PublicHistoryRoundtable Open Secrets: The Foreign Relations of the United States Series, Democracy’s “Need to Know," and National Security

AHA Session 279
Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations 3
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room 203 (Hynes Convention Center)
Nathaniel L. Smith, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State
Myra Burton, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State , John Prados, National Security Archive , David Palkki, Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) at the National Defense University and Mitchell Lerner, Ohio State University

Session Abstract

The 150th anniversary of the Foreign Relations of the United States series, the official documentary record of U.S. foreign policy, arrives at a potential watershed in the history of U.S. government secrecy. For generations, policymakers have struggled to balance the democratic necessity of an informed citizenry against the requirements of national security. This balancing act between secrecy and transparency became increasingly difficult with the expansive growth of the national security bureaucracy during the Cold War. The global struggle against terrorism has kept the intensity of the debate high while pundits and the press helped to guide secrecy to the center of popular political debate. Now, President Obama’s Open Government Initiative and his Executive Order on Classified National Security Information seek to revolutionize the security classification and declassification processes by rebalancing the debate in favor of greater government transparency.
     For the past 150 years the Foreign Relations of the United States series has been a window and a bellwether in this debate. The series has been a flagship for the U.S. Government’s commitment to openness, and a global leader in the publishing of diplomatic correspondence. But it has also been buffeted by the broader political, geopolitical, and social currents that have shaped the secrecy-transparency debate. During the McCarthy era, fear of the possible politicization of the volumes, for example, prompted the American Historical Association to investigate the issue. During the 1980s, public concern about the exclusion of intelligence community secrets provoked widespread attention and congressional legislation. Historians, journalists, and the public have long relied on the series for access to the core documents that explain U.S. foreign policy. This panel celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Foreign Relations of the United States series by exploring the enduring questions in Washington’s commitment to both democracy and security: How much does the public need to know?  What should be kept secret? Are secrets political? Do secrets last forever?

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