Prologue Magazine

Reclaiming Pieces of Camelot

How NARA and the JFK Library Recovered Missing Kennedy Documents and Artifacts

Summer 2006, Vol. 38, No. 2

By James M. Roth

President John Kennedy at his desk in the Oval Office

The small signing table that the library recovered in 1998 is visible to the left of President Kennedy. (Kennedy Library)

Throughout the history of the United States, citizens and government officials have worked to ensure that the American people continue to own and have access to the records of our government, and over the years the U.S. Government has gone to great lengths to protect, preserve, and recover the historical documents held in trust for Americans.

During the War of 1812, when the British were burning the White House, for example, First Lady Dolley Madison fled with many notable documents, as well as the well-known Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.

Last year, Wayne E. Motts, a longtime Archives researcher, saw for sale a document that he had viewed and copied at the National Archives and Records Administration, and he reported it to NARA. The researcher who took the documents, Howard Harner, pleaded guilty to stealing more than 100 Civil War–era documents from the National Archives Building in Washington over a six-year period from 1996 to 2002. He was sentenced to two years in prison. It is a continual balance to protect the records in NARA's custody and make them available to researchers.

Among the more celebrated individuals suspected of misappropriating presidential and federal documents is Evelyn Lincoln, former secretary to President John F. Kennedy. Through the efforts of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library staff, the National Archives general counsel, and the U.S. Department of Justice, many of these documents and items apparently taken by Lincoln have now been returned to their rightful place. This is the story of how that happened.

After President John F. Kennedy's tragic death in Dallas in November 1963, his longtime personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, was entrusted with safekeeping his personal effects, historical items, and writings.

The Kennedy family asked Lincoln to gather together all materials and organize them so that they could make decisions about what would be donated to the Kennedy Library and what would be retained by the family. Lincoln also had a longstanding practice, dating back to her initial service as secretary to Senator Kennedy beginning in 1953, of retrieving and collecting pieces of paper, including discarded notes and "doodles," that contained the personal handwriting of John F. Kennedy.

Unfortunately, rather than turning over all of these materials to President Kennedy's family and the National Archives, Lincoln appeared to have kept many of these items and eventually given them away or sold them.

Unsure of what was happening with President Kennedy's papers, in 1964 Robert F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy asked Arthur Schlesinger, a noted historian and former special assistant to the President, and Burke Marshall, a Kennedy family lawyer and assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, to look into what Lincoln was doing, and they reported that things didn't look right. The family then asked noted author and Kennedy scholar Theodore White to examine and assess the contents of the whole collection. He commented at the time that there seemed to be big gaps of information in the collection.

Letter from Arthur Schlesinger regarding the status of JFK's papers

At the Kennedy family's request, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., looked into the status of the President's papers in the custody of Evelyn Lincoln and reported in July 1964 that the situation was undesirable. (Kennedy Library)

During this time, staff at the National Archives, where Lincoln was working, had created inventories of the materials that she was responsible for. In one inventory titled "List of Objects in the Custody of Mrs. Evelyn Lincoln," dated June 1964, is listed a "Gateleg table" covered with a green blotter and assigned the number X-260. The "X" identified items that had been in the Oval Office. A National Archives memorandum dated January 5, 1966, states "the following items were moved by Mrs. Evelyn Lincoln" and includes the table. Jacqueline Kennedy also created a detailed list of material that she had sent to Lincoln. These lists would later help in the retrieval of many items.

One person Lincoln sold or gave items to was Robert White (no relation to Theodore White), a collector of Kennedy memorabilia. Their relationship began when a then-teenaged White wrote to President Kennedy. Lincoln responded to the boy's letters, and through this correspondence they cultivated a friendship. As he grew older, White began buying material from Lincoln, selling off some items to support purchasing other materials. He may have received other material as gifts from her. Upon her death in 1994, Lincoln bequeathed a large number of items to White and a lesser amount to the Kennedy Library.

