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This is the text of the speech mentioned in the ACT newsletter previously
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SECRECY, ARCHIVES,
AND THE PUBLIC INTEREST*

HOWARD ZINN

Let me work my way in from the great circle of the world to us at the
center by discussing, in turn, three things: the social role of the
professional in modern times; the scholar in the United States today;
and the archivist here and now.

I will start by quoting from a document-an insidious move to
gain rapport with archivists, some might say, except that the document
is a bit off the beaten track in archival work (a fact we might
ponder later). It is the transcript of a trial that took place in Chicago
in the fall of 1969, called affectionately "the Conspiracy Trial." I
refer to it because the transcript occasionally touches on the problem
of the professional person-whether a lawyer, historian, or archivist-and
the relation between professing one's craft and professing one's
humanity. On October 15, 1969, the day of the national Moratorium
to protest the war in Vietnam, defense attorney William Kunstler
wore a black armband in court to signify his support of the Moratorium
and his protest against the war. The government's lawyer, Thomas
Foran, called this to the attention of the judge, saying: "Your
Honor, that's outrageous. This man is a mouthpiece. Look at him,
wearing a band like his clients, your Honor."

The day before the Moratorium, Attorney Kunstler had asked the
court to recess October 15 to observe the Moratorium. This dialogue
between Kunstler and Judge Hoffman then followed:

Mr. Kunstler:...And I think it is as important, your Honor, to protest
more than some thirty thousand American deaths and Lord knows
how many Vietnamese deaths that have occurred in that country
as it is to mourn one man {Eisenhower} in the United States, and
if courts can close for the death of one man who lived a full life,
they ought to close for the deaths of thousands and millions of
innocent people whose lives have been corrupted and rotted and
perverted by this utter horror that goes on in your name and my
name-
The Court: Not in my name.
Mr. Kunstler: It is in your name, too, in the name of the people
of the United States.
The Court: You just include yourself. Don't join me with you.

Goodness. Don't you and I-

Mr. Kunstler: You are me, your Honor, because every citizen-you
are a citizen and I am a citizen.
The Court: Only because you are a member of the bar of this
court and I am obliged to hear you respectfully, as I have done.
Mr. Kunstler: No, your Honor, you are more than that. You are a
citizen of the United States.
The Court: Yes, I am.
Mr. Kunstler: And I am a citizen of the United States, and it is
done in our name, in Judge Hoffman's name and William Kunstler's
name.
The Court: That will be al~ sir. I shall hear you no further. 1

Kunstler was trying to accomplish something very difficult, to get a
judge to emerge from that comfortable comer which society had
declared as his natural habitat, and to declare himself a citizen, even
while on the bench, in his robes, plying his profession. Kunstler said
a slaughter was taking place in Vietnam, and it was going on in the
name of all citizens, and he wanted the Judge to recognize that fact
not only in the evening at home after his robes were off, or at the
country club on the weekend, but there, in his daily work, in his most
vital hours, in the midst of his job of judging. Kunstler failed, but
his attempt illustrates the tension all of us feel, if we have not
been totally mesmerized by the grandeur of our position, the tension
between our culture-decreed role as professionals and our existential
needs as human beings.

Professionalism is a powerful form of social control. By professionalism
I mean the almost total immersion in one's craft, being so
absorbed in the day-to-day exercise of those skills, as to have little
time, energy, or will to consider what part those skills play in the
total social scheme. I say almost-total immersion, because if it were
total, we would be suspicious of it. Being not quite total, we are
tolerant of it, or at least sufficiently confused by the mixture to do
nothing. It is come thing like Yossarian's jaundice, in Catch 22, where
Joseph Heller writes:

Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just
short of being jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it.
If it didn't become jaundice and went away they could discharge
him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused
them. 2

By social control I mean maintaining things as they are, preserving
traditional arrangements, preventing any sharp change in how the
society distributes wealth and power. Both in pre-modern and modern
times, the basic combination for social control has remained the same:
force and deception. Machiavelli, writing on the threshold of the
modern era, drew upon the past to prescribe for the future that same
combination: the power of the lion, the shrewdness of the fox. The
modern era has magnified enormously both elements: it has concentrated
force more efficiently than ever before and it has used
more sophisticated techniques for deception. The printing press,
heralding the spread of knowledge to large sections of the population,
made large-scale deception both necessary and possible, and in the
last four centuries we have progressed from the printing press to color
television, from Machiavelli to Herman Kahn.

