“Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire”: The Politics of the Yalta FRUS

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


This paper was prepared for delivery at the SHAFR Annual Conference in Alexandria, VA.

Throughout the 20th century, the Foreign Relations series evolved in response to broader transformations in American foreign relations, government institutions, and political culture. The most enduring of these transformations occurred in the 1950s, when the series adapted to the development of the national security state and the globalization of U.S. power. The intense bureaucratic, partisan, and international controversies generated by the 1955 FRUS volume for the 1945 Yalta conference helped define the series for the Cold War.

The Yalta volume precipitated the transformation of FRUS, though the controversies that it sparked also imperiled the existence of the series. The most enduring legacies of the “Yalta papers” were methodological changes that widened the series’ scope beyond State Department records and the creation of a Historical Advisory Committee to insulate the series from partisan pressures. In the short run, however, the Yalta FRUS also emboldened officials in the U.S. Government skeptical of the value of transparency in a dangerous world.

The Yalta volume began as a classified policy study for official use within the U.S. Government in November 1947. Unlike contemporary FRUS volumes, State Department historians intended from the start to include documents from outside the State Department, especially records from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the Roosevelt Presidential Library, and the White House in the Yalta compilation. In 1950, the question of wider publication arose as partisan debate over the conference intensified. Bernard Noble, head of the Historical Policy Research Division, advised Secretary of State Dean Acheson that the existing public record was “substantially complete” from the memoir literature and that publishing the documents posed several risks. He warned that portions of conference minutes might embarrass the U.S. and Britain, that the lack of agreed minutes might allow the Soviet Union to release an “alternate” version of the conference to galvanize world opinion against the West, and that the Department’s poor wartime record-keeping left it incapable of satisfying inevitable public demands for releasing the records of the other conferences. Choosing security over transparency, the Department kept the Yalta records secret.

After Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1952 election, the new, conservative Congressional majority urged a different choice. On April 22, Senate Majority Leader William Knowland sent a letter to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles characterizing “Department of State archives” as “a rich mine of historical materials of immediate political significance.” The letter blamed “old-line administrators” and “Roosevelt-Acheson supporters” in the State Department for “stalling publications of any political importance for the Republicans.” In addition to accelerating regular FRUS volumes and a special series on U.S.-Chinese relations in the 1940s, Knowland requested a special series on secret Allied wartime conferences. “If Democratic holdovers in the Division of Historical Policy Research are prevented from excluding key documents,” Knowland predicted, “these publications would be of tremendous value.”

An investigation of the newly renamed Historical Division (HD) exonerated the office of Knowland’s allegations of partisanship, but allegations of liberal bias dogged its leadership for many years. The most significant critic of HD was Bryton Barron, a staff member assigned the responsibility of compiling the Yalta volume. Barron complained that the Department was rife with New Deal-supporting Acheson disciples and that HD management obstructed the rapid and complete disclosure of the U.S. records of Yalta to the American people. After a brief burst of optimism that the Republican victories in 1952 would purge the Department of these liberals, Barron grew increasingly frustrated as Noble remained in charge of HD and obstacles to fulfilling Knowland’s requests for FRUS mounted. To Barron, the difficulties encountered in researching, declassifying, and releasing the Yalta compilation reflected a conspiracy to cover up Roosevelt’s foreign policy failures rather than policy and institutional frictions generated by Cold War tensions and proliferating national security bureaucracies in Washington. Eventually, he leaked information about the contents of the Yalta compilation and internal debates over its release to the press.

The continued sensitivity of many of the issues discussed at the wartime conferences and the partisan aura of the accelerated production of FRUS alarmed other government agencies and former officials. It took years for HD to gain access to Truman’s papers for the Potsdam compilation, and the office was denied permission to examine the papers of the deceased Yalta Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius. Even some bureaucracies that had cooperated with the original policy study resisted additional requests. The most consequential bureaucratic opposition to releasing the Yalta volume came from the Pentagon.

Since the Foreign Relations series had previously relied almost exclusively on the records found in the central files of the Department of State, the Historical Division had no established procedures for interagency research access or declassification review. In the context of tight deadlines and Congressional scrutiny, the Departments of State and Defense struggled to devise new arrangements fusing conflicting institutional priorities in a messy process of trial, error, and recrimination. Despite the Secretary of Defense’s pledge of cooperation, his chief historian, Rudy Winnacker, repeatedly recoiled at Noble’s efforts to examine military records. Though Winnacker agreed that the wartime conference volumes had to include “high-level” papers containing “official [military] positions and advice,” he and the JCS insisted that this “agreed scope” be defined as narrowly as possible. An April 1954 meeting at the White House between Noble and Winnacker to clarify the Pentagon’s role and responsibilities for FRUS reduced bureaucratic friction but failed to harmonize thinking between State and Defense. These bureaucratic tensions over FRUS continued to plague the project, jeopardizing Congressionally mandated deadlines and, ultimately, the future shape of the series.

