Digitization and the Council on Foreign Relations

In March our vendor began scanning the first batch of material to be digitized as part of our grant.  We’ve sent 15 boxes (and over 15,000 pages) of the Council on Foreign Relations Records to be scanned.  The material will be returning to Mudd in April and all 15,000+ images should be available to anyone with an internet connection later in the Spring.

The Harold Pratt House, Council of Foreign Relations headquarters, New York City.

The Harold Pratt House, Council of Foreign Relations headquarters, New York City.

As students and scholars of the Cold War know, the Council is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting improved understanding of international affairs and to contributing ideas to United States foreign policy.  The Council records document the work of people prominent in diplomacy, government, and business who come together to study pressing issues in foreign policy.  At the time we wrote the grant the Council on Foreign Relations Records as a whole were the fourth most requested collection within Mudd’s Public Policy Papers; researchers requested and viewed more than 1500 boxes of material from 2008-2011, with many more asking questions or requesting copies from around the world.

The fifteen boxes that we are digitizing document the Council’s Studies Department.  Sometimes referred to as the Council’s “think tank” the Studies Department spearheads the Council’s efforts to promote discussion on issues shaping the international agenda.  The department includes a large number of scholars and research associates who engage each other, Council members, and non-affiliated individuals in research on topics and regions related to United States foreign policy, which historically have included topics such as international trade, arms control, and economic development, and regions such as the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Latin America, to name a few.

These records reveal the Council’s work on international problems during the interwar years and how, once World War II began, it almost immediately began studying how to establish a lasting peace upon its conclusion. Though a non-government organization, CFR’s members were part of the foreign policy establishment and the work of its study groups played an influential role in post-war planning, as evidenced by the fact that many of its members, including John Foster Dulles, attended the San Francisco Conference to establish the United Nations.  In his history of the Council, Michael Wala writes that “during World War II the Council grew into the role of respected advisor and listening post for the attitude of elites throughout the nation…In its study and discussion groups the Council could assemble elites” drawn from public agencies and private organizations who were “bound together through formal and informal ties.”

These ties are documented in the study group records.  In fact, many of the individuals whose papers will be digitized as part of the grant were involved with or spoke at the Council.  While we work towards posting the study group materials during the coming weeks, you can already listen to meetings and presentations involving Allen Dulles, John Foster Dulles, George Kennan, and Adlai Stevenson from our finding aids site.

Throughout its history the Council has been subject to criticism about its reach and influence. In his book Wala notes that the “development of conspiratorial theories about its reach and function” is partly the result of a lack of access to documentary material.  The availability of the Council records at Mudd over the last decade has helped to address that lack of access and we hope that the availability of the study group material online will open these records to new audiences.

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