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The Foreign Relations of the United States Series: An Orientation

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

Released

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.

Hello, I am Edward Brynn, The Historian for the Department of State.

The U.S. Government is committed to responsible transparency. As a U.S. diplomat argued in 2002, after the Department of State released a collection of historical documents in the Foreign Relations of the United States series that had been the subject of particularly contentious clearance debates, “it may be the wisest course of action to be as open as possible with the release of declassified, archival material.” He claimed that doing so gave the United States the opportunity “to advertise, by example, the openness of American political culture.” Over the past 150 years, the Foreign Relations of the United States series—often referred to as FRUS—has exemplified both the durability of the U.S. Government’s commitment to responsible transparency as well as the evolving ways that this commitment has been met.

FRUS celebrates its sesquicentennial anniversary in December 2011. Since the first FRUS volume was published in December 1861, the U.S. Department of State has released nearly 500 volumes of documents illuminating the country’s diplomacy and its national security policies. These volumes have changed rather significantly in that time. In 1861, it took 313 documents in a 420 page volume to illustrate the Union’s diplomatic efforts to ensure that the Confederacy did not gain international support during the Civil War. Today, the Office of the Historian is approaching the end of its efforts to document the Nixon and Ford administrations’ foreign policies. The 40 volumes released thus far for the Nixon and Ford years contain 13,323 documents in 46,708 pages—and there are still more than a dozen volumes remaining in the pipeline! Clearly, the scope of FRUS’s task has grown considerably in the years since the series began.

In part, the expanded scope of recent FRUS volumes reflects the much larger role that the United States plays in the world today compared to 150 years ago. But it also reflects some fundamental changes in what the series has been designed to do over time. In 1861, FRUS was released to inform Congress of the Lincoln administration’s efforts on a relatively narrow range of highly important priorities. In 1925, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg ordered that FRUS provide comprehensive documentation on U.S. foreign relations from the State Department files. In 1991, FRUS became, by law, “the official documentary historical record of major foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity of the United States Government.”

What exactly does this mean? It means that FRUS is the primary way that the U.S. Government acknowledges its own past actions, including its most sensitive historical covert operations. It means that historians in the Department of State scour the historical records of all the various parts of the U.S. Government that played a role in making or executing foreign policy, including the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, and intelligence agencies, so the series can provide the legally-mandated “thorough, accurate, and reliable” documentation. This, in turn, means that the Department of State must work with the rest of the government to review all the selected documents for declassification. Sometimes, this can take years as officials weigh the benefits of historical accountability and promoting open government against whatever risks might still exist in releasing highly classified documents.

This balancing act between security and transparency has shaped the FRUS series from the very beginning. Even during the Civil War, the U.S. Government withheld information that could jeopardize its efforts to preserve the Union. In the aftermath of the Civil War, U.S. diplomats sometimes complained that FRUS made the U.S. Government too transparent and their jobs more difficult. In the 1930s, the historians who worked on FRUS debated clearances on documents concerning Iran with their colleagues within the Department of State. They also faced opposition from the Japanese and French governments to releasing 15 year-old documents that were not “dead,” diplomatically speaking. During World War II, President Roosevelt and the British blocked the State Department’s efforts to publish the records of the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference. Throughout the Cold War, national security concerns posed challenges to FRUS. Indeed, in the 1980s, these concerns made it impossible for Department of State historians to compile and declassify comprehensive volumes covering the 1950s. When the Department released volumes on Guatemala and Iran that omitted documentation about well-known covert operations, it faced criticism from the media, the academic community, and from Congress that ultimately led to the 1991 law that now defines the purpose and scope of the series.

FRUS serves an important role in providing a responsible way of ensuring that the public, both inside and outside the United States, has the information they need to make judgments about the past. As part of the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of FRUS, the Office of the Historian is fulfilling this ongoing commitment, not only with more FRUS volumes, but also by engaging in a research and outreach initiative to explore the history of the series and share that history with the public. I invite you to visit the Office of the Historian’s website, history.state.gov, to discover for yourself the rich trove of historical records that are available in the Foreign Relations of the United States series and to learn more about what the history of FRUS can tell us about important issues in America’s past.