Richard Nixon’s Presidency is one of the best documented administrations in American history. The Nixon Presidential materials collection contains approximately 4,000 separate recordings of broadcast video, nearly 4,500 audio recordings, 30,000 gifts from foreign heads of states, American citizens, and others, 300,000 still photographs, 2 million feet of film, 46 million pages of documents, and 3,700 hours of recorded Presidential conversations (the famous “White House tapes”).
Since 1974, these materials have been maintained by the National Archives under the authority of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservations Act (PRMPA). Congress enacted PRMPA in response to news that President Nixon, only weeks after resigning office, had concluded an arrangement with the head of the General Services Administration that would have allowed him to destroy materials in the collection. PRMPA stipulated that the documents and other materials would remain in the government’s possession, and further required that the collection stay within 50 miles of Washington, D.C.
The passage of PRMPA resulted in more than two decades of litigation over the Nixon materials. Although President Nixon and his lawyers argued in a suit filed against the government that the materials were his property and that the processing of his records by the National Archives violated his constitutional rights, the Supreme Court upheld PRMPA in a 1977 decision. Following the 1979 settling of a subsequent lawsuit by President Nixon against the Federal Government, the National Archives released the first 12 ½ hours of tapes and transcripts related to Watergate.
Additional litigation over the processing and release of the Nixon Presidential materials (including separate suits filed by former Nixon officials and by the advocacy group Public Citizen), led to the large-scale release of documents in 1987 by the National Archives. However, President Nixon blocked the release of some files, arguing that they were private or political materials unrelated to his role as President. Approximately 78,000 pages were returned to President Nixon in 1994. Approximately 98 percent of those pages have since been opened by the National Archives.
The processing of the tape recordings remained a contentious issue. A 1992 lawsuit by University of Wisconsin Professor Stanley Kutler and Public Citizen yielded a 1996 agreement by the National Archives, the Nixon estate, and Kutler and Public Citizen governing the release of the remaining tapes. To date, the National Archives has processed and opened 2,371 hours of recorded conversations.
A new chapter in the history of the Nixon Presidential materials began in 2004. Congress passed an amendment to PRMPA revoking the requirement that the Nixon materials remain within the Washington metropolitan area, allowing the establishment of a Federal Nixon Presidential library. Allen Weinstein, who served as Archivist of the United States from 2005 to 2008, made the inclusion of the Nixon Library into the Presidential system a priority upon taking office. He successfully concluded negotiations with the private Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace to transfer control of the Yorba Linda facility to the Federal Government, paving the way for the creation of the Federal Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum and the transfer of the Nixon Presidential materials to Yorba Linda. The Nixon Library became part of the National Archives and Records Administration on July 11, 2007, with Timothy Naftali as its first Federal director.
Upon the completion of a suitable addition to the library in spring 2010, the Nixon Presidential materials, were moved to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. There, they have been unified with the pre- and post-presidential collections previously owned by the Nixon foundation as well as a collection of documents from Richard Nixon’s time as Vice President that he gave to the Federal Government while he was in the White House and which had been stored in the National Archives facility in Laguna Niguel for more than three decades.