News

Chair of US State Department's Historical Advisory Committee Resigns in Protest

AHA Staff, January 2009

Wm. Roger Louis, the Kerr chair in English history and culture at the University of Texas at Austin and a former president of the AHA, resigned—on “a point of principle”—from the chairmanship of the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation (HAC, in the department’s lexicon of acronyms), protesting what he termed as “mismanagement” by the State Department’s historian, Marc Susser.

In a letter addressed to the secretary of state that he read into the public record during an open session of the HAC, held at the State Department on December 10, 2008, Roger Louis (who became the AHA’s delegate to the committee in 2000, and who has been chair of the committee for the past five years), declared that the HAC was charged with ensuring that the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series represented a “trustworthy, full, and honest documentary record.” Roger Louis emphatically declared that after examining various pieces of evidence he had come to the conclusion that the Office of the Historian had become “an intolerable place to work.”

The evidence consisted, he indicated, of a memorandum from Edward Keefer, the former general editor of the FRUS series; testimony offered anonymously by 12 past and present members of staff in the Office of the Historian; a memorandum from Thomas Schwartz of Vanderbilt University, a former member of the committee, whose term was not renewed by Historian Susser, even though the members of the HAC had recommended such reappointment; and a statistical analysis of staff attrition rates under different historians holding the office. According to Roger Louis the mismanagement of the office put the historic mission of the office—to provide a “thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary account of US foreign policy”—in danger.

Because Susser, the current historian, had lost the confidence of the Historical Advisory Committee, Roger Louis declared, the secretary of state should undertake a “thorough and comprehensive general review of the leadership and management of the Historian’s Office.”

The FRUS series is regarded as a “model of its kind, indispensable to the American public, the Congress, and above all the Department of State itself,” Roger Louis concluded, adding that the series stood “as a symbol of commitment to openness and accountability,” and that it would be “no less than a tragedy to allow the series to falter or decline.”

In separate, earlier communication to Louis, Sean McCormack, assistant secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs, stated that the committee had no right to comment on personnel issues, as those were the “sole prerogative of the Department of State.” (This communication, the letter from Roger Louis, and other related documents can all be accessed through links provided on the blog post of the National Coalition for History at historycoalition.org/2008/12/12/state-department-crisis-in-the-foreign-relations-series).

The resignation of Roger Louis and his letter to the secretary of state had a dramatic effect, it seems. On December 18, Sean McCormack announced on the Public Radio International program, The World, that he asked a senior official of the state department to take an “objective look” into the issues, as well as to have a separate outside person to see “if there are any substantive issues.” The broadcast (available at www.theworld.org/?q=node/23338) also indicated that the secretary of state will be meeting Roger Louis and members of the committee on December 22, 2008.