Will Historians Distort A ‘Modern’ President’s Memory?


Mr. Fagan teaches history at the College of Southwest in New Mexico and is a doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi.

From watching the memorial of Reagan on TV and reading the many newspaper columns, do I get the feeling that Reagan as president solved the problems rather than caused them? Yes, but that is how I and undoubtedly many people remember him. That does not stop the presumption of some liberal historians that because a rosy picture of Reagan has been provided in the media and the literature, a negative one must exist somewhere.

With the recent loss of a president, revisionist historians will wait awhile before adjusting the public memory of Reagan. For now they will have to endure all of Reagan’s triumphs with modest mentioning of his controversies or failures. Of course, it is neither fair nor accurate to consider anything that is currently discussed about a president as being non-controversial, successful, or failure. What decision, after all, can a president make that is not controversial? What policies, procedures, and actions can a president take that cannot be viewed as either a success or a failure depending on which historian is describing them?

Personally, I would not consider Reagan’s overall handling of the economy a triumph, but others will. On balance, there were at least sixteen million jobs that had been created by the end of Reagan’s second term. That can certainly be viewed as an economic positive. The bombing of Libya could go as a success from many perspectives, but that Reagan had to resort to death diplomacy by air would be considered a failure by many. Few Americans will find anything positive in the deaths of some two hundred marines in Beirut, but Reagan excelled in other corners of foreign affairs. Many think the Iranian hostages were released because the Iranians did not want to deal with Reagan; that could certainly be viewed as a success.  At the time Reagan was making deals with the Soviets in arms reductions, I could find few positive comments outside his administration on the proposed arrangements. Now that the Cold War has ended, it is difficult to find any criticism of those plans. I also consider the firing of air traffic employees to be successful. Others will be disapproving. Shutting down the Equal Rights Amendment, splitting AT&T, and challenging the welfare system were laudable efforts to me, controversial to most, and imperfections to some.

When revisionists do go after Reagan wholeheartedly, though, they will undoubtedly begin with Iran-contra and the Savings and Loan debacle. However, those historians should look through the widest of lenses when preparing the picture of Reagan’s public perception. Both Iran-Contra and S&L truly came within the last year or year and a half of Reagan’s presidency, and the consequences of both seemed to unfold during Bush’s administration rather than Reagan’s.

Undoubtedly many historians think because Iran-Contra dominated the TV news it must have been an important event. The OJ Simpson murder trial was on the news far longer than Iran-Contra. Does that mean this event was more important? No. When observing an event that dominates the news, historians need to ask themselves why that event was in the news. I daresay we would not even be discussing Iran-contra now if it had not been election year and if the Republicans had not lost control of the Senate in Reagan’s second term. Within years, the central characters who had been convicted for wrong doing in the scandal had their convictions overturned. Was Iran-Contra not that bad in the end?

When observing a TV news event, historians need to be more concerned with why it was on TV. They then need to learn whether that event made a large group of Americans do anything differently in their routine life. I know how the S&L controversy affected upper-class Americans; I know how WWII changed my grandparents' lives; I know how Vietnam changed my father’s life; and because I am married to a Chinese immigrant, I even know how the last Chinese revolution changed my American life. My entire family has had life changes because of various national and world events that have consumed the news media.

What I do not know is how guns going through the backdoor to some obscure, foreign country affected me or my family or even my family’s friends and their families. Indeed, I do not know how the arms trade concerned even a minority of Americans. This event did not hurt Reagan, and it certainly did not keep Bush from winning election. Apparently not many Americans were solicitous of Iran-Contra. Should historians be then? Perhaps at first, but they should not be at last. Yet I cannot pull out any popular encyclopedia and examine Reagan’s biography without also reading about Iran-Contra.

Many of the events that caused the S&L fiasco happened before the 1980s in spite of Reagan’s deregulation. Although those events do not expunge the president’s role in the S&L debacle, I still consider the way Reagan handled the payoffs to the consumers a success rather than a failure. What is a failure or a success will always be debatable. What some see as positive, others will see as negative and vice versa. Even so, I do not need a historian to portray any of these events for me as being either positive or negative, though that is surely what some historians feel should be done. I do not need narrative to understand the consequences of these events; I just need the facts.

Unfortunately, some historians will see for only what they are looking and, in doing so, most historians change the perceptions of governmental figures over time. Some say they are “just correcting them.” The result is that many historians take things that were not that important during yesterday’s time and make them over-important in today’s time. They did it to Kennedy and they will eventually do it to Reagan.

Seeking a tabloid element is apparently the trendy way in which researchers can contribute something new to the body of work that deals with a president. As John F. Kennedy faded from the living public memory, some researchers took a more abrasive stance with him. Recent trends especially seem to revolve around his improprieties in the White House.

In Thomas Reeves’s A Question of Character, only one word is needed to describe Kennedy: amoral. JFK also had an “eagerness for deception” and a “macho aggressiveness.” Nigel Hamilton, in JFK: Reckless Youth, adds exposé to otherwise valid research of John Kennedy. Hamilton’s title is self-explanatory. Kennedy was a playboy, and the book stops before JFK turns thirty. John Hellmann, in The Kennedy Obsession, portrayed Kennedy at one point to be a sickly boy, and he concluded that advertisements of his precocity and bravery were effective political aversions. Through Hellmann’s eyes, Kennedy had been the “most glamorous politician.” In Richard Reeves’s work, President Kennedy, Reeves is concerned with the president who created possible security threats due to an immoral sexual appetite. Kennedy was also vain, easily susceptible to ennui, overly authoritarian, and undisciplined. This president was a “poor administrator” and his “management style bordered on the chaotic.” Health issues and extramarital affairs are a focus in James Giglio’s Presidency of John F. Kennedy.

The list could go on. Research on John F. Kennedy has clearly moved away from the completely favorable opinions espoused by Arthur Schlesinger in A Thousand Days. Schlesinger does not mention Marilyn Monroe or Kennedy’s likely connection with the mafia, and he has been criticized for it. Yet he knew Kennedy personally and clearly had a living memory markedly different from contemporary researchers. Those researchers will say he was biased.

