In the early pages of his memoir Known and Unknown, Donald Rumsfeld described boyhood memories of an America struggling to come to grips with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. One of those recollections was of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reassuring voice, its “formal, almost aristocratic tone” cutting across the airwaves. “Outlining the indictment against the Japanese Empire, he spoke slowly and deliberately,” Rumsfeld wrote. “Every syllable was carefully enunciated, as if the words themselves were missiles of outrage and anger. That gave him a singular quality as America heard for the first time the words that have now become so familiar to history: ‘Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy…’.”*
Rumsfeld’s biographers have noted his preoccupation with Pearl Harbor. As Secretary of Defense, he repeatedly summoned the ghosts of that day in his efforts to promote US defense preparedness and ruthlessly assess the intelligence community’s performance. We don’t have to take Rumsfeld’s word for it, either, or that of his biographers. There’s a thick public record of the things he’s said, written, authorized and championed. His public output makes for a good baseline, but it’s only part of the picture. Investigative journalism like James Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (Viking Penguin 2004), fills in the gaps with much needed detail on closed door discussions and private deliberations.
Researchers take their chances when they look to memoirs for information about historical events. The New Yorker writer George Packer, in a hydrochloric 2010 review of another political memoir, George W. Bush’s Decision Points, made the somewhat obvious but nonetheless key point that “Every memoir is a tissue of omission and evasion; memoirs by public figures are especially unreliable.” The second Bush White House generated what must be a record number of tell-alls and insider accounts. Even speechwriters got in on the act, publicly staking claims to the carefully enunciated syllables and missiles of outrage and anger that are supposed to be exclusively Presidential, not claimable intellectual property.
I’ve been using memoirs to help reconstruct some of the things that were said and done before and after 9/11. I approach most of them with a degree of cynicism and distrust of authorial motive. Two of them, Rumsfeld’s Known and Unknown and Douglas Feith’s War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism, stand out, for the simple reason that both books enable readers to critically evaluate the claims their authors make. They do this by providing access to declassified papers and documents – the original source materials that, one assumes, corroborate what Rumsfeld and Feith were trying to convey in their respective accounts. Needless to say these will have been carefully selected, so it’s up to the reader to consider both source and context when reviewing the primary sources.
Both books came equipped with supporting websites stocked with digitized documents. Feith’s, at http://www.waranddecision.com/, appears to have died of neglect at some point in early 2014. Some of those documents are reproduced in the pages of War and Decision, and readers can still get a sense of what the website contained if they know how to retrieve cached material on the web. Rumsfeld’s sources are in an entirely different category. The “Rumsfeld Papers”, at http://papers.rumsfeld.com/, contain thousands of digitized document spanning his entire career in government service, and more besides. In a video posted on the website, Rumsfeld speaks directly to visitors and encourages them to make up their own minds.
As an exercise in digital history, the Rumsfeld Papers website is superb. As an artefact of Rumsfeld’s time in governement, the collection is remarkably transparent. It’s an ironic oddity that won’t be lost on those who remember Rumsfeld’s caustic style or the level of effort he put into bureaucratic turf wars and “controlling the narrative”. That irony is recursive, too. I’ve found the Rumsfeld Papers less useful as a window into Rumsfeld’s thinking or that of the people around him – there’s that cynicism again – but quite good as narrative nuts and bolts. Some of the sources in the Rumsfeld Papers – the infamous “snowflakes” come to mind – are as invidual documents often sparsely detailed, and only provide new insights on an aggregate basis. But there are some real gems that provide a glimpse into the the stuff of internal discussions and behind-the-scenes bureaucratic labors, and they make it possible to trace the paths of ideas as they worked their way through the policy process.
*Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir (Sentinel, 2011), p. 39.