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FAS Note: Comments and suggestions concerning the following proposal are invited and should be sent directly to Warren F. Kimball of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee at kimballw@panet.us-state.gov.


02 June 1999

From: Warren F. Kimball
To: Historical Advisory Committee (Dept. of State)

With the modern Foreign Relations series approaching the 21st Century, this is an appropriate time to ask if the series is meeting its mission and purpose. In a recent report to the Historical Advisory Committee, the Historian of the State Department, William Slany, posed a challenge:

Because the record of American foreign relations since the Second World War is so vast and complex, the print volumes of FRUS can no longer approach being a "comprehensive" record. Even if the actual number of print pages/volumes had not decreased over the past two decades, the percent of documentation printed versus what is in the files would still have dropped dramatically. Although quantity should not be conflated with quality, some print volumes of the FRUS series now contain so small a portion of the record that they may verge on being misleading, despite the best professional efforts of the HO staff. The seemingly obvious solution would be to expand the number of printed pages/volumes for each subject covered by the FRUS series. But that is neither a practical nor a cost-effective answer. To produce the "thorough" and "comprehensive documentation" required by statute could require a print series larger by three times or more-and even that would not solve the problem as we move into the era of e-mail and other electronic records.

The statutory charge for the Foreign Relations series is set forth in the "Foreign Relations" statute, Public Law 102-138 of 28 October 1991 (22 USC 4351, et seq.), which states that the series "shall be a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity." The law goes on to insist that the volumes "shall include all records needed to provide a comprehensive documentation of the major foreign policy decisions and actions . . . ." That language sets a standard and perhaps a goal, but not the purpose or mission for the series.

What is the mission of the Foreign Relations series? With the professionalization of the series in the late 1920s, it aimed primarily at a relatively limited group of international lawyers, the occasional diplomat, and the few historians interested in the documentary record of foreign policy. Since the Second World War, the audience for the series has expanded well beyond that small group. All these audiences, new and old, have often developed without conscious planning on the part of the Historical Office. Some benefit from direct use of the series, others gain indirectly from the work of those users, while still others derive benefit from the quality and reputation of the volumes.


The American public as the primary audience for FRUS has its origins in the Jeffersonian concept of an informed democracy. FRUS has worked to meet that responsibility indirectly by providing "a through, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions" that educators, journalists, and public leaders could use as they worked to inform the public.

The primary direct user of the FRUS project is the community of researchers. Academic and non-academic historians, political scientists, journalists, television documentary writers, et al., have depended on FRUS for their work. Up to now the series has been a valuable tool. But the needs of those various groups within the community of researchers differ significantly. Moreover, the marketplace of information is changing rapidly, as other public, private, and non-profit institutions provide more and more historical information and documentation about American foreign policy (e.g. the National Security Archive, presidential library web sites, etc.). Intensive research into relatively narrow topics requires a very different FRUS than does research on broad themes or the writing of more synthetic and interpretive studies. Precisely what the series does for each sub-group within the research community, what those researchers want and need, now and in the future, are issues that must be addressed through on-going study and planning, for the FRUS project is unlikely to succeed if it tries to be all things to all people.

Foreign researchers are a special category of direct FRUS users. For them, the project is often the best and even only way to study the foreign policy and diplomacy of their own governments. Certainly serving the needs of foreign scholars adds to the public relations value the State Department accrues from the series.

FRUS as a teaching tool is a subset of research, since it is usually used as a device to teach students how to do research. Nonetheless, the formal education of our students is a separate and critical social responsibility; one that cannot be ignored.

The U.S. Government, particularly the State Department, may occasionally be direct users of FRUS, but more commonly the government gains from the indirect benefits of education and enhanced knowledge that is generated by the Foreign Relations project. Government leaders depend upon the output of the community of researchers to provide the historical perspectives needed to conduct foreign policy and diplomacy effectively. Simply put, government officials read books, watch television documentaries, read the advice of the punditocracy (which reads books based in part on the FRUS project), search the internet, and so on. Without the FRUS project, those sources of information would be less informed and less valuable. Moreover, the Department of State gets well-deserved credit for its support of the Foreign Relations series.