If you ask some graduate students today what kind of person President Kennedy was, they will likely say immoral or amoral, weak, sickly, deceptive, macho, vain, glamorous, undisciplined, irresponsible, careless, or unqualified to be president. If you ask their parents, they will likely say Kennedy was a great person. While separating the person from the leader begins a whole new argument, my point is that some authors have already begun to change the memory of Kennedy for the next generation.

Whenever a student reads something for the first time, there is a tendency to keep that reading in their heads as the truth. When narrative comes along later that somewhat changes a previous perception, they have a predilection to support their first belief, which has become ingrained over time. As neophyte students read these new books that now have a salacious aura about them, they will go with the new perceptions flowing from those books. Eventually Kennedy’s original public memory will be lost.

Some historians found a few shallow and petty characteristics, small episodes, and innocuous circumstances that the public either did not care about, did not know about, or could not know about Kennedy during his time. In the end, they took all that and tried to make today’s public think it was more significant than it actually was. Media standards in Kennedy’s time that excluded personal and sexual foibles helped protect him politically. Historians’ standards of what ought to be important today will not protect any president’s legacy.

To this day and after all my readings, it is still difficult for me to see Reagan in the S&L or Iran-Contra picture without also seeing the economic events that preceded Reagan, an imminent presidential-election campaign, Democratic politics, and a liberal news media.  Even if I read everything Speaker Tip O’Neill wrote about Reagan (the Speaker detested Reagan), I would probably still come away feeling positive about Reagan. Even if I read the negative stories in the New York Times, I would probably not have my view of Reagan changed. Why is this?

It is not because he has died recently. To me, he had been gone for years because of his Alzheimer’s disease and we have had three presidents since him. Is it because I lived through Reagan’s time and have not needed historians to tell me how I should be viewing him? Probably.

Of course, the next generation might very well need historians to tell it what kind of president Reagan was. That will be when historians can significantly change the public perception of Reagan. No politician and no historian could change Reagan’s infallibility while he was in office. They will have to do that when the majority of those living during Reagan’s era are no longer around to contest a distorted view emanating from academia.

I remember in my twenties noticing how Reagan could do no wrong. This is the perception I and my family had of him; he was infallible. Several of my family members did not vote in his second election -- a mistake of youth -- because they knew a Democrat had no chance of winning. If Reagan was portrayed in overwhelmingly positive proportions in the news during his presidency and especially during his public mourning, let me just say that is how I remember him. And, before some historians twist this perception of him for the next generation, that is indeed how he is widely remembered now.

This writing is not an analysis essay. It is not a hagiography. It is, most certainly, an essay of remembrance. It serves to show how Reagan was remembered during his time and is remembered now by many. It serves to remind historians that as public memory of Reagan inevitably becomes imprecise, they will be given a great opportunity to bring clarity back to the public memory of a modern president. Will it be the accurate memory?

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    More Comments:

    Joey Johnson - 6/7/2005

    "Well put, Professor Catsam. After reading Mr. Fagan's article, I was left wondering what he knows about historiography and archives. "

    Why does he need to know about this when the article was clearly about public memory and how historians are possibly going to treat the memory of Reagan? I think you should stay in the archives if your are going to distort the articles here. I hope you give more consideration to your archives.

    Joey Johnson - 6/7/2005

    "about someone who is a PhD student in history and who teaches history at an American university yet who clearly does not know what the term "revisionism" means?"

    He used the term "revisionists" one time in the whole article. He never used "revisionism" and I read it that he was using the word in the form of "revise" rather than in reference to the historians who think they have to change the body of thought on some historical matter.

    Joey Johnson - 6/7/2005

    This is not the first time the editor has done this. In fact he does it alot to authors without even asking them. See the other posts elsewhere on this site, such as this one:

    On HNN (#43689)
    by Peter N. Kirstein on October 6, 2004 at 8:02 AM

    Joey Johnson - 6/7/2005

    What is even more funny about this thread is that only one person here makes their school known. This Luker guy hides behind an anonymous bulletin board to lambast the author's university is highly hypocritical when he himself is probably not even in college.

    Joey Johnson - 6/7/2005

    To Patrick Fagan:

    This was a very eloquent article. Do not be discouraged by the naysayers in this thread. Historians who think they are above reproach or above self-criticism should not really be calling themselves historians. There is nothing wrong with getting this kind of criticism about the field. When historians feel they are so eminent that they cannot take constructive criticism, it is they who should not be teaching or writing in the field.

    When I was a grad student working on my Ph.D., I too had to read two of those Kennedy books in two different grad seminars. Every instructor and student in my department had nothing positive to say about Kennedy. None of these students and most of the instructors were not even self-thinking adults during Kennedy's presidency. So I agree that historians--especially as instructors--can heavily influence the way Kennedy will be remembered. The comment made by someone else in this thread that people or the public effecting living memory and passing down the memory to the next generation is just plain wrong in this instance. The current historian-instructors assigning these exposé books about Kennedy and writing the documentaries on TV have more to do with passing on memory than the public does.

    Joey Johnson - 6/7/2005

    What did this have to do with the article? It is posts like yours that make this website a source of entertainment rather than a source of academic merit.

    The article, which you did not even read, has a large section devoted to what many people think are Reagan's failures.

