Documentarian Jason Saltoun-Ebin is performing a valuable service in documenting the foreign policy deliberations of the Reagan administration. His book, The Reagan Files: Inside the National Security Council (2nd ed.) is an indispensable addition to the historical record.
Significant Addition to the Historical Record
Saltoun-Ebin is a lawyer as well as a political scientist. He is thereby well-prepared for the exacting task of compiling and editing voluminous policy documents. The most notable are newly declassified transcripts of meetings of the National Security Council and the National Security Planning Group.
Many of the meetings were chaired by President Reagan.
Given the unaccustomed clarity of the public communication of Reagan’s foreign policy, and his own extensive background of thinking, writing and speaking about Communism and Cold War challenges, the president’s energetic participation in many of the discussions does not come as a surprise.
Saltoun-Ebin’s approach is to allow the meeting transcripts to speak for themselves. Additional materials provide some degree of context.
To enable readers to locate Reagan’s own words, the author has bolded them. Given the length of the book, this is welcome (even if some critics may find that comparable to the annotations of some editions of the New Testament.)
Saltoun-Ebin has created a complementary website, thereaganfiles.com. The site includes links to various sources, as well as commentary.
Given the large amount of materials yet to be released, and the onward march of technology, one can imagine that the website may supersede the printed book over time.
Indispensable… and Incomplete
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the materials compiled by Saltoun-Ebin are indispensable to comprehending various aspects of the Reagan administration.
At the same time, one should be wary of drawing definitive conclusions on issues of policy and management solely from meeting transcripts:
–The transcripts may not be complete or entirely accurate, despite the best intentions.
–President Reagan may have had various reasons for speaking or not speaking in specific meetings, or on specified topics. In some cases he may have wished to spark discussion. In others he may have wished to achieve a resolution among competing points of view. In still others he may have wished to bring closure simply by his presence.
–All participants would be aware that the meetings were being recorded. Various individuals would be anticipated to react variously, with an eye toward future readers.
–Many of the most important decisions may be reached before or after or outside an official meeting.
Presidential administrations must reach high-stakes decisions based on far less information than they would wish, on schedules not entirely in their control. That is the nature of the enterprise. It is humbling for all but the least self-aware participants.
So, too, historians must make their evaluations based on less information than they would wish. Empathetic knowledge or direct experience may remind them that much of the business of government is done outside what can be printed on a transcript. Most especially, a president, with many priorities, may not reveal his reasoning fully. Circumstances may intervene in any number of ways. This calls for humility on the part of historians, even armed with the formidable benefits of hindsight.
Paradox of Transparency
Rising legal requirements of disclosure, combined with the ready access of digitization, hold the promise of greater transparency of government decision-making. Necessarily, some of that transparency must be retrospective.
Paradoxically, as the amount of information required to be maintained by government lawyers and archivists increases, transparency may not inevitably be advanced. More and more government decisions are deliberated outside of official channels. Officials are wary of frank discussions, the release of which can be used or abused to discredit their policies. The give-and-take of testing ideas, experimenting with notions, may be viewed as dangerous. The discipline of written analysis may be lessened or lost.
There is more information than ever available to decision-makers–but their capacity to utilize it may be compromised in practice.
There is more information than ever available to archivists–but its value in reaching understanding may be diminished.
How such practical issues of transparency will be sorted out is an open question. All of us who believe in public accountability and the value of historical analysis have a stake in its wise resolution.
Jason Saltoun-Ebin | The Reagan Files