Friday, October 29, 2010
In the Archives
I’m not a historian, but for my job I get to visit some of our region’s archives, and want to recommend the experience to anyone eager to know more about history. I’ve looked at manufacturing blueprints and sales records in the Studebaker archive. With the able assistance of staff at the Center for History and at Notre Dame, I’ve helped authors locate pictures of leaders in our area’s civil rights struggles. I’ve looked on in admiration at the beehive of research residents carry out in the local history collection of the St. Joseph County Public Library, nimbly aided by that facility’s supportive staff. And most recently the team at the Archives of Indiana University South Bend opened before me some of the most interesting of more than ninety sturdy boxes of records and photographs that document the creation and growth of the campus.
You never have a clue what you will discover when you raise the lid of an archive box or run a strip of microfilm through the viewer. In one IUSB folder, there was a memo from before the days of email asking who might have left behind that brown coffee cup at a recent campus meeting. In another folder, a photograph of seven IU South Bend professors strolling across campus, each one the winner of a statewide Indiana University teaching excellence award. But, for me, the dazzler was the folder that held a letter from the campus’s chancellor to the president of the United States along with that president’s reply. The two letters have a story to tell.
In the spring of 1970 the news was out. American B-52 bombers had been secretly attacking North Vietnamese military positions in Cambodia, extending the air war into that neutral country. Back home, protests erupted, including one at Kent State University in which four college students were killed by National Guard troops. One day after the Kent State deaths, IUSB’s chancellor, Lester M. Wolfson, sent a message to President Nixon. In three formal sentences of fewer than 85 words, preserved in a carbon copy in the Archives, Wolfson confessed his grief and called for the president to change course in two ways: to stop the bombing of Cambodia and to restrain the political language that inflamed the already fevered American public.
Six weeks later, President Nixon wrote back. His letter, on two pieces of White House stationary, was folded into a small envelope bearing a single six-cent stamp. On the stamp, a large American flag flies in a brisk wind over the Executive Mansion. Richard Nixon signed the typewritten letter in a clear, firm hand. In three substantial paragraphs the president acknowledged the country’s turmoil and grief. He argued in favor of the wider bombing campaign and condemned the most extreme of the protestors back home. “No violence is justifiable,” Nixon wrote.
Reading those words, seeing that signature, suddenly the terrible conflicts and contradictions of that very human time come alive. The chancellor, the educator, the citizen, asking for and modeling civility as he called for the president to change; the president, the man of action, both drawn to and repulsed by violence. These few old sheets of paper, carefully preserved in the campus Archives, overflow with drama and human frailty and striving. And they hint at the past riches and fresh insights that await anyone who walks into an historical archive with a question.
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