“No Policy Issue Can Be of Comparable Importance”: The 1980 FRUS Re-Review

Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State


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.

The 1980 re-review was an ironic consequence of institutional reform that was designed to streamline and liberalize Department declassification procedures. In response to President Jimmy Carter’s Executive Order 12065 on classification and declassification policies in 1978,1 Under Secretary of State for Management Ben Read determined that “declassification activities are a permanent and major function and the Department must organize itself to handle them on a permanent basis.” To implement Carter’s directive, Read established “a unified Department-wide structure governing all aspects of records release.” The Classification/Declassification Center (CDC) replaced an ad hoc process of clearances by desk officers in the geographic and functional bureaus whose prioritization of operational responsibilities sometimes led to tardy or arbitrary decisions about protecting or releasing information. The transition to CDC authority was supposed to be gradual, with the existing process remaining in place for records from 1950-1954 and the new system responsible for records from 1955 onward.2

In 1980, this plan for a gradual, orderly bureaucratic transition fell apart after Department officials protested that the old declassification process led to flawed clearances for several FRUS volumes that were near publication. On March 19, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Clayton McManaway (who was in charge of the CDC) informed HO and its parent Bureau of Public Affairs (PA) that the CDC was assuming responsibility for reviewing pre-1955 records, especially those regarding relations with the British. Two major concerns held by officials in the Bureau of European Affairs (EUR) and CDC animated the initiation of the re-review. The first was that previous reviewers had made poor assessments of the sensitivity of foreign government information in U.S. documents and that existing Department procedures were inadequate for protecting such information.3 The second was that information had become re-sensitized between desk officer clearance and preparation of volume manuscripts for publication.4 On April 11, Assistant Secretary of State George Vest, who headed EUR, formally withdrew his bureau’s clearances of all unreleased FRUS compilations. The same day, Under Secretary Read affirmed that CDC would re-review almost two dozen compilations that had already completed or nearly completed clearances under the old declassification procedures.5

At first, Trask and other historians in HO cooperated with the re-review in the hope that it could be limited in scope and completed quickly, thus minimizing delays for FRUS publication. These hopes faded quickly after April 11. Over the next month and a half, HO attempted to persuade key officials that the re-review and proposals to expand the scope of foreign government clearances were unnecessary and counterproductive. On April 11, Trask argued that “no sovereign state should compromise in any way its freedom of action to dispose of its records as it chooses” and that “only the United States can bear responsibility for a report of foreign-government information in an American document.”6 He also tried to reassure Vest that HO followed careful procedures to “minimize untoward stories or embarrassment for missions overseas” when FRUS volumes were published.7 On April 28, Trask rejected a CDC suggestion that “the 30-year publication line is more sensible than the 20-year line,” characterizing “delaying the series” as “overkill of the first magnitude.”8 On May 2, Trask added that “at no point in the publication of the Foreign Relations series have untoward consequences resulted from the traditional practice of avoiding discussions with foreign governments concerning publication of their information in American documents.” Moreover, he warned that, even if “consultation with foreign governments is primarily being considered with reference to the UK and other Commonwealth countries,” “drawing distinctions between foreign countries in terms of their right to prepublication review could create misunderstandings and tensions.”9

Trask also emphasized the damaging effects that the re-review would have on the Foreign Relations series. Though Under Secretary Read was the key decision-maker in the re-review, Trask had to enlist Hodding Carter III, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, to support HO’s case before going up the bureaucratic chain of command. On May 2, Trask sent a memorandum to Carter urging the Assistant Secretary to take up HO’s case by forwarding a slew of memos addressed to Read and McManaway that affirmed the value of FRUS for the Department, described the difficulties engendered by the re-review and CDC’s actions, rejected the re-review of some volumes, insisted upon a rapid timetable for others, and pressed for the retention of existing policies for clearing foreign government information in U.S. documents. Carter declined to support HO’s bureaucratic appeals.10 By May 22, Trask had “come to the firmest conclusion that decisive action should be taken immediately to stop all tampering with unpublished volumes.”11 On June 11, 1980, Trask used the dissent channel to bypass the CDC, his superiors in PA, and Under Secretary Read and appeal the re-review directly to the highest levels of the Department. He argued that, “if the Foreign Relations series is compromised, so is the Department’s commitment to open government. Given the fundamental importance of information in the function of a democratic society, no policy issue can be of comparable importance.”12 He also informed the Historical Advisory Committee, comprised of leading scholars representing academic stakeholders, about the re-review and HO’s efforts to uphold previous clearances.13

