The Foreign Affairs Oral History Collections

“The Association’s oral histories . . . provide scholars with a valuable tool for the study of U.S. diplomacy.”
Lee H. Hamilton, former Chairman, U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee

Nixon_Mao_1972-02-29United States diplomats played a major role in world affairs during the second half of the twentieth century. Today, 25-30 years after the fact, the Department of State is gradually releasing the official written record left by these public servants. Yet, missing from these records are the motivations, critiques, personal analyses, and private thoughts of the numerous individuals who worked in the diplomatic arena; people are key to the success of ideas. In order to understand the full story of the struggle for world peace and protection of U.S. interests and values, it is crucial that we understand the views of those responsible for promoting and implementing these ideas.

Now, a collection of interviews with these diplomats has captured this dynamic period in vivid terms and intimate detail. These interviews go beyond official events and take audiences behind the scenes to understand the inner-workings of American diplomacy as it defends the nation’s citizens and their interests in a changing world.

The collection is “an invaluable resource for students and scholars of modern U.S. history,” writes Alan B. Nichols of The Washington Diplomat. The interviews are “an entertaining compilation of tales by former diplomats free of their so-called ‘diplospeak’ shackles and recounting everything from the serious to the strange with…honesty…”

The Collection

us-embassy-in-tehran-taken-hostageSince 1986, the Foreign Affairs Oral History Program of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) has recorded more than 2300 interviews with former participants in the U.S. foreign affairs process. Collectively, these oral histories span over 80 years. About 60 new interviews are added annually. The series also contains some significant oral histories dealing with American diplomacy, which were provided by universities and presidential libraries.

The oral history collection has become one of the largest in the country on any subject and the most significant collection on foreign affairs.

The Oral History Collection is a part of the Library of Congress American Memory collection. It is unclassified and available to the public and can be found at Library’s Front Line Diplomacy website. It is also available on ADST’s site under Oral History Interviews.

Inside the Collection

julia childThe foreign affairs oral histories capture for public use the knowledge, direct experience and perspectives of many whose stories are otherwise not recorded. Their stories offer detailed accounts of foreign policy creation and implementation, the context in which it occurred, and the personalities involved in the process. The interviews give insights and provide information not often found in official documents or in memoirs and histories published elsewhere.

The collection is quite extensive. It spans nearly seven decades, with material describing events as early as the 1920s as well as the recent past. It covers the world, as U.S. relations with almost every country across the globe are mentioned in some fashion. Subjects range from the great events of history to the tedium of everyday struggles to achieve American objectives.

Yet the interviews also present a picture of specialized activities abroad, for example the work of labor officers, economic development and assistance (AID series), public diplomacy (USIA) and consular activities. This last field contains personal views of the U.S. consular officials who assist U.S. citizens abroad and deal with problems of immigration. In addition the collection highlights women’s voices with the Women Ambassadors Series; this series was developed from a sociological perspective. About 150 spouse histories are also available. These spouse interviews offer a unique glimpse into the important role wives played in the “old” Foreign Service (prior to the 1970s).

Country Readers Series

flagsInterested in a particular country or region? Go beyond the experiences of simply one diplomat with Country Readers.

These Readers consist of relevant excerpts from individual oral history interviews arranged in approximate chronological order. They are designed to give a user an overview of American relations with a country, as seen by those who served there or dealt with it from Washington. While the Readers do not necessarily provide full chronological continuity, they do offer unique insights over decades that often provide a unique perspective on U.S. relations and the formation of foreign policy.

Support the Oral History Collection

The oral history program is supported by financial contributions from ADST members, private donors, foundations and the many volunteers who interview, record, transcribe and edit the histories and create their tables of contents. The Country Readers are compiled by college interns and Foreign Service retirees. Please consider making a tax deductible donation in support of the oral history program today.