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Library of Congress Manuscripts: An Illustrated Guide

Foreign Policy

Only the official records of the State Department surpass the richness of the Manuscript Division's holdings for documenting American foreign policy. The division houses the papers of individuals who have served as secretary of state from the first secretary, Thomas Jefferson, who assumed office in 1789, to Madeleine Albright, who served from 1997 to 2001. More than two hundred other collections comprise the papers of diplomats or contain significant material relating to American diplomacy. These, too, span American history, from Benjamin Franklin's letters as the American colonies' diplomatic representative to France in 1776 to the papers of William Howard Taft IV, who became the United States ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1989.

George R. West. Watercolor of the Buddhist Temple of the Goddess of Mercy, Macao, China, where the first Sino-American treaty was signed in 1844. 1844. Caleb Cushing Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
This watercolor shows the temple in Macao where the first Sino-American treaty was signed in July 1844 clarifying the status of Americans in China and granting to the United States commercial privileges equal to those afforded to Great Britain. Drawn by George R. West, the item is in the papers of Caleb Cushing, the first American emissary to China, who negotiated the treaty.
James Monroe. Letter to Thomas Jefferson seeking foreign policy advice. 17 October 1823. Thomas Jefferson Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
Responding to a series of proposals from British Foreign Minister George Canning (1770-1827) for a joint Anglo-American condemnation of Spanish efforts to regain sovereignty in South America, President James Monroe (1758-1831) conferred with former presidents Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and James Madison (1751-1836). Both men urged President Monroe to cooperate with Great Britain, but Jefferson also reminded him that the two cornerstones of American foreign policy had been the country's non-involvement in European affairs and intolerance of European meddling in America.

The Manuscript Division also has the papers of some foreign diplomats whose careers illuminate aspects of American policy. "Citizen" Edmond Genet, the first ambassador of the French republic to the United States, is represented by a large collection of papers reflecting his turbulent, provocative, and spectacularly unsuccessful mission to this country. Genet's papers found their resting place in America, because the sanguinary politics of revolutionary France forced him to accept permanent exile in the United States, notwithstanding his feud with the American government.

Diplomacy during World War I is extensively documented in the division's holdings, notably in the papers of Robert Lansing. Of particular interest are nine volumes of private memoranda which Lansing started writing upon his appointment as secretary of state in 1915 and continued until after his resignation in 1920. These memoranda, which were kept confidential until 1949, include accounts of Cabinet meetings, detailed descriptions of the Paris Peace Conference, and vivid impressions of the dignitaries whom Lansing met. Twenty pages relate to the Cabinet meeting of 20 March 1917, which concerned America's entrance into the war, and another entire volume comprises a day-to-day account of the preparation of the Treaty of Versailles and of the covenant of the League of Nations.

In this century no foreign policy relationship has been so fraught with danger as that of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Library's manuscript resources are particularly rich for studying the relations between these two superpowers, as the division's holdings include the papers of several of this country's diplomats to tsarist Russia (including George Washington Campbell, Simon Cameron, and George von Lengerke Meyer) and five of its ambassadors to the Soviet Union (W. Averell Harriman, Charles E. Bohlen, Laurence A. Steinhardt, William H. Standley, and Joseph E. Davies). The Harriman Papers comprise one of the richest collections of primary source material on modern American foreign policy. Harriman served as director of Lend-Lease in Great Britain (1941-43), ambassador to the Soviet Union (1943-46), coordinator of the Marshall Plan (1948-50), United States negotiator for the Test Ban Treaty (1963), and American representative at the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam (1968-69). There is no better place to understand the development of the Cold War than in Harriman's papers, where one can follow the shift in his opinion from an initial view that American and Soviet goals were compatible to his 1945 warning that "the time has come for us to reorient our whole attitude and our methods of dealing with the Soviet government. . . . Unless we wish to accept the 20th Century barbarian invasion of Europe . . . we must find ways to arrest the Soviet domineering policy".1

Joseph Stalin. Memorandum in Russian about opening a second front in Europe during World War II. 13 August 1942. W. Averell Harriman Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
This memorandum, one of the few documents with Stalin's handwritten signature extant in the West, illustrates the sometimes difficult nature of the American-Soviet alliance during World War II. Harriman's position as head of Lend-Lease in London and ambassador to Moscow placed him at the center of this demanding alliance. The copious memoranda, letters, cables, and personal notes in Harriman's papers make them an indispensable source of historical documentation of that relationship.

The Library's diplomatic collections are not limited to the papers of State Department officials and appointed ambassadors. Included as well are the papers of those who promoted the nation's foreign policy through covert means. For example, in a 1792 letter, David Humphreys, the American "minister resident" in Lisbon, Portugal, and a former aide-de-camp to George Washington, recommended to the American minister in Paris, Gouverneur Morris, that the United States assist the new revolutionary French government, then threatened with invasion by Austria and Prussia. Humphreys wrote, "If the Austrian & Prussian Armies should really enter France, they might be very much weakened & perhaps ruined by desertion, if suitable, secure & alluring measures could be taken to encourage it. Nothing, in my judgment, would be so likely to effect this, as for the Government of France to provide passages, at its own expense, for all such Non- Commissioned officers & Soldiers as should chose to go & settle in America."2

Humphreys's imaginative suggestion was not adopted, but "psychological warfare," as it came to be called, played a role later in American foreign policy. The papers of Central Intelligence Agency officials David Atlee Phillips, Archibald Roosevelt, Jr., and Cord Meyer document the institutionalization of American espionage and intelligence operations in the post- World War II period. These and other recently acquired collections focusing on the government's covert policies and activities complement the papers of ambassadors, members of Congress, and State Department officials who pursued more open and traditional diplomatic approaches to American foreign policy. When consulted together, the division's varied holdings provide a remarkably complete and nearly unparalleled record of this country's most significant foreign policy initiatives.


  1. W. Averell Harriman cable to State Department, 21 March 1945, W. Averell Harriman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Back to text
  2. David Humphreys to Gouverneur Morris, 17 August 1792, David Humphreys Papers, Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Back to text