State Dept: Crisis in the “Foreign Relations” Series

In a tense and adversarial meeting at the State Department yesterday, the chairman of the Department’s Historical Advisory Committee warned that the future of the Department’s “Foreign Relations of the United States” (FRUS) series, which is the official record of U.S. foreign policy, is in jeopardy due to mismanagement by the Office of the Historian. Underscoring his concerns, he announced his resignation from the Committee.

An Assistant Secretary of State rebuffed the criticism.  He accused Committee members of engaging in innuendo and ad hominem attacks, and he abruptly walked out of the meeting.

William Roger Louis, the esteemed historian who has chaired the Committee for the last five years, presented his views in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (pdf), which he read into the public record at the December 10 meeting.

“The Historian’s Office has become an intolerable place to work; the exodus of experienced historians is significant; and the future of the Foreign Relations series is at risk,” Prof. Louis said.

“My concern, along with that of all members of the committee, arises from mismanagement by the Historian himself, Dr. Marc Susser.  So large are the numbers of staff members leaving, or contemplating departure, that the integrity of the Foreign Relations series is now in jeopardy,” he wrote.

An analysis (pdf) appended to Prof. Louis’ statement said that “This year alone the office has lost 20% of its FRUS staff (7 of 35 members) and 30% of its FRUS staff experience (64 of 212 years).”

In a separate memorandum to the Secretary (pdf), Prof. Thomas Schwartz, another prominent historian and a former member of the Committee, echoed those concerns. (Following the criticisms he voiced in the Committee’s last annual report, Prof. Schwartz’s membership was pointedly not renewed, in what was interpreted by other Committee members as an attempt to intimidate them.)

“Simply put, there are enormous problems within the Office of the Historian, and they stem largely from the management style of Dr. Susser,” Prof. Schwartz wrote. “The forced retirement this past summer of Dr. Edward Keefer, the FRUS series editor…, was only the latest example of a management style that insisted on abject and subservient loyalty to Dr. Susser at the expense of competence and performance in the achievement of the goals of the office.”

The criticism was rejected by the State Department.

“I hardly think that the kind of ad hominem attacks you have engaged in are the kind of behavior we expect from respected academics,” said Sean McCormack, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs.  “To express concern about the timeliness and quality of the FRUS series is fine. But to attack individuals in public?  I find that objectionable.”

“I will not sit here and listen to personal attacks on the leadership of this office,” he said, before exiting the meeting.

In a written reply to Prof. Louis (pdf), Secretary McCormack added: “By taking these actions, I feel you are obscuring the very thing you hope to accomplish: to raise questions about the quality of the FRUS. I do not believe you can dispute the fact that disagreements with the Historian’s Office have become entangled with personal issues that have nothing to do with the quality of scholarship. While you have decided to walk away from the FRUS, I will continue in my efforts to ensure its continuing timeliness and quality.”

Mr. McCormack also released an annotated version (pdf) of the Committee’s latest annual report (pdf), with point-by-point responses from the Historian’s Office to the criticisms expressed there.

“I regret that I have to sit hear and listen to this decline to the level of slime and innuendo,” said Dr. Marc Susser, the State Department Historian and the principal object of Committee criticism.  “We welcome all constructive criticism, but not personnel issues, hiring, firing, or comings and goings of staff.”

But “This is not a conflict of personalities,” Prof. Louis said, noting that his relations with the Historian had always been cordial and professional.  “I am resigning on a point of principle.”

At the end of the day, it remained true that there has been a significant departure of qualified staff from the Historian’s Office, and that the FRUS series was far behind its legally-mandated schedule.

“The Foreign Relations series… is regarded throughout the world as a model of its kind, indispensable to the American public, the Congress, and above all the Department of State itself,” Prof. Louis wrote in his letter to Secretary Rice.  “It is a tribute to the US Government that such an accurate and comprehensive series exists.  In short, the Foreign Relations series stands as a symbol of commitment to openness and accountability.  It would be no less than a tragedy to allow the series to falter or decline.”

Update: Prof. Edward Rhodes also announced his resignation from the State Department Historical Advisory Committee on December 10. He described his reasons in a December 2 letter (pdf) to the Secretary of State.