In the foreword to his book "Speaking Frankly," former Secretary of State James F. Byrnes wrote: " I have tried, in short, to give you a seat at the conference table. Some critics may say it is too early for these facts to be made known. My answer is that if it were possible to give the people of this world an actual, rather than a figurative, seat at the Peace Conference table, the fears and worries that now grip our hearts would fade away."

Such avowals by officials of belief in the desirability of open channels of information are common. But all governments make it hard for historians, as chroniclers and informants, to validate them. Usually, they are compelled to extract the truth as best they can from incomplete, random and eroded records. Of these there is no lack. But bountiful bibliography is not the equivalent of bountiful knowledge.

Public American and foreign figures engaged in international affairs give out current accounts of what they are or may be doing. They tell, explain and justify their policies and acts and those of their governments. They correct, contradict and rebut the comments of adversaries and critics. The columns of the press are clogged with their presentations. The airwaves, if they were not already bent, would bend under their weight. The TV screens, if they did not already shimmer, would do so under their fluency.

These are essential sources of information, especially for the texts of pertinent documents and communications. But the historian must grope warily among them. For the authorities themselves decide whether and when the world is let into their confidence, how it is to be let in, and whether shallowly or in depth. Historical completeness is only an incidental consideration-incidental and often troublesome. Only the officials concerned know what they are not telling; only they could convey the whole circle of circumstances in which the statements and documents they issue were born and grew.

This continuous current flow of "news" from government sources is supplemented by "inside" stories gathered by probing reporters. In many of these, facts are mingled with surmise and rumor. The more detailed may be derived from arranged interviews; their revelations are shaped by official purpose, sometimes only to counter another "inside" story given out by another official, national or foreign. Confidential information passed on to a favored individual for publication tends to put the author under obligation not to hurt or offend the contributor.

Reaching further into the past, and more systematically, are the histories authorized by government. Some of these are written by members of the staff of one or other government department by request and under direction. Others are written by individuals who are not in the regular employ of the government, but they are chosen by officials and their work is reviewed, and may be revised, censored or suppressed by officials.

Then, on some issues of critical and controversial importance, the historian may be able to learn much from the record of hearings of committees of the Senate and House of Representatives. But executive officials may and often do claim exemption from obligation to disclose information in public hearings. The records of closed hearings may or may not later be published. But before they are, they are carefully reviewed by all and sundry. Parts may be suppressed and the resultant impression distorted. More often than not, versions of what was said in closed hearings appear in the press before the record is in print-versions beginning with the cryptic statement "It was learned. . . ."

Most valuable, in fact indispensable to the historian of recent times, are the memoirs by participants in, witnesses or auditors of momentous events. These have been increasing in volume even as the number of people eager to know what has happened has grown and as the monetary rewards for dredging one's memory have escalated. Moreover, the narrators do not wait as long as they formerly did to publish what they remember or choose to remember. The time span between experience and expression has been shrinking. Historians should be glad of it.

But what a tricky source of historical knowledge individual memoirs may be! The parentage and purpose of the documents themselves must be evaluated: who wrote them, why, and how good and fair a recorder was he? Those who choose to tell, tell; some merely to leave their print on the pad of history; some to clarify; some to shame detractors; each to leave a good image of himself. Who writes a memoir to prove what a stupid official or blundering military commander he was? Who commemorates his own faults and errors? Even granted good conscience and honest purpose, memory is incomplete and fallible. And the reasons for being inhibited or restrained are active. Who likes to be regarded as a harsh critic of his country or as "disloyal" to his associates or party? Who wants to give comfort to his opponents or critics? Most memoirs of officials in some measure turn into adversary briefs.

The whole assembly of these sources leaves the historian of the recent past in ignorance and uncertainty. He has no way of knowing what he does not know. In trying to appraise a situation or negotiation, he cannot be sure either of the completeness or accuracy of his facts or the balance of his opinions. Nor can he be confident of his appraisal of individuals and his interpretation of their relations. He longs to be able to tell the whole story and to know it can withstand the harsh cross-winds of opinion. Similarly, in writing of individuals, he longs to know and to be able to tell of the whole man, the real man, justly, and within the cave of circumstance in which he did his work.


