Airing out the vaults

Times Staff Writer

There are home movies of Ronald Reagan as a lifeguard at age 16 and Bill Clinton as a child, and immigration papers from Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s father, Luther.

There’s a letter from Walt Disney to President Nixon, on why kids should be Republicans, and the telegram that President Lincoln sent to General Grant urging him not to let rumors of settlement talks between the North and the South “change, hinder or delay your military movements.”

But the core of a new exhibition at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., is less the novelties of federal holdings than an interactive connection to history. “The Public Vaults,” which opens today, offers visitors a simulated experience of walking through the stacks of the National Archives by displaying electronic copies of its documents. At its myriad locations, the Archives houses more than 8 billion pieces of paper from the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government; 5 million maps and architectural drawings; 18 million aerial photographs; 35 million still pictures and posters; and electronic records comprising about 4 billion logical data records.

“We in this country don’t have a state religion and we don’t have a shared ethnicity,” archivist John W. Carlin said in unveiling the exhibition. “These documents are our common identity.”


The Archives, which also administers presidential libraries, has always been a fortress on the National Mall. Located in the shadow of the Smithsonian Institution, the Archives building looks formidable, like a stern uncle.

While children scamper and squeal at the nearby Natural History Museum, sober scholars huddle at the Archives, ferreting out documents of arcane origin. Except for the founding documents -- the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution, proudly on display in the rotunda and viewed by 1 million visitors a year -- the building exudes the feeling of a cold, steel vault.

“Records that used to be locked away are now where Americans can experience them,” said Thomas Wheeler, president of the Archives Foundation, a private group that has raised $16 million to augment the government’s $110 million for the Archives’ renovation. “We’re getting those documents out of the vault.”

Now, visitors can eavesdrop on President Kennedy and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Maxwell Taylor as they discuss the merits of various military responses to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Or see the Bell & Howell Zoomatic camera that Abraham Zapruder used to photograph JFK’s assassination. They can read the evidence compiled for the investigation into the sinking of the Titanic. Or imagine the impact of a “Join the U.S. Army Air Corps” poster. They can marvel at the machine that Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods used to transcribe the president’s taped conversations about Watergate, the one in which her foot inadvertently erased 18 1/2 minutes of the so-called “smoking gun” tape. Or they can gaze at a photograph of Nixon with Elvis Presley, and read letters teenagers wrote to the White House urging the government to keep Elvis out of the Army.

In a part of the exhibition devoted to unmasking old government secrets, visitors can peruse the declassified documents amassed in six major incidents in American history.

Among the episodes on display now: the development of the atomic bomb that ended World War II, the Zimmerman telegraph that Woodrow Wilson used to propel the country into World War I, and the case against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, an American couple convicted of being Soviet spies and put to death.

At any time, more than 1,000 items can be on display. Curators opened the exhibition to military personnel and their families on Veterans Day. Earlier, two Americans whose lives are reflected in the “Public Vaults” were on hand to pose with reminders of their childhoods.

John Beaulieu was a student at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., Helen Keller’s alma mater, when he decided to write a letter, in Braille, to President Eisenhower.


The year was 1956, Ike was running for reelection and the 13-year-old Beaulieu suggested a campaign speech along these lines: “Vote for me. I will help you out. I will lower the prices and also your tax bill.”

These days Beaulieu works for the IRS in Massachusetts, helping the blind fill out and submit their tax returns. He and his family traveled to Washington for the opening, to see Beaulieu’s letter displayed for the public.

Gina Townsend was 3 years old when she and her mother traveled to Washington to receive the Medal of Honor awarded to her father, Pfc. Clifford Chester Sims, who had been killed in Vietnam.

Sims was leading a squad through dense woods in Hue when he heard the sound of a booby trap triggered in front of his men. He yelled to them to get out and then threw his body on the exploding device, saving their lives and earning a Medal of Honor for heroism “above and beyond the call of duty.”


She came to Washington to see that her father was one of eight American Medal of Honor winners recognized by the Archives. With her was her brother, Wardell Townsend, and the youngest of her three daughters. Kristin Townsend is 3 years old.