World War I Foreign Policy Records, Part I: The Department of State

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

April 6, 2017 marks the centennial of United States entry into World War I. As part of its commemoration of that event, the National Archives and Records Administration has digitized and put online three sets of records constituting the most important files relating to the foreign policy aspects of the war and the subsequent peace conference. Those records consist of the so-called “World War I file” of the Department of State, the reports and studies of The Inquiry, and the central file of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace.

This first part, of three, describes relevant records from the central files of the Department of State.

The Department’s primary files on World War I and its termination are found in file “763.72” and its subfiles. That is the file on political relations between Austria (country number “63”) and Serbia (country number “72”), the initial belligerents in the war. As the war expanded, the Department continued filing documents under that file number and it became known as “the World War I file.” The records are from the Central Decimal File, part of Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State.

The World War I file was initially made widely available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M367: Records of the Department of State Relating to World War I and Its Termination, 1914-1929. They can now be reached online from here. The online arrangement matches the microfilm publication (see below).

The following document is the Department of State’s notification to American diplomatic posts that a state of war existed between the United States and Germany:

Department of State to All Diplomatic Missions except Petrograd, Telegram, April 6, 1917, File 763.72/3697a, 1910-1929 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives.

The basic arrangement of the records in the World War I files is as follows:

  • Lists of Documents – 11 rolls
  • 763.72 Political relations between Austria and Serbia (European War) – 133 rolls
  • 763.72111 Neutrality – 43 rolls
  • 763.72112 Neutral Commerce – 54 rolls
  • 763.72112a U.S. list of contraband and trading with enemy list – 26 rolls
  • 763.72113 Enemy Property – 15 rolls
  • 763.72114 Prisoners of war – 40 rolls
  • 763.72114a American prisoners of war – 9 rolls
  • 763.72115 Civil prisoners; enemy noncombatants – 24 rolls
  • 763.72116 Illegal and inhumane warfare – 10 rolls
  • 763.72117 Hospital ships – 4 rolls
  • 763.72118 Military and civilian observers – 1 rolls
  • 763.72119 Termination of war – 148 rolls [The records under file designation are closely related to those of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace that will be described in part 3 of this series.]

While the records described above are referred to as “the World War I file,” not all documents relating to the war will be found there. Records relating to the political relations between the countries involved in the war will be found in the pertinent Class 7 files and documents on the internal affairs of those countries will be found in the Class 8 records on those countries. Most of those records from the 1910-29 block of the Central Decimal File are available on National Archives Microfilm Publications (but not yet online).

In this document, Presidential advisor Edward House informed the President that the armistice was signed:

Embassy Paris to Department of State, Telegram 86, November 11, 1918, file 763.72119/9129, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives.

This attached PDF is the original roll-by-roll listing for M367.  This listing provides additional details about the records and will help you pinpoint where documents of interest are found.

As one of the finding aids to the files, the Department of State created “Lists of Documents,” also known as “purport lists.” These lists give a brief abstract of each document indexed to each file. The entries on the lists correspond to the arrangement of the documents in the files. The lists for the World War I file can be reached at the same link as the files.

Many documents from these records are found in the “World War” and the “Lansing Papers” supplements of the series of Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS). The Historical Office of the Department of State will be putting these volumes online through its Ebooks initiative.

At the time of World War I, the Department of State’s central record keeping system was known as the Central Decimal File. The records in that series were arranged in nine subject classes according to a pre-determined decimal subject classification scheme using a system of country numbers and subject numbers to create a file number. The first digit in each file number indicates the class of which it is a part. The subject classes are:

Class 0: General. Miscellaneous

Class 1: Administration

Class 2: Extradition

Class 3: Protection of Interests

Class 4: Claims

Class 5: International Congresses and Conferences

Class 6: Commerce

Class 7: Political Relations of State (The records described above are part of this class.)

Class 8: Internal Affairs of States (This class is further divided into file categories on political affairs; public order, safety, health, and works; military affairs; naval affairs; social matters; economic matters; industrial matters; communication and transportation; navigation; and other internal affairs.)

The files include instructions to and despatches from American diplomatic and consular posts, telegrams between the Department and those posts, diplomatic notes exchanged between the Department of State and foreign diplomats in the United States, correspondence with officials of other agencies and the public, memorandums and reports prepared within the Department of State, and other related documentation. The despatches often enclose copies of diplomatic notes exchanged by posts overseas, pamphlets, and newspaper clippings.

More information on the Central Decimal File is here. Guidance on preparing citations is here.