But the path to original and complete records is strewn with obstacles. Let the historian try to get from the authorities all the extant records, unedited, of what was said and done during the past two decades from 1945 to 1965! He will find out that he cannot. If he persists, eventually doors may be closed to him. Now and then he may manage to hasten the process of declassification. But only exceptionally so. It takes just one quick, easy and safe movement of the wrist to place the stamp of secrecy on a document or communication. But ordinarily that stamp cannot be removed until committees of cautious officials have long pondered the wisdom or utility of doing so. Few of those I have known were disposed to take even faint risks that by declassifying a document they might be exposing their country, department or superiors to controversy and jeopardizing their own jobs. Historical truth pays no direct bounty to them and gives little protection.

The most thorough practitioners of secrecy concerning the recent past are the Communist countries. In the Soviet Union and China no history is written or published that is not officially supported and approved. How could it be otherwise? For their governments are not only dictatorial but conspiratorial. They could not survive if their own people-as well as foreign authorities-were let in on their secret thoughts, actions and plans. The locks around their records are an integral part of their system of self-preservation. Of course they are not so described; they are lauded as beneficent guardians of national security in an unfriendly world. Unauthorized priers are regarded as spies or enemies. Woe to all if they were admitted into the pit of truth, dark, deep and slippery.

But must the governments of the Western democracies be constrained by the same anxieties? Can they not be more permissive in disclosing the recent past, the yesterdays from which the present has just emerged? Must the period of internment be 50 years-or even 22 years, as it is now in the United States? Need it be longer than, say, ten years, or the term of a presidential administration, or the development of a main policy? Men, while exercising official responsibilities, say it must be; but the same persons in retirement often seem to conclude it need not be.


Just because the recent past is so pertinent to the present, the historian should be enabled to inform himself about it rather than be denied the chance. Why? One reason is that lack of adequate and well-confirmed knowledge allows distorted accounts of what occurred, and biased interpretations of why it occurred, to thrive. Reliable-I will not say indisputable-knowledge is essential to counter the imaginative partisan, the biased mind, the deliberate decrier and willful worshipper. As remarked by D. C. Watts in a restrained plea for relaxation of the restrictions on the British records: "No amount of official restrictions can prevent histories of the recent past from being written. They can only secure that they are badly and inaccurately written."[i] Prolonged secrecy permits unjust and uninformed evaluation of policies, decisions and persons to survive.

Let me particularize what the historian who tries to inform this generation about the recent past is up against. Suppose, for example, he is bent on writing an appraising account of the development and course of the cold war- an account which may roughly correspond to the facts and, as correctly and fairly as possible, attribute to nations and individuals their motives, activities and policies.

Since he does not want his narrative to be merely a synopsis, he may limit its span from the dissolution of the war alliance in 1943-1945 up to 1952 when Truman relinquished office and the cold war was dominating world affairs. He would be writing of the first period of the atomic age, a time of dramatic vicissitudes, of momentous decisions, of dangerous straits in which the world still swirls.

Most of all, the historian would like to study collected communications, memos, briefs which tell what the responsible American and foreign officials thought, said, wrote and did. Thus he would first reach for the annual series of volumes of foreign relations of the United States. These are culled from the archives of government departments and agencies and diplomatic missions by the Historical Division of the State Department. Mainly because of necessity, but in some instances by choice, these selections are not complete; but their standard is high. To his dismay he would find that the most recent year documented is 1944. Not so long ago the interval between events and publication of the pertinent diplomatic and military records was about 15 years. But the State Department has stretched the term of withholding to 20 years. Actually, not even that "line" (the expression used by State Department historians) is being held; I do not know whether they think of themselves as policemen or umpires. It has been dented only infrequently and for special reasons: by the issuance of the collection of records concerning our China policy, released in defensive explanation, and the American minutes of the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences released in response to a sustained clamor to know.

