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Visualizing Responsible Transparency: Annual FRUS Production and Timeliness

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


Visualizing Responsible Transparency: Annual FRUS Production and Timeliness

The size and the timeliness of the Foreign Relations documentary history series have changed dramatically over the years since the foundation of the series in 1861. While these metrics may seem like a parade of numbers devoid of much drama, they reflect over 150 years of struggles within the U.S. Government over how to balance protecting security with practicing openness and accountability. The outcomes of these debates are readily discernable in the pages of individual FRUS volumes as readers encounter sensitive documents—including, eventually, many from the holdings of agencies other than the Department of State—published by the U.S. Government as well as excisions where even decades-old information remains too sensitive to release. Each of the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents published in the Foreign Relations series is not only a record of U.S. foreign policy, but also of subsequent decisions about transparency.

But focusing on individual documents and excisions can obscure the larger context of transparency norms and practices. We can see results of a different magnitude if we look at FRUS more broadly, as an ongoing indicator of the balance of transparency and security over time. The FRUS production and timeliness chart shows aggregated data for the documents released each year in published Foreign Relations volumes. The production dataset reveals short-term volatility but long-term progress in publishing more volumes containing more documents. The lag datasets illustrate the decades of nearly-contemporaneous publication in the 19th century, the lurching delays of the early 20th century, a new period of relative stability in the 1930s and 1940s, a steady worsening of the lag from the 1950s to the 1980s, and a slow-down in the growth of the lag since the 1991 FRUS statute.

All of these trends have rich stories behind them. To learn these stories, explore the history of FRUS in Toward “Thorough, Accurate, and Reliable”.