Correspondence Between Richard Leopold and George Kennan, February-March 1957

A scan of the original document is available for download (PDF, 570 KB, 5pp.)

Source: Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of the Historian, Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation Files, 1957-1990 (Lot File 96 D 292), Box 1, Advisory Committee on the Foreign Relations Series 1961-1964.

Cited in Toward “Thorough, Accurate, and Reliable”: A History of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series, Chapter 7, Footnote 81

Richard W. Leopold to George F. Kennan

I would be grateful if you could steal some time from your busy schedule to think about the future of the Foreign Relations series, a problem I mentioned to you briefly on Friday evening. With your background and knowledge you can be most helpful, I am sure, to the historical guild on this matter; and I have already taken the liberty of suggesting your name as a most appropriate member of two committees which will have to consider this problem. One is a committee of the American Historical Association known as the Committee on the Historian and the Federal Government. That group is already in existence and I have been a member of it. The other is an Advisory Committee of the Department of State, a body just now being formed.

The problem, as I see it, is what principle of selection should govern the printing of documents relations to American foreign policy as we reach the period of the Second World War. Can that story be reconstructed from the files of the Department of State alone? The answer must surely be in the negative. To a certain extent, such has always been the case. Never could the official archives tell us everything. But beginning in 1941 the problem becomes more acute because, presumably, more and more key documents never came to rest in the Department's archives. These are to be found either in the private papers of key figures or in the records of other departments, notably the Army and Navy.

Until recently the editors of the Foreign Relations series did not feel obliged to reproduce anything that could not be found in the files of the Department of State. This was the policy that underlay those extremely useful supplements on the First World War and Russia, 1918-1919. Now some attempt is being made to gather materials from Hyde Park and elsewhere. In one sense this new approach is commendable, for it enriches the record. In another sense it is both futile and dangerous: futile because there are obvious limits to the amount of material from private collections that can be reprinted, and dangerous because it exposes the editors to the charge of selectivity and intentional distortion or suppression. I have expressed my fears on this point in my brief review of the Yalta volume which appeared in the December issue of the Mississippi Valley Historical Review.

There is still another facet of this problem. It involves the official papers in the Department of Defense. The editors of the series have done little with these, and yet they obviously shed much light on the formulation of foreign policy. Here the Department of State has to deal with another and coordinate branch of the executive.

My own feeling, for what it is worth, is that the time has come to take the compilation of the Foreign Relations series out of the hands of the Department of State and make it the responsibility of some inter-departmental agency. But how this can be done and where it should be located puzzles me. Such a transfer may create more problems than it solves.

I would like very much to have your views on these questions, if not now, at some future date when you have had the leisure to ponder them. I have had them very much on my mind ever since 1951, when I first began to write brief notices of the volumes for the Mississippi Valley Historical Review.

L.E. Woodward to George F. Kennan

Dear Kennan: Here are a few stray notes on Prof. L's most interesting letter. LEW.

I can of course speak on this question only from the point of view of my English experience. In the Documents on British Foreign Policy we limited ourselves to printing in the text documents contained in the Foreign Office Archives (exceptionally we have printed in the text a few documents from other archives - mainly Cabinet Archives - but these exceptions are only in cases where, for some reason or other, a document which ought to have been registered in the F.O. archives was not there, and we were able to get a copy from elsewhere). We have printed in the appendices, or given extracts in footnotes, from documents in other archives. We have been very sparing about this - for the reason which Professor Leopold mentions - Once you get away from the F.O. archives, there is no end to the amount of material you might include, and you are - as Professor Leopold says - risking the charges of selectivity, distortion, and suppression. (This is, by the way, one reason why we did not follow Gooch and Temperley - our predecessors in editing F.O. volumes of documents - in printing - as they did - a selection of minutes. It is impracticable to print all minutes and undesirable to select from them* [*Our rule has been to include minutes only when they state facts not mentioned in the text of a document.]) We took the view that it was better to limit ourselves to the F.O. archives - scholars who use our material will then know that, although they are not getting all the story, they are getting all that the F.O. archives can tell them in the form of documents received and transmitted. In any case the bulk and number of such documents is such that - if you aim at completeness within these limits - it is not easy to print much more without making the collection unwieldy. The British collection differs to some extent from the U.S. collection in that it does not aim at covering the whole field of activities of British diplomacy. It singles out certain major subjects and countries and tries to be complete on those subjects; other subjects and countries are not given a place at all - viz. we have not, as far as I remember, published a single despatch or telegram to or from central or South America. We have thereby saved a good deal of space, and though we have been criticized by people interested in Portugal or Siam, our method has been generally approved.

I have myself found - in using For. Relations volumes - the inclusion of material from outside the archives of the State Dept. a little disconcerting because I have always felt that - in dealing with this “outside” material - the editors were unable to apply the same standards of “completeness” which they would apply to the material in the S.D. archives. You thus had a kind of “double standard” - but this is just what you don't want in a collection of documents.

The question of material in the archives of the Service depts is an obvious difficulty, though less difficult - on the British side - than one might expect. For one thing all the reports from senior attachés go through the ordinary embassy or legation channels, and are in the F.O. archives - but more important is the fact that practically all the main issues, though not technical details, in which defense consideration are of importance are discussed in the F.O despatches. I should guess that to some extent this must also be the case in the S. Dept. documents - though there may be some differences because important despatches to ambassadors explaining British policy are nearly always approved - at least in general terms - by the Cabinet, and therefore cover the whole field - including the views of the Service Ministers on the defence aspects.

