Giving Thanks

As Thanksgiving approaches, we have much to be thankful for here at the National Archives. We are grateful for the records we hold in trust, and for a mission that lets us serve the democracy and the people of this Nation.

I also give thanks this year for the industrious staff at the National Archives, especially those whose hard work and dedication has led to the opening of our newest exhibition, Remembering Vietnam: Twelve Critical Episodes in the Vietnam War. As a Vietnam veteran, telling the story of the Vietnam War and giving a voice to both sides is especially important to me.

The exhibit examines 12 critical episodes in the Vietnam War to provide a framework for understanding the decisions that led to war, events and consequences of the war, and its legacy. This 3,000-square-foot exhibit uses more than 80 original records from the National Archives – including newly declassified documents – to critically reexamine major events and turning points in the war. The exhibit is open now through January 6, 2019.

SP/4 Terry Wedmore (B Co., 2nd Bn., 8th Cav, 1st Air Cav. Div.) takes his first bite of turkey drumstick while having Thanksgiving dinner in the field, November 10, 1967
Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives and Records Administration

From all of us at the National Archives, we wish you a peaceful Thanksgiving.

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Remembering Vietnam

The National Archives opened our newest exhibition, Remembering Vietnam: Twelve Critical Episodes in the Vietnam War on November 10, 2017. The exhibit examines 12 critical episodes in the Vietnam War to provide a framework for understanding the decisions that led to war, events and consequences of the war, and its legacy. This 3,000-square-foot exhibit uses more than 80 original records from the National Archives – including newly declassified documents – to critically reexamine major events and turning points in the war and address three critical questions about the Vietnam War: Why did the United States get involved? Why did the war last so long? Why was it so controversial?

More than 50 years after the United States committed combat troops to the war in Vietnam, and more than 40 years since the war ended, the complexity of the conflict is still being unraveled. Historians continue to make discoveries in National Archives’ records that provide insight into this critical period.

Remembering Vietnam Exhibit. National Archives photo by Jeff Reed

Remembering Vietnam follows the trajectory of American involvement in Vietnam through six Presidential administrations, and from its World War II origins to the fall of Saigon in 1975. This groundbreaking exhibit uses original National Archives documents, artifacts, and film footage to explore the policies and decisions that initiated and then escalated American economic and military aid to South Vietnam. Interviews with veterans, journalists, members of the peace movement, Vietnamese civilians, and leading Vietnam War historians provide first-person testimony and analysis of the events. These interviews and historic film footage will be screened in three mini-theaters within the exhibition.

In honor of this exhibit opening, Vietnam-era helicopters arrived and were installed on the grounds of the National Archives in Washington, DC in time for Friday’s opening of the new exhibit.

Helicopters are moved off of transport trucks onto the lawn of the National Archives in preparation for the opening weekend of the new exhibit Remembering Vietnam. National Archives photo By Jeff Reed

The helicopters, provided by the North Carolina Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, arrived after dark November 6, and were offloaded with cranes and moved onto the lawn, where they remained throughout the opening weekend. The public was invited to tour the aircraft and speak to members of the association who were all pilots of these types of aircraft during the war. In addition to the helicopter display, the National Archives will host many special programs this fall to mark its first-ever Vietnam War exhibit.

To learn more about the Vietnam War and see the resources available at the National Archives, we’ve also developed a Vietnam War research portal. The National Archives has a wealth of records and information documenting the U.S. experience in the Vietnam conflict, including photographs, textual and electronic records, audiovisual recordings, exhibits, educational resources, articles, blog posts, lectures, and events. This portal creates a central space for all National Archives resources and content related to the Vietnam War for use by researchers, students and educators, museum goers, veterans, and those curious about the conflict.

Remembering Vietnam is free and open to the public, and will be on display in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC, through January 6, 2019. It is presented in part by the Lawrence F. O’Brien Family, Pritzker Military Museum & Library, AARP, FedEx Corporation, and the National Archives Foundation. Additional support provided by the Maris S. Cuneo Foundation, The Eliasberg Family Foundation, Inc., and HISTORYⓇ.

