24 January 2009

Diplomatic History News: What does the future hold for State's Office of the Historian?

Everyone agrees. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has come on the scene at Foggy Bottom like a rock star, enthusiastically greeted by hundreds of staffers on her first day at work.

[Source: State Dept, Michael Gross]

Aside from the personal popularity of HRC, at least part of the excitement over the new SecState is about the end of the politicization of the civil service and closing the books on the absurd politics of stupid, blind loyalty that became the norm during the Bush years.

One small example of this detrimental trend in the State Department was the kerfuffle at the Office of the Historian that broke out last fall.

First, a little background, as I understand that the State Department’s Office of the Historian is a little corner of the US federal government probably unknown to most regular folk. The main duty of the Office is the production of the on-going series Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), a publicly-available compendium of important memoranda, cables, reports and speeches that documents major and minor developments in US foreign policy. These collections are a mainstay of the field of diplomatic history, the starting point for most research on American foreign affairs.

So when two members of the Historical Advisory Committee (charged with independent evaluation of the Office's work) quit last year over concerns of mismanagement, intimidation and incompetence on the part of Historian Marc Susser, even I (someone who works at the very margins of diplomatic history) took note. Especially when the sordid details of the hubbub were described:
Some of the gripes sound like generic faculty-room politics: the Historian, the historians groused, played favorites, doling out perks to those who were deferential. As one staff member put it, “It’s like junior high. I was going to say high school, but it’s more juvenile than that.” In a memo to committee members, Craig Daigle, a historian who worked in the office, claimed Susser warned him that if he “committed any mistake, had any problems with security issues, or created any dissension within the office, he would ‘cut my fucking heart out.’ ”

The allegations shocked the chairman of the advisory committee, Wm. Roger Louis, of the University of Texas at Austin. “Even by Texas standards, it was a level of vulgarity and crudeness that we found hard to believe,” Louis said. Most troubling to Louis was Susser’s apparent intolerance of any dissent. “We began to discover that it is the equivalent of a petty dictatorship in the Historian’s Office,” he said.

What became clear over the course of a number of meetings and published statements was that Historian Susser (right) was pushing out all staff who disagreed with him, losing 20% of his employees in 2008 alone. And because of this politicization, FRUS was at risk of losing its reputation as an impartial record while at the same time falling alarming behind schedule. Former SecState Rice called for an inquiry into the matter before her departure, but the current fate of the Office remains unclear; the new website makes no indication as to its staff.

Surely the State Department has many blunders to undo that are far more important than righting the little old Office of the Historian. But, as a historian, I can't help but hope that somewhere on that to-do list that HRC's advisors have drawn up, there's a little bulletpoint with the following note: "Deal with that dude who threatened to cut the heart out of a colleague who disagreed with him."


MasterGote said...

I know this is important, but it's also kind of funny. I wish they had an Office of the Art Historian so they could threaten to rip the impressionist posters off each others' office walls...and, you know, attend to America's cultural policies.

Buster said...

...so they could threaten to rip the impressionist posters off each others' office walls...and, you know, attend to America's cultural policies.

This isn't what the advisory people at the NEA do? That's always how I imagined their meetings.

And yeah, I sorta suspected that I'd get some ridicule for my hand-wringing over the Office of the Historian. But I naively maintain the view that a good record of US foreign policy decisions (read: disasters) is important.

MasterGote said...

Oh, I absolutely agree with you about the importance of the record. It's the office politics that are funny. As for the NEA, oh my. Don't get me started...it's so much bigger than that sad little agency. Related post on NfG.

FOIA said...

Yeah, something needs to be done about the Historian's Office at State. For a recent update, see: http://hnn.us/articles/60911.html.

FOIA said...

BTW, thank you for your very insightful and humane look at what has happened and is happening at the Historian's Office. Sometimes, in all the talk about committees, offices, etc., the human element is lost. Should someone be running the Historian's Office who seems so disdainful of historians, whether on his staff or on the advisory committee?

The Historian's Office is in the Bureau of Public Affairs, responsible for the State Department's public relations. It doesn't look like the office is doing a good job of public relations with the historical community.

FP has now put up a blog about the issue: http://hillary.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/02/03/disarray_in_historians_office_at_foggy_bottom

FOIA said...

The internal debate within the Historian's Office is beginning to spill out into the public. See http://www.progressivehistorians.com/2008/12/weekend-open-thread.html and http://chronicle.com/review/brainstorm/katz/the-state-of-history-and-the-history-of-state. It doesn't sound like a fun place to work right now.

FOIA said...

The report of a Review Committee set up to examine the Historian's Office has released its critical report of the office's management. Although it is written in bureaucratic language, a commentator, "Anger Management," provides a translation under "Comments" at Steve Aftergood's Secrecy News website: http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/2009/02/management.html. One hopes they will finally take action; the fact that the report was released represents a real slap to the current Historian, I think.

Buster said...

FOIA, Thanks for the continuing updates. I wonder if the higher-ups are trying to shame Susser into resignation since, based on the information at Secrecy News, it looks like it would be near-impossible to fire him. At any rate, the sunlight should help correct the problems at the Historian's Office sooner rather than later.

FOIA said...

Well, it seems to me they may be trying to encourage Susser to transfer into another position at the State Department where he has less contact with the academic community. That, I think, would probably be best for him, his employees, and the Historical Advisory Committee, but I don't know if he would ever consider it. If the report was unofficially released -- i.e., "leaked" -- from inside the State Department, that would suggest such a strategy.

FOIA said...

Douglas Selvage has posted an update on the Historian's Office at the History News Network.

Buster said...

FOIA, thanks for keeping us posted on developments. I've been putting off any more writing on the situation at the HO until this afternoon's open session. I'm hoping that there will be some substantial conversation or developments falling out of that meeting.

Anger_Management said...

A new article by John Maggs at the National Journal (subscription required) asserts: "An unusual revolt by State Department employees is expected to trigger the ouster of the bureaucrat heading the Office of the Historian, a unique squad of 35 academics charged by statute with impartially chronicling America's foreign relations.

"State Department Historian Marc Susser and his aide Douglas Kraft will be removed and offered other civil service positions, based on a recommendation by State's inspector general's office that will be finalized and published in the next two weeks, according to current and former employees of the office.

"Although senior officials have not yet endorsed the recommendation, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert Wood last week began briefing staff historians on the decision, out of concern that several of them might soon quit or be forced out by Susser and Kraft. Susser's office said on Wednesday that he was on leave 'for the next couple of days.'"

Seems like the die has been cast. It will be interesting to see the official announcement and -- as Maggs points out -- the extent to which the decision might have implications for other offices at the State Department, especially for those responsible for overseeing Susser's work.