Over the course of 1954, historians in HD felt increasingly beleaguered. The House Appropriations Committee eliminated all funding for FRUS compilation and publishing in the spring, before its Senate counterpart restored the appropriation. More significantly, powerful opponents of publishing the Yalta volume tried to scuttle the project entirely in the second half of the year. In an August 1954 review of the first galley proofs of the volume, Winnacker expressed “a sense of shock when reading in the present EDC atmosphere the actual 1945 plans for the postwar treatment of Germany, its dismemberment, reparations, and standard of living” and thought “the cavalier disposal of smaller countries or the attitude toward France” were “not likely to facilitate our foreign relations.” Winnacker warned that gaps and the selective inclusion of pre-conference documents would discredit the publication. He suggested either abandoning the project, allowing the Senate to publish a revised version in exchange for increased mutual assistance funds to “undo the damage” abroad, or “prohibiting” the volume’s “export or republication in foreign languages.” Although conceding that final authority rested with State, Winnacker ardently believed that publication would harm the national interest.

The Bureau of European Affairs within the State Department itself also considered the Yalta volume too sensitive to release. To officials responsible for U.S. policy toward Germany, releasing the Yalta compilation seemed recklessly irresponsible. One official reacted to the embarrassing details in the Yalta galleys with a warning that “if the conclusion were to be drawn from this one conference … that all … agreements were too full of risk …, or if the publication of this story … sets a precedent …, we should be out of the frying pan into the fire.” “The cure,” he concluded, “that is apt to suggest itself to a great many people will be ‘no more secrecy,’ whereas what may be needed is ‘a good deal more diplomacy.’” In urging elimination of the pre-conference section and discussions of the German-Polish border, EUR proposed cutting out the heart of the Yalta volume.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles rejected EUR’s views, but delayed publication until after the 1954 midterm “so as not to,” as the Assistant Secertary for Public Affairs Carl McCardle put it, “damn the entire operation as political.” The Yalta volume was not out of the woods as the British had to approve the release of joint Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff papers that were included in the compilation. London proved reticent to agree to release such detailed records of British diplomacy under Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden (who had resumed their wartime positions as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister). Although the Foreign Office assented to publication of most British documents, Eden asked to review the entire compilation before publication. In early January 1955, after several weeks of waiting for British approval, Dulles told Eden that the Department would publish “unless you have some personal observations that you would want me to consider.”

Eden did. On January 13, Eden explained his “very real concern over the publication of all these documents so soon after the event.” He argued that “publication now of such detailed records may cause misunderstanding or create controversy without significantly increasing public knowledge of the events” and warned that British “anxieties about this project and our fear that the publication of such detailed records in the political lifetime of so many of the participants may make it difficult for us to be as frank as we should wish in future conferences.”

Eden’s message put Dulles and the State Department in a tough position. Senate conservatives complained bitterly when the Yalta compilation was delayed before the 1954 midterm elections, Bryton Barron’s leaks to the press had stoked public interest, and now London raised another roadblock to publishing the volume. Dulles suggested removing all references to Churchill and Eden from the compilation until Noble explained that such deletions would render the summit meetings incomprehensible and the volume worthless. Dulles grew increasingly frustrated, and when, in late January, McCardle worried that the intense interest in the Yalta volume made leaks inevitable, the Secretary confessed he “wouldn’t mind that.” In the same conversation, he pointed out that Senator Knowland and his conservative colleagues had pushed the State Department to expedite FRUS because “they thought there was a lot of stuff which would be useful. Actually there is nothing.” After several weeks of debate, Dulles accepted Noble’s suggestion of limiting access to the galleys (and responsibility for leaks) to Congress.

But, with the Democrats back in power, this strategy backfired. Congress refused to accept responsibility for classified documents and demanded to know why State didn’t publish the volume itself. Aware that blaming Britain could damage relations with London, the State Department hedged, saying the Yalta papers contained information potentially damaging to “national security and our relations with other powers.” Technically, the compilation was declassified when Dulles approved the volume’s publication in November, but, by justifying continued secrecy on security grounds, the Department worsened its already compromised position.

