Preserving Our History: Unfinished Business at Foggy Bottom

Wm. Roger Louis, April 2009

Over the past year the American public has come dangerously close to losing the battle for a full and honest historical record of our foreign relations. Bureaucratic mismanagement within the State Department’s Office of the Historian threatened—and continues to threaten—to damage severely the documentary series, The Foreign Relations of the United States, which has been in continuous publication since 1861 and is considered the gold standard for diplomatic documentation (for a brief early discussion of these developments, see the report published in the January 2009 Perspectives on History and online at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0901/0901new3.cfm).

The stakes are high and the matter is of more than academic importance. Informed decision-making in a democracy requires a reliable record of past decisions. The tradition of the Foreign Relations series requires scrupulous and meticulous editing of the documents that go into the volumes that appear at reasonable intervals. Congressional legislation created a committee to oversee and guide the official historians charged with the responsibility of producing the series.

Composed of nine scholars representing professional societies such as the American Historical Association, the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation—as it is formally titled—assesses the production and quality of the Foreign Relations series, which by law must declassify and publish records, including those of intelligence agencies, within 30 years.

I served for nearly 10 years as a member of the committee, 5 of them as chairman. On December 10, 2008, I resigned to protest mismanagement of the State Department’s Office of the Historian, which is responsible for production of the series. For well over a year, members of the staff had reported to us examples of cronyism, favoritism in promotions, and forced resignations as well as vulgar language—obscenity extraordinary even by Texas standards. I witnessed a general atmosphere of mistrust and plummeting morale. In government as well as academic life there comes a point when management style or leadership converges with public responsibility. There also comes a time to speak out.

Having made no progress among higher echelons in the State Department, in September I asked for testimony myself. I knew that I might have crossed the line of legislative authority into personnel matters. I am unrepentant. Having concluded that the office had become an intolerable place to work, I felt compelled to act.

Most members of the staff hold PhDs. All are hard-working historians but all too many have been driven to the point of despair. The committee was unanimous in its concern about the exodus of senior historians, whose departure especially threatens the quality of the series.

From a staff of about 35, 16 historians have left in the last four years. Among them were four experienced Middle East experts. Compiling the foreign relations volumes is a unique endeavor. It takes many years to train a historian to judge the significance of documents, to determine which ones should be included in the collection, and to acquire the necessary skills to edit and comment. At the present rate of attrition, the series faces as grave a crisis as at any time in its 150-year history.

In November 2008 I wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling for an independent inquiry. Convinced that I would get no satisfaction from the bureaucracy, I read the letter into the public record at the committee’s December meeting. I then resigned. To my surprise, within a week I received a message that the secretary herself wished to speak to the committee. I like to think that she responded as a scholar and former university provost as well as secretary of state. In any event we met with her for nearly an hour on December 22. She listened attentively to us, then named a blue-ribbon, three-member, independent review panel chaired by Warren F. Kimball of Rutgers University, the distinguished editor of the Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence.

Secretary Rice asked for a report by mid-January so she could take action before leaving office. The report was submitted on January 13. She approved it. The report includes three major points: (1) it must be recognized that there is indeed a threat to the scholarly quality of the Foreign Relations series; (2) immediate steps, including reorganization of the Historian’s Office, must be taken to improve morale and trust; and (3) all vacant senior positions unfilled at present must temporarily be frozen.

If past experience is any indication, effective action can only be taken at the highest level. Public access to the “thorough, accurate, and reliable” record, called for by law, is at stake. It is now up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to implement the report’s recommendations. The scholarly community and interested citizens need to make sure that she does so. The matter is now in the hands of the State Department’s Inspector General. I have reason to believe that he will give her sound advice, but let us keep our fingers crossed. Until the Secretary of State actually takes action there will be a fog of unfinished business at Foggy Bottom, and the future of the Foreign Relations series will remain in jeopardy.

—Wm. Roger Louis, a past president of the American Historical Association, is Kerr Professor of English History and Culture at the Univ. of Texas at Austin, and an honorary fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Louis is also the director of the National History Center, an AHA initiative. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation as the delegate of the AHA and as chairman.