Dutch-American Diplomatic Relations Online, 1784-1973

Dutch-American Diplomatic Relations Online, 1784-1973
This collection consists of official Dutch-American diplomatic correspondence covering the period from 1784 to 1973. Taken together, the documents of this collection help scholars to shed further light on some of the most important watersheds in both European and American history and clarify the historical evolution of transatlantic relations from Thomas Jefferson to the end of the Bretton Woods System. This collection comprises 174,926 scans and is part of Transatlantic Relations Online: Digital Archives of the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies, which is the result of ongoing cooperation between the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies and Brill.

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From 1782, American diplomats were posted in the Netherlands and in the Dutch East and West Indies. Their reports to the State Department and their personal accounts on political, economic and cultural affairs provide insightful information on the relations between the two countries over the past two centuries.[1] This comprehensive collection mostly consists of the American diplomatic correspondence from 1791 to 1973 and contains instructions by the State Department to American diplomats and consuls, along with reports and recommendations sent by these diplomats to Washington, DC.[2]

This collection is divided into three main sections. The first section is composed of files compiled by the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) covering the period between 1784 and 1929. The second section, assembled by the RIAS staff, contains files from the US Department of State and is divided into six parts covering the period between 1930 and 1973. The third and last section, titled “Special Collections,” consists of documents and papers coming from agencies other than the State Department. This section includes the so-called “purport pages,” several Marshall Plan documents, and CIA surveys.

Content-wise, the collection sheds light on some of the most important watersheds in both European and American history. Through the documents listed in this collection, it is possible to discern the early establishment and institutionalization of US foreign policy and at the same time descry the dawn of American exceptionalism.[3] A 1791 circular sent by Thomas Jefferson to the American consuls and viceconsuls, for instance, represents one of the first attempts to structure the newly-established American diplomatic channels. [4] In the same letter, Jefferson stressed that the US was blessed by an “unprecedented prosperity” that in great part derived from “the unbounded confidence reposed in it by the people, their zeal to support it, and their conviction that a solid nation is the best rock of their safety.” According to Jefferson, no other nation in the world at that time was “enjoying more present prosperity, not with more in prospect” than the United States. (see page 58 in the Letters by secretaries of State, 1791-01-23 to 1793-08-16)

As appears clear from documents like Jefferson’s letter, the papers of this collection do not exclusively focus on Dutch-American relations. On the contrary, they have a broader and genuinely global reach. The 1830s diplomatic files are a perfect example of this. They testify to the degree of firmness through which the US aimed to protect its global commercial interests. When the French troops captured Algiers, for instance, Secretary of State Martin Van Buren warned that full “admission and recognition” of the US general consul stationed there was vital to protect American trade in the Mediterranean, and that any move limiting their independence and freedom would have met Washington’s immediate and resolute reaction.[5](see pages 162, 163 in Consular Instructions of the Department of State, 1828-06-12 to 1832-05-09)

American officials in The Hague also closely followed the social and political developments within the vast Dutch empire. At the beginning of 1873, for instance, the US backed a rebellion against Dutch rule in the Sultanate of Aceh.[6] The rebels had been promised independence by American representatives in the region, but were promptly repressed by Dutch authorities.[7] The documents of this collection help cast a new light on the commercial interests that led American authorities to sponsor the revolt. A rich and detailed report on the volume of exchanges between the province of Batavia and the US, indeed, gives a glimpse of both the volume and the breadth of the American commercial interests in the region, and highlights the dependence of the colony’s economy on American trade. Sugar, coffee, rice, spices, gum, indigo, arrack, hides, tin, and rattans were exchanged for oil, flour and coal in such large amounts that US consuls complained about the scarcity of American production especially for what concerned fossil fuels. (see pages 714-717 in Despatches from United States Consuls in Batavia, Java, Netherlands East Indies, 1864-1880)

But, as the documents of the collection reveal, trade wasn’t the only cause for friction between the US and European empires. At times, cultural misunderstandings or, in other words, clashes between different exceptionalisms, hindered those relations too.[8] Such was the case, for instance, of a naturalization treaty that the US proposed to the Netherlands in 1907.[9] The proposed treaty, which aimed to “conserve the traditional friendship between [The US government] and The Netherlands,” was drafted by Theodore Roosevelt’s trusted Secretary of State Elihu Root and drew on the same treaties that the US had been pursuing with Sweden, Norway and Germany. Initially, the treaty was received with favor in the Netherlands, but then the negotiations came to a standstill over the concept of “intention.” The Dutch policymakers had eliminated any reference to an “unmistakable intention not to return” as a prerequisite for a person to lose Dutch nationality back in 1892, and had replaced it with more precise means to determine nationality that they considered to be more in line with the liberal and tolerant spirit of the country.[10] Since the US-backed treaty emphasized the role of personal intention, the Dutch government rejected it, pointing that it not only conflicted with national law and ethos, but that it would also have given the US an exceptional power to decide over nationalization. (see pages 1-6 in Naturalization Treaty between the Netherlands and the United States, 1907)

Skirmishes over migration, naturalization, neutrality, and sovereignty continued well after the end of WWI, even though the 1920s saw a general relaxation of bilateral Dutch-American relations. In those years, the two countries were mostly busy setting up the terms of an acceptable arbitration treaty and reaching a peaceful settlement of some territorial disputes, including the famous case of the Island of Las Palmas. At the same time, however, this period witnessed the emergence of a number of informal diplomatic channels, which crucially contributed to solidifying a Dutch-American transnational friendship. As the papers of this collection show, prominent individuals like Eduard Bok worked hard to tie the two countries together, and to spread the belief that “no two nations on the earth [were] more identical than the Netherlands and the United States.”[11] Dutch bankers, industrialists, and investors were at the forefront of such a new pro-US campaign and expressed tirelessly their admiration for the American political and economic system.[12] So much so that Richard Montgomery Tobin, when he was sent to The Hague as the new American ambassador in 1923, noted with surprise that many Dutch citizens desperately wanted the US to take the lead in the settlement of the troubled financial and economic situation in Europe.

As regards the period 1930-1949, the RIAS holds the so-called Purport Pages. These papers, mostly coming from the US Department of State, document, among other things, the negotiations of several bilateral trade agreements, the deteriorating relationship between the Netherlands and Japan, the German occupation of the Netherlands, allied military activities, and the developing political situation in the Dutch colonies.[13] This part of the collection also enlightens on the impact that the gold standard had on Dutch economy.[14] Moreover, these papers are of particular interests to those scholars who want to investigate informal transatlantic relations through a bottom-up approach. In this regard, these documents provide interesting details on the Dutch reactions to the famous Scottsboro Case and testify to the extent to which Dutch society was sympathetic to the emergence of the civil rights movement in the United States (a recurrent theme in Dutch-American relations, one that will persist up until the early 1970s, when radical groups such as the Dutch Black Panther Solidarity Committee will organize in the Netherlands several “Free Bobby Seale” marches and rallies).[15] (see pages 1-8