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Apr 21, 2004 4:23 pm

The Allen Weinstein Thing ...

I've been having a debate this morning via e-mail with Richard Jensen, a well known historian who manages Conservativenet, a private listserv, about the nomination of Allen Weinstein to be Archivist of the United States.

Here are the reports about Weinstein's nomination by the Associated Press, Chronicle of Higher Education (subscriber only), New York Times, and Washington Post. The charges against Weinstein are outlined in this editorial in The Nation. You can expect a fairly big dustup over this nomination -- at least a big one so far as dustups go among historians. There'll be petitions and arguments -- that's for sure.

Suspicions have been aroused about Weinstein's work as a result of his conclusions that Alger Hiss was guilty of spying for the Soviet Union, Weinstein's use of paid access to Soviet archives for a subsequent book, and his unwillingness to make his notes available to other researchers. Suspicions about the administration's motives focus in its apparent determination to prevent access to records of the Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II administrations. My own sense of things is that Weinstein is correct about Alger Hiss, but Weinstein's refusal to make his notes available to other researchers should ring the alarm bells.

Historians normally point to the evidence for their conclusions in reference notes. Ordinarily, there is little controversy about them. When questions arise, a responsible historian will disclose his or her sources. That is our equivalent of the scientists' insistence that experiments must be replicable. Weinstein's publisher paid for his access to the Soviet archives. Other historians are barred from access to the Soviet archives. Weinstein arouses suspicion by his refusal to make his notes on documents in the Soviet archives available to other researchers. If we've learned nothing else from the Bellesiles controversy, surely we have learned that a historian must be willing to fully disclose, to be fully transparent about, the bases on which he reached his conclusions.

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Richard Henry Morgan - 4/23/2004


I've just checked the references for Weinstein and Vassiliev's The Haunted Wood, and they don't cite their own notes as sources, but the actual file numbers of the KGB files. This whole tempest in a teacup is a poorly disguised attempt by the Hiss apologists to block an appointment to a man who stands between them and their fantasies. Witness Sandilands redefining Weinstein's files as "archives", Navasky's redefining Volkogonov as "chairman of the military intelligence archives", and the invention of an obligation to make one's notes available to others. The analogy drawn to the Bellesiles case throws more shadow than light on the subject.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/23/2004

Weinstein's notes aren't evidence, and they aren't archival materials. They are work product. I can understand how someone might prefer theft over honest labor, and by that logic feel that Weinstein has some sort of obligation to make his notes freely available to all -- I can understand it, but have little sympathy for it.

If Weinstein doesn't cite his notes, but uses them as an aide-memoire for citing archival materials, then he has absolutely no obligation to make them available to anybody. How exactly his reluctance to dispense his work product to freeriders could reflect on his fitness to be an archivist, is similarly beyond me.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/21/2004

And of course, there's the question about appropriateness for the position: would the refusal to reveal his notes mean so much if it weren't the National archivist, a position which should require the greatest possible committment to open sources, to which he has been nominated.

David T. Beito - 4/21/2004

Much as I am inclined Weinstein's side on this (he was right about Hiss), I am too am troubled by his failure to reveal his ources. We certainly expected Bellesiles to back up his claims and held him to account when he was unable to do so.

Ophelia Benson - 4/21/2004

"Even an essentially correct conclusion, in the absence of evidence to support it, can be undermined."

Which is one very compelling reason not to withold the evidence! In any form of empirical inquiry, one would think. Police detectives and forensic investigators and pathologists are not allowed to withold their evidence, for blindingly obvious reasons.

Susan Haack writes about the essential continuity of various forms of inquiry in her new book Defending Science.

And Richard Evans has this to say at the end of an article he published on Butterflies and Wheels -

"And if there is such a thing as a biased, tendentious historian who tried to support preconceived ideas about the past by a selective use of the evidence and by doctoring the documents, there must be such a thing as an objective historian who puts preconceived ideas about the past to the test of whether or not they are supported by the evidence, and modifies or abandons them if they are not."

Can't do that if the evidence isn't there to check...

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/21/2004

The failure to disclose the notes is helpful to those of us who are Hiss apologists, I'll say that much. Even an essentially correct conclusion, in the absence of evidence to support it, can be undermined. And I have some much older retired colleagues (who actually remember the trial) who would love to do just that.

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