When queried about the reasons for the interval of secrecy, officials may deplore lack of funds or staff. But it can be taken for granted that in a budget of $110 billions or more it is policy, not penury, that stretches the gap. The historian asks himself what the American government- particularly the Secretary of State-is waiting for, or of what it is afraid.

Similar rules, I believe, keep the records of the Foreign Aid Administration closed for a like period. The records of the activities, successes and failures of the Central Intelligence Agency are slated to be kept secret far longer, perhaps forever; yet how riddled they are by leaks from inside or revelations made to win funds or refute criticisms of the agency! The records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are held to be sacrosanct- except by former members when, after retirement, they recall their strategy and fight their battles over again.

Denied access to the departmentally accumulated records of the period of the cold war, our historian may turn hopefully to those that were collected in the White House, called usually the Presidential papers. These he would expect to be able to study in the Truman Memorial Library in Independence. For did not Truman often exalt the educational value of history? But up to now the inquirers have not been permitted to look at any records in the Library which are still marked "confidential" or "secret" or "top secret."

Should the probing mind travel from the Truman Administration to the Eisenhower Administration, it would be less baffled by contradiction but more frustrated by the bans on unpublished and classified official records. Yet President Eisenhower said that he favored virtually complete disclosure; and at the time he seemed to mean disclosure to this generation, not only the ones that outlive him. The papers of John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State are still closed. All other memoirs written by officials concerned with foreign affairs during this period are thin.

If we turn to the problem of writing the history of the crucial events in our foreign relations during the short term of office of the gallant John F. Kennedy, the divergence of the restrictions becomes glaring. There is, I presume, no chance that the historian would at present be able to consult the pertinent official records or memos of conferences, instructions to our embassies, and correspondence with foreign statesmen during the period of his presidency. But what an admirable series of privileged and candid narratives and memoirs tell us what may be found in them! What elaborately detailed accounts have appeared in the weekly magazines of how the rout of the Bay of Pigs came about, and what happened in the critical crisis when President Kennedy challenged the Russian installations of missiles in Cuba!

Can the historian be blamed if he is struck by the contrast between the scope and contents of the published official records and the disclosures of participants, confidants or a few favored journalists? This places a very high premium on securing and diffusing information before anyone else, and perhaps exclusively. Men may be drawn into office as the corridor to future careers as historians. Warm the Boswells inside the gates, envious the Boswells left outside!


Lest I seem to be railing only at American authorities for interposing barriers to knowledge of the recent past, it should be noted that those maintained by almost all foreign governments are even longer-lasting and less penetrable. Comparison with British practices is most usual and natural. These are more restrictive and give rise to even greater divergences. As summarized by Dr. Charles Wilson of Jesus College in the London Times of November 19, 1962 (apropos of Lord Avon's memoirs) : "Foreign Ministers and retired service officers are free to publish and interpret documents and policy statements not previously revealed. Journalists are apparently accorded similar privileges when it is convenient to the department that this should be done. . . . Professional historians are governed by quite different rules. They have accepted a principle reached by committees of historians and civil servants that research should be restricted to official documents not less than 50 years old."

As a rule the British Foreign Office refuses requests of students for access to records of later date. This long-aging, Foreign Office officials explain, is necessary for diverse reasons: to protect officials from temptation to write and speak with their minds on how they will appear in the public record and to encourage them to be forthright in word and deed. When these justifications have been disputed, the British defenders of the restrictive rules have fallen back on the need to protect British interests and security. But have they truly and effectively done so?

The British government, like the American, does publish collections of official records from time to time on situations or issues of controversial importance. But in the recent past it has done so less frequently-only when it served its purpose, or when the public or parliamentary demand to know became irresistible.

In contrast with this official reticence are the reports of some of the leaders of British foreign relations in the recent past. Those that tell of events during the period of the Truman presidency, for example, are more candid and comprehensive than the works of their American counterparts. The volumes written by Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Anthony Eden (Lord Avon) are the most notable. Those of Lord Attlee are slim and uninformative, but he never had the gift of communicating and was always safely shy. The experiences of Ernest Bevin, Foreign Minister, are being written from his papers by Alan Bullock, and will be, I am sure, more enlightening. The papers of Lord Dalton, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Bevin's rival for the office of Foreign Secretary, are accessible. Much may be expected of the next volume of memoirs of former Prime Minister Macmillan. And there are many others. British Foreign Office officials and ambassadors give and get much enjoyment from their reminiscences. Having been released from the bonds of office, they write well and freely.

Still, as the historian gropes his way through this profusion, he must regret that he cannot get at the complete, original, unselected, uninterpreted British records themselves. Without them his hope must languish of knowing the whole tale, of being able to discern with confidence cause and effect, action and response, rights and wrongs.


To return to the situation of the historian in the United States, the presidential and other memorial libraries will later on be of service and value to those who write of the safely outdistanced past. But unless present and prospective rules and restrictions are relaxed, they will not aid those who want to study and write about the travelling recent past. Their chances of ascertaining what happened and of being able to appraise it will be as hobbled as they are now.

The creation of these libraries was bathed in the light of promised revelation. They were not conceived merely as memorials and preservative depositories. They were hailed because of the belief that they would enable the American people to learn more-and more easily and quickly-about their past. But the light of revelation is now so filtered through curtains of reserve that the value of these institutions to the historian of the recent past is still to be proven.

There are five presidential libraries at present: the Herbert Hoover Library in Iowa, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, and the John F. Kennedy Library which is to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

These repositories of most important records are under direct executive control. They are run by the General Service Administration through the Archivist of the United States, with members of his staff working in Washington and in each of the libraries. Thus all the papers that may be collected by the magnetism of reputation or association are in the custody of officials who are well stitched into the executive webbing and subject to orders. In decisions about throwing open to general inspection records in the upper realm of historical interest, these archivists neither can nor will exercise independent judgment. They can hardly be expected to risk their careers in espousing the cause of the historians against the heads of executive departments or library trustees.

The records of the recent past now in the custody of these libraries are fenced in with stakes as high and strong as those around the White House grounds. The noted public figures for whom the libraries are named, or persons acting for them, determine in the first place which of the records they have collected will be put in these repositories, and which they or their families will retain. This right is theirs even after the papers have been mined and milled for published memoirs. President Truman has made no secret of the fact that he has kept several filing cabinets of his records out of the custody of the Truman Library-to make sure no one will see them until after he is dead and safe from the barbs of history. No outsider knows what records are or will be placed in the Eisenhower Library and which kept out. The papers of Kennedy are still being garnered; it is to be hoped that those who possess them will not screen them before placing them in public custody.

The donors of the records also retain the right to determine when and under what conditions the independent student may be allowed to acquaint himself with them. They can stipulate that they should be closed for decades. They can grant permission to study them to some students but not to others equally qualified. Lastly, they can rule that notes or manuscripts based on the records be submitted for approval of either the staff of the library or other designated scrutineers. Moreover, the officials and trustees who are guardians of these collections may regard themselves also as guardians of the reputation of the memorialized individual. They may be loath to expose that reputation to sting or stain as long as living persons care deeply.

Even if the restrictions imposed by depositors themselves on these presidential papers should be light, the historian of the recent past may still be hindered in their use by the governmental departments and agencies concerned with foreign affairs. Any request made to the directors of these libraries to see records still marked classified by the State or Defense Departments, the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the White House are submitted to these branches of government. Their rules will determine whether the request is granted or denied and fix the procedure for clearance of manuscripts or notes. In short, these departments have as firm a clasp around the records in the presidential libraries as around those in their own files.

There is one other plait in the cordon drawn by the American government. "Documents of foreign origin," even in open files, may not be seen by the historian until and unless they are published, presumably with permission of their authors. This practice, except where it is undermined by deliberate seepage, affords each government reciprocal protection against prying historians of the others. As far as I know at present, however, no international organization has been constituted to control the traffic in historical documents (similar, let us say, to those operating to control the white-slave trade or the transmission of cholera).