As rumors swirled about the contents of the Yalta papers and the true reasons they could not be released, New York Times reporter James Reston approached McCardle and offered to publish the Yalta records in full to prevent damage from their piecemeal release. On March 15, 1955, McCardle gave Reston a copy of the Yalta galleys. The Chicago Tribune quickly caught wind of the scoop and enlisted Illinois Senate Republican Everett Dirksen to demand that Dulles release the volume to everyone. Backed into a corner, Dulles cabled London to explain that he had no choice but to release the volume. Eden accepted the fait accompli.

On March 16, 1955, Department of State officials made copies of the controversial Yalta papers available to domestic and international media representatives. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)

The release of the Yalta papers was headline news across the United States on March 17 and the rest of the world the next day. At home, coverage emphasized Roosevelt’s discussions of the future of Poland and the Far East and Alger Hiss’s role at the summit. Columnists, including Walter Lippmann, debated the propriety of publishing unofficial records of informal conversations and the wisdom of pursuing summit diplomacy in the future. To many on the Left, the transparently political agenda behind the Yalta release was overshadowed by the absence of new evidence for conservative attacks on Roosevelt. Instead of damaging the Democrats with new, sensational disclosures, the Yalta papers showed that the public already knew what happened at Yalta. When Dulles testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April, Democratic Congressmen gleefully pummeled the Secretary with questions about security breaches and the mishandling of classified information.

Dulles was right that the Yalta FRUS would prove disappointing to conservatives. To some, though, this only provided additional evidence that the New Deal-Communist conspiracy against the United States had entrenched itself in the State Department and its Historical Division. Barron’s criticism continued after the release of the Yalta galleys, inspiring many on the Right to denounce the integrity of the Department’s history of the conference. Though the Department fired Barron by the end of the year and a 1956 Congressional investigation rejected his accusations, Barron continued his campaign against State with books, editorials, speeches, testimony before Congress, and, finally, as head of the Northern Virginia chapter of the John Birch Society.

In the short-term, U.S. policymakers worried about the international reaction to the Yalta FRUS. One area of obvious concern was Anglo-American relations, already strained by disputes over China and U.S. skepticism of Churchill’s hopes for Cold War summit diplomacy. Many foreign observers saw the Yalta release as a State Department gambit to undermine Churchill’s hopes for further “parleys” between world leaders. In public, British leaders took pains to distance themselves from the Yalta papers and downplay their significance. Speaking in Parliament on March 17, Churchill explained that British records reflected a different story than the American documents – though he declined to open the archives to show how. Behind the scenes, Eden reminded Dulles on March 21 that Britain remained opposed to the publication of recent diplomatic records, especially the Potsdam conference FRUS volumes that were rumored to be nearing release later in the spring. At a press conference on March 23, President Eisenhower acknowledged that there had been “some difference of opinion” between the United States and Britain while denying that the United States had acted in bad faith in releasing the Yalta papers.

Another area of concern for U.S. officials was the impending votes in France and Germany to complete ratification of the London and Paris Agreements that brought a rearmed West Germany into NATO. In both countries, debates over ratification made references to the Yalta papers, but did not create new divisions that jeopardized Western unity. Some French politicians used them to illustrate the danger of French isolation and “the empty chair” (the French were not invited to Yalta) while others blamed Anglo-American chauvinism for dividing the continent. Western-leaning Germans explained that the anti-German sentiment exhibited by Roosevelt and Churchill was an inevitable consequence of Nazi aggression and an argument for continuing liberal reforms and contributing to Western security. Neutralist opponents of alignment with the West used the papers to question Western commitment to German unity.

In the rest of the world, the Yalta papers were headline news and a temporary irritant in relations with the United States. Many foreign newspapers assumed partisan politics had driven release of the Yalta papers, and those hostile to Dulles, such as the Times of India, saw the Yalta FRUS as powerful evidence of his “utter incompetence to handle affairs of nations with necessary tact and discretion.” Smaller countries found in the documents affirmation of the superpowers’ indifference to their fates. Taiwanese officials privately celebrated to U.S. diplomats that the Yalta papers helped prove that the U.S. had “lost” China and therefore had a moral commitment to help liberate the mainland. The State Department could take slight comfort, however, that some newspapers in the emerging post-colonial world, especially in India, Egypt, Bolivia, Venezuela, and El Salvador, lauded Roosevelt’s opposition to British and French colonialism. As irritating as the release of the Yalta FRUS was for America’s foreign relations, short-term embarrassment did not fester into lasting damage to U.S. interests abroad.