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Less-well-traveled paths at the National Archives

Today’s guest blog post comes from T.J. Stiles, author of Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America.

TJ Stiles photo with Custer's Trials book cover


I could not have written my last book, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America—nor have won the Pulitzer Prize for it—without the National Archives. But the reason may not be obvious.

George Armstrong Custer’s death at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, forever associates him with the western frontier. But the frontier that truly defined him, the one I refer to in my subtitle, was a frontier in time. He spent his life embroiled in the changes that gave rise to the modern United States, particularly through a career in the Army, which played a key role in creating the nation we know today.

Combat draws most of the attention in Custer’s life, from his starring role in the Civil War, to his controversial attack on Southern Cheyennes at the Washita, to his disastrous last day. Yet I also wanted to understand how Custer functioned within the institution of the Army. There are plenty of sources about battles, but the information I needed on Custer as middle manager could be found only in the National Archives.

In August 1863, for example, only a month after he emerged as a national hero at the head of his cavalry brigade at Gettysburg, he endured a series of reprimands from his division commander, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. Custer provoked Kilpatrick by going outside of the chain of command to communicate directly with Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, chief of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. He also held an unauthorized parley with a Confederate colonel, who sent an embarrassing account of the meeting to a newspaper. I discovered these conflicts—small moments that presaged greater trouble to come—in a volume of the 3rd Cavalry Division’s Letters Sent, August 1863–June 1865, in Record Group 393.

A decade later, this kind of conflict appeared again when Custer led the cavalry detachment in the military escort for a survey party of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the Dakota and Montana territories. The expedition’s commander, Col. David S. Stanley, wrote to his wife of his disdain for Custer. At one point Stanley ordered his arrest, and Custer talked dangerously of arresting Stanley in turn—possibly a mutiny—for his superior’s drunkenness. This has always appeared as a kind of personal spat. But a deeper dive into military records reveals that he had developed a nasty reputation within the Army as a problem officer.

When I scrolled through Microfilm Publication M1495 (Special Files of Headquarters, Division of the Missouri, Relating to Military Operations and Administration), I found a brawl between Custer and Department of Dakota headquarters in St. Paul. He demanded more resources for marching his men from Yankton to Fort Rice, the staging point for the Northern Pacific expedition, and complained of other matters. “Custer’s request for wagons is absurd,” General Alfred Terry wrote to his adjutant, O.D. Greene. “He can have made no calculations.” Greene wired back that Custer had sent him “a telegram of ten pages . . . principally fault finding and making unnecessary difficulties in regard to the march. . . . I report it extremely difficult to get along with the present Commander [i.e., Custer].”

Interestingly, another officer investigated and largely backed Custer. But Custer’s reputation within the Army was so bad that his superiors assumed the worst about him. This otherwise pointless squabble tells us that his inability to get along with the chain of command—a problem that first appeared in those August 1863 reprimands—had grown worse over the years. His feud with Stanley reflected his difficulties with the institution of the Army, a personal quirk yet also an echo of the nation’s troubles in adapting to a more organizational future.

In my introduction, I wrote that I was trying to change the camera angle on Custer’s life. I was still interested in the episodes that had been written about so well before, but I wanted to find new significance in them. Thanks to the riches of the National Archives, I could place his high-profile battles and expeditions in a new context, to understand a man and a nation struggling into a new era.


T.J. Stiles received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History for Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (Alfred A. Knopf), as well as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the 2009 National Book Award for Nonfiction for The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

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National Archives Releases JFK Assassination Records

The National Archives released 2,891 records on Thursday related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that are subject to the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (JFK Act). These records are available for download online.

The President has also ordered that all remaining records governed by section 5 of the JFK Act be released, and thus additional records will be released subject to redactions recommended by the executive offices and agencies. NARA will process these records for release as soon as possible on a rolling basis.

Based on requests from executive offices and agencies the President has allowed the temporary withholding of certain information that would harm national security, law enforcement, or foreign affairs. The President also ordered agencies to re-review their proposed redactions and  only redact information in the rarest of circumstances where its withholding “is made necessary by an identifiable harm to military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or conduct of foreign relations; and the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.” These instructions will allow the National Archives to release as much information as possible by the end of the temporary certification period on April 26, 2018.