There were few professionals in the old days. Now they are everywhere,
and their skills, their knowledge, could be a threat to the
status quo. But their will to challenge the going order is constantly
weakened by rewards of money and position. And they are so divided,
so preoccupied with their particular specialities, as to spend most of
their time smoothing, tightening their tiny piece of linkage in the
social machine. This leaves very little time or energy to worry about
whether the machine is designed for war or peace, for social need or
individual profits, to help us or to poison us.

This specialization of modern times is pernicious enough for waiters,
auto mechanics, and doctors, and the bulk of the workers in society,
who contribute to the status quo without even knowing it, simply by
keeping the vast machinery going without a hitch. But certain
professionals serve the status quo in special ways. Weapons experts,
or scientists in military research, may be enormously gifted in their
own fields, yet so constricted in their role as citizens, as to turn
over their frighteningly potent products without question or with very
feeble questioning, to whatever uses the leaders of society decide.
Remember the role of the humane genius, Robert Oppenheimer, in the
decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Oppenheimer was a
member of the Scientific Advisory Panel which recommended the
dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, thinking it was necessary to
save lives. But Oppenheimer later commented (his testimony is in the
files of the AEC):

We didn't know beans about the military situation in Japan. We
didn't know whether they could be caused to surrender by other
means or whether the invasion was really inevitable.

Equally important for social control as the military scientists are
those professionals who are connected with the dissemination of
knowledge in society: the teachers, the historians, the political
scientists, the. journalists, and yes, the archivists. Here too,
professionalization leads to impotence, as everyone is given a little
corner of the playground. And it is considered unprofessional to
organize everyone in the yard to see if the playground director is
violating various of the Ten Commandments as we play. We have all
heard the cries of "don't politicize our profession" when someone asks
joint action on the war in Vietnam. This has the effect of leaving
only our spare time for political checking-up while those who make
the political decisions in society-this being their profession-work
at it full time.

This neat separation, keeping your nose to the professional grindstone,
and leaving politics to your left-over moments, assumes that
your profession is not inherently political. It is neutral. Teachers are
objective and unbiased. Textbooks are eclectic and fair. The historian
is even-handed and factual. The archivist keeps records, a scrupulously
neutral job. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut says.

However, if any of these specialists in the accumulation and dissemination
of knowledge were to walk over to another part of the playpen,
the one marked political sociology, and read Karl Mannheim, who in
Ideology and Utopia, points out (following Marx, of course, but it is
more prudent to cite Mannheim) that knowledge has a social origin
and a social use. It comes out of a divided, embattled world, and is
poured into such a world. It is not neutral either in origin or effect. It
reflects the bias of a particular social order; more accurately, it
reflects the diverse biases of a diverse social order, but with one
important qualification: that those with the most power and wealth in
society will dominate the field of knowledge, so that it serves their
interests. The scholar may swear to his neutrality on the job, but
whether he be physicist, historian, or archivist, his work will tend, in
this theory, to maintain the existing social order by perpetuating its
values, by legitimizing its priorities, by justifying its wars, perpetuat-
ing its prejudices, contributing to its xenophobia, and apologizing for
its class order. Thus Aristotle, behind that enormous body of philosophical
wisdom, justifies slavery, and Plato, underneath that dazzling
set of dialogues, justifies obedience to the state, and Machiavelli,
respected as one of the great intellectual figures of history, urges our
concentration on means rather than ends.

