Historian William Z. Slany, RIP

05.22.13 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

William Z. Slany, the former Historian of the Department of State and a champion of efforts to declassify the secret history of U.S. foreign policy, passed away earlier this month.

Dr. Slany served in the State Department’s Office of the Historian for 42 years, and was The Historian for the last 18 of those years, until his retirement from the Department in September 2000, according to a notice circulated by David H. Herschler, the Deputy Historian of the State Department.

In his capacity as Historian of the Department, Dr. Slany helped prepare 16 volumes of the Foreign Relations of the United States series, the official documentary record of U.S. foreign policy, and he oversaw the publication of 125 FRUS volumes.  He led an interagency study to prepare a two volume account of “Nazi gold” and other stolen assets from World War II.  He participated in the development and implementation of the 1991 statute that formally required the State Department to present a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” record of U.S. foreign policy and diplomatic history.

Though dignified and softspoken, Dr. Slany could be combative in defense of an open and honest historical record. And while it is unusual for a senior official of one agency to criticize the conduct of another agency publicly and on the record, he was willing to do so when he thought it was justified.

In 1999, for example, he berated the Central Intelligence Agency for making what he termed “unreasonable” excisions in its declassified records of Cold War covert actions.

“What has become apparent and obvious is the Agency’s unwillingness to acknowledge amounts of money, liaison relationships, and relationships with organizations, information that any ‘reasonable person’ would believe should be declassified,” Dr. Slany said, according to the minutes of a September 1999 meeting of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee. “The process has revealed the bare bones of CIA’s intransigence,” he said.

“Bill Slany was one of the good guys in the declassification/secrecy game,” said Rutgers historian Warren Kimball, a former chair of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee.

“He played a key role in the maneuvers that, in 1991, created the landmark legislation that forced open CIA, Energy Department (AEC) and other long-secret files so they could be declassified and published in the State Department series, Foreign Relations of the United States.  His quiet, firm mantra was simple: in a democracy, the citizenry must have access, even if it came thirty years after the fact.  The State Department he loved was not always as idealistic as he wished, but he never stopped pushing the institution, and the U.S. Government, toward openness,” Prof. Kimball wrote via email.