls." And "Berger also took 'lots of bathroom breaks' that aroused some suspicion, the source added."

These are uncorroborated accounts, we'll have to wait for more information from authoritative sources (such as the NARA Inspector General), but it could not have been an easy situation for NARA's employees. The part about Berger allegedly saying he needed privacy to make sensitive phone calls would have been particularly tricky for subordinate NARA employees to handle.

Naturally, I am interested in the impact, if any, of a culture of deference to former high officials (regardless of political party or administration served), especially when Presidential Libraries are involved. Did this play a part in allowing Berger to walk out with the documents? I very much doubt an official at my level would have been able to walk out without having my portfolio or briefcase searched!

I rarely refer to uncorroborated, anecdotal information. But let me add this note. Years ago, before John Carlin became U.S. Archivist, I remember hearing about a research room archivist who was reamed out by a manager for confronting a "connected" researcher who was mishandling materials. The higher up the case went, the more the focus seemed to be on not offending the VIP rather than backing up the staff archivist. I cannot tell you this happened - I did not witness it -- all I can say is that such a story made the rounds at NARA years and years ago.

Much of what I write about here is arcane and complex and predicated on understanding specific laws and regulations. But the human element should resonate for all of you. Any one of us can imagine ourselves in a situation where we argue for following the rules and someone in our reporting chain tells us, let it go. When VIPs are involved, it always has the potential to place employees between a rock and a hard place. That is the case in dealing with representatives of Nixon's family as much as in handling a special researcher such as Sandy Berger.

We probably never will know Berger's motivation. The Washington Post reports this comment from a Bush administration official, "Noel L. Hillman, chief of the Justice Department's public integrity section, said Berger 'did not have an intent to hide any of the content of the documents' or conceal facts from the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

Moreover, "Hillman's comments help explain why the Justice Department was willing to strike a compromise with Berger under terms short of the maximum penalties for the knowing destruction of classified material.Department lawyers concluded that Berger took the documents for personal convenience -- to prepare testimony -- and not with the intentof destroying evidence or thwarting the Sept. 11 panel's inquiry as to whether the Clinton administration did enough to confront a rising terrorist threat."

The Post adds, "Sources familiar with the case said Berger was primarily guilty of arrogance, and appeared to presume that as former presidential national security adviser he should be allowed to review classified information in his office."

How many of you, in dealing with someone who outranks you, always have been able to count on your bosses backing you up? The situation varies, depending on who is involved, right? Well, that is why I keep pointing out the National Archives' vulnerabilities in dealing with the powerful and the connected. Just as in your workplace, it depends on how different individuals handle pressure, whether people "go along to get along" or follow the more difficult path of arguing for regulatory compliance. These situations are vulnerable to all the vagaries that affect any human endeavor. NARA and its Presidential Libraries have no firewall around it to protect against political pressure. Nor is it staffed by a special species of super Feds, just people the same as you and I.

For more on the Berger story,
(see, registration required)

Maarja Krusten - 3/31/2005

I'm curious, have any of you read the profile by Linton Weeks of U.S. Archivist Allen Weinstein in today's Washington Post? See (registration required).

Please read it and then read Professor Marley's article, above. If you had only these types of pieces to go by, how would you rate the likelihood of successful release of Presidential records by the National Archives during Dr. Weinstein's tenure? Back out of the equation any ocmments that I have posted on HNN, just go by these two pieces, Mr. Weeks's profile and Professor Marley's article. Let's pretend I haven't posted on HNN. The fact that I have is unusual and should tell you something. Most current Feds don't post here and NARA people usually keep very, very quiet, even after retirement (think about that!).

Consider "success" in releasing presidential records to mean proper balancing of the interests of all the stakeholders and the following of legislative intent in the records statutes.

The Washington Post piece is a common type of DC profile, it primarily relies on comments from a typical, closed circle of people and doesn't show much digging below the surface. (I can't tell from Weeks's article whether he is familiar with Paula Span wrote in the WP's magazine 3 years ago. He doesn't mention presidential foundations.)

