The View from Here: Why keep a life history? The answer is personal

Published: Monday, Dec. 27 2010 11:30 a.m. MST

As he was leaving office, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered a speech that has long intrigued historians.

Among other things, Ike spoke in his farewell address about the “military-industrial complex” that would prove to concern Americans for years to come — even down to today.

But the origins and intent of that address have long been a mystery. Was it an afterthought, hastily thrown together as a former military legend was exiting the national stage? Or was it a studied, thoughtful warning from a concerned president to his constituents?

That question is much closer to resolution these days thanks to the recent discovery of several boxes belonging to Malcolm Moos, who was one of Eisenhower's speechwriters. According to a piece in The New Yorker, the boxes were discovered just a few months ago by Moos' son and daughter in a Minnesota boathouse, and were found to contain 21 previously unknown drafts of that very speech. That brings the total number of drafts to 29, making the “afterthought” argument a rather tenuous one.

As the director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Karl Weissenbach, put it, the discovery will “change the history and interpretation of the most famous farewell address in American history” — and all because someone bothered to make and preserve some records, and because someone else was then interested enough to figure out what they were.

This story struck me for a couple of reasons, I think: First, as a historian in training, I'm necessarily interested in the discovery and investigation of primary sources. Second, I've been feeling a bit guilty lately about my own lack of creating primary sources — which is to say at least in part that I'm not doing so well with keeping a journal.

Not that historians would ever have cause to look for primary sources from my life, but that's not really the point, is it? As an archivist friend of mine likes to point out, the Lord has always commanded his people to keep records. It's there in the Bible, in the Book of Mormon and in the Doctrine and Covenants, and it's certainly there — repeatedly — in latter-day counsel.

I don't suppose that's because most of us will lead the sort of lives that will someday prompt serious historical inquiry, and I also feel safe in saying it's not solely for the sake of posterity. We're commanded to keep records because doing so is important to us — now.

Elder Marlin K. Jensen, a member of the Quorum of the Seventy and the church's historian/recorder, said that “the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, make clear that 'remembering' is a fundamental and saving principle of the gospel. We keep records to help us remember.

Remembering the past gives us needed perspective as God’s children to have faith in our future destiny and thus to live more faithfully in the present.”

As thrilling as it can be to stumble across a collection of perfectly preserved letters in a dusty archive, perhaps it could be just as fulfilling to stumble across an entry in my own journal, written years ago, that speaks to me and offers insight on challenges I'm facing today. While I can't always — or even often — instantly recall what I felt or learned in a given situation, reading the thoughts I recorded at the time never fails to bring those insights back in instructive ways.

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