Because of a typographical error, an editorial yesterday said the National Archives began as an independent agency in 1943. The correct date is 1934.
WHEN BETTER than the Fourth of July to urge Congress to restore independent status to the National Archives, keeper of the American documentary legacy? The Archives began as an independent agency in 1943 but found itself vacuumed into the General Services Administration in 1949 as a result of the Hoover Commission's report on government reorganization. Today, General Services still acts as overseer of the National Archives, despite the anomaly (in Sens. Mathias' words) of GSA's having become the "guardian of history as well as the custodian of washrooms, storerooms and workrooms." To remedy this strange state of affairs, Sens. Mathias and Eagleton have just introduced the National Archives and Records Administration Act, which would restore independence to the Archives.
As matters now stand, the public interests itself in conditions at the National Archives mainly on the infrequent occasions that the Archives becomes tarnished by political controversy. For example, the agreement between President Nixon and GAS administrator Arthur Sampson -- an agreement arrived at, it should be remembered, without either the awareness or approval of the National Archives staff -- brought the roof down on GSA, once Mr. Nixon's questionable deed of gift for his vice-presidential papers and the massive tax deduction it "alllowed" became news. Nor was the Archives consulted later when aides in the Ford White House helped GSA draft another agreement, this one with President Nixon then out of office, for the donation of his presidential tapes and papers -- one that would have allowed Mr. Nixon to withhold or destroy vital material had the U.S. District Court not enjoined the GSA from allowing that. The Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974 provided more acceptable procedures for administering the Nixon tapes and papers, and Congress passed the measure because a majority of legislators did not consider GSA capable of dealing with the situation in a dispassionate and non-political manner.
Not every president, of courses, will try to exploit GSA's control of the Archives as shamelessly as did Mr. Nixon. Nor will every GSA administration have the belligerent insensitivity of President Carter's appointee, Adm. Rowland Freeman, whose order to "decentralize" many of the Archives' record to regional repositories, based in part on how frequently they were used, was blocked finally by the White House after scholars protested. Still, the dangers of political abuse remain inherent in the shotgun marriage between GSA and the Archives, and an early divorce -- for that and many other reasons -- would benefit both parties.
Because of such political hanky-panky, GSA intrusions and pre-Reagan budgetary starvation, the professionals at the Archives had become badly demoralized until appointment last year of the current archivist, Dr. Robert Warner, formerly director of the Ford presidential library. First reports indicate that since Dr. Warner's arrival, both morale and performance levels have risen. Lately, however, there has been a certain amount of lobbying for appointment of a "Reagan" archivist, as if the job should change with each administration. In the past, the post has been impeccably non-political, and it would set a bad precedent if Mr. Reagan did anything but reaffirm his confidence in Dr. Warner.
That and more should be expected from the administration on the matter of preserving the national heritage. The president had displayed on many occasions his awareness of the American historical experience. His speeches alone contain a range of reference that extends from John Winthrop to John Kennedy and from the Founders to FDR. Now Mr. Reagan should commit his administration to prompt passage of this independent archives act. Only then, freed finally of GSA ham-handedness, can the National Archives begin to keep its rendezvous with destiny.