As is the case with most articles published about Dr. Weinstein during the last year, Weeks's piece quotes Jon Weiner and Stanley Kutler. The Weeks piece does refer to Rick Shenkman and HNN and quotes Ralph Luker among the bloggers. So HNN gets some notice. But, I don't think Ralph has written much about the Archives and for all I know, he has not been following anything I've written about NARA on HNN. He has never posted on my NARA pieces, I remember one exchange with him in January 2004 about OAH but that's about it. So, I'll assume he has not.

Any Washington Post reader who googled Ralph's pieces on Cliopatria would discover little on NARA, public access to government records, etc. So, that being the case, consider the WP article typical of what the press usually puts out, no quotes from people who've worked as NARA employees in Presidential Libraries, little in depth examination of NARA's vulnerabilities, etc. There are some quotes from Gov. Carlin. But, mostly Weeks's is a soft piece.

Then, for those of you who have read my comments recently, feel free to add a second rating of potential "success" for the new U.S. Archivist. Give a second assessment, adding into the mix what I've been writing here over the last few weeks. (Let's assume I know what I'm talking about. I am very careful to source my stuff and I lay out excruciatingly long evidence trails.)

How different would that second assessment be from an impression gained solely from feature articles such as Weeks's piece?

Maarja Krusten - 3/30/2005

When Congress considered regulations for the Nixon records act, Lyle W. Denniston testified on behalf of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He explained in 1975 that “The experience in the [donor-restricted] Presidential Libraries Act has suggested. . . that when the Archivist of the United States, however self-assured . . . is confronted with the eminence of a former President (or . . . heirs of a former President). . . he shies away from anything like a confrontation.”

Regardless of what is written in law or regulation, there is no reason why this still may not occur, despite the PRMPA and PRA, unless an individual NARA official and his management team choose to argue for balancing the public's right to know against the interests of a presidential family, associates or foundation. There is no guarantee that they will even apply the balancing test, that is up to the individual official. In fact, in most organizations, the path to success would seem to be the application of maximum deference to the most powerful players. Believe me, the most powerful players here are not the historians, NARA's customers.

For more on the perceived problems of dealing with an imperial guard -- “as long as living persons care deeply” -- here’s an extract from Professor Richard J. Cox’s 2002 article in Government Information Quarterly on presidential libaries, “America’s Pyramids:”

“While there can be no doubt that researchers are treated in a courteous and helpful manner, many historians and other scholarly researchers have raised questions about the relevance of the Presidential Libraries. Thirty years ago historian Herbert Feis wrote that the libraries were of little help in making records concerning foreign policy available in a timely fashion. Feis admitted that the “presidential and other memorial libraries will later on be of service and value to those who write of the safely outdistanced past. But unless present and prospective rules and restrictions are relaxed, they will not aid those who want to study and write about the . . . recent past.”

He continued, “The creation of these libraries was bathed in the light of promised revelation. They were not conceived merely as memorials and preservative depositories. They were hailed because of the belief that they would enable the American people to learn more—and more easily and quickly—about their past. But the light of revelation is now so filtered through curtains of reserve that the value of these institutions to the historian of the recent past is still to be proven.”

Feis believed he detected a kind of imperial guard working in the libraries: “Thus all the papers that may be collected by the magnetism of reputation or association are in the custody of officials who are well stitched into the executive webbing and subject to orders. In decisions about throwing open to general inspection records in the upper realm of historical interest, these archivists neither can nor will exercise independent judgment.” Feis speculated that the “officials and trustees who are guardians of these collections may regard themselves also as guardians of the reputation of the memorialized individual. They may be loath to expose that reputation to sting or stain as long as living persons care deeply.”

