The following is the text of AHA President Linda Kerber’s article that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education 52:37 (May 19, 2006), B20. Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Re-published here with permission.
POINT OF VIEW
Protecting the Nation’s Memory
By LINDA K. KERBER
You may have read that the National Archives and Records Administration has allowed some federal agencies to withdraw declassified documents from public view. That the Smithsonian Institution has signed an agreement with Showtime Networks to create an on-demand cable-television channel. That the Federal Bureau of Investigation wants to search the papers of the late investigative journalist Jack Anderson. But have you thought about what those controversies mean taken together? Historians view them as three serious threats to the integrity of access to documents and artifacts of national importance. The cases are very different, but all should be matters of concern to the entire scholarly community and the larger public. Each involves the excessively generous definition by a federal agency of what the public has no right to see. If allowed to continue, all threaten our understanding of the past, and the present. For two months, a firestorm has raged around the discovery that the archives secretly allowed agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Air Force to reclassify documents in the interest of national security. A newly released audit by the archives’ own inspectors concludes that it “acquiesced too readily to the re-review efforts or withdrawal decisions of agencies”: Some 25,000 records (nearly twice the number historians had feared) have been reclassified, and more than one-third of them contained no sensitive information.
Another storm erupted in March, when the Smithsonian announced that it and Showtime plan to produce a package of programs — for which viewers will pay — using the institution’s collections. The Smithsonian has said that proposals from independent producers that involve more than “incidental” use of its materials will have to go through a special review process; that whether a proposal is deemed scholarly or commercial (which seems to include the Public Broadcasting Service) will be weighed. Lawrence M. Small, secretary of the Smithsonian, has written to me that he wants to “avoid competing with our own venture.” Defending the deal to Congressional critics, he has said that it will allow new audiences to see the Smithsonian’s collections, although he has promised that the institution’s board will review the arrangement. As I write, a Congressional subcommittee in charge of Smithsonian financing has just forbidden the institution from signing any new contracts that might “limit access by the public to the Smithsonian collection.” It has also cut $5.3-million from the Smithsonian’s proposed budget, and a leading Democrat, Rep. David R. Obey, of Wisconsin, has criticized Mr. Small’s leadership. Just a few weeks ago, The Chronicle broke the story that the FBI was demanding entry to George Washington University’s library to search some 200 boxes of Anderson’s papers promised to the university — and to remove classified documents that may have been leaked to him.
These different scandals raise related questions about open access to the materials of history, the ability to follow the evidence wherever it leads, and the opportunity to disseminate freely the results. Will the work of historians — whether produced in traditional print modes or, as is increasingly the case, in documentary films, videos, and podcasts — be undermined by the very agencies charged with protecting the historical record? Will the reliability of an individual’s papers be compromised by the government’s reach into them? Federal officials are responding differently to the recent revelations. Allen Weinstein, archivist of the United States, has acknowledged that more than one out of three documents were wrongly removed and has forthrightly promised “a new protocol” for reclassifying records (of concern, however, is whether the archives has the money to carry it out). At the Smithsonian, by contrast, the secretary still has not clarified what terms like “incidental” mean, how the institution will distinguish between scholarly and commercial projects, or who will make those decisions. Nor do we know what the Smithsonian stands to gain, since the institution has declined Freedom of Information Act requests filed for details of the contract. Meanwhile, Anderson’s family is working to come to an accommodation with the FBI that would address its concerns while preserving the integrity of the collection.
Why do we care so much? Consider the documents at the National Archives. In some cases, embarrassment seems to be the main reason for pulling material from the shelves. When Rep. Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, held hearings on the reclassification program in March, he said it was “drowning in a sea of faux secrets.” For example, some of the reclassified cold-war-era documents detailed an unsanctioned CIA project to drop propaganda leaflets by hot-air balloon into Eastern Europe. (It did not go particularly well.) Another was a document that the CIA itself had already published. (It showed that on October 13, 1950, the CIA had assured President Truman that the Chinese would not send troops to Korea. Six days later, the troops arrived.) But the stakes go deeper. For more than 100 years, historians have been concerned about the integrity of the national record. Not so long ago, our predecessors had to seek out scattered government records, making the rounds of departments and agencies. Some offices took good care of their records, others did not. Some welcomed researchers, others did not. It took decades of campaigning to persuade Congress to finance a national archives, which did not open until 1935. Even then the legal ownership of presidential records rested with the president himself. After Watergate, historians advocated strongly for the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and for the United States to gain “complete ownership, possession, and control” of the papers of future presidents and vice presidents.
The more the integrity of the national records is compromised, the more flawed will be the history we write and the history we read. Memoirs, personal papers, news reports — many are important sources for historical scholarship, but they are written by individuals who, however fair-minded, have their own perspectives that can skew the historical narrative. None are substitutes for the archival record.
That record can change our entire view of history. When civil-rights activists in the 1960s denounced Gone With the Wind as romantic fiction, they infuriated many people, who resented “attacks” on their beloved narratives of Southern life. But waiting in acid-free boxes in the National Archives were the 1,100 cubic feet of the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau — the military agency that managed the antebellum transition from slavery to freedom. In those records of marriages, land transfers, interviews, complaints, and hearings lay the history of violence and misery, of the paths out of slavery that thousands of men and women took, with and without white allies. As historians have delved into those records, Tara has crumbled.
Less than a decade ago, the Assassination Records Review Board, sitting from 1994 to 1998, whose members had top-secret clearances, examined hundreds of thousands of documents related to the death of President John F. Kennedy. At the time, many people around the world were getting their history from the Oliver Stone movie JFK, which embraced the view that the CIA was complicit in Kennedy’s assassination. The review board concluded authoritatively that the premise of the film was totally incorrect. It couldn’t have done so if the record had been compromised.
Laurie Kahn-Leavitt won a Peabody Award (the Pulitzer of the documentary world) for her 2004 film Tupperware!, which draws on the Smithsonian’s collection. Her use of its materials was far more than “incidental”; she received a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which stipulated that her documentary be offered first to the publicly financed PBS. Were she to make the film today, would the NEH provide funds in the face of Showtime’s claims to use of the collection? Could PBS show the film free? Would the Smithsonian refuse to cooperate?
Kevin N. Anderson, Jack Anderson’s son, has explained what is at stake in protecting his father’s legacy: not destroying “any academic, scholarly, and historic value.” The men, women, and children who stand, with surprising patience, in long lines that snake around the National Archives’ colossal Greek temple to view the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution seem to understand our stake in the honor of the national memory. So do the millions who visit the Smithsonian every year. And the many readers who learned about Watergate from Anderson.
That’s why scholars protested the secret deal at the National Archives. That’s why my association and the affiliated Society of American Historians have issued statements condemning the Smithsonian’s relationship with Showtime as a “violation of the trust of generations of Americans who have donated materials to which they believed the public would have free, open, equal, and nondiscriminatory access forever.” And why the society — decrying the Smithsonian’s “increasingly commercial approach to its mission” — suspended Smithsonian Books as one of its publisher/members, in protest of an agreement the Smithsonian signed with HarperCollins to transfer some of its titles to the publisher.
When records are stealthily or arbitrarily withdrawn from public access, however that happens, our knowledge of the past suffers. Taken together, the three recent threats to our record are more dangerous than any one would be by itself. The vigilance of all of us is indispensable. It is foolish to put at risk the integrity of the narratives by which we understand how we came to be who we are, the stories that we have to teach our children, and the nation’s memory of itself.
Linda K. Kerber is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and president of the American Historical Association.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 37, Page B20
Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
© American Historical AssociationLast Updated: February 26, 2008 1:28 PM