By Adam Howard, Kristin Ahlberg, and Joshua Botts
In 2021, the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI’s) Office of the Historian (OH) celebrated three important anniversaries: the 100th anniversary of the creation of OH’s institutional predecessors, the 160th anniversary of the “Foreign Relations of the United States” (FRUS) series, and the 30th anniversary of the 1991 FRUS statute that ensures the publication of a more thorough and reliable record of U.S. foreign relations. Today, OH continues to publish the FRUS series, the official documentary record of U.S. foreign policy that advances the U.S. government’s commitment to historical transparency for foreign affairs decision-making; provides historical expertise to Department of State officials; provides diplomatic history training to Foreign Affairs professionals; and maintains key public historical datasets relating to the history of U.S. foreign relations and the institutional history of the Department. As one of the largest federal history offices, OH employs professionally trained historians to fulfill its missions.
FRUS originated in 1861, when Congress requested that the Lincoln administration provide documentation revealing its foreign policy conduct during the Civil War. The resultant collection of more than 300 documents chronicling the administration’s 1861 foreign policy offered a global perspective on U.S. involvement abroad. The Civil War FRUS volumes became an exercise in public diplomacy, providing the Lincoln administration the opportunity to highlight the Union’s success in persuading foreign countries not to recognize—and thereby legitimize—the Confederacy.
Initially, FRUS was a contemporary accounting of U.S. foreign policy compiled by Department clerks. That changed over the course of the early 20th century. In 1921, the Department regularized FRUS production by creating the Division of Publications—which evolved into OH—and hiring trained historians to research and compile the series. Four years later, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg endorsed a series of editorial principles based on professional historical standards of objectivity for FRUS that guided its production until they were codified by Congress in 1991.
Producing FRUS is a multistage process, involving researching, selecting, and annotating documents; reviewing volume manuscripts to ensure their substantive and stylistic integrity; coordinating each volume’s complex, years-long interagency declassification review process; and editing and publishing volumes in both print and digital formats. Despite the many challenges faced in publishing FRUS over the decades, OH historians have worked to ensure that the public has access to documentation that lives up to the 1991 “FRUS” statute’s requirement that the series provide a “thorough, accurate, and reliable record” of U.S. foreign relations history.
That statute, formally the 1991 Foreign Relations Authorization Act for fiscal years 1992 and 1993 (22 U.S.C. 4351 et seq.), proved a turning point in the history of FRUS and OH. In the 1980s, the series failed to meet expectations as a tool for transparency when OH published volumes covering U.S. relations with Iran and Guatemala during the early 1950s that did not accurately represent covert activities undertaken by the U.S. government in those countries. When researching these volumes, OH historians were not consistently granted access to records concerning historically significant covert actions. Even when the historians could access them, the Department and other agencies refused to clear such documentation for publication. The 1991 statute granted OH historians “full and complete access” to foreign policy records, including information on covert activities. With interagency cooperation, FRUS became the U.S. government’s only regular, institutionalized mechanism for the public acknowledgment of covert actions; since 1998, FRUS has documented 64 major covert actions.
Although FRUS remains available on the shelves of federal depository libraries, OH also embraces technological innovation as a way of making FRUS more accessible. During the last decade, OH converted all FRUS volumes into an online digital format. The OH website, history.state.gov, now contains over 310,000 documents from 543 FRUS volumes. All of these materials can be viewed as text or image, searched by keyword and date, and downloaded as eBooks for reading on devices like Kindle and iPad.
Since 1929, OH and its organizational predecessors balanced the public-facing FRUS mission with a vital internal function: providing historical analysis, insight, and perspective to policymakers throughout the Department. For stretches that comprise roughly half of the period since the Office of the Historical Advisor was first charged with providing advice and recommendations regarding historical subjects in 1929, the same historians who produced the FRUS series also served as historical advisors to Department officials. Since the early 2000s, OH has maintained dedicated FRUS and historical studies teams to ensure adequate staffing of both missions while fostering extensive collaboration between the two parts of the office to direct subject matter expertise effectively when and where it is needed most.
Regardless of how OH was organized, OH historians have offered timely, authoritative historical guidance for policymakers. Since 1945, OH has produced thousands of historical studies ranging from short, one-paragraph answers to very specific questions to book-length analyses of complex foreign policy or institutional history topics. Many of these studies were produced for and consumed by working-level officials seeking the historical context necessary to understand contemporary situations, but others contributed to policy at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
In addition to formal studies and briefings, OH also provides historical expertise to the Department in other ways. For example, it contributes to a variety of FSI training courses. For more than a decade, OH historians have taught incoming FSOs about the history of the Department and U.S. foreign policy in the A–100 orientation class. Many also teach area studies, information technology, and other FSI courses where their specific expertise is useful. OH also collects, maintains, and publishes authoritative historical datasets reflecting the Department’s domestic and overseas senior leadership, the international travels of U.S. presidents and secretaries of state, visits of foreign leaders, diplomatic recognition, and major developments in the administrative history of the Department.
The entire OH team looks forward to the next hundred years of service to the Department and promoting responsible historical transparency in the FRUS series. For more information about their work, visit their website or email them.
Adam Howard is the director of the Office of the Historian (OH). Kristin L. Ahlberg is a historian and assistant to the general editor in OH. Joshua Botts is the chief of the Special Projects Division in OH.