The U.S. in the (Digital) World: Working with the Foreign Relations of the United States Series in 2023

By Linus Lanfermann-Baumann

Editorial note: Having finished his undergraduate studies in History and English at Göttingen University, Linus Lanfermann-Baumann is in the final phase of his master’s degree in History at Heidelberg University. He also spent a virtual semester abroad at McMaster University and was a visiting graduate student at Yale University in 2022-23. His research on German migration to Canada during the Weimar Republic is forthcoming in the Oldenburger Jahrbuch, and his study of public memories of the Communist resistance against Nazism in Western Germany is forthcoming in the Jahrbuch für Historische Kommunismusforschung. His current interests include U.S. foreign relations during the Cold War and inter-American relations. Linus completed his internship at the GHI Washington in the summer of 2023.

The Foreign Relations of the United States series, prepared by the State Department’s Office of the Historian and commonly known under its abbreviation FRUS, is one of the longest-standing, most prolific, and most cited publication series of edited historical sources in the United States and around the world. As such, it plays a prominent role in researching and teaching the history of U.S. foreign affairs. In recent years, the Office of the Historian has digitized most of the more-than-500 individual volumes in what is by now a well-advanced (if still ongoing) process. The purpose of this blog entry is to introduce the series by briefly tracing its history, to evaluate the various ways of accessing FRUS materials online, and to offer a glimpse of digitized historical sources beyond FRUS that can also be used to study and teach U.S. foreign relations.


162 Years and Going

The Foreign Relations series was started in 1861, some eight months into the Civil War, under President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Since then, it has undergone major organizational and conceptual transformations that those using the series should be roughly aware of.[1] The first thing to note is that, essentially, FRUS is the executive branch of the U.S. government reporting on itself. This official nature has always entailed a fundamental tension between the government’s parallel interests in both transparency and secrecy – the first bestowing democratic legitimacy, the second protecting national security (or so it is argued).

Between 1861 and 1925, FRUS publications were largely a means for Congress, the legislative branch, to monitor the executive as part of the checks-and-balances system. Editing and review procedures were not highly formalized. This began to change in 1925, however, when Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg issued an order that professionalized the production of future volumes, sparking the interest of academics in the series.

FRUS’s strong focus on State Department records shifted with the expansion of the national security state during the Cold War. Editors began to include documents from other departments and agencies involved in foreign policy and to draw on significant individuals’ private papers. Clearance procedures became more complicated with this documentary expansion, highlighting the ever-present tension between the contradictory needs for transparency and secrecy then shaped by Cold War objectives. Consequently, the “publication lag” (the time between events and their public documentation in the series) rose constantly, reaching more than thirty years by the late 1980s.

The first major FRUS controversy of the Cold War era was the publication under Republican congressional pressure of the “Yalta Papers” in 1955, only ten years after the famed conference attended by then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat.[2] A Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) consisting of academic historians was established as a consequence of this episode and still exists today. Strong criticism was also directed at the 1983 and 1989 volumes that covered U.S. activities in Iran and Guatemala but, hampered by the CIA and a new “Classification/Declassification Center” at the State Department, blatantly omitted much of Washington’s well-known role in overthrowing these countries’ elected leaders in 1953 and 1954.[3] Exacerbated by the resignation of the chair of the HAC, the ensuing crisis led to Congress passing a special FRUS statute in 1991, which demanded that documentation henceforth be “thorough, accurate, and reliable.” The statute thus reconfigured the balance between transparency and secrecy in favor of the former, even if the documentation of the Congo Crisis, the mass killings in Indonesia, and the proposed covert action in Greece during the 1960s continued to draw criticism in the 1990s and early 2000s.[4] Meanwhile, a strategic initiative advanced a plan that would make future volumes more flexible and accessible: electronic publication.


The Digitized FRUS

Since the “Future of FRUS” initiative introduced the idea in the late 1990s, efforts at electronic publication and digitization have come a long way.[5] Online access to the series is currently available via the websites of three different institutions: the State Department’s Office of the Historian; the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries; and the commercial database service HeinOnline, otherwise known for its legal materials. Although many purposes may be served by either of these three platforms, there are nevertheless important differences that make them more or less useful depending on the user’s objective. The following table summarizes these differences:



Office of the Historian (State Department)

University of Wisconsin-Madison








all volumes

375 volumes covering 1861 to 1960 only

all volumes

Online view

full web edition

JPG facsimile preview

PDF facsimile preview

Download options

full ebook download, limited PDF download (only vols. published in 2004 or later)

full PDF download (of available vols., see above)

limited PDF download (200 pages max. per download)

Microfiche supplements





Perhaps the most intuitive place to look is the official website of the Office of the Historian – which, indeed, has a lot going for it. There is free access, for one, and the content will always be up to date. Now that all the main volumes are available online, the Office is currently publishing updated digital editions of the microfiche supplements compiled in the 1980s and the 1990s that documented the Eisenhower and Kennedy years despite budget restraints.[6] Users have two main options here: They can either use the FRUS web edition, which includes the option to search the full text either of a given volume or across all volumes, or they can download an ebook in either of the EPUB or mobi formats. OCR-searchable PDF versions are also available, but only for volumes published in 2004 or later and for the updated microfiche supplements. Finally, and in line with Barack Obama’s 2009 Open Government Initiative as well as the 2012 Digital Government Strategy, the source files are freely available on GitHub, even leading one scholar to use it as a test case for her proposal of “New Archival History.”[7]

The second option builds on a collaboration between the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries and the University of Illinois at Chicago Libraries and offers facsimiles of the printed volumes rather than a full-fledged web edition. Like the State Department’s website, the database is freely available and fully searchable, both within a given volume and across the entire series. No FRUS volumes are available beyond those covering the 1958-60 period, however. The key advantage of the University of Wisconsin facsimiles is that all available volumes can be downloaded freely as PDF versions.

