The other day, the John F. Kennedy Library and the National Archives announced that they would be holding a conference in March on the subject of the Vietnam War. Promotional literature trumpeted the appearance of well-known figures such as David Halberstam, Dan Rather, Brian Williams, Bob Herbert, and Henry Kissinger, serving on panels on topics from “Vietnam and Presidential Tapes” to “Inside the White House.”
Although on the surface benign and even appealing, this announcement dismayed many scholars of the Vietnam era, myself included, because it concealed an unpleasant back story. Last year the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace abruptly scuttled a similar symposium—one with many more scholars participating—apparently for political reasons. By hosting this new event, the other libraries are, albeit unintentionally, legitimizing that transgression.
Some in academia dismiss high-profile conferences like this one as just so much public relations. But these events can shape popular perceptions of the issues at stake and may subtly affect agendas. The public awareness and media coverage that result can drive Congress or an administration to direct funding for research in one direction or another, and even can influence the academic world directly. This conference, moreover, comes at an auspicious moment: The Nixon Library just released the deed of its gift of many of its materials to the National Archives—a critical step before it’s absorbed into the presidential library system later this year.
Some background: For 30 years after Nixon resigned, the Nixon Library—alone among the archives dedicated to our chief executives —remained outside the official presidential library system. Nixon’s much-deplored efforts at the end of his presidency to destroy or make off with government records prodded Congress and even President Ford to realize that his papers required special care. In 1974 they enacted the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, making Nixon’s official papers and tapes public property. The law kept the Nixon materials in government custody in the Washington, D.C., area, while the privately run Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., was home to only his pre- and post-presidential papers.
But in 2004 Congress voted to let the Nixon Library join the grown-ups’ table—and to move his presidential materials from the National Archives in Maryland to Yorba Linda. Although the National Archives will run the library and materials, and thus in theory should rid the Nixon Library of political influences, in practice the family foundations in many presidential libraries still exert influence, notably over areas such as public exhibitions and access to personal papers. The Nixon Library has a history of extreme politicization—the library has seldom hosted serious historians, who tend to be at least somewhat critical of Nixon, more typically showcasing assorted Nixon apologists and right-wing pundits—and so the imminent transfer remains worrisome.
To show good faith, the Nixon Library planned, with Whittier College (Nixon’s alma mater), a conference on Nixon and Vietnam, to be held last April. The conference promised to feature leading scholarly critics of Nixon’s handling of the war, including Larry Berman, Jeffrey Kimball, Stanley Kutler, and Melvin Small. (I was also going to participate.) But the Nixon Library suddenly cut off funding for the conference, terminating the event. The library said that not enough people had signed up to attend—even though scholarly conferences don’t normally generate revenue, and, besides, most invitations still hadn’t been sent. Some of us suspected that the library was up to its old tricks, trying to shut down an honest (i.e., not hagiographic) inquiry into Nixon’s record. It was as though Nixon, obsessed with his reputation during his lifetime, were waging his image campaign from beyond the grave.
I joined 15 others in the intellectual’s time-honored act of feckless protest: signing a letter. We wrote to Congress, asking it to suspend the transfer of the Nixon materials to Yorba Linda. The flap about the “Yorba Linda 16”garnered some news coverage and the library backpedaled slightly. Under pressure from the newly appointed national archivist, Allen Weinstein, John H. Taylor of the Nixon Library agreed to give the archives White House materials dealing with Nixon’s political activities (as it’s now doing). Taylor also pledged to make his institution’s exhibit about Watergate more accurate, which, when I last saw it, accused Democrats in Congress of planning a coup against Nixon in order to make House Speaker Carl Albert president. Finally, participants in the aborted conference received assurances that there would be another Vietnam symposium in the future.
The Kennedy Library stepped into the breach by proposing a conference to be co-hosted by the National Archives of all the presidential libraries—an unprecedented and encouraging collaboration, Weinstein noted. The organizers stated it wasn’t a “replacement.” Nonetheless, it was made possible by the first conference’s cancellation, it was hatched immediately afterward, and the Nixon Library joined in the planning. Even granting the different goals of the new event—this one aspired to a much broader public audience—the new conference was, in fact if not in intention, a substitute.
Unfortunately, no one systematically reached out to the participants of the canceled affair, although three distinguished historians from the Nixon Library conference program—George Herring of the University of Kentucky, Jeffrey Kimball of Miami University, and Robert Schulzinger of the University of Colorado—were invited, as was Marilyn Young of New York University. When the press release came out, attitudes among the Yorba Linda 16 ranged from outrage to mild disappointment tinged with measured hope.
What troubled many was that the organizers rounded out the new program not with more scholars but with lots of famous names. As the author of The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam, to be sure, has earned a place in any discussion of the Vietnam War. But the addition of Kissinger, Jack Valenti, and, most bizarrely, Brian Williams of NBC News suggests that one motive at work might be to solicit a lot of oohing and aahing—coos that would drown out last year’s bad publicity.
As Cornell’s Fredrik Logevall noted, the relative paucity of scholars, coupled with their relegation to the first panels, held on a Friday afternoon, leaves the impression that these academics are there for respectability—to be seen and not much heard. Deborah Leff of the Kennedy Library argued to me that putting the historians first was only logical. But compared to the original event, their role has undeniably been diminished. (In talking to me for this article, Weinstein said he still hopes more historians might be included in the upcoming conference.)
The problems are compounded, as Carolyn Eisenberg of Hofstra University put it, by the inclusion of policy-makers such as Kissinger and Al Haig, which raises questions about the dedication to pursuing historical truth. All policy-makers are inclined to offer self-serving remarks (as Al From, among others, showed at a recent Clinton conference); but for this war and this era, the credibility of government officials is a central, unavoidable issue. Spotlighting Kissinger takes it off the table; it presumes that he deserves the stature that should be debated.
A case can be made, of course, for including even officials with dubious reputations. But they ought to share the stage with panelists who can offer informed accounts that are based on documentary evidence—and who can question the officials directly. Kissinger and Haig are insulated on a panel with no journalists or historians.
To my mind, the worst result is that going forward in this way sweeps under the rug last year’s Nixon conference fiasco. It implies that the cancellation of the conference carries no censure, that no amends need to be made. In fact, questions remain about whether the Nixon Library, as it enters the presidential library system, will live up to National Archives standards. As we hear news reports of Gerald Ford growing ill in his twilight years, it’s hard not to think of him in this context. For, in a small way, Richard Nixon seems to be getting pardoned all over again.