Feis’s worries are not those of a single, academic curmudgeon or alarmist. Numerous other historians and researchers have expressed similar concerns. While there have been extreme cases of accusations, such as in 1969 when Francis L. Loewenheim and nineteen other historians accused archivists at the FDR Library of deliberately withholding documents, most concerns have focused on the system rather than particular instances. Historians like Joan Hoff have pointed out that the Presidential Libraries exist to memorialize the Presidents and reflect the failed approaches of the National Archives in dealing with public records.” As a rule,” Hoff argues, “presidential libraries are a bad idea; they have in the past led to many access and secrecy problems, and will continue to do so in the future. In part, these problems are the result of the National Archives’ lack of courage in enforcing pre- and post-Watergate records laws.” Hoff also contends that “No director of any of these facilities has ever been appointed without the ex-president’s, his family’s, or his foundation’s explicit approval; these institutions exist to enhance the images of the chief executives whose collections they house.” Again, these are not the solitary ravings of one person, but they express the worries of many researchers.” [END COX EXTRACT]

Maarja Krusten - 3/28/2005

I don't know the CA based employees at Yorba Linda. I have no idea what their views are. I do hope they do not suffer punishment due to published views attributed to them (?) in the article above. Smartphone posting.

Maarja Krusten - 3/28/2005

Here is how historians can avoid making the types of mistakes that Mr. Marley made in his article.

Pretend that NARA is another executive branch agency subordinate to the President, rather than the nation’s records holder. Actually, the National Archives IS a subordinate executive agency. So, do what you would in assessing any other federal agency’s actions. Compile facts, assess evidence, consider past actions, and apply critical analysis. Connect the dots, look at past actions and consider what, if anything, might prevent them from occurring again.

Much of this is on the public record and available through NEXIS and library or archival sources.

Just look at the discrepancies between what has been said about Nixon and his agents filing objections to historical releases. Plenty of red flags here, and this all happened while the materials were under NARA control in the Washington area.

ASSERTION: The New York Times reported reassuringly on June 5, 1991 of the Watergate tapes that “Mr. Nixon did not contest the release of the latest transcripts, [the Archives’ spokeswoman said]. Mr. Nixon's lawyer has previously said his client would not contest the release of transcripts relating to the Watergate affair.”

FACT: Historian Stephen Ambrose, who had done research at NARA, wrote in 1991 that the Watergate “tapes are ‘sanitized’ . . . . Nixon had an opportunity to censor material, and did; how much he took out is not clear.” A later court case showed that Ambrose, rather than the agency spokeswoman, was correct--Nixon had submitted a list of deletions to NARA through his agent. Under the Archives’ regulations, it should have been “clear” how much Nixon censored.

The Kutler litigation revealed in 1992 that although NARA in 1989 received a list of 70 deletions to Watergate tapes from Nixon’s agent, it did not reveal to the public that it made cuts to the tapes at Nixon’s behest. Testimony showed that archivists (I among them) pleaded unsuccessfully with managers in 1989 to act as transparently as their predecessors had with Nixon’s objections to the release of the White House Special Files.

The NARA Inspector General looked at the handling of Nixon’s deletions in 1994 and noted in an interview write-up that “staff who reviewed the list felt that there was no legitimate basis for withholding most of the material.” Also, archivists “expressed strong opposition” to misleading the public through “improper classification” of Nixon’s deletions. (The write-up was released to me under the Freedom of Information Act.)

ASSERTION: A former research assistant to Nixon sought to reassure the public in the Wall Street Journal in 1986 that “Mr. Nixon is not at all concerned about the release of the Watergate-related documents and will not register any objections to their release.” But because of the way archivists then filed withdrawal notices in the White House Special Files marked for release in 1987, it was possible to figure out how things had played out.

FACT: When NARA tried to open some of Nixon’s White House files in 1987, the former president blocked release of 150,000 pages. Nixon's lawyer argued in a publicly released letter in 1987 that the government's regulations too narrowly defined "privacy."

Nixon’s representatives marked thousands of pages for removal. They appeared to be safe in asserting that none of the deletions covered Watergate matters. But they overlooked a document that indicated otherwise. They did not appear to notice a summary of meeting notes that Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, had prepared on April 21, 1973. In 1973, Haldeman looked through his files, then listed dates of meetings with Nixon and a few phrases about what they discussed. Nixon’s agents overlooked Haldeman’s list at the back of a folder that archivists had approved for disclosure, so NARA opened his summary in 1987.

