Did you know that…
the 1955 release of the official records of the Yalta conference was headline news around the world? [And] the U.S. Government used its own diplomatic correspondence as a weapon against the Confederacy during the Civil War?
I did not know that.
The paper on the politics of the Yalta FRUS is here, and I highly recommend it. A few excerpts:
Throughout the 20th century, the Foreign Relations series evolved in response to broader transformations in American foreign relations, government institutions, and political culture. The most enduring of these transformations occurred in the 1950s, when the series adapted to the development of the national security state and the globalization of U.S. power. The intense bureaucratic, partisan, and international controversies generated by the 1955 FRUS volume for the 1945 Yalta conference helped define the series for the Cold War.
The Yalta volume precipitated the transformation of FRUS, though the controversies that it sparked also imperiled the existence of the series ... In the short run, however, the Yalta FRUS also emboldened officials in the U.S. Government skeptical of the value of transparency in a dangerous world.
The Yalta volume began as a classified policy study for official use within the U.S. Government in November 1947 ... In 1950, the question of wider publication arose as partisan debate over the conference intensified. Bernard Noble, head of the Historical Policy Research Division ... warned [SecState Dean Acheson] that portions of conference minutes might embarrass the U.S. and Britain, that the lack of agreed minutes might allow the Soviet Union to release an “alternate” version of the conference to galvanize world opinion against the West, and that the Department’s poor wartime record-keeping left it incapable of satisfying inevitable public demands for releasing the records of the other conferences. Choosing security over transparency, the Department kept the Yalta records secret.
After Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1952 election, the new, conservative Congressional majority urged a different choice. On April 22, Senate Majority Leader William Knowland ... requested a special series on secret Allied wartime conferences. “If Democratic holdovers in the Division of Historical Policy Research are prevented from excluding key documents,” Knowland predicted, “these publications would be of tremendous value.”
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The continued sensitivity of many of the issues discussed at the wartime conferences and the partisan aura of the accelerated production of FRUS alarmed other government agencies and former officials. It took years for [the Historical Division] to gain access to Truman’s papers for the Potsdam compilation, and the office was denied permission to examine the papers of the deceased Yalta Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius. Even some bureaucracies that had cooperated with the original policy study resisted additional requests. The most consequential bureaucratic opposition to releasing the Yalta volume came from the Pentagon.
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In an August 1954 review of the first galley proofs of the volume, Winnacker expressed “a sense of shock when reading in the present EDC atmosphere the actual 1945 plans for the postwar treatment of Germany, its dismemberment, reparations, and standard of living” and thought “the cavalier disposal of smaller countries or the attitude toward France” were “not likely to facilitate our foreign relations.” Winnacker warned that gaps and the selective inclusion of pre-conference documents would discredit the publication. He suggested either abandoning the project, allowing the Senate to publish a revised version in exchange for increased mutual assistance funds to “undo the damage” abroad, or “prohibiting” the volume’s “export or republication in foreign languages.” Although conceding that final authority rested with State, Winnacker ardently believed that publication would harm the national interest.
The Bureau of European Affairs within the State Department itself also considered the Yalta volume too sensitive to release. To officials responsible for U.S. policy toward Germany, releasing the Yalta compilation seemed recklessly irresponsible.
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[Foreign Minister] Anthony Eden [who had to clear the release of joint Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff papers] explained his “very real concern over the publication of all these documents so soon after the event.” He argued that “publication now of such detailed records may cause misunderstanding or create controversy without significantly increasing public knowledge of the events” and warned that British “anxieties about this project and our fear that the publication of such detailed records in the political lifetime of so many of the participants may make it difficult for us to be as frank as we should wish in future conferences.”
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[The new SecState John Foster] Dulles grew increasingly frustrated, and when, in late January, McCardle worried that the intense interest in the Yalta volume made leaks inevitable, the Secretary confessed he “wouldn’t mind that.” In the same conversation, he pointed out that Senator Knowland and his conservative colleagues had pushed the State Department to expedite FRUS because “they thought there was a lot of stuff which would be useful. Actually there is nothing.” After several weeks of debate, Dulles accepted Noble’s suggestion of limiting access to the galleys (and responsibility for leaks) to Congress.
But, with the Democrats back in power, this strategy backfired. Congress refused to accept responsibility for classified documents and demanded to know why State didn’t publish the volume itself.
As rumors swirled about the contents of the Yalta papers and the true reasons they could not be released, New York Times reporter James Reston approached McCardle and offered to publish the Yalta records in full to prevent damage from their piecemeal release. On March 15, 1955, McCardle gave Reston a copy of the Yalta galleys. The Chicago Tribune quickly caught wind of the scoop and enlisted Illinois Senate Republican Everett Dirksen to demand that Dulles release the volume to everyone. Backed into a corner, Dulles cabled London to explain that he had no choice but to release the volume. Eden accepted the fait accompli.
There is much more, but that's enough to convince me of something I had thought about before. The WikiLeaks release of State Department cables was a reckless and juvenile imitation of the more mature high drama that has accompanied the FRUS series.
FYI, that Yalta FRUS volume is available here