Following the release yesterday, our website saw nearly 44,000 active users, and our ten most active pages were related to the release of these additional documents.

Website active user following JFK records release

Snapshot of simultaneous users on archives.gov at 8:00 p.m. 10/26/17

The National Archives previously released 3,810 related records on July 24, 2017, including 441 records previously withheld in their entirety and 3,369 records previously withheld in part. More information about this release is available online.

In addition, the National Archives is also releasing to the public the unclassified electronic records of the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), including 52,387 emails and 16,627 files from the ARRB drives.

The National Archives established the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection in November 1992, and it consists of approximately five million pages of records. The vast majority of the collection has been publicly available without any restrictions since the late 1990s.

Find more information in these online resources:

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Sleepover at the National Archives

Washington, DC is home to some of the most fantastic museums in the world. Museums where visitors see one of a kind objects, are transported around the world through expositions, and participate in unique programming. The National Archives is one of those museums.  Here, visitors contemplate our democracy while examining the signed Constitution of the United States, travel the world as they view records documenting our interactions with other nations, and become inspired and engaged through programming for everyone pre-K to adults.

Adult and child in the National Archives Rotunda

Four years ago, the National Archives, in partnership with the National Archives Foundation, began a sleepover program for young museum goers. Designed for children 8-12 years old and their accompanying adults, these sleepovers are inspiring the next generation of historians, stewards of our nations records, and advocates for the work of the Archives. The themes for the sleepovers change, offering a glimpse into the diversity of holdings in the Archives and an opportunity for participants to come back again and again.

This past weekend, 120 participants from across the country embarked on this year’s space themed sleepover in commemoration of the JFK centennial. These participants got the “star” treatment right from the start as they paused to look through a telescope set up at the museum’s entrance.  After getting checked in, and being welcomed by both the Archivist of the United States and the Executive Director of the National Archives Foundation during orientation, sleepover goers set out to see if they were suited for space.  Hands-on activities throughout the museum engaged participants and ignited imaginations. A few examples of activities include making mission patches, putting together astronaut John Glenn’s genealogy scrap book, dressing like a space explorer, and training like an astronaut using neutral buoyancy. NARA also collaborated with the National Air and Space Museum who brought over telescopes, meteorites, and astronaut underwear, with Catherine Kruchten who taught participants how to engineer their own rockets, and astronaut George Zamka who shared experiences of his time in space. If you would like to see some of his experiences in space, look in the holdings of the National Archives. At the end of the night, everyone slept in the Rotunda next to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Setting up sleeping bags in the National Archives Rotunda

With Archives Sleepovers, participants not only see one of a kind objects, but sleep next to them. They are transported not only around the world but out of the world as they encounter the universe of space exploration. The unique programming that happens here could not happen anyplace else. Each one of the billions of records in the holdings of the National Archives unlocks a piece of what it means to be an American and adds to the stories told here.

Each amazing sleepover experience would not be possible without ideas, planning, creating, and enacting of many interns, volunteers and staff.  Each person involved in the process helps to make the Archives sleepovers a success from A to Zzzzzzz.  If you are interested in joining us, the next sleepover is set to blast off on February 24, 2018.

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An Update on the FOIA Advisory Committee

On October 19, 2017 the FOIA Advisory Committee will meet in the William G. McGowan Theater. The three subcommittees will each present their ideas to the full Committee and the public for how to improve the administration of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and improve FOIA processes.

As I blogged about last June, the FOIA Advisory Committee is charged with looking broadly at the challenges that agency FOIA programs are starting to face in light of an ever-increasing volume of born-electronic records, and chart a course for how FOIA should operate now and in the future. The Committee is chaired and staffed by the FOIA Ombudsman’s office located within the National Archives, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), and includes twenty members with FOIA expertise from inside and outside of government who represent a wide range of interests and perspectives.

Photo of David Ferriero

David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, gives welcoming remarks during the FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on July 21, 2016. Photo by Brogan Jackson.

