PublicHistory Historicizing the Debate about Responsible Transparency: The Past and Future of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series

AHA Session 137
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Washington Room 4 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Stephen Randolph, U.S. Department of State
Steven Aftergood, Project on Government Secrecy, Federation of American Scientists
Brian Balogh, University of Virginia
Joshua Botts, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State
Malcolm Byrne, National Security Archive, George Washington University
Richard H. Immerman, Temple University

Session Abstract

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the world’s preeminent publication of foreign affairs documentation, the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, the Department of State’s Office of the Historian has undertaken a substantial research project (approximately 600 pages in manuscript) on the development and impact of the series. The research reveals a much more expansive story than we anticipated, tracing back to the origins of the republic, covering both the ends and the means of openness, and touching upon a wide array of topics reaching beyond traditional diplomatic history. This roundtable discussion offers an important opportunity to share these findings and reflect upon their implications for the future of responsible transparency.

The most fundamental tensions in the history of the series center on the struggle to balance accountability and responsibility in the conduct of foreign affairs. Put in twenty-first century terms, as early as 1791 it became evident that the requirements of national security clashed with the desire for the transparency of governmental operations necessary for informed oversight of decision-making. The values that the series represented became more contentious as the U.S. rose to world prominence. The dilemmas of global involvement posed fundamental questions about the conduct of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. What secrets can the U.S. government legitimately keep from its own people? To what extent must the U.S. Government protect the interests (and secrets) of foreign partners? What responsibility does the government have to divulge its policy-making process? Should covert operations be officially acknowledged, even in retrospect? Ultimately, how can a democracy function in an information-restricted environment? In this context, the FRUS production process became a key site of disagreement, debate, and discussion between those championing the public’s right to know and those defending the necessity of secrecy. Contentious debates about the series and steadily mounting delays in releasing volumes illustrated evolving attitudes toward transparency, both inside and outside the U.S. Government, during the 20th century.

The history of FRUS also provides a case study in how institutions developed over time, contributing to our understanding of many important themes in U.S. history. The evolution of the series was closely linked to the rationalization of the constitutional separation of powers, the professionalization of the Department of State, the increasing globalism of U.S. foreign policy, the establishment of the national security state, the activism of the academic community, the ironies of reform, and the progress of information technology.

This roundtable offers the historical community a chance to think anew about the past and future of responsible transparency. We have selected presenters who will comment upon the ways in which the history of FRUS clarifies our understanding of the debate about transparency and secrecy and illuminates broader themes in American history. Their comments will open a general discussion with the audience. To facilitate a wider discussion of these themes, the Office of the Historian has released a revised “preview edition” of the FRUS history study that can be seen here:

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