By Charles Fenyvesi Suppose you want to find
out what American documents can add to the latest
buzz in Russia, a new theory that trashes the
consensus about Hitler's surprise 1941 attack
on Stalin. The Soviet dictator, conventional wisdom
says, had foolishly trusted his German ally and
failed to protect the motherland. A lie, thunder
several of today's iconoclastic Russian
scholars. Their theory is that Hitler sent his
forces against the Soviets because he knew that
Stalin was preparing to attack Germany, and expected
to win by striking first.
One place to sort this
out is the vast National Archives and Records
Administration in College Park, Md. Here, hundreds
of millions of documents on World War II are crammed
into 5-inch-wide boxes, stacked as high as 12 feet.
The labyrinthine facility boasts 550 miles of mobile
shelving. What files should you look at? Where do
you even begin?
The answer is John E. Taylor.
"Mr. Taylor knows everything," says a
polite young archives employee. The tone is
reverential, the advice sound. And for good reason.
When it comes to World War II, the 82-year-old
Taylor is acclaimed by researchers worldwide for his
uncanny recall of events and a dowser's knack
for pinpointing relevant documents. He is a one-man
memory bank, innocent of Google.com; he uses an
ancient Royal typewriter, and his fingers have yet
to tickle a computer keyboard.
official title is archivist for intelligence
records, doubted that American reports revealed
anything on Stalin's plans against Germany. But
he suggested a search through Japanese diplomatic
cables intercepted by the United States. True to
form, he recalled a document reporting the words of
a German official to a Japanese colleague: "We
will annihilate the Soviet Union!" Thus, Taylor
says, the Japanese had advance knowledge of
Hitler's offensive. He also points out that the
Japanese who tracked German and Soviet war strategy
might have picked up hints of Stalin's plans.
Now then, where to look? Taylor doesn't
hesitate: Record Group 457, Entry 907, Stack 190,
Row 36, Compartment 13, Shelf 3.
and stooping and years past the normal retirement
age, the tweed-jacketed archivist has no trouble
remembering the long sequences of numbers that
unlock the secrets of the archives. Likewise, when a
researcher needs background information, Taylor
produces just the right books, often volumes
inscribed by the authors themselves in gratitude for
Taylor's help. One such writer is John Waller,
whose The Unseen War in Europe is considered a
classic of World War II intelligence. A retired CIA
officer, Waller calls Taylor
"indispensable." Although his own former
job as inspector general gave him a rare overview of
the agency, Waller confesses he would have been lost
without Taylor's "comprehensive
vision" of U.S. intelligence files. So
respected is Taylor, in fact, that the section of
the library dealing with World War II intelligence
is named after him. He has donated many of the
section's more than 700 books.
a gift." When intelligence files arrive at
the archives, Taylor is the first to take a peek. He
remembers their contents, as well as the researchers
who have expressed interest in certain subjects, and
he phones them to come have a look. "Memory is
just a gift I have," he says with a shrug.
"Nothing more. I've never read a book on
how to retain information."
University of Arkansas, Taylor wanted to be a
journalist and wrote for the college paper. "I
was a bit too aggressive," he says, recalling a
tiff with the dean. He ended up majoring in social
work, but his real love was history. During World
War II, a recruiter for the U.S. intelligence
service suggested that he join the code breakers.
But he was disqualified after acknowledging that he
was blind in one eye. He wouldn't make that
mistake again. When applying for a job with the
federal government, he made no mention of his
disability. A few months later, while working in a
California canmaking factory, he received an offer
from the archives. That was in 1945. He hasn't
held another job since.
Taylor shows up for work
every day by 7 a.m. and leaves sometimes as late as
6 p.m. Asked if he plans to retire, he has a stock
answer: "Not this week."