Mining History at the National Archives

As 2006 comes to a close, the National Archives will begin releasing millions of previously classified documents that are 25 years or older. The papers' subject matter ranges from the New Deal to the Cold War.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Tonight at midnight, while most people are celebrating the new year, American history scholars will strike gold. The National Archives will release millions of pages of previously classified material. It's the first automatic declassification of records 25 years or older. Researchers expect to find, among other things, FBI Cold War files, materials relating to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and papers from the Vietnam War. To get a sense of this historical gold, we went to the gold mine, the National Archives, to see the Archivist of the United States, Allen Weinstein, and J. William Leonard, head of the Archives Information Security Oversight Office. Professor Weinstein says there will be some surprises.

Professor ALLEN WEINSTEIN (Archivist of the United States): Virtually every controversy that one would want to think had a documentary basis to it, and that's every controversy, will have something that will be new, often significantly new, in this material. But - it's a big but - we have on those billions of pages that are coming out, total, at the National Archives maybe 100 people were working on this. We've actually just ended, or are ending a hiring freeze. So the real issue will be one of resources.

Mr. J. WILLIAM LEONARD (Information Security Oversight Office): One of the aspects of the National Archives is to run our presidential libraries. And one of the first of the presidential libraries whose holdings will be subject to automatic declassification is Ronald Reagan's library. In the year 2010, that will mark the 25th anniversary for the end of his first administration. There's approximately 9 million pages of classified holdings at the Reagan Library, and today there's no more than three or four people who routinely review those records for declassification.

SEABROOK: Now, as these pages become declassified, are they in any kind of order? Can researchers find what they might be looking for, or is this essentially just a big pile?

Prof. WEINSTEIN: Well, you can find pretty much what you're looking for if you know how to look for it. And there we have terrific archivists to advise people and help them in this process. I'll give you a small personal example. My parents were immigrants to the United States from czarist Russia. I managed with just a few stray facts and the help of a great research archivist to find my mother's and my father's files before they became citizens, all the files having to do with their applications for citizenship. So I know more about my family now than I did. Sixty to 70 percent of our users are genealogists, and they're utterly devoted to what we do here.

Mr. LEONARD: The point you make, though, is actually one of the criticisms that some people have of this concept of automatic declassification. There are some people who advocate rather than having just the chronology serve as the determining factor, should instead focus on specific collections at a specific period of time, where whole collections and the full substance gets released more or less at the same time, as opposed to over a period of time.

One of the things, for example, that the archives will be emphasizing in the years to come are the records of the 9/11 Commission. When those records were turned over to the archives, the commission asked that everything be done that could be possible done to declassify those records by 2009. And so that's an example where an interagency effort will be devoted to a specific collection of records in order to accomplish that.

Prof. WEINSTEIN: And we are now finishing our research and our final volumes on the activities by the U.S. government after the Second World War related to Nazi war crimes and criminals and Japanese war crimes and criminals. The Nazi stuff has been published. The Japanese materials will be published, I think next month. But the fact of the matter is, I worry as an historian about overly focusing on one or two episodes. The 9/11 Commission, no question about it, given its importance in American life; the Kennedy assassination also. But after that, for example, have we until recently spent enough time focused on the struggle of minorities and women, not just in American life, but to achieve full equality? I'm not sure we have, and I've made that one of my priorities here.

SEABROOK: Professor Weinstein, it sounds like you're saying that the archives of the United States have much wider importance to everyday Americans than just knowing more about any one topic of history or any one scandal.

Prof. WEINSTEIN: That's correct.

SEABROOK: What is that importance?

Prof. WEINSTEIN: There's a quote that's often misused, by an immigrant leader named Carl Schurz in the 19th century, who's quoted as saying, my country right or wrong. What he actually said was, my country right or wrong; when she's right, support her, but if she's wrong, correct her. And we have the most self-corrective country in the history of the world. We make mistakes, we make big, big mistakes sometimes, but then at some stage of the game you can be certain that we'll come back and take a look at it, a second look, a third look, and we'll try to remedy anything we've done that shouldn't have been done.

Mr. LEONARD: One of the things I always like to point out is that our sense of who we are as a nation, of course, is very much a product of our history. So we have this sense of our past and in some instances it's imperfect. In some instances it may even be somewhat distorted because key records have been withheld for legitimate reasons. That is one of the most exciting things about the declassification efforts of our government, of our nation's agencies, is - is that it is contributing to a fuller understanding, a more complete understanding, a less distorted understanding of who we are as a people, who we are as a government, which I think impacts each and every one of us today.

SEABROOK: Bill Leonard is the director of the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives. And Professor Allen Weinstein is the Archivist of the United States. Thank you both very much.

Prof. WEINSTEIN: Thank you.

Mr. LEONARD: Thank you.

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