All the Presidents’ Words Hushed

Robert Dallek is the author of a two-volume life of Lyndon B. Johnson. He is completing a biography of John F. Kennedy

Ever since the presidency became the focus of U.S. political life during Theodore Roosevelt’s years in the White House, journalists and historians have discussed the importance of presidential decision-making. Why do presidents give priority to one domestic issue over another? Why and how do they decide between war and peace?

Journalists initially answer these questions with the limited knowledge available to them, always mindful that “White House sources” provide them with the information that will advance a president’s agenda and serve his political standing. Historians with the luxury of hindsight and, more important, access to a much fuller record usually give us a better understanding of presidential reasoning. Their studies are not simply exercises in academic analysis. They often educate presidents, who are always eager to learn what accounts for past White House successes and failures.

President Bush, however, has severely crippled our ability to study the inner workings of a presidency. On Nov. 1, he issued an executive order that all but blocks access to the Reagan White House and potentially that of all other recent presidents. Practically speaking, Bush’s order hinders the opening of 68,000 pages of confidential Reagan communications with his advisors.

Under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, a systematic release of presidential papers in response to Freedom of Information requests can only occur 12 years after a president leaves office. The law’s intent was to assure the timely release of presidential materials that would serve the government’s and the public’s understanding of the country’s history, especially decision-making in the White House. The Bush administration, including a statement by the president himself, contends that the executive order is needed to guard against revelations destructive to national security. But this assertion will persuade no one who has even the slightest knowledge of presidential papers. Just a few days in the Kennedy or Johnson libraries would be enough to convince anyone that ample safeguards against breeches of national security and violations of personal privacy already exist, and these are for papers dating from the 1960s, not the 1980s. Moreover, access to previously closed documents make clear that presidents and government agencies always err on the side of excessive caution.


If national security is not the motivating force behind Bush’s executive order, what is? We can only speculate that he is trying to protect members of his administration, who also served under Ronald Reagan, from embarrassing revelations. It is also possible that he is endeavoring to hide his father’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal. And it is imaginable that he is already thinking about shielding the inner workings of his own administration, or his excessive dependence on senior advisors in deciding both domestic and national-security issues about which many outsiders believe he has been poorly informed.

Researchers trying to reconstruct the country’s past are not the only losers when access to historical records is reduced. Current policymakers dependent on useful analogies in deciding what best serves the national interest are also harmed. The more presidents have known about past White House performance, the better they have been at making wise policy judgments. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s intimate knowledge of President Woodrow Wilson’s missteps at the end of World War I were of considerable help to him in leading the country into and through World War II. Lyndon B. Johnson’s effectiveness in passing so much Great Society legislation in 1965 and 1966 partly rested on direct observation of how Roosevelt had managed relations with the Congress. President Harry S. Truman’s error in crossing into North Korea was one element in persuading George Bush not to invade Iraq.

The recent release of additional Johnson tapes underscores how much historical understanding can influence presidential decision-making. Tapes of LBJ talking about Operation Rolling Thunder, the systematic bombing of North Vietnam begun in February 1965, reveal a president with substantial doubts about the wisdom of the air campaign. “Now we’re off to bombing these people,” Johnson said to Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. “We’re over that hurdle. I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing, and I don’t see any way of winning.”

“Bomb, bomb, bomb. That’s all you know,” Johnson said to Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson. " ... I don’t need 10 generals to come in here 10 times and tell me to bomb. I want some solutions. I want some answers,” the president declared. “Airplanes ain’t worth a damn, Dick ... " he complained to Senate Armed Services Chairman Richard Russell. “I guess they can do it in an industrial city. I guess they can do it in New York. ... But that’s the damnedest thing I ever saw. The biggest fraud. Don’t you get your hopes up that the Air Force is going to” win this war. “Light at the end of the tunnel,” LBJ told Bill Moyers about the bombing. “Hell, we don’t even have a tunnel; we don’t even know where the tunnel is.”


Johnson knew about post-World War II surveys of wartime bombing effectiveness. They demonstrated that the aerial campaigns against Britain and Germany not only didn’t defeat them, they, in fact, stiffened resistance and encouraged greater civilian war efforts. Johnson’s well-justified doubts about bombing made him all the more receptive to sending in ground forces.

It’s too bad that he didn’t have access to a memo President John F. Kennedy had sent to McNamara in November 1962, a week after the Cuban Missile crisis ended. An invasion plan for Cuba, which might still be needed if the Soviets did not follow through on a promise to withdraw “offensive” weapons from the island, impressed Kennedy as “thin.” He worried that “we could end up bogged down. I think we should keep constantly in mind the British in the Boer War, the Russians in the last war with the Finnish, and our own experience with the North Koreans.” If historical experience dictated against an invasion of Cuba, how would he have felt about sending hundreds of thousands of troops into the jungles of Vietnam?

Every president uses history in deciding current actions. President Bush is no different. Memories of his father’s defeat over a failure to keep his promise about no new taxes and a seeming indifference to the plight of the unemployed have partly shaped his behavior as president. Bush might profit from a history of Reagan’s dealings with former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev by an independent scholar, which his Nov. 1 executive order forecloses for the time being.

Indeed, the principal victim of Bush’s directive will be himself and the country. The order will inhibit independent study of the Reagan and first Bush presidencies and will impoverish the White House’s ability to make difficult decisions in both domestic and foreign affairs during the next three years. The more the country knows about presidential decision-making, the better it can decide who to send to the White House. The study and publication of our presidential history is no luxury or form of public entertainment. It is a vital element in assuring the best governance of our democracy. Congress should reverse Bush’s order as a destructive act that return us to an imperial presidency and robs us of our history.