Research at the National Archives

Department of State Central Files (RG 59)

For most research topics, the central files are the largest and most important category of Department of State records.  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.  Perhaps most importantly, the central files are the most inclusive and authoritative repository of reporting by American diplomatic and consular posts overseas.    In addition, the files include Department of State communications with foreign diplomatic and consular offices in the United States, correspondence with other U.S. Government agencies and the public, and internal memorandums and reports.

Despite the increase of decentralized files in the period after World War II, the so-called "Lot Files," research on almost all topics relating to U.S. foreign policy and foreign affairs should begin with the central files of the Department of State and then branch out to other records of the Department of State and to the records of other foreign affairs agencies.

The records of the Department of State changed over time.  The central file records in the National Archives come from five eras of record keeping: 1789-1906, 1906-1910, 1910-1963, 1963-1973, and 1973-1979.  As a result, the records and how you use them will depend on the time period covered by your research. The following sections describe the records and their arrangement for each time period so that you may more effectively carry out your research.

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