The Yalta FRUS proved more consequential within the U.S. Government. Less than two weeks after the release of the Yalta papers, Winnacker, backed up by the JCS, urged that the Department of Defense insist on “additional terms of reference … to prevent a repetition of the Yalta experience.” Arguing that the National Security Act of 1947 gave Defense a leading role in decision-making affecting the nation’s political and military interests, Winnacker suggested that “the current State Department concept for its Foreign Relations series,” which “provides for the detailed publication of how policy decisions were reached within this Government,” “is no longer appropriate for the U.S. now that we are the major world power.” Unless new Terms of Reference for Defense cooperation could be reached, Winnacker said, “no more classified military documents will be made available to State for this project.”

Negotiations between State and Defense over terms of reference for future collaboration on FRUS began in June and continued until October 1955. When Noble received a copy of Winnacker’s memo in May, he pushed back against Winnacker’s expansive claims for Defense authority and his objections to FRUS, arguing that “the growing complexity of our foreign relations would seem to make it even more important to provide our citizens with the facts of our policy.” In the Pentagon, the JCS urged Defense historians to preserve military institutional prerogatives and force the State Department to pay greater heed to military advice about declassification issues. In October, State and Defense finally agreed on Terms of Reference for future World War II-era FRUS volumes that affirmed continued inclusion of military documents and preserved State authority over “political” decisions regarding national interests and declassification.

As State historians soon discovered, however, opposition to FRUS proved tenacious for the remainder of the decade. Within weeks, HD found that the new Terms of Reference gave the Pentagon new tools to withhold essential documents. The JCS narrowly interpreted the new Terms and rejected precedents set by the Yalta and Potsdam compilations to exclude the minutes of JCS meetings from the Cairo-Tehran volume. Defense officials also continued to weigh in on political interest questions, such as coverage of the Dardanelles at Potsdam, which had been reserved for State. Inside the State Department, officials in EUR described the Yalta release as an experience to avoid in the future and their objections ultimately delayed release of the Potsdam volumes until the Kennedy administration. In short, the Yalta volume exacerbated institutional struggles between the State Department and other national security bureaucracies over authority to define national interests and determine the proper balance between security and transparency.

The most lasting legacy of the Yalta FRUS was the formalization of the relationship between State Department historians and the academic community. The politicization of the series sparked serious concerns about its integrity and its survival among the historians, political scientists, and international lawyers who had become major consumers of the series. Many academics were skeptical of the partisan impulses that led the Yalta volume to be published so much earlier than the “regular” volumes for 1945. Though resolutions affirming the desirability of publishing FRUS volumes chronologically were directed against political pressures from the Right, many academics were also alarmed by conservative accusations of censorship in the Yalta compilation. Prominent diplomatic historians, such as Howard Beale, urged the leadership of the American Historian Association to investigate these charges to safeguard the integrity of the Foreign Relations series.

As HD grappled with intense partisan scrutiny in the wake of the release of the Yalta papers and Barron’s subsequent public campaign to discredit his former colleagues, Noble found the prospect of academic oversight much more congenial than continued Congressional direction. He cooperated with the AHA and other professional organizations as they inquired about the status of FRUS in 1955. In 1956, the Department began coordinating with the academic community to form a permanent Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) under the authority of the Secretary of State. At the first meeting of the HAC, in December 1957, HD staff briefed the assembled scholars on the challenges that would face FRUS in the years ahead and solicited advice on key editorial and policy issues, such as the extent of non-State Department documentation that should be included in compilations. In 1959, HD began the practice of employing HAC criticism of excessive delays or excisions in the declassification process as “ammunition for dealing with the geographic bureaus.” In the short-term, HD regarded the HAC as a source of cover from partisan pressures, of guidance for adapting the series to a new Cold War era, and of leverage in bureaucratic battles over declassification. Over time, the HAC became a critical force in shaping the future of the Foreign Relations series and the recurrently renegotiated balance between national security and governmental transparency.

The Yalta Foreign Relations volume was transformative. It was easily the most sensational volume of the series as it was the subject of national and international headlines, a Presidential press conference, Parliamentary debate in London, hearings before an executive session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a Congressional investigation into Bryton Barron’s charges of censorship. Despite fears that thorough coverage of such recent and controversial negotiations and decisions would prove harmful, the volume proved embarrassing but not damaging to the national security interests and the foreign relations of the United States. Over the long term, the Yalta FRUS introduced methodological changes regarding the scope of documentation required to provide thorough coverage that continues to define the series. It also catalyzed a significant institutional transition as the HAC supplanted Congress in providing oversight and shaping the direction of FRUS. The world that the Yalta conference helped to make might have ended in 1989 and 1990, but the series that the Yalta FRUS volume transformed marches on.