Department of State Research Topics
Department of State Records
Central Files 1910-January 1963: Central Decimal File (RG 59)
For the period from early 1910 through January 1963, records are arranged by subject according to a decimal subject classification scheme. In general, the records are arranged in broad categories by country and thereunder by subject. The files include despatches, telegrams, airgrams, instructions, diplomatic notes, reports correspondence, memorandums, and related documentation.
There are two major versions of the decimal classification scheme: the first covered the period between 1910 and 1949 and the second period covered the period between 1950 and January 1963. The files are divided into seven chronological file segments:
- 1960-Jan. 1963
The 1938 edition of the filing manual covers most records of the 1910-1949 period. During the late 1940s, the Department issued revised sections of the filing scheme to cover new subjects, such as the United Nations. The revised filing manuals issued in 1950, 1955, and 1960, cover the blocks of files beginning in each of those years.
Under both versions of the decimal file, each region, country, colony, or other designated geographic entity was assigned a "country number" used as part of the file number for documents in the files. The "country numbers" were two-digit numbers (the United States was "11", or a combination of a two-digit number followed by a letter (Saudi Arabia was "90f" and "86a" for the 1910-1949 and 1950-1963 files respectively). "Country numbers" were added and deleted over time and in some cases, the number assigned to a given country, colony or geographic entity was changed.
Central Decimal File Subjects 1910-1949
From 1910 through 1949, the records are arranged in nine subject classes:
- Class 0: General. Miscellaneous
- Class 1: Administration
- Class 2: Extradition
- Class 3: Protection of Interests
- Class 4: Claims
- Class 5: International Congresses and Conferences
- Class 6: Commerce
- Class 7: Political Relations of State
- Class 8: Internal Affairs of States
Central Decimal File Subjects 1950-1963
From 1950 through January 1963, the records are arranged in ten subject classes:
- Class 0: Miscellaneous
- Class 1: Administration
- Class 2: Protection of Interests
- Class 3: International Conferences, Congresses, Meetings and Organizations
- Class 4: International Trade and Commerce
- Class 5: International Informational and Educational Relations
- Class 6: International Political Relations
- Class 7: Internal Political and National Defense Affairs
- Class 8: Internal Economic, Industrial, and Social Affairs
- Class 9: Communications, Transportation, Science
Sample Central Decimal File Numbers
711.1215/462. Documents indexed and filed until June 1944, were given a unique enclosure number, the number after the slash mark, in each file category. This example indicates the 462nd document in the subject file for political relations (7) between the United States (11) and Mexico (12) about boundary questions (15). In many cases, the reply to an incoming or outgoing communication was given the same enclosure number as the document to which it responds. Some enclosure numbers include an alphabetical or fractional designator, for example 711.61/470½ and 862.00/169a.
851.00/11-2049 Beginning in June 1944, documents were given an enclosure number, the number after the slash (/) mark, based on the date of the document. This method of filing also was applied to documents of earlier dates that were indexed and filed after the new procedure went into effect. Under this system, more than one document can have the same file number, so additional information, such as telegram or despatch number, is necessary to identify specific documents. The example given indicates a document dated November 20, 1949, in the file internal (8) political affairs (00) of France (51). In some cases, a document may be given the same date enclosure number as an earlier document to which it responds.
At times, a word may be added to an existing file number to further refine the subject of the file. For example, for the period of World War II, file "840.48" deals with the general subject of calamities and disasters in Europe. In 1938, the Department of State established the file "840.48 Refugees" for documentation dealing with the issue of refugees in Europe.
Changes in the Central Decimal File
From the early 20th Century to World War II, the Central Decimal File was the primary source of documentation on U.S. foreign policy. Beginning in the 1940s, some documentation remained in decentralized files, with a consequent diminishment of the Central Files. This is especially true of high-level offices such as the Executive Secretariat and the Policy Planning Staff, but also extends to operating bureaus and offices. Beginning in the late 1950s, the Department designated some bureaus and offices to maintain officially decentralized files, further diminishing the Central Files. In those cases, even though there are relevant file categories in the Central Decimal File, most documentation was filed in the decentralized files.
The filing manuals issued by the Department of State provide the most detailed explanation of the organization and content of the Central Decimal File. The Department issued editions in 1911, 1912, 1921, 1938 (encapsulating all of the previous editions), 1950, 1955, and 1960. To provide for additional file categories in Class 5 relating to the United Nations and in Class 8 relating to cultural relations during the 1940s, the Department issued two major supplements to the 1938 edition of the filing manual.
- 1950 - 1954
- 1955 - 1959
- 1960 - January 1963
Other Finding Aids:
Purport Lists and Cards. Created by the Department of State. A record of the documents in each file, arranged in the same order as the records, showing the file and document number, date, from and to, and the gist or "purport" of the document. The lists (ending June 1944) and cards (beginning July 1944) are divided into segments matching those of the records to which they relate:
- 1960-January 1963.
Microfilm publication M-973 has the lists for 1910-1929 (rolls 1-223), 1930-1939 (rolls 224-431), 1940-June 1944 (rolls 432-602), and cards for July-December 1944 (rolls 603-654). Purport cards for the 1945-1949 segment are not on microfilm but are available for research. The Purport Cards for 1950-January 1963 are classified and are not available to researchers. NARA reference staff can perform very limited searches in the classified index for researchers.
Source Cards. Created by the Department of State. The cards are arranged by the source or destination of the communication (country or city or other organization, thereunder to or from, thereunder by date or by the Department of State office originating a memorandum). The cards are divided into segments matching those of the records to which they relate:
- 1960-January 1963.
The Source Cards for 1910-1949 are available for research. The Source Cards from 1950-January 1963 are classified and are not available to researchers. NARA reference staff can perform very limited searches in the classified index for researchers.
Name Cards. Created by the Department of State. For each segment 1910-January 1963 there are cards, which serve as a finding aid for communications to, from, or about private persons or organizations. Name cards help identify files and documents of interest, but the name card coverage is limited; name cards do not exist for every name mentioned in the records, or there may be only one name card showing a file that may contain many documents. The cards are divided into segments matching those of the records to which they relate:
- 1960-January 1963.
The Name Cards for 1910-1959 are available for research. The Name Cards for 1960-January 1963 are classified and are not available to researchers. NARA reference staff can perform very limited searches in the classified index for researchers.
Box Lists. NARA has created box lists for the records in each segment of the Central Decimal File - 1910-29, 1930-39, 1940-44, 1945-49, 1950-54, 1955-59, 1960-January 1963. The lists are used to identify the specific boxes researchers want to use in the Research Room.
Foreign Relations of the United States can assist with locating documentation of interest.
Additional information on the 1910-1949 segments of the Central Decimal File is found in Part I of
Inventory 15: Inventory of the General Records of the Department of State.
This guide provides a general overview of how to locate Central Decimal File (for all periods) documentation relating to specific countries.