From the In Memoriam column of the November 2013 issue of Perspectives on History
William Z. Slany (1928–2013)
David H. Herschler, November 2013
Historian of the Department of State
William Z. Slany, former chief historian at the US Department of State, passed away unexpectedly on May 13, 2013, just short of his 85th birthday. His tenure of 42 years at the Office of the Historian, 18 of which were as director, stands as the longest on record at the office. Slany was known for his deep respect for the Department of State, its history, and institutions, as well as for his early interest in the use of technology in the publication of historical products and the management of historical programs. He will best be remembered for his stewardship of the venerable Foreign Relations of the United States series—the official published documentary record of US foreign policy—and for coordinating and producing a massive, two-part inter-agency study that delved into “Nazi Gold” and other stolen and looted assets during World War II.
Born a first-generation American to Slovak parents, Slany grew up in Cleveland and served a 14-month tour of duty in Japan at the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur before completing a BA in history at Ohio University in 1951 and a PhD at Cornell University in 1958. In that same year, he joined the Office of the Historian and, over the course of his career, helped produce more than 200 volumes of the Foreign Relations series and countless policy-supportive historical studies and institutional histories.
Described as a gentleman—and a gentle man—by Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Slany was unassuming and soft-spoken in demeanor. Nevertheless, he was fiercely passionate about making the official record of US foreign policy available to the public, especially through the Foreign Relations series. He had both the good fortune—and almost inconceivable challenge—of advancing his goal of openness during one of the most critical moments in the history of the series, the effort to pass new legislation making the FRUS series more open and transparent. In the 1980s, he found himself caught in a firestorm involving public pressure on Congress to intervene on behalf of openness, and a culture of secrecy within the government—even within the department—rising up against that intervention. Slany labored quietly within the bureaucracy, with the support of the Bureau of Public Affairs, to find workable solutions.
At times, he found himself eyeball to eyeball with officials within the department and at the Central Intelligence Agency who were so imbedded in a culture of secrecy that they could scarcely find compromise. There were many contentious meetings where Slany railed against the arguments for secrecy—all of this in stark contrast with his mild-mannered public persona. He skillfully calmed even the most strident voices on the department’s Historical Advisory Committee and worked behind the scenes with the drafters of the proposed legislation regarding the Foreign Relations series, all the while engaging in protracted negotiations with those in the department committed to pushing back against the legislation.
The resulting 1991 Foreign Relations statute has had the most salutary impact on the Foreign Relations series—an impact greater than anyone at the time could have imagined. It opened the door for a more complete, accurate, and transparent official historical record. But the passage of the statute required the implementation and development of new relationships with agency officials. Slany had to muster every ounce of strength, conviction, persistence, and patience; success came slowly and with great difficulty. Today the Office of the Historian enjoys an almost universal collaborative and professional relationship with the very government entities with whom Slany engaged in mortal combat two decades earlier. But these now-productive working relationships could not have been possible were it not for Slany’s efforts at that crucial moment for the Foreign Relations series.
In an interview he gave to State Magazine in 2000, Slany stated that he believed “history is relevant,” and in “the utility of history for decision-making.” Perhaps in no circumstance during his career was this philosophy more clearly illustrated than in the extraordinary effort—undertaken by 11 federal agencies—that produced two book-length historical studies in 1997 and 1998 examining the plundering of Jewish assets by Nazi Germany during World War II, and tracking the record of the remains of these assets in Switzerland and other European nations following the war. The interagency project, meticulously coordinated by Slany under the oversight of then Under Secretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, led to a book-length finding aid to related records at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, investigative commissions established by more than a dozen nations, and significant settlements with Holocaust survivors and families of the victims. The project served as a fitting capstone to Slany’s career and deeply affected him: “Never have I had such an opportunity to apply my skills and experience as a historian to so worthy but difficult a challenge,” Slany told members of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in testimony in 1997.
Bill Slany was honored with the Department of State’s prestigious Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award at the time of his retirement in September 2000. His legacy as the director of the Office of the Historian is truly of historic proportions. He is survived by a brother. He will be missed.
David H. Herschler
US Department of State