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JUNE 2016


ments. Congressional and pub-

lic reaction was mostly positive;

it turned out those ambassa-

dors actually knew what they

were doing.

Budget cuts, followed by

the outbreak of World War I,

eroded the timeliness of the

series. By 1930, FRUS had set-

tled into a 15-year publication

lag and become a mechanism

of historical, not immediate,

accountability. Later attempts

to bring the volumes back to

currency were eclipsed by

post-World War II changes in

Washington’s foreign policy-

making machine and the birth

of the interagency. Today’s

FRUS volumes are more heav-

ily weighted toward documentation of the decision-making pro-

cess than the back-and-forth between Washington and posts.

Department of State documents that once made up 90

percent of the material in FRUS fell to less than 30 percent by

the Nixon and Ford administrations, with the addition of White

House, National Security Council, Defense, Treasury and other

U.S. government agency records. At the same time, the inclu-

sion of intelligence information whenever necessary introduced

inevitable but lengthy delays as governmental declassification

apparatuses struggled to accommodate the regularized release

of once highly sensitive material.

Indeed, in the 1980s, a battle royal developed within the

State Department between parties in favor of expanded trans-

parency and those inclined to keep the foreign policy sausage

making hidden from public view as long as possible, if not

forever. Transparency won the day with the 1991 FRUS stat-

ute, signed by President George H.W. Bush, which forced the

department to facilitate Historian’s Office access to classified

documents and systematically declassify records at the 30-year

mark (or justify withholding them).

This tug-of-war over the publication of our official history

produced the mostly collegial atmosphere in which FRUS is

compiled today. A State Department and Central Intelligence

Agency joint historian facilitates searches of the CIA’s historical

records and greases the declassification machine by serving as

a thoroughly vetted intermediary. Relations are also good with

the external FRUS governing

body, the Historical Advisory

Committee. Founded in 1957

and statutorily mandated

since 1991, this body of

academic and public-interest

representatives monitors the

progress of the series.

The HAC has lobbied on

behalf of FRUS, protesting to

Congress when its members

believed the series did not

meet transparency stan-

dards—as with the “incom-

plete and misleading”




advocating more timely

release, as when the series fell

nearly 40 years behind in the

1990s. (A fascinating account

of the series’ history produced by the office of the Historian’s

special projects division, Toward “Thorough, Objective, and Reliable”: A History of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series , received the prestigious Society for History in the Federa


Government’s Pendleton Prize for 2016. It is available at history.

The Making of a FRUS

So what’s it like to be a FRUS historian? The general con-

sensus: like a kid in a candy store. With access to the universe

of primary source governmental documents and immersion

in the particular period now under study—the 1970s and

1980s—FRUS historians can claim the greatest expertise on

U.S. policymaking during these decades of anyone in the world.

No serious book on U.S. foreign policy is published without

FRUS footnotes, and few outside historians have the pride—

or responsibility—of knowing the books the president and

Secretary of State have on their nightstands are based in large

measure on the documents they have compiled. In addition, the

globe-spanning nature of U.S. foreign relations renders FRUS as

much a record of world history as American history. For citizens

of some countries, particularly those whose governments have

yet to, or will never, publicly share their own documentation,

the work of FRUS historians offers their only window into their

own nations’ foreign policies.

Since the 1990s, FRUS has been organized chronologically

In the 1980s, a battle royal

developed within the State

Department between parties in

favor of expanded transparency

and those inclined to keep the

foreign policy sausage making

hidden from public view as long

as possible, if not forever.