August 8 will be the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. That’s a good target date for the long-overdue appointment of a new director of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California.
The library has been without a director for two and a half years, ever since the departure of Timothy Naftali in 2011. He presided over the installation of the new, historically accurate Watergate exhibit—his number-one duty after the Nixon Foundation agreed in 2007 to bring the library, which opened in 1990, into the National Archives presidential library system.
Before that, Nixon had been the only president to refuse to cooperate with the National Archives, which ran all the other presidential museums. In 1974, Congress insisted that the Archives, rather than Nixon himself, have control of all of his presidential papers and tapes. The result was a seventeen-year standoff during which the Nixon Foundation ran a private museum in Yorba Linda that served as the nation’s center of Watergate denial, defying the National Archives.
Now the standoff has returned. The Nixon Library has no director because the Nixon Foundation, run by old-time Nixon loyalists and family members, blocked the appointment of the candidate selected by the National Archives: Mark Atwood Lawrence, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas in Austin. Lawrence is a respected middle-of-the-road scholar who was fully qualified for the job; he’s the author of The Vietnam War: A Concise International History, published in 2010 by Oxford University Press.
But the Nixon Foundation didn’t want Lawrence. Ron Walker, chairman of the Foundation’s board of directors, told Daniel Langhorne of the Orange County Register that he was concerned about Lawrence’s “perspective” on Vietnam. “It was just different,” Walker said. “I’m not going any further on that.”
How different was it? Lawrence doesn’t call Nixon a madman or a war criminal, but he does challenge those in the Nixon administration who argued at the time that an American defeat in Vietnam would do irreparable damage to US influence in the world. In the scholarly journal History: Reviews of New Books, the reviewer of Lawrence’s book wrote that “for a subject that has all too often inspired overwrought critiques of the various parties involved in the conflict, it is refreshing to have a synthesis that adopts a more neutral and dispassionate view of the Vietnam War.”
Lawrence wasn’t exactly vetoed, but the foundation made clear their hostility to him, and eventually he withdrew his application.
The power to appoint directors of presidential libraries rests with the archivist of the United States, currently David Ferrio. He has been deferring to the Nixon loyalists and family members, but his responsibility is to the American people. The National Archives’ mission is “to serve American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government.”
The problem is now approaching a crisis because the foundation, which funds the exhibits and public programs of the museum, has announced plans for a $15 million renovation of the exhibits. Apparently, it prefers to do this without a director in place to oversee the historical accuracy of what it has in mind.
The number-one exhibit in need of revision, not surprisingly, is the one concerning Vietnam. Currently the museum devotes more space to the return of American POWs from North Vietnam than it does to the war itself. The result is an exhibit that suggests America was fighting in Vietnam to get our POWs back.
Redesigning the exhibits in Yorba Linda should be the work of a professional director committed to a nonpartisan and historically accurate museum, not one deferring to old-time loyalists and family members who want a shrine that celebrates the life of their hero. Archivist David Ferrio needs to make that appointment before the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation on August 8.