Nixon Library Cancels Vietnam Conference


Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

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In a surprise move that has left many scholars aghast and baffled, the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace has abruptly cancelled an academic conference scheduled for April that was to examine the history of Nixon and Vietnam. The conference, already advertised in the American Historical Association's newsletter and other places, was to have featured a score of prominent Nixon scholars and critics including Stanley Kutler, Richard Reeves, Jeffrey Kimball, and Larry Berman.

The conference was jointly sponsored by the Nixon Library and Whittier College, Nixon's alma mater. In an email to participants sent last night Whittier's history department chairman, Laura McEnaney, expressed anger at the decision. Many of the participants today said that they shared her sense of outrage. Jeffrey Kimball told HNN: "It appears that the directors of the Nixon Library were concerned that professional historians, seeking historical truth based on archival evidence, would, in reporting their findings, damage Nixon's reputation by telling the truth as they found it."

John Taylor, executive director of the Library, blamed the cancellation on the absence of public interest and budget concerns, noting that "our substantial invitation mailing and advertising, in addition to whatever Whittier was able to do to pass the word, had generated seven sign-ups by the end of last week.  The budget the College and we had agreed on called for 200 paid attendees." The cost of attending the two-day conference was $180, including two meals per day.

Taylor noted that he had wanted to include headliners like Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger to draw interest. But the "College took the view then, and has reiterated it this week, that such figures would have added little if anything to the debate about the war in Vietnam." Carolyn Eisenberg was offended by the emphasis the Library placed on the participation of McNamara and Kissinger:"This promised to be an outstanding academic conference with a wide range of perspectives to be considered. It is extraordinary that the Nixon Library abruptly cancelled this event after inviting 26 of us to attend. The suggestion that without the participation of Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara that this conference was not worthwhile is troubling."

The cancellation comes at an awkward moment for the Library, which has been trying to establish its bona fides as the newest member of the presidential library system run by the National Archives. Just this past year Congress passed legislation providing for the transfer of Nixon's controversial archives to the Library. Kimball lamented to HNN that the "behavior of the Library directors, excluding the professional archival staff, raises serious questions about their professionalism and their ability to receive and manage the Nixon papers, which will soon be transferred to them. In the end, the loser is the public's right to know their history." (In a related story, the Coalition for History reported today that the transfer may be delayed because the Bush administration did not include in its budget proposal the request of $3 million needed to facilitate the beginning of the process: "Without the money, the Nixon papers and tapes may stay in Washington at least until 2007.")

Stanley Kutler, who fought Nixon for years in the courts to obtain access to the president's tapes, told HNN that "as long as John Taylor is running the Nixon operation, the place is off-limits to serious scholarly endeavor." David Greenberg, author of a book that examines Nixon's image through the years, said what's happened is a "shame" because the conference " would have done wonders for the reputation of the Library." He noted that just recently at a conference on Watergate held at the University of Texas, John Taylor had indicated to the historians there that the "Nixon Library was turning over a new leaf and was prepared to take in the leading Nixon scholars and have an open and honest and wide-ranging discussion without any control over them." "Clearly," he concluded, "it was too good to be true."

Melvin Small, author of a history that is widely considered a balanced account of the Nixon administration, said the cancellation "was astounding." But he noted that it reinforces doubts he has had about the Library's commitment to scholarship and evenhandedness. He recalled that a few years ago when C-Span invited him to appear in a broadcast based at the Library John Taylor had reportedly objected. C-Span told him that either Small would participate or the event would be moved to another location. Taylor relented.

Greenberg expressed the hope that the conference might still be salvaged if a new sponsor could be found. But Whittier College closed the door on that option this afternoon in a statement issued by the college's dean, Susan Gotsch:

Without the Library's significant monetary support, and without the appeal represented by a joint presentation from the two institutions, Whittier College has concluded that pursuing this conference alone at this time is not an option. We are greatly disappointed by this outcome. A considerable amount of time and energy has been invested by the staff and faculty at the two institutions. Moving forward, the College has already begun a contemporary exploration of its Nixon legacy, and will continue to seek collaborative scholarly examinations of that legacy.

The Nixon Library has told participants it will reimburse them for any travel costs they may have incurred. The Library says it expects to lose about $7,000 on the abortive meeting.

Many historians were baffled by the Nixon Library's decision. Larry Berman told HNN that "for the life of me" he couldn't understand how "you can put together this kind of lineup with so many serious scholars, authors and journalists" and then terminate it. The list of scholars included, in addition to those named above, Richard Norton Smith, Fredrik Logevall, Liz Trotta, John Prados, and Thomas Blanton.