    **Do not send email to the poster's email address. He/She is only attempting to get your IP for personal verification and spam purposes. cwswinney@netzero.net has had numerous complaints filed against it for spam violation.

    clarence willard swinney - 11/1/2004

    Comparing Democrat’s hero-CLINTON—versus Republican’s hero--REAGAN
    1.JOBS—grew by 43% more under Clinton.
    2.GDP---grew by 57% more under Clinton.
    3.DOW—grew by 700% more under Clinton..
    4.NASDAQ-grew by 18 times as much under Clinton.
    4.SPENDING--grew by 28% under Clinton---80% under Reagan.
    5.DEBT—grew by 43% under Clinton—187% under Reagan.
    6. DEFICITS—Clinton got a large surplus--grew by 112% under Reagan.
    7.NATIONAL INCOME—grew by100% more under Clinton.
    8.PERSONAL INCOME—Grew by 110% more under Clinton.
    SOURCES—Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.BLS.Gov)--Economic Policy Institute (EPI.org)—Global & World Almanacs from 1980 to 2003 (annual issues)
    www.the-hamster.com (chart taken from NY Times)
    National Archives History on Presidents. www.nara.gov

    Please submit comments to cwswinney@netzero.net or P.O. Box 3411-Burlington NC-27215

    Maarja Krusten - 11/1/2004

    There’s an error in my analogy about the press writing about a campus controversy—sorry! Anyone reading it should strike the part about “open records requests” as such would only apply to governmental entities. Sorry ‘bout that, I suppose it reflects my roots as a government employee, I tend to think in terms of what records the law allows the public to reach. The situation with private sector institutions is different, they have more ability to control access to records. Let me return then to the analogy I used above. If you felt badly about a campus colleague who was being attacked, unfairly in your view, by powerful forces on or off campus, you probably couldn’t do much to help him or her. As far as posterity is concerned, the press reports about the campus controversy, however inaccurate you felt they might be, would be all future researchers might find in terms of records, unless they chose to do oral history interviews. I tend to bring a healthy skepticism to reading many news stories, especially ones which seem to reflect only one point of view. I sometimes stop and think, we’re only hearing one side, I wonder if there is something missing in the story?

    Since Mr. Fagan’s article is about public memory, it is worth noting that the public is not monolithic. Some people like or dislike a president based on whether they voted for him or supported or opposed his policies. They may never read any history books about him at all. Others delve into history more deeply. Don’t you think the amount of skepticism people bring to their judgments of public figures varies greatly also? Don’t we even see that in our own lives? Say you know a couple who breaks up. Without assigning gender, let’s say one member of the former couple has many friends and is inclined to talk a great deal about his/her private life. The other member of the couple is more reticent and not inclined to discuss private matters. Some friends of the couple may accept the more talkative person’s spin on the breakup, assigning blame and even perceiving a victim in the relationship that failed, etc., based on what they are hearing. Others may sit back and say, hmmmm, what don’t I know about this, I’m withholding judgment, at least for now. Some stories never come out in the open--yet as far as the actual events are concerned, they happened and thus are part of the couple's "history." So too with presidents, the public, and historians, at least in my view.

    Maarja Krusten - 11/1/2004

    Thanks for the note! Nope, no bitterness. Why should I be bitter or sarcastic? I simply am ignorant--yep there are some of us on HNN who admit to that, LOL--of what goes on in academia, other than what I read in newspapers and journals or here on HNN. My degrees are in history but I have never been a teacher, I entered federal government service 31 years ago and have spent my entire career there, first as an archivist, then, since 1990, as an historian. I don't so much distinguish between archivists and teachers, as ask about the divide between archivists and the scholars who do research in the records that archivists release to them. The latter rarely delve into issues of records access, although some, such as the late Steve Ambrose, always spoke highly of the history-trained archivists who assisted him! Again, thanks for the nice note.

    T.W. Pie, Jr. - 10/31/2004

    Maarja Krusten: very good response and interesting questions. I have to ask if I detect a bit of sarcasm or bitterness against history teachers in your last sentence. I read somewhere else where you distinguished between teachers and archivists, and you do seem to be referring to it here.

    "I am not in academia but I would hope facts are not ignored altogether in teaching, LOL."

    T.W. Pie, Jr. - 10/31/2004

    This criticism of Catsam says more about him as a historian than it does about the author of this article. He read one sentence—and he probably did misread it—and then he whimsically disregarded the remainder of the article. Nothing in this article talked about historians changing any body of work that is already available on Reagan. I wonder if Catsam is as careless with his examination of historical documents? Does he make these rash decisions in his own work as a historian?

    Maarja Krusten - 10/31/2004

    What books about Kennedy and Reagan do you feel are most authoritative? Are the books you like best based on archival research, on third party memoirs, on oral history interviews, or on secondary sources? How do the sources affect the views presented in the books you like? Which books do you believe instructors should be using to teach about Presidents such as those you and Mr. Fagan mention? I most trust books which are the result of very careful research in primary sources, after sufficient time has passed to make relevant records available. Books written closer to the events in question rarely present balanced, complete views, in my opinion.

    Let me approach the same question with an analogy. Say you work at a university or other organization at which a particular issue becomes the subject of controversy. The controversy is reported in the media. Members of the press write their articles based on press releases and on interviews with a few parties of interest, none of whom you feel present a balanced view of the actual facts. Some of the articles even may seem naive puff pieces to you, based on your more complete knowledge of the matter, as a university employee. However you may distrust them as inaccurate or naive, would you be all right with the press accounts influencing public perceptions? Or would you argue for more digging by researchers and journalists in contemporaneous records, say through public records requests, in order to get a fuller picture. I'm just wondering how you view historical evidence, which presumably plays a role in how instructors teach students. I am not in academia but I would hope facts are not ignored altogether in teaching, LOL.

    Maarja Krusten - 10/31/2004

    Not to worry, Mr. Johnson, I haven't worked at the National Archives since 1990, LOL. So your back to archives comment does not apply. Moreover, as you read more and more of HNN, you'll see that people use articles as starting points to introduce all kinds of other threads, some more related to the original article than others. This is an unmoderated message board so that seems to be fine with most readers. If there is anything in your background that is unique or brings a fresh perspective to bear, I certainly would hope you would feel free to share with HNN readers and not worry about getting shot down. In my case, I spent 14 years listening to Nixon's tapes while employed by the Archives, so I look at issues through that perspective. We all look at things through the prisms of our own experiences, I no more expect you to parallel mine than you could expect my perspective to match yours. That's one of the great things about the U.S., isn't it, the diversity of opinion and the freedom to express it? Gotta love this country!