Haldeman’s April 21 summary noted nine separate dates of conversations about Watergate between November 17 and December 21, 1972. Nixon’s lawyers blocked archivists from releasing any of Haldeman’s actual meeting notes for November 17-December 21, 1972. In their independent review, archivists had marked all but 10 of those 270 pages for opening.

If you want to dig deeper, keep in mind that in 1996, NARA decided it would keep in government custody, rather than return to Nixon’s estate, 75% of the materials Nixon had blocked it from opening in 1987. See
At that time, NARA had enough confidence to release the materials as a separate series, clearly marked as “previously contested.” So it was possible for me to examine the materials and to copy some of the items that Nixon had sought to block. They DID include some Watergate information, including a comment, “put it on Mitchell - we're protecting him adds up P is protecting John Mitchell.”

No telling what will happen to the 1987 “contested” items when the materials are moved to California. In a worst case scenario, if the Nixon Foundation decides the issue of what Nixon previously tried to block is too embarrassing, it may well insist that archivists integrate the previously contested items back into other released files, thereby making it impossible to trace what Nixon had blocked from release in 1987. It all may come to look like seamless archival disclosures. Maybe I am worrying too much, that may not happen, but given my background, it is understandable that I am concerned.

Right now, I think you still can go to Archives II in College Park and look at the contested files as a discrete, clearly identified series. Certainly, that was the case under Gov. Carlin’s tenure as U.S. Archivist.

In the handling of all the Nixon materials, I would suggest that you keep an eye out for what is done, what is said in the press, and how that compares to what has been said in the past.

Maarja Krusten - 3/27/2005

A general note to readers followed by suggestions for reading.

I. As citizens, you can request government documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The federal departments and agencies may release some documents, or parts thereof ,and withhold others under a number of exemptions. You can appeal the application of exemptions, first to the agency head, then in court. So, there is judicial review of the withholding of executive branch departmental and agency records. However, FOIA does NOT apply to the Nixon records, although there is a FOIA component to access to later president’s records.

Since FOIA does not apply, there is no judicial review for researchers seeking access to materials withheld under the Nixon records statute (the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, 1974). How does the lack of judicial review potentially affect the PRMPA?

My article at and the supplemental posting describe disputes within NARA over the handling in 1989 of 70 deletions from Nixon’s agent.

Here is the potential problem with PRMPA for scholars, whether the records are held in Maryland or California.

Let’s pretend that instead of being a former National Archives official, I was a member of the Nixon administration whose files fell under PRMPA. If I had written a memorandum protesting the handling of the 70 Nixon cuts proposed to the Watergate Special Prosecutor tapes, and it fell under PRMPA, NARA might face external pressure to withhold my mythical memo from the public. In a worst case scenario, it could even react by improperly marking my mythical memo for “privacy restriction” and you would be none the wiser.

You might think that the application of “privacy” restriction meant that the memo dealt with matters that were purely private to me, rather than to matters involving government officials. (Hypothetical examples of privacy restrictable materials are presented in the Nixon Project’s Processing Manual. The manual was made public in discovery in Civ. A. 92-662-NHJ.) If my mythical memo were withheld improperly, you would have no way of knowing it actually dealt with a procedural dispute over work issues within NARA.

And you would have no way to appeal the application of the “privacy restriction” by asking for judicial review.

So, as I keep saying, everything, everything depends on who among NARA’s officials is in charge of Nixon’s presidential records and what they tell subordinate staff to do.

OK, I’ve run on long enough for the general reader.

II. For the historians and lawyers among HNN’s readers -- and anyone else interested in intricacies of the laws, statutes, and orders affecting access to records --, here are some sites for further reading.

