Special FRUS Volumes: Origins of “The Lansing Papers”

Textual Archives Services Division, National Archives and Records Administration


David A. Langbart is an archivist in the Textual Archives Services Division of the National Archives and Records Administration. He has been working with records of the Department of State for over 30 years. An earlier version of this write-up appeared in the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Newsletter.

In February 1940, the Department of State released a special two-volume supplement to the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. Those special volumes carried the sub-title “The Lansing Papers, 1914-1919.” Robert Lansing served as Counselor (second in charge in the Department) from April 1914 to June 1915 and then as Secretary of State from June 1915 to February 1920. As the preface noted, the volumes contained “an extensive selection from the large body of correspondence of Robert Lansing... secured for the files of the Department of State following Mr. Lansing’s death in 1928.” The preface further explained that the materials included were not available when the Department prepared the regular Foreign Relations volumes for the years 1914 through 1919 or the special supplementary volumes dealing with World War I and Russia. Realizing the importance of and public interest in the Lansing papers, the Department decided to publish them as a supplement to the series.1

The first volume contained documentation relating to World War I dating from the period before the United States entered the conflict. Among other subjects, it includes records on peace prospects, recruiting of American citizens, the conduct of foreign diplomats in the United States, the sale of munitions to belligerents, enforcement of U.S. neutrality, and interference by Britain and her allies with U.S. commerce. The second volume included documents relating to U.S. participation in the war, as well as sections on Russia, the Far East, and Latin America.

Short of the explanation that the documents had been “secured” for the Department of State after Lansing’s death, the publication sheds no light on how the Department came to possess his documents.2 Fortunately, the files of the Department provide detail on the unusual acquisition of the records.

As early as September 1921, officials in the Department of State expressed concern about documents on foreign policy that officials of the Wilson administration removed during the presidential transition earlier that year. They were particularly anxious about materials taken away by President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby. The Assistant Secretary, Fred Morris Dearing, wanted to know what had been taken and how documents might be returned to Department custody. David A. Salmon, Chief of the Bureau of Indexes and Archives, believed that “polite” and “courteous” requests “might have the desired effect.” If that was not the case, he recommended that the Department of State consider proceeding under Section 47 of the Criminal Code.3 Ultimately, the Department took no action.

Strangely, no mention was made of the files of Secretary of State Robert Lansing. When Lansing resigned as Secretary of State on February 13, 1920, he removed a large volume of documents from his office, much of it official in nature. He later used those materials in the preparation of his memoirs.4 During the early and mid-1920s, on a case-by-case basis, Salmon, in his capacity as head of the Department’s archives, secured from Lansing copies of documents needed for official business. The Department, however, made no move towards recovering the official papers for the Department’s files.

That changed in 1929. On January 16, after departmental officials heard rumors that Lansing’s widow planned to move the files to the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg sent Lansing’s widow a letter that began the process of recovering the documents. Secretary Kellogg’s letter explained the Department’s difficulty locating numerous documents during preparation of the Foreign Relations of the United States series, a problem he attributed to the fact that many documents had not sent through the normal channels for recording and filing but “directly to Mr. Lansing without record . . . and incorporated into the files which were removed to his residence” when he resigned. Kellogg explained that the department had, from time to time, obtained copies of needed documents from the former secretary of state and on one of those occasions, Lansing had stated his intention to turn the files over to the department or to have David Salmon to review the files to identify individual documents that should be in the Department’s files. The Secretary now requested permission for Salmon to “go over them and remove such papers as are official or semi official in character for incorporation in the Archives of the Department” before a move took place. The Department would, he noted, replace the originals with copies.5

Mrs. Lansing replied two days later stating in no uncertain terms that she had “no intention of turning over State Department files to the Carnegie Endowment.” Her plan, she explained, was merely to move some of her late husband’s personal files there “for safe keeping.” She also informed the secretary that her nephew Allen Dulles would contact the Department to work on arrangements for return of official material.6