Unlike these first two platforms, the HeinOnline database is not freely available but subscription-based. There are institutional subscriptions, however, so that affiliates of certain institutions would not have to pay out of their own pocket to gain access. HeinOnline has all the volumes available at the Office of the Historian website to view online, including full-text search options, and individual chapters can be downloaded as PDF files. Unfortunately, while there does not seem to be a cap on downloads overall, any individual download is limited to 200 pages.

In short: Those who prefer working online with a fully developed web edition rather than facsimiles, or offline with ebooks rather than PDF files, should use the digital materials offered by the Office of the Historian. Those who prefer PDF files and are not interested in the period after 1960 may want to use the University of Wisconsin-Madison database. And those who are looking for PDF files available neither at the Office of the Historian nor the University of Wisconsin Libraries (i.e., volumes published in print before 2004 that cover the post-1960 era) may want to consult HeinOnline.


Digitized Sources Beyond FRUS

Of course, there are many further options beyond the Foreign Relations series for studying and teaching U.S. foreign affairs with digitized primary sources. I cannot offer an exhaustive overview here but will merely refer to some of the most important resources.

For starters, the Office of the Historian offers a useful overview of various electronic resources on U.S. foreign affairs. Perhaps most important are the “electronic reading rooms,” a result of one of many amendments to the 1966 Freedom of Information Act. Signed by Bill Clinton in 1996, the so-called “e-FOIA” amendments provided for increased electronic access to government documents requested through FOIA and beyond. For example, electronic reading rooms are available on the CIA, the State Department, and the Department of Defense websites.[8] Declassified documents can also be obtained through the U.S. Declassified Sources Online archive run by the private publisher Gale, the WikiLeaks public library PlusD, and the National Security Archive, a nonprofit organization advocating government transparency.

HeinOnline’s above-mentioned FRUS database holds related subcollections, most of which are also freely available elsewhere. These include various government documents, such as Title 22 (Foreign Relations) of the Code of Federal Regulations, congressional reports, and official publication series of primary sources other than FRUS, such as American Foreign Policy: Current Documents.

Those interested in the role of U.S. presidents in foreign relations can consult the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, which provides free access to the well-known Public Papers of the Presidents series, originally compiled by the Office of the Federal Register at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and much more. The University of Virginia’s Miller Center runs a useful Presidential Recordings Program whose digital edition offers free access to at least some of the presidential tapes. NARA, furthermore, provides access to some of its electronic records through its Access to Archival Databases (AAD) resource, including State Department telegrams from the 1970s.

Overall, documentation of the historical role of the United States in the (analog) world has increasingly been made available in the digital world. While the FRUS series remains an important archive for many scholars and instructors, numerous other online resources have also facilitated and enriched research and teaching, and they will continue to do so in the foreseeable future as historians dive deeper into the digital age.

[1] The authoritative account of FRUS’s history and the basis for the following remarks is a meticulous self-portrayal by researchers at the Office of the Historian that largely supersedes two earlier article-length assessments by historian Richard W. Leopold. See William B. McAllister et al., Toward “Thorough, Accurate, and Reliable”: A History of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, 2015); Richard W. Leopold, “The Foreign Relations Series: A Centennial Estimate,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 49, no. 4 (1963): 595–612; Richard W. Leopold, “The Foreign Relations Series Revisited: One Hundred Plus Ten,” The Journal of American History 59, no. 4 (1973): 935–57.

[2] Department of State, FRUS: Diplomatic Papers, Conferences at Malta and Yalta, 1945 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1955). The editing institution, the place of publication, and the publisher are the same for all FRUS volumes and omitted in further references.

[3] FRUS: 1952–1954, The American Republics, Volume IV (1983); FRUS: 1952–1954, Iran, 1951–1954, Volume X (1989). More complete FRUS volumes have since appeared on the U.S. role in these two coups, see FRUS: 1952–1954, Guatemala (2003) and FRUS: 1952–1954, Iran, 1951–1954 (2017), the latter of which was slightly expanded for a second edition in 2018.

[4] FRUS: 1958–1960, Africa, Volume XIV (1992); FRUS: 1961–1963, Volume XX, Congo Crisis (1994); FRUS: 1964–1968, Volume XXVI, Indonesia; Malaysia-Singapore; Philippines (2000); FRUS: 1964–1968, Volume XVI, Cyprus; Greece; Turkey (2002). Some of the more sensitive records on CIA covert action during the Congo Crisis were included much later, see FRUS: 1964–1968, Volume XXIII, Congo, 1960–1968 (2013). Besides the official FRUS history (footnote 1), see also Page Putnam Miller, “We Can’t Yet Read Our Own Mail: Access to the Records of the Department of State,” A Culture of Secrecy: The Government Versus the People’s Right to Know, ed. Athan G. Theoharis (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998): 186–210. And see Matthew Jones and Paul McGarr, “‘Real Substance, Not Just Symbolism’? The CIA and the Representation of Covert Operations in the Foreign Relations of the United States Series,” Intelligence Studies in Britain and the US: Historiography since 1945, ed. Christopher R. Moran and Christopher J. Murphy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013): 65–89.

[5] See McAllister et al., Toward “Thorough, Accurate, and Reliable, 323–24 for the original initiative.

[6] As of August 2023, four out of the thirteen microfiche supplements have been made available online.

[7] Eun Seo Jo, “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1860–1980: A Study in New Archival History” (Stanford University: Ph.D. dissertation, 2020), available at See for the TEI XML source files (many thanks to Simon Krahé at the University of Wuppertal for his helpful explanations). See also

[8] The Department of Defense’s FOIA program is decentralized, see