    Maarja Krusten - 10/31/2004

    You must be relatively new to HNN as you seem to be unfamiliar with Ralph Luker. Dr. Luker has his own blog at Cliopatria, see HNN Blog links on the main HNN page. For info about Professor Luker, see

    T.W. Pie, Jr. - 10/25/2004

    I found Patrick Fagan’s personal webpage and emailed him to ask him to come here and respond to some of the comments posted here. He “respectfully declined” because he “will not enter a debate with unknown people.” However, he told me that the current title of this article was created by the editor. He said the official title is “Will Historians Distort A Modern President's Memory?” He said he would never use the words “historians be damned” and emphasized in the article that only "some historians" tried to change the public memory of the president.

    Obviously the editor changed the original title to spice things up, which this site is known for. In fact, it seems to me that there are only two sentences at most in the whole article that could have been construed to make readers think the author was condemning historians.

    T.W. Pie, Jr. - 10/24/2004

    In following this thread I have to ask all of you who responded to this article--and even those of you who are talking about things that have nothing to do with this article at all--why are all of you criticizing the author rather than defending historians? The fact that you have not suggests that you can not. The fact that you do not makes all of you look rather silly.

    The memory of Kennedy has indeed been changed. It has been changed not only by historians trying to sell their books but also by the numerous TV movies about Kennedy. I love how all of you carelessly overlooked the books about Kennedy that the author uses as an example. Many of these books are used in history seminars. And you are going to pretend that some of what this author says is not true? Or even possible?

    Come on.

    T.W. Pie, Jr. - 10/24/2004

    "Historians don't really shape memory, memory gets passed down orally (and sometimes in writing)and is shaped by the needs of character, narrative,plot etc. in other words: storytelling."

    Who do you think you are kidding? You attack this author for making "sweeping generalizations" and then you write an even bigger one in your own post.

    T.W. Pie, Jr. - 10/24/2004

    Ralph, your shallowness in attacking the author rather than the content of his article is demonstrative of your low level of academic attainment. You even went as far as to attack a university program of history. Tell me, are you higher than a freshman?

    Furthermore, you bring into question the kind of teacher he is based on an article he wrote that only encouraged historians to get it right with the public memory of Reagan. This is so inane that it needs no further comment than this. You have no idea what kind of teacher this author is, and you being nothing more than a freshman does not qualify you to sit in judgement of him.

    T.W. Pie, Jr. - 10/24/2004

    This was an essay and not a journal article, and this is a website known for its publication of controversial opinions. I suspect the real reason Catsam and Krusten are offended is because they have made many of the mistakes that the author has criticized historians for making.

    Furthermore, bringing "historiography and archives" into a response to this article is additional proof that the pseudo-historians in this thread could use a lesson or two on how not to distort the main point of a piece of writing. The whole point of the author's writing was not to distort the public memory of a modern president, as has been done with Kennedy, but each of you in this thread has blown the main point way off course.

    T.W. Pie, Jr. - 10/24/2004

    Charles Christopher Tucker, are you a freshman or a sophomore? Your nitpicking this author's article sentence by sentence and distorting his overall message suggests you are barely in college.

    Charles Christopher Tucker - 10/17/2004

    Patrick Fagan wrote:

    "Of course, the next generation might very well need historians to tell it what kind of president Reagan was. That will be when historians can significantly change the public perception of Reagan. No politician and no historian could change Reagan’s infallibility while he was in office. They will have to do that when the majority of those living during Reagan’s era are no longer around to contest a distorted view emanating from academia."

    Is this supposed to be satire? Are you really Andy Kaufman, masquerading as a historian?

    Infallibility? I was alive and living as an adult during the eight terrible years of Ronald Reagan's ruining of this nation. No historian shoved that view down my throat. Albeit at times I would have welcomed it, like the days I didn't have food to eat.

    Maybe someone who was a juvenile during those years. The years when the press refused to peek behind the curtain to see the all powerful Oz was really a pathetic snake oil salesman. The years when we had a press corps being stage-managed as if the entire eight years was a protracted re-make of "Triumph of the Will".

    Patric Fagan wrote:

    "Is it because I lived through Reagan’s time and have not needed historians to tell me how I should be viewing him? Probably."

    I don't need historians to tell me how to view the man who was either incompetent to hold office or a bald-faced liar who repeatedly said "I don't recall" in response to his involvement in Iran-Contra.

    I don't need someone who evidently spent those eight years in relative luxury bemoaning how people will now look at the darker side of Reagan's mis-rule with open eyes. To try and tell me how Reagan was such a wonderful President is to call my life experience a lie.

    Maarja Krusten - 10/12/2004

    Well, the editor did post my article on the Weinstein nomination as U.S. Archivist in August 2004 (see
    http://hnn.us/articles/6675.html ). Peter K. Clarke was the only one to post any responses.

    I'm generally conflicted about what to do on controversial archival issues. On the one hand, I know the people working at the National Archives cannot speak freely about all the challenges they face. I left NARA employ in 1990 and have been speaking out on archival issues since 1992. On the other hand, I am still a Fed, and it would be safer and easier for me to keep my head down and my mouth shut. But if I do keep quiet, who will speak up with insider knowledge to defend and advocate for NARA?

    With the Bush executive order on Reagan's records, the pending move of Nixon's records to the library in Yorba Linda, CA, etc., there clearly is a lot at stake. And then there are the problems with record keeping having become a high risk area in recent decades (see the comments by John Earl Haynes and Michael Beschloss in my first post on Mr. Fagan's article).

    I have wished for years that a "name" scholar whould interest himself in these NARA issues, so I could pass on the baton to him. But I doubt that will happen. Steve Ambrose privately expressed support to me when I was fighting the Nixon tapes access battles, but in public sat silent. Too bad Steve did not join Stanley Kutler in waging the battles that needed to be fought.

    At any rate, I waver between protecting myself and protecting the agency--the National Archives--that I left behind in 1990 when I took my present job at another agency. Certainly, every time I post here or on H-net or on the Archives List, I create more and more of a public record on issues--Presidential records--where some of the opposing players have enormous power.

