[last updated: 15 March 2020]
Primary sources are just about every source of evidence on the recent or more remote past not produced by someone like me (a secondary source). They provide what are often called ‘first hand’ evidence. Wikipedia has quite a good piece on this, although I suspect better ones will not be difficult to find on the Internet. This page provides a guide to some of the key primary sources for the study of diplomacy, with emphasis on those FREELY AVAILABLE ONLINE. Their main classes are newspapers; published works by diplomats; oral history; official documents, divided into those published at time of origin and those originally classified but subsequently released or leaked; and private papers.
The British Library in London has been digitizing its awesome collection of (mainly British) newspapers for some years and many are now freely available to staff and students at British higher and further education institutions. Subject searches trawl the entire collections. The best way into them is probably via this page. This has massively reduced the dependence of historians on the (still very useful) Times Digital Archive, 1785-2014. See also Gale Historical Newspapers for far more.
PUBLISHED WORKS BY DIPLOMATS
These include diaries recorded during their careers and memoirs written at their conclusion, together with more general books and articles about diplomacy. There are, however, no hard and fast lines between these categories. For example, the first volume of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, The White House Years (1979), contains long passages in which he develops his theory of international politics. Many nineteenth and early twentieth century works (and some from much earlier periods) can now be found on the Internet; see especially the vast San Francisco-based free internet library called the ‘Internet Archive’ . (But ignore the abridged and thoroughly disreputable English translation of Callières’ On the Manner of Negotiating with Sovereign Princes provided by A. F. Whyte under the title ‘The Practice of Diplomacy’ in this online resource; see instead the translation in Keens-Soper and Schweizer.) See also Stefano Baldi’s intriguing Through the Diplomatic Looking Glass.
I must feature here Machiavelli’s ‘Legations’, his diplomatic despatches to the Florentine ‘Ten of War’ (“Magnificent Signori: – By my last, which I sent yesterday with the courier ….”) translated by Christian Detmold in his four-volume Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli (Boston, 1882). This is a rare and valuable set that has been freely available in the Internet Archive for about ten years. Aside from their value to historians of diplomacy, it is in the ‘Legations’ – according to Quentin Skinner – that are to be found the rough workings from which the polished precepts of the more famous Prince duly emerged.
Transcripts of Interviews with Ambassadors
Two major collections of transcripts of interviews with former ambassadors are now available online. One of them is the work of the Association of Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) in Washington and is to be found here. The other is the product of the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme (BDOHP) and is located on the website of Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College Cambridge. I have found both of these resources of great value in my own research.
A portal to the maze of these documents can be found here. It contains links to all of the key pages. Look out in particular for the Reports of the Secretary-General to the Security Council on current crises (which go back to 1994, and for which I used to have to trudge down to the UN Information Office in London and spend a fortune on photocopying) and the Practices, Procedures and Working Methods of the Security Council.
Department of State Bulletin (1939-). Courtesy of the Hathi Trust Digital Library, this can be found here (to 1983); alternatively, thanks to the Boston Public Library (to 1989) here (scroll down the page until you find it).
House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee
The publications of this select committee of the House of Commons are available here back to the 1997-1998 session of parliament. They include reports, minutes of evidence and memoranda, and are quite invaluable.
House of Commons Debates. Archived Commons ‘Hansard’ can be found here.
Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament. The annual reports and special reports of this body are generally rather anodyne; nevertheless, they are well worth trawling for evidence on priorities, staffing, service morale, etc. Its Russia Report, although in autumn 2019 cleared for publication by the intelligence community itself, has so far been scandalously withheld by British prime minister Boris Johnson, obviously to prevent political embarrassment.
The FCO Diplomatic Lists Archive. A catalogue of the archive – held by the University of Leicester library – of diplomatic, consular, foreign service and foreign ministry lists dating from the 1950s to the 1990s. On arriving at Leicester, the archive was placed first in a room adjacent to my own in the Attenborough Tower and later moved to the External Store. This was inconvenient, not least for the growing number of genealogists finding it valuable. As a result, some years ago it was brought back to the main Library building, and is now held in its Special Collections section. At the time of writing (March 2020), it is under threat of being transferred to King’s College London.
[US] Foreign Service List, Register of the Department of State. Many of these can be found via the Internet Archive.
House of Commons Parliamentary Papers online
Those fortunate enough to have access to ProQuest’s online House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (most university staff and students in Britain, I believe, as well as registered readers at the British Library) also have access to a gold mine of information on the history of the diplomatic and consular services. This is to be found in the voluminous papers of the numerous select committees and royal commissions which investigated these services in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They throw light not only on the British services but on foreign ones as well, because the Foreign Office was usually asked to provide information on them for comparative purposes.
