Publication Date

May 1, 2011


  • United States


Archives, Diplomatic/International, Research Methods

During the past 20 years diplomatic history has enjoyed something of a renaissance, regaining popularity after suffering a decline along with other branches of political history. As this revival has advanced, historians have incorporated nontraditional subjects into the field, discovering enlightening ways to integrate new perspectives into foreign relations scholarship. Issues such as civil rights, cultural and intellectual history, and environmental diplomacy, to cite a few examples, have all been integrated fruitfully into the study of U.S. diplomatic history. Despite undergoing this “era of innovation,” the study of foreign relations can never venture too far from the state and the governmental actors who develop and execute foreign policy. To whatever extent nonstate actors play a role in foreign relations, the bulk of significant diplomatic activity remains within the province of state action. 1

Record Groups and Presidential Libraries

The good news for historians is that primary source material available for the study of the government’s role in conducting foreign relations is vast and growing. The General Records of the Department of State (Record Group 59, usually known by its abbreviated name, RG 59) held at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) encompasses more than 60,000 linear feet of material. The most important Department of State records at NARA are in various iterations of the department’s central files consisting of records relating to all aspects of American bilateral and multilateral foreign relations including correspondence, dispatches, letters from heads of state, diplomatic notes, consular records, memoranda, records of the secretaries of state, and reports dating back to the beginning of the republic. Also part of RG 59 are the decentralized office files, the so-called Lot Files. They include the files of high-level offices and the geographic and functional bureaus such as the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, the Bureau of African Affairs, and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, as well as the records of the Policy Planning Staff, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Public Affairs, International Organizations/UN, and the Executive Secretariat. The Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State (RG 84) contain materials originally filed at U.S. posts abroad, including some records of the U.S. Information Service.

In addition, historians conducting research into foreign policy topics may find other record groups at NARA of interest; these may include such records as those of International Conferences, Commissions, and Expositions (RG 43); the Foreign Agricultural Service (RG 166); the Office of War Information (RG 208); the Office of Inter-American Affairs (RG 229); the U.S. Agency for International Development (RG 286); the Displaced Persons Commission (RG 278); the U.S. Information Agency (RG 309); the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (RG 466); U.S. Foreign Assistance Agencies, 1948–1961 (RG 469); and the Peace Corps (RG 490). Researchers intending to use any of these records should write to the National Archives several weeks before visiting to ensure that the records they wish to see are available.

Recently the National Archives took up the challenge of making the most recently accessioned central files records available online to researchers through the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) system. The system provides searchable access to declassified Department of State telegrams and to indexes of hard copy documents such as correspondence, memoranda, and reports regarding all aspects of U.S. foreign relations that are available at the National Archives. Historically significant Department of State materials are generally transferred to NARA after undergoing a 25-year declassification review as mandated by Executive Order 13526. Although the AAD currently includes records from 1973 until 1976, NARA will continue to add material as it is transferred from the Department of State to the Archives.

It is important to remember that almost any significant foreign policy decision, particularly regarding national security issues or military action, is discussed and approved at the highest levels in the White House. Since the Second World War, beginning with the Truman administration, the bulk of White House national security and foreign policy documentation has been housed at presidential libraries administered by NARA. Here one typically finds the records of the National Security Council (NSC) as well as foreign policy material from other agencies (such as the Department of State, Department of Defense, and the Central Intelligence Agency) used by the president. Not surprisingly, presidential library collections are large, running into millions of pages.

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, for example, holds an enormous body of material relating to Nixon’s major foreign policy initiatives such as the opening to China, détente with the Soviet Union, and the Vietnam War. Collections for these efforts include the National Security Council Files, containing, among others, the Agency Files, the Vietnam Subject Files, Country Files, the President’s Trips Files, Presidential Correspondence, and Memoranda of Conversation. A subsection of the NSC Files, the NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), hold significant policymaking material including the National Security Study Memoranda (NSSMs) and National Security Decision Memoranda (NSDMs) as well as the minutes of National Security Council meetings. Other collections include the White House Central Files, the Henry Kissinger Office Files, and the unique resource of the White House Tapes.

The FRUS Series

The Foreign Relations of the United States series is a rich resource for diplomatic historians. Photo composition by Chris Hale
The Foreign Relations of the United States series is a rich resource for diplomatic historians. Photo composition by Chris Hale.

While the good news is that there is plenty of material, the bad news is that the task of finding relevant records in this ocean of documentation can be a challenge. Fortunately, when it comes to researching diplomatic history, the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) historical documentary series can help. The Office of the Historian at the Department of State is mandated by Congress with producing theForeign Relations series, required by statute to provide a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” record of all U.S. diplomatic activity. This year Foreign Relations celebrates its sesquicentennial anniversary, marking 150 years in continuous publication, making it the oldest and most comprehensive collection of its kind. The series can provide researchers with a useful starting point for looking into nearly any topic related to U.S. activity abroad including bilateral relations with foreign governments, foreign aid, economic and trade policies, environmental diplomacy, arms control, national security policies, international organizations, military actions, and Cold War strategy. Charged with publishing the official record of U.S. foreign relations, State Department historians have complete access to records held at the Department of State, NARA, presidential libraries, and other government agencies relevant for the development and execution of foreign policy.

The Foreign Relations series is organized by presidential administration. Typically each volume contains official documents such as Department of State telegrams, memoranda of conversation between the president and foreign leaders, memoranda from the national security advisor, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense or other officials to the president, minutes of NSC meetings, letters, messages, policy papers, and intelligence reports. The editors provide a title for each document and arrange them in chronological order. Annotation provides information about the archival source, the original classification, and other helpful explanatory details. But every effort is made to let the documents speak for themselves without including subjective commentary. Because each document includes a source citation, the published volumes serve as guides to the larger sets of records that are not included. Each volume includes a helpful note on sources, listing the location of all repositories consulted and describing which archival collections the editor found most fruitful.

The Office of the Historian coordinates the declassification review of the historically significant documents published in Foreign Relations. Because the editors have access to all relevant records regardless of classification our historians can target selected documents for expedited declassification. The overall process is typically not quick, requiring a multistage inter-agency review to ensure all the material that can be released is released, excepting only that which is legitimately withheld for reasons of national security as prescribed by law. Although the complex review and appeal process can sometimes take longer than we would prefer, the effort usually means additional information is made available to the public.

Despite the effort to provide as comprehensive coverage as possible, the documentation published inFRUS represents only the tip of the iceberg of the material available in the various repositories. Given page constraints, the editors are faced with the vexing problem of selection. In cases where they cannot cover specific topics in as much detail as they would like, the editors will frequently choose representative selections, in effect leaving researchers with a trail marker to additional documentation. Citations to additional material are also included in footnote annotations.

The Office of the Historian works to make Foreign Relations as widely available to the public as possible, publishing fully searchable electronic volumes dating from the Kennedy administration online at Volumes covering the period prior to the Kennedy era are available from the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections in an excellent online collection at Foreign audiences, in particular, benefit from the online publication of Foreign Relations which in many cases provides useful, and sometimes the only, information on the activities of less transparent governments.

The renewed interest in the study of diplomacy is a welcome development in the overall revitalization of political history. For those looking to explore diplomatic history topics, theForeign Relations of the United States series is an excellent place to start.


1. Thomas W. Zeiler, “The Diplomatic History Bandwagon: A State of the Field,”Journal of American History, March 2009.

Carl Ashley, who received his PhD from the Catholic University of America, is chief of the Declassification and Publishing Division in the Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed in the article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or of the U.S. government. He wishes to thank David A. Langbart of the National Archives and Records Administration for commenting on a draft of this article.

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