    Just some of the back story to my musings about what interests and does not interest people on HNN. BTW, I had trouble getting people to understand the National Archives' issues on H-diplo, as well. The issues are awfully arcane and complex and legalistic, and unless you have tangled with Nixon's lawyers, as I have, it is awfully difficult for other people to understand just how much political pressure the Archives can face and how good archivists can lose their jobs for standing up to former Presidents.

    Jonathan Dresner - 10/12/2004

    If you want to see what the discussion would be like, try writing an article for HNN on a fairly specific archival issue and seeing if the editor is interested and, if it is published, what kind of response you get.

    But this is not a venue primarily for professional historians to talk about professional and methodological issues; I am not troubled by your search results the way you seem to be.

    Maarja Krusten - 10/12/2004

    I just re-ran the "swift boat" and HNN search by substituting "history news network" for hnn.us and then searching within that for hnn.us. Came up with 441 hits, some of which seem to cross over to other blogs. For example, Google picks up people mentioning on other message boards that they posted on swift boats on HNN. Still, the number is far higher than the result when I used the same methodology to search the same way for "archival research" and "hnn.us" - a mere 50 or 60 hits, from 2002 to the present, depending on whether you use hnn.us or "history news network" as the second search term!!

    Maarja Krusten - 10/12/2004

    When I accessed the Haycox article through a link on the Archives List Archives web interface this morning, I got in ok. But when I tried the Anchorage Daily News site again this afternoon, I received a message saying readers had to register with the newspaper. In case you cannot open the link to the Haycox article, I have extracted
    pertinent portions, below:

    Anchorage Daily News, December 6, 2002
    "Rely on documents, not memory"
    By Stephen Haycox
    (Published: December 6, 2002)
    Earlier this week Voice of the Times columnist Tom Brennan argued that environmentalists had nothing to do with safe construction of the Alaska Pipeline. All the credit, Brennan argued, should go to industry leaders and engineers who produced the pipeline design. Brennan's evidence is his memory, for he was there.

    Brennan's argument is somewhat at odds with the documentary record, however, and may represent a fundamental but common error of historical
    reconstruction: confusing personal memory with history.

    Repeated studies have demonstrated that human memory is constructed, not reproduced. In his classic "Remembering" (1932), psychologist Frederick C. Bartlett showed that in each construction of memory, people reshape, omit, distort, combine and reorganize details from the past to
    fit their changing notion of the world, of who they are and who their audience is. For this reason, neither historians nor attorneys put much faith in unaided human memory. For reliability, memory has to be corroborated by documentary evidence. The documents may not always be
    "true," but unlike memory, they stay the same unless they've been altered, which is why in court extraordinary measures are taken to verify the authenticity, originality and unaltered character of the documents.

    A common method of searching for truth in legal proceedings is to introduce the documents, then question the witness. Historians use a similar method, checking the assertions of memoirists against the rest of the documentary record, including other writers' assertions, official letters, memos and orders and the like.

    The remarkable future-shaping events Brennan recalls. . . [Haycox then shows how differently from Brennan's recollections the scenario actually had played out--with Congressional and court action and public pressure by environmental groups--when reconstructed from historical records]

    [Haycox concludes] "'More than two centuries ago Oliver Goldsmith wrote: "O Memory! thou fond deceiver, Still importunate and vain, To former joys recurring
    ever, And turning all the past to pain!'

    Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska

    Maarja Krusten - 10/12/2004

    Thanks for the answer! My motivation is to find out the extent to which HNN posters and writers have discussed or would be interested in debating issues related to archival research. If there has been little focus on records and archives in the past, as opposed to secondary sources and current events, then I shouldn't be surprised if some of my postings draw little reaction.

    I'm not sure what you mean when you say "It ought not to come as a surprise that it does not appear under any "record gtroups." Wouldn't it make more sense to look up individuals' names, say?" I apologize if my methodology was not clear. Here's what I did.

    To get a sense of how often Swift Boats have been mentioned on HNN, one can got to http://www.google.com and type in the search terms Swift Boat and hnn.us. I just did it and came up with 584 hits, most presumably from 2004. Similarly, a google search of the term "record group" and hnn.us came up with one hit, meaning record group had been mentioned only once in the thousands of HNN articles and posted comments since 2002 which are searchable by Google. "Archival research" and hnn.us resulted in 60 hits. For the purposes of this search, I am not searching for names, or what any individual said, only to see how often certain subject terms have come up in HNN articles, blogs and posts. The National Archives, records series, record groups, and archival research are not mentioned very frequently.

    I have more experience with H-net than with HNN. I've probably made a mistake in transferring over my H-net experiences to HNN. Obviously, I still am learning my way around here. Record groups come up frequently on H-diplo. For example, Jeffrey Kimball posted this in 2001:

    "From: Jeffrey Kimball <kimbaljp@muohio.edu>
    List Editor: "H-DIPLO [Johnstone]" <hdiplo@yorku.ca>
    Author's Subject: State Department Lot Files
    Date Written: Tue, 17 Apr 2001 09:41:00 -0400
    Date Posted: Tue, 17 Apr 2001 09:41:00 -0400

    On April 11 the National Security Archive (NSA) posted on its web site (http://www.nsarchive.org) a list of unprocessed U.S. State Department lot files, which are in the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) but unavailable for research. Lot
    files are among the most important sources for research on the history of post-World War II U.S. foreign relations. During the mid-1990s the State Department released what NSA described as a "plethora" of lot files, but in the last few years, as NSA explains, "progress in
    releasing lot files has slowed considerably." The fundamental problem lies not with the State Department but with NARA, which has responsibility for the final processing of lot files but has reduced the number of security-cleared staff assigned to this task.

    Diplomatic historians who are concerned about this matter can find a fuller description of the problem and the list of unprocessed lot files at NSA's web site. Since there is a need to put diplomatic pressure on NARA to assign more staff to these collections, diplomatic historians
    may also want to consider calling or writing NARA about their concerns:
    NARA, 8601 Adelphi Rd., College Park, Maryland 20740-6001.

