A Debate: Should Allen Weinstein Be Confirmed as Chief Archivist of the United States?


President Bush has nominated Allen Weinstein, author of Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case and The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America- -The Stalin Era, to be the chief archivist of the United States. Some history groups have objected to Weinstein's nomination on the grounds that he has thus far failed to share the notes and documents on which he based his book, The Haunted Wood. At his recent confirmation hearing he announced that he now plans to make these records "available to researchers without restriction 'by early next year' at the Hoover Institution." A spirited debate about Weinstein's nomination recently occurred on Richard Jensen's list:

Paul Gottfried (Professor of history at Elizabethtown College)

What amazes me about this testimony is that Allen Weinstein, who is certainly not a "conservative" but a self-identified 1960s Humphrey Democrat, is being beaten up for "protecting" his sources. Isn't this exactly what the leftists love when the New York Times claims to be using confidentiality to go after Republican presidents or to expose the excesses of anti-Communism? The other deeper problem with Weinstein is that he's had the chutzpah to unmask a Communist spy. Since the end of the Cold War both here and in Europe the establishment Left treats any mention of Communist mass murder or Communist spying as a dangerous diversion from pressing social issues and as evidence of gross insensitivity. Obviously Weinstein is an insensitive person who is unfit to run the National Archives.

Ralph Luker

Paul Gottfried's reactions to the hearings on Allen Weinstein's confirmation as Archivist of the United States are misguided. Newspaper reporters have an obligation to protect the confidentiality of their sources. That is as important to their professional obligations as client confidentiality is to the legal or medical professions. The professional obligations of historians and archivists run exactly in the other direction: to openness and transparency.

The Senate should not confirm Weinstein until he has deposited his notes and copies of documents with an archive and made them available to other researchers. The rest of us have every right to be able to check his sources for accuracy and we have no opportunity to do so until he makes them available to the rest of us. Short of that, he doesn't meet the test of understanding the obligation of historians and archivists to make sources available to researchers as expeditiously as possible.

Paul Gottfried

I can't figure out why national newspapers, which represent a power vastly greater than any individual scholar, should be more shielded in their right not to divulge sources than Allen Weinstein. If Mr. Weinstein wants to protect his sources, in accordance with a promise, he should be allowed to.

In any case, I can't see why this decision should keep him from being named to the post of national archivist. As anyone who knows me can testify, I am taking this stand without any predilection for Weinstein's politics. But I do admire his courage in blowing the whistle on the abominable Hiss, something that could not advance Weinstein's fortunes in today's academic world.

Michael Etchison

Say that a historian acquires documents from their sole possessor, precisely on the understanding that they will never be released. Does the Code require a) that the historian never use those documents, b) that once he uses those documents he violate his pledge ?  

Ralph Luker

The answer to Michael Etchison's hypothetical is not so difficult as he may think it. It is the same for a historian as it is for an archivist: an archive may receive and maintain a collection with the understanding that it is closed or that it is accessible with restrictions for a period of time. No archive would or should ever agree to receive a collection which is closed to research in perpetuity. No historian should agree to accept a collection of papers which he has agreed never to use or make available forothers to use.

In Weinstein's case, he has readily agreed to accept a nomination which would make him the most visible archivist in the United States. For that reason, he must either meet standards above and beyond what is expected of all the rest of us (he should be the exemplar). He should place the notes and documents in question on deposit, without restriction of access, or he should withdraw his name from nomination.