At the Committee’s first two quarterly meeting, members discussed the greatest challenges in the administration of FOIA and determined in October 2016 to focus its efforts on three areas: increasing proactive disclosures; improving searches for records; and maximizing efficiencies and resources. To carry out its work, the Committee organized itself into three subcommittees, each of which is co-chaired by a government and a non-government member. Over the last year, these subcommittees have studied the issues and worked collaboratively to begin to develop recommendations to address key problems in the administration of FOIA.

One of the central themes that has emerged as the Committee work has progressed is the undeniable close relationship between a strong records management program and an effective FOIA office; and this relationship will only become even stronger as the volume of electronic records continues to grow. During the last Committee meeting in July 2017,  Chief Records Officer Laurence Brewer spoke to the Committee about recent changes to federal records management policy and the steps the National Archives is taking to help transition federal agencies to an electronic recordkeeping environment and speed up the adoption of modern electronic recordkeeping practices. At the upcoming meeting, the National Archives former Director of Litigation, Jason R. Baron, will also address how the transition to electronic recordkeeping impacts an agency’s FOIA program.

I look forward to hearing about the subcommittees’ work, and to receiving the Committee’s final recommendations at the end of its term. Please join me for the October 19 FOIA Advisory Committee meeting in person and register using Eventbrite. The meeting will also be livestreamed via the National Archives YouTube Channel if you are unable to attend in person.

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Help Advance Open Government

The purpose of the U.S. Open Government National Action Plan is to advance transparency, accountability, citizen participation, and technological innovation across government. Now, thanks to an effort supported by the General Services Administration, you have until October 2, 2017 – just a few more days – to share your ideas to advance open government and provide feedback on others’ suggestions using GitHub.

Github is a social coding platform that the federal government has adopted to gather public feedback on policies like the federal source code policy. The National Archives is using the site to allow the public to contribute to our current Agency Open Government Plan, and to foster discussion about our new Strategic Plan.

As the Archivist of the United States, one of my priorities has been to show how a small agency like the National Archives can not only contribute, but lead in fulfilling the vision of open government’s three principles: transparency, participation, and collaboration. Since 2010, the National Archives has made and delivered on close to two hundred specific commitments in our agency open government plans, and the National Archives has had responsibility for critical components of the U.S. Open Government National Action Plans, including leading work to modernize recordkeeping across the federal government and help agencies transition to a modern, electronic world.

There is always more to do, though. One of the commitments proposed by the National Archives for the Fourth U.S. Open Government National Action Plan is tightly aligned with the vision laid out in our new Strategic Plan to streamline digital access to our nation’s records and accelerate the adoption of electronic record-keeping practices by federal agencies. This proposed commitment requires NARA to no longer accept transfers of records to the National Archives in a non-digital format after December 31, 2022. In response to feedback the National Archives received on our Strategic Plan from staff and external commenters, we have updated the Plan to modified the language of this objective to recognize that NARA may need to accept a limited number of analog records after the deadline.

We are eager to hear from you! I hope you will take the opportunity to browse the ideas that have already been submitted and share your reactions. In addition to the commitment to streamline access to digital records, the National Archives has submitted several potential commitments involving the work of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Ombudsman housed within the National Archives, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS); these commitments include efforts to improve the efficiency of the FOIA process through the use of advisory opinions and to increase coordination between agency records management and FOIA offices.

We look forward to hearing your ideas and feedback, and to working with you to continue to drive forward open government.

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Bold Updates to Our Strategic Plan

The new administration has required agencies to create strategic plans covering 2018-2022. Our updated Strategic Plan was circulated for public comment over the past couple of months. We asked for input and you gave it.  You can see the history of comments on our GitHub page.  With updates informed by those comments, we provided OMB our new Strategic Plan on September 11.