Even before the dissent channel appeal was underway, the re-review commenced. In anticipation of a June 5 meeting of the Department’s Oversight Committee responsible for implementing President Carter’s executive order, Trask still hoped that the re-review could be avoided.14 On May 27, however, McManaway reported that “the results achieved thus far more than justify the undertaking of the re-review. The protection of materials relating to Yugoslavia, Iran, and to several of our European allies have been of great importance.”15 Trask pressed the case against the re-review at the June 5 meeting. He had support from William Dyess, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, who noted “the implications” of the re-review debate “went well beyond publication of FRUS to the whole question of sincerity about openness in government.” Robert Miller, the Director of Management Operations, argued that “the publication of post-World War II records would lead to many more [foreign policy] difficulties than had the publication of earlier records … because there is continuity between the early postwar years and the institutions that developed the[n] and the present.” David Baehler, HO’s Declassification Advisor, countered that the Department had “yet to hear a peep of protests from foreign governments reflecting foreign policy difficulties” even though it had “been publishing postwar documents for fifteen years now.” Similarly, after Dyess pointed out that “no political repercussions have arisen from re-sensitization of already published records,” he suggested that “it was unclear why they should arise from records about to be published.” Miller was unconvinced. He claimed that “the act of publication can be construed abroad as a political statement on the part of the US government.” With assurances from the Government Printing Office that re-reviewed manuscripts could be “fast-tracked” for early publication, the Bureau of Management (M) and CDC dismissed HO’s warnings of significant delays in FRUS. Despite Trask’s criticism of the decision-making process that led to the re-review, his warnings of looming “image problems” with the academic community, and his projection of the high cost of the re-review, M and the CDC rejected HO’s arguments and proceeded with the re-review.16 By June 27, just days before Trask’s dissent channel message was distributed to M or CDC, McManaway reported that the re-review was on schedule and that a total of nine FRUS volumes were on track to be printed between September 15 and December 15, 1980.17

Over the next few months, HO pursued dual tracks within the Department bureaucracy. Trask and his colleagues remained fully engaged in the re-review process. On July 23, McManaway reported that CDC had completed its re-review of half of the 19 volumes affected and that “there should be no difficulty in meeting the established deadlines.”18 On September 15, McManaway reiterated his optimism that “all [volumes] are scheduled to be completed on or before November 1, 1980.”19 Despite CDC’s assurances, Trask was pessimistic that the bureaucracy would meet the re-review targets since HO and CDC could not even agree on what constituted a “complete” re-review.20

At the same time, Trask peppered Elaine Morton, who was assigned to coordinate the dissent channel response from the Policy Planning Staff, with memoranda criticizing the re-review.21 On July 18, Trask pointed out that “fast-tracking” re-reviewed volumes for early publication, even if successful, would so disrupt the production process that subsequent volumes would be delayed.22 On August 28, he criticized re-sensitization as a justification for re-reviewing documents. He pointed out that the FRUS volume that had initially alarmed the CDC and EUR back in April had been released to “not one jot or tittle of reaction” and explained that HO “editorial practice works against sensationalism.” He dismissed “concern about ‘resensitization’” as “an aspect of ‘nervous nellyism’ that can prevail in government during periods of stress” and characterized fears that Cold War-related documentation would be more susceptible to re-sensitization as “just plain stupid.” Trask closed his argument by claiming that he had “observed a lot of smoke screens in my time, but ... none as patently ridiculous as this one.”23

