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Historians: "History Faces an Uncertain Future at the State Department”

The Trump administration has a dismal record when it comes to transparency. Since the president’s inauguration, several government agencies have stripped their websites of information that was previously available publicly. Data has been removed from the websites of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Education, among others. At the same time, the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests has continued to grow. So historians were rightfully alarmed last December when the State Department Policy Planning Staff denied a request from State’s Office of the Historian to renew the terms of three members of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation (known as the Historical Advisory Committee, or HAC). 

Made up of scholars of US foreign relations, the HAC advises the State Department Office of the Historian on aspects of declassifying and publishing diplomatic papers and documents, most crucially the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series—by law, one of the major responsibilities of the Historian’s Office. First published in 1861, the FRUS series now includes more than 480 individual volumes of government documents related to the history of American foreign policy and diplomatic relations. The HAC, in the wording of a 1991 statute that formalized the body, “advise[s] and make[s] recommendations to the Historian concerning all aspects of preparation and publication of the FRUS series.” It monitors the compilation and editorial processes of the series and advises on any problems brought to its attention. Because the HAC’s involvement helps ensure transparency during the production process, interference by political appointees is cause for concern.

When the HAC was first informed in December about the refusal of its request to renew three members, AHA delegate and chair Richard Immerman, professor and emeritus director of the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy at Temple University, requested an explanation through the acting assistant secretary for public affairs, Susan Stevenson. But “no reasons for the denial . . . were offered,” he told Perspectives. That, and the lack of any forthcoming information, said Immerman, were “unprecedented.”

In recent memory at least, the leadership of the State Department always approved such renewal requests as a matter of course. As a body with statutory responsibility to oversee the work of the Historian’s Office, the HAC requires autonomy to be effective in its role. Concerned that the most recent denial was politically motivated, HAC member Robert J. McMahon, who represents the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), resigned from his post earlier this year. The State Department leadership’s involvement in the renewal process, says Immerman, raises concerns, about “not only the HAC’s effectiveness but also its independence.”

The HAC comprises nine scholars, six of whom represent major associations with an interest in the history of American foreign relations. The associations include the AHA, the American Political Science Association (APSA), the Society of American Archivists (SAA), SHAFR, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Society of International Law (ASIL). Three other committee members serve at large and are chosen by the Historian’s Office. The three who were told last December that their services would no longer be required were James McAllister, representing the APSA, and Thomas Zeiler and Katherine A. S. Sibley, both at-large members. ...

Read entire article at AHA