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FRUS’s War in the Pacific

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

Released

In the mid-1930s, current and retired U.S. diplomats complained that Foreign Relations volumes provided too much transparency for the Department of State’s own good.1 In response, the chief of the Division of Publications—and editor of the Foreign Relations series—Cyril Wynne explained the careful process that Department historians undertook, in collaboration with other officials, to compile, edit, and declassify documents for Foreign Relations volumes.2 Wynne placed special emphasis on Ambassador Joseph Grew’s support for the series since he “served in the most difficult post in our entire Foreign Service”—Japan.3 While Grew’s appreciation of FRUS was genuine, the Japanese government had grown both weary and wary of the series by 1936.

In 1925, a Department order established for the first time explicit guidelines for the production of the Foreign Relations series. One of these guidelines was that the permission of foreign governments had to be obtained before their documents could be published. The order also allowed for documents to be omitted from FRUS if necessary to “preserve the confidence reposed in the Department by other governments.”4 During the 1930s, delays in foreign government clearances were the most significant obstacle to accelerating the Foreign Relations series; Japan proved especially troublesome.

In the first months of 1934, delays in receiving Japanese clearances postponed publication of the 1919 volume. The Japanese government attributed these “embarrassing” holdups to personnel turnover within the Foreign Office.5 In September of that year, after Washington sent documents for the 1920 volume to Tokyo, Grew reported that a Japanese official “felt that 1920 was rather recent and that many documents were not ‘dead’ in so short a time; that the Japanese Government felt embarrassment at being compelled to give consent and in other cases to withhold consent for publication.”6 Early in 1935, Grew reported that the Japanese media interpreted the publication of diplomatic correspondence between the United States and Japan as part of Washington’s campaign to delegitimize Tokyo’s puppet state, Manchukuo.7 Japanese Foreign Minister Koki Hirota criticized the Department’s policy of determining when a foreign government’s consent to publish a particular document was required; he claimed that Tokyo should be consulted before printing U.S. documents “when they contain views or information specifically forwarded by the Japanese Government as confidential.”8 Though the Department assured Tokyo of its “friendly disposition in the matter,” it refused to alter its policies regarding foreign government equities.9 By the end of the year, the Department had “long since (six months ago) heard from every other government on the publication of their respective documents in the 1921 Foreign Relations volume; as usual Japan [was] far behind the others.”10

Matters only grew thornier in 1936. In January, the Department sought to publish documents concerning the secret protocol of the 1917 Lansing-Ishii Agreement, wherein both countries agreed to exercise restraint in China during World War I.11 Cyril Wynne admitted that this was done primarily to “prevent the Department from being criticized for not publishing the well-known ‘secret clause’ in the 1922 Foreign Relations volume.” If the Japanese Government was responsible for excluding the records, then the Department might escape blame from “those who are a bit critical of what is described as the ‘Hush! Hush!’ policy in publishing Foreign Relations.”12 The publication of Robert Lansing’s War Memoirs and Samuel Flagg Bemis’s A Diplomatic History of the United States, both of which quoted the secret protocol, prompted Wynne to suggest that Grew apprise the Japanese Government of the publicity that these revelations received in the United States so that Tokyo could not complain when the Department of State had to explain that the associated documents had been omitted from Foreign Relations at Japan’s behest.13 When informed that the documents were publically available, the Japanese Government granted permission to print them in FRUS but requested “in [the] future, when American officials after retirement desire to publish such confidential documents relating to Japan,” that “the consent of the Japanese Government be first sought.”14

By 1938, when pressure to accelerate FRUS from the academic community led the Department to ask foreign governments if they would agree in principle to the publication of documents on an earlier basis than a fifteen year delay,15 officials agreed that even broaching the idea with Tokyo would “result in the Japanese Foreign Office making use of the occasion to insist on widening the present gap rather than shortening it.”16 Japan was not the only foreign power wary of an earlier release of diplomatic documents near the end of the decade; the French Government also opposed accelerating Foreign Relations.17 Even the nine governments that accepted earlier publication in principle insisted that the U.S. Government continue to submit their own documents for clearance.18 In the tense atmosphere of the late 1930s, releasing sensitive documents that drew attention to the post-World War I settlement seemed unnecessarily risky to many in Europe and East Asia, but essential to democratic accountability among academics and Congress. As my next post will show, the conflicting imperatives of transparency and national security grew increasingly tougher to reconcile as the 1930s ended and the Second World War loomed.


