In 2021, the Office of the Historian turned 100! Historians in the office produce the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, which is even older. FRUS is the official documentary history of U.S. foreign relations, and it was first published under President Abraham Lincoln in 1861. In addition to FRUS, our Policy Studies and Special Project Divisions research and write studies for the Department and do many other projects.
In celebration of 100 years of foreign policy history, Department of State’s Elizabeth Charles shares her experiences as a professional historian.
How did you get started doing this type of work?
I was an undergrad history major and just couldn’t stop! I finished my PhD in Russian and Cold War history at George Washington University, and my dissertation was about Gorbachev, Reagan, and nuclear arms control. I knew several people working in the Office of the Historian and used the FRUS series in my own graduate work. The office was starting the Reagan era FRUS series, so I was a good fit.
What kind of education, training, or background does your job require?
Everyone in the office is a historian of various fields—mostly with backgrounds in diplomatic history. While many of us have PhDs in history, it is by no means a requirement. You definitely need a Master of Arts (MA) to do the complicated and long-term research required for a project like FRUS.
Tell us about a typical day on the job?
A typical day varies depending on what part of the FRUS process I’m working on. The first year of a volume, we conduct research into State Department, National Security Council (NSC), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Department of Defense (DOD) records. Sometimes that is in the office; other times off site. This means going through old dusty boxes of documents and often removing rusty staples from 1985. Not always glamorous, but we love it!
If the research for a volume is done, we are in the office compiling the volume. This means reading all the documents we collected during research, selecting the most appropriate to convey the story, and annotating the documents to help guide the FRUS users.
What do you love most about your job? What gets you up out of bed every morning?
It may sound a little cliché but making FRUS is a privilege we take very seriously. A FRUS volume will live long after a manuscript or article we would write as a historian and will be used by many more people. Our work on FRUS is vital to promote transparency because it provides scholars and the public access to documents about U.S. diplomatic history to make their own work and scholarship more complete.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get started in this field?
First, major in history and read as many books as you can! Learn to write and to write well. Go to conferences, network, meet federal historians and ask them about their work. There are so many federal history offices doing amazing projects. Most of us love to talk about what we are doing and help guide people into federal history careers.
What book is currently on your bookshelf? What ebooks/audiobooks/podcasts are you currently listening to?
My work bookshelf and home bookshelf are very different! Work life balance right? First off, real, hard back books. Historians can be old school.
At home, I love reading any and all gardening books by Monty Don and Olive, Mabel, and Me by Andrew Cotter. At work, I’m starting the George H.W. Bush era FRUS volumes. The new Peter Baker book on White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of State James A. Baker, The Man Who Ran Washington, is an excellent read. My current podcasts are more about University of Georgia football and Ted Lasso than work related. But International History Declassified and Diplomatic Immunity are two work-related staples.
What person in history has inspired you?
Two major figures in my dissertation and work in the office are Mikhail Gorbachev and George Shultz. I can’t choose one. Gorbachev inspires me because he made hard choices and attempted to reform the Soviet Union and make it a less repressive, more livable place for the Soviet people. He had help from Shultz and Reagan on nuclear arms control. Shultz was an incredible Secretary of State. He understood Reagan’s vision to work with the Soviet leadership in moving toward arms control and a nuclear free world. He continued to work toward that goal until his death earlier this year.
What is your favorite FRUS?
No surprise! My favorite FRUS is Volume IV: Soviet Union January 1983 to March 1985.
Visit the Office of the Historian’s website to access many excellent resources from FRUS volumes to the administrative timeline to the history of diplomatic recognitions with various countries.
About the Author: Elizabeth Charles is a professional historian working in the Office of the Historian at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the chief learning organization for the Department of State and the U.S. Government foreign affairs community.