Venerable guardian presides over pieces of U.S. memory

Archivist: At 82, John E. Taylor is still helping historians, authors and students with queries on war and intelligence.

October 19, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

During the week in 1945 that Japan surrendered to the United States, a young graduate of the University of Arkansas arrived by train in Washington, took a room in a boardinghouse and reported to his new job at the National Archives.

Fifty-eight years later, John E. Taylor arrives for work at the archives' mammoth records center in College Park before 7 a.m. each day. Among historians of war and intelligence - the archivist's specialty for half a century - his memory for documents and generosity with advice are legendary.

They consult him when they scope out new projects and pick his brain when they are stuck. There may be no American whose name appears in the acknowledgements of so many books.

At 82, Taylor still spends the day juggling queries from eminent historians and college kids alike. He receives professors visiting from Tokyo or Rome. Periodically he disappears into the archives' miles of stacks in pursuit of documents, some remembered from decades ago.

In the archives' hushed research rooms, when Taylor bumps into people he helped years ago, they often assume he has retired. "They say, `You a volunteer now?'" Taylor recalls, bright blue eyes peering over the top of large-framed glasses, jowls creasing in amusement at the very idea.

So what keeps him going?

"The questions," Taylor says after a moment's contemplation. "I love questions. The more questions, the better. The more phone calls, the better. The more people that walk in, the better. I like the drama of everyday life. I like working under pressure."

To most of the public, the National Archives are a Washington tourist stop, resting place of the nation's founding documents - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But when those treasures were returned last month to renovated display space in the old archives building on Constitution Avenue, Taylor didn't even attend the ceremony.

His archives are not a dead monument but a living tool. His natural habitat is the acres of stacks in College Park, which holds most of the archives' 8 billion pages of documents.

The history of the United States is hidden in that mass of material - the memoranda, reports, logbooks, letters, rosters, budgets, orders and more that record the hour-by-hour actions of government in peace and war over 227 years. But historians often can't find which of those 8 billion pages they need without the aid of archivists, the unsung guardians of the treasure, of whom Taylor may be the most venerable.

Among the hundreds of historians who have sought his counsel over the years are such eminent names as Barbara Tuchman and Stephen Ambrose - and Taylor can tell you exactly what he tracked down for them. He was on a first-name basis with several directors of the CIA, an agency that didn't exist when Taylor started work. Reagan-era spy chief William J. Casey used to drop by to talk espionage and summoned the archivist to his home to see a draft of his book on the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA.

"The manuscript was a mess," Taylor recalls. He referred Casey to a scholar he thought might be able to fix it.

But the archivist pursues with equal energy the queries of the famous and the obscure. One recent day, he:

Counseled an American University student researching the influence of domestic politics on U.S. foreign policy.

Received a team of Japanese researchers studying American propaganda during World War II.

Consulted with an Australian scholar doing a dissertation on the Australian air force.

Took a call from England about records of a bizarre CIA project that used psychics for "remote viewing."

Talked to a man from New Jersey looking for U.S. communications intercepts from the Korean War.

"John is a national treasure," says historian Thomas B. Allen, who has turned to Taylor for help with a book on Allied plans to invade Japan during World War II, with an account of spies who sold American secrets and with a fat encyclopedia of espionage.

"He always has that sense of what you want. He just has this incredible knowledge of what's in that great big building."

Allen remembers that Taylor was quietly infuriated by a book arguing that President Harry S. Truman should not have dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It wasn't the writer's conclusion that bothered Taylor; it was the gaping holes in his research.

"John said, `He ignored the Japanese intercepts!' That really got him mad," Allen recalls. Taylor not only steered Allen and his co-author to the right records; he had the documents copied so that they could easily see what was newly declassified.

"Lord knows I don't have the answer to everything," says Taylor. "But I might have a better idea than anyone else about who's expert in what."

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