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Historian With a History

Jon Wiener is a professor of history at UC Irvine and contributing editor to the Nation magazine. His forthcoming book is "Historians in Trouble." E-mail: wiener@uci.edu.

Go ahead, try. Name the archivist of the United States.

It’s a pretty fair bet you failed. The archivist, former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, oversees the nation’s most important documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. The position has traditionally been one of the lower-profile jobs in the federal hierarchy, but, as its website notes, the National Archives is not simply “a dusty hoard of ancient history. It is a public trust on which our democracy depends. It enables people to inspect for themselves the record of what government has done.”

The archives collects and preserves the records of government, including many presidential papers and documents from hearings such as those conducted last month by the 9/11 commission. In the next year, the archives will be preparing the release of papers from President George H.W. Bush’s term in office.

Researchers rely heavily on the archives’ documents and on its commitment to openness and access, which may be why so many historians are deeply worried about President Bush’s nomination last month of historian Allen Weinstein to take over the job from Carlin next year.

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The White House nominee has a controversial history involving charges of excessive secrecy and of ethical violations. Almost two dozen organizations of archivists and historians have expressed concern about his nomination, and will almost certainly speak against it at Senate hearings later this year.

The charges against Weinstein center on ethical issues involving access to research materials he used in writing two books. Other historians have not been permitted to see his documents and interviews, which violates the standards of the American Historical Assn. and the Society of American Archivists.

Weinstein’s 1999 book, “The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America -- The Stalin Era” (coauthored with a Russian-speaking former KGB agent named Alexander Vassiliev), is based on documents said to come from KGB archives.

Weinstein’s publisher, Random House, paid approximately $100,000 to an organization of retired KGB agents to gain exclusive access to the documents for its authors -- something widely regarded as a violation of research ethics. It’s wrong for a historian (or his publisher) to pay archivists not to provide information to anyone else. It prevents others from checking the accuracy and completeness of the resulting work.

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After the archival operation at the KGB had been going on for two years, the Russian government closed it down. It has remained closed ever since, leaving Vassiliev (Weinstein doesn’t speak Russian) as one of the few people to have had access to it. The result, says Anna K. Nelson, a historian with expertise in government archives policy, is that “we have no way to confirm the contents of this book.”

Other historians with other publishers did it the right way: When Yale University Press obtained access to the Communist Party archives in Moscow, editors declared that their documents would be available to other researchers. Jonathan Brent, executive editor of the “Annals of Communism” book series at Yale, explained that “we want to enhance scholarship, not impede it.”

Weinstein also withheld research materials from other scholars in his earlier book “Perjury,” an examination of the Alger Hiss case in which Weinstein concluded that Hiss really was a Soviet spy. With that book, Weinstein refused to make his interviews available to historians who disagreed with him -- again violating the standards of the American Historical Assn. The book, published in 1978, presented new evidence that Hiss, the prominent New Deal figure accused of espionage in 1948 by former communist Whittaker Chambers, was guilty as charged.

But Victor Navasky, now publisher and editorial director of the Nation magazine, found that six of Weinstein’s key sources each said he or she had been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented in the book. Weinstein then promised to make his interview tapes available at the Truman Library. That was in 1978. Twenty-six years later, Weinstein has never deposited the tapes at the Truman Library or any other archive. But these ethical violations did not prevent Bush from nominating Weinstein to the archivist position.

Other historians accused of ethical breaches have not had such happy endings. The charges against Weinstein call to mind another historian accused of research fraud, Michael Bellesiles, author of a book on the history of gun culture in America, who was forced to resign a tenured professorship at Emory University in 2002. The contrast says a lot about who has the power to end historians’ careers, or advance them.

Bellesiles was accused of research fraud in his book “Arming America: Origins of a National Gun Culture.” The book, published by Knopf in 2000, argued that our picture of guns in early America is all wrong, that gun culture is a fairly recent development in U.S. history. For two centuries before the Civil War, Bellesiles claimed that relatively few Americans owned guns. The guns they had were unreliable and didn’t shoot straight. Not until the Civil War put firearms in the hands of millions of men, he argued, did gun culture flourish.

Bellesiles won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 2000, awarded by Columbia University. But gun rights groups considered the book anathema to their cause and launched a campaign against it. (Full disclosure: Bellesiles got his doctorate in 1986 at UC Irvine, where I teach, but he was not a student of mine.)

The problems in Bellesiles’ work found subsequently by many scholars were serious ones. The most basic was inadequate documentation for the finding that few people before 1860 listed guns in their estates or willed guns to heirs. In a footnote to the table reporting these findings, the author listed 40 county courthouses across the country where he had found probate records. But his footnote was incomplete: He failed to indicate exactly how he carried out his research and what his methods were. The problematic table was mentioned only a couple of times in a 600-page book. But the argument that few people owned guns in early America was so striking that he owed it to his readers to explain his methodology fully.

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Emory University, where he taught, appointed a panel of three distinguished historians from other universities. The panel reported that his research into probate records was “unprofessional and misleading,” as well as “superficial and thesis-driven,” and that his earlier explanations of errors “raise doubts about his veracity.” But they found “evidence of falsification” only on one page: Table 1, “Percentage of probate inventories listing firearms.” Bellesiles omitted two years from the table, which covered almost a century -- 1765 to 1859. The committee said those two years, 1774 and 1775, would have shown more guns. They avoided any comment on how significant this omission was for the rest of the book. Still, Bellesiles’ critics said they had been vindicated, and he resigned.

This isn’t to argue that Bellesiles had nothing to apologize for. What he did was at best sloppy. But if he had responded to his critics the way Weinstein did -- refusing to make his materials available and paying archivists to keep documents secret -- the charges would still have been made, but they couldn’t have been substantiated. That’s what happened with Weinstein. We don’t know whether his books contained inaccuracies because, unlike Bellesiles, he refused to act in a scholarly fashion and open his materials to review.

Yet there has been little fallout for Weinstein over his conduct. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) praises his nomination and Henry Kissinger sits on the board of Weinsten’s nonprofit organization, Center for Democracy.

Conservative pundits at the Weekly Standard and National Review often claim that the left controls the history profession. But with Allen Weinstein and Michael Bellesiles, the right demonstrated far more power to punish historians -- or to reward them with White House nominations.


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