Nixon's presidential papers: the `raw material of history'

It is the most unprepossessing of containers for important papers: a former warehouse, one brick building among many, across from the Boat Owners Association of the United States and Victory Van, International. But what's stored inside, at least for the forseeable future, are the papers of a president: ``the raw material of history,'' says presidential scholar James L. Sundquist. ``They're absolutely indispensable.'' This week, the first three tons of these presidential papers were, for the first time, made available to the public.

The man whose papers these are is Richard M. Nixon, who rose like a political phoenix from the ashes of a California gubernatorial defeat to become two-term President of the United States. He opened communications with mainland China, pursued det`ente with the Soviet Union, dampened unrealistic expectations of programs that would end poverty at home, and extracted the US from the unpopular Vietnam war. Two years after a smashing reelection victory, the spreading stain of Watergate caused him to be the first president to resign. (Tracing Nixon decisions on student antiwar protesters, Page 8.)

Documents that chronicle these major events are all here, catalogued or uncatalogued, available for public viewing or still classified. So, too, is the blizzard of memoranda that, in any administration, cast light on the evolution and reasons behind administration decisions.

The papers are mostly of interest to scholars. But any citizen is welcome here, at the National Archives and Records Administration building on Pickett Street, far removed from picturesque Old Town Alexandria, with its restored 18th and 19th century brick townhouses huddled by the banks of the Potomac River.

In the reading room, across a cinder-block wall from the still-classified documents, sit nine sizeable wooden tables, with two chairs each; in one corner is a librarian's table. Half-a-dozen researchers or reporters quietly sift through a handful, at any one time, of the presidential papers in 32 available categories of the less-sensitive White House file, the general file; another 29 ultimately will be catalogued and made public.

But the names that leap from that memoranda once again call forth the full range of the emotional spectrum, from red to blue and back again, of that extraordinary presidency, 1969-1974: top presidential assistants H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, key presidential speechwriter Ray Price, Attorney General John N. Mitchell.

Some documents pique the reader's curiosity. In box 23 of the Civil Disturbances file, under the broader Human Rights category, is an orange form that says: ``document withdrawal project.'' It notes that a letter, dated Feb. 27, 1969, from J. Edgar Hoover to Mr. Ehrlichman has been withdrawn from the file because it was classified by that presidential administration as secret. The Hoover letter enclosed a document, also classified and unavailable, entitled ``Youth in Rebellion.''

Scholars can use the papers as individual items in a mosaic that ultimately explains presidential actions. ``The papers,'' says historian Sundquist, ``often reveal what factors went into a decision.''

On March 21st, 1969, Patrick Buchanan - then as now a White House staff member - wrote a memorandum to President Nixon about his hope to use members of the Young Republicans to counteract the campus protests, frequently in objection of the Vietnam War. In his memo Mr. Buchanan said the national chairman of that collegiate organization would be coming to Washington that week, and that ``we will discuss at that time a program whereby he can inform every Young Republican leader on campus of the political dividends - and the political rightness - of getting their organizations into the media on the right side of the campus violence issue. The American people are hungry for some neatly dressed young Americans to applaud.''

What resulted from the meeting is not immediately noted. But next to that piece of paper, in a colorless manila folder also in box 23, is a memorandum that explains what led up to the Buchanan memo. It was written four days earlier to Robert Finch, secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, by White House aide Alexander P. Butterfield, the man who later would disclose to Senate investigators the existence of the White House tapes so prominent in the unraveling of the Nixon presidency.

In the memo Mr. Butterfield wrote that, in a written news briefing, the President had seen an item about a boycott of classes by blacks in a Patterson, N.J., high school, with some black students attending alternative private classes conducted in Swahili. According to Butterfield, some white students supported the black protestors, but disagreed with their methods. Nixon, says Butterfield, underscored the item, and returned it to Butterfield with a note to be passed along to Mr. Finch:

``Bob - the only way to stop this dangerous drift is for the decent young students to take up the fight. Why don't [White House aides] Huston, Buchanan, et al, get the Young Republicans and other young groups to lay off R.N. and take on these clowns? Give me a report.''

Many of the papers are far more mundane. For instance, a rambling letter from an Ohio church asks: ``Are we losing our freedoms?'' The writer concludes we are, primarily, because reading the Bible in classrooms was banned by the US Supreme Court.

Yet the many significant papers will enable scholars ``to look more at the domestic side of the Nixon presidency,'' says Betty Glad, a visiting professor of politics at New York University, and specialist on the presidency of Jimmy Carter. ``We always say we learn from history,'' she says; yet too often the details of history that should be the real foundations of knowledge are missing.

It is these missing details that papers in the presidential libraries can supply. Professor Glad notes how her own view of President Carter's policy in the Iranian hostage episode changed. Immediately after the crisis she was critical, but after having seen Carter's papers she became much less critical. ``I see him [now] as having about the only policy he could have had,'' she says.

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