  1. Cornelius Engert personal telegram to Wallace Murray, November 6, 1936, 026 Foreign Relations/1099 and DeWitt Poole letter to Secretary of State, June 21, 1937, 026 Foreign Relations/1187 in Department of State Central Decimal Files 1930-1939, Record Group 59, Archives II, College Park, Maryland (henceforth DoS CDF 1930-1939).
  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 and Cyril Wynne memorandum to Acting Secretary, November 12, 1936, 026 Foreign Relations/1099 in DoS CDF 1930-1939.
  3. Cyril Wynne memorandum to Acting Secretary, November 12, 1936, 026 Foreign Relations/1099, pp. 2-3. In 1925, Grew had been Undersecretary of State. In his memorandum explaining the FRUS production process, Wynne characterized Grew as playing a significant role in crafting the Departmental order that governed the series. See Cyril Wynne, “Memorandum on the subject of Dr. D. C. Poole’s letter of June 21, 1937…” July 13, 1937, 026 Foreign Relations/1210, p. 6.
  4. The March 26, 1925 order was first published in the preface to Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1914 Supplement: The World War (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1928), pp. iii-iv. Contemporary documentation for the origins of the March 26, 1925 order has not been found. The most detailed explanation for the order appears in 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, DoS CDF 1930-1939, pp. 4-22. In the 19th century, foreign government “equities” were ignored. See Frederick Frelinghuysen to Philip Morgan, August 28, 1883, pp. 657-658, Diplomatic Instructions—Mexico, M77, Reel 116, RG 59, Archives II.
  5. See passim., 026 Foreign Relations/ 677 through 026 Foreign Relations/ 694, DoS CDF 1930-1939. For the reporting of the Japanese Government’s explanation of the delay, see Joseph Grew despatch to Secretary of State, February 20, 1934, 026 Foreign Relations/688, p. 2.
  6. Joseph Grew despatch to Secretary of State, September 5, 1934, 026 Foreign Relations/761, DoS CDF 1930-1939, p. 2.
  7. Joseph Grew despatch to Secretary of State, Februar y 2, 1935, 026 Foreign Relations/816, DoS CDF 1930-1939.
  8. Koki Hirota note to Joseph Grew, April 30, 1935, 026 Foreign Relations/866, DoS CDF 1930-1939.
  9. William Phillips instruction to Joseph Grew, July 15, 1935, 026 Foreign Relations/878, DoS CDF 1930-1939.
  10. Cyril Wynne memorandum to Stanley Hornbeck, December 4, 1935, 026 Foreign Relations/938, DoS CDF 1930-1939.
  11. William Phillips instruction to Joseph Grew, February 21, 1936, 026 Foreign Relations/987, DoS CDF 1930-1939. Robert Lansing was Secretary of State from 1915 to 1920.
  12. Cyril Wynne memorandum, May 19, 1936, 026 Foreign Relations/1032, DoS CDF 1930-1939.
  13. Cyril Wynne memorandum to Stanley Hornbeck, October 10, 1936, 026 Foreign Relations/1097 and R. Walton Moore instruction to Erle Dickover, November 2, 1936, 026 Foreign Relations/1098 in DoS CDF 1930-1939.
  14. Joseph Grew telegram to Secretary of State, December 28, 1936, 026 Foreign Relations/1125 and Grew despatch to Secretary of State, December 29, 1936, 026 Foreign Relations/1136 in DoS CDF 1930-1939.
  15. Raymond Lawrence letter to Secretary of State, November 8, 1937, 026 Foreign Relations/1262; Cyril Wynne memorandum, November 15, 1937, 026 Foreign Relations/1263; Raymond Lawrence letter to R. Walton Moore, December 9, 1937, 026 Foreign Relations/1294; Raymond Lawrence letter to Thomas McMillan, December 9, 1937, 026 Foreign Relations/1296; Fletcher Green letter to Cordell Hull, December 11, 1937, 026 Foreign Relations/1299; Dexter Perkins letter to Secretary of State (with enclosed resolutions from the American Historical Association), January 25, 1938, 026 Foreign Relations/1325; Louis Hunter letter to Robert Bacon, February 17, 1938, 026 Foreign Relations/1346; Cyril Wynne memorandum to George Messersmith, April 21, 1938, 026 Foreign Relations/1357; Raymond Lawrence letter to R. Walton Moore, February 19, 1938, 026 Foreign Relations/1374; Cyril Wynne memorandum to Jay Moffat, Charles Hosmer, and George Messersmith, January 26, 1939, 026 Foreign Relations/1400 in DOS CDF 1930-1939.
  16. Joseph Grew instruction to Secretary of State, March 31, 1938, 026 Foreign Relations/1357, p. 2, DoS CDF 1930-1939. Wynne used this despatch to explain the difficulties of reducing the fifteen year line to interlocutors in the academic community. See Maxwell Hamilton note, November 16, 1937, 026 Foreign Relations/1264; George Messersmith despatch to Joseph Grew, March 2, 1938, 026 Foreign Relations/1356a; and Cyril Wynne memorandum to George Messersmith, April 21, 1938, 026 Foreign Relations/1357 in DoS CDF 1930-1939.
  17. Edwin Wilson despatch to Secretary of State, September 9, 1938, 026 Foreign Relations/1388, DoS CDF 1930-1939.
  18. See Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers 1938, Volume I: General (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1955), pp. 976-987; Cyril Wynne memorandum to Ellis Briggs, Wallace Murray, Maxwell Hamilton, Jay Moffat, Charles Hosmer, and George Messersmith, February 20, 1939, 026 Foreign Relations/1402, DoS CDF 1930-1939.