World War I Foreign Policy Records, Part III: The American Commission to Negotiate Peace

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 third, and last, part describes records of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace.

The American Commission to Negotiate Peace, headed by President Woodrow Wilson, represented the United States at the peace conference in Paris at the end of World War I. The records of the Commission were deposited in the U.S. embassy in Paris at the end of the proceedings. They were eventually packed up in about 100 packing cases and sent to the Department of State for preservation. They now form the larger part of Record Group 256: Records of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace.

Some of the records had been arranged according to an ad hoc modification of the filing system used by American diplomatic and consular posts but others were unarranged and in a chaotic state. Because of the lack of organization, in the early 1930s, the Department undertook a comprehensive effort to reorganize and index the records. In doing so, the Peace Conference Section of the Division of Communications and Records followed the filing system used for the Department of State’s central record keeping system of the time. Those records 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 subject classes found in the Commission records are:

Class 0: General. Miscellaneous

Class 1: Administration

Class 3: Protection of Interests

Class 4: Claims

Class 5: International Congresses and Conferences

Class 6: Commerce

Class 7: Political Relations of State

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.)

To provide for the unique documentation and subjects dealt with at the peace conference, the Peace Conference Section staff established numerous new file categories in Class 1. The broad outline of the subjects of those files is:

  • Principal Councils and Conferences
  • Committees and Commissions
  • Organization and Functions
  • National Delegations [other than U.S.]
  • American Delegation
  • Questions Considered by the Conference

In general, the files of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace include minutes and reports of the various committees, councils, commissions, field missions, and plenary sessions; telegrams and dispatches between the Department and the Commission; minutes of meeting of the post-treaty Conference of Ambassadors; and memorandums, publications, pamphlets, and other materials. Also in the files are many documents not related to the work and activities of the Commission. President Wilson and Secretary of State Robert Lansing continued to handle many issues relating to other aspects of U.S. foreign relations while at the conference and documents reflecting those activities were filed with those of the Commission.

The following is a document and enclosure from the files.  “Nguyen Ai Quac” is an earlier alias used by Ho Chi Minh:

Click the image to see an English translation.
Nguyen Ai Quac to Secretary of State of the United States, Letter with enclosure, June 18, 1919, file 851G.00/1, General Records, RG 256: Records of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace.

The primary tool for using the Commission’s records is the “Key to Records” prepared by the Peace Conference Section. The Key provides a general description of the records as well as of the Peace Conference and the American Commission. The bulk of the Key is taken up by thirteen annexes. These include a listing and description of the councils, commissions, committees, and field missions along with the associated file number; an alphabetical list of the subjects considered; outlines of the various treaties negotiated with references to pertinent files; and a list of boundary questions considered and related file numbers.

As another 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 peace commission’s central files and related lists of documents were initially made widely available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M820: General Records of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, 1918-1931. The Key and lists can now be reached from here; the General Records here. The online arrangement matches the microfilm publication (once you reach that page, click on the “Search within this series” button for the roll listing). This attached PDF is the original roll-by-roll listing for M820.

Other records of the peace commission are preserved in the National Archives. You will find a description of them in National Archives Inventory 9: Records of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace.

A special 13 volume sub-series of Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) includes a selection of documents from the Department of State and the American Commission to Negotiate Peace. Included are documents on the period from the Armistice on November 11, 1918 to the first meeting of the Council of Ten on January 12, 1919; minutes of Plenary Sessions and the governing bodies of the conference; minutes of meetings of the American Commissioners; documents relating to the organization and activities of the Commission; and documents relating to field missions of the Commission. The Historical Office of the Department of State will be putting these volumes online through its Ebooks initiative.