Now maybe we have not been oblivious to this idea that the
professional scholars in any society tend to buttress the existing
social order and values of that society. But we have tended to attribute
this to other societies, or other times or other professions. Not the
United States. Not now. Not here. Not us. It was easy to detect the
control of the German scholars or the Russian scholars-but much
harder to recognize that the high school texts of our own country
have fostered jingoism, war heroes, the Sambo approach to the black
man, the vision of the Indian as savage, and the notion that white
Western Civilization is the cultural, humanistic summit of man's time
on earth.

We could see where scholars in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, by
quietly doing their job, would be perpetuating an awful set of conditions;
to keep that kind of social order intact was wrong and we
hoped intellectuals would rebel. The U.S. however, was a different
matter; what was wrong here was not the social order itself, but
problems at the margins of it. It was all right for intellectuals to keep
this basically decent order intact by doing our jobs; and we could
attack the problems at the margins by signing petitions and joining
political campaigns after hours.

Events of the past decade, I would now argue, have begun to
challenge that complacency, that part-time commitment to political
involvement which assumes a basically just society, needing only
marginal reforms. We have won those reforms. The U.S. is the great
model in history of the reformist nation, and the past half-century
has been labeled by one of our important historians as "The Age of
Reform." We have had New Deal legislation to take care of our
economic flaws, Civil Rights laws to take care of our racial problems,
Supreme Court decisions to expand our rights in court, the Good
Neighbor Policy, Marshall Plan, and Alliance for Progress to repair
our relations with other countries.

Yet, it is exactly at the crest of these reforms that the United
States has found itself in a turbulent internal crisis in which a significant
part of the younger generation has begun to question the
legitimacy of the government, the values of the culture. How is it
that after a barrage of Supreme Court decisions, Civil Rights laws,
the confrontation between black and white in this country is at its
most intense? How is it that after the New Freedom, the New Deal,
the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society, the distribution
of the immense resources of this society is at its most irrational,
its most wasteful?

The problems of the United States are not peripheral and have not
been met by our genius at reform. They are not the problems of excess,
but of normalcy. Our racial problem is not the Ku Klux Klan or
the South, but our fundamental liberal assumption that paternalism
solves all. Our economic problem is not a depression but the normal
functioning of the economy, dominated by corporate power and profit.
Our problem with justice is not a corrupt judge or bribed jury but
the ordinary day-to-day functioning of the police, the law, the courts,
where property rights come before human rights. Our problem in
foreign policy is not a particular mad adventure: the Spanish American
War or the Vietnam War, but a continuous set of suppositions about
our role in the world, involving missionary imperialism, and a belief in
America's ability to solve complex social problems.

If all this is so, then the normal functioning of the scholar, the
intellectual, the researcher, helps maintain those corrupt norms in the
United States, just as the intellectual in Germany, Soviet Russia, or
South Africa, by simply doing his small job, maintains what is normal
in those societies. And if so, then what we always asked of scholars
in those terrible places is required of us in the United States today:
rebellion against the norm.

In the United States, however, the contribution of scholars to the
status quo is more subtle and more complex than in more blatantly
oppressive societies. Only a small number of scholars give direct
service to the war. Most simply go about their scholarly business,
their acts of commission subtle, their acts of omission gross. For
instance, the historians' emphasis on presidents and laws only subtly
perpetuates an elitist approach to politics; missing completely in
Morison's Oxford History of the American People is the Ludlow
Massacre of 1914. The political scientists' emphasis on electoral
politics only subtly suggests that voting is the central problem in
democratic control: you look in vain for extensive work on the politics
of protest. The scholar's emphasis on Supreme Court decisions only
subtly distorts the fact of constitutional rights; constitutional
histories omit the reality of police power in determining how much free
expression there really is on the streets.

The archivist, even more than the historian and the political
scientist, tends to be scrupulous about his neutrality, and to see his
job as a technical job, free from the nasty world of political interest:
a job of collecting, sorting, preserving, making available, the records
of the society. But I will stick by what I have said about other scholars,
and argue that the archivist, in subtle ways, tends to perpetuate
the political and economic status quo simply by going about his
ordinary business. His supposed neutrality is, in other words, a fake.
If so, the rebellion of the archivist against his normal role is not,
as so many scholars fear, the politicizing of a neutral craft, but the
humanizing of an inevitably political craft. Scholarship in society is
inescapably political. Our choice is not between being political or not.
Our choice is to follow the politics of the going order, that is, to do
our job within the priorities and directions set by the dominant forces
of society, or else to promote those human values of peace, equality,
and justice, which our present society denies.

I would guess from my small experience-and I leave it up to you
to carry on the discussion from there-that the following points are
true:

(1) That the existence, preservation, and availability of archives,
documents, records in our society are very much determined by the
distribution of wealth and power. That is, the most powerful, the
richest elements in society have the greatest capacity to find documents,
preserve them, and decide what is or is not available to the
public. This means government, business, and the military are
dominant.

(2) That one of the ways in which information is controlled and
democracy denied, is by the government withholding important documents
from the public, or keeping secret their existence altogether, or
censoring them (how we must struggle to get data about the Gulf of
Tonkin, the Bay of Pigs, the bombing of Laos, CIA operations in
Guatemala). And that while the ostensible purpose of such secrecy is
the physical security of the nation, the actual purpose is almost
always the political security of those who run the nation. Ernest
May writes in ,. “A Case for Court Historians:"

The materials needed by historians would also contain much
information which, on other than security grounds, government
officials would prefer not to see released. . . Sec’y of State Rusk
could conceivably have been embarrassed by revelations about advice
he gave when Asst. Sec’y of State in the Truman Administration. . . . .3

(3) That the collection of records, papers, and memoirs, as well as
oral history, is biased towards the important and powerful people of
the society, tending to ignore the impotent and obscure: we learn most
about the rich, not the poor; the successful, not the failures; the old,
not the young; the politically active, not the politically alienated; men,
not women; white, not black; free people rather than prisoners;
civilians rather than soldiers; officers rather than enlisted men. Someone
writing about Strom Thurmond will have no problem with
material. But what if someone wants to write about the blind black
jazz pianist, Art Tatum?

(4) That, despite the recent development of oral history, the written
word still dominates, and this tends to emphasize the top layers,
the most literate elements in the population.

(5) That the emphasis in the collection of records is towards
individuals rather than movements, towards static interviews, rather
than the dynamics of social interaction in demonstrations. For
instance, where is the raw material-that very raw material lon
the experience of demonstrators in Chicago at .the hands of the
police at the 1968 convention, which was used by the Walker Commission?
I wonder, for instance, if Boston University, proud that it
holds the papers of Martin Luther King, has recorded the experience
of students who were clubbed by police at the Student Union last year?

(6) That the emphasis is on the past over the present, on the
antiquarian over the contemporary; on the non-controversial over the
controversial; the cold over the hot. What about the transcripts of
trials? Shouldn't these be made easily available to the public? Not
just important trials like the Chicago Conspiracy Trial I referred to,
but the ordinary trials of ordinary persons, an important part of the
record of our society. Even the extraordinary trials of extraordinary
persons are not available, but perhaps they do not show our society at
its best. The trial of the Catonsville 9 would be lost to us if Father
Daniel Berrigan had not gone through the transcript and written a
play based on it.

(7) That far more resources are devoted to the collection and preservation
of what already exists as records, than to recording fresh
data: I would guess that more energy and money is going for the
collection and publication of the Papers of John Adams than for
recording the experiences of soldiers on the battlefront in Vietnam.
Where are the interviews of Seymour Hersh with those involved in the
My Lai Massacre, or Fred Gardner's interviews with those involved in
the Presidio Mutiny Trial in California, or Wallace Terry's interviews
with black GI's in Vietnam? Where are the recorded experiences of
the young Americans in Southeast Asia who quit the International
Volunteer Service in protest against American policy there, or of the
Foreign Service officers who have quietly left?

Let me point to some random pieces of evidence to illustrate these
points I have made about the going bias in archival work. Recently,
I came across a list of letterpress publications sponsored, assisted,
or endorsed by the National Historical Publications Commission of the
General Services Administration. The papers of thirty-three Americans
are being published. There is one black person on the list, and that
is Booker T. Washington. What about Mother Jones, the labor
organizer, or Bob Moses, the SNCC leader, or the papers of the man
who lives down the street? I know that the very stress on collected
papers is severely limiting, but there are papers of the leaders of
protest movements. Of course there are problems: the papers of Big
Bill Haywood were destroyed by the United States Government. But
what of Eugene Debs or Clarence Darrow? I suppose it could be
claimed that there is one important leader of a protest movement on
the list: that is Jefferson Davis.

Another item of evidence: In an article by Amelia Fry and Willa
Baum, oral-historians at the-University of California at Berkeley, the
authors cite the lack of money as causing some oral history projects
to erase important tapes. They note the feeling among some persons
involved in oral history that "since preserving tapes is expensive and
required special conditions, the decision should hinge on the affluence
of the project and the relative importance of the person interviewed."4

The Oral History Collection at Columbia University seems almost a
caricature of the biases I have noted. It has long ignored the poor,
the obscure, the radicals, the outcasts-it has ignored movements
and living events. When I wrote from the South, in the midst of the
civil rights movement, to the Columbia Oral History Collection to try
to get them to tape what was happening at the time in Georgia,
Alabama, Mississippi, I got a bureaucratic response which muttered
about money and priorities and allocations, the upshot of which was:
no. But the latest report of the Oral History Project gives doting
attention to its Air Force Project, Navy Project, Marine Project. It is
happy to have the reminiscences of General O'Donnell: how about the
reminiscences of the various Yossarians in the Air Force? It has the
Allan Nevins project which consists of interviewing the friends of
Allan Nevins (wouldn't it be more interesting to interview the enemies
of Allan Nevins?) It will spend much time interviewing members of the
Eisenhower Administration, based on a $120,000 grant from' the
National Archives. Has the Project interviewed Mrs. Fannie Lou
Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi, or Eldridge Cleaver or Dave
Dellinger? Did it go to the Poor Peoples' March and interview the
people camped out there in the mud? Has it interviewed Vietnam
veterans in the rehabilitation hospitals? Does it go into the ghetto
around Columbia University? Or is that job only for Kenneth Clark?
For important contemporary interviews, one might do better to consult Playboy
Magazine than the Columbia Oral History Project.

Another item of evidence: In the American Historical Association
newsletter of April 1970, there is a report of the "Thirteenth Meeting
of the Advisory Committee on "Foreign Relations of the United States, "5
a series of State Department documents issued by the year. The Advisory
Committee has representatives of the American Historical Association
the American Political Science Association, and the Society of International
Law. One clause in the report reads: "in 1962 the Secretary
of State officially set the time lapse at 20 years-the committee
cannot have access to these Foreign Relations documents until twenty
years have elapsed. By what right, in a democracy requiring the
enlightenment of the public, does any bureaucrat make such decisions
for us all? Yet this advisory committee of scholars is painfully obsequious
before the might of government: they complain that it takes as much
as two years for the volumes of Foreign Relations to get clearance
from Department of State, but instead of challenging the whole concept
of clearance, the committee only asks humbly for the clearance procedure
to move faster.6

Note -also that while the Foreign Relations staff must wait 20 years,
the public at large must wait 30 years, and indeed the committee of
scholars say they are "highly disturbed by the narrowing gap" between
the scholars' wait and the public's wait, and by the possibility of "outside,
ad hoc publication"-that is publication outside the official aegis
of the State Department and the committee of scholars. Such publication,
they warn, may beat the Foreign Relations series to the punch,
and "provide inaccurate or partial accounts" which "may achieve a
popular impact." This could be offset, however, by quicker publication
of the Foreign Relations series, with the cooperation of the State
Department.7 We find in it another paragraph of outstanding timidity,
in which the committee expresses its concern that the open period
may move back beyond 30 years. Such a move, the committee says
with measured sycophancy, would be "violative of the commendable
record the Department of State has maintained over the decades in
making the foreign relations documentation of the United States
publicly and systematically available." In that paragraph the committee
notes that other countries such as England are moving in the
opposite direction, decreasing the years of closed records, and then it
concludes: "The committee is not herewith advocating advancing the
open period for full public access to diplomatic documentation, but
it believes that everything should be done to prevent it from being set
back in excess of 30 years."

Thus. the committee falls allover itself in gratitude that the public
only has to wait 30 years. It doesn't want to rock the boat (which all
hands aboard know is sinking) by asking for a shorter wait. Where is
the bold, inquiring spirit of the scholar in a democratic state. demanding
to see government documents as a right. not a privilege? No
wonder, with such a government, and with such scholars, we do desperately
need I. F. Stone.

What is the net effect of the kind of archival biases I have just
described? To protect governmental authorities from close scrutiny,
and therefore from the indignation, the anger that might result from a
closer look at government policies. To glorify important people, powerful
people, military, political, and business leaders, to keep obscure the
lives of ordinary people in the society. To maintain such archival biases
requires no malfeasance on the part of archivists, only passivity, only
falling into the lines already set by the dominant trends of the
profession.

I say dominant trends, because I know there are some good things
being done in archival work, some pioneering efforts in recording
events, in oral history with ordinary people, in black history, in labor
history. But let's resist the characteristically American trick of
passing off fundamental criticism by pointing to a few reforms. The
Saigon regime reformed itself for twenty years before it finally fell.
We are still passing civil rights laws, and poverty bills. Let us not once
again be happy because like Yossairian, we don't quite have jaundice.
We also are not quite cured. Like Yossairian, we are still in the hospital.
Like him, we are in danger. And we will remain in danger until, like
him, we rebel.

I have argued that the crisis of present-day America is not one
of aberration, but of normalcy, that at issue are not marginal
characteristics, but our central operating values: the profit system,
racial paternalism, violence towards those outside our narrow pale.
If this is so, then scholarly passivity, far from being neutral and disinterested,
serves those operating values. What is required then is to
wrench ourselves out of our passivity, to try to integrate our pro-
fessional lives with our humanity.

I have only two proposals for archivists: One, that they engage in
a campaign to open all government documents to the public. If there
are rare exceptions, let the burden of proof be on those who claim them,
. not as now on the citizen who wants information. And two, that they
take the trouble to compile a whole new world of documentary material,
~bout the lives, desires, needs, of ordinary people. Both of these proposals
are in keeping with the spirit of democracy, which demands that
the population know what the government is doing, and that the condition,
the grievances. the will of the underclasses become a force in
the nation.

To refuse to be instruments of social control in an essentially undemocratic
society, to begin to play some small part in the creation of
a real democracy: these are worthy jobs for historians, for archivists,
for us all.



FOOTNOTES

1. U.S. v Dellinger, et al. 69 CR 180; Judy Clavin and John Spitzer,
The Conspiracy Trial (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1970),
pp. 88-9.
2. Robert M. Scotto (ed.), Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (New York: Dell
Publishing Co., 1973), p. 7 .
3. Charles Warren Cambridge (ed.), Perspectives in American History,
1969, Vol. III (Cambridge: Harvard Univ.) pp. 421.2.
4. Amelia Fry and Willa Baum, "A Janus Look at Oral History,"
The American Archivist 32 (October, 1969) 325.
5. American Historical Association, Newsletter, 8 (April, 1970) 2-10.
6. Ibid. p.4.
7. Ibid. p. 6.

* An abridged version of this paper originally appeared in the Fall,
1971 issue of The Boston University Journal.

From Midwestern Archivist Volume II, Number 2 1977 pp. 14-27.