“A Burden for the Department”?: To The 1991 FRUS Statute

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


This post is adapted from a longer piece on the history of FRUS. See Joshua Botts, “FRUS at 150: The Evolution of the Foreign Relations Series,” paper presented at the 11th International Conference of Editors of Diplomatic Documents, September 20, 2011. Available online (accessed February 2, 2011).

Between 1980 and 1991, the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series entered a period of crisis. In the early part of the decade, the academic community grew more concerned about the increasing lag of FRUS publication from the 20-year line formally established for the series by President Richard Nixon in 1972.1 By the end of the decade, these anxieties were supplanted by bitter criticism from academic, media, and Congressional sources of gaps in FRUS coverage of pivotal Cold War covert actions. In 1991, Congress intervened to shape the future of the series that it had helped to create by establishing a statutory mandate for both timeliness and comprehensiveness for FRUS production. Throughout the entire period, the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation (also known as the Historical Advisory Committee, or HAC) played a crucial role in mediating (sometimes unsuccessfully) the tensions generated by clashing demands for openness and for security.

In response to academic concerns about the growing lag in FRUS publication in the early 1980s following the 1980 re-review, the Department of State attempted to clarify intra- and interagency arrangements for releasing historical information at a 30-year line. In doing so, the Department rejected academic demands for a 25-year line, arguing that “so many documents of American and foreign origin would require protection that a 25-year line would prove a chimera.” To fill the gap, the Department proposed expanding its publication of more recent unclassified documentation, accelerating the production of Foreign Relations volumes covering the Vietnam War, and pursuing selective high-profile special volumes (similar to the wartime conference series from the 1950s) on U.S.-Soviet relations and U.S. policy toward Central America. Even meeting a 30-year line with existing resources would require Department historians to adhere to strict limits on the number of volumes prepared for each subseries (and on the size of each volume). To stay within these limits even as the available documentation continued to grow, the Department proposed augmenting FRUS with purportedly labor- and cost-effective microfilm publications to supplement the traditional printed volumes. The Department plan envisioned publishing all the volumes documenting the Eisenhower administration—and thereby meeting a 30-year line for the series—by 1990.2 President Ronald Reagan issued an interagency directive implementing the Department of State plan on November 12, 1985.3

As concerned as scholars were about the timeliness of FRUS in the early 1980s, later in the decade they focused their attention on disturbing evidence that the integrity of the series was endangered by the difficulties of documenting the shadowy world of Cold War-era covert operations. In 1983, the Department of State released a seriously flawed volume on U.S. policy toward Latin America. Because Department historians lacked access to intelligence community records, they could not include the (well-known) story of a covert operation undertaken by the CIA in Guatemala in their compilation.4 Though the Guatemala volume did not spark a scholarly revolt, it foreshadowed the explosive controversy that erupted seven years later when a similarly incomplete volume on Iran was published.5 In the context of increasingly serious omissions and growing declassification problems, the HAC sought access to excised documents so it could examine the troublesome records for itself and determine whether or not FRUS indeed represented “a full and honest account of American foreign policy.”6

By the late 1980s, however, Department officials had grown frustrated with the HAC and its demands. The committee’s insistence on access to excised documents sparked tensions with officials outside of the Historian’s Office. While HO and its parent Bureau of Public Affairs argued that the HAC served an essential function and that cooperation would improve the series and protect the Department from damaging criticism, the Classification/Declassification Center and the Bureau of Management characterized the committee’s support for openness as an inherent conflict of interest. By 1988, hostility to the HAC led one senior official to demand that PA do a better job of managing the committee and to threaten to revoke its charter should it became “a burden for the Department.”7

Though Department officials thought they could use the dispute over access to denied documents to restore control over the HAC, their gambit had unintended consequences that diminished Departmental authority over the direction of the Foreign Relations series. When the Department reneged on an agreement to allow the HAC access to documents denied clearance, the committee’s chairman, Warren Cohen, resigned in protest.8 By 1990, FRUS was denounced as “a fraud” not only by Cohen and other historians, but also by influential U.S. Senators and the New York Times.9 The ensuing Congressional scrutiny of the Foreign Relations series in 1990-91 both echoed the constitutional origins of the U.S. Government’s release of diplomatic documents and reflected the intervening transformations in U.S. foreign relations, government institutions, and political culture that shaped the evolution of FRUS in the twentieth century.

The Department’s obstinacy in the face of controversy encouraged Congress to intervene. On October 19, 1990, Senator Claiborne Pell lamented that “questions have been raised about the integrity of our own historical record at the very time that in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere we are witnessing a flood of disclosures and new documentation from governments long used to concealing and falsifying the record.” After noting that, “the vigor that democracy draws from the clean breeze of honest information,” Pell warned that “this is no time for the United States to depart from the tradition of providing an accurate and complete historical record of the actions taken by our government in the field of foreign relations.”10 Along with Senator Jesse Helms of the Foreign Relations Committee and Senators David Boren and William Cohen of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Pell secured Senate approval of a legislative mandate for FRUS requiring full access to historical documentation for Department historians and the HAC and publication at a 30-year line.11

