Foreign Affairs

Research on U.S. Foreign Policy

Foreign affairs is a key issue in United States history. The Department of State is designated to lead in the overall direction, coordination, and supervision of American foreign policy and foreign relations, but records relating to your topic might be found among the files of other agencies, too. Since World War II, a community of agencies has evolved to deal specifically with foreign policy issues. In addition, many other agencies have taken on important roles in American national security affairs. The subject and focus of your 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 and its staff and other high-level organizations.

Congress also has a role in American foreign policy. The Senate provides advice and consent to all treaties, and many committees 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.

Assistance from NARA Staff

As noted in the FAQ mentioned above, communicating with the Reference Staff at the National Archives before you visit is likely to improve the results of your research experience. This is especially true in the following instances: (1) if the records are dated from the 1960s and later; (2) if you are dealing with agencies involved with foreign affairs, intelligence, and law enforcement; (3) if you do not have precise file number citations to the files of various agencies or National Archives record group and entry numbers; (4) or if you are unsure that records exist.

While the reference staff cannot undertake your research for you, they can do some preliminary work in order to identify the file categories in the Department of State’s central files likely to contain documentation of interest or locate other series with pertinent records. Doing that work takes time, however. It cannot be done effectively while you are waiting in the Research Room.

Reference staff is available in the Archives II Research Room from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, except legal holidays. For those wanting a more in-depth explanation of the records or with difficult or advanced research projects, a specialist in foreign affairs records is available for consultation. The specialist is in the Archives II Textual Research Room every Tuesday morning from 9AM to 10AM and can answer questions about the organization and content of the records and help you plan a research strategy.

How to Approach Doing Research in Foreign Affairs Records

Here are some very basic hints on how to approach undertaking research in the records of the foreign affairs agencies. This guidance should 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.

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 the most important documents on U.S. foreign policy, FRUS also includes source citations and in this way serves as a finding aid to the records on U.S. foreign policy.

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. Please remember that given the mandate of the series, it does not include documents on every topic in the records and thus it is likely that there are records on more topics than in the publication.

While the subject of your research will dictate the records of most use in your research, for most topics involving U.S. policies and actions, the most important files of the Department of State are those that constitute the central files. The central files are the most inclusive and authoritative repository of reporting by American diplomatic and consular posts overseas and include much additional documentation on policy-making and implementation. There is at least some documentation in the Department’s 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. 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 dealt with the pertinent issues and which Foreign Service posts and other agencies in the Government were involved, thus suggesting other avenues of research. After exhausting the sources found in the central files, you can expand your research to decentralized files of the Department indicated by the central files documentation, the records of Foreign Service Posts involved with the issue, and to other specialized files from the Department.

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 details 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.

Introduction to 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:

Department of State

  • Central Files
  • Decentralized Files
  • Foreign Service Posts
  • Specialized Files
    • International Conferences, Commissions, and Expositions
    • Boundary and Claims Commissions and Arbitrations
    • Interdepartmental and Intradepartmental Committees

World War I Special Agencies

  • Committee on Public Information
  • War Trade Board
  • American Commission to Negotiate Peace

World War II and Aftermath Records

  • 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

Cold War Agencies

  • 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

Genealogical Records

Department of State Publications and Websites

Other Agencies Relating to Foreign Affairs