A Good Year’s Work
By William B. McAllister
Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State
Released February 8, 2012
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.
We have a new understanding about the evolution and uses of FRUS in the 19th century. Periodic executive branch releases to congress predated the advent of formal FRUS volumes by several decades, based on a longstanding mutual agreement that certain documents could be withheld if the executive believed it necessary to protect national security. We now know that in addition to the FRUS volumes that began regular publication in 1861, the State Department submitted to congress additional records that doubled the total number of documents released. FRUS volumes also played an important role in Department operations, serving as an “active file” of important issues and as a policy guide to U.S. diplomats. And we now know that highly-experienced Department staff compiled the volumes with care, expertise, and rational selection criteria.
In the twentieth century the release of FRUS volumes presented increasingly thorny declassification problems. As America’s role on the world stage became more prominent, calculations about what information was safe to release changed dramatically. FRUS became, and remains, a crucial declassification outlet for government documents. On several occasions, we have discovered, the continued existence of the series was in jeopardy. But in every instance FRUS not only survived, but also often emerged with a renewed mandate to disseminate vital foreign policy information to elected officials and the public. In a few cases those revelations caused some short-term consternation among diplomats, policy makers, or allies. Overall, however, sharing key documents about how past decisions were made and implemented has not only proved illuminating for politicians and the public, but also exemplified how Americans value governmental transparency.
We now see that the Foreign Relations of the United States series represents an important negotiation vehicle through which to debate the balance between the need to know and the need to protect. FRUS acknowledges United States foreign policy decisions to Americans and the world, formally and officially. What secrets should the U.S. government keep from its own citizens, and for how long? How does a democracy function in an information-restricted environment? There are no permanent answers to those questions—they must be reconsidered regularly in light of current circumstances and the longstanding desire for Americans to have the most open government possible. We may never be fully satisfied with the answers, but constantly reconsidering such questions is vital, and FRUS plays a crucial part in that national conversation.
Most importantly, we have learned that both specialists and the general public are interested in the issues raised by our in-depth study of FRUS. Although our “official” commemorations of the 150th birthday of the series end with the Williams College conference in March 2012, we intend to continue our investigations and share our findings with you. Specifically, we are writing a book-length manuscript encompassing not only the last 150 years, but also the significant pre-1861 story of Americans’ debate about the value, and values, of openness. When the research, writing, editing, and peer review is complete, we will publish a book of interest to both academics and a wider audience. We are also compiling substantial appendices to the book that will list the hundreds of releases of documents to congress in addition formal FRUS volumes, totaling thousands of pages in the 19th century. We believe a fuller accounting of the formal communications between the executive and legislative branches concerning foreign policy will enrich the work of those interested in a variety of topics. Finally, we intend to make presentations across the country about our findings and advance the conversation about the significance they hold for issues confronting Americans in the 21st century. We will use this website to provide updates, so watch this space for announcements about our future activities.