Finally, on September 9, Trask responded to allegations of foreign concern about FRUS. He traced these anxieties to “’nervous nellyism’ and clientism in the Department” and conflations of foreign government apprehensions about the Freedom of Information Act with FRUS. After dismissing “fears that somehow, someway, great disasters will flow from publication of the truth many years after the event,” Trask insisted that “even if on some future occasion a row materializes, we have to weigh some slight evanescent inconvenience against our responsibility to report the truth at an appropriate time without fear or favor. If we stray from that principle in publishing our foreign affairs record objectively at a reasonable remove from currency, we will be throwing away one of our strong and undeniable assets in dealing with the rest of the world and informing our own people.” Trask’s memorandum concluded with an assertion that “it is of great importance that nervous nellies are not allowed to use international concern about unauthorized leaks or authorized Freedom of Information releases to injure the Foreign Relations series, about which no comparable body of concern has ever been manifest.”24

HO’s battle against re-review reached its apogee in early October 1980. In a meeting chaired by David Newsom, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Trask, Vest, and Laurence Pickering from CDC debated HO’s appeal of re-review excisions from the FRUS compilation for European security in 1951. Newsom focused on two basic questions: “what are our obligations to our allies and to NATO?” and how should the “possible damage of release to national security ... be weighed against the right of the public to the information”? Newsom pressed all three officials. The Under Secretary asked Trask pointed questions about clearing foreign government information and FRUS’s role in the overall declassification process. He queried Vest about the continued sensitivities of NATO military planning and documents relating to Greece and Turkey’s admission to NATO. Laurence Pickering intervened in the discussion at several points to clarify CDC views on declassification procedures and authorities. Ultimately, Newsom upheld the continued secrecy of documents referencing Yugoslavia and those relating to Greek and Turkish entrance into NATO. Action to implement Newsom’s agreement with HO that NATO military planning documents could be released was deferred until the CDC could consult with the NSC. Though Newsom upheld existing procedures for reviewing foreign government information in U.S. documents and he explicitly endorsed Trask’s formulation of a balancing test between security and transparency, he accepted most of EUR and CDC’s arguments about where such a line should be drawn in 1980.25

Policy Planning Staff Director Anthony Lake’s response to Trask’s dissent channel appeal echoed Newsom’s stance at the re-review appeal meeting. Lake agreed with Trask that FRUS was “central to the Department’s adherence to the principle of open government.” He also agreed with the CDC that “the decentralized nature of previous reviews of the 1950-1954 material and events transpiring during the relatively long period of time that elapsed between some of the initial declassification actions and the dates of planned publication combined to allow material to be authorized for publication, the release of which would either: (1) tend to impede current diplomatic negotiations or other business; (2) fail to preserve the confidence reposed in the Department by individuals and by foreign governments; (3) give needless offense to other nationalities or individuals; or (4) reflect personal opinions presented in internal communications and not acted upon by the Department.” Given the possible “negative impact upon our ability to conduct an effective diplomacy,” Lake described the decision to undertake the re-review as “proper.” He also echoed the CDC’s optimistic projections for completing the re-review and publishing the affected FRUS volumes and reaffirmed the adequacy of the Department’s existing policies and procedures for “balancing national security concerns and the public’s right to know about the history of our foreign policy.” Lake’s response amounted to a total rejection of Trask’s appeal.26

The re-review controversy fueled academic community concerns about both the timeliness and the comprehensiveness of FRUS. Within days of Lake’s response, Trask, Baehler, and FRUS General Editor William Slany met with Professors (and former HAC members) Walter LaFeber and Lloyd Gardner to discuss Department of State declassification procedures.27 LaFeber and Gardner both exhibited concern that the empowerment of the CDC would slow declassification and result in more documents being withheld from release. After Gardner proposed withholding “any volume that proved to be less than complete on any important issue,” Slany “pointed out that HO’s lack of access to other agencies’ files compromised this principle, quite apart from unfavorable declassification actions. He said that access was the other half of the declassification coin.” As the meeting concluded, “Gardner closed by reiterating his concern that HO not sacrifice the comprehensiveness of the series in the effort to attain the twenty year line.” Trask replied that “HO desired both to maintain – indeed to enhance – the comprehensiveness of the volumes and to attain the twenty year line.”28

