October is American Archives Month! We’re celebrating the work of archivists and the importance of archives with a series of blog posts about the Presidential libraries. The records created by Presidents while in office will become part of the National Archives, and eventually will be used by researchers. Here’s how it happens!
Today’s post comes from Alley Jordan, intern in the National Archives History Office.
The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum was established on July 11, 2007, on a nine-acre plot of land in Yorba Linda, CA, where Nixon was born and buried. The city of Yorba Linda is 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
To populate the library, records came from the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation, a private library, and the National Archives and Records Administration, a Federal agency.
According to the Nixon Library, “The Nixon presidential materials collection contains approximately 4,000 separate recordings of broadcast video, nearly 4,500 audio recordings, 30,000 gifts from foreign heads of states, American citizens, and others, 300,000 still photographs, 2 million feet of film, 46 million pages of documents, and 3,700 hours of recorded presidential conversations.”
After the Watergate scandal caused Nixon to resign, he wanted to secure his tapes and confidential materials from criminal prosecution. This resulted in the Supreme Court case U.S v. Nixon.
The case addressed the question of whether the “executive privilege” clause of the Constitution granted the President immunity from judicial review.
After Nixon left office in 1974, he signed an agreement with the administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA)—which then oversaw the National Archives—giving the former President control over his Presidential materials, including the tapes, as well as the right to destroy the tapes after five years.
Congress, however, intervened and passed the Presidential Recording and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA).
The act required Nixon to give all of his materials to the Federal Government, and they would be housed at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
The act further required that all materials relevant to the abuse of government power and Watergate were to be processed and released to the public before the release of other materials.
Nixon sued under the argument that PRMPA was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from illegal searches and seizures of personal property from the Federal Government.
A 20-year legal battle followed. Ultimately, the courts ruled the Government had authority to seize the materials, although Nixon was entitled to compensation. Since Nixon was deceased by then, his estate was awarded an $18 million settlement in 2000.
Karl Weissenbach, Director of the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff from 1993 to 2005, said that “it was a contentious and stressful era. You had different people with different agendas trying to tell you how to provide access to the tapes and papers, but we had to adhere to the law and the regulations. Most of our work centered on responding to various legal challenges that focused primarily on access to Nixon’s White House tapes and textual materials. We spent a lot of time responding to lawyers’ requests for materials for the various lawsuits.”
Ironically, Nixon’s attempts to keep his Presidential information hidden from public view, such as high-profile court cases and a deal with the head of GSA, made the public even more aware of his attempts to cover up his actions.
In 2004, Congress agreed that Nixon’s Presidential materials no longer had to remain in the Washington, DC, area. This amendment to the PRMPA opened the way to moving the material to California, effectively merging the Nixon Library with the National Archives’ Presidential library system.
For more information on the Nixon Presidential Library, read James Worsham’s Fall Prologue Magazine article.