History Squared! A History of Foreign Relations History

May 11, 2016
Department of State headquarters, Washington, DC

Department of State headquarters, Washington, DC

Since the early days of the Republic, Americans have sought an understanding of how their government conducts its diplomatic affairs. Walk into any bookstore and you’ll likely find at least one historical account of U.S. foreign relations. To be sure, there’s a great deal of public fascination with the Department of State–one of the oldest executive branch agencies. And with that sustained interest comes a vigorous debate about the “people’s right to know.”

GPO makes available printed volumes of the U.S. Department of State’s official documentary historical record of major declassified U.S. foreign policy decisions. It’s called the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. Now there’s a history about that history. History squared!

Toward “Thorough, Accurate, and Reliable”: A History of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series

Public law mandates that the State Department document significant foreign policy decisions and actions. It calls for regular installments in a “historical series . . . which shall be a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record.” This record, the FRUS series, comprises more than 450 individual volumes. The Office of the Historian at the State Department is in charge of maintaining the series. Not long ago it tasked a team of world-class historians to pull together a history of the series.

044-000-02676-7The agency’s historian, Stephen P. Randolph, writes in the book’s forward that FRUS “stands as the global gold standard in official documentary history. It is the longest-running public diplomacy program in U.S. history, and the largest and most productive documentary history program in the world.”  FRUS is composed of sub-series for each presidential administration, with volumes representing different areas of the world or foreign policy issues. Although dedicated documentation didn’t begin until the Civil War, the series covers the foundations of foreign policy in the Jeffersonian era and follows the expansionist years, rise of global powers, Cold War containment, and the clash of modern superpowers.

More than just a historical summary, this book is illuminated with touches of drama and humanity. It traces the series’ conversation surrounding the concepts of accountability and security as they relate to statecraft. At the heart of the “struggles define the ‘soul’ ” of this series is the negotiation between secrecy and public-minded openness. This work talks about the controversies and “how American officials drew the boundaries of responsible transparency.” It demystifies the FRUS debates on the evolving relationship between state and society.

Toward “Thorough, Accurate, and Reliable” snapshots not only the content of U.S. government decision making but also the process of bringing potentially sensitive national security and intelligence information to light. To be truly valued and utilized, foreign policy, and its history, needs light. FRUS fulfills a public service. It represents the promise of open democracy and the expectation of citizens to know how their country handles itself beyond the shores.


Shop Online Anytime: You can buy eBooks or print publications —with FREE Standard Shipping worldwide— from the U.S. Government Online Bookstore at http://bookstore.gpo.gov.

 Shop our Retail Store: Buy a copy of any print editions from this collection at GPO’s retail bookstore at 710 North Capitol Street NW, Washington, DC 20401, open Monday–Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Federal holidays, Call (202) 512-0132 for information or to arrange in-store pick-up.

Order by Phone: Call our Customer Contact Center Monday through Friday, 8 am to 5:30 pm Eastern (except US Federal holidays). From US and Canada, call toll-free 1.866.512.1800. DC or International customers call +1.202.512.1800.

Visit a Federal depository library: Search for U.S. Government publications in a nearby Federal depository library. You can find the records for most titles in GPO’s Catalog of U.S. Government Publications.

About the author: Our guest blogger is Chelsea Milko, Public Relations Specialist in GPO’s Public Relations Office.

In FRUS We Trust: 150 Years of US Foreign Relations History

December 2, 2011

December 3, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. The FRUS series, which is produced by the State Department’s Office of the Historian, was first published in 1861 in the same year that the Government Printing Office was founded and is the official documentary history of U.S. foreign policy decision-making and major diplomatic activity. Researchers and students of foreign policy have relied on the series to provide a “road map” of various major U.S. Government archival sources for many years.

Image: FRUS Series 150th Anniversary. Source: State Dept. Office of the Historian.

The FRUS series now comprises more than 450 individual volumes. A staff of approximately 20 historians and editors at the Office of the Historian in the Department of State compile and prepare the volumes for publication.  More recent volumes published over the last two decades increasingly containing declassified records from all the foreign affairs agencies who participate in a declassification review if their documents are selected for inclusion in a FRUS volume.

What will you find in a typical FRUS volume?

The State Department’s Office of the Historian describes the contents of FRUS volumes:

Foreign Relations volumes contain documents from Presidential libraries, Departments of State and Defense, National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency, Agency for International Development, and other foreign affairs agencies as well as the private papers of individuals involved in formulating U.S. foreign policy.