Although the House of Representatives did not approve the Senate’s bill before the end of the 1990 Congressional session, the Department of State acted to try to preempt legislation in 1991 by proposing modest reforms for FRUS. The Department’s proposal envisioned yet another round of Presidential memoranda to spur interagency cooperation, more transparency about the nature of omissions in published FRUS volumes, and a reaffirmation of the HAC’s role in providing guidance for the series (albeit under a Departmental, and not a Congressional, mandate). Though members of the HAC worked with the Department as it formulated the so-called “A Plan,” they remained suspicious of the Department’s commitment to FRUS’s integrity and supportive of Congressional initiatives to establish a legislative mandate for the series.12

In October 1991, the U.S. Congress enacted what became known as “the FRUS statute” as part of the Department of State’s Basic Authorities Act. The FRUS statute went further than the Department’s “A Plan” to strengthen the integrity of FRUS. In an ironic inversion of the dynamic that led to the formation of the HAC in the mid-1950s, Congress replaced the HAC’s existing Departmental mandate with a statutory one to ensure that the Department of State would have to engage the academic community’s judgments about the series. The law mandated that HO historians have access to documents that were aged 26 years or older from all agencies involved in national security and foreign policymaking within the U.S. Government to determine if they should be included in the series. It also empowered the HAC with “need to know” for access to documents that were not cleared for publication in FRUS.13 The Department of State opposed the statute and, in a signing statement, President George H. W. Bush reminded FRUS stakeholders that the new statutory mandate “must be interpreted in conformity with my constitutional responsibility and authority to protect the national security of the United States by preventing the disclosure of state secrets.”14 Just as was the case in the nineteenth century, the approval of a statutory mandate for the Foreign Relations series in 1991 led Congress and officials in the executive branch to clarify their constitutional responsibilities.

The passage of a statutory mandate for Foreign Relations in 1991 had significant implications for the series’ production process.15 The requirement that FRUS be “thorough, accurate, and reliable” and include “comprehensive documentation of major foreign policy decisions and actions of the United States Government” facilitated timely researcher access to a broader range of records than ever before.16 Surpassing the traditional scope for FRUS, volumes produced after the statute quickly established new expectations for comprehensive coverage.17 Unfortunately, the statute’s provisions for expediting declassification did not have the same rapid effect. Steadily lengthening declassification reviews, a steadily worsening “start line” for each FRUS subseries, and periodic disruptions caused by staff turnover have prevented HO from meeting the statute’s requirement to publish volumes “not more than 30 years after the events recorded.” Efforts to streamline the production process and leverage new technologies, including digital publication, mitigated some of these difficulties, but could not overcome them. The ongoing failure to meet the statutory deadline has been a source of recurrent criticism from the scholarly community.18 Just as the 1925 order could shape, but not settle, disputes over FRUS in 1930s and 1940s, the 1991 statute provided a foundation for the future of the Foreign Relations series but could not dictate its course.