While upholding the wish of the historian, I should not ignore the reasons why some records of the very recent past had better be kept for a while out of his grasp. These pertain particularly to documents closely connected with negotiations that are either still unfinished or actually in train. Engaged officials need the assurance that what they say will be kept in confidence until revelation is no longer a serious danger to their cause or to themselves. Otherwise they will be more fearful and less inclined to act as sponsors of accords whose value and wisdom the people may not yet have accepted. They are justified in seeking to guard against premature revelations which may be distorted by enemies or critics to defeat their efforts. There are always malicious trouble-makers on the prowl, at home or abroad. Temporary or partial secrecy about current affairs may be justified because publication might make it harder for colleagues to agree and governments to survive or to protect sources of information, licit or illicit.

Also the sensibilities of foreign nations and statesmen must be considered: their pride or vanity or self-defensiveness. Why, guardians of the records are apt to argue, perhaps provoke animosity by imparting information only historians or partisans crave? Sometimes this risk is real, and possible consequences to sponsors are serious. But most seldom so. If the record be fair and true, any hurt done is likely to be brief and easily borne; the truth will be salutary.

But what if the record contains traces of deception or double-dealing? Governments can hardly be expected to go in for public confessions. Thus the historian must reconcile himself to some exclusions until any such episodes have been withered by time. But again only most exceptionally. Practitioners of deception are usually suspected by the foreign officials with whom they deal. The historian is apt to dispel the scent of deliberate deception and misdealing more often than stumble into unsuspected cavities of it. He will probably discover fewer scoundrels and more men of honest but mistaken intentions than cynical contemporaries-domestic and foreign- thought.

I would also agree, reluctantly, that public officials should retain the right to screen the notes taken by historians on recent situations or episodes of unusual danger or delicacy, the right to grant or deny clearance to knowledge obtained. But even in the very rare cases that such a procedure may be justified, the officials responsible for the screening should be courageous, professionally trained and eager to assist the historian.

My spirit is still scarred by a recent personal experience of the harassing procedures which must be undergone by probers into unpublished records of the foreign relations of the United States since 1944. My aim was to scan the notes and memos made by former Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy and Harvey Bundy, former Special Assistant to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, on discussions about the introduction into international life of the atom bomb. These papers had been thoroughly and well used in the official history of the production of the weapon, written under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission. Nevertheless, permission to look through selected components of this file was granted only after several months of pleading and ponderous correspondence, perhaps only because, as I found out, every significant item of information was already known. Yet that fact did not shorten the subsequent trials of securing clearance of my 20 pages of notes. In pursuit of that clearance I felt like a character of Kafka's. Word reached me that my notes were being read by this or that official, this or that committee of officials of the Atomic Energy Commission, State Department, Defense Department. I conferred with desk sergeants, majors, colonels and generals, legal counsels and Assistant Secretaries of State. About two months later I was informed that the last of the needed initials had been placed upon the release. By then proofs of my book, long overdue, had been returned to the publishers, unblessed by the "secret" knowledge I had been allowed to secure.


The authorities in power are not budged by the ardor of historians nor persuaded by the contention that in these times when the lives and fortunes of everyone are so clearly at stake, people are entitled to know the how and the why of the situation in which they find themselves, and thereby be better able to judge for themselves what their obligations are. Official decision is apt to rest on the belief that, in words used by a very high State Department official in a letter to me on the subject: "There is, inevitably, a conflict between the demands of scholarship and the need for regulations controlling the use of privileged government information." I suppose the word "privileged" is a term of art. Perhaps it is intended to mean information which can be disclosed only to those who conduct current affairs because of their need to know what has happened in order to do their work. Perhaps it pertains to information which can be disclosed only by those privileged because they hold or once held government office.

The authorities-American and foreign-should not any longer rest comfortably on generalizations which do not recognize or satisfy the surge of public interest in foreign affairs. They dim the belief in the ideal that libraries be illuminating memorials. And they are constantly being evaded and riddled by "privileged" officials themselves.

The historian of the recent past should not be regarded as low man on the totem pole. His service to the life of the nation, all nations, is too important. The better he can do his work, the more instructed and intelligent that public which officials in a democracy must appeal to and rely on.

[i] D. C. Watts, "The Public Interest and the Right to Know," The Political Quarterly, London, March-April 1963.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now