Photograph of Female Statue, The Future, Located near the Pennsylvania Avenue Entrance to the National Archives Building

Photograph of Female Statue, The Future, Located near the Pennsylvania Avenue Entrance to the National Archives Building. “What is Past is Prologue” is written on the base of “Future.” National Archives Identifier 7657960

Some of the goals in the new plan include:

  • By FY 2020, NARA will have policies and processes in place to support Federal agencies’ transition to fully electronic recordkeeping. We added this new objective under our Strategic Goal Connect with Customers based on comments from our customer Federal agencies who asked us to make a commitment to assist them in transitioning to a fully electronic environment.
  • By December 31, 2022, NARA will, to the fullest extent possible, no longer accept transfers of permanent or temporary records in analog formats and will accept records only in electronic format and with appropriate metadata. We added the phrase “to the fullest extent possible” based on extensive feedback from both staff and external commenters. We modified the language of this objective to recognize that NARA may need to accept a limited number of analog records after the December 31, 2022 deadline.
  • By FY 2020, NARA will have a career development program in place to support NARA’s transition to electronic records. We added this new objective under our Strategic Goal Build our Future through our People to make an express commitment to our staff that we will provide training and opportunities focused on electronic records and online access.

Your comments and suggestions have made our Strategic Plan a stronger document that describes a clearer vision for the future.  Check out the full plan at: https://usnationalarchives.github.io/strategic-plan/

 

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The Panama Canal: Riots, Treaties, Elections, and a Little Military Madness

The National Declassification Center’s newest special project release concerns U.S. and Panamanian foreign relations: The Panama Canal: Riots, Treaties, Elections, and a Little Military Madness, 1959 – 1973.

NDC Panama Canal Records Release Poster

2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the official celebration of the completed construction of the Panama Canal by the United States. Although the Canal was officially opened to shipping on August 15, 1914, few realize that the official celebration had to be postponed due to the start of World War I a few weeks later. The official recognition of its completed construction was not celebrated until March 1915 at the San Francisco Exposition.

To celebrate this official recognition, the National Declassification Center (NDC) focused on recently declassified records in our custody that celebrate what the American Society of Civil Engineers has named the Seventh Civil Engineering Wonder of the World, the Panama Canal. The majority of Americans may have heard of the Panama Canal but few may know the United States’ role in its construction and maintenance, let alone the part that it played in our foreign relations with Panama. Debate continues to swirl around issues of why the U.S. turned the Canal over to Panama, Panamanian distrust of the U.S. Government in general, and the imperialistic image associated with U.S. employees that administered and lived in the Canal Zone.

Many historians have examined our early pre and post construction relations with Panama but not many have examined the period just prior to the Canal turnover. The records that have been recently declassified focus on that pre turnover era and may assist U.S. citizens as well as scholars in understanding the story that led to one of the biggest changes in U.S. foreign policy since the Canal was built.

Learn more and view images from this project on our website: The Panama Canal: Riots, Treaties, Elections, and a little Military Madness, 1959­-1973

The images selected and scanned for this release are a sampling of the records, 255 pages from a total of 229,160 pages. The records give insight and perspective into treaty negotiations, interactions between the American Embassy and U.S. government agencies on the Canal, the impact of Panamanian politics and elections on treaty negotiations, and the general unrest caused by the U.S. presence on the Canal Zone. The newly released records are from the Department of State.

I am very proud of this work done by our National Declassification Center, as well as the assistance from our office of Research Services and the Office of Innovation to make the release of these important records happen.

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Naturalization Ceremony

As part of the celebrations for Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, 30 new citizens from 22 nations were sworn in last week as new U.S. citizens in front of the Constitution in the Rotunda of the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC.

The new citizens are from Benin, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Canada, Colombia, Cote D’Ivoire, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, France, Guyana, India, Italy, Liberia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Romania, Senegal, Slovakia, Togo, and Vietnam.

Pledge of Allegiance. Photo by Jeffrey Reed of the National Archives.

As Archivist of the United States, I was honored to welcome these new citizens to the National Archives and hear remarks from Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Elaine Duke and Acting Director U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services James McCament. The Honorable Beryl A. Howell, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, presided as the petitioners took the oath of citizenship.

On this same day, several National Archives locations around the country also hosted naturalization ceremonies to coincide with Constitution Day, including the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

It is a privilege to host this ceremony and witness these new citizens pledge an oath of allegiance to the United States and to honor the Constitution in front of this country’s founding documents.

Congratulations to our new citizens!

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