Findings from the Archives

I just completed a research trip to the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, continuing the work on my project with Julia Azari of Marquette University about vice presidential selection and party influence.  My work at the LBJ Library was mainly concerned with investigating the context for Johnson’s choice of Hubert Humphrey as his running mate in 1964, and I certainly found plenty of interesting material – so much that I have barely been able to get a handle on it yet. 

Instead of writing about what I found on Humphrey and LBJ’s vice presidential search, since I don’t really know yet what I have, let me tell you about one of the other fun parts of doing archival research: flipping through pages and pages of documents, sometimes on point and sometimes not, and then suddenly coming across one amazing discovery or another.

So, the first box I opened at the archive last Monday was from the White House Central Files, and inside was a folder labeled “Presidential Succession 11/23/63-2/28/65”. I was expecting to see material about the handover from JFK to LBJ, perhaps resources that the White House staff was looking into about how what the vice president’s role is when becoming president, or maybe even (if I was really lucky) something more specific about the criteria they wanted in a new vice president. 

Instead, what I came across was a letter from Senator Hubert Humphrey dated December 13, 1963, written to Dr. Herman Pritchett, the president of the American Political Science Association, asking if APSA would consider undertaking a study of presidential disability and succession.  Humphrey also included to Pritchett a copy of a study APSA did in 1952 about Voting in the Armed Forces, and a letter from President Harry Truman to Luther Gulick, then-president of APSA, thanking the organization for doing the study.  On top was a memo from Lawrence O’Brien, one of Johnson’s aides, thanking Humphrey for the letter and a boilerplate “your comments and suggestions will be carefully considered”. 

All of this in and of itself was pretty interesting: did APSA conduct such a study? A quick Google search didn’t reveal one.  Was APSA involved in some way in the process that led to the drafting of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which updated our constitutional process for dealing with presidential disability or succession in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination? Again, I didn’t see any obvious evidence of this immediately in front of me.

Then two days later, flipping through a box of material that contained memos from Mike Manatos, another of LBJ’s aides, I found yet another copy of Humphrey’s letter to Pritchett and the APSA.  This one had an additional layer: a letter from Evron Kirkpatrick, the executive director of APSA, to Manatos, with information on what such a study might entail.  But this time, on top of that I found another memo from Manatos back to Lawrence O’Brien: “Took this up with Lee White – he said ‘File.’” White, who at the time was Associate White House Counsel, apparently decided to bury the whole thing. Hence, no study.

My second find of the trip was even more surprising.  The LBJ Library has a collection entitled “Office of the President File, 1945-1969,” of which it says on the Library’s website: “Access to these files was strictly controlled by the President, and materials he deemed sensitive were filed here.” So of course, I wanted to flip through it.  What I found, instead of something about Humphrey, was a handwritten letter from Chief Justice Earl Warren to President Johnson, concerning the appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court:

“Dear Mr. President: It was thoughtful of you to call me in San Francisco at the time of your appointment of Thurgood Marshall.  I was pleased to hear the news. It was an excellent appointment. Few men come to the court with better experiences or a sounder preparation for our work. Also it is in keeping with your policy of opening governmental opportunities to all without regard to race, religion or economic status. In this respect no other President has done as much as you have. All of us know Thurgood and will welcome him to the court in the belief that he will make a real contribution to its jurisprudence during the many years we hope he will be able to serve.  We look forward with anticipation to his early confirmation and qualification. With best wishes to you and yours for a good summer, I am, Sincerely, Earl Warren”

Talk about breaking the norms! Warren endorsed the appointment outright here, if behind the scenes.  At first I wondered if I had just made a major discovery – but this time, a Google search revealed that at least one person, Mary Dudziak, beat me to it a number of years back, as she wrote about on the Legal History blog.  But still, a pretty cool thing to see with your own eyes.

In conclusion: archival research is fun and everyone should do it.

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