Approaching Foreign Affairs Research
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 on this website 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 for 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 covered in the files; 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 documents are printed in FRUS does not mean that 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 content and 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 and citations in FRUS, 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 your 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.
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 those records.