The President's Making of History

Much has been written about the ways in which historical knowledge has or can influence the making of decisions about foreign policy, either by instructing decision-makers or by providing material for their rationalizations. But should we not be cognizant also of an obverse development? I refer to the extent to which decision-makers are turning into historians, and thereby becoming not only the actors or agents of history but also its creators.

In our days decision-makers, most notably and noticeably Presidents, collect all the papers that enter their offices; they command staffs to catalogue them and prepare preliminary manuscripts. They conceive, before retiring, spacious libraries to house the records of their lives and times and bear their names. Admirers or beneficiaries provide the funds; the government pays the expenses of the operation and in return retains control of the contents. Thus, in honorable, even elegant, retirement, with ample help, with all their source material in hand or at their call, they can pleasantly pass what used to be called their declining years by composing the interpretive histories of their own decisions. Incidentally, they assure the affluence of their descendants.

True, it may make the separation from office less painful. The power may pass. But the glory can be prolonged and the glow kept alive by the sun of memory. The sense of serving the people and country may be preserved. For is it not the sole purpose of this worthy effort to reveal truth and enable others, in due time, to acquaint themselves with it? While the mantle of scholarship for a generation is being tried on by presidential authority for fit and fashion, scholars (historians), if patient, will be rewarded. For the records will, when the trustees so decide, be opened to them too.

The enterprise is not passive and not merely a work of preservation and reproduction of what may be in the documents. It is the source of histories of former affairs and foreign policy which lean on records other scholars may not, for a generation, study. Tiffs improves the retired decision-makers’ chances of telling and explaining their net decisions, not only fully but, shall I say, creatively.

Most of our earlier Presidents contented themselves with writing farewell messages to the nation, leaving their papers in a public institution like the Library of Congress, and bequeathing their correspondence and diaries to their families. The last of the great ones to do this was Woodrow Wilson.

No longer must Presidents wait for posterity to judge and honor them. Each can plan his own monument, even as Winston Churchill, after writing his great history, planned his state funeral.

It all started so simply. Franklin Roosevelt had the pleasing notion that the records of his life and Administration should be gathered together in a modest stone building close to his house at Hyde Park, modeled on the old Dutch houses which once stood along the Hudson. Whether Roosevelt would have executed the right of eminent domain of these documents (or should I say the right of prior access that was accorded to feudal lords) had he lived after leaving the White House is not to be known. In any event, his heirs and trustees welcomed students into this library as soon as the records were put in order; they did not place restrictions on them or exclude any records but most personal family papers.

How some of his successors have taken off from this simple start! Next, on a small hill on the plains of Missouri, the Harry S. Truman Library arose. Who would grudge the former President the spacious quarters in which he could chat with visitors, answer his correspondence, write his memoirs, and counsel public figures who wished to borrow from his raiment of wisdom? But alas, the most significant records, civilian and military, of foreign policy during his Administration remain closed, clamped by classification, after first use. Not only that, the protective mantle of security has been, beginning with the year Truman took office in 1945, lengthened from fifteen to twenty-odd years.

One puzzling point is that while we are adjured not to insist on seeking access to the records until they have been aged in the files twentyodd years or more, on the ground that it would discomfort governments and imperil national security, the histories written by the decisionmakers about the same events are legitimized, presumably made safe by screening or by some instinct of self-preservation.

Similar libraries to house the papers of former Presidents Fisenhower and Kennedy are in the course of creation. Eisenhower himself drew upon official records for several volumes of his memoirs. Kennedy was tragically killed before lie could complete his records in life, but several of his assistants and advisers have made professionally reputable use of such of the records of his experience as they garnered—particularly Schlesinger, Sorensen, Hilsman.

As historians we are grateful to them. But would it not be pleasant, even sociable, if the rest of us did not have to wait until we grow old, or should I say older, before we can study and judge the whole record for ourselves? Must we continue to be borrowers from the histories of the decision-makers themselves, and weary pursuers of such scattered papers as may have been published? Or students of “inside columnists,” or ghouls feasting on knowledge dislodged by controversy?

Now we have arrived at the culmination, up to the present, of this trend in the heart of Texas. What a structure is to be built there in the name of Lyndon Johnson! What truckloads of precious papers, with all the stamps of authority and classification, have been bustled from Washington to Austin. The retired President, the New York Times informs us, is “seeking to assemble perhaps the most comprehensive historical record of any administration.” In Austin, it is to be hoped, he will have a large enough staff of file clerks, researchers, assistants, interpreters, writers, advisers, and security guards to help in the creative task. What a chance, to repeat, for a decision-maker to become a creative historian and so affect future decision-makers.

The latest word is that President Nixon is going to establish a library adjoining his estate in California. All Presidents, evidently, are proud of their record, and hope that historians will appreciate and praise their efforts more than their c on temporaries.

May I offer advice to the men among you who arc planning to make their careers as historians about the most promising route to advancement? Do not spend pleasant summers in foreign countries on fellowships, or grim winters in cold boardinghouses studying foreign languages: do not squander your meager funds on books. Train to be President, or if that job eludes you, to be a presidential assistant. Be careful not to be attracted into the permanent Foreign Service of the State Department, for if von are, you will be pledged not to intrude in print on the privilege of your superiors and rival them as historians.

Then, after you have served as President, and either have been worn out by it or worn it out, retire to a sanctuary which will be named after you, and there in splendor become a great historian, largely at public expense.

Bitter truth

The knowledge of history is useful before a person achieves power to make decisions and while he is exercising power to make them rather than after he has retired. While he is on the way, the study of history can stimulate him, cause him to be more reflective and to acquaint himself more quickly and fully with the issues he must confront.

The long past contains lessons which the recent past cannot as convincingly demonstrate—such as that uncontrolled rivalry in arrangements has always led to war, and that each society must be on guard against decay in its fiber, especially when it is living high and proud. In short, to adapt a phrase of William Faulkner’s, it can enable decision-makers to make a better match of event and eventuality.

But the historical knowledge most indispensable to the just and sound resolution of most current questions is of the comparatively recent, rather than the more distant, past. And it is precisely about such comparatively recent periods that governments make it difficult for historians to ascertain for themselves the truth of motive, of intention, and of action. This is the era of human experience and national behavior about which greater openness, by all governments, might improve the health of the international community by nurturing it on the whole truth, even if it tastes bitter.

Let me also suggest the possibility of relevant comparisons. We all know of the time-honored practice of European powers to keep the records of their diplomacy closed until they are dislodged by the next death-bringing war: and of the probable fact that the minutes of conspiratorial subversive groups, such as that which rules Cuba, are destroyed; and that the archives of totalitarian states, such as the Soviet Union, are mortuaries which only licensed embalmers and memorialists are allowed to enter, or from which truth may he set free only by upheavals, to haunt and taunt the past. But the questions remain: What is to be the model for the future? Who is to set die model? The shade of woodrow Wilson calls for an answer.

The prime professional responsibility of the historian may he to instruct decision-makers about the past. But he has also a prime opportunity so to influence decision-makers that the historv of the future can he less sordid, less cruel, less evanescent than that of the past. If he fails in that, he will merely he retelling the tales of vicissitudes recorded by Plato and in the Bible— and perhaps not so well.

  1. Mr. Feis is the author of many books, among them Between War and Peace: The Potsdam Conference, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1961. He was an officer in the State and War Departments during the Hoover, Roosevelt, and Truman Administrations.