1. What NARA says about the different presidential records statutes it administers:

2. The implementing regulations for the Nixon act (Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act) are extremely complex. Please see

3. Text of the Presidential Records Act (1978) which applies to the records of Presidents starting with Ronald Reagan.

4. For info on FOIA and the advantage to researchers of having seeking remedy through judicial appeal (which is not available under PRMPA)
“When an administrative appeal is denied, a requester has the right to appeal the denial in court. An FOIA appeal can be filed in the United States District Court in the district where the requester lives. The requester can also file suit in the district where the documents are located or in the District of Columbia. When a requester goes to court, the burden of justifying the withholding of documents is on the government. This is a distinct advantage for the requester.”

“The Presidential Records Act of 1978, 44 U.S.C. §2201-2207 (1982), does make the documentary materials of former Presidents subject to the FOIA in part. Presidential papers and documents generated after January 20, 1981, will be available -- subject to certain restrictions and delays -- under the general framework of the FOIA.”

4. The PRA has been affected severely by the Bush executive order. For an explanation, see the excellent statement by Scott Nelson, attorney, Public Citizen Litigation Group, at a hearing on "Oversight of the Presidential Records Act"

Mr. Nelson notes that the Bush Executive Order “conflicts with another ruling of the D.C. Circuit in litigation over the Nixon materials, Nixon v. Freeman, 670 F.2d 346 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1035 (1982). In that decision, the Court of Appeals specifically rejected the argument that the constitutional privilege requires persons seeking access to presidential historical materials years after the president leaves office to show a specific need for access. Id. at 359. Because the privilege erodes with the passing of time, the court held that it was proper for the Archives to open materials to all comers, without a showing of need, and to place the burden on the former president to establish that particular disclosures would violate the privilege. That is exactly what the Presidential Records Act is designed to do. The new Executive Order, by contrast, turns the Act s requirement of public access on its head.

These are not the only features of the Bush Order that are legally suspect. The Order s provision that the constitutional executive privilege may be asserted by a deceased or disabled former president s family or personal representative is novel and highly debatable. The privilege is not, after all, a personal right of the former president. He is authorized to exercise it solely on behalf of the branch of government that he once headed. His family members or designees have no such claim of authority. To suggest, as does the Bush Order, that the incumbent president must defer to claims of privilege asserted not by a former officeholder, but simply by the former president s family, friends, or designees, threatens to expand the constitutional privilege beyond legitimate bounds.”

5. See also Comments by Morton Rosenberg, specialist in american public law, Congressional Research Service concerning a proposed amendment to the Presidential Records Act (H.R. 4187). This includes some comments on Public Citizen v. Burke (1986). That court case involved the attempt by the Reagan Justice Department to force NARA to accept Nixon’s claims against disclosures from his historical records. I have noted elsewhere that the decision in Burke overturned the DOJ directive de jure if not de facto.

Maarja Krusten - 3/27/2005

Extracts from Paula Span’s “Monumental Ambition; Presidential libraries are history and hagiography,” Washington Post magazine, Februay 17, 2002, copy available on the web at

“Yet even if we regulate fundraising more strictly, money and politics are irretrievably entangled with presidential libraries. Who runs them, after all? The archivist of the United States appoints each library's director after "consultation" with the ex-president, but that's a euphemism. "A living former president, as a practical matter, signs off on the selection," [Richard Norton] Smith says. Some select career archivists or museum professionals; others tap former aides or party stalwarts. And those foundations don't dematerialize after the libraries get turned over to the National Archives; they still wield purse-string power, funding exhibits and setting priorities, sometimes in ways the professional staff appreciates, sometimes not.”
“Consider: We have decided that a president's papers, the records of his governance, belong to the people. Aside from what's classified or personal, they're ours; Congress said so when it passed the Presidential Records Act of 1978, a reform prompted by the conviction that Richard Nixon would have destroyed his tapes and documents if Congress hadn't intervened.

But though they're our papers, we don't relish the idea of paying for the monuments that house them. We're happy to leave that to the former presidents, their coteries of one-time officials and campaign contributors, and the long list of corporations, foreign governments and individuals they hit up for cash. Private foundations formed for this purpose raise the money to build and endow the libraries; then the National Archives and Records Administration steps in and oversees the papers, maintains the buildings and staffs them largely with federal employees.

