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Earlier this month millions of Americans voted. Voting is one of the hallmarks of our democracy, and one method to make their elected officials accountable to the people. Government accountability, for the elected and the unelected, is also found through peaceful protest, letters, petitions, journalistic exposes, court actions and other expressions of complaint and praise, such as the civil rights movement. The 20th century fight for civil rights, the struggle against unfair treatment by governing authorities was not just the big cases and marches we remember. It was also made up of smaller battles, like that found in the Transcripts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Chief of Police Robert V. Murray and the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, 1957 (NAID 12527082, entry P 48), from Record Group 351, Records of the Government of the District of Columbia.

At the time this event took place, the District of Columbia, also known as Washington, DC was governed by a three man Board of Commissioners, appointed by the President of the United States. It is from the Board of Commissioners’ transcripts we have the words of people seeking accountability from their government. Their interests were represented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also called the NAACP who brought before the Commission charges against the city’s police chief and the police department of discriminatory racial bias against African Americans.

Through several days of hearings, experts, criminals, policemen, and community leaders testify on the condition of the police department and its practices. Transcripts read like a script, where you can read what each person says in the record. In the October 29, 1957 hearing, E. Lewis Ferrell, for the NAACP questioned Harry R. Chase, a Sanitary Engineering employee, about a mishap where a police officer struck him:

Q. You mentioned some bleeding. Where were you bleeding?

A. From my mouth and head.

Q. And how did your mouth get hurt?

A. Well, his blackjack hit me up in here (demonstrating), and my tooth came through my lip.

Chase was also questioned by Roger Robb, council for Robert V. Murray, the Chief of Police about a statement Chase signed. Robb read the statement into the record:

MR. ROBB: “2655 Birney St. S.E. Apt. 204

Harry Chase at 7 P.M. Tues. Oct. 15, 57 said he did not wish to make a statement as he thought the motorcycle officer was a pretty good fellow & there was just a misunderstanding at that time. He said he thought the motor-man was a Perfect Gentleman.

            /s/ Harry R. Chase

 Area newspapers covered the hearings (not included in the series), and their articles give a sense of how well the NAACP presented their case. For example, in a November 17, 1957 Washington Post article, “Police Quiz Called Blow to NAACP”, Commissioner Robert E. McLaughlin remarked that he found the evidence presented, “scanty”. McLaughlin did say that the Board of Commissioners would consider a six-point program suggested by the NAACP, part of which included more active hiring of African Americans in the police force. Evidence of a greater effort by the Board of Commissioners to integrate the DC government workforce and hire African Americans can be found in the John B. Duncan Papers, 1951-1968  (NAID 12052591), also in Record Group 351.

In recent years, we have seen a spate of memoirs by high government officials, many of them controversial.  Among those publications are books by former Secretaries of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Colin Powell, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and Dean Rusk.  Perhaps the model for all of them is Cordell Hull, at least in the modern era.

Hull’s book, THE MEMOIRS OF CORDELL HULL (The Macmillan Company, 2 volumes) was published in 1948.  He had served as Secretary of State from 1933 to late 1944, the longest tenure of any person ever holding that job.  He entered service at the height of the Depression and resigned, largely due to his health, near the end of World War II and when we see the beginnings of what became the Cold War.

Memoirs of Cordell Title Page

In any such publication, there is the risk that a former official will want to express opinions or reveal facts that their successors will find inconvenient or consider still sensitive.  Today, there is an institutionalized review process to ensure that former officials do not publish any classified information.  At the time that Hull prepared his recollections, however, no such formal process existed and, as noted in the memorandum that follows, Department of State officials consciously determined that Hull’s published memoirs should not indicate that they had been read by the Department before publication.

The memorandum was prepared by G. Bernard Noble, chief of the Division of Historical Policy Research, and addressed to Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett (the Under Secretary was the second ranking official in the Department).  Noble praised the manuscript but noted the presence of some problematic opinions, especially about former Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, former Soviet ambassador to the U.S. Constantine Oumansky, and Charles De Gaulle.  Noble suggested to the Under Secretary that given the then-current situation with regard to France that Hull be asked to tone down the comments about De Gaulle.  As noted in the marginalia, Lovett did discuss the Department’s concerns with the former Secretary of State and subsequently a Departmental official and Hull’s assistant revised the manuscript before publication.




Source: Memorandum: Memoirs of Cordell Hull, G. Bernard Noble (RE) to the Under Secretary of State, December 9, 1947, file 116/12-947, 1945-49 Central Decimal File (Entry A1 205 H, NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.

Statistics: The Subtle Tool

by on November 21, 2014

Today’s post is written by Meghan Ryan Guthorn, an accessioning archivist at Archives II in College Park

In archives, as in books, it is important not to judge the content by the cover. Even the records series with the driest names can be home to some of the most fascinating pieces of history.

The President’s Commission on Federal Statistics was formed by President Nixon in 1970 to conduct a comprehensive review of the Federal statistics programs. The Commission was tasked with surveying the statistical community at large for advice and suggestions for improvements in existing statistical programs.

Dr. Stanley Lebergott contacted statisticians in the public and private sectors asking for advice. Responses were many and varied, but some predominate themes emerged: the government should collect more data, and more frequently. For example, the 10 year census cycle was not capturing the complexities of a rapidly growing and changing American landscape. Many respondents argued for a 5 year census cycle.

Some of those contacted provided only brief responses, indicating that they had no advice to give. Some of those who couldn’t provide advice recommended Dr. Lebergott contact their colleagues, who might be better able to help.

At least one respondent acknowledged that he could probably help the Commission in its work, but refused to do so. Dr. John W. Lamperti, professor of mathematics at Dartmouth College noted that he had received the Commission’s request for advice on the same day he learned of the United States bombings in Laos. “Statistics,” he wrote “is a means, not an end, and as such it can be used for good or ill. If a tool is sharpened, it has a greater capacity to be employed at the discretion of its wielder. […] at this time the United States is under control of short-sighted, immoral and irresponsible men. It seems to follow that increasing the efficiency of an important instrument of the Federal Government may actually be contrary to the best interest of the country.”

Lamperti Letter-page-001 Lamperti Letter-page-002

Dr. Lamperti further noted that a major function of the Federal Statistics Program is improving the efficiency of the military. “Since these same military forces are being employed for an aggressive and atrocious war against small countries which have not harmed us, I do not want to see their efficiency improved,” he wrote.

The Records of the President’s Commission on Federal Statistics is not a place where you would expect to find such a passionate argument against United States military intervention in Southeast Asia.  But that’s half the fun of the National Archives – finding interesting things in the places least expected.

Dr. Lamperti’s letter, and other responses to the President’s Commission on Federal Statistics can be found in RG 220 Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards, 1893-2008, American Statistical Association Fellows Letters (Entry A1 37180 C, NAID 6919428).

Scholars are increasingly writing about the physical destruction visited upon friendly European countries during World War II’s campaign to free Western Europe from Nazi domination.  Recent books such as Keith Lowe’s SAVAGE CONTINENT, Antony Beevor’s D-DAY, Max Hastings’s ARMAGEDDON, and Rick Atkinson’s THE GUNS AT LAST LIGHT (all quite excellent and worth a read) pointedly remark on the total ruin caused by modern war.

One city in France that experienced almost total destruction was Saint-Lo.  That city was a major transportation hub leading toward the Allied beachheads established on D-Day.  As such, it was a major target for U.S. bombing missions aimed at isolating German forces near the coast from reinforcements.  American bombers hit the city with a major bombing raid on June 6 and then every day for a week.  By the middle of July, however, the city remained in German hands.  An attack by U.S. forces finally captured Saint-Lo on July 18.

Rick Atkinson describes the impact the fighting had on the city (p. 129): “Hardly a trace of sidewalk or street pavement remained in St.-Lo.”  He quotes one observer as writing: “You couldn’t identify anything anymore . . . .  The persistence of durable objects had been solidly defeated.”  Atkinson also quotes one U.S. soldier as follows: “We sure liberated the hell out of this place.”

The results of the destruction and efforts at reconstruction as it played out over the eight years from 1944 to 1952 as seen by American eyes is described in the following despatch sent to the Department of State by the U.S. consulate in Cherbourg.



Source: Despatch No. 52 from Consulate Cherbourg to the Department of State, May 12, 1952, file 851.02/5-1252, 1950-54 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.

The report mentions a Major Howie, an American killed during the fighting, as a symbol of the American liberators.  Major Thomas Howie, the new commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 116th Infantry, part of the 29th Infantry Division, was killed on July 17, 1944, during a German counterattack trying to hold off American forces.  After capture of the city, Maj. Gen. Charles Gerhardt, Jr., commander of the 29th Infantry Division, ordered Howie’s body brought to the city where it was symbolically laid on a pile of rubble that had been the Saint Croix Cathedral.

Major Howie's body was symbolically laid on the rubble of St. Croix Cathedral.

Source:  111-SC-191896, Signal Corps Photographs of American Military Activity, 1754 – 1954 (NAID 530707), RG 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives.

Today, Saint-Lo is a rebuilt, economically thriving city that is the center of life for the surrounding area.

Today’s post is written by Alan Walker, a processing archivist at Archives II in College Park.

I’m never on Twitter.

Sure, I know of it; it’s a pervasive presence in our culture. One of the best greeting cards I’ve seen makes a hilarious play on it: Jesus on Twitter. “12 new followers: cool!”, “Whoops, crowd gathering at the river: gotta run!”.

So what do people do on Twitter? Well, ever since our Social Media Team embarked our agency on a journey to the Twitterverse, its denizens have been treated to periodic sessions of “#AskAnArchivist”, an event sponsored by the Society of American Archivists.

Our staff sit down and tweet answers to your questions: What’s the coolest thing you’ve found? How do I research my Native American lineage using the Dawes Rolls? Or, what’s the most interesting thing about the National Archives that no one knows?

That one I could answer:

Articles Placed in the Cornerstone of the National Archives Building


And I did, last week, as I joined in the latest session of “#AskAnArchivist”. What a great time! Well, until my PC locked up just as I received several questions at once. No harm done; all questions answered. Let’s do this again!