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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Terry Sanford, December 16 and 18, 1986. Interview C-0038. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Failure to collect the Nixon papers at Duke University

Sanford recalls his failure, as president of Duke University, to collect there the papers of Duke alumnus Richard Nixon. Sanford, although he had been a political opponent of Nixon's, wanted to house the papers at Duke to further academic research; he found himself opposed by faculty members with what he calls a "blind prejudice" against the disgraced former president.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Terry Sanford, December 16 and 18, 1986. Interview C-0038. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Well, you might say, "What about the Nixon Library?" Well, I did my duty there. I thought that we were the ideal repository for those papers. I thought it through and stood my ground, and the faculty finally agreed with me by which time we had more or less poisoned the well as far as the Nixon lawyers and people were concerned. I wouldn't say that it's a deep regret to me that we didn't get it. I'm sorry that we didn't get it because I think those papers ought to be available in a way that they're not available. I think the university could have best done it, and that we were the best university to do it. We got all kinds of emotional reactions here. I might say I was considerably surprised at the decision-making based on emotion instead of objectivity within an academic faculty. But the more I reflect on it, I shouldn't have been surprised.
BRENT GLASS:
Do you think the oppostion was a matter of philosophy or process?
TERRY SANFORD:
Oh, it was absolutely a matter of blind prejudice against Nixon, though the process was an excuse.
BRENT GLASS:
Okay, that was what I wanted to …
TERRY SANFORD:
Oh, no, that was simply something they could hang it on. The process was simply that the Academic Council process was not really a process of communication as I incorrectly assumed that it ought to be. So when I involved the chairman of the Academic Council, I mistakenly thought I was involving communications with the faculty, when in truth they didn't have any mechanism for communication. Because it was summer time, I had no other mechanism. In retrospect, if I had put it off until September, it might have been a different story. They at least wouldn't have had the excuse of process.
BRENT GLASS:
You know, I am familiar with a little bit of the story of the honorary degree that was offered to Nixon and then retracted. I guess back in the fifties. Was that lurking in your mind at all?
TERRY SANFORD:
Oh well, there's no question. I called the head of the History Department, or the acting head and former head, and told him [about the library proposal]. He said, "Well, as a historian I suppose I should be for this but I can't stand that…" I think he used a profane word but since I'm not absolutely certain he did, I won't put it in this record. Obviously, he was saying my professional standards are in conflict with my personal emotions. He said that as a historian, "I suppose I should be for it." It turned out that he wasn't for it so the personal emotions overrode the professional judgment. He was the person that took credit for mobilizing the forces to kill the—as a young professor—to kill the Nixon honorary degree. He took great pride in telling of his part in that, as perhaps he should have. In any event, this was a different question though some of them saw it as a question of rehabilitating Nixon at our expense. I didn't see it that way.
BRENT GLASS:
Clearly you weren't political allies with Nixon…
TERRY SANFORD:
Oh, well, it had nothing to do with politics on my part, or redeeming Nixon, or anything else because I was the only person on this campus who had participated nationally in two campaigns against him. But that's gone and past, and the University's no worse off. I think that the academic research world is worse off. The public, essentially, I suppose, benefits from that kind of research.
BRENT GLASS:
There's a certain irony that the most…
TERRY SANFORD:
Well, the truth of the matter is that perhaps not having those papers readily available has permitted the rehabilitation of Richard Nixon to proceed with more dispatch.
BRENT GLASS:
With less scrutiny.
TERRY SANFORD:
Well, I happen to think that the way it's come out with Mr. Nixon reestablishing his credibility is something that ought to be admired. You know, a great many people would have long since given up, committed suicide, died, or whatever but he stuck in there. He continued to do things, project things that improved his standing and image, and the truth of the matter was that he always was a highly intelligent and able person. He had those personal flaws of insecurity and whatever else went with it—a lack of judgment in some, what might be called moral issues. That is, a level of what was shady and what was not shady. Though he was by no means a crook as he said he wasn't, and he wasn't. But he exercised such very bad judgment, and he paid the penalty, and while we wouldn't have had anything to do with the rehabilitation, we would have those papers available. So yes, I would say that we should have done it, but it didn't hurt the University that we didn't.
BRENT GLASS:
A certain irony that some of the greatest opposition came from the department of history where the archives would have served many historians.
TERRY SANFORD:
Oh, well, the center of the opposition was the History Department. I think it had more to do with the fact that these people happened to be there. They just as soon could have been in any other department.
BRENT GLASS:
Can you access the relationship…
TERRY SANFORD:
Well, let me hasten to say, since this might fall to somebody else's eye someday, it wasn't just the History Department, of course. They got a rather long list of people to sign the petition saying they were opposed to it. It spread across the University. There were equally as many, and perhaps more, that thought we ought to have it.