Other resources about the history of the Foreign Relations of the United States series.
A series of ongoing posts exploring the history of the Foreign Relations of the United States series
The size and the timeliness of the Foreign Relations documentary history series have changed dramatically over the years since the foundation of the series in 1861. While these metrics may seem like a parade of numbers devoid of much drama, they reflect over 150 years of struggles within the U.S. Government over how to balance protecting security with practicing openness and accountability. The outcomes of these debates are readily discernable in the pages of individual FRUS volumes as readers encounter sensitive documents—including, eventually, many from the holdings of agencies other than the Department of State—published by the U.S. Government as well as excisions where even decades-old information remains too sensitive to release. Each of the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents published in the Foreign Relations series is not only a record of U.S. foreign policy, but also of subsequent decisions about transparency.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 turned the tide of the Civil War. The Army of the Potomac blunted the Confederate advance into Pennsylvania and General Ulysses S. Grant’s successful siege of Vicksburg ensured the restoration of the Mississippi River to Union control.
This year, we celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, first announced to the U.S. public on September 22, 1862. While the story of the Proclamation’s domestic impact is well known, there was also a foreign dimension to this story.
As you can see from our FRUS sesquicentennial page, we have had a busy year, producing online postings, podcasts, articles, conferences, presentations at academic sessions, and public addresses. We invite you to peruse our discoveries and conclusions about the history of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series.
Between 1980 and 1991, the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series entered a period of crisis. In the early part of the decade, the academic community grew more concerned about the increasing lag of FRUS publication from the 20-year line formally established for the series by President Richard Nixon in 1972. By the end of the decade, these anxieties were supplanted by bitter criticism from academic, media, and Congressional sources of gaps in FRUS coverage of pivotal Cold War covert actions. In 1991, Congress intervened to shape the future of the series that it had helped to create by establishing a statutory mandate for both timeliness and comprehensiveness for FRUS production. Throughout the entire period, the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation (also known as the Historical Advisory Committee, or HAC) played a crucial role in mediating (sometimes unsuccessfully) the tensions generated by clashing demands for openness and for security.
When Hamilton Fish took office as Secretary of State on March 17, 1869, he inherited both a political and administrative mess. Relations with Congress were terrible. Recently inaugurated President Ulysses S. Grant loathed the powerful Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Charles Sumner. For his part, Sumner quickly became an implacable opponent of the new president’s foreign policy and insinuated himself and his committee into State Department business whenever possible.
April 1865 was an extraordinary month in the history of the Civil War. On the 9th, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the war. Just days later, the nation was rocked by the news that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated in Washington, DC.
Between the spring and fall of 1980, Department of State officials debated the proper balance between security and transparency as they argued about the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. In the spring of 1980, as U.S. policymakers grappled with the frenzied aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution, plans to modernize U.S. intermediate nuclear forces based in Western Europe, and Josip Tito’s death in Yugoslavia, a combination of institutional reform of declassification procedures within the Department and anxieties held by some Department officials inspired a re-review of already cleared FRUS compilations. In response, David Trask, the head of the Office of the Historian (HO), used the official “dissent channel” to appeal the re-review decision to the highest levels of the Department. Trask’s appeal was denied and the re-review delayed, for several years, the release of many FRUS volumes covering the first half of the 1950s. More importantly, however, the 1980 debate over FRUS exposed sensitivities to releasing Cold War secrets that continued to plague the series – eventually with sensational consequences – throughout the remainder of the decade.
In a research paper posted to this site on June 24, 2011, I wrote about the domestic reaction to the first Foreign Relations (FRUS) volume [text and video] published in 1861. That paper focused primarily on the positive reaction of Northern newspapers. Tracking coverage of the first FRUS volume in the press allows us to see how FRUS was received throughout the Union. Historians have other options for learning about public reaction. In 1863, a brief flurry of pamphlets sprung up after the publication of the FRUS volume covering 1862. In these pamphlets, we can see contemporaries debate the propriety of publishing state papers.
