More on “Known and Unknown”

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 22, 2011

I mentioned before my friend Victoria Coates’s critique of Peggy Noonan’s review of Donald Rumsfeld’s book (here is my critique of Noonan). Victoria has expanded her argument against Noonan into a form of a letter to the Wall Street Journal. The text appears below:

Documentation in Rumsfeld’s Memoir Is Unprecedented

Peggy Noonan’s strange outburst in the Journal’s March 12 edition appears to be more about Ms. Noonan’s unresolved personal issues with the Bush administration than about the substance of Donald Rumsfeld’s book (“The Defense Secretary Who Let Bin Laden Get Away,” Declarations). Bizarrely, she rails against the documentation in “Known and Unknown,” claiming that “most memos prove nothing.” Since Ms. Noonan does not like what the documents say, she has attempted to discredit them. As Mr. Rumsfeld’s director of research, I would like to offer another and quite different view of this material, and how it was used in the memoir.

Mr. Rumsfeld decided when he embarked on this project in 2007 that his memoir would not be a collection of personal reminiscences, but rather a more substantive undertaking that would make use of his extensive records. A defining feature of the Rumsfeld collection is the original working function of the different types of documents. They were very much of their moment, written not for some abstract future history but to contend with the issues of the day.

While it is true as Ms. Noonan notes that some of these documents suggest Mr. Rumsfeld was not exclusively culpable for everything that went wrong in American foreign policy 2001-2006, they also fill other functions—for example to record his pride at supporting the 1964 Civil Rights legislation, his concerns over President Gerald Ford’s refusal to meet with Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the successful Bush administration efforts at military transformation. For those who recognize that such documents provide an important foundation for historical analysis, they play a critical—and fascinating—supporting role in this project.

Readers and other interested parties can review them by “Known and Unknown” endnotes, as well as browse more than 2,000 additional documents in the “Library” section on the website. Additional future releases are planned. The goal is to give the public the means to read the full documents—and not just those Mr. Rumsfeld cited in his book or the passages he selected for the text—to reach their own conclusions about the events he witnessed. The documents contain errors, typos and the occasional awkward observation. But Mr. Rumsfeld concluded it was worth risking possible misunderstandings to give readers the opportunity to review the same materials he did when preparing the book.

As an academic and historian, I do not find the liberal use of this material in “Known and Unknown” to be “disturbing” as Ms. Noonan does, but see it rather as an important and exciting advancement of the boundaries of archival research. External factors such as time and location have long restricted access to primary documents to specialists. Now this material can be freely shared, even though it might be unsettling to those in the media who are used to controlling the flow of information to the public. The results can be far more substantive and responsible than the emotion-driven narratives fueled by conventional wisdom that constitute many popular histories. It is to be hoped that serious readers of “Known and Unknown” will understand the Rumsfeld documents in this context.

Victoria Coates, Ph.D.

Director of Research

Office of Donald Rumsfeld

Washington

For those interested in a better-written review than the one that Noonan offered us, there is always this.

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