Presidential Secrecy: Keeping Archives Open
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Presidential Secrecy:
Keeping Archives Open

The other authors in this forum as well as a great deal of the research in our field amply demonstrate the importance, if not the centrality, of archival research, and the concomitant need to ensure access to the documents housed in those archives. Presidential archives allow us to understand individual presidencies and the presidency as an institution in ways that are simply impossible without them. Archival research allowed Fred I. Greenstein to analyze Dwight Eisenhower's "hidden hand" leadership, rescuing the former president from his reputation as a genial but out-of-touch chief executive.1 Archival research allowed Larry Berman to make his case against Henry Kissinger's conduct of the war in Vietnam.2 Archival research allowed political scientists to deepen our understanding of the workings of the executive as an institution.3 And archival research allowed communication scholars to grasp the creation and promulgation of presidential speeches and images,4 as well as the rhetorical machinations of presidential conversations.5 In short, without the information available to us through presidential archives, our ability to study the presidency and its individual occupants would be seriously impoverished.

For those of us who work in the area of presidential studies, there is reason to be very nervous about the continued viability of presidential archives as they are constituted within the presidential library system. The current chief executive, in issuing Executive Order 13233, has launched an all-out assault on the practice of preserving and opening presidential documents by reducing the power of the archivists over presidential papers and increasing the power of individual presidents—and their heirs—to determine what gets opened and, more importantly, what remains closed. In order to make this case, I will first provide an overview of the library system and its history, and then detail what I consider to be a most serious threat to it.

Presidential Pyramids?

Every president since Hoover has established a library and museum, usually in the same place (Ford is an exception to this rule—his library is in Ann Arbor, [End Page 138] Michigan, and his museum is in Grand Rapids). The libraries and especially their museums are reflections of how the president in question—or his heirs—wishes that president to be remembered. The museums associated with presidential libraries are justly criticized for being "wildly expensive pyramids for every president from Hoover on, no matter how politically ineffective (Carter, Hoover) or historically insignificant (Ford, the elder Bush)."6 These museums do not provide a neutral view of history, nor of the history of a given presidential administration, and it is important to remember that. But the libraries do provide an important resource for scholars of both the presidency and presidential history. They are staffed by archivists who understand the president and his papers, and represent an important locus for both teaching and research.7 To understand what sort of resource these libraries are, it's important to understand their history.8

History of Presidential Libraries

As everyone who does work on presidents who served prior to FDR knows, until 1939, there was no system for preserving and managing presidential papers and documents. As a result, many of those papers and documents have been widely scattered, accidentally lost, or deliberately destroyed. As one former archivist put it, "presidential papers were systematically purged by editors, mutilated by autograph collectors and souvenir hunters, wasted by widows, burned in barns and barrels, and carried off by marauding troops."9 That changed halfway through FDR's second term. In 1939, Roosevelt donated both his personal and his presidential papers to the federal government. Giving Hyde Park to the government at the same time provided a home for those papers and documents, and created the first presidential library.

In 1955, after Harry Truman also agreed to donate his papers, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act (PLA), which established a series of privately built but publicly administered libraries housing presidential documents. The PLA made it possible for any living president to establish a library, which explains why Hoover's library, which opened in 1962, was the third to open (after FDR's and Truman's). There...