Researching U.S. Foreign Policy
The Department of State is designated as the agency to lead in the overall direction, coordination, and supervision of American foreign policy and foreign relations, but records relating to various foreign policy issues are found among the files of other agencies, too. Since World War II, a "community" of agencies has evolved to deal specifically with certain foreign policy issues. In addition, many other agencies have taken on important roles in American national security affairs. The subject and focus of your foreign relations research will determine the most appropriate records for you to use.
Much policy development takes place in the White House and is documented in the files of the Presidents and their extended staffs. The records and files of all Presidents since Herbert Hoover are located in the Presidential Libraries operated by the National Archives and Records Administration. In addition to White House files, the Libraries hold the files of the National Security Council (NSC) and its staff, other high-level organizations, and the personal papers of key individuals.
Congress also has a role in American foreign policy. The Senate provides advice and consent to all treaties, and many committees in both the Senate and the House of Representatives have oversight on issues relating to foreign affairs. Of most importance are the records of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The work of other committees also may touch on foreign relations matters and Congress has established numerous temporary committees and sub-committees to study special issues and matters relating to U.S. foreign affairs.
As you begin preparations for conducting research at the National Archives, we suggest you consult this FAQ on how to make your research visit more successful.
This reference paper on Getting Started provides information on the process for requesting records for use in the Research Room and the steps necessary to locate the information needed to prepare a pull slip.
Incorporating references to the records you consult is a significant part of your work. It is important to know what information you will need for useful archival citations before you begin your document collection, not as you are finalizing your research. This reference paper provides guidance on Citing the Records with a focus on foreign affairs records.
Links to more detailed information are found below.
How to Approach Doing Research in Foreign Affairs Records
The following are some basic hints on how to approach undertaking research in the records of the foreign affairs agencies. This guidance will be most helpful to novice researchers but can help those with more experience undertaking new avenues of research or working with different records for the first time. Please see the links below for detailed information.
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. In addition to providing the text of many important documents on U.S. foreign policy, FRUS also includes annotated source citations to the printed documents and in this way serves as a finding aid to the records on U.S. foreign policy. Please remember that given the mandate of the series, it does not include documents on every topic in the records; there are records on more topics than in the publication. Furthermore, documents are generally made public through FRUS sooner than the related archival records from which they are drawn so just because records are printed in FRUS does not mean the underlying files from which the documents are drawn are declassified and available for research.
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.
While the subject of your research will dictate the records of most interest to your research, for most topics involving U.S. policies and actions, the central files are the most important Department of State records and research generally should begin, and often concentrate, there. The central files are the most inclusive and authoritative repository of reporting by American diplomatic and consular posts overseas, although not the reporting of other agencies part of a diplomatic post. Furthermore, the central files include much additional internal departmental and inter-agency documentation on policy-making and implementation. Generally, there is at least some documentation in the 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 and 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 handled the pertinent issues and which Foreign Service posts and other agencies in the Government were involved, thus suggesting other directions for research. After exhausting the sources found in the central files, you can expand your research to the decentralized files of the Department indicated by the central files documentation, to other specialized files from the Department, to the records of Foreign Service Posts involved with the issue, and to the records of other agencies.
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 documentation and greater detail about policymaking and activities at the operational level for the specialized programs those agencies handled. In some cases, those operational records will 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 in the records.
Separate collections of non-textual records such as photographs, motion pictures, sound recordings, and maps are maintained by separate branches of the National Archives. Please contact those offices directly for information about the records.
The Foreign Affairs Web Pages
To assist with preparing for a research visit, the National Archives has prepared this set of web pages. Here, you will find an explanation of the records of the Department of State and related foreign affairs agencies, including those of a temporary nature established during World War I and World War II and the more permanent agencies created during the Cold War. These pages include information on the following:
- Central Files
- Decentralized Files
- Foreign Service Posts
- Specialized Files
- International Conferences, Commissions, and Expositions
- Boundary and Claims Commissions and Arbitrations
- Interdepartmental and Intradepartmental Committees
- Committee on Public Information
- War Trade Board
- American Commission to Negotiate Peace
- Foreign Economic Administration
- Office of War Information
- Office of Inter-American Affairs
- American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Historic Monuments in War Areas
- Philippine War Damage Commission
- Displaced Persons Commission
- Agency for International Development
- U.S. Information Agency
- U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency
- Overseas Private Investment Corporation
- U.S. High Commissioner for Germany
- U.S. Foreign Assistance Agencies, 1947-1961
- Trade and Development Agency
- Peace Corps
Other Web Pages
The web pages listed below ink to sites that include information about records of interest to the foreign affairs researcher: