A History of History: The Story of the FRUS Series

The Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series is the official documentary record of U.S. foreign policy published by the U.S. Department of State. The origins, development and continuing evolution of the FRUS series are explored in a massive new history prepared by the State Department Office of the Historian. See “Toward ‘Thorough, Accurate and Reliable’: A History of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series” by William B. McAllister, Joshua Botts, Peter Cozzens, and Aaron W. Marrs, Department of State, December 19, 2013.

Dating back to the Civil War — the Abraham Lincoln Administration — FRUS long predates the existing national security classification and declassification regimes.  But from the start it has manifested and reinforced the impulse towards open government to a remarkable if imperfect degree. It appears to surpass any comparable effort to systematically and publicly document foreign policy by any other government in the world.

But more than a mere expression of open government, the FRUS series has been a battleground on which fundamental issues of secrecy and disclosure have been fought. Generations of officials, historians, journalists and others have disputed the timeliness of FRUS publications and their completeness, and weighed the demands of national security against the imperatives of historical integrity, with outcomes that shifted and diverged through the series.

“One might imagine individual FRUS volumes as akin to tree rings: each iteration records the environmental conditions from which it emerged; a broader story unfolds by examining change over time,” wrote historians William B. McAllister and Joshua Botts.

The advances, compromises and setbacks that characterized the evolution of the FRUS series are recounted in impressive and illuminating detail in the new historical study.

One of the themes that emerges is that the series progressed “dialectically,” in a continuing clash between conflicting interests in secrecy and disclosure.

So, for example, one of the main factors in the the post-World War II development of FRUS was the unauthorized disclosure of a classified compilation known as the Yalta Papers, which was a study of FDR’s wartime diplomacy.  The leak of the Yalta Papers by a FRUS historian in 1954 (which in some respects prefigured the Vietnam-era leak of the Pentagon Papers) catalyzed methodological changes in the production, timeliness and oversight of the FRUS series (see Chapter 7).

Meanwhile, excesses of secrecy generated their own corrective reactions. The suppression of information about US covert action in a FRUS volume on Iran, for example, helped instigate a statutory requirement that the FRUS series must be “thorough, accurate and reliable,” thereby strengthening the hand of openness advocates inside and outside the Department (Chapter 11).

The new history of FRUS is not a polemic or a piece of advocacy. It is a scrupulous account of the multiple and diverse perspectives that generated the FRUS series throughout its history. (And those who care about the series or participated in its development will find much of it gripping reading.)

But after hundreds of pages, the State Department authors allow the conclusion that in the conflict between secrecy and disclosure, it is secrecy that been the greater problem for FRUS, for the Department and for the US Government:

“The most significant negative repercussions attributable to the FRUS series have not involved damaging releases of potentially-sensitive national security or intelligence information. Rather, the reputation of the U.S. Government has suffered primarily from failures of the series to document significant historical events or acknowledge past actions.”

“FRUS realizes its promise when it fulfills global expectations for openness that promote democracy and encourage human freedom.”

The new FRUS history will be the subject of a panel discussion at the upcoming Meeting of the American Historical Association on January 4 in Washington, DC.

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