The Kennedy Library first became aware of White's collection in June 1996, when a manuscript dealer representing White approached staff to inquire whether the library would be interested in buying a few items. White was offering two items for sale: a letter from Jacqueline to John Kennedy after their infant son Patrick had died and a journal written by Congressman John F. Kennedy during a trip to Europe. Library staff hoped to persuade White to donate the material to the library or to the Kennedy family rather than have to purchase items they felt belonged in the collection. While not successful in persuading White to donate the two items, staff were surprised to learn how extensive White's Kennedy-related collection was.

Two years later, Guernsey's Auction House announced a Kennedy-related auction to be held in March 1998, with White listed as the major consignor of material. What became apparent from the catalog was that some documents appeared to belong to the Kennedy Library and the United States government as well as to President Kennedy's family. At that point, the Kennedy Library alerted the Office of the General Counsel at NARA, who contacted the U.S. Department of Justice.

Eagle bookend used in John F. Kennedy's Senate office

This eagle bookend was used in John F. Kennedy's Senate office as well as in the Oval Office. (Kennedy Library)

Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, Jr., also became involved to pursue personal effects of their parents that were in the collection. At the preview of the exhibition, representatives from the library, NARA, the family, and the Justice Department examined several documents and discovered the presence of apparently classified material. Kennedy Library staff realized they were clearly now dealing with official papers of the Office of the President.

Once this was revealed, the library and NARA had to prove the material belonged in the Kennedy Library. Because the Kennedy administration predated the Presidential Records Act of 1978, these materials were not considered government records upon creation but rather were considered the personal property of John F. Kennedy, which were subsequently donated to the National Archives by his family under the Presidential Libraries Act. The National Archives had to prove the items in White's possession were created in Kennedy's capacity as President. The agency could then argue the material was covered by the 1965 deed of gift governing the material already held by the Kennedy Library.

NARA's general counsel asked the Justice Department to threaten to place an injunction on the auction. A few days before the auction, NARA counsel, along with the Department of Justice and library officials, met with White's lawyers and negotiated a settlement. The negotiation resulted in the library obtaining six documents and several artifacts along with copies of approximately 100 documents.

One of the first items identified was the mahogany table that Lincoln allegedly had taken from the National Archives. The table in the auction had an identifier number that exactly matched the original number from the inventory conducted by NARA staff. That number proved the table was the one used in the Oval Office by Kennedy to sign letters and important documents. The table, which is six inches lower than the President's desk, was selected because his personal physician, Dr. Janet Travell, requested a shorter table to help relieve his back pain. The table was actually a holdover from the Eisenhower administration put to this use.

The library also received Kennedy's leather briefing book for his summit meeting with Chairman Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. Within the briefing book are the official itinerary and press information for the summit meeting as well as Kennedy's notes. After Kennedy read the briefing materials on May 28, 1961, he dictated his thoughts, questions, and action items relating to the forthcoming meeting. These were typed up for approval and initialed by the President.

Many important documents related to foreign policy were recovered, including a May 25, 1962, memorandum with handwritten edits by Kennedy for the secretaries of state and defense on NATO and American foreign policy in Europe—"there are three or four presumptions upon which our policy has been based, which may deserve reexamination."

Others illustrate how the President set policy, such as the first page of a May 21, 1962, memorandum for the secretary of state from Kennedy about a military base in the Azores—"I think this bears out the necessity for us to work out a government position before we begin our negotiations and also explore the role that the NATO countries should play in these negotiations."

Some documents illustrate the wide range of issues the President dealt with on a daily basis. From notes of dictation on July 26, 1961, and November 1961, Kennedy discusses foreign affairs issues including America's role in Vietnam—"I am concerned . . ."; relations with China and Formosa—"we should come to definite conclusions . . ."; and tensions in the Congo—"what should be our policy. . . ."

There are also two resulting memorandums for the secretaries of state and defense with Kennedy's handwritten changes where he writes, "should I address a statement today to Khrushchev concerning South Viet Nam stating how dangerous we thought the situation was," and his warning to "watch Laos very carefully for any fighting that might break out again even though we decide not to intervene."

Copies of documents recovered show the daily routine of the President. A typed "To Do" list for January 28 prepared from Lincoln's stenographic notes of dictation from Kennedy outlines 14 points for him to address such as "check amendments required of Trade Bill" and "Vice President's Committee look at Air Transport ship."