    Jeffrey Kimball"

    This led to a lively debate among Warren Kimball, Jeffrey Kimball, Hayden Peake, and me. For example, I wrote in part:

    "From: Maarja Krusten <Maarja@aol.com>
    List Editor: "H-DIPLO [Johnstone]" <hdiplo@yorku.ca>
    Author's Subject: NARA's critics (Krusten)
    Date Written: Thu, 19 Apr 2001 11:59:11 -0400
    Date Posted: Thu, 19 Apr 2001 11:59:11 -0400

    Warren Kimball writes that "as an organization and a bureaucracy, and despite the best and courageous efforts of some individuals within NARA -- is too weak, too timid, too unimaginative, too lacking in purpose and
    commitment, too hidebound and procedural, to be an effective force for declassification." He asserts that "It is definitely not committed to declassification of those records. Even when other agencies provide
    declassification guidelines for NARA personnel to use, timidity and over-caution prevail. NARA routinely refers "unclear" issues back to the agency with equity in the information, lest declassification upset another agency, something NARA tries to avoid at all cost."

    Is this a fair assessment? Having worked at the National Archives and still having many friends at NARA, I know that it is not. To understand NARA's position, you have to look at where it stands in relation to Congressional appropriators and to other federal agencies.

    Warren Kimball supports creation of a new declassification agency along the lines suggested by former Senator Pat Moynihan. But it is not the guidelines and the NARA officials and employees that are the problem.
    Instead, it is the lack of support within the rest of government for declassification that has hindered NARA. That being the case, why would this not also hinder the new agency Kimball has in mind? Wouldn't the new agency be as affected by the Kyl and Lott amendments as NARA
    currently would appear to be?

    Before attacking NARA as an ineffective force for declassification, scholars need to recognize that the National Archives is not autonomous; in fact, there is no mythical, totally independent "[fourth] branch" of government that can be totally committed to openness and public accountability. But many critics act instead as if there is some kind of firewall around the agency which protects it from pressure from other government entities. There is no such firewall. To be useful, any criticism of NARA must take into account all the sources of pressure on
    the agency and look for ways to protect it, not tear down the agency.

    Who is going to speak out on NARA's behalf? Obviously, as with every federal agency, management counts on NARA's employees to be team players and to submit to message discipline. Sometimes the message is imposed from outside NARA, from the White House, from the Department of
    Justice, from other agencies that have prevailed in access battles. Remember, 'the government speaks with one voice,' regardless of internal debates. But if employees do speak out about perceived problems, it is all too easy to dismiss them as 'disgruntled archivists' as was the case with some of the working staff who testified
    in the Nixon public access litigation in 1992. If employees are limited in what they can do, that leaves NARA's customers as the best advocates for its mission.

    Yet it is my experience that few scholars or academics bother to learn how the Archives really works or what the sources of pressure are on the Archives. Lack of information and understanding substantially weakens
    their ability to assist NARA in carrying out its mission."

    Judging by my google search, described above, I will only find frustration if I try to have such debates on HNN. Far more posts deal with current events or reflect posters' ideological viewpoints than with the archival records that capture how goverment really operates. So, just trying to pick up trends, patterns, topics of interest to HNNers, etc.

    Derek Charles Catsam - 10/12/2004

    Maarja --
    A lack of comments on an article can mean lots of things or nothing. i would not read too much into it. the same thing happens on blogs -- a smart, solid, insightful blog entry might get nothing at all for comments. A dumber one might be a lightning rod. A smart post a on a topic about which few have disputes or knowledge won't lead to much discussion. just about anything on a popular topic will garner discussion.
    The intersection between teachers, scholars and archicists is, as you know, a tough one to bring together, especially on a site like this one which tends to e more about content than methodology, and where methodological issues come up through an ideological lens most of the time.

    Derek Charles Catsam - 10/12/2004

    Maarja --
    No, most of us research and teach. But hnn is a website dedicated to commentary on current and historical events from the perspective of practicing historians. It ought not to come as a surprise that it does not appear under any "record gtroups." Wouldn't it make more sense to look up individuals' names, say? Or to look at something other than record groups? To see if we are publishing a simnple worldcat search of names of authors would seem to make a lot more sense than a rather diffuse records group search.
    I've no idea about the motivation behind your question, but I do have some quams with your methodology.

    Maarja Krusten - 10/12/2004

    Consider also Stephen Haycox's 2002 article, "Rely on Documents, Not Memory" available in the Anchorage Daily News at

    Posted on personal time during lunch break.

    David Lion Salmanson - 10/12/2004

    The author clearly hasn't read the literature on public memory. The always quotable Richard White argues that history and memory are at war with each other. Historians don't really shape memory, memory gets passed down orally (and sometimes in writing)and is shaped by the needs of character, narrative,plot etc. in other words: storytelling.
    The sweeping generalizations here are childish. The generation that deified Kennedy were the children who came of age immediately after his assasination: old enough to (mis)remember where they were, but young enough to not actually have followed politics.

    Maarja Krusten - 10/12/2004

    Here are some interesting google results, which may explain some of the above. I was amazed to see that google produced only a single hit for the terms "hnn.us" and "record group," a common term used by people doing research at the National Archives.

    Google: search terms hnn.us archival research
    60 results, many repetitive/duplicative:

    Google: search terms hnn.us record groups
    1 result

    Google: search terms hnn.us professor
    8810 results

    Google: search terms hnn.us teach
    2240 results

    I noted with interest the following article from 2002, which drew relatively few comments. One of the most interesting was from Roger Launius, who is the president of the Society for History in the Federal Government.

    10-21-02: Teacher's Lounge Archives
    No, You Don't Have to Teach History After You Get Your Ph.D.
    By Kenneth Durr
    Mr. Durr holds a Ph.D. from the American University in Washington, D.C., and is a Senior Historian and Director of the History Division at History Associates Incorporated, Rockville, Maryland.

