WikiLeaks has now disgorged another avalanche of classified documents, with more to come apparently. This massive display of classified material has compromised intelligence sources and methods, exposed to retribution people who have cooperated with us, and, no doubt, caused many people to feel that their trust in the United States has been betrayed. It will surely have a chilling effect on the volume and degree of candor in much written material, whether cable traffic, memoranda of conversations, diaries or notes of any kind.
The security issues have received much well-deserved and highly critical commentary. I agree entirely with these reactions, and I share the astonishment that someone could so easily gain access to so much classified material. But there is still another side to the problem. In the wake of this affair, the amount of candid written material related to the daily conduct of American foreign policy will surely diminish. We will lose our capacity to learn from our experiences, whether positive or negative. Historical memory will slowly be eradicated.
When I was writing my memoirs, I had at my disposal a massive amount of written material. These contemporaneous notes captured my own thoughts about events and players. They constitute a remorselessly precise record and a vivid picture of a slice of history in the making. In addition, I had all the official papers that flowed into and out of my office, including memoranda of conversations (almost verbatim) of my meetings with other key leaders. All of these materials were invaluable to me as I tried to understand more deeply what had happened and why.
The process of writing is a process of learning. I puzzled long and hard over President Reagan's visit to the German military cemetery in Bitburg and its implications. My memory of the immense stress and controversy surrounding the visit in May 1985 was vivid. But as I looked carefully into my notes and the surrounding cables and records, I realized more fully the tremendous pressure that Chancellor Helmut Kohl had exerted on President Reagan to go through with this highly controversial visit.
Mr. Kohl, an ally who had stood firmly against intense Soviet pressure and domestic discontent and deployed intermediate-range missiles on German soil at the end of 1983, sent President Reagan a long and tortuous cable. Cancellation of the president's scheduled visit to the Bitburg cemetery, he argued, would be fateful. The Kohl government would fall, he bluntly told our ambassador, Arthur Burns. As I read the notes of my conversation with Arthur and reread the long cable Mr. Kohl sent to President Reagan at a most critical moment, I could see in retrospect, far more than I had at the time, the impact of its emotional content on the president.
The president had given Mr. Kohl a promise. President Reagan kept his promise, knowing that he would pay a political price at home for doing so. I saw more clearly one of the reasons Reagan was so effective. Anyone could see that, even under intense pressure, when he gave his word, he kept it. The president had immense credibility.
I think of these records as tools of remembrance. I am especially fortunate to have them at hand because I quickly became aware of how easily my memory could play tricks on me. A lot of people thought I was crazy to have someone in my office scribbling away constantly, taking down precisely what people said and when. But these notes have enabled me to create with accuracy a history with the richness of actual dialogue. The fact that such notes run an increasing risk of being made public certainly puts a damper on creating a complete, contemporaneous record in the future. In fact, I question whether such precise and detailed notes will ever be taken again.
There is now a widespread, conscious reluctance in our society, whether in business or politics, to create records—and a disposition to destroy them when they exist. What I worry about is our ability to portray history accurately if such records are not at hand and leaders try to rely on their own memory, which is often flawed. A living history requires tools of remembrance. So much of what we do today depends upon our understanding of the past. If we lose that past, we are also going to lose one of the important handles on the future.
George P. Shultz served as U.S. secretary of state from 1982 to 1989.