Objective History or a Weapon of Mass Instruction?

In the 1940s and 1950s, policymakers and historians disagreed about the purpose of FRUS. These disagreements ultimately resulted in the creation of new procedures and institutions to assure the integrity of the series. The professional historians charged with producing the series since the late 1920s had always wanted to preserve its objectivity. In the midst of World War II, they pressed for publishing a comprehensive record of the 1919 peace negotiations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other senior policymakers, on the other hand, wanted to promote propaganda and popular mobilization objectives. 

FDR Memo to Hull 9-7-43 (026 Foreign Relations PPC1919 8-2745)

In 1943, Roosevelt vetoed publication of Woodrow Wilson’s Council of Four negotiations at Versailles and instead endorsed Secretary Cordell Hull’s proposal to publish documents on U.S.-Japanese relations between 1931 and 1941 in the 1943 “Peace and War” volumes. These volumes did not conform to the editorial standards that Tyler Dennett introduced in 1925.

Hull memo to FDR (Miscellaneous Office Files, 1910-1944, Box 35, Folder 55D606 OSS-PB-5)

In 1952, FRUS historians added an accelerated–but objective–volume on U.S.-Soviet relations during the 1930s to a broader Cold War documentary arsenal. Although compilers worked to assure the integrity of FRUS, mid-century efforts to use history as a weapon left the series vulnerable to political interference.

In the mid-1950s, Congressional efforts to politicize FRUS threw the series into crisis. When Republicans took over the Senate in 1953, Majority Leader William Knowland requested that the Department produce special, accelerated volumes on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime summits and U.S. relations with China.

Knowland to Dulles, April 22, 1953; Courtesy of the Noble Papers

These volumes demanded greater interagency collaboration than ever before, and confronted Department historians with thorny clearance issues that delayed publication. Frustrated with these delays and suspicious of his superiors, the volume’s compiler leaked information to the press. Faced with mounting public pressure to release the Yalta record, an assistant secretary leaked the volume in draft form to the New York Times in March 1955. Fallout from the leak threatened interagency cooperation and alarmed the academic community. Congress held hearings and launched an investigation. In 1957, the Department created a Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) to safeguard the integrity of the FRUS series and advise on editorial matters, completing the shift from its nineteenth century mission of immediate accountability to its twentieth century role as an instrument of objective historical transparency. Although the Foreign Relations series faced many challenges in fulfilling this function during the ensuing decades, the creation of the HAC and the refinement of interagency research and clearance procedures created a robust foundation for FRUS’s stakeholders to negotiate its future.

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