Throughout its history, the Foreign Relations series has embodied both the promise of open government and its constantly renegotiated limits. Each FRUS volume provides a snapshot of two kinds of U.S. Government decisionmaking. The first is familiar to all FRUS readers, who turn to the series to examine documentation of U.S. foreign policy. Early volumes contain valuable diplomatic correspondence detailing instructions from Washington, exchanges with foreign governments, and reports from diplomatic posts. Later volumes focus on decisionmaking in Washington, usually at the White House. The evolving content of FRUS reflects broader transformations long studied by scholars: the expanding national security state, the centralization of authority in the Presidency, and the specialization of functions within the bureaucracy.

Individual Foreign Relations volumes also present a snapshot of how stakeholders inside and outside of the U.S. Government negotiated the boundaries of responsible transparency at a particular time. Each step—compilation, editing, redaction, clearance, and publication—reflects multiple institutional, domestic, and international contexts. The volumes demonstrate how American officials drew the boundaries of responsible transparency. This story includes the documents (often quite sensitive) that the U.S. Government chose to publish, as well as information withheld. The selection process for each volume reflected constraints in the kinds of records available to Department compilers. Subsequent vetting by supervisory officers illustrated the kinds of information judged both important and appropriate for the public to know; the clearance process for FRUS required reviewers to make inherently subjective decisions about the risks of release—and the countervailing costs of non-release. An evolving framework of policies and procedures guided such decisions to balance public accountability with important national interests. One might imagine individual FRUS volumes as akin to tree rings: each iteration records the environmental conditions from which it emerged; a broader story unfolds by examining change over time.

FRUS is valuable, therefore, not only for its content, but also for the process it represents. At its creation, FRUS regularized the U.S. Government’s existing transparency regime, which functioned as a manifestation of the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government. Until the second decade of the 20th century, Foreign Relations and the Supplemental FRUS Submissions remained the Department’s principal means of informing Congress and the American people about the nation’s diplomacy. In the early 20th century, the series adapted to unintended delays to provide new utility to new audiences. Even as contemporaneous transparency norms fell away, FRUS remained an engine of openness by publishing records of decisionmaking in addition to diplomatic exchanges. The series also guided the operation of other elements of the increasingly complicated historical transparency regime that emerged in the 20th century. Researchers and the interested public increasingly monitored the comprehensiveness and the timeliness of FRUS because their access to records depended upon the clearance and publication of the series. During the Cold War, amidst sweeping protections on the release of foreign government information, intelligence sources and methods, and some nuclear-related data, leading scholars blamed mounting government secrecy and uneven declassification and release practices for the public’s distorted understanding of recent history. After Congress intervened to provide a statutory mandate for the series in 1991, openness advocates gained additional leverage in their debates with officials inclined to maintain secrecy as they continued negotiating the proper balance between security and transparency. Throughout its long history, Foreign Relations has served as the mechanism through which the U.S. Government determined how to deal with many of its most sensitive records.

While the means by which FRUS fulfills that role have changed, the values that the series embodies have remained consistent and substantial. The U.S. Government has repeatedly cited FRUS as a manifestation of its commitment to responsible transparency and democratic accountability. Presidents and Secretaries of State have frequently identified domestic public support as a resource vital to conducting an effective and sustainable foreign policy; they have consistently relied upon the Foreign Relations series to inform Congress, scholars, domestic constituencies, and international audiences about past U.S. policies. The continued presence of the series has even swayed foreign governments to open their archives earlier and create their own official documentary publications that emulate (on a much smaller scale) the Foreign Relations series.1 FRUS remains the world’s leading effort to systematically publish “comprehensive documentation of [a government’s] major foreign policy decisions and actions.”2 From the Civil War, when William Seward inaugurated FRUS to demonstrate Union resolve, to today’s website that makes the series available to anyone with an Internet connection, Foreign Relations has served as a de facto public diplomacy program “advertising, by example, the openness of American political culture.”3

That kind of “advertisement” can only be effective to the extent that the series retains credibility in the eyes of its consumers. The historical evidence this book presents indicates that the most significant negative repercussions attributable to the FRUS series have not involved damaging releases of potentially-sensitive national security or intelligence information. Rather, the reputation of the U.S. Government has suffered primarily from failures of the series to document significant historical events or acknowledge past actions. FRUS realizes its promise when it fulfills global expectations for openness that promote democracy and encourage freedom. The revelations emanating from FRUS not only provide specific information about policy formation and implementation, but also about how, and how much, the U.S. Government values transparency in practice.

