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The End of History

How e-mail is wrecking our national archive.

When tomorrow's historians go to write the chronicles of decision-making that led to Gulf War II, they may be startled to find there's not much history to be written. The same is true of Clinton's war over Kosovo, Bush Sr.'s Desert Storm, and a host of other major episodes of U.S. national security policy. Many of the kinds of documents that historians of prior wars, and of the Cold War, have taken for granted—memoranda, minutes, and the routine back-and-forth among assistant secretaries of state and defense or among colonels and generals in the Joint Chiefs of Staff—simply no longer exist.

The problem is not some deliberate plot to conceal or destroy evidence. The problem—and it may seem churlish to say so in an online publication—is the advent of e-mail.

In the old days, before the mid-to-late 1980s, Cabinet officials and their assistants and deputy assistants wrote memos on paper, then handed them to a secretary in a typing pool. The secretary would type it on a sheet of paper backed by two or three carbon sheets, then file the carbons. Periodically, someone from the national archive would stop by with a cart and haul away the carbons for posterity.

Nobody does this today. There are no typing pools to speak of. There are few written memos.


Eduard Mark, a Cold War historian who has worked for 15 years in the U.S. Air Force historian's office, has launched a one-man crusade to highlight, and repair, this situation. He remembers an incident from the early '90s, when he was researching the official Air Force history of the Panama invasion, which had taken place only a few years earlier. "I went to the Air Force operations center," Mark says. "They had a little Mac computer on which they'd saved all the briefings. They were getting ready to dump the computer. I stopped them just in time, and printed out all the briefings. Those printouts I made are the only copies in existence."

That was a decade ago, when computers were not yet pervasive in the Pentagon and many offices still printed important documents on paper. The situation now, Mark says, is much worse.

Almost all Air Force documents today, for example, are presented as PowerPoint briefings. They are almost never printed and rarely stored. When they are saved, they are often unaccompanied by any text. As a result, in many cases, the briefings are incomprehensible.

The new, paperless world has encouraged a general carelessness in official record-keeping. Mark says that J5, the planning department of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, does not, as a rule, save anything. When I talked with Mark on the phone Tuesday, he said he had before him an unclassified document, signed by the Air Force chief of staff and the secretary of the Air Force, ordering the creation of a senior steering group on "transformation" (the new buzzword for making military operations more agile and more inter-service in nature). The document was not dated.

Mark has personal knowledge of the situation with the Air Force. However, officials and historians in other branches of the national-security bureaucracy say, on background, that the pattern is pretty much the same across the board.

Certain high-level documents are usually (but, even then, not always) saved—memos that cross the desks of the president, Cabinet secretaries, and military chiefs (the Air Force and Army chiefs of staff, and the chief of naval operations). But beneath that level, it's hit and miss, more often miss.

An enterprising historian writing about World Wars I or II can draw on the vast military records at the National Archive, as well as letters from Churchill, Roosevelt, de Gaulle, and others. (Who writes letters anymore?) Those chronicling the Cold War or the Vietnam War can plumb the presidential libraries of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Ford (less so of Nixon because it's a privately funded library), and find plenty of illuminating memos written to and from not just Cabinet officers, such as John Foster Dulles, Robert McNamara, and Dean Rusk, but the crucial sub-Cabinet officials and security advisers, such as Andrew Goodpaster, Walt Rostow, John McNaughton, McGeorge Bundy, and George Ball.

Twenty years from now, if someone went looking for similar memos by Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Richard Armitage, and Elliott Abrams on, say, the Bush administration's Middle East policies, not many memos would be found because they don't exist. Officials today e-mail their thoughts and proposals. Perhaps some individuals have been fastidious about printing and saving their e-mails, but there is no system in place for automatically doing so.

Robert Caro, author of the revealingly massive and detailed biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses, often advises aspiring historians, "Turn every page." What to do, though, if there aren't any pages to turn?

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Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist and a senior Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, is writing a book on the group of soldier-scholars who changed American military strategy. His latest book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, is in paperback. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.