“An Opinion-Moulder of No Little Importance”: FRUS and Cold War Revisionism

During the Vietnam War, supporters of the Foreign Relations series hoped to gain additional resources to accelerate FRUS production by convincing the leadership of the Department that the series could improve public support for U.S. foreign policy. Historians inside the Department of State and academic advisors who served on the Department’s Historical Advisory Committee agreed that earlier publication of the official record of U.S. foreign policy could clarify the origins of the Cold War, focusing blame for starting the superpowers’ confrontation upon Soviet provocations. Such clarification had civic as well as scholarly implications, because Department historians and HAC members argued that refuting revisionist interpretations of American responsibility for the Cold War could help break the antiwar fever sweeping college campuses across the country.

FRUS Editor (analogous to today’s General Editor) S. Everett Gleason led this effort. Gleason’s campaign reflected prior experience. In the early 1950s, before he served as the executive secretary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s National Security Council, Gleason collaborated with William Langer (a Harvard historian who consulted on intelligence analysis) on a two-book project financed by the Council on Foreign Relations that exploited privileged access to official U.S. Government documents to criticize the pre-World War II isolationist movement–and prevent its resurgence in the postwar era. For Gleason, The Challenge to Isolation and The Undeclared War showed that history could and should be used as a political tool to promote worthy national goals. In 1965, he applied this lesson to FRUS and urged the Advisory Committee to “refer to the present ferment in university communities as an added reason for publishing on time a candid record of American foreign relations.” In 1967, Gleason warned that “a new revisionism is growing up, but desk officers seldom appreciate the great value of a candid presentation of American foreign policy.”

HAC chair Robert Stewart obliged in March of 1968 and reported to the Department that, in light of “the problem of both domestic and world opinion, and particularly as it may be affected by the current ‘outbursts of revisionism’ by certain historians on the origins and nature of the cold war, the Advisory Committee believes that full public documentation on the years 1945-1947, and even later, would serve highly practical national purposes. The ready availability of the full record on the origins and early years of the cold war would provide a sound factual basis for judgment and decision by our policy makers, by Congress, by scholars and writers[,] and by public opinion at home and abroad.” In 1970, Elmer Plischke (Stewart’s successor) warned Secretary of State William Rogers that the growing lag in FRUS publication “cause[d] the Department and the nation grave harm” by inviting “irresponsible members of the public … to charge the government with concealment of facts,” enabled “alleged scholars to develop and teach fanciful theories about … the origins of the cold war,” and exacerbated “the undesirable gap between the Department and the scholarly community.”

The Historical Office and the Historical Advisory Committee abandoned their attempts to link their historiographical goal of buttressing Cold War orthodoxy with the Department’s efforts to shore up public support for the Vietnam War in 1971. One reason for their shift was pragmatic: the anti-revisionist arguments did not succeed in securing more resources for FRUS from the Department’s budget. Another was that Cold War revisionism grew stronger rather than weaker as the record of the early Cold War years opened. In June of 1971, the Department invited Walter LaFeber, a leading Cold War revisionist historian, to join the HAC and the minutes of subsequent meetings show nary a peep from anyone about exploiting FRUS as a historiographical cudgel.

In fact, the Cold Warriors who hoped to combine a boost in the FRUS budget with embarrassing the campus antiwar movement failed on both counts. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, the historian Frank Costigliola assessed that “many of the documents published in the Foreign Relations of the United States volumes for the war and immediate postwar years undermined the Manichaeism of the orthodox interpretation.” Far from refuting Cold War revisionism, the FRUS series invited scholars from every interpretive persuasion to test their views against the historical record.

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