Researching Foreign Affairs Records Part III: Research Hints

By David Langbart

This is the third post in a four-part series about conducting research in the records of agencies specifically responsible for U.S. foreign relations.  It is derived from information on the NARA web pages devoted to that topic. Please visit Part IPart II, and Part IV.

Here are some very basic hints on how to approach undertaking research in the records of the foreign affairs agencies.  This guidance should be most helpful to novice researchers but can also help those with more experience undertaking new avenues of research or working with different records for the first time.  More information on the records described below is found on the web pages found here.

For most topics relating to U.S. foreign policy since 1861, research should begin with a review of the pertinent volumes of the publication Foreign Relations of the United States issued by the Department of State and commonly referred to as “FRUS”.  In addition to providing the text of the most important documents on U.S. foreign policy, FRUS also includes source citations and in this way serves as a finding aid to the records on U.S. foreign policy.

Be sure to record the sources cited in FRUS, note them in your correspondence with the National Archives, and bring them with you when you visit the National Archives.  Please remember that given the mandate of the series, it does not include documents on every topic in the records and thus it is likely that there are records on more topics than in the publication.

While the subject of your research will dictate the records of most use in your research, for most topics involving U.S. policies and actions, the most important files of the Department of State are those that constitute the central files.  The central files are the most inclusive and authoritative repository of reporting by American diplomatic and consular posts overseas and include much additional documentation on policy-making and implementation.  There is at least some documentation in the Department’s central files on almost all topics relating to U.S. foreign policy and relations with other countries.  The arrangement of the central files has changed over time.  It is important to understand those changes in order to use the records effectively.

The documents in the central files (and the markings on them) will indicate the bureaus and offices in the Department that dealt with the pertinent issues and which Foreign Service posts and other agencies in the Government were involved, thus suggesting other avenues of research.  After exhausting the sources found in the central files, you can expand your research to the decentralized files of the Department (often referred to as “Lot Files”) indicated by the central files documentation, the records of Foreign Service Posts involved with the issue, and to other specialized files from the Department.

For many topics, the records of the various specialized foreign affairs agencies established during World War I, World War II, and the Cold War will include more details about policymaking and activities at the operational level for the specialized programs those agencies handled.  In some cases, those operational records can be the focus of in-depth research.  Most of those agencies did not have centralized recordkeeping, so you will have to familiarize yourself with the organization of the agency in question and the functions and responsibilities of each office in order to determine where to focus your research.

Many other agencies have a role in U.S. foreign and national security affairs.  These include organizations in the Executive Office of the President, other civilian agencies, and military agencies.  Most notable among them are the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Commerce.  You should not ignore the records of those agencies if they are relevant to your research

Tomorrow: The foreign affairs web pages.