The decision to kill the conference appears to have been taken precipitously. As of the filing of this story Friday afternoon, the day after the conference was cancelled, it remained prominently featured on the Nixon Library website.

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Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

This little rant has nothing to do with the cancellation of the Nixon/ Vietnam symposium but...

Has anyone read the recently released Nixon transcripts of his conversations with talk show host Art Linkletter? Mr. Nixon and Mr. Linkletter discuss the topic of drug use and it's devastating effect on US society. Mr. Linkletter tragically lost a daughter to suicide. For some history leading up to the conversation, Mr. Linkletter was a supposed expert on the effects of drug use because, according to Mr. Linkletter, his daughter allegedly leaped to her death from an apartment window after ingesting LSD. Mr. Linkletter later retracted his statements only referring to possible drug use by his daughter in her recent past. After reading related transcripts it sounded to me to be a case of bad parenting and a blame game more so than illicit drug use... I digress but, with that aside...

The only reason I bring this up is that in the transcript Mr. Nixon tries to justify his alcohol use/ abuse as being less destructive and far more socially acceptable than the scourge of drug use. Marijuana use in particular. Unfortunately, Mr. Nixon was a raging alcoholic. I believe Mr. Nixon's alcoholism had a direct bearing on his leadership abilities and decision making capabilities not only in conducting the war but also in promoting his social agenda. Mr. Nixon's overall paranoia, distrust and somewhat odd behavior may have been reflective of his alcohol abuse.

Anyway, another little rant... What about Mr. Nixon naming Elvis Presley as a Special Drug Enforcement Officer... I saw the commendation and photo's during a tour of Graceland... I found this really strange considering Elvis's well publicized history of drug and alcohol use which the White House surely must have been aware of before awarding such an honor...

Any comments?

Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Dear Maarja,

Thanks for the information. i did not realize that Mr. Nixon struggled/ tried to control alcohol use and suffered stress related illness. No wonder the presidency is the worlds toughest job. I have no dislike for Mr. Nixon. I thought he did some good things and tried hard to lead the country during a time of tremendous upheaval both domestic and abroad. In fact, I believe Mr. Nixon was one of our nation greatest politicians and political minds, as evident during his interviews and writings in his later years.

It is remarkable Maarja that you are so knowledgeable of Mr. Nixon, his presidency and life. Please keep us informed here at HNN when subjects regarding Mr. Nixon is discussed.

HNN - 3/9/2005

I asked others about this and no one could think of another example of this happening.

Maarja Krusten - 3/9/2005

Please see also my comment posted this morning at

Van L. Hayhow - 3/8/2005

Sorry about the other two empty posts. I hit the wrong key. Does anyone know if a presidential library has done this before, that is, cancel a major production?

Van L. Hayhow - 3/8/2005

Van L. Hayhow - 3/8/2005

Maarja Krusten - 3/7/2005

The transfer of Nixon's papers has been in the news since November 2003. See
on some of the archival issues.

See also the newly posted articles by Thomas Blanton http://hnn.us/articles/10604.html and Melvin Small http://hnn.us/articles/10594.html on the HNN top page. These refers to scholars' and other researchers' concerns.

Finally, for more on the National Archives' vulnerabilities in dealing with Presidential records and the weakening of the U.S. Archivist, see the article, "Their Records, Our History" by Bruce P. Montgomery in the 3/6/05 Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A9094-2005Mar5?language=printer
(registration required)

Michael Barnes Thomin - 3/7/2005

For whatever it's worth, my late grandfather who passed away in January of 2004 was once chief of security at the pentagon during Nixon's presidency. I remember my mother recalling how my grandfather would come home and tell my grandmother that, "He was sh@# faced again," referring to Nixon being drunk. According to my grandfather, Nixon’s intoxication during office was normal.

Rick Perlstein - 3/6/2005

Art Linkletter: the right's point man for destroying social security. Decent chap.

Maarja Krusten - 3/6/2005

Thanks for the very kind words, Patrick! I really appreciate your comments.

Glenn Scott Rodden - 3/6/2005

Is anyone surprised that the people who run the Nixon Library would pull a stunt like this one? Nixon was an unscrupulous person and the people in charge of his legacy have adopted his methods.

I am concerned that the National Archives are about to transfer Nixon's papers to the Nixon library. What will happen to those papers?

