AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXII , No. 2, Fall 2000

 

History of Science in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
by Maura Porter

Although President John F. Kennedy was not personally a student of science, many collections in his Presidential Library offer a unique and important view into the scientific issues of the early 1960’s. Two distinct subject areas comprise a majority of the science holdings. The first is directly related to the Cold War, specifically nuclear arms/arms control and atomic energy issues. The second is the exploration of space and the beginnings of the space program.

John F. Kennedy, 1962The two core collections of the President’s papers are the President’s Office Files (POF) and the National Security Files (NSF). The POF was maintained by the President’s Personal Secretary, so the documents in this collection were routed to and read by President Kennedy. In the POF researchers will find the Departments and Agencies series particularly useful: this includes materials from the Atomic Energy Commission, FAA-Supersonic Transport, Office of Science and Technology and the President’s Science Advisory Committee. The National Security Files was the working file of McGeorge Bundy and the National Security staff, and therefore tends to have more reports, drafts and background materials than one finds in the POF. Within the NSF, researchers will again find the Departments and Agencies series pertinent. Also valuable are the NSF Subject series files on Nuclear Weapons, Space Activities and Supersonic Transport, the Carl Kaysen series folders on nuclear energy and the Meetings and Memoranda series materials on nuclear weapons testing, atomic energy and atmospheric testing.

Conducting research in the scientific fields can be frustrating since many of the files still remain security classified. Researchers who discover closed records in the POF and NSF will often then proceed to the White House Central Subject File. The WHCSF was maintained by the Executive Office staff of the White House and these files are predominantly open to research use. The science holdings of the WHCSF include folders on various departments and agencies, scientific organizations, space research vehicles and budget issues.

In addition to the President’s papers, there are several collections of personal papers and White House staff files directly related to the science issues of the time. In particular, researchers have found helpful the papers of Roswell Gilpatric, Glenn Seaborg, James Webb, Edward Welsh and Adam Yarmolinsky. Lastly, the Library has microfilmed records of agencies such as the Atomic Energy Commission, Bureau of the Budget, FAA, National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Council and the Office of Science and Technology; again please note that many of these agency records are security restricted. The OST material, for example, is often requested, but unfortunately at present only 20 of the total 73 rolls of microfilm are open and available for research. In addition, the papers of Jerome Wiesner, which contain the official chronological and subject files for his years as Director of OST, remain classified and closed. However, researchers interested in Jerome Wiesner can find material in the open OST microfilm and in other open collections.

For more detailed information on these collections, possible restrictions, or any other holdings, we invite scholars to contact the Library staff. As an initial step we also suggest reviewing our Web site at www.jfklibrary.org where one can read our guide to holdings and various finding aids. The staff of the Research Room has also compiled a “Science and Technology Research Guide” which lists collections at the folder title level. We will gladly send a copy of this guide to any prospective researchers. The Research Room email address is library@kennedy.nara.gov, our phone number is 617-929-4534 and our address is JFK Library, Research Room, Columbia Point, Boston, MA 02125.

At the time of his death, while Kennedy was still not a man of science, he had certainly gained greater insight and appreciation for scientists and the power of science. As he stated in October 1963: “I can imagine no period in the long history of the world where it would be more exciting and rewarding than in the field today of scientific exploration. I recognize with each door that we unlock we see perhaps 10 doors that we never dreamed existed and, therefore, we have to keep working forward.”


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