There was also interest in the outcome of the auction by Caroline Kennedy and John Kennedy, Jr. Through their lawyer, they independently pursued the retrieval of personal items and correspondence that in the judgment of the National Archives was not material the Kennedy Library could press for. Three items that Caroline and John Kennedy, Jr., recovered were subsequently donated to the library, including the two items the Kennedy Library staff had seen in 1996. In addition to the letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to John Kennedy and the two volumes of John Kennedy's handwritten travel journals, the library received a mahogany wall clock, originally hung in the Kennedy's N Street home and later placed in President Kennedy's private room next to the Oval Office soon after the inauguration. This settlement was separate from the National Archives settlement.

A letter from the Department of Justice regarding the settlement between NARA and White outlined what material the Kennedy Library and NARA would receive from White's consignment to the auction, with NARA and the library ceding any claim to the remainder. But it did not preclude NARA from pursuing other materials not consigned to this auction that White might own. This would not be the end of the library's pursuit of material in White's possession.

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Evelyn Lincoln kept corrected letters the President had signed. At the top of this partial letter written to Commander Bacon on July 6, 1952, she wrote: Last page—signed by Kennedy—to White 3/16/90. (Kennedy Library)

In 2003, Kennedy Library Director Deborah Leff received a telephone call from NARA General Counsel Gary M. Stern informing her that a NARA researcher had seen a map of Cuba for sale on the web for $750,000. The map was advertised as The Cuban Missile Crisis Map, "the ultimate JFK relic, originally acquired from the noted Kennedy collector Robert White" with the claim that this was "the most important Kennedy manuscript extant in private hands." White had long sold the map, and it had changed hands numerous times, ending up in the hands of a collector named Ralph McElvenny. The director convened a team of archivists at the library to work with the general counsel to investigate the background of the document.

After months of researching the materials and preparing a detailed history of Lincoln's activities after the assassination, NARA's general counsel was able to convince the Justice Department in March 2002 to file an emergency lawsuit, known as a temporary restraining order, in New York City to block the sale of the map. The case also included several documents relating to the James Meredith civil rights issue, which were held by a separate organization. When McElvenny sought to dismiss the case, a federal judge rejected the claim in April 2003 and ruled that if the materials were Kennedy's papers generated during his administration, they were presumed to belong to the library under the language of the deed. Then, following months of litigation, including depositions of Kennedy Library staff and the dealer and possessor of the map, the case was settled in the fall of 2004. The Meredith papers were recovered in an earlier settlement.

In the meantime, on October 11, 2003, White suffered a heart attack and died. This had no effect on the map case, but it did affect what NARA decided to do next. Knowing that White had an extensive collection of Kennedy material, the library's director and NARA's general counsel discussed the possibility of intervening in the estate of Robert White on behalf of the library. This would be the best opportunity for the library and the National Archives to retrieve the majority of improperly held documents in White's collection. Counsel determined that this would be a worthwhile pursuit.

NARA counsel approached counsel to the estate, and both parties agreed to try to reach a global settlement on all claims that the National Archives and the Kennedy family might still have on the White materials. In the spring of 2004, library staff were permitted to review the entire White collection and selected all items that were deemed to belong to either the library or the family. After a year of negotiation, a final settlement was reached by all three parties in the summer of 2005. The library and Caroline Kennedy obtained the items they claimed and provided the White estate with a release of all of the other items that they had reviewed. This release allowed the estate to have another auction at Guernsey's in December 2005 without fear that NARA or Caroline Kennedy would interfere. The settlement would not prevent the National Archives from pursuing other materials once owned by White.

Among the items that were recovered from White's estate were a left-hand suede glove that matches a right-hand glove held at the Kennedy Library, believed to have been worn by Kennedy at his inauguration ceremony on January 20, 1961, and a piece of wood from the inauguration stand. Originally from the floor of the U.S. Senate, this piece of wood was incorporated into the platform for the ceremony. It is believed that this piece of flooring is where Kennedy stood while taking the presidential oath of office. The wood is accompanied and documented by a signed letter from the Architect of the United States Capitol.

President Kennedy uses a pen from the pen holder recovered by the library.

