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Intro to the National Security Archive at George Washington University

This is the first in a series of guest posts from the National Security Archive, a non-governmental research organization, archive and publisher of declassified documents. Thanks to James Jacobs for the invitation to write about the Archive. Over the next 3-4 posts, I’ll describe the organization and some of our projects, starting today with a bit of history about our founding and mission in life. Meanwhile, we invite any and all to visit us at www.nsarchive.org or in person at Gelman Library on the campus of George Washington University.

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For anyone who loves anniversaries, this month is a biggie. Fifty years ago the world survived one of the seminal events of the nuclear age — the Cuban missile crisis. I mention it because almost from the very start, the National Security Archive’s been an active promoter of studying the crisis (we’ll have a series of postings of the latest findings on our site in the coming weeks), and it makes for a good case study of what our organization’s mission is and how we go about our work.

(Today I’ll touch on our substantive projects; later posts will deal with other Archive activities.)

In 1985, the Archive officially opened its doors to the public as an innovative non-profit research institute and library facility focused on making available the underlying government documentation all of us as citizens need to understand what our elected officials (and permanent bureaucracies!) are doing in our name. That basic mission reflected the mix of individuals who over time in the early 1980s coalesced around the idea of forming such an organization — journalists (Scott Armstrong, Washington Post; Raymond Bonner, New York Times; Strobe Talbott, Time; and others), scholars (John Lewis Gaddis, Catherine Kelleher, Ernest May, Anne Cahn, John Prados, among others), public interest group leaders (John Shattuck, Mort Halperin, Margaret Carroll, and others), former officials (Anthony Lake, Walt Slocombe, Joseph Onek, etc.), and even current members of Congress like Jim Moody (D-WI). Each in their own profession had an interest in following how the government worked, and each understood the power of the historical record in educating the public.

Our main tool for breaking loose documentation was the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) — passed in 1966 and later amended — which in principle grants anyone access to the inner workings of the Executive Branch. (States have their own version of the law.) Building on donations by Armstrong, Bonner and many others, the Archive began to develop a large repository of declassified records, which has always been open to researchers at our facility (originally at the Brookings Institution, but since 1995 at GWU). Right now, our holdings total somewhere around 8 million pages and run the gamut of foreign policy topics covering the Cold War and its aftermath.

How do we organize our work? Here’s where the Cuban missile crisis comes in. Generally, our projects center around the efforts of a staff analyst whose job it is to become an expert not only in the history of a given subject but, critically, in the way that subject was handled by the U.S. government. Since accumulating the key paperwork underlying U.S. policy is our goal, you have to know how it flowed within the halls of government, especially when it would be utterly impractical (not to say impossible) to expect to get your hands on more than a tiny fraction of the millions of pages federal agencies produce on these kinds of topics in the course of their activities.

In the Cuba case, we had a couple of analysts who filed FOIAs for critical material, such as Kennedy’s correspondence with Khrushchev, CIA studies, and so on. As you might expect, they initially got stonewalled from time to time on much of the more sensitive items, and had to file appeals, as provided for under the Act. Part of the problem was that agencies claimed they simply couldn’t locate the files. That seemed hard to imagine, given the high level of involvement (the president and his men) during the crisis. It was only after an active round of additional research and interviews with a range of outside experts including former officials that it began to become clear that much of the most important material had been removed from its normal archival locations on orders of Lyndon Johnson, who decided that if another similar crisis erupted one day it would be a good idea to have the record available so that future presidents and officials could study the Cuban crisis as an example. From there it took a bit more effort to determine that the materials had been stored away in a special office inside the State Department, but once my colleagues were able to provide that information (down to the level of box titles) to the Department, it removed a major obstacle to getting the documents out into the public domain.

But a second hurdle remained — one that anyone who’s ever researched recent foreign policy or intelligence records knows all too well: how to overcome restrictions on access to classified information? This is something our analysts deal with every day. Protecting reasonably classified information, especially if it concerns American foreign relations, is one of several legal justifications under FOIA for withholding records from the public. Sometimes the official reasoning is entirely understandable — for instance if it relates to the specifics of manufacturing a nuclear bomb, or to planned troop deployments. But bureaucrats and politicians being who they are, it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that often the rationales employed to keep our history hidden are either flimsy or entirely bogus. Scholars and journalists confront these problems all the time, and it frequently takes persistent effort to argue one’s case through the appeals process to a point where an agency will reverse its earlier denial. This was another reason for creating the Archive — to have an institution in place that could afford to wait the months, years and — yes — even decades it sometimes takes for requests to be fulfilled. (We’ve had numerous requests take 10, 15, 20 or even more years to be completed.)

When it came to arguing our case on the missile crisis, we eventually were able to take advantage of some of the monumental political changes that had taken place around the collapse of the Soviet Union and the (putative) end of the Cold War. As former Soviet archives began to open a crack, and as Boris Yeltsin learned the power of documents as a weapon to expose the misdeeds of his former Communist Party cronies, some astonishing materials from “the other side” of the Cold War started to emerge. Among these were records of leadership meetings, correspondence and transcripts of conversations with foreign heads of state. These included some dealing with what the Soviets used to call “the Caribbean crisis.” Since (a) our main global enemy no longer existed, and (b) its successor regime was releasing some of the same kinds of materials we and other researchers were seeking from the U.S., it was possible argue with U.S. agencies that there was no longer a need to protect once-sensitive documentation about the inner debates of the ExComm, photos from U-2 flights over Cuba, and reams of intelligence about events that, after all, had occurred 30 years earlier.