In general, the editors choose documentation that illuminates policy formulation and major aspects and repercussions of its execution. Volumes published over the past few years have expanded the scope of the series in two important ways: first by including documents from a wider range of government agencies, particularly those involved with intelligence activity and covert actions, and second by including transcripts prepared from Presidential tape recordings.

They go on to add that currently “volumes on the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations are now being researched, annotated, and prepared for publication.”

Contributing to an “Intelligent Public Opinion”

Although the FRUS was originally proposed as an unofficial Annual Report for the Secretary of State, its originators displayed very lofty goals for their now long-lived series.

In describing the history of how the FRUS series came about, Joshua Botts of the Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State explains:

The covering memorandum to the Secretary transmitting the Order for Secretary of State Frank Kellogg’s approval explained that FRUS “ought to contribute to the promotion of interest in questions of foreign policy and in turn assist in the maintenance of an intelligent public opinion.

In short, the Department intended for FRUS to serve an important public affairs function in addition to satisfying demands from the academic community.

Image: Frank Billings Kellogg, 45th Secretary of State under President Calvin Coolidge, 1925-29. Source: State Dept. Office of the Historian.

Thus, the editors of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series act as the curators of American diplomatic history, sifting through our foreign affairs information to ensure there is a means for future generations of Americans to witness, decipher and interpret U.S. foreign policy decisions and actions.

150TH Anniversary Events for the FRUS series

1)      FRUS Research: To mark the 150th anniversary of FRUS, the Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State assembled extensive research on how the evolution of the series fits within many important themes in U.S. history, including the transformation of government institutions, changing conceptions of national security and transparency, and the increasingly important role that the United States has played in the world.

2)      Upcoming FRUS Events:  As part of the FRUS series sesquicentennial, the Office of the Historian has also embarked on an outreach initiative with public events. Even if you missed the commemorative events held to date, you can consult the list of events to see if a recording is available.

Video Recordings of Past FRUS 150th Events

a) Foreign Relations during the Civil War Era: A Video Interview with Dr. Aaron Marrs, Office of the Historian, U.S. State Department, December 1, 2011.

 President Lincoln’s Cottage and the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Department of State hosted a public program to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Foreign Relations of the United State, the flagship publication of the Department’s Office of the Historian. Burrus Carnahan, noted Civil War and Lincoln author and scholar, interviewed Dr. Aaron Marrs, Civil War-era specialist with the Office of the Historian, on Marrs’ new research that sheds light on foreign relations in the context of the Civil War.  Video part one is available here and part two is available here.

b) A Weapon of Mass Instruction?:  Discussion with Office of Historian Staff Members and University of Virginia Professors, November 7, 2011. 

The Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia hosted a discussion between Office of the Historian staff members and University of Virginia professors on how the U.S. Government has historically struggled to balance security imperatives with its commitment to transparency and democratic accountability.  Video available on Miller Center website.

c) Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire: A Conversation on the 1955 Yalta Foreign Relations Volume October 12, 2011.

The story of the Yalta Foreign Relations of the United States volume is a Cold War tale of partisanship, of sensational global headlines and leaks, and of contentious debates about balancing security and openness … learn more about the Yalta papers by listening here to the discussion, “Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire,” at the New York Public Library.

d)      Open Secrets: The Foreign Relations of the United States Series, Democracy’s ‘Need to Know,’ and National Security: American Historical Association Panel,  January, 9,  2011.

To hear how the FRUS editors sort through questions such as how much the public needs to know, what should be kept secret, are secrets political, and how long secrecy lasts, watch this fascinating panel discussion on how a democracy balances the public’s right to know against the need for preserving national security. This panel was held on January 9, 2011 at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting and included a roundtable of historians from the State Department and National Security Archive. The panel discussion can be viewed on CSPAN video or Youtube video.

Figure: FRUS panel entitled “Open Secrets: The Foreign Relations of the United States Series, Democracy’s ‘Need to Know,’ and National Security” at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting on January 9, 2011.

So from one 150 year-old to another, GPO wishes the Foreign Relations of the United States series a very well-deserved happy birthday!

How can you get copies of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series?

Alerts about new releases of the Foreign Relations of the United States series

1) GPO Email Alerts:  Sign up to receive email alerts from the U.S. Government Bookstore about new publications in the FRUS series.

2) State Department FRUS RSS feed:  You can also keep up-to-date about new releases in the FRUS series by subscribing to the State Department’s FRUS Series RSS feed.

About the Author:  Michele Bartram is Promotions Manager for GPO’s Publication and Information Sales Division and is responsible for online and offline marketing of the US Government Online Bookstore (Bookstore.gpo.gov) and promoting Federal government content to the public.

%d bloggers like this: