Eureka!: The 1925 FRUS Order (and Why You Should Be Nice to Archivists)

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


One of the most frustrating experiences for a historian occurs when you know that something happened but you can’t find contemporary sources to shed light on how it happened, or why it happened the way that it did. For the FRUS sesquicentennial project, the Departmental Order of March 26, 1925, which for the first time explicitly defined principles for the Foreign Relations series, has been a source of exactly this kind of angst. After hours of digging through the Department of State’s central files for the period 1910-1929 in search of the Order – which had been reprinted in a 1928 FRUS volume1 and referenced repeatedly as an important milestone for the series – the best I could come up with was a 45-page memorandum written in 1937 that summarized its origins to refute criticism of later FRUS volumes.2 While the 1937 memo provided a great deal of interesting information about the Order and the major players in its creation, it was a poor substitute for primary source documentation from 1925 embodying contemporary, rather than retrospective, accounts of the effort to formalize the principles behind the Foreign Relations series.

Luckily for me and the rest of the FRUS sesquicentennial research team, the person who is probably more familiar with the archived records of the Department of State than anyone else in the world was also determined to track down the 1925 Departmental Order. David Langbart is an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration. In the past, he was responsible for assessing the historic value of Department of State records (and those of other agencies) to ensure that significant archival materials are preserved; he now has responsibilities for describing those records and providing assistance to researchers interested in using them. For many years, the Office of the Historian has worked closely with Langbart to conduct research in recently-retired Department of State files for FRUS compilation. As we began looking more systematically at the history of FRUS this year, we quickly discovered that he already knew where a lot of the skeletons were buried (so to speak). Well before we began investigating the history of FRUS, Langbart’s success in preserving important records from the production of the wartime conference FRUS volumes in the 1950s proved essential to investigating the origins, controversies, and effects of the Yalta volume. He helped us track down original copies of several important instructions and despatches printed in nineteenth century FRUS volumes so that the full and excised versions of the texts could be compared. He secured a high-quality digital copy of an 1864 instruction from Secretary of State William Seward to Minister to London Charles Francis Adams that contained the earliest authoritative explanation for and defense of the Foreign Relations series yet found. Most recently, Langbart’s discovery of where records related to the 1925 Departmental Order were hiding within the vast array of Department of State files proved instrumental to my research.

The documents that Langbart found shed new light on the motivations behind the 1925 Order and clarified the key players who established a firm foundation for FRUS’s future. The original version of the editorial principles drafted by head of the Division of Publications Tyler Dennett and approved by Secretary of State Frank Kellogg included an opening one-sentence paragraph omitted from the version published in 1928: “Although the Secretary of State is not by law required to make an annual report, it is recognized that a well-informed and intelligent public opinion is of the utmost importance for the conduct of foreign relations.” This justification for FRUS also appears in documents that describe internal discussions among top Department of State officials. Dennett’s covering memorandum to the Secretary transmitting the Order for Kellogg’s approval explained that FRUS “ought to contribute to the promotion of interest in questions of foreign policy and in turn assist in the maintenance of an intelligent public opinion.” In short, the Department intended for FRUS to serve an important public affairs function in addition to satisfying demands from the academic community.3

These papers also illustrate that many Department officials were engaged in the formulation of the 1925 Order. Dennett, who took charge of the Division of Publications – and FRUS – in late 1924, was the central figure in determining the future the series, but he had crucial allies in the top ranks of the Department. Assistant Secretary of State John Van Antwerp MacMurray convened a high-level meeting in his own office where the Department Solicitor (bureaucratically ranked just below the Assistant Secretary) and the heads of the geographical divisions (including Allen Dulles, future Director of the Central Intelligence Agency) held “a thorough discussion of the principles which ought to guide the editing of ‘Foreign Relations.’” MacMurray also commented on Dennett’s subsequent drafts of the Order before they were submitted to Kellogg for his approval.4 Undersecretary of State Joseph Grew (the second-highest ranked official in the Department) endorsed Dennett’s initiatives as well.5 Since its inception, FRUS received high-level attention. However, this is the earliest documentation illustrating systematic consideration of the series’ purpose and principles among top Department officials that we’ve encountered so far.

The insights about the evolution of FRUS gleaned from the 1925 Departmental Order and the surrounding correspondence that David Langbart found in the National Archives demonstrate that there’s no substitute for primary source documents. They also provide a useful reminder for all researchers seeking to understand the past: it’s a good idea to be nice to archivists!

Read the text of the original “Principles to Guide the Editing of ‘Foreign Relations’” and Tyler Dennett’s covering memoranda to Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, or download the PDF, 499 KB, 8 pp.

  1. Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1914 Supplement: The World War (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1928), pp. iii-iv.
  2. Cyril Wynne, “Memorandum on the subject of Dr. D. C. Poole’s letter of June 21, 1937, which includes a statement giving the background of the present system of preparing the Foreign Relations volumes,” July 13, 1937, 026 Foreign Relations/1210, Department of State Central Decimal File, 1930-1939, Record Group 59 (henceforth RG 59), Archives II, College Park, MD (henceforth Archives II), pp. 4-22.
  3. “Principles to Guide the Editing of ‘Foreign Relations,’” attachment to Tyler Dennett memorandum to Secretary of State, March 26, 1925, Folder “55D606 OSS/PB-1,” Box 35, Miscellaneous Office Files, 1910-1944, RG 59, Archives II, p. 1 and Dennett memorandum to Secretary of State, pp. 1-2.
  4. Dennett memorandum to Secretary of State, p. 1 and John V.A. MacMurray note to Tyler Dennett (with attached annotated draft), March 24, 1925 in Folder “55D606 OSS/PB-1,” Box 35, Miscellaneous Office Files, 1910-1944.
  5. Grew initialed his approval on both Dennett’s March 26, 1925 memorandum transmitting the Order to Kellogg as well as the actual “Principles to Guide the Editing of ‘Foreign Relations’” document.