Seven days later, Dulles wrote the Department and stated that it was Mrs. Lansing’s “desire to return to the Department any . . . papers which properly form a part of the official records.” He noted that he had reviewed the files and collected the pertinent papers in one filing cabinet that his aunt was now ready to turn over to the Department. Mrs. Lansing’s only requests, he reported, were that the material in the cabinet be indexed, remain segregated from the general files, and be made available to anyone she might designate. Dulles thought his aunt might eventually select someone to complete her late husband’s unfinished book. Also, Dulles explained that Secretary Lansing had, before he died, indicated that Ray Stannard Baker, who was working on the authorized biography of Woodrow Wilson, would be granted access to the correspondence between Lansing and Wilson. Mrs. Lansing wanted “to be in a position to carry out Mr. Lansing’s expressed desire . . . .”7 Dulles closed by stating that he foresaw no problems as he had already discussed matters with Salmon.8 Kellogg confirmed the arrangements a few days later.9

The files arrived in the Department of State in April 1929. There, they remained as an intact collection until 1933, when the documents were indexed and filed in the appropriate places in the Department’s Central Decimal File.10

Subsequently, Departmental officials decided to compile and prepare the special supplemental volumes. In addition to the recognized need to fill a gap in FRUS’s coverage of a critical period, the response to the publication of Secretary Lansing’s memoirs in 1935 indicated academic, public, Congressional, and foreign interest in the documents. During the preparation of the volumes, the Department followed its standard procedure of clearing certain documents with foreign governments, a process that sometimes involved high-level meetings.11

The Department announced publication of the volumes in two press releases in February 1940.12

Securing return of the files made many extremely important documents available to the Department as it prepared the World War I supplementary volumes in the FRUS series. Issuance of the special volumes filled gaps in the existing FRUS coverage and made many of the documents available to the academic community, the public, and Congress. In some respects, the preparation of the volumes set the precedent for later supplemental volumes in the series, such as those on Guatemala and the Intelligence Community.

  1. Foreign Relations of the United States: The Lansing Papers, 1914-1919 2 volumes (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1939), 1: iii.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Fred Morris Dearing to David A. Salmon, September 23, 1921, David A. Salmon to Fred Morris Dearing, September 24, 1921, File 116/121, Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives (hereafter CDF, RG 59, NA). Section 47 read: Whoever shall embezzle, steal, or purloin any money, property, records, voucher, or valuable thing whatever, of the moneys, goods, chattels, records, or property of the United States, shall be fined not more than five thousand dollars, or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
  4. See: Robert Lansing, The Peace Negotiations: A Personal Record Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1921 and Robert Lansing War Memoirs of Robert Lansing New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1935.
  5. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg to Mrs. Robert Lansing, January 16, 1929, File 116/174A, CDF, RG 59, NA.
  6. Mrs. Robert Lansing to Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, January 18, 1929, File 116/174B, CDF, RG 59, NA.
  7. In 1936, the Department’s leadership ultimately decided to provide Baker with access to the documents. See memorandum of Conference in the Secretary’s Office, April 20, 1936, Records of the Executive Secretary of the Policy Planning Council, Entry A1-1583, File “Lansing Diary and Papers,” RG 59, NA.
  8. Allen W. Dulles to Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, January 25, 1929, File 116/174C, CDF, RG 59, NA.
  9. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg to Allen W. Dulles, January 29, 1929, File 116/174D, CDF, RG 59, NA.
  10. David A. Salmon, Memorandum, January 11, 1936, Records of the Executive Secretary of the Policy Planning Council, Entry A1-1583, File “Lansing Diary and Papers,” RG 59, NA. The interfiled documents are usually easily identifiable for two reasons: first, the file numbers on the documents are typed instead of being handwritten, as is the case for documents indexed during the period, and most of the documents have a fractional file number (i.e. 861.00/383-1/2).
  11. See memorandum by Cyril Wynne, Division of Research and Publication, April 24, 1936, File 026 Foreign Relations/1017, and memorandum by Cyril Wynne, Division of Research and Publication, of a meeting between Counselor R. Walton Moore and British ambassador to the United States Sir Ronald Lindsay, July 13, 1938, File 026 Foreign Relations/1378, CDF, RG 59, NA.
  12. Department of State Press Release No. 78, February 19, 1940, and Press Release No. 83, February 23, 1940, Records of the Office of News and Its Predecessors, Press Releases, RG 59, NA.