I would not feel competent to say much about the idea of putting the compilation of the Foreign Relations series into the hands of an inter-departmental agency, but I can see endless difficulties in this if it were applied in Great Britain. For one thing no single dept would feel that the production of the volumes was its particular responsibility. We have found it most useful to be able to get the Foreign Office to weigh in when there has been a question of publishing documents which are in the F.O archives but are also in the Treasury archives (e.g. correspondence about inter allied debts). The Treasury has no interest in the publication of our volumes, and is inclined to say “keep off”, whereas the F.O. can weigh-in - from the top - in the interest of making its volumes complete and adequate. Unless U.S. depts are not as “departmental” in outlook as British departments, I should be afraid that the interdepartmental organisation would be regarded as nobody's child, and that it would in fact lose out in any conflict with a particular dept. I should also be afraid that the editorial supervision would get unwieldy. I may be biased about this but Rohan Butler and I have often thought that the smallness of our staff - two editors, each with one assistant, and one F.O. woman clerk between us to keep track of documents, with our letters, etc. - has had certain advantages. We have had to do an immense amount of work ourselves which - with a larger staff - we would have delegated, but of the result is that, while the historical masterpieces we might ourselves have written if we had not been tied down so much remain unwritten, the actual selection and editing of F.O. documents has been done better because we have had to do pretty well all of it ourselves. If the editors have to range over the archives of half a dozen departments, they must delegate a great deal of the work, and they must depend too much on their assistants. If you try to avoid this by having a larger body of senior editors, it is harder to keep a common standard. As I have just said, a historian who takes on the job of editing modern documents will find that this work crowds out pretty well everything else, but at least - if he is limited to one set of archives - he can learn to master them. He could not possibly master more than one set. So I would be inclined to say - let the S.D. keep the For. Rel. in its hands - and let it be content to produce its own material - even if the historian will also have to use other material - in any case the diplomatic record has its own very high value and completeness. If other depts want to follow the example of the S.D. and publish their records, let them do so - and any problems of policy - large or small - can be discussed by the respective editors as and when such problems arise.

Freund to George F. Kennan

Woodward's letter is a very interesting one, especially because he has so much experience in this type of work in Britain. But the British experience is not really analogous to the problems facing the U.S. in similar publication ventures.

For one thing, the scale of the work to be done here, if the Foreign Relations series is to continue and expand, is much greater. This is not only so because the volume of diplomatic exchange is greater than the F.O. has to deal with, but also because the S.D. would not be able to limit publication to exchanges with only a small number of countries at specified times, and, perhaps most important, because our government’s policy formulation and implementation processes are more unwieldy than Great Britain's, and not as well coordinated. For example, I do not believe that the decision and actions leading to U.S. approval of German rearmament in 1950 can be revealed without publication of Pentagon materials of which copies would, presumably, not be available at the S.D. Other departments and agencies and certain coordinating bodies would also have to give over materials if the published collection of documents is to be of any real value.

Woodward is undoubtedly right in saying that the efficient way of producing volumes of documents is to give full responsibility to qualified historians who will work with a very small staff. But this advice, it seems to me, is incompatible with another of his suggestions, namely that the S.D. should keep the series in its hands. Surely what the S.D. would do is to retain the services of one or two “big name” historians (e.g. Langer and Gleason) who would supervise the work of a large staff of researchers and interlopers. The work of such an aggregation would not inspire confidence in their product. Nor would S.D. sponsorship tend to elicit cooperation with the Defense and other department and agencies without whose contribution of material (i.e. access to their archives by qualified historians) the volumes would be incomplete at best, and very possibly misleading.

Surely the S.D. and other departments much have a hand in producing these volumes. But why not limit their involvement to approving or disapproving of the documents to be published after they have been collected by historians who do the actual research and editing with the help of a minimum number of civil service personnel aid. Finally, it would seem to me much wiser to have the project sponsored by a private source or sources (e.g. the Ford Foundation) than to have the historians paid by and subjected to any sort of unusual loyalties to the Government.

George F. Kennan to Richard W. Leopold

I have been slow in replying to the questions in your letter of February 3 about the future of the Foreign Relations series; but it is, as you are aware, a difficult problem, to which ready answers do not present themselves.

I took the liberty of showing your letter to my colleague here at the Institute, Sir Llewellyn Woodward, who is - as you know - one of the two editors of the British series. I enclose a copy (or rather, a deciphered version - you know what some British handwriting is) of his comment. I also enclose comments written by Gerald Freund, whom you met here, on Woodward's paper.

Will you permit me to continue to reserve my final comment until I have thought about this further? Recognizing the good sense and authority of all that Woodward says, I am impressed, as is Freund, with the differences in the situation here from that which prevails in England. My own experiences, particularly during the last war, lead me to doubt that a series of documents confined to the State Department materials alone would be in any way adequate to tell the story of America's involvement in any one of a number of important issues. My thoughts run, at the moment, to the idea of the government's contracting the documentary publication out to a semi-private academic unit - along the lines (organizationally, not substantively) of the M.I.T. Center for International Studies or the Rand Corporation, with the idea that this unit would get out documentary series addressed to given subjects or episodes of major importance rather than attempt to cover the field chronologically, by countries. I am sure, too, that this thought will have many drawbacks. But it would permit the assembling of the range of the material that would be necessary to give any coherent concept of what transpired, and the intensive and highly responsible selectivity that would have to be exercised if the final product were to be kept to manageable dimensions.

It might be necessary to take certain special precautions to assure high scholarly capability, wisdom, and integrity on the part of those to whom this really great responsibility would be given. I could conceive that it might be desirable, for example, to establish a panel of representatives of such organizations as the American Historical Association and the Council of Learned Societies, merely for the purpose of making nominations from which the government might select the scholars who would be entrusted with this work. Surely, some collaboration between public and private effort would be necessary to implement any idea of this sort. But the alternative would be to try to carry on with the Foreign Relations series, as heretofore produced; and you have yourself set forth the reasons why this would be difficult.