The papers are of three kinds: reports, minutes of evidence, and appendices. The minutes of evidence, actually verbatim transcripts of questions to and answers from the witnesses before the investigating bodies, are particularly valuable. Almost all of the reports have astonishingly detailed and helpful indexes as well. ProQuest has also made them searchable, though the original indexes are so good that this facility is not really necessary once you have found the document you want. The documents are all available as PDF downloads and are easier to manipulate in this format.
Some of these papers are not easy to identify because the investigations which generated them were part of wider inspections of the civil service as a whole. As a result, they are sometimes masked by more general titles. It is partly for this reason that I thought it would be a good idea to offer a list of these papers (up to the First World War) in a form that will make them easy to locate.
When you have logged in, click ‘Search’. If, for example, you want to look at the first document listed below, just scroll to the bottom of the page and key ‘499’ into the ‘Paper number’ box and 1835 to 1835 into the ‘Year’ box, and – hey presto!
Don’t forget that if you are able to download these onto a personal computer you will find them easier to manipulate. Don’t overlook, too, the fact that by keying into the search facility such words as ‘diplomatic’ and ‘consular’ you will find many other valuable documents as well. I have not yet got round to re-visiting the post-World War I reports so this list is incomplete.
499, 10 Aug. 1835: Report from the Select Committee on Consular Establishment; together with the Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix
611, 25 July 1850: Report from the Select Committee on Official Salaries; together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, Appendic, and Index
482, 27 July 1858: Report from the Select Committee on Consular Service and Appointments; together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, Appendix and Index
459, 23 July 1861: Report from the Select Committee on Diplomatic Service; together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, Appendix, and Index
382, 25 July 1870: Report from the Select Committee on Diplomatic and Consular Services; together with the proceedings of the Committee, minutes of evidence, and appendix
238, 18 May 1871: First Report from the Select Committee on Diplomatic and Consular Services; together with Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix
380, 24 July 1871: Second Report from the Select Committee on Diplomatic and Consular Services; together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, Appendix, and Index
314, 16 July 1872: Report from the Select Committee on Diplomatic and Consular Services; together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, Appendix, and Index
6172, 1890: Fourth Report of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the Civil Establishments of the different Offices of State at Home and Abroad [Diplomatic and Consular] PLUS ATTACHED 6172-I, 1890: Fourth Report of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the Civil Establishments of the different Offices of State at Home and Abroad. Minutes of Evidence, with Summary and Appendix
7748, 1914: Royal Commission on the Civil Service. Fifth Report of the Commissioners [Diplomatic and Consular]
7749, 1914: Royal Commission on the Civil Service. Appendix to Fifth Report of the Commissioners. Minutes of Evidence, 29th April 1914-16th July 1914, with Appendices [Diplomatic and Consular]
- The Analytical Guide to the Work of the International Law Commission. Available here. See especially:
5.1 Representation of States in their relations with International Organizations.
5.2 Status, privileges and immunities of international organizations, their
officials, experts, etc.
9.1 Diplomatic Intercourse and Immunities [genesis of the Vienna Convention on
Diplomatic Relations, 1961]
9.2 Consular Intercourse and Immunities [genesis of the Vienna Convention on
Consular Relations, 1963]
9.3 Special missions
9.4 Question of the protection and inviolability of diplomatic agents and other
9.5 Status of the diplomatic courier and the diplomatic bag not accompanied by
the diplomatic courier
These entries allow us to track the various stages in the consideration of each of these topics by the ILC and governments. They record key dates and are invaluable for providing the references for source material. Here and there they also contain useful summaries of proceedings. The links, however, are not very good, though this is chiefly because most of the documents to which references are made are not themselves available on the web.
- Havana Conventions, 1928
Historians of diplomatic and consular law will be interested in the Convention on Diplomatic Officers and the Convention on Consular Agents drawn up by the states of the Pan-American Union and signed in Havana in February 1928. They can be found here.
- Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961. [ full text]
- Convention on Special Missions, 1969. [ full text ]
- Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the United Nations. This valuable site provides the most up to date information on the status of these treaties, i.e. which states have signed, signed and ratified, or acceded to, and thus which are in force. For diplomatic law, go straight to Chapter III.
