Records of the Foreign Affairs Agencies in the National Archives Bearing on the History of United States Relations with Africa-II: Records of the Department of State, part 2

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

At the 1969 National Archives Conference on the National Archives and Foreign Relations Research, the proceedings of which were published in 1974,[1] Morris Rieger, a longtime National Archives staff member, contributed a paper entitled “Sources in the National Archives Bearing on the History of African-American Relations.” Since that time, the National Archives has accessioned a huge volume of additional records, rendering his important essay out of date.

This is the second of four parts. It updates those portions of Rieger’s essay dealing with the records of the Department of State (Foreign Service Post files, specialized record groups, and records of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace). It includes discussion of the records not in the National Archives in 1969.

The holdings of the National Archives bearing on the history of American relations with Africa are very rich—so much so that in the brief space avail­able it is possible to attempt only an overview.

From the very nature of archival sources it should be clear that the National Archives contains no separate collection of materials on Africa; rather, such materials are located among the records of federal departments and agencies. The Department of State and other foreign affairs agencies, of course, take first place among them.


The third major group consists of the field records of the department, which constitute RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State. In general, the post files provide the same kinds of information concerning American relations with Africa as do the headquarters records; indeed, much of the documentation found in post files consists of the overseas copies of documents found in headquarters files. They often, however, contain additional documentation of research value that had not been transmitted to Washing­ton with the reports to which they relate. The information on Africa is found in concentrated form among the files of the diplomatic posts in European metropole capitals and the records of American embassies and lega­tions in independent African countries in those of U.S. consular posts throughout the continent. The National Archives now has in its custody rec­ords of diplomatic posts in the metropoles as follows: Belgium; France; Germany; Great Britain; Italy; Portugal; and Spain. Also available are records of U.S. embassies and legations in all the countries in Africa as well as the consulates opened in Africa even before the coming of independence. The earliest diplomatic posts are Egypt; Ethiopia; Liberia; Morocco; and the Union of South Africa. The dates of these diplomatic and consular records range from the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century to the 1970s: those of Tunis, for example, begin in 1795, of Zanzibar in 1834, of Capetown in 1835, and of Monrovia in 1856.  Also included in this record group are the records of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (USUN). Given that many issues relating to Africa have come before the UN, the records of that mission will include records of interest.

The fourth major type of State Department records are those found in the specialized record groups. Records relating to United States participation in international conferences, commissions, and exposi­tions are found in RG 43: Records of International Conferences, Commissions, and Expositions.  It contains the formal documentation of the Berlin Conference on West African Affairs, 1884—85, which ratified the establishment of the Congo Free State under Leopold II’s control and agreed on the ground rules for the partition of tropical Africa. This formal documentation consists of printed copies of the proposals and projects, protocols, reports of commis­sions and the culminating General Act of the conference. The State Depart­ment’s own record of the major American role at the conference—where the United States was represented by men in the employ of Leopold II—are to be found among the records of, or relating to, the U.S. legation in Berlin. Also in this group are general records concerning the Capitulations Conference of 1937 at Montreux, which dealt with the termination of extraterritorial rights in Egypt.

Records of many inter- and intra-departmental committees are found in RG 353: Records of Interdepartmental and Intradepartmental Committees of the Department of State. Of particular note are the records of the following committees:

  • Records of committees maintained by the Executive Secretariat. Especially important are the area and country committees.
  • State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee (SWNCC)/State-Army-Navy-Air Force Coordinating Committee (SANACC). This committee, operational from 1944 to 1949, was created to improve liaison between the named agencies on matters of common concern, especially those involving foreign policy.
  • the Interagency Youth Committee (IAYC). This committee operated from 1962 to 1973. The committee was established to stimulate and coordinate U.S. Government programs aimed at young leaders overseas, principally in developing countries, and to compete successfully with Communist countries for influence on their future courses of action.  African countries were of particular interest.

The fifth major group consists of the records of the American Commis­sion to Negotiate Peace, which document United States participation in the Versailles Conference of 1919. The commission’s records constitute RG 256: Records of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace. The central files (“General Records”) of the United States delega­tion contain—among the minutes and reports of the Conference Commis­sions on Colonies, German Colonies, Colonial Mandates, Morocco, and Revision of the General Acts of Berlin and of Brussels, as well as elsewhere in the series—materials relating to the partition of the German Empire in Africa, the rival claims of Britain, France, Italy, and Belgium, the origins of the mandate system, and the American role in these negotiations and developments. Related to these records are those of The Inquiry, a predeces­sor of the American Commission established under Colonel Edward House in 1917 at President Wilson’s instigation to make background studies of subjects likely to arise at the peace conference. The files of the Inquiry include many reports, studies, notes, and other papers pertaining to geographical, demographic, ethnological, religious, diplomatic, political, administrative, military, economic, and social problems of the various regions and territories of Africa. Among them are two lengthy studies by G. L. Beer on international controls in Middle Africa and on Germany’s African colonies which were later published posthumously in Beer’s 1923 volume entitled African Questions at the Paris Peace Conference.

Next: Records of other foreign affairs agencies.

[1]See Milton O. Gustafson, ed., The National Archives and Foreign Relations Research (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1974).