In addition, both the U.S. Government and the American public benefit from the accountability made possible by research and publication based on the documentary record. The great strength of American democracy is the assumption that government can and should be accountable to those who consent to that governance. That requires an informed public--as difficult, awkward, and even dangerous as that can be. Even in an era of global involvement and greatly expanded national security concerns, the American government must be as transparent as safety allows, lest its foreign policies lose the consent of the public.

The government can and does point to the series as an example to other nations of openness and democracy, and reaps benefit from the reputation of the series for high quality. The Foreign Relations series has managed to maintain a high degree of public confidence in its integrity and has earned a reputation as a "reliable documentary record," despite the rapid growth since the Second World War of a vast classified record. However, in the late 1980s, that reliability was called into question when FRUS volumes were published that ignored the role of covert actions and the Central Intelligence Agency in the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy. All this suggests the ongoing need for structured professional advice so as to ensure that the methodology of FRUS keeps pace with the complexity of the project and the needs of its audiences.

None of these audiences is spelled out or mentioned in the Foreign Relations statute or other instruments that define FRUS, nor has there been planning for how best to serve those audiences. But any definition of the mission and purpose of the FRUS project must include consideration of the intended audiences.

The fundamental, bottom-line requirement of all those audiences is fuller, earlier, easier access to the documentary record of American foreign relations. That has historically (at least since the Second World War volumes) been an expected and desired outcome of the preparation and publication of the FRUS series. The growing broad public involvement in important foreign affairs decisions has increased the urgent demand for the availability of the accurate historical record as early as possible. In the broadest sense, everything about the FRUS project relates to access. The FRUS print volumes are important not so much as stand-alone books, but as "access" for the audiences served.

The fullest possible access today requires more than just the print volumes. Access for HO historians is the prerequisite to compilation of FRUS; public access requires publication (dissemination) in one form or another; future research demands that access be afforded and that the initial researchers-HO historians-describe in detail how to make the best use of that access. Given the sheer size and complexity of the record created since the Second World War, the only way that FRUS can meet the statutory mandate that it be a "comprehensive" documentary record is for the series, or project, to promote the fullest, easiest, and earliest possible access to that record for the American public. The print volumes will continue to make a selection of documents readily accessible. Electronic publishing of records can provide a larger selection, but professional judgments of selection and annotation are required to make such collections easily accessible. But it remains impossible to publish in useable form the full and entire record. Guidance on how to navigate the archives so as to gain further access is the final step that the FRUS series can take in order to make the record as full and accessible to the public as possible. This "PEG" combination-- print, electronic, and guidance-- are the only practical way to meet the statutory mandate that FRUS be "comprehensive."

Earlier access is also part of the FRUS mission and purpose. The 30-year line appears to be an arbitrary, even whimsical marker with little practical or intellectual justification. Why not 29 or 19 years? The overwhelming bulk of records declassified by systematic review at the 25-year mark established by Executive Order 12958 (Information Security), or after 30 years by the FRUS series, could be declassified once they were 20 years old-- or perhaps earlier. The initiative and momentum established by the Executive Order should not be squandered. There are legitimate information security requirements that go beyond a ten or twenty year mark, sometimes even longer, and those requirements will be observed. But that should not prevent opening records that pose no threat to national security-- which is the vast majority of the documents. The FRUS Project can and should, wherever and whenever practical, work to promote declassification review and public access to the record of American foreign relations at the earliest possible time.





Given Knowledge and Access
as the Mission and Purpose of the Foreign Relations Project,


In this "new" FRUS project, the historical records accessed by the Historical Office (HO) fall into four categories:

1. records warranting publication in the FRUS volumes because they document major developments and decisions in U.S. foreign relations or because they are important records not readily available to the public, and which are of interest to a wide number of the audiences served by the FRUS series;

2. records important enough to one of the audiences for the FRUS Project (most commonly the community of researchers) to warrant electronic publication (or means other than letter-press publication) as a formal part of the FRUS series;

3. records significant enough to attract the interest of the community of researchers to warrant written guidance-- access guides -- to the sources;

4. records that do not warrant further attention by HO.

The first three categories together constitute an integrated and permanent product, together called the Foreign Relations of the United States series, that provides the various FRUS Project audiences with the fullest, easiest, and earliest possible access to the record of "major United States foreign policy decisions" and thus constitutes "a comprehensive documentation of the major foreign policy decisions and actions of the United States Government."

This integrated approach will allow HO to shift some resources from the printed volumes in the FRUS series by publishing slightly fewer, more tightly conceived compilations, while providing fuller and easier access via electronic publishing and access guides.


1. The FRUS print volumes:

Because the Foreign Relations volumes have, in the past, tended to "define" the sub-field of U.S diplomatic history, great care must be taken to ensure that the series is inclusive not exclusionary. The editors of the series decided shortly after World War II that documents about political issues had to include records from all agencies, not just the State Department, but such matters as cultural issues, particularly ones that involve direct U.S. government action like tourism, cultural exchanges, immigration, etc., have received less attention, despite the increasing interest of researchers. Given a working assumption of "constant resources," FRUS compilations will have to balance the myriad of records on major foreign policy issues available from various sources. Consideration needs to be given to how to make appropriate use of non-governmental records (e.g. NGOs, IMF, private philanthropic organizations, etc.) that relate to important United States foreign policy decisions and actions.

Volumes/compilations in the FRUS series will fall into three broad categories-- CORE, CRISIS, and CONTEXT compilations. While the boundaries are fluid and the dividing lines between the three categories may sometimes be blurred, this C3 approach should move the series in three directions.

2. Electronic Compilations in the FRUS Series:

Electronic publication seems to offer a way to provide the widest possible access to the record of American foreign relations. The temptation is to treat the information highway as a garbage dump, but the concept of an integrated access structure makes these compilations part of the FRUS series (as were the microfiche supplements in the past). That means that the research and selection process that has and will continue to be the hallmark of the letter-press volumes of FRUS will be applied to the Electronic compilations of the FRUS. In addition, search engines and electronic links of some kind will be required so as to facilitate access. The precise format of these electronic compilations remains to be determined, but as an integrated part of the FRUS series they would most commonly (though not necessarily) follow the path set by the book volumes.

Implementation of electronically published FRUS compilations will probably require the assistance of outside consultants and additional hardware, but only after HO has determined firm formatting, access, and search requirements.

3. Access Guides ("road maps"):

The final element in the integrated Foreign Relations of the United States Project is to preserve the unique and extensive knowledge of the archival record that HO researchers develop in the course of their work so that the research community, the most consistent users and supporters of FRUS, does not have to reinvent the wheel as they do the archival research that is invariably needed in order to supplement the selections in the FRUS series. Identifying research dead ends is as important as laying out fruitful avenues of research. Access Guides could be produced in lieu of print or electronic volumes for issues and relations that are not broad enough to warrant published compilations. Access Guides are not guides to archival collections, but are organized within a specific historical framework and cut across collection boundaries in order to guide researchers to the records about a specific subject. They will frequently supplement compilations in print or electronic form, but occasions could arise when special Access Guides are commissioned (e.g. for retrospective issues such as covert actions in the Truman presidency). It may be that some specific collections, such as lot files, would warrant a broad Access Guide based on the research of a number of HO historians who used parts of those files while researching a specific compilation. Access guides, an integral part of the FRUS series, would also serve to prompt other agencies to perform declassification reviews of records collections identified in an access guide. (An example could be the nearly 100,000 pages of documentation on CIA covert operations in Guatemala in the mid-1950s. Neither a print volume nor electronic publication of all that documentation is practical, but a clear "road-map" through those documents would be invaluable.)

What Does This Mean for Foreign Relations of the United States?

First, more documentation will be made available to the public. The format may be different. Because electronic compilations will afford wider and easier access than print volumes, compilations put between hard covers (an expensive process) will have to meet the high standard set by the Foreign Relations statute-- "documentation of the major foreign policy decisions and actions of the United States Government . . ." The ratio of print to electronic compilations will have to flow from an evaluation of the record by the Historical Office, the Historical Advisory Committee, and advice and comment from the various audiences that use the series.

Second, public access to the record of American foreign policy will be substantially improved with electronic publication and access guides. The series will, for the first time, focus on access to the record for all its audiences, from the research community to the interested general public.

Third, the Foreign Relations series will furnish a published record, particularly in the print volumes, better suited to provide both the U.S. Government and the American public with an understanding of the history and development of the core issues of American foreign relations.

William Z. Slany, the Historian

Warren F. Kimball,
for the Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation

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