  1. Richard Nixon, memorandum attached to Executive Order 11652, March 8, 1972. See http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/eo/eo-11652.htm (accessed February 2, 2012).
  2. Department of State [PA/HO] Staff Study on the Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation in its Annual Report of December 21, 1983, October 1984 (with attached documents and analysis), Folder “June 1991 (84 Plan),” Box 1, Lot File 09 D 473, Department of State, Washington, DC. Quote from attached John Hughes memorandum to Secretary of State, January 30, 1984, p. 4. See also Ian Black, “Tightened Rules Keep Nation’s Secrets Too Long, Historians Say,” Washington Post, September 10, 1983, p. A3; Lorraine Lees and Sandra Treadway, “A Future for Our Diplomatic Past? A Critical Appraisal of the Foreign Relations Series,” Journal of American History (December 1983), pp. 621-629; and William Slany, “Report by the Historian of the Department of State,” July 1984, P840134-2027, Department of State Microfilmed Central Files, Washington, DC (henceforth DoS P-Reels). Academic concerns about the timeliness of FRUS publication was not exclusively driven by interest in the volumes themselves. Until the passage of the 1991 law, declassification guidelines for the Department of State’s historical records were devised in conjunction with the clearance of Foreign Relations compilations. In other words, when FRUS was delayed, researcher access to historical Department records was also delayed.
  3. Ronald Reagan memorandum for Secretary of State, et al., November 12, 1985, P860009-1020, DoS P-Reels. See also Bernard Kalb memorandum to Secretary of State, December 18, 1985, P860009-0998 and Ronald Spiers cable to all diplomatic posts, February 25, 1986, 1986 State 057676 in Department of State Central Files (SAS), Washington, DC.
  4. Bernard Gwertzman, “U.S. Tells of ’54 Guatemala Invasion,” New York Times, January 4, 1984, p. A3.
  5. Al Kamen, “Historians Say Secrecy Distorts Foreign Policy Chronicle,” Washington Post, April 16, 1990, p. A13.
  6. Charles Redman memorandum to Ronald Spiers, June 2, 1987, P870122-1080, DoS P-Reels and Warren Cohen, “Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation Report,” Perspectives (May-June 1989), http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/1989/8905/8905NOTE2.cfm (accessed August 15, 2011).
  7. Ronald Spiers memorandum to Charles Redman, November 10, 1988, P890058-1591, DoS P-Reels.
  8. Warren Cohen letter to James Baker, February 15, 1990, P900159-0985, DoS P-Reels and Warren Cohen, “Gaps in the Record: How State has allowed history to be incomplete,” Foreign Service Journal (August 1990), pp. 27-29.
  9. Warren Cohen, “At the State Dept., Historygate,” New York Times, May 8, 1990, p. A29; Bruce Kuniholm, “Foreign Relations, Public Relations, Accountability, and Understanding,” Perspectives (May-June 1990), pp. 1-12, http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/1990/9005/9005NOTE1.cfm (accessed August 9, 2011); “History Bleached at State,” New York Times, May 16, 1990, p. A26; and Claiborne Pell and David Boren, “Why U.S. Foreign Policy Records Are ‘A Fraud,’” Boston Globe, May 27, 1990, p. A22.
  10. Congressional Record – Senate, vol. 136, pt. 22, October 19, 1990, p. 31389.
  11. Helen Dewar, “Senate Panel’s Quest: Filling Gaps in History of Foreign Relations,” Washington Post, June 11, 1990, p. A13.
  12. “A Plan to Improve the Comprehensiveness and Accuracy of the Historical Foreign Affairs Record Published in Foreign Relations of the United States,” February 5, 1991 and William Slany memorandum for the record, February 5, 1991 in Folder “Program – A Plan – Feb. 91,” Box 1, Lot File 09 D 473, Department of State, Washington, DC and Warren Kimball letter to James Baker, January 14, 1992, P920042-0683 and Arnita Jones letter to James Baker, April 12, 1990, P900159-0982 in DoS P-Reels; Congressional Record – Senate, vol. 136, pt. 22, October 19, 1990, pp. 31391-31399, passim.; Page Putnam Miller, “The Integrity of the U.S. Department of State’s Historical Series is at Stake,” Government Publications Review (July-August 1991), pp. 317-323; Congressional Record – Senate, vol. 137, pt. 14, July 29, 1991, pp. 20245-20248, passim.
  13. 22 USC 4351, et seq. See also Al Kamen, “Documents Law: 30 Years and Out,” Washington Post, October 31, 1991, p. A19 and Page Putnam Miller, “We Can’t Yet Read Our Own Mail: Access to the Records of the Department of State,” in Athan Theoharis, ed., A Culture of Secrecy: The Government Versus the People’s Right to Know (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1998), pp. 186-210, especially pp. 195-201. The law also had significant provisions mandating the systematic declassification of Department of State records after 30 years. Essentially, the law decoupled the declassification of general Department of State records from the production of FRUS.
  14. George H. W. Bush, “Statement on Signing the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1992 and 1993,” October 28, 1991, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=20152 (accessed August 16, 2011).
  15. See Folders “1992 – HAC Meetings/Briefing Mat.”; “1992 – HAC Declassification of FRUS”; and “1992 Advisory Committee & Legislation Materials” in Box 1, Lot File 99 D 041 and Folder “Declassification – transfer of Function,” in Lot File 10 D 061, Department of State, Washington, DC.
  16. See Folder “FRUS – Memos of Understanding – Access 1992,” Lot File 09 D 480 and Folder “1992 – HAC Memos of Understanding/Agreements,” Lot File 99 D 041, Department of State, Washington, DC.
  17. See Peter Hahn, “Glasnost in America: Foreign Relations of the United States and the Middle East, 1955-1960,” Diplomatic History (October 1992), pp. 631-642 and Robert Schulzinger, “Transparency, Secrecy, and Citizenship,” Diplomatic History (Spring 2001), pp. 165-178. For additional assessments of the consequences of the 1991 statute (and the strengthening of the HAC), see Betty Glad and Jonathan Smith, “The Role of the Historical Advisory Committee, 1990-1994, in the Declassification of U.S. Foreign policy Documents and Related Issues,” PS: Political Science and Politics (June 1996), pp. 185-192 and Page Putnam Miller, “We Can’t Yet Read Our Own Mail: Access to the Records of the Department of State,” pp. 201-208.
  18. Documentation related to the HAC can be found in Department of State lot files scheduled for permanent retention in the National Archives and Records Administration. Pre-1991 HAC files are in 96 D 292. The post-1991 HAC files are located in 99 D 041 (1991-1995 HAC meetings), 00 D 512 (1996-1997 HAC meetings), 02 D 213 (1998-1999 HAC meetings), 03 D 130 (1992-1995 HAC meetings), 04 D 446 (2000-2002 HAC meetings), 09 D 473 (1992-2007 HAC meetings), and in current PA/HO office files. The lot files contain recorded minutes of HAC meetings as well as a variety of briefing materials prepared within PA/HO. Some HAC meeting minutes from the mid-1990s to the present are also available online at https://history.state.gov/about/hac/meeting-notes and http://www.fas.org/sgp/advisory/state/ (both accessed August 1, 2011). The fas.org website, maintained by Steven Aftergood, also includes links to the HAC’s annual reports since 1995.