    Maarja Krusten - 10/11/2004

    I doubt that I will get any takers on my question on where I, as an historian and former archivist, can find a forum which brings together a broad range of historical stakeholders. On the off chance that anyone reading this article wants to see what historians who don't already have their minds made up on Reagan are up against, see Public Citizen's website at

    That page includes a link to the list by the American Library Association of history books which would have been affected by the Bush executive order on Reagan's and other Presidents' records. You'll recognize Gil Troy, whose articles often are posted on HNN, as one of the listed authors. Also worth reading is Scott Nelson's testimony at http://www.citizen.org/litigation/briefs/FOIAGovtSec/articles.cfm?ID=6427 . I tangled with Mr. Nelson when he was a lawyer representing President Nixon--he questioned me when I testified as a witness in Stanley Kutler's public access lawsuit in 1992. Nelson since has changed sides and now is a senior attorney with Public Citizen.

    Perhaps an election year is not a good time for me to raise issues about objective, impartial access to Presidential records, even to rebut an article such as Mr. Fagan's. Something in the air these days seems to make it awfully hard for me to make these issues resonate on HNN. Maybe I'll figure it out some day. At any rate, I wish anyone who plans to research Reagan loads of luck.

    Maarja Krusten - 10/11/2004

    Ooooooh-kay. I'm throwing in the towel. Let's set aside the archival issues, then, maybe little elves just process the records for historians and say, here you go, have at it. See, even I, who argue generally for civil discourse, can get snarky!

    As I've said ad nauseum, all my experience as an historian is with the government, and even there, it has been primarily as an historical researcher and writer, not as a classroom teacher. Could you provide links or context on the USM issues? I dipped in to HNN briefly in April, then again in August. I need more of a frame of reference on USM.

    Because I've never worked in the academic world, I just need more info on this. Until I started reading HNN, my contact with historians had been with fellow Federal historians and with researchers who came to the National Archives (Ambrose, Kutler, Hoff) and with whom I've continued to stay in contact in recent years. (Well, obviously not recently with Steve Ambrose, but you know what I mean.) I haven't had time to keep up much with goings on in academia or with the academic culture wars. Some of what I see and don't see on HNN just startles me, probably due to ignorance on my part of that other world.

    Ralph E. Luker - 10/11/2004

    Derek Catsam has put it well. There is some mitigation in that Fagan is a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi (see elsewhere on HNN!), but why does USM _have_ a graduate program in history and, if the market is equitable, why does this person have a job teaching in a college classroom?

    Maarja Krusten - 10/11/2004

    Well put, Professor Catsam. After reading Mr. Fagan's article, I was left wondering what he knows about historiography and archives. You youself say that there first has to be "scholarly liternature" on a subject, by which I presume you mean literature based in large part on primary source materials. Most of Reagan's presidential records have yet to be released to the public. President Bush's intervention through the 2001 executive order suggested to some historians that he was concerned about disclosures about his father, who served as Reagan's Vice President. At any rate, since the public record is not complete, it is far too early for historians to come to definitive conclusions about Reagan's administration.

    Here's my question regarding forums. I have been searching for at least three years for a forum where historians, archivists, and records managers can meet. Haven't found it yet. HNN's editor contacted me this summer and asked if he could post an article from me about the nomination of Allen Weinstein as U.S. Archivist. When he posted my article, "The Real Issue at the Heart of the Weinstein Controversy" ( http://hnn.us/articles/6675.html ), Peter Clarke was the only reader to post questions. I didn't know how to take the lack of posters, did it mean lack of interest, failure on my part to present the issues in a way that challenged or engaged readers, or what?

    Yet earlir, in April 2004, I had an interesting dialogue on HNN with Mark Safranski, who was kind enough and candid enough to admit that not all historians are up to speed on archival issues. See http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=33506#33506
    "Re: Some Important Caveats plus question for Mark Safranski (#33506)
    by mark safranski on April 16, 2004 at 3:39 AM

    I think the lack of dialogue between archivists and historians or other scholars is twofold. First, historians see the archives as a means to an end while archivists consider the archives to be an end.

    Secondly,many universities have cut back on their libraryscience and museum programs to the point where interaction betweenprofessional archivists and historians, much less their students, is infrequent. As a grad student I had one 30 minute interaction in aresearch seminar with an accomplished archivist ( who was also held asecond doctorate in modern French political history). Research is secondary to teaching for me so it's been a few years since I've been stymied by our government's parsimonious attitude toward declassification.

    I've never met a historian or other scholar who didn't think access to well kept archives was crucial but the only extendeed conversationI've had on the subject was regarding the sorry organizational state of Russian archives. To be truthful, in order to have a meaningful conversation with you I would have to do some extended reading to get up to speed as my last visit to the National Archives was probably in1997 or 1998. So it's not that your views are unwelcome Maarja, it's just that some of us on H-Diplo are further down the learning curvethan you might realize ( a byproduct of narrow field specialization)--folks like Steven Aftergood excepted of course.

    Perhaps the place to start with your target audience is to communicate/educate them with their perspective as archival patrons asto how changes in policy will impinge on their research efforts ?"

    If you click on the link above Mr. Safranski's comment, you'll see my response and my question to him about the H-net forums, where historians such as Hayden Peake told me in 2001 that scholars had no need to understand the problems faced by the National Archives in screening records for public access.

    Professor Catsam, if you or any other HNN reader has any suggestions for where I could find a forum that brings together historians, archivists, and records managers, I would love to hear about it. Also, if you have read my Weinstein article, I would welcome any suggestions as to what more I can do to follow up on Mr. Safranski's suggestion that I work to "communicate/educate" readers on archival and historigraphical issues. I don't pretend to be an expert in all the fields you HNN historians discuss here--I settled on a narrow field of specialty, post-World War II Presidential history. I am always willing to learn from others and that is one reason I've started turning to HNN. But even here the focus seems narrower than I had expected, people mention books they have read but hardly anyone mentions Records Groups they have researched, access problems they have encountered, etc.

    When I worked as an employee of the National Archives between 1976 and 1990, we were imbued with a strong sense of responsibility to treat historical records with integrity on behalf of historians at large. Were we wrong to feel so strongly about that? In the face of pressure by Nixon to limit disclosures from Watergate tapes, two of my supervisors actually sacrificed their careers in an effort to ensure the right thing was done on behalf of the historical community. Due to its partisan focus on perceptions and personal experience, and disregard for the truth held in records, Mr. Fagan's article probably would make them feel it was not worth it!

