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Memory and American History (A Midland Book)

1 rating: 5.0
A book by David Thelen

"Memory and American History contains some of the most interesting explorations and significant recent results of work by scholars using traditional primary and secondary sources as well as oral history interviews." -- Library QuarterlyFrom true memory … see full wiki

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Author: David Thelen
Publisher: Indiana University Press
1 review about Memory and American History (A Midland Book)

Interesting aspect of Watergate history

  • Aug 1, 2007
Read this for graduate American history course.

"Memory and American History" by David Thelan is a fascinating book because it is three different accounts of the monumental discovery on July 13th, 1973. This was the day in which Alexander P. Butterfield confessed to Watergate investigators that there was an extensive recording system in the Nixon White House. This discovery led to the battle for the White House tapes and the eventual resignation of President Nixon. This article is the work of three different authors, two of which were present in the room when Butterfield told investigators about the recording system. Donald Sanders was the deputy of the minority council, was present at the meeting, and was going to interview Butterfield. Scott Armstrong was a Democratic staffer and was working for the majority council. David Thelan interviewed Butterfield for the Journal of American History to present Butterfield's side of the story and his feelings on his confession. "Remembering the Discovery of the Watergate Tapes" offers three similar, but slightly different views on Butterfield's famous confession about the White House taping system.

The Butterfield revelation became the most important discovery of the Watergate investigation and led to Nixon's embarrassing battle over subpoenaed tapes. Interestingly, Scott and Sanders both claim that it was themselves who coaxed the confession from Butterfield. Armstrong's majority council had received the Buzhardt account, which was extremely detailed of meetings in the White House and had extensive verbatim quotations. Scott showed the document to Butterfield and asked questions about the methods for transcribing meetings in the White House. However, this document did not make Butterfield revel the taping system and the subject was dropped until Sanders began to question him. Sanders was suspicious of a recording system because of the detailed transcriptions and it bothered him that Dean spoke with the president quietly in the comer of the room. During Butterfield's interview Sanders was debating whether or not to ask about the possibility of a taping system. Sanders wrote in his account, "I had resolved to going through with it only minutes before". Sanders then asked Butterfield, " .. .if he knew of any reason why the president would take John Dean to a comer of the room and speak to him in a quiet voice". Butterfield believed that he should not lie and began his confession with, "I was hoping you fellows wouldn't ask me that. I've wondered what I would say". However, Scott believes that the confession was, "as If he were now answering the long-pending
question" which Armstrong asked about the Buzhardt account. Butterfield was entered as a witness for the minority party, but Armstrong believes it was he who persuaded the testimony.

The most disappointing aspect to this book is the transcription of Thelan's interviews with Butterfield. Thelan discusses how he wanted to give Butterfield's account in his own words. The methodology behind this article consisted of Thelan sending Butterfield a transcript of their conversations and interviews for his comments. Butterfield sent back a copy that was heavily edited, but he and Thelan eventually worked out a final copy that they both agreed on. Thelan says, "In my conversations with Butterfield I became acutely aware that what we were creating was not so much an accurate record of what Butterfield had said, done, and felt in 1973, but a collaboration based on our different needs in 1988". Butterfield was not open with how he felt after his great revelation to the Watergate committee. When asked if he felt relieved about acknowledging the tape's existence Butterfield responded, "I may have had a subconscious desire then, in 1973, to see and end to the debacle". He mentions that he did feel relieved afterwards, but "most people experienced a sense of relief'. The interview with Butterfield was a disappointment because it seemed that Butterfield did not want to express his feelings about his role in the Watergate scandal. He did talk about some interesting aspects to Nixon's White House, but was very reserved about how he felt and why he released the information.

The strength of this book is in the recreation of an important event using memoirs and oral history. Thelan attempted to give Butterfield's perspective on his role in the discovery of the Nixon tapes, but Butterfield was mostly unresponsive. The comparison of Armstrong's and Sander's account of the meetings is an important aspect of the discovery of the tapes. Both of these men claim to have been responsible for Butterfield's admission of the White House tapes. This book is an important addition to scholarship because of the far-reaching consequences that Butterfield's confession had in the Watergate scandal. Thelan's attempt to discover Butterfield's motivation and feelings was noble, but his final work could have been more outstanding. Butterfield's unwillingness to divulge more substantial information blocked Thelan's attempt at a groundbreaking work on the discovery of the tapes. However, the final transcription of his conversations with Butterfield is valuable because it allows Butterfield a platform to tell his side of the story. "Remembering the Discovery of the Watergate Tapes" shows that Butterfield did not go to the committee in order to topple the president. Rather, this article tells the story of an honest man who answered a difficult question in which he knew the answer. Overall, the book falls short of the Thelan's goal, but still provides the reader with some of Butterfield's motivation and feelings of his important role to the Watergate scandal.

As a graduate student in philosophy and history, I recommended this book for anyone interested in American history, and Watergate history.

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