'Crisis' Seen in Key History Series

Prominent historians are charging that the U.S. State Department office responsible for publishing documents that are essential for research on foreign policy is in "crisis," endangering the historical record and important scholarly work.

December 15, 2008

Prominent historians are charging that the U.S. State Department office responsible for publishing documents that are essential for research on foreign policy is in "crisis," endangering the historical record and important scholarly work.

At issue is the production of Foreign Relations of the United States, a series that dates to 1861 and is the official record of U.S. foreign policy. The production of the series is crucial to declassifying documents and hence to their availability to historians, political scientists and others who study international relations. The process is overseen by an office of historians that, according to scholarly critics, is in disarray.

"[T]he prospective fate of the series has now become so grave that it would be a failure of responsibility on my part were I not to call it to your attention.... This historic mission is now in danger, and, for reasons I shall explain at the end, there is a certain urgency to this letter," Wm. Roger Louis, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin who has just quit as chair of the program's scholarly advisory committee, said in a November letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Louis made the letter public last week as tensions increased over the fate of the series, and the letter and other documents on this dispute were published on a Web site of the Federation of American Scientists.

Louis cited high staff turnover, which he blamed on the management of the office by Marc Susser, the State Department's chief historian. Louis submitted various documents -- including testimony from a number of current and former employees -- charging that the office is not being run well. From the perspective of scholars, however, the bottom line may be in the production of volumes and there Louis also cited evidence and statistics that would disturb many professors:

  • The proportion of volumes published within 30 years of the relevant documents being issued has dropped to 14 percent under Susser, compared to 29 percent under the previous historian. (The significance of 30 years is that Congress ordered the documents to be published by that time.) While recent historians have not been "particularly successful" in meeting the deadline, Louis noted that the success rate is now half of what was a poor base to start with.
  • The cumulative delay in volumes past the 30-year mark is now 209 years, compared to 111 years under Susser's predecessor.
  • There are now 30 volumes that are late (compared to 16 that were late when Susser took office). Many of the delays are "for reasons of management rather than declassification," Louis writes.

This record is particularly galling to Louis and many other historians because Susser has more staff positions than previous State Department historians did and because many scholars consider the 30-year deadline one that already forces them to wait much too long for access to key records.

Another letter of complaint was sent to Secretary Rice by Thomas Schwartz, a Vanderbilt University historian who is president of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations. He, like Louis, said that historians are particularly distressed by the "forced retirement" of Edward Keefer as editor of the series, and said that was emblematic of the problems. The State Department history office now insists on "abject and subservient loyalty to Dr. Susser at the expense of competence and performance in the achievement of the goals of the office," Schwartz wrote.

"The departure of a significant number of the top historians in the office, and the extreme demoralization of much of the rest of the staff, only underlines the damage that has been done ... [and] promises to slow to a crawl the production of the historical record of foreign policy," he wrote. Schwartz added that the future of the series was "in serious jeopardy."

Susser could not be reached for comment. His wife, answering the phone at his home, said that the criticisms of him were "slander," and that she would try to reach him. While he did not call back, a State Department spokesman, Rob McInturff, did.

"We take very seriously the publication of these volumes and we are working hard to make a complete and accurate history available as soon as we can," he said. McInturff said that Susser reported to him today that two more volumes were slated for publication this year.

McInturff said that he could not go into more detail, but referred to a letter to Louis from Sean McCormick, assistant secretary of state for public affairs -- also reproduced on the Federation of American Scientists Web site -- in which he said that he disagreed with many of the criticisms and said he was disappointed that Louis was quitting the advisory committee.

McCormick said that the State Department was committed to the series, and charged that the disagreements with Susser had become "intensely personal." McCormick also edited a version of the advisory committee's report, which contained some of the criticisms outlined in the letters from Louis and Schwartz, and said that they were failing to see the progress being made to improving the timeliness of the publication schedule. He also said that they were focusing too much on management of the historian's office, noted that the State Department has many responsibilities to history beyond the series, and suggested a more narrow agenda for the advisory committee.

The scholars who wrote to Secretary Rice, however, noted in their letters that the drop in the production of volumes demonstrated both the damage being done to scholarship and an objective measure that something is wrong in the historian's office.


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