By early November, the re-review had already fallen behind schedule. In a report to Newsom, Dyess pointed out that only two of the 18 compilations being re-reviewed (two others relating to Iran had been deferred indefinitely) had “run the full course preparatory to publication.” While HO had received information about 4 other manuscripts, it still had no response from CDC concerning two thirds of the re-review workload that was supposed to have been completed entirely by November 1.29 In mid-November, the annual HAC meeting focused on the re-review and its implications. The HAC’s report warned that, with the creation of the CDC and the tightening of declassification guidelines, “a critical situation has developed, one which threatens the integrity of the Foreign Relations series.”30 HO and HAC concerns about the re-review were realized as the series fell further behind its official goal of a 20-year publication line in the 1980s. Of the nine “fast-tracked” volumes scheduled to be published in 1980, one was published in 1981, two in 1982, three in 1983, two in 1984, and one (after being split into two volumes) in 1987 and 1989.31 The 1980 re-review, the delays that it entailed for FRUS, and the CDC-led declassification process that initiated it were all major contributors to mounting academic concerns over timeliness and comprehensiveness that plagued the series throughout the decade before exploding into controversy in 1990 and 1991.

Read recently declassified documents on the 1980 re-review, or download the PDF, 2.2 MB, 61 pp.

  1. Jimmy Carter, “National Security Information,” Executive Order 12065, June 28, 1978 available at http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/eo/eo-12065.htm (accessed December 2, 2011).
  2. Ben Read memorandum to all Assistant Secretaries, Special Assistants, and Office Heads, November 20, 1978 and Department notice, “Classification/Declassification Center,” November 24, 1978 in Folder “Dissent Channel Package (1980),” Box 3, Lot File 04 D 114, U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC (henceforth “Dissent Channel Package”).
  3. Long-standing FRUS clearance practices had made foreign government consent necessary for publishing foreign government-originated documents, but Department historians had repeatedly resisted submitting all U.S.-originated documents to foreign governments for clearance in the past. During the 1950s, partial exceptions were made for wartime conference volumes that printed U.S. minutes of Allied summit meetings, but these minutes were sent to the British Government for “information only” – not for clearance. See Morrison Giffen memorandum to Wilder Spaulding, June 4, 1935, 026 Foreign Relations/866 and William Phillips instruction to Joseph Grew, July 15, 1935, 026 Foreign Relations/878 in Department of State Central Decimal Files, 1930-1939, RG 59, NARA II; “Clearance with the British Government” in “Briefing Papers prepared for the Secretary’s discussion with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April [19],” [April 14, 1955?], Folder “Malta and Yalta Conferences 1955,” Box 3; William Franklin memorandum to Bernard Noble, November 29, 1956 and Richardson Dougall memorandum to Bernard Noble, December 4, 1956 in Folder “November-December 1956,” in Box 6; and Richardson Dougall memorandum for the files, December 2, 1957, Folder “November-December 1957” and Andrew Berding memorandum to Burke Elbrick, January 14, 1958 in Folder “January-February 1958” in Box 7 in Records Relating to the Compilation of the World War II Conference Volumes of the Publication “Foreign Relations of the United States,” Lot File 83 D 222, RG 59, NARA II; and Robert Woodward memorandum to Alexis Johnson, December 4, 1961, 023.1/12-461; Roger Tubby memorandum to Alexis Johnson, January 3, 1962, 023.1/1-362; and Edwin Martin memorandum to Alexis Johnson, July 20, 1962 and Mark Lissfelt memorandum to Edwin Martin and Robert Manning, July 31, 1962 in 023.1/7-2062 in Department of State Central Decimal Files, 1960-1963, RG 59, NARA II.
  4. Clayton McManaway memorandum to William Blair, March 19, 1980; David Trask memorandum to William Blair, March 26, 1980; and memorandum of conversation (March 27, 1980) between Clayton McManaway, et al., April 2, 1980 in “Dissent Channel Package”; memorandum of conversation between Laurence Pickering and David Baehler, April 4, 1980, Folder “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations, 1950-1954 (1980),” Box 3, Lot File 04 D 114, U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC (henceforth “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations”).
  5. George Vest memorandum to Ben Read, April 11, 1980 and Ben Read memorandum to all Assistant Secretaries, April 11, 1980 in “Dissent Channel Package.”
  6. David Trask memorandum for the record, April 11, 1980, “Dissent Channel Package.”
  7. David Trask memorandum to George Vest, April 14, 1980, “Dissent Channel Package.”
  8. David Trask memorandum to William Dyess, April 28, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.”
  9. Hodding Carter draft memorandum to Ben Read (tab 7 of David Trask memorandum to Hodding Carter), May 2, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.”
  10. David Trask memorandum to Hodding Carter (with attached draft memoranda), May 2, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.”
  11. David Trask memorandum to William Dyess, May 22, 1980, “Dissent Channel Package.”
  12. David Trask memoranda to Anthony Lake, June 11, 1980, “Dissent Channel Package.” Despite Trask’s request to restrict distribution of the dissent channel appeal from M and the CDC, Lake’s office included those officials as recipients later in June. See Anthony Lake memorandum to David Trask, June 30, 1980, “Dissent Channel Package.” For background on the dissent channel, see Hannah Gurman, “The Other Plumbers Unit: The Dissent Channel of the U.S. Department of State,” Diplomatic History (April 2011), pp. 321-349.
  13. David Trask memorandum to members of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, June 11, 1980, “Dissent Channel Package.” Word of the re-review and concerns over the clearance of foreign government information had already reached the academic community in May. See Lloyd Gardner letter to George McGovern and Frank Church, May 6, 1980; David Trask memorandum to Hodding Carter, May 12, 1980; and George McGovern letter to Brian Atwood, May 14, 1980 in “Dissent Channel Package.”
  14. David Trask memorandum to William Dyess, May 23, 1980, “Dissent Channel Package.”
  15. Clayton McManaway memorandum to Oversight Committee for the Department’s Information Security Program (E.O. 12065) [henceforth Oversight Committee], May 27, 1980, “Dissent Channel Package.”
  16. “Decisions, Undertakings, and Understandings Reached at the Oversight Meeting of June 5, 1980,” [no date] and memorandum of conversation (June 5, 1980) between Robert Miller, et al., June 9, 1980 in “Dissent Channel Package.”
  17. Clayton McManaway memorandum to Oversight Committee, June 27, 1980, “Dissent Channel Package.”
  18. Clayton McManaway memorandum to Oversight Committee, July 23, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.”
  19. Clayton McManaway memorandum to Oversight Committee, September 15, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.”
  20. David Trask memorandum to Terry McNamara, September 23, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.”
  21. David Trask memorandum to Felix Vargas and Elaine Morton, July 3, 1980 and David Trask memorandum to Elaine Morton, July 7, 1980 in “Dissent Channel Package.” To the latter memo, Trask attached the various documents contained in the “Dissent Channel Package” folder cited above.
  22. David Trask memorandum to Elaine Morton, July 18, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.”
  23. David Trask memorandum to Elaine Morton, August 28, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.”
  24. David Trask memorandum to Elaine Morton, September 9, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.”
  25. Memorandum of conversation between David Newsom, et al., October 9, 1980 and David Baehler memorandum for the record, October 9, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.”
  26. Anthony Lake memorandum to David Trask, October 14, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.” The language that Lake used to justify the re-review came directly from the 1925 Order that formalized FRUS editorial methodologies and defined acceptable grounds for excisions. See http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus-history/research/1925-order (accessed December 2, 2011).
  27. LaFeber and Gardner were prominent historians of U.S. foreign relations and members of an Organization of American Historians ad hoc committee on declassification practices and access to documents.
  28. David Baehler memorandum for the record, October 17, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.” The 20-year publication line had been established by Richard Nixon in a March 8, 1972 memorandum attached to Executive Order 11652. See http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/eo/eo-11652.htm (accessed August 9, 2011).
  29. William Dyess memorandum to David Newsom, November 4, 1980, “Documents Relating to the Re-Review of Foreign Relations.”
  30. Betty Unterberger, “1980 Report of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation,” PS: Political Science and Politics (Spring 1981), pp. 274-281. Quote from p. 280.
  31. The “fast-tracked” volumes were: European Security and the German Question (1951, Vol. III), Korea and China (1951, Vol. VII), General Political and Economic (1952-1954, Vol. I), American Republics (1952-1954, Vol. IV); West European Security (1952-1954, Vol. V), Africa and South Asia (1952-1954, Vol. XI), Indochina (1952-1954, Vol. XIII), Geneva Conference (1952-1954, Vol. XVI), and Africa and South Asia (1955-1957, Vols VIII and XVIII).