Petition to Suspend the Transfer of the Nixon Papers to the Nixon Library


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At noon on March 10 the following petition, posted on the website of the National Security Archive, was faxed to members of Congress. The petition was presented in response to the Nixon Library's abrupt decision to cancel a long-scheduled April conference on Nixon and Vietnam. As reported on HNN last week, this was the first conference at the Library that was to have featured a broad spectrum of Nixon critics. The Library told the participants it cancelled the conference because only seven people had signed up for tickets.

The National Security Archive website features a page where readers can add their names to the petition.

TO: Members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives
Committees on Appropriations, Government Affairs, and Government Reform

We are writing to request that Congress suspend the proposed transfer of the Nixon Presidential Materials from their present location at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, to the Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California.

The Nixon Library, working in an unprecedented partnership with Whittier College, had invited the undersigned to participate in a scholarly conference scheduled for April 28 and 29, 2005 on the subject of "Richard Nixon as Commander-in-Chief: The History of Nixon and Vietnam." Last week, the Nixon Library abruptly cancelled the conference, claiming insufficient advance ticket sales. The excuse rings hollow, coming as it does eight weeks before the event, and in the wake of months of attempts by the Library to turn the conference from a scholarly discussion into a celebrity show.

The unprofessional behavior of the Nixon Library leadership calls into question that institution's fitness to join the Presidential Library system. The Nixon Library evidently feels free to toss aside, at its own convenience, its commitments to Whittier College and to the conference participants. A similarly cavalier attitude toward the commitments that the Library has made to the National Archives and to the Congress, in order to gain public funding for the transfer, would seriously jeopardize public access to and long-term preservation of invaluable historical records.

The Nixon Library is asking the taxpayers to provide $3 million to underwrite the transfer, and millions more to build a new wing to hold the materials. This amount is in addition to the $18 million already paid by the taxpayers to the Nixon estate in compensation for the Congressional action in 1974 that saved the Nixon tapes and papers from the destruction contemplated in President Nixon's original agreement with the General Services Administration. No other presidential library has received federal funding to build its facility, which is prohibited by the Presidential Libraries Act.

President Bush did not include the $3 million downpayment on the transfer in his proposed budget, and we applaud that fiscally responsible decision. Since the Nixon tapes and presidential files already are in the professional hands of the National Archives at College Park, there would be no apparent gain for openness from moving the materials to California. In fact, the transfer would inevitably create periods of time when the materials are in transit and therefore inaccessible. More importantly, the transfer will absorb thousands of hours of archivists' time - as well as millions of scarce dollars - that would be better spent reviewing and opening the files not yet accessioned. The proposed $3 million transfer payment is greater than the annual budget of the entire Nixon Presidential Materials Project today (about $2 million).

The primary argument in favor of the transfer is that it might lead to a unitary collection combining the materials already destined for Yorba Linda from President Nixon's career before and after the White House, together with the presidential materials now at College Park. This would re-unite the sections of the tapes (over 800 hours from a total of over 3200 hours) and the presidential papers (more than 50,000 documents) that have been designated for removal and return to the Nixon estate because of their personal or political content. The latter are especially important for scholars to understand the interaction of policy with politics. However, neither the 2003 amendments that authorized the transfer, nor any other communications on the public record, feature a legally binding commitment by the Nixon estate or the Nixon Library & Birthplace for such a unified collection in the control of the National Archives and governed by public access laws.

We recommend first, that Congress should suspend any action to appropriate funds in support of the Nixon Library transfer. Second, Congress should hold oversight hearings on the National Archives' arrangements with the Nixon Library. Third, Congress should enact a statutory requirement for an independent review board at each of the existing and future Presidential Libraries, on the model of the State Department's Historical Advisory Committee, which works to ensure the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the Foreign Relations of the United States series.