This study demonstrates that current-day problems are not so different from those of our forebears. They faced similar quandaries as they struggled to secure the benefits of openness while protecting important security interests. That there appears to be no permanent resolution to the dilemmas attendant to documenting U.S. foreign policy should come as no surprise. Perhaps the most encouraging observation arising from this work is that the Foreign Relations of the United States series exemplifies the importance that U.S. citizens and their government place upon understanding America’s role in the world. Neither the process nor the outcomes are perfect, but “the public interest” would be much impoverished without such a mechanism for accountability and self-examination.

  1. See, for example, Greg Donaghy, “Documenting the Diplomats: The Origins and Evolution of ’Documents on Canadian External Relations,’” The Public Historian 25, no. 1 (Winter 2003): pp. 9–29; Dale to Gleason, December 22, 1965 and Franklin to Dale, January 6, 1966 in NARA, RG 59, CFPF 1964–1966, POL 15–4 ISR; U.S. Embassy Mexico to Department of State, June 13, 1966 and Franklin to U.S. Embassy Mexico, June 22, 1966 in NARA, RG 59, CFPF 1964–1966, PR 10 Foreign Relations of the U.S.; C. P. Stacey, “Some Pros and Cons of the Access Problem,” International Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter, 1964/1965, pp. 45–53; D.C. Watt, “Restrictions on Research: The Fifty-Year Rule and British Foreign Policy,” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs), Vol. 41, No. 1, January 1965, pp. 89–95; Herbert G. Nicholas, “The Public Records: The Historian, the National Interest and Official Policy,” Journal of the Society of Archivists, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1965, pp. 1–6; “First World War British Archives Still Not Open,” The Times (London), September 18, 1965; File L S 17/12 concerning complaints to the Prime Minister about the 50 year rule, May-September 1963, UKNA, FO 370/2724; Butler to The Librarian (of the Foreign Office), November 21, 1963, UKNA, FO 370/2725; Trend to Hardman, May 28, 1964; Hardman to Trend, June 4, 1964; Trend to Coldstream and accompanying documents, June 5, 1964; Garner to Trend, August 5, 1964; and Heaton to Establishment Officer, October 19, 1964, all in UKNA, FO 370/2771; Butler, “Progress Report of the Historical Adviser,” May 10, 1965, and accompanying minutes, UKNA, FCO 12/56; “The Timing and Method of Release of the Records of the 1939–1945 War,” Cabinet Paper C(69) 102, July 25, 1969, UKNA, FCO 12/65; Child to Cheeseman, October 13, 1970; Harcombe minute of September 30, 1969; Palliser to Brimelow, December 23, 1969; Butler minutes of January 1 and 8, 1970; and Wiggin minute of January 12, 1970, all in UKNA, FCO 12/78; Mellor to Dixon, September 18, 1971 and Butler minute, October 20, 1971, both in UKNA, FCO 12/105; Cheeseman to Rose, October 13, 1971; Rose to Chief Clerk and enclosure, June 22, 1971; and “Future Publication of Documents on British Foreign Policy,” April 6, 1971, all in UKNA, FCO 12/115; “Publication of Official Documents on British Policy Overseas,” Cabinet, Defence and Oversea Policy Committee, DOP (72) 17, April 17, 1972, UKNA, FCO 12/140. The International Editors of Diplomatic Documents website listing of currently extant publication projects also testifies to the broadening norm of releasing historical documents to the public, especially in certain Eastern European countries. See International Editors of Diplomatic Documents website,
  2. Public Law 102–138, Title IV, Sections 401–407, October 28, 1991.
  3. Miller to Secretary of State (info to U.S. Consulate Thessaloniki, U.S. Embassy Nicosia, and U.S. Embassy Ankara), August 19, 2002, pp. 2–3, Department of State, SAS, 2002 ATHENS 002867.