BY ALBERT AMATEAU | The historian who directed the transformation of the Richard Nixon Library and Museum from a partisan shrine to a public research center as a national presidential library has come to Greenwich Village to head New York University’s Tamiment Library.
Timothy Naftali, whose specialties encompass the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and counterterrorism, became the director last month of the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, which document radical left and labor union history.
“I’m also teaching a course in the History Department, ‘Secrets and Spies: From Ultra to Snowden,’ ” Naftali told a visitor to his office on the 10th floor of Bobst Library, on Washington Square South, last week. (“Ultra” was the designation of Britain’s World War II code-breaking program).
“I don’t want to disclose yet my personal opinion of Snowden [who stole and leaked secret information on the National Security Agency’s vast store of communications data] because I want the students to figure things out,” he said. “In the end, they’re going to have to figure out the world for themselves — we all are.”
Naftali, who was born and raised in Montreal, is no stranger to New York City and the Village.
“I’ve been coming to the Village since I was 6 years old to visit cousins,” he said. Naftali was about 15 when he made his first foray into historic research.
“My father’s side of the family was from Romania, so I went to YIVO to find out about the Naftali clan,” he recalled. YIVO is a research library on W. 16th St. focused on Eastern European Jewish history.
“I was inspired at the time by Alex Haley’s ‘Roots,’ an important book for African-Americans,” Naftali said.
At Tamiment, his goal is to preserve and add to the library’s rich and varied resources, put them into context and broaden access not only to the university but to the neighborhood and to the scholarly community at large.
Timothy Naftali is the new director of N.Y.U.’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, which document radical left and labor history. Photo by Mathieu Asselin, N.Y.U. Libraries
“We have a great collection here, including a phenomenal archive of Irish-American material,” he said. “I want to start an L.G.B.T. archive at Tamiment. N.Y.U. doesn’t really have one. The Fales Library and Special Collections here does collect material on the artistic side of the L.G.B.T. community, and now Tamiment will cover the political side,” he said.
“The first time I became aware of Tamiment was a few years ago when they invited me to give a paper on the Alger Hiss case, ‘The Homosexual Dimension in the Hiss Case,’ ” Naftali recalled.
Hiss was an American diplomat charged with having been a Soviet spy, and was convicted in a celebrated 1950 trial of perjury in connection with the case. Hiss maintained until his death in 1996 that he was not guilty.
Before Naftali was tapped by the National Archives and Records Administration for the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., he was busy teaching and writing. A graduate of Yale with a master’s degree from Harvard and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins, he co-authored “One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-64” in 1997, “John F. Kennedy: The Great Crises” in 2001, “Blind Spot, The Secret History of American Counterterrorism” in 2005, and “George H.W. Bush” in the “American Presidents” series, published in 2007.
Directing the federalization of the Nixon Library beginning in 2007 presented a challenge to process an enormous amount of material.
“It was the best collection of any presidential library, given Nixon’s penchant for taping,” Naftali said. “He didn’t like to meet people, so his aides sent lots of written messages. Besides going through the tapes and papers, we started an oral history of the administration,” he recalled.
Among the people interviewed were the journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, as well as Daniel Ellsberg, whose release of the secret “Pentagon Papers” about the war in Vietnam precipitated a crisis in 1971.
Naftali also interviewed one of the Watergate burglars and the F.B.I. director of the Watergate investigation.
Creating a nonpartisan Watergate resource was the main objective.
“I think we did that with the opening of the Watergate Gallery in 2011,” Naftali said.
Since leaving the Nixon Library in 2011, Naftali has been working on a project about John F. Kennedy as President.
“I’m also working on a history of gay Washington,” he said.
Tamiment, which began in 1906 as the library of the Rand School for Social Research, with close ties to the Socialist movement, had seen some rough times before being acquired by N.Y.U. During the “Red Scare” of 1919, New York State and City police raided the school, then located near Union Square, and took library material that was never returned.
After World War II the school closed and Tamiment, a Socialist theater camp, acquired the library in 1956, but its future was not secure. With its 1963 acquisition by N.Y.U., Tamiment prospered and grew.
In 1977 the library was given the records of the New York City Central Labor Council. The gift was renamed the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive in honor of the U.S. senator from New York, who sponsored the National Labor Relations Act in the mid-1930s.
Under the late Michael Nash, who died in 2012, Tamiment acquired the archives of the Communist Party U.S.A. and later the papers of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, American volunteers on the side of the Loyalists in the 1936 Spanish Civil War.
“We have some hidden gems in this library,” Naftali said. “And if I do my job right, they won’t be hidden much longer.”