In one sense, Matthew Connelly gives history and historians too much credit. He presents history as “the ultimate court of appeal” when states violate citizens’ rights, a sobering thought for those of us who like to think of ourselves as rights-bearing subjects in the here and now. The professional study of the past is, Connelly argues, “our last chance to redeem constitutional liberties,” in that it allows historians to render “an informed verdict” about “the truth” after the fact—a capacity severely threatened in the United States by the multifaceted crisis afflicting the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). I am sympathetic to this juridical take on the historian’s role: the notion that she should assign blame, serve as her society’s conscience, and identify abuses of state power. But it overestimates the patience of those who await judgment; misses the fact that cases like Buck v. Bell and Korematsu v. United States were overruled in “the court of history” less because of new archival discoveries than because of shifts in societal attitudes toward eugenics and racial internment; and elides the marginality of the conditions in which most historians ply their trade. Our ability to contextualize may be great, but our success rate in winning accountability from authorities may more closely resemble the dwindling share of university faculty positions that still pay a living wage.
In another sense, though, Connelly gives history and historians too little credit. If the reforms he recommends are not brought to fruition, he warns, “future historians will have a hard time proving anything at all.” We risk “the very survival of history” by allowing the U.S. government to overclassify, neglect, and destroy its records. In fact, we are told, we face nothing less than “the end of history as we know it,” a dystopian future in which “the past itself will be impossible to recover.” Yet social historians have long shown that the past cannot be, and never has been, interpreted using state archives alone. These records steer our gaze toward the white, the male, the wealthy, the influential. Moreover, we have always had to fight for access to them, and that access has always been partial at best. But we are resourceful. We have long worked outside government collections to construct more complete and representative accounts of the past, using sources from social movements, religious bodies, unions, nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and individual historical actors both within and beyond U.S. borders. So, as we do the crucial work of advocating for archival declassification and preservation, let us not conflate capital-h History with the particular slice of it NARA is mandated to protect.
That slice is an uncommonly large and important one, however, and Connelly is absolutely correct to sound the alarm about the dangers it faces. Apt is the analogy of climate change: a disaster long in the making whose immense dimensions are difficult to comprehend, yet one we may have the ability to reverse if we act boldly and if we act now. Connelly is also correct to insist that historians must push for government transparency and archival access, and that we cannot do it alone. Instead, he argues, “we need a national movement energized with . . . passion and dedication.” Such a movement would require building a mass constituency around the principle that we have a right to know what our governments do in our name, and around the fact that this right depends on public access to government records. To get there, we will need a much bolder and more radical vision than the one Connelly proposes.
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The idea that a government should preserve and democratize its documentary production dates to the French Revolution.Not two weeks after the storming of the Bastille, the new National Assembly created the first-ever national archives, aiming to centralize the keeping of state records and guarantee that the public could consult them. Ever since, creating and maintaining national archives has been a central task of state formation around the world, useful both for those institutions’ symbolic power and for the all-too-material power exercised via the creation, consultation, classification, and accessibility of the records they contain. As I have written elsewhere, how states regulate archival access says a great deal about their relationship to those they govern. Winning any significant change in how a state treats its archives thus requires nothing less than a revision of the social contract. For France, that involved the overthrow of the corrupt ancien régime. What will it take in the contemporary United States?
Revealingly, it was not until 1934 that the United States, where mistrust of federal overreach has been an enduring axiom of political life, established its own national archives. The New Deal’s proliferation of new government agencies meant the proliferation of new records-creating entities, and the Roosevelt administration set professional norms for the appraisal and safeguarding of their materials. This was, Connelly suggests, a rich moment of potential for American democracy. Legal checks were instituted to prevent the inappropriate destruction of government records, substantial institutional resources and muscle were devoted to the task, and Roosevelt himself extolled the value of archives and recordkeeping to the national project. Official secrecy was to be used judiciously, in the interests of national security.
As with the fruits of New Deal liberalism more generally, however, the democratic promise of the postwar moment with regard to archiving was in many respects limited, not least because, as in so many other remits of U.S. history, the country’s drive to expansion and empire undermined the integrity of its stated ideals. The story of government secrets is a story of war and imperialism. Well before the founding of NARA, the federal government developed massive intelligence-gathering and covert surveillance capabilities in its occupation of the Philippines. As World War I wound down, the United States repatriated the extraconstitutional information-gathering apparatus developed abroad for use against domestic dissidents.The advent of the Second World War offered Roosevelt justification for systematizing the classification of national security–related information for the first time. The close relationships the U.S. government built during that same period with foreign police and militaries, whose information-gathering capacities it would soon pay handsomely to fortify, allowed it to vacuum up enormous amounts of global intelligence, as well as to make that expertise available to local law enforcement for use policing U.S. residents. The Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency were founded in 1947 and 1952, respectively, thereby institutionalizing both covert action and the production of archival materials that were sensitive by definition. The rise of the military-industrial complex, and what we might politely call the foreign policy misadventures of the United States during the Cold War, ensured that secrecy would triumph over transparency. That state of affairs continues to this day, its scale grossly exacerbated by the digital turn.
