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“The problem that you have undertaken to help us with is one of very, very great difficulty”: The Formation of the Historical Advisory Committee and the First HAC Meeting, December 1957

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

Released

If you read my previous post on the story of “the Yalta papers,” you’ll see that one of the most consequential legacies of the Yalta FRUS was the creation of a Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) in 1957. The formation of the HAC marked an important transition for the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, formalizing the critical role that academic and professional organizations had played in the evolution of the series since the 1920s and insulating FRUS from the partisan political pressures that had been so significant in the first half of the 1950s. The HAC was one of a series of changes in the way that FRUS was planned, produced, declassified, and released that took place in the 1950s.

The HAC was a direct consequence of the controversies engendered by the release of the Yalta FRUS volume. Scholars had become increasingly significant consumers of the Foreign Relations series since the 1920s and they were alarmed when it became entangled in partisan debate between 1953 and 1955. They were suspicious of the unorthodox scheduling of the wartime conference and China volumes, which were to be released in advance of the regular annual volumes that could establish the context for these controversial facets of U.S. foreign policy in the 1940s. They were also alarmed by allegations of censorship raised by conservative critics of the Yalta volume. When two Department of State historians were dismissed for insubordination in the fall of 1955, some members of the American Historical Association (AHA) – most notably Howard Beale – insisted on an investigation of the Historical Division to determine whether political considerations were undermining the integrity of the Foreign Relations series.1

Over the course of 1956, the head of the Historical Division (HD) at the Department of State, Bernard Noble, and his superiors in the Bureau of Public Affairs worked with the leadership of academic organizations like the AHA, the American Society of International Lawyers, and the American Political Science Association to translate simmering discontent over the Yalta volume into an institutionalization of the relationship between the Foreign Relations series and academia. 2 Of particular note was Noble’s confession to Professor Dexter Perkins, then President of the AHA, that he hoped that the academic community’s engagement with the controversies surrounding HD and FRUS might result in the formation of a permanent advisory committee. Noble explained that “in this day and time, when the number of diplomatic papers has reached such gigantic proportions, the task of compiling ‘Foreign Relations’ has become inordinately complicated.” He elaborated that the Historical Division “would welcome highly qualified professional advice from the outside” on “a number of problems involving the scope of the selection of the papers, the nature of the contents of the volumes, and the inadequacy of State Department files to cover the subject of our foreign relations.”3 In the year following the release of the Yalta FRUS, Noble tried to devise an alternative to Congressional (and partisan) oversight over and guidance for the Foreign Relations series that would enhance its quality as it entered the Cold War era and protect HD from mounting academic criticism.

In 1957, after months of coordination and clarification of authorities within the academic community and between the academic community and the Department of State,4 the first meeting of the HAC was held on December 6 and 7. HD staffers and Department officials briefed the seven assembled historians, political scientists, and international law scholars on the FRUS production process, including new challenges related to access to significant non-State Department documents and interagency clearance decisions, and asked them for guidance on the preferences of FRUS’s academic consumers. Participants at this meeting – as they would at HAC meetings throughout the ensuing decades – struggled to reconcile competing priorities. Scholars wanted complete volumes, but comprehensiveness entailed significant delays for access and clearance. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stopped by to thank the committee for assisting the Department in dealing with a problem “of very, very great difficulty.”5 This first meeting of the Historical Advisory Committee marked a milestone in the evolution of FRUS and the beginning of an ongoing collaboration between the Department of State and the academic community to ensure that the fullest possible array of documents is published in as timely a manner as responsibly and practically feasible.

To learn more about this first meeting of the HAC, you can read the text of the the minutes of the opening session (PDF, 2.9 MB, 81 pp.).

  1. See Donald Dozer press release, October 22, 1955; Professor Howard Beale letter to American Historical Association Executive Secretary Boyd Shafer, November 3, 1955; Shafer letter to Beale, November 9, 1955; Shafer letter to Professor Wood Gray, November 15, 1955; Beale letter to Shafer, November 30, 1955; Shafer letter to American Historical Association Executive Committee (with attached draft letter to Beale), December 6, 1955; Professor Sidney [Painter?] letter to Shafer, December 7, 1955; Professor Edward Kirkland letter to Shafer, December 10, 1955; Shafer letter to Beale, December 12, 1955; Shafer letter to Kirkland, December 13, 1955; Professor Arthur Bestor letter to Shafer, December 13, 1955; Professor Dexter Perkins letter to Shafer, December 15, 1955; Beale letter to Shafer, December 16, 1955; and Shafer letter to Bestor, December 20, 1955 in “Historians & the Federal Government 1955,” Box 188, American Historical Association Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (subsequently AHA Papers).
  2. See Shafer letter to Professors Samuel Bemis, Thomas Bailey, and Richard Leopold, January 3, 1956 and Beale letter to Shafer, January 18, 1956 in “American Historical Association – Committee on the Historian and the Federal Government,” Box 444, AHA Papers; Gray memorandum to the Committee on the Historian and the Federal Government, January 28, 1956, [no folder], Box 444, AHA Papers; Shafer letter to Professor Edward Younger, March 5, 1956 and Younger letter to Kent Greenfield, March 16, 1956, “American Historical Association – Committee on the Historian and the Federal Government,” Box 444, AHA Papers; Bernard Noble letter to Shafer (with enclosed letter to Perkins, April 30, 1956), May 3, 1956, “Historians and the Federal Government 1956,” Box 477, AHA Papers; Minutes of May 19, 1956 Meeting of the Committee on the Historian and the Federal Government (with Chairman’s [Younger’s] subsequent draft of resolutions and submission to AHA Council), June 18, 1956; and Bemis letter to Shafer, June 9, 1956 in “American Historical Association – Committee on the Historian and the Federal Government,” Box 444, AHA Papers; Shafer letter to Younger, September 6, 1956 and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Burke Wilkinson letter to Shafer, December 3, 1956 in “Historians and the Federal Government 1956,” Box 477, AHA Papers.
  3. Noble letter to Perkins, April 30, 1956, “Historians and the Federal Government 1956,” Box 477, AHA Papers, p. 2.
  4. For the AHA, see Shafer letter to Younger, January 14, 1957; Younger letter to Shafer, January 23, 1957; Shafer letter to Wilkinson, February 25, 1957; Younger letter to Shafer, June 10, 1957; Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Berding letter to Bemis, July 26, 1957; Bemis letter to Shafer, July 30, 1957; Noble letter to Shafer, August 7, 1957; Bemis letter to Berding, August 12, 1957; and Noble letter to Shafer, October 31, 1957 in “Historian and the Federal Govt – 1957,” Box 482, AHA Papers and Berding letter to Perkins, et al., August 21, 1957, 023.1/8-2157; Noble letter to Professor Thomas Bailey, November 15, 1957, 023.1/11-1557; and Noble letter to Bailey, November 29, 1957, 023.1/11-2957 in Department of State Central Decimal File 1955-1959, RG 59, Archives II, College Park, Maryland.
  5. Minutes of Meeting of the Advisory Committee on “Foreign Relations of the United States,” “1957 – HAC – Annual Meeting,” Lot File 03 D130, Department of State, Washington, DC.