President Kennedy uses a pen from the pen holder recovered by the library. (Kennedy Library)

Complementing the earlier return of the mahogany table that Kennedy used to sign public laws, executive orders, and international treaties are 29 Esterbrook bill-signing pens, one used 2-fluid-ounce bottle of Sheaffer blue-black Scrip ink, and a wooden block holder with a large hole for the ink bottle and holes to hold up to 72 pens.

Also returned are two bookends in the form of spread-winged gilded eagles with five gold stars around the base used in Kennedy's Senate office as well as in the Oval Office and Kennedy's personal copy of Why England Slept, his first book, based on his honors thesis published in 1940, which he kept in a drawer of his desk in the Oval Office.

By far the largest amount of material recovered were thousands of pages of documents from President Kennedy and his staff documenting the official business of the White House as well as important files from his years as a U.S. senator. There also are some personal accounts and bills belonging to the President and the First Lady and handwritten doodles by Kennedy, including the first message he wrote after taking office on January 21, 1961, planning the week's meeting schedule: "Monday—Rayburn + Johnson" "Tuesday 9:00 Legislative leaders" "Thurs or Fri—Cabinet" "Monday—Rusk + Bundy McNamara." There are also medical records consisting of correspondence, statements, an immunization record, prescriptions, and notes relating to Kennedy's health and medical care.

The presidential papers recovered from White's estate consist of 775 items of correspondence, memorandums, subject files, thank-you letters, requests for assistance or appointments, letters offering political opinions or advice, and drafts of letters edited by the President. Had they not been separated by Lincoln, these materials would have been placed in the President's Office Files. This was one of the major gaps author Theodore White had reported on in 1966.

Also recovered are schedules and notes pertaining to the President's trip to Texas in November 1963, including a reminder note written by Kennedy during his flight from Carswell Air Force Base to Love Field in Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963. Lincoln often made transcriptions of the President's handwritten notes, and her transcript of the note reads: "Equal choice not any reflection back—govt reform—we are going forward." Accompanying this is a typed note from Lincoln, stating that it "was to be included in his speech to be given at 12:30 pm at the Trade Mart in Dallas."

Reminder note written by JFK on Air Force One on his way to Dallas, Nov 22, 1963

President Kennedy wrote this reminder note during his flight from Carswell Air Force Base to Love Field in Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963. Evelyn Lincoln's transcript of the note reads: Equal choice not any reflection back—govt reform—we are going forward. Accompanying this is a typed note from Lincoln stating that it was to be included in his speech to be given at 12:30 at the Trade Mart in Dallas. (Kennedy Library)

A significant addition to John F. Kennedy's Pre-Presidential Papers is a group of 11 folders relating to the 1960 Democratic National Convention. Before their recovery, the collection of Kennedy's papers at the library lacked material from the convention. The Democratic National Convention materials were collected and generated by Senator Kennedy and his staff before, during, and immediately following the convention in Los Angeles, California.

Items include hand-edited daily schedules; travel arrangements for Kennedy, staff, and family members; notes and phone messages; invitations to meet with various state delegations; letters of congratulations following his nomination; and a file relating to his choice of Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate. In that file is a speech Kennedy delivered at the convention:

In the hours since your decision of yesterday, I have applied myself to making my recommendation to this Convention as to the next Vice President of the United States. . . . First of all he should be a man qualified to occupy the office of the Presidency; for however unlikely it may seem a prudent person never ignores the possibility of ultimate accident. Also our Vice President should be a man who from the beginnings of the Democratic Administration can help devise and carry forward the new policies by which we shall ensure the preservation and growth of liberty among our countrymen and all free men. In short, he must be a man of experience, of judgment, of imaginative patriotism, of known familiarity with the American system which we shall revitalize. . . . For it seemed to me proper to enlist the companionship and cooperation of the man who for eight years has been our party's head and who in the years ahead will bring us to an eloquent wisdom which is honored in every Continent of the world. . . . I commend to you as Democratic nominee for Vice President, the Honorable Lyndon B. Johnson.

