We have previously blogged about the vast digitization project under way at the John F. Kennedy Library. President Kennedy's papers are being digitized to ensure their long-term and widespread availability to the public and to the scholarly community. Unfortunately, one important piece of the historical record of the Kennedy presidency--the papers of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy--will not be released to public scrutiny any time soon, according to an article in yesterday's Boston Globe.
Robert Kennedy's papers are "stacked in a vault at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum ... , individually sealed and labeled." They amount to "54 crates of records so closely guarded that even the library director is prohibited from taking a peek."
[T]he trove contains some of the most important records of Cold War history: diaries, notes, phone logs, messages, trip files, and other documents from Robert F. Kennedy's service as US attorney general, including details about his roles in the Cuban missile crisis and as coordinator of covert efforts to overthrow or assassinate Fidel Castro.
A half-century after those critical events, a behind-the-scenes tussle continues over the Kennedy family's refusal to grant permission for researchers to freely review them. The disagreement lingers even as the JFK Library this month celebrated the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy's inauguration by providing "unprecedented" access to thousands of records of his presidency.
Access to the papers is tightly controlled by Robert Kennedy's ninth child ... [Max] Kennedy, a lawyer whom library officials said has been designated by his mother, Ethel, to take on the responsibility.
Max Kennedy denied that access to the papers is closed, saying he has "selectively granted full access" to prominent biographers, including Evan Thomas and Robert Dallek.
... Library director Thomas J. Putnam said those authors were granted limited access--not the full public scrutiny that researchers now seek. The JFK Library itself would like to make the documents available, Putnam said, but current law stipulates that it must first get a signed deed from RFK's heirs before the documents can be made widely available.
Negotiations with the Kennedy family are ongoing, and in the meantime, the Library cannot process the papers, which "cover [Kennedy's] entire career in government." Why is the family reluctant to make the papers available?
Some historians attribute the family's guarded attitude to a desire to protect Robert Kennedy's image as a champion of civil rights and social programs, and a man who emerged, in the years after his brother's assassination, as a strong opponent of the Vietnam War. The boxes, they say, may contain evidence of Robert Kennedy the ruthless anticommunist who broke laws in the quest to take out Cuba's leader, and perhaps other abuses of power.
The Globe points out that the "[p]recedent regarding the treatment of attorney general records supports making the records public."