    Derek Charles Catsam - 10/11/2004

    . . . about someone who is a PhD student in history and who teaches history at an American university yet who clearly does not know what the term "revisionism" means? Historiographically it has very precise (and pretty value-neutral) meanings. It is one thing for people not in the profession to misuse and abuse the term "revisionism." It is quite another when someone in the profession apparently has not taken historiography 101. There has to be a scholarly literature before there can be revisionism of it. I'm not sure if there even is a scholarly literature with a coherent enough direction that there could be revisionism yet, but what revisionism there is would likely fall more toward those who are re-examining Reagan with a largely positive perspective and not a negative one.
    The rest of the analysis is similarly flawed (the OJ analogy is a howler) but it was hard to take it seriously once he misused such a rudimentary term in the profession.

    Maarja Krusten - 10/11/2004

    Mr. Fagan does not explain that President George W. Bush's executive order rolling back access to Presidential records was triggered by efforts by the National Archives to open some of Reagan's records.

    I understand why people such as Michael Beschloss and John Earl Haynes express concern about "pre-emptive sanitization" and diminished record keeping. Based on my employment at the National Archives, working with the Nixon tapes and documents, I also understand why Stanley Kutler, Joan Hoff and Anna Nelson express concern about efforts by Presidents and their families to influence what you, the research public, will see from historical records. We in the Archives fought some difficult, bloody internal and external battles over the Nixon records.

    One way to reconcile these issues would be to lengthen the period during which White House records remain closed to researchers. I for one would rather historians had to wait longer to get materials, than to see the National Archives continue to face political pressure to withhold information in records. Many of my fellow historians may disagree with such a change, but, hey, where were you guys when the National Archives needed you? I doubt many future historians will have the money that Public Citizen had or the guts that Stanley Kutler showed, when they filed a lawsuit in 1992 which forced the opening of Nixon's Watergate materials which the law had said should be disclosed and which the Archives employees (I among them) long ago had prepared for opening.

    Maarja Krusten - 10/11/2004

    Two things caught my eye. One, the comment that "when revisionist historians go after Reagan," as if there is a cadre of historians out there, just itching to go after Presidents simply for sport. Fascinating!

    Two, the absence of discussion of source materials for future historians. Articles on HNN about source materials would be more useful than articles about a historian who may have grown up believing a President could do no wrong. Why do most people who call themselves historians ignore the critical challenges now facing archivists and records managers? Good historians do not allow their "perceptions" to color their finished products, they rely on contemporaneous documentation preserved and released in archival sources. Look at how Steve Ambrose modified his views of Richard Nixon after doing thorough research in archival sources for his 3-volume biography. Although he had opposed Nixon's policies during the 1970s, his research led him to conclude that the nation lost more than it gained by Nixon's resignation.

    There are many record keeping and archival challenges that largely are ignored on HNN. Look at http://www.cnn.com/TECH/9712/26/erasing.history.ap/ in which Nixon scholar Joan Hoff expresses concern about what is being lost in current record keeping. "Hoff suspects that the only thing left for future historians will be the end-product document -- tidy, spell-checked, evenly margined and sterile -- bearing the unmistakable blandness of a deed done by committee. But what researchers want are the marginalia that reflect the internal struggle that preceded policy."

    Look at historian John Earl Haynes's comments on H-diplo about the impact of what he calls "legally mandated rapid disclosure of policy making records of public officials enacted in the late 1970s and later.  These mandates resulted in a pigs in mud golden era for journalists with their near-term agenda and "gotcha" mentality, and, to be sure, allowed historians of the 1960s and 1970s to gain access to records much sooner than they otherwise would have had.  But the trade-off has been catastrophic for future historians.  Pre-emptive sanitization of the record is not episodic but nearly universal among policy making officials and their staffs since the mid-1970s."

    Haynes describes how as an executive branch employee, with the advent of early disclosure laws, he and his colleagues stopped keeping records and mostly conducted business orally. He adds, "In my post-political role as a acquirer of historical records, the drastic diminution of the richness of the record between those created before the mid-1970s and later is obvious. The practical result of legally mandated rapid disclosure of the records of policy makers has been to impoverish the historical record.  Records not created are not available, ever, for historical research. "

    Writing in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Michael Beschloss noted in December 2002:

    "Increasingly worried about such political dangers as subpoenas from special prosecutors, newspaper leaks, and memoirs by disgruntled ex-officials published while their ex--bosses are still in office, presidents and their chief officials shy away from putting things on paper. Public figures no longer write the kind of thoughtful, discursive letters and revealing memos that we used to see. People in Washington are more public relations savvy than in earlier times and, thus, more adept at drafting memos and other records that conceal their motives and can fool the historian.

    The result of all of this is that a historian of the years of Bill Clinton, George W Bush, or their successors may not have the kind of sources needed to understand who did what to whom and why as well as a scholar might for, say, the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. The result of this could be that historical scholarship on future presidents may become, of necessity, more speculative."

    Elsewhere, I have posted articles and comments on HNN about external pressure on the National Archives and outside efforts to undermine the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and the Nixon Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974. Except for Stanley Kutler, Joan Hoff, and Anna Nelson, most historians have remained silent on these issues.

    As reflected in Mr. Fagan's article, and many comments posted on HNN, historians here often debate about Presidents and candidates by using their own perceptions of events they lived through. They almost never talk about the potential impact on research of the attempted rollback on public access to records or the diminution of records described by Haynes and Beschloss. It is a mystery to me why HNN's writers and posters shy away from critical issues debated in other forums by records managers and archivists, the people they rely on for preservation of credible, primary source documents. Perhaps if they checked out those Listservs more often, they could better connect the dots. Ah well, as I noted in August, although future historians rely on present day historians to take a hard look now at challenges facing records managers and archivists, they are not being well served on those issues, here on HNN or elsewhere.
    At times, when I am feeling discouraged, I even shake my head and say, so be it, may you HNN historians get the National Archives of the future that you deserve!