One of the primary principles of the American democracy is right of the people to know what our government is up to. Across history, as government operations become more secret, they also become more corrupt, and tend to deviate from the values and goals of the society.
There are reasons for the government to keep secrets. If we’re at war, we don’t want the enemy to know what we’re planning and what we’re doing. In some cases, the governement uses secrets to protect people and assets. But in the United States, a lot of information created and collected by the government is classified for other reasons. These reasons may include political strategy, the reluctance to disclose potentially embarassing information, and the unwillingness to admit mistakes and assume responsibility. Sometimes, classified information remains classified long after its relevance has diminished.
The National Security Archive is an effort at The George Washington University to declassifiy some of this information, and make it available in primary source form for the public. It includes many resources obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that are not as readily available from the U.S. Government.
For example, the site includes a collection of 77 documents relating to the use of the atomic bomb and the end of World War II. These include memos from Vannevar Bush and J. R. Oppenheimer, diary entries from Henry Lewis Stimson about discussions of the project with the president,several documents discussing potential targets, and the communications among military leaders about the bombing plans.
While many of the documents are of a histrorical nature, the site also includes a number of resources related to the September 11 attacks and the war on terrorism. There are also non-war-related items, including details of President Nixon’s meeting with Elvis Presley.
As we continue to get our news from more and more distilled, news-bite sources, we need to teach our students about the value of primary sources. Any account of an event or a situation can be interpreted and presented in a number of different ways. By using primary sources and considering the values, assumptions, and biases of the authors, our students can draw their own conclusions about history instead of relying on the textbooks to interpret the facts for them.