Glenn Scott Rodden - 3/6/2005

Is anyone surprised that the people who run the Nixon Library would pull a stunt like this one? Nixon was an unscrupulous person and the people in charge of his legacy have adopted his methods.

I am concerned that the National Archives are about to transfer Nixon's papers to the Nixon library. What will happen to those papers?

Maarja Krusten - 3/6/2005

(1) Here's an excerpt from a letter ("Speculating About Slurred Speech,") that I had published in the The Washington Post, December 07, 1996, Saturday, Final Edition, Pg. A23. I provide citations to public sources, which generally is my preference. In my posting above, the description of Pres. and Mrs. Nixon deciding not to attend the graduation ceremony derives from the published diary of H. R. Haldeman, for example. Here is part of what I wrote in my published letter:

"His staff has given varying accounts of Nixon's alcohol consumption during his presidency. In a 1983 book on Kissinger, Seymour Hersh recounted an allegation that the president drank at night. But Ehrlichman wrote in his memoirs that, recognizing his low tolerance for alcohol, Nixon rarely drank after he assumed office.

Haldeman, who spent more time with Nixon than any other aide, described how "Nixon couldn't drink when he was tired. One beer would transform his normal speech into the rambling elocution of a Bowery wino. What was even more bizarre was that when he was merely fatigued, not drinking at all, the same phenomenon occurred."

In his 1994 biography of Nixon, Jonathan Aitken reported that early in his presidency (before Watergate), Nixon sometimes took the drug Dilantin for stress reduction, and that this occasionally slurred his speech.

In all fairness, a note of caution is in order when speculating whether Nixon (who, after all, was as human as the rest of us) was "sloshed," feeling the effects of a single drink or merely stressed out and fatigued the night of April 30."

(2) For the best information on President Nixon's hastily arranged meeting with Elvis Presley and discussion of awarding him an honorary badge, see http://www.archives.gov/exhibit_hall/when_nixon_met_elvis/index.html.

Since this essentially was a walk-up, there would not have been the usual staff prep that usually surrounds presidential meetings. However, the National Archives' website does include some written comments by staff as they set up the meeting. Note H. R. Haldeman's incredulous "you've got to be kidding."

Maarja Krusten - 3/5/2005

Whatever the reason for the cancellation, this demonstrates one of the fundamental challenges for anyone interested in objectively assessing a President’s legacy within the framework of Presidential Libraries that are supported by family foundations. I think I mentioned elsewhere that archivists ran into trouble over the proposed inclusion of Tiananmen Square as a topic at a conference at the George H. W. Bush Library. I was not surprised that family interests prevailed and the topic was dropped.

After leaving office, no president battled disclosure more than Richard Nixon. His distrust of historians is understandable. I wrote in my article in Presidential Studies Quarterly in 1996, about a topic I’d like to expand on for a moment: “His humanity (and that of his family) too often ignored while he was in office, Nixon was demonized beyond belief by political opponents. (Biographer Jonathan Aitken believes ‘Nixon was the last casualty of Vietnam and Watergate was its final battlefield.’) Nixon believed he was trapped by Watergate while his predecessors largely escaped censure for their abuses of power. He fought tenaciously for historical rehabilitation.”

Presidential foundations and libraries make for an uneasy fit. More than any other Presidential foundation, the California-based Nixon Foundation has reflected an aggressive sense of advocacy which is at odds with the professionalism and objectivity of the employees of the National Archives, which staffs Presidential Libraries. Hugh Hewitt, director of the private Nixon Library, said in July 1990 that if he had his way, researchers "seen as anti-Nixon would be denied access." He singled out Bob Woodward as a researcher who would be denied access. Shortly thereafter, in September 1990, John Taylor took over as director of the Nixon Library. He had served as Nixon’s chief of staff during the post-presidential period.

In a newspaper interview, Taylor described an epiphany about Nixon, saying, "I would find it personally distressing to recall that I had not been loyal to him before, because my feelings run so deep." A California politician agreed: "John is a gut-level and fiercely devoted Nixonite. . . someone who recognizes the enormity of the contribution . . . not distorted by the vicious liberal media that harangued [Nixon] so many years." Is it easy to switch from being a loyalist to being a broker who serves as a bridge between scholars and a President’s family?