Since the archival politics of states reflect deeper truths about how rulers and ruled relate to each other, it is unsurprising that the dismantling of the postwar welfare state and the concomitant ascendance of neoliberal governance has had consequences for the nation’s recordkeeping. One fascinating detail in Connelly’s paper is the observation that the instrument most commonly associated with government transparency, the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), has been largely captured by corporate America. FOIA was won in large part by journalists in 1966; Congress strengthened the legislation somewhat in 1974 under intense public pressure regarding Vietnam and Watergate.Since then, however, not only has the program been progressively starved of compliance funds by Congress, but, Connelly notes, the resources allocated to fulfilling FOIA requests essentially represent corporate welfare, given that at some regulatory agencies well over two-thirds of requests are filed by private companies extracting information for their own profit. Even more so than FOIA, the state’s commitment to ensuring archival access has been the victim of willful neglect. Congress has slashed NARA’s budget and staff, even as the volume of records needing an archivist’s review for classification purposes has massively expanded. The result has been a perfect storm: vaster and vaster amounts of digital records but a gutted institutional capacity to process them, yielding gigantic backlogs and, hence, growing state secrecy and impunity. If we learn a lot about a state by looking at how it handles its archives, then it is hard to avoid concluding from this assessment that the United States is not a true democracy.
To address the situation, Connelly suggests a series of reforms, including increased funding for NARA, a revamped approach to information security on the federal government’s part, and the use of data mining to manage the proliferation of records. To get the job done, Connelly argues that we must transcend politics. He claims that “[g]overnment transparency was once a bipartisan cause, championed by both the left and the right,” and that we “must stop treating each new scandal about archival neglect or destruction as just another opportunity to score political points.” But the idea that some kind of nonpartisan golden age of U.S. government openness once reigned is false. So too is the hope that today’s national security state, sustained precisely by bipartisan consensus and deeply enmeshed in what Samuel Moyn has called the “forever war,” will cede control over classification protocols without a fight.The crisis at NARA is not one of technical capacity. It is one of politics.
After all, archival access is power. Moments of increased government openness, whether in the United States or anywhere else, are rarely volunteered by those in charge. Instead, they are forged through struggle. That NARA was part of the New Deal is not an incidental detail of its history. The New Deal order, as Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle have shown, was no act of liberal charity but was won via conflict: namely, the hard work of organizing and mobilization by the left, including the Communist Party, for economic, racial, and social justice.That order was methodically dismantled over decades by committed ideological conservatives who advanced a very different vision of the ideal relationship between society and state. For all its weaknesses, FOIA, similarly, would not exist if journalists and other civil society groups had not waged an uphill battle for it. And most of the publicly available government records documenting U.S. covert activity in places like Indonesia, Vietnam, Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Angola, and Cuba—to say nothing of the policing of the home front—have been pried from the federal government, not proffered by it. These victories were won from below by committed leftists, not ceded from above by elite liberals. The problems at NARA will not be solved by us asking nicely. Instead, we need to tackle the country’s grave problems of power and governance.
This is not to discount Connelly’s suggestions for reform, which are sound and sensible. Congress should absolutely raise NARA’s funding to match its mission, federal agencies should certainly declassify far more than they do, and NARA must adapt its practices to the age of big data. Conveniently, the forever war has led our intelligence agencies to develop state-of-the-art data-mining programs like Real Time Regional Gateway (RTRG) and PRISM, which means that Connelly’s recommendation that NARA integrate data mining into the declassification process should, technically speaking, be easy to implement. We know about RTRG and PRISM thanks only to Edward Snowden, however, and it is worth asking: Absent any meaningful devolution of power from the national security state, and given the extant domination of the FOIA system by corporations seeking to game the regulatory system, whose purposes would more data mining at NARA serve? Pushing for a technical fix without a political one is a risky game indeed.
In an era in which the rest of the public sector is being systematically defunded, deregulated, privatized, or shuttered outright, we cannot expect to save NARA except as part of a broader agenda for social change. (The devastating recent fire at Brazil’s National Museum illustrates all too well how government austerity threatens historical preservation.) That broader agenda must articulate the essential link between the technocratic remit of archival access protocols and a far more robust set of demands for transforming the relationship between society and state. After all, if it is government accountability we are after, we must concede that even a complete overhaul of the declassification process would only get us a small part of the way there.
What we need instead is accountability for the shredding of the U.S. social contract over the last four decades. We live in a time of gerrymandering, felon disenfranchisement, mass incarceration, runaway corporate greed, and soaring socioeconomic inequality. The commons have been eviscerated by design. The U.S. military has active-duty troops stationed in more than 150 countries and an annual budget approaching a trillion dollars, while our elderly stock shelves in Amazon warehouses because they cannot afford to retire, and our families lose their homes because they cannot pay their medical bills.Here, the analogy to climate change is relevant once more: If we wish to forestall its devastating effects, we will not succeed by focusing our energies on one sole polluter, or one sole resource. Instead, as Naomi Klein writes, “the real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system—one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work and radically reins in corporate power.” I submit here that the same must be said about the archival crisis Connelly diagnoses. To do otherwise would be to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.
So yes, let us come together and save NARA. But we cannot stop there. We must demand a sea change in the federal government’s priorities, which we will only win through concerted political struggle and a major redistribution of power in our society. We must push for a massive reinvestment in the public sphere, not just at the National Archives but across government agencies. We must build coalitions around the fact that archival preservation and democratic activism are one and the same. And we must fight not just to declassify the forever war, but to end it.
© 2018, Kirsten Weld.
Kirsten Weld is an associate professor in the Department of History at Harvard University.