Through sheer persistence and a little creative thinking, the Archive was able to accumulate an extraordinary record of the crisis that has since become part of the larger public record amassed by scholars and journalists around the world.

Yet, one of the lessons one learns fairly soon in this line of work is that government records — surprise — do not tell the whole story! A document is only as accurate and reliable as its author, who may or may not have had access to good information, and may have been influenced by motives we can sometimes only guess at. How then to get past this basic historiographical challenge? By asking the people who wrote or received those documents!

But here we were able to go about that task with a twist. It was our tremendously good fortune in the course of our work on the missile crisis to come into contact, and quickly partner with, an unusual husband-and-wife team — James G. Blight and janet [sic] M. Lang, then of Harvard’s Kennedy School (now at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Ontario, Canada). Neither of these two were originally trained historians (he is a psychologist, she is an epidemiologist!), but together they came up with a methodology for studying recent historical events that has produced some extraordinarily important results. The approach is called Critical Oral History and it’s complex enough to have had books written about it, so I’ll only give a thumbnail sketch here. It involves bringing to the table (literally) a group of individuals (often former antagonists) who participated in the events under scrutiny, adding to the mix a small contingent of scholars who know the literature, and underpinning the exercise with declassified documents from the time. The “veterans” are there to discuss among themselves how they viewed the events at the time, what they sought to achieve, what they believed their adversaries were up to, and so on. The scholars and documents are there to refresh memories and keep the discussion anchored in the facts insofar as that’s possible.

This was the methodology Jim and janet — usually with the Archive’s help on the document front (and at times in other ways) — used to explore the missile crisis at a depth and level of detail not otherwise attainable before then. Starting in 1987 and running initially through 1992, they organized a series of conference in Cambridge, Mass.; the Caribbean; Moscow; and Havana itself, at which the participants included Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Ted Sorenson and additional U.S. luminaries from the period; Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, his deputy Georgi Kornienko, long-time Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Dobrynin, and various other Soviet diplomats, generals and intelligence experts; and, from Cuba, Fidel Castro plus several of his senior advisers. As a principal part of the Archive’s contribution, we were able to gather a pretty rich array of declassified records not just from the United States but from literally all over the world — Russia, the Soviet bloc, Cuba, China, Brazil, and elsewhere. As a result of these accumulated resources (human and documentary), the sessions produced immediate headlines, and in the longer term fundamentally changed the way the missile crisis is understood — literally rewriting the text books.

Here are a few of the revelations:

– The U.S. did not know at the time that tactical nuclear weapons were on the island that might well have been used in the event of an American invasion, almost certainly touching off a nuclear war
– Washington had no idea that 43,000 Soviet troops and thousands more civilians were in Cuba by late October 1962, numbers that significantly raised the likelihood of a major retaliation in case of a U.S. invasion
– The Americans were unaware of the importance of Castro’s role and the pressure he put on Soviet leaders to sharpen their responses to U.S. actions, including emotionally advising Khrushchev at the height of the crisis that if the U.S. invaded the island Moscow should deploy its missiles before the Americans had the chance to use theirs
– Soviet subs around the quarantine line carried nuclear-tipped torpedoes that one captain tried to launch but failed when he couldn’t persuade other key holders on board to go along
– A major cause of the Soviet captain’s motivation was the fear of being under attack after the U.S. Navy, unaware of the nuclear-tipped torpedoes, began harassing the subs by tossing the equivalent of grenades onto them
– Ultimately, the crisis was not resolved by dint of nuclear superiority and boldly staring down the adversary — which was the original accepted wisdom; it involved a willingness to make a deal, to compromise, as Kennedy did in secretly offering a trade of the Cuban missiles for the Jupiter missiles in Turkey

To make revelations like these broadly available, the Archive does a number of things. First, we make our materials accessible to researchers at no charge (except photocopying) at our GWU facility. Another avenue is through a subscription product of highly curated selections — the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) — via the publisher ProQuest. We also publish shorter compilations of materials as books. And of course we post selected items on our Web site (www.nsarchive.org). We currently have 391 “Electronic Briefing Books” of documents on newsworthy topics on our site.

(I should clarify — and emphasize — that all these publications contain no editorializing from us on U.S. government policy. We’re a non-partisan 501(c)(3) group and the only issues we take a stand on are freedom of information and the principle of open government access.)

The Cuban missile crisis project in many ways became a model for our other historical documentation projects at the National Security Archive, including studies of U.S. policy toward the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union and the superpower rivalry, a series of crises in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and more. Most of the basic stories of these projects are available on our site and, as mentioned, the underlying documentation we and our partners and colleagues around the world have collected is also available here in Washington, D.C.

Next week I’ll talk (maybe at a bit shorter length!) about our freedom of information activities. If you have any questions as we go along, don’t hesitate to write to me at mbyrne@gwu.edu.

Malcolm Byrne
Deputy Director, Research Director
The National Security Archive
at George Washington University

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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