It is too late to debate the fairness of the Nixon records statute, which called for disclosure during a President's lifetime of "abuse of power" information, before release of other historical information about his Presidency. Nixon resented that during his lifetime -- it must have grated on him that most Presidential Libraries first released the most innocuous files about former Presidents, while the law called on the Archives to concentrate first on screening information about Watergate and other abuses of power. Clearly, the many battles over his archival legacy left scars on all sides. The battles over Nixon’s records were so bloody, it may take a generation for them to heal.

Nixon died in 1994 but what of his daughters’ memories of the Vietnam period? President and Mrs. Nixon decided not to attend their daughter’s college graduation ceremony, lest they attract too many anti-Vietnam war demonstrators. Think about that, a family unable to share a moment of proud achievement. Not something to take lightly or to forget easily.

Even more troubling was the targeting of Tricia Nixon Cox by a few anti-war protestors later during the Nixon presidency. Say what you will about the war, but I believe it was inappropriate and cowardly to link the F-word and Tricia’s name in two-word slogans in chants and placards. She was not a policymaker and did not deserve such abuse. Granted, that sort of attack was not widespread, but once was more than enough, as far as I’m concerned. It must have hurt the family greatly.

I should add that Tricia generally gave fewer speeches than Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who later staunchly defended her father in public during Watergate. Nixon must have been proud of Mrs. Eisenhoer -- what father wouldn’t want such a daughter?

Do Nixon’s daughters have the best perspective on his legacy? Of course not. They’re human and they undoubtedly view him through their memories of a very difficult, embattled presidency. But a family’s perspective is worth remembering, especially in a framework where Presidential Libraries must operate alongside family foundations.

Let’s be realistic, if your papers fell under public control, how many of you would tell your children, don’t interfere in public access to my records or attempt to shape discussion of my legacy, I did what I did during my professional career, let the chips fall where they may? It would take an unusually strong and courageous family to take such an approach to an official’s legacy. Nixon’s daughters have shown a lot of strength but they also have been through some incredibly difficult experiences, some of which were linked to critics of the Vietnam war. And it is hard to tell whether Taylor reflects their views or his own when he acts as spokesman for the foundation.

Archivists and historians in the past have debated whether it would be better to stop building the tourist-attracting and foundation-linked libraries and simply house presidential records in a central repository.

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 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.”

Maarja's conclusion: An imperfect system, but all we have to work with right now.

Maarja Krusten - 3/5/2005

At this rate, I'm going to overwhelm HNN's comment posting capability, LOL. Apologies for the repetitive inclusion of the last paragraph of my posting above, I didn't realize the last paragraph of Dr. Cox's article appeared twice when I copied and pasted.

Lisa Kazmier - 3/5/2005

That sounds plausible because reading between the lines I got the idea that the Library was glad for the cancellation and could have sabotaged the event as some kind of second thoughts.

Maarja Krusten - 3/5/2005

As of Saturday morning, the Nixon Library appears to have pulled the conference information from its website. However, if you want to see the descriptions of the conference, you can still read the original announcements in the cached versions available through a Google search.

If you Google "Nixon as commander in chief" nixonlibrary.org and click on cached, it will take you to the original top page for the conference. Add Powers to your search terms and it will show the link for the cached list of participants for panel 5, which included John Powers, a NARA archivist and an expert on the Nixon tapes. Do the same for Kutler or any of the other names to see the cached versions of information on the keynote speeches and the 5 panels. It looked like it would have been an excellent conference. Sigh.

Maarja Krusten - 3/5/2005

You are assuming that only 7 people signed up because that is the story that was put out. Perhaps given my background as a former Nixon tapes archivist who has tangled with the former President's lawyers and yes, with Rev. John Taylor, I am unusually wary. I generally am leery of vaguely worded press release. I, for one, take little at face value in these matters. I have no way of knowing how many people did sign up, there's no way for anyone to audit the numbers. As others do, I find it very hard to believe there was little interest in such an event.

David T. Courtwright - 3/5/2005

Ditto. My first inkling of the conference was the ad I read in Perspectives. I thought it was remarkable that there was so little lead time for such an important conference.

Rick Perlstein - 3/4/2005

I have it on good authority that the scholarly organizers of the conference tried to get the Nixon Library to help get out a mass mailing to historians but that the Nixon Library refused, preferring only to advertise it to its private list. I think they sabotaged it to protect Nixon from evenhanded scrutiny. The idea that this conference isn't a draw is insane. I was seriously debating flying out on my own dime for this extraordinary event.

John H. Lederer - 3/4/2005

seems a bit sparse.

John H. Lederer - 3/4/2005

seems a bit sparse.