More FRUS Errors of Omission and Commission

03.26.08 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Close examination of several recent volumes of the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series has turned up errors and questionable editorial judgments.

The record of conversations between Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai and Henry Kissinger that was published in FRUS last month failed to include what is arguably among the more sensitive and significant discussions that they held, regarding Kissinger’s offer to establish a US-China “hotline,” development of contingency plans for accidental or unauthorized launch of nuclear-armed missiles, and provision of warning information in the event of Soviet moves against China. That discussion, which does not appear in FRUS, was memorialized in this document (pdf).

Fortunately, this memorandum and many more of comparable significance were collected and published by William Burr of the National Security Archive in his 1999 volume “The Kissinger Transcripts.”

In another surprising editorial lapse (in Nixon FRUS volume XXIX on Eastern Europe, document 77, page 203, footnote 2), the editors state that “On January 17 [1969] student Jan Palach set himself on fire in the center of Prague to protest the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.”

“Anyone who knows this subject is aware that Palach immolated himself on the 16th of January, not the 17th,” said Mark Kramer, editor of the Journal of Cold War Studies at Harvard. “This date is very well known in Czech society, and no one would confuse it with the 17th.”

Interestingly, while the State Department got this date wrong, Wikipedia got it right.

Needless to say, everyone makes errors. The FRUS series remains a crucial resource for historical understanding, even with the occasional error. And a robust FRUS publication schedule with some errors is vastly preferable to a gridlocked schedule with no errors. Still, there may be room for improvement in the editorial process.