In addition to the domestic challenge it presented, the fledgling Confederacy posed a foreign policy dilemma for Abraham Lincoln’s administration. The Confederacy hoped to use its position as a crucial source of cotton to secure recognition from foreign powers and boost its legitimacy, and it sent commissioners abroad to sway other countries into supporting its cause.
In February 1940, the Department of State released a special two-volume supplement to the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. Those special volumes carried the sub-title “The Lansing Papers, 1914-1919.” Robert Lansing served as Counselor (second in charge in the Department) from April 1914 to June 1915 and then as Secretary of State from June 1915 to February 1920. As the preface noted, the volumes contained “an extensive selection from the large body of correspondence of Robert Lansing... secured for the files of the Department of State following Mr. Lansing’s death in 1928.” The preface further explained that the materials included were not available when the Department prepared the regular Foreign Relations volumes for the years 1914 through 1919 or the special supplementary volumes dealing with World War I and Russia. Realizing the importance of and public interest in the Lansing papers, the Department decided to publish them as a supplement to the series.
In researching the Foreign Relations (FRUS) series of the Gilded Age (1869-1897), I was particularly struck with the high level of attention it received in the State Department. Unlike the series today, which is prepared by professional historians in an office well removed from the regional and functional bureaus, the nineteenth century FRUS reflected the combined efforts of the key officers of the Department. The fact that the documents published in FRUS were contemporaneous and often reflected both the direction of American foreign policy and Department actions on most of the key issues of the day made such scrutiny imperative. With Congress as the intended consumer of FRUS, the last thing the Department needed was to submit correspondence assembled randomly or without a nuanced understanding of policy.
One of the most frustrating experiences for a historian occurs when you know that something happened but you can’t find contemporary sources to shed light on how it happened, or why it happened the way that it did. For the FRUS sesquicentennial project, the Departmental Order of March 26, 1925, which for the first time explicitly defined principles for the Foreign Relations series, has been a source of exactly this kind of angst. After hours of digging through the Department of State’s central files for the period 1910-1929 in search of the Order – which had been reprinted in a 1928 FRUS volume and referenced repeatedly as an important milestone for the series – the best I could come up with was a 45-page memorandum written in 1937 that summarized its origins to refute criticism of later FRUS volumes. While the 1937 memo provided a great deal of interesting information about the Order and the major players in its creation, it was a poor substitute for primary source documentation from 1925 embodying contemporary, rather than retrospective, accounts of the effort to formalize the principles behind the Foreign Relations series.
In these blog posts, we have been sharing the fruits of our ongoing research into the history of the Foreign Relations of the United States series. As our investigation continues, our knowledge about the series grows and evolves. In this post, I’ll discuss how new findings shed light on some long-standing questions about the series.
The first potentially paralyzing clearance battle waged for the Foreign Relations series came in the late 1930s. When preparing the regular annual volumes, Department of State historians—or other officials—could simply omit materials that posed insolvable clearance problems. This in fact occurred in 1936, in response to opposition within the Department and from the Iranian government to publishing records from 1922 concerning a financial mission to Tehran and negotiations for an oil concession. The annual volumes covering 1922 simply skipped over Iran entirely, though the omissions did not diminish the value of the remainder of the compilation. The Paris Peace Conference volumes posed a much different challenge because foreign government clearances would be required to publish the jointly “owned” formal minutes of conference proceedings and since the conference record had to be substantially complete to be coherent. If any of the foreign governments that played a major role at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference objected to publishing the records of the conference discussions, Department of State historians would have to put the subseries publication plan on hold until they changed their minds.
In my last post, “Our Ministers Do Not Express Their Real Opinions,” I said that I intended to devote this post to a discussion of how the State Department’s reaction to complaints from ministers (ambassadors) that their sensitive dispatches might appear in Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volumes dampened candor in their reporting. The nature of historical research being what it often is, you think you know what you need, where to find it, and when to wrap up the research—only to come across something that challenges your assumptions. For this post, I find myself writing on something unexpected.
A brief video with accompanying transcript of Dr. Aaron Marrs speaking about his research into why the first volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States series was released in 1861 amidst the Civil War, the precedents for such a release of foreign relations documentation, and the reception of the first volume.