- ICJ Cases on Diplomatic and Consular Law
- Asylum Case (Colombia/Peru), 1950 and supplementary decision of 1951
- United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran (US v Iran), 1979-81
- Advisory Opinion on Obligation to Arbitrate (PLO case), 1988
- LaGrand Case, 2001 (Germany v US – re. Vienna Convention on Consular Relations)
- Congo v Belgium , 2000-02 (re. Arrest warrant for Congo Foreign Minister)
- Status vis-à-vis the Host State of a Diplomatic Envoy to the United Nations (Commonwealth of Dominica v. Switzerland) (2006)
- Certain Questions concerning Diplomatic Relations (Honduras v. Brazil) (2009-10)
- International Law Commission
- Diplomatic Protection
- Right of Asylum
- Status of the diplomatic courier and the diplomatic bag not accompanied by the diplomatic courier
DECLASSIFIED OR LEAKED SECRET DOCUMENTS
Cabinet Papers 1915-80 Online. Many of these documents, which are held at the British National Archives in London, are now available here. See also British Cabinet Office releases on Foreign Affairs here.
CIA Records Search Tool (CREST)
CIA documents already released have now been made accessible online via CREST. I learned of this here. The majority are ‘open source’ (press clippings of stories about the Agency, and so on) but there are also some interesting in-house papers (letters. memos, reports, etc.), albeit inevitably redacted in many places.
The National Archives, London: search Diplomacy.
U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian
This page is a valuable gateway to resources for the study of US diplomacy and foreign policy. The ‘Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS)’ collection, particularly beloved by International Historians, is found here. See also the Worldwide Diplomatic Archives Index
The National Security Archive [US]
Wikileaks: Secret Embassy cables. I did not approve of the leak of these American cables, which was obviously anti-diplomatic, but since they are out there they must be studied. There are only 251,287 of them!
The private letters, diaries and other papers of diplomats, not forgetting those of others (among them politicians, civil servants and travellers) who had much to do with them, are always revealing. Many remain under family control and access is restricted. However, many are also held in public archives. In the UK, they are to be found in the National Archives in London, in university ‘special collections’, and in the record offices of County Councils (see below). A few are even available online; for example, the letters of Gertrude Bell, courtesy of Newcastle University. Don’t think that you necessarily have to make personal visits to these archives either. If they have online catalogues and you can identify the documents you need, for a relatively small fee – certainly far less than the cost of flying from one continent to another – most will scan or photograph them for you and send them to you on a CD-Rom or as email attachments. I have found the Huntington Library in California particularly helpful in this regard.
Almanach de Gotha. An annual publication which classified and listed – and thereby authenticated – the members of the ruling dynasties and high nobility, initially only of Europe but later of the whole world. It was first published at Gotha in the Duchy of Saxe-Gotha in 1763 and soon acquired great prestige. It survived in its classic form until its archives were destroyed during the Second World War. Today it tends to be held in contempt for the values it supported but it is a most useful resource for historians of diplomacy. This is because at the beginning of the nineteenth century it became customary to add to the Almanach the names of the ambassadors and ministers of the great powers and it later acquired a ‘diplomatic and statistical’ section. In 1882 the Almanach began to publish a supplement called the Annuaire diplomatique et consulaire des états des deux mondes. This contained the diplomatic service lists as well as diplomatic lists of all states in the ‘new world’ as well as the ‘old’, included the names of junior as well as senior diplomats and consuls (all alphabetically indexed) and coloured plates of national flags to assist the shipping work of consuls in seaports. These supplements were unique but – partly because of the difficulty of trying to keep up with the constant turnover of diplomatic staff – turned out to be over-ambitious. Only three of them appeared and the project was discontinued after 1884. However, the diplomatic (and consular) lists in the main almanac continued to provide a considerable amount of valuable detail. Moreover, many of them can be easily accessed on the Internet. The Gallica site has 79 issues, starting with that of 1821, while the Internet Archive has 39, starting with that of 1827.
Etymology of ‘Diplomacy’. This account by Michael Quinion of the origins and shifts in meaning of the word ‘diplomacy’ is by far the best that I have come across on the Internet.
Important archives in the UK
For those doing work on a dissertation or doctoral thesis, the following are among the many British archive centres that may prove particularly useful:
- The National Archives, Kew, London. Note that The National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) provides some very good research guidance to its document holdings by category. You can find these here. ‘Diplomacy’ in the ‘D’s is not, however, a comprehensive list of subjects of interest to us. Look for ‘Propaganda’ for example under … er … ‘P’.
- Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College Cambridge
- St. Antony’s College Middle East Centre
- County Council Archives. Most if not all UK counties have their own archives (or ‘record offices’), many containing the private papers of nationally important figures, including diplomats, who happened to be native to them. Many are well catalogued, freely accessible to the public (normally by prior appointment), and pleasant places in which to work; for example, the Norfolk Record Office .