Publication Date

May 1, 1989

Perspectives Section




The Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation met in Washington on December 8 and 9, 1988. Present throughout were Professors , Blanche Wiesen Cook, Robert Dallek, Michael H. Hunt, and Bradford Perkins. They elected Warren Cohen chair. Michael Oksenberg joined the meeting on the ninth.

As always, William Z. Slany and his staff performed magnificently in arranging and hosting the meeting. The principal issues discussed were the scope, content, and format of the Foreign Relations series for the years after 1960, procedures for prepublication reviewing of Foreign Affairs volumes by outside experts, problems of the presidential libraries, and the role of the committee. It was the most constructive meeting in years and we are grateful to the State Department especially to the CDC participants, for abandoning the adversarial posture which has hampered recent efforts. We remain concerned about the future of the Foreign Relations series, the further setbacks to the problems faced by the State Department in general and the historical office in particular, difficulties with declassification in the presidential libraries, and divergent interpretations of the committee’s role. In addition, anxiety reemerged about the preservation of the historical record.


Foreign Relations Series

Our principal concern is the future of the Foreign Relations series. The enormous increase in the size of the documentary record in the post-World War II era accelerates in the 1960s. Even if there were no other problems, the volume of material confronted by the historical office would require changes in the basic shape of the series. Financial pressures which preclude significant expansion of the series intensify the problem. The State Department’s historian has outlined what he perceives to be his options. Further informed by our discussion, the historian’s office is preparing a list of the proposed volumes for the 1961–63 triennium showing the subjects and topics it intends to document. Upon receipt of that list, the committee should be able to offer definitive advice on the several questions involved (what issues should be covered in printed volumes and which relegated to microfiche, bibliographic references, narrative/synopses, etc.)

Related to the substance of the volumes is committee uneasiness about how well the series will represent the reality of American foreign relations when the bulk of covert operations, an increasingly important part of our activities, is omitted. On several occasions, experts from within the government have acknowledged that covert activities were the most important activities conducted in a given country at a given time and that their omission distorted the record significantly. At minimum, it would appear essential to provide a disclaimer in the published volume indicating that operations beyond the purview of the State Department were involved. Since most such operations are known, although not officially acknowledged, to do less would approach fraud—and subvert the credibility of the series.

We are also profoundly troubled by the failure of the series to meet former President Reagan’s goal of “1960 by 1990.” We understand that much of the problem rests with demands on the National Security Council declassifiers preoccupied with the “Iran-Contra” mess, but note that this fits a disturbing pattern in which “emergencies” forever interrupt the work of the historical office at the State Department. As a result, a twenty-year rule eroded into a twenty-five-year rule, then into a thirty-year-rule—and now we will fail to meet even that. It becomes extremely difficult to persuade anyone of the seriousness with which we view our shared effort to produce a timely record.

Given the transcendent importance of the credibility of the volumes, we are very pleased by the success of the experiment with pre-publication review. We urge the Department of State to institute such reviews as standard procedure and suggest that an outside authority be brought into the process at an earlier stage.

Presidential Libraries

An unexpected obstacle to the work of the historian’s office and to that of scholars, journalists, and others interested in American foreign relations in the 1960s has been the failure of the presidential libraries to process materials at a reasonable pace. For the first time in its existence, the historian’s office is unable to proceed with its work—not because material is being withheld as sensitive, but because enormous masses of documents sit unsorted in boxes at the Kennedy and Johnson libraries. The department cannot rectify this problem alone, but if the secretary’s concerns were added to those of others addressing John Fawcett, head of the Presidential Libraries system, and to Don Wilson, Archivist of the United States, there might be more rapid progress toward resolving this problem.

Role of the Advisory Committee

This committee was created to serve a dual purpose: to advise relevant officers of the State Department on the professional problems that affect the work of historians within and without the Department; to maintain the credibility of the Department and its historical work with the learned societies and, ultimately, the public.

