Source Material: The Truth Is out There: The Recently Released NSC Institutional Files of the Nixon Presidency

By Siniver, Asaf | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Source Material: The Truth Is out There: The Recently Released NSC Institutional Files of the Nixon Presidency


Siniver, Asaf, Presidential Studies Quarterly


This article reviews the recent release of material concerning the National Security Council by the Nixon presidential material staff in NARA. The new collection covers a wide array of issues relating not only to the structural and procedural developments of the council during the Nixon-Kissinger years, but also to the activities of its many interagency groups. Following an evaluation of the collection's sub-series, the article will demonstrate the significance of the findings by analyzing a particular document, suggesting that the new NSC series offers researchers a unique opportunity to reconstruct the story of the Nixon-Kissinger dyad and their control of the foreign policy machinery between 1969 and 1974.

A significant addition has recently been made to the collection of open records of the Nixon presidency. In July 2003, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) announced the opening of the National Security Council Institutional Files series from the Nixon Presidential Material Project. Hitherto, the range of original material concerning the making of foreign policy during the Nixon years has been limited. The picture has now changed. We are no longer dependent on journalist accounts and the participants' accounts. The recently released NSC series offers original, high-quality material that has never been seen before. These new findings will hopefully allow researchers to build a more balanced and complete picture of the realities of White House politics between 1969 and 1974, as far as national security issues are concerned. The NSC Institutional Files are presidential records, subject to access and disclosure under the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, which changed the legal ownership of presidential records from private to public. The act defines presidential records as documentary materials (in paper, audio-visual, or electronic format) created or received by the president, his immediate staff, or any other individual or unit that serve to assist or advise the president. (1)

This article will first review the nature of the files that have been made public in the recent release, and will then examine one document from the new series in order to demonstrate the series' significance to our understanding of the structural and procedural aspects of the machinery of foreign policy making between 1969 and 1974.

The new series' 105 cubic feet of materials is only a drop in the vast ocean of released and still-classified records of the Nixon presidency; indeed, the 180,000 pages of NSC institutional files are part of a presidential collection that includes, as one researcher noted, 40 million pages of documents, 2.2 million feet of film, 4,000 hours of White House tapes, 5,312 microforms, and 2,000 pages of oral histories (Hoff 1996, 259).

But while it may only constitute a mere fraction of the interminable collections of the 37th president's five and a half years in office, the significance of the new series is indubitable in more than one way. First, it enables researchers for the first time to use authentic documents to explain the radical transformation the NSC went through during the first months of the Nixon administration, a cumbersome project brought to life by the assistant to the president for national security affairs, Henry Kissinger. (2) Second, the series also provides a unique account of the relations between key personalities in the administration, such as Melvin Laird, Alexander Haig, and of course, Henry Kissinger. The image of Nixon's national security advisor as it comes up repeatedly in the new NSC files is of a person determined to position himself at the top of the decision-making pyramid, with tight control over the flow of information to the president, and often with disregard to important inputs from key actors in Washington, such as the Joint Chief-s and the intelligence community.

What Files Have Been Made Public?

The newly released NSC files consist of nine sub-series. …

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