Larry Berman, Professor, University of California, Davis, and Director of the University of California Washington Center
Thomas Blanton, Director, National Security Archive, George Washington University
Carolyn Eisenberg, Professor of History, Hofstra University
David Farber, Professor of History, Temple University
David Greenberg, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Rutgers University, "History Lesson" Columnist for Slate
Jussi Hanhimaki, Professor of International History and Politics, Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva)
George C. Herring, Professor of History, University of Kentucky
Ken Hughes, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia
Jeffrey P. Kimball, Professor of History, Miami University, Ohio
Stanley Kutler, Professor Emeritus of History and Law, University of Wisconsin
Fredrik Logevall, Professor of History, Cornell University
Laura McEnaney, Associate Professor of History, Whittier College
John Prados, Senior Fellow, National Security Archive, George Washington University
Thomas A. Schwartz, Professor of History, Vanderbilt University
Robert D. Schulzinger, Professor of History and Director, International Affairs Program, University of Colorado; Editor-in-Chief, Diplomatic History
Melvin Small, Distinguished Professor of History, Wayne State University

* Institutional affiliations are listed for identification only and do not necessarily represent the endorsement of the institutions. Responses to this letter may be made to Nixon Historians, c/o National Security Archive, George Washington University, 2130 H Street N.W., Suite 701, Washington D.C. 20037, nsarchiv@gwu.edu.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 3/11/2005


Maarja Krusten - 3/11/2005

I'm uneasy about the fact that U.S. Archivist Allen Weinstein's statement about the cancellation of the conference appears on the Nixon Foundation's website but is not featured prominently on the National Archives' own website. As of 7 am this morning, I couldn't find it on the NARA top page at http://www.archives.gov or in the list of NARA press releases! Yikes. I can't imagine how demoralizing it must be to be a NARA employee and to have click over the the Nixon Foundation's website to read a statement apparently received by the Nixon Foundation from the U.S. Archivist. If I were still working at NARA, I'd be asking, "who's in charge here?" This certainly says something about the power of the Presidential Library foundations. Wow.

Maarja Krusten - 3/11/2005

For Mr. Taylor's March 8, 1996 letter published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE), see
(subscription required)

For my response published in CHE on April 5, 1996, see
(subscription required)

These letters both predated the opening of the "Contested Items" subseries by the National Archives.

Maarja Krusten - 3/11/2005

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/11/politics/11nixon.html? (registration required) for a story in today's NYT on the petition. The AP also has picked this up.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has the story at
(subscription required)

To read the statement of the U.S. Archivist, Allen Weinstein, go to the Nixon Foundation's website,

Dr. Weinstein's statement does not tell me anything, unfortunately. (Of course, I am a former employee of the National Archives.) It is the type of statement that just as well might have been released during the late 1980s, at a time when Richard Nixon blocked the release of 150,000 pages of historical documents from the White House Special Files. NARA then sat on the documents for 9 years, releasing most of them only after Nixon died. Had it been asked for a public statement, it would merely have said it was applying applicable laws and regulations. But look at what the public record reveals:

Jack Anderson reported in 1989 that a high level board was split on how to handle "touchy documents." Anderson charged, “Nixon appears to have at least one board member firmly in his corner, John Fawcett. He heads the office of Presidential Libraries—a job that we think should come down on the side of preserving presidential papers for the public. But, in the minutes we saw, Fawcett almost always voted to give papers to Nixon.” ("Nixon Tries to Retrieve Papers from Archives,” as printed in July 25, 1989 Kansas City Kansan, reproduced in National Archives’ circulating news clippings.) Archival issues usually are deemed boring by the press, for Anderson to take note was really something!

On March 8, 1996, John Taylor of the Nixon Foundation averred that "The papers we asked the government to keep closed were of the sort that are routinely withheld at other Presidents' libraries."

In 1996, an Archives board of a different composition (Nixon having died in 1994 and some Archives' officials having retired) released most of the contested Special Files documents to the public, indicating the withholding might not be as routine as Taylor said, after all. Of the items Nixon’s agents sought to remove from government custody for return to Nixon in 1987, the National Archives retained 33,199 documents and returned to the Nixon estate 8,992 documents. Of the retained documents, NARA opened to the public 28,035 documents. I only have the item count, not the page count, so I apologize if you cannot compare this the the 150,000 pages cited in news stories. Obviously, some items were lengthy and ran for many pages.

Taylor unfortunately carries some other baggage from his earlier rhetoric, including ones he made about historians and archivists and the National Archives in an article in the American Spectator in 1998. See http://www.nixonlibrary.org/newsContent.cfm?doc=TheNixons/archive/AmSpect.html
I was stunned when I read that article, as I've never seen a Presidential Library director present issues that way! I would never have written that article had I been Taylor, if I anticipated acquiring in the future the Nixon records now held by the National Archives. Go figure.

William Robert MacDonald - 3/10/2005

Get over yourselves