Which means that each library has at least two functions. In the archives, over many years, political history begins to emerge from the acid-free boxes of papers. But there's also a museum that celebrates a president's accomplishments, while usually paying only perfunctory attention to his fizzles and fiascoes. The stuff in the boxes will probably provide the last word, historically speaking, but many more people visit the museums, with their congratulatory skew, than ever wade into the archives.

And the jousting over what's available therein and what remains sealed is relentless. Sometimes documents that scholars and researchers want to use are closed because, in libraries built before the 1978 legislation, the presidents or their families control access. (See under: JFK.) Frequently, there just aren't enough archivists to process papers in timely fashion. Sometimes the problem is that documents are classified . . . and can only be declassified by the agencies. . . and they're in no hurry.

The latest struggle has involved 68,000 pages of documents from the Reagan years that were slated to be opened a year ago. The current Bush White House -- which happens to include a number of former Reagan officials -- has repeatedly delayed their release, though it recently did free 8,000 of them. And the president has signed an executive order that could, in the future, restrict public access to any president's (and even vice president's) papers. Infuriated historians, journalists and public-access litigators have filed suit in federal court, and it's not the first time. People can get touchy when they think history is being manipulated.”


“Moreover, "the secret to openness is pluralism," argues Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive, an access-advocacy group that collects and publishes declassified documents. Researchers soon learned that, thanks to the libraries' idiosyncrasies, papers still classified at the Kennedy library were already open at the LBJ. Vietnam material could be unearthed at the Gerald R. Ford Library while the Nixon archivists in College Park were still shackled by litigation.”

“"America's pyramids," Robert Caro calls them, "erected to the memory of the country's rulers."

I see what he means at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, second stop on my itinerary. The I.M. Pei-designed building, overlooking a sweep of harbor and city skyline, actually looks somewhat Cheopsian, an imposing block of black glass set into a triangular white concrete tower. JFK's marked the end of the folksy little "library in a cornfield," as the earlier ones are sometimes characterized; it ushered in size, grandeur, celebration on a more ambitious scale. Like every presidential library, it serves multiple functions, but it's also a shrine to the murdered leader: Kennedy as his family and associates want him remembered.

All presidential libraries' exhibits engage in legacy-burnishing. "It's subtle," says historian Robert Dallek, at work on a Kennedy biography. "It's emphasis. What do they put front and center? What's pushed over to the side?" But JFK's happens to do its buff-and-gloss maddeningly well, largely by wielding what Camelot itself used so adeptly: photos, film, television. "The images are so powerful, so compelling -- it's hard even for me to be objective," Dallek volunteers.”

Maarja Krusten - 3/26/2005

Mr. Marley may have good intentions, but he has not studied carefuly enough the history of the Nixon records held at NARA. Nor does he seem to understand the role of Presidential Foundations in relation to NARA.

Consider that the professor writes, "While it is true that the Nixon Foundation would still exist, its power over the archives, and hence the presidential papers, would be nil."

And I, who worked for NARA from 1976 to 1990 with the Nixon materials, wrote a week ago at, “Archivists know better. Although NARA staffs the Presidential Libraries, Foundations often call the shots. And Mr. Nixon’s representatives have a troubling track record.”

Nixon's estate will continue to have the right to lodge objections against release of his still undisclosed tapes and files under 36 CFR 1275. I wish Mr. Marley would read my article and the supplemental postings, and explain to me, who knows exactly how much pressure NARA can face, what there is in law and regulation to prevent the scenario described by Jack Hitt from happening again.

Keep in mind, also, that there is no judicial review of deletions to Nixon's records. Unlike with FOIA, researchers cannot appeal to a court what is withheld from them in NARA's release of historicalmaterials. Everything, everything depends solely on decisions made inside the National Archives. Where, then, is NARA's protection from external pressure, if scholars themselves do not examine the past handling of Nixon's records. Wow, poor NARA, my former professional home. Now I _know_ its employees faces a rough road ahead.