Toward these ends, the work of the committee has focused on the preparation of the volumes of the Foreign Relations series. For many years, the committee reviewed the material omitted from these volumes, heard the explanations for omission, and assured the learned societies and the interested public of the reliability of the published product. Similarly, the committee was informed of records policy, what was kept, what was made available to scholars, what was not—and why not. It was not a perfect system, not everyone was happy about how it worked, but it did work. The Foreign Relations series won and maintained a superb reputation at home and abroad. Even in a country like China, government officials and scholars have been willing to revise their estimates of American intent based on the record presented in the Foreign Relations series and supplementary documents available in the National Archives and presidential libraries.

During the last decade, the traditional practice of interaction between the committee and the State Department changed radically, to the point where it seemed to become an adversary procedure, destructive of mutual trust, damaging to the credibility of Foreign Relations series, the State Department, and the nation. The critical change derived from decisions by the State Department to deny committee members an opportunity to see what was being withheld from the published documents and the guidelines for making material available in the archives. In brief, the committee was denied access to precisely that information which was essential if it was to advise the Historical Office, the learned societies, and the outside world that the published volume was indeed a full and honest account of American foreign policy, and that the material available in the archives provided an honest representation of the record. The Committee was asked to become a rubber stamp—and it refused.

The years 1987 and 1988 brought tense relations between the committee and some elements in the State Department. There were threats to abolish the committee, but wiser heads prevailed. In the course of last year, compromises were painfully wrought with the help of Assistant Secretary Charles Redman and Deputy Assistant Secretary George High. At the December 1988 meeting a tentative agreement was reached which may provide a workable accommodation between the Committee’s need to know what is excluded from the published record and the Department’s reluctance to return to the traditional practice of presenting the deletions. Nothing short of a return to traditional practice is likely to restore full trust and credibility but the committee is prepared to try. For 1989, our working assumption is that CDC will continue to provide its detailed and helpful briefings on specific volumes of our choosing, with the State Department reserving the right to substitute in the unlikely event of a case of extraordinary sensitivity; further, that the unclassified record of deletions for each volume will be made available to the committee.

The one remaining issue tabled in December 1988 is the matter of “guidelines” to the National Archives, prepared after each volume has been reviewed by CDC. The committee wishes to go on record as reiterating its understanding that its historic role has never been restricted to the Foreign Relations series; that the learned societies of which the members are elected representatives will not accept so narrow an interpretation of its role. Should the Secretary of State ever have the opportunity to examine the guidelines at issue, he might be astonished at the absurdity of risking the credibility of the State Department, the mutual trust that must exist between the committee and the State Department, over documents which would hardly create a stir if published on the front page of the Washington Post.

In the last year, some members of the State Department were troubled by what they considered the monolithic nature of the committee, as evidenced by its unanimity in the face of the restrictions proposed. Suggestions have been made about enlarging the committee with which the current members concur. We would recommend following the suggestions offered by a number of our predecessors: that the State Department include members designated by the chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees. Congressional participation would help legislators understand the difficulties involved in providing full access to historical records, and, not the least, the value of and the justification for expenditure on the Foreign Relations series and other efforts of the historical office.

Preservation of Records

The problems of electronic storage of documents require careful study. It would be valuable to know what documents are preserved on paper and what are kept on computer tapes and disks and what is routinely destroyed? Do the various agencies involved have different policies on record management? Perhaps most important is information on the estimated life of electronically stored data.

The nightmare that confronts us all is the knowledge that important documents, likely candidates for inclusion in the Foreign Relations series, are on disks that will disintegrate years before the documents are scheduled for declassification. Such a loss would be devastating to the series and to the archival collections on which our recreation of the foreign policy past depends.

Finally, I am pleased to repeat that in the last year, strenuous efforts on the part of the State Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs, its Historical Office, and the new leadership of the Classification/Declassification Center, have offered the promise of relieving the credibility crisis. We are delighted that the State Department is once again appreciating the seriousness with which we address our responsibilities and is prepared to give us the information we require to meet those responsibilities. We look forward to an even more productive year in 1989.

Warren I. Cohen, chair of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, is professor of history and director of the Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.