The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library opened its doors 25 years ago today. To mark the occasion, former Attorney General and all-around Ronald Reagan advisor Edwin Meese, former CA governor Pete Wilson, and Reagan's second and last secretary of State, George P. Shultz, made the trip to Simi Valley along with David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States.
Meese charmed, as usual, the not-so-small crowd gathered at the Reagan Library. Summing up how he viewed Reagan's most important contributions: "Reagan changed how we view the constitution," Meese proudly declared.
Honestly, it was a little hot and I tuned out for Governor Wilson and Ferriero. Shultz was brief, and used his few minutes to talk about arms control and how Reagan really did separate himself from the Carter years by delinking arms control negotiations from other events. Whereas Carter had cut off all negotiations with the Soviets after their invasion of Afghanistan, Shultz credits Reagan for bringing the Soviets back to the table in arms control by publicly calling for intermediate range arms control negotiations while letting the Soviets know that if they didn't negotiate the U.S. would have no choice but to deploy their own intermediate range weapons. Reagan was able to keep the high ground by offering to negotiate, while also staying strong by deploying when needed. The strategy worked, and by 1987 the U.S. and Soviet Union had agreed to the elimination of all intermediate range nuclear weapons.
A little cake... a nice new bronze statute of Ronald Reagan...and a very successful 25 year anniversary.
This December will mark my 15-year anniversary of researching at the Reagan Library. Much has changed, but not enough. The Air Force One Pavilion is great, as is the new cafe and the way the grounds are being maintained. The chili is as good, if not better, than ever. Inside the archive the room is smaller than it used to be, the chairs and tables are better, as is the wifi. The staff, with many changes, is as friendly and eager to help as they have always been. And most importantly, they are working hard to get documents out and released. Today I saw numerous files released in 2015 and 2016 and within a few months I know I'll be seeing others with 2017 stamps. The research room is also busy! Four other researchers today -- I remember months when I wouldn't see four researchers.
But it is still taking an enormous amount of time to get responses to FOIA and MDR requests. Three years... five years... today I came in to look at KAL 007 files which I FOIAd over 10 years ago. This makes no sense. I'm in the unusual position of living close to the library and not having to rely on my publishing to make a living, so the wait is more annoying than anything. But for the professional historian, those who rely on these documents for their work, the wait just doesn't make sense. And though we see a lot of work on the Reagan years, like H.W. Brands new book, we are seeing more of a synthesis of the existing literature than a ground-breaking new interpretation based on the actual documents from the Reagan White House. I see this as an institutional problem and until we as a society prioritize the release of government records these documents are only going to trickle out as they have been. My feeling is that the Reagan Library has the staff to handle this -- the hold up is mostly on the other side when it comes to classified documents. We need the State Department, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, the White House, etc., all to take these requests in a timely manner.
Of course the documents only tell a small part of the story, but they are in my opinion the closest we have to knowing what the president and his advisors were thinking at specific moments in time. And so in 15 years the conversation about Ronald Reagan hasn't really changed. In 2001 and in 2016 he is mostly credited for winning the cold war, reducing taxes, and restoring the spirit of the United States from the depressing late 1970s following Vietnam, Watergate, and out of control inflation and interest rates.
But for the document hounds, like me, the questions remain. How involved was Reagan really in the arms-for-hostages scandal and what precedent did trading arms-for-hostages set for future administrations? How much credit should Reagan really get for ending the cold war? Didn't he know, for example, in 1981 that the Soviet Union had already bankrupted itself and was now spinning out-of-control and that all he had to do was keep his foot on the gas a little longer? What about the enormous debt the United States racked up under his watch and the out-of-control defense spending, like for the Strategic Defense Initiative? Was it really necessary to keep us safe or even to win the cold war? Was there really something else going on there, like a covert U.S. program to develop next generation nuclear weapons? Later in the administration the questions remain over Reagan's health. Who was governing the country in 1987 and 1988? Was Reagan so afflicted at that time with Alzheimer's that he had to delegate even the most important decisions to his staff? Oddly, Nationals Security Planning Group meetings for 1988 are missing from the National Security Planning Group meetings files and those were the meetings where the most important foreign policy decisions were made. What happened to the 1988 files and why after all this time can't they be recreated?
I hope I'm around in another 25 years for the 50th anniversary and that we will at that time have a lot of these answers. But I suspect many of these questions, and still most of the documents in the Reagan Library that could help us better understand what really went on in the Reagan white house, will still be locked up, underground, in a vault, protected from the elements while they could be shedding light on the inner-workings of the white house and the importance of transparency to a healthy democracy.