A brief video with accompanying transcript of Ambassador Edward Brynn speaking about the Foreign Relations of the United States series—its history, evolution, and continuing significance.
In the mid-1930s, current and retired U.S. diplomats complained that Foreign Relations volumes provided too much transparency for the Department of State’s own good. In response, the chief of the Division of Publications—and editor of the Foreign Relations series—Cyril Wynne explained the careful process that Department historians undertook, in collaboration with other officials, to compile, edit, and declassify documents for Foreign Relations volumes. Wynne placed special emphasis on Ambassador Joseph Grew’s support for the series since he “served in the most difficult post in our entire Foreign Service”—Japan. While Grew’s appreciation of FRUS was genuine, the Japanese government had grown both weary and wary of the series by 1936.
In my previous blog post, I discussed how historians start their research with a question about the past. In this post, I’ll talk about another question that we in the Office of the Historian have had about the first FRUS volume published in 1861: what material was left out?
American diplomats reporting from abroad in the latter decades of the nineteenth century wrote openly at their own peril. The Department of State offered no guarantee that their dispatches would remain confidential. In annual volumes called Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States (the precursor to what we now know by the acronym FRUS), the State Department published what it considered the most salient diplomatic correspondence of the year. In my research article “A Surprising Manifestation of Backbone” we see an example of the Department manipulating FRUS content to pursue policy goals as well as to shape public opinion and Congressional debate. And, as I implied in that article, there was sometimes a sinister relationship between FRUS and the spoils system by means of which most ministers and consuls were appointed—that is to say, Secretaries of State permitted the publication of sensitive dispatches for partisan political purposes.
If you read my previous post on the story of “the Yalta papers,” you’ll see that one of the most consequential legacies of the Yalta FRUS was the creation of a Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) in 1957. The formation of the HAC marked an important transition for the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, formalizing the critical role that academic and professional organizations had played in the evolution of the series since the 1920s and insulating FRUS from the partisan political pressures that had been so significant in the first half of the 1950s. The HAC was one of a series of changes in the way that FRUS was planned, produced, declassified, and released that took place in the 1950s.
After the start of the Civil War, the Union faced a series of challenges related to foreign relations. One immediate challenge was to prevent the fledgling Confederate government from gaining recognition from foreign powers. In the summer of 1861, the Lincoln government received calls from Congress to demonstrate and explain the steps being taken to prevent such recognition from taking place. Thus, in addition to the challenge overseas, the administration had to respond to domestic demands for information about foreign policy. The administration responded to these demands by releasing several hundred pages of foreign affairs-related documentation with the President’s annual message in December 1861. Although the documents were released in direct response to a Congressional demand, they also served a public relations function. This paper will explore the creation of the first volume of the Foreign Relations series and suggest some general conclusions about the significance of this volume.
Throughout the 20th century, the Foreign Relations series evolved in response to broader transformations in American foreign relations, government institutions, and political culture. The most enduring of these transformations occurred in the 1950s, when the series adapted to the development of the national security state and the globalization of U.S. power. The intense bureaucratic, partisan, and international controversies generated by the 1955 FRUS volume for the 1945 Yalta conference helped define the series for the Cold War.
In 1895, the Chicago Inter Ocean gleefully greeted the annual Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume, which contained a hefty sampling of the year’s correspondence between the Secretary of State and his ministers abroad. “As it is made up of dispatches which have passed between [American] foreign representatives and the government, and as they are deferred so long that they are of the quality of last year’s bird’s nests, it is possible the reading public fancies the book must be dry and musty.”
In 2011, the Department of State celebrates the 150th anniversary of its official documentary history publication, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS). Ironically for a project staffed by historians, much of FRUS’s own history is shrouded in mystery. I am part of a team within the Office of the Historian which has been doing some research to learn more about the series’ past and the context in which it was created. During the year we’ll be highlighting notable and controversial moments in the series’ history here on this website. My own work has focused on the first volume, published in December 1861. The volume includes over 400 pages of correspondence between U.S. diplomats abroad and Secretary of State William Seward, and was released as part of President Abraham Lincoln’s annual message to Congress.