There is also a Religious Issue File that contains information about Catholic candidates for public office and a letter dated July 28, 1960, from Kennedy defending his position in regard to how his Catholicism might influence his political future:

I am afraid this whole problem will come up again in the fall. My position, it seems to me, has been stated with sufficient precision so that my religious affiliations should not serve as a barrier to those who might wish to support the Democratic Party. There is no doubt that some members of my church do not share my view, although most in this country do. The important point is that I hold this view.

Along with the DNC files, another significant area of material recovered were the Presidential Transition Files, consisting of letters of congratulations sent by friends and colleagues to President-elect Kennedy and Task Force Reports about the economy, foreign policy, and the general program of the Kennedy administration and the inauguration written for the President-elect by members of his transition staff.

On foreign policy, the report advises "the great need . . . for integration of control over foreign policy activities under the Secretary of State. In this connection he might wish to consider further integration of information program and aid administration in the Department of State." Another report discusses the liberal-conservative balance, the inaugural address, and the program to be set by the Kennedy administration. Acknowledging the anxieties of both liberals and conservatives, the report advocates compromise "by moving quite radically on the concrete problems the nation confronts, producing balance because we satisfy legitimate elements of anxiety among different groups."

Another area the library was able to complete was the collection of invitations sent to Senator Kennedy and his wife for social and political functions, including dinners with the ambassadors of Cambodia, Austria, Pakistan, and the United Arab Republic. Kennedy also accepted many speaking engagements and sent out acceptance telegrams such as "will be glad to speak at a testimonial dinner for Congressman Flynn on Friday, April Tenth." The invitations in this addition date from the last two years of his Senate career (1959–1960), which were not included in the original collection.

note in President Kennedy's hand, written shortly after taking office on January 21, 1961

Among the thousands of papers recovered from Robert White's estate in 2005 was a note in President Kennedy's hand, written shortly after taking office on January 21, 1961, planning the week's schedule of meetings with key legislative and administration figures. (Kennedy Library)

There also is correspondence in which Kennedy discusses his research for what would become his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Profiles in Courage. Writing in February 1955 to Professor James MacGregor Burns at Williams College and Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., at Harvard University, Senator Kennedy comments on political courage in the 20th century:

"[I]t seems difficult to find acts of political courage in this century which compare with the action of Senator Ross of Kansas in voting against the impeachment of Johnson, and John Quincy Adams' support of Jefferson on the Louisiana Purchase." He then asks them for their advice on "George W. Norris in supporting the filibuster against arming the merchants ships, [whether it] put his political career on the block and showed unusual courage."

* * *

This settlement marked the culmination of almost a decade of work on the part of the National Archives general counsel and Kennedy Library staff pursuing stolen materials that Evelyn Lincoln had taken.

In announcing the settlement, Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein said, "I am very pleased that these important documents and artifacts are finally being returned to the Kennedy Library where they belong. It was the intent of the Kennedy family that the American people should have the fullest account of the Kennedy administration, and these materials are essential in telling that story."

The Cuba map case has also strengthened the law for the return of donated papers. With these two successful settlements, the library and NARA will continue to pursue and reclaim material that belongs in the Kennedy Library and in the National Archives.

Note on Sources

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Massachusetts, holds the original papers of John F. Kennedy. Doodles, personal accounts and bills, correspondence, statements, immunization records, prescriptions, and notes relating to John F. Kennedy's health and medical care are in the Personal Papers of John F. Kennedy (#1). Immigration case files and correspondence, general subject files, invitations, legislation introduced or co-sponsored by Senator Kennedy, office receipts and bills, correspondence regarding office personnel, copies and drafts of speeches, press releases, campaign files, religious issue file, and presidential transition files and reports are in the Pre-Presidential Papers of John F. Kennedy (#2). General correspondence, thank-you letters, requests for assistance or appointments, staff memorandums, drafts of letters, files related to departments and agencies, subject files, countries files, and personal secretary's files are in the Presidential Papers of John F. Kennedy, President's Office Files (#3). Artifacts are held in the Museum Collection.

Finding aids for the papers are online at the library's web site.

James M. Roth is an archivist at the Kennedy Library in Boston. He holds a master's degree in American history from the University of New Hampshire, Durham, and a master's in information and library science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.