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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!

Working in a large bureaucracy, such as the U.S. Government, one’s accomplishments are often overlooked by the most senior leadership. On occasion, however, the big boss notices and recognizes the work being done. In some cases, the biggest boss in the bureaucracy – the President – notices. One such instance occurred in early 1963.

During the first 24 months of the Kennedy Administration, one of the major foreign policy issues facing the United States was the situation in The Congo. There was independence, civil war, supposed communist subversion, foreign intervention, etc. Dealing with the situation was a major headache for the United States. A selection of documents on U.S. policy and action regarding The Congo is found in two volumes of the Department of State’s venerable series Foreign Relations of the United States:

FRUS, 1961-1963, volume XX: Congo Crisis
FRUS, 1964-1968, volume XXIII: Congo, 1960-1968

In late January 1963, after the crisis had passed, President John F. Kennedy sent letters of thanks to the three senior officials in the Department of State who had been most heavily involved in dealing with Congo matters: George C. McGhee, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs; G. Mennen Williams, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs; and Harlan Cleveland, the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs. The President sent copies of the three letters to Secretary of State Dean Rusk.


To Secretary of State Rusk

To Dean Rusk, Secretary of State

To George C. McGhee, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs

To George C. McGhee, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs

To G. Mennen Williams, Assistant Secretary of State of African Affairs

To G. Mennen Williams, Assistant Secretary of State of African Affairs

To Harlan Cleveland, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs

To Harlan Cleveland, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs


The dispatch of these letters did not signal an end to the issue of The Congo in U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, it became an intractable problem over the next several decades and the fallout in that country, known for many years as Zaire, continues to this day.

Source: President John F. Kennedy to Secretary of State Dean Rusk (with attachments), January 21, 1963, file 770G.00/1-2163, 1960-63 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

Today’s post was written by Nick Baric, a processing Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

In May of 1918 a group of American sailors detached to a base at Kyle of Lochalsh in the Scottish Highlands found themselves in a bit of hot water. They faced accusations of removing a jewel box from a reputed haunted house on the Isle of Skye. The allegations came to light in the form of a letter of complaint regarding the sailors’ conduct from a local authority, the Procurator Fiscal, on behalf of the property owner.Handwritten letter admitting to theift of item from haunted house

A component of the U.S. Forces Operating in European Waters, the base at Kyle of Lochalsh (along with Base #18 at Inverness and nearby Base #17 at Alness) was charged with “assembling American mines for the North Sea Barrage.” This mine barrage’s mission was keeping German U-boats trapped in the North Sea and away from the vital sea lanes connecting the United States and to its allies. After the war, these same forces were charged with sweeping and removing the mines to facilitate post-war shipping.

Historically, relations between American military personnel stationed overseas and the local population can become strained. To head off problems, Navy authorities will declare certain districts off limits to American sailors and efforts were made to provide entertainment and leisure opportunities. Incidents do still arise of which this one was an example of middling severity. An investigation by superior officers was promptly launched. The testimony of one sailor, Seamen Second Class Philip W. Sagel, is included below. All the sailors’ testimonies were similarly simple and sincere, with no denying that they had in fact entered the “haunted house” and had removed the box as a “souvenir”.

Upon the conclusion of the investigation, a solution was obtained that was amenable to local authorities, the property owner, and Navy authorities. In a final letter to Navy authorities, the Procurator Fiscal W. J. Robertson wrote, in part, as follows: “I do not think it is necessary that it should be brought before our court. I am aware that the house is said to be haunted and it was very natural that your lads should have gone to explore it. It is a pity, however, that they took the jewel box away, but I am prepared to accept the explanation that they did so as a souvenir, thoughtlessly … there was no nefarious intent.”   With the jewel box returned to its proper owner, the incident was declared over. There was apparently no further disciplinary action taken against the sailors.Second handwritten letter

One can only surmise that back home during reunions or when asked by their children, grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren about their service in the Great War, perhaps these old sailors would recount their adventures in a haunted house in the Highlands!


[Source: All documents quoted and reproduced here come from File 30/2/18 in the series SUBJECT FILES RELATING TO NORTH SEA MINE BARRAGE ACTIVITIES IN SCOTLAND, 1917-20 (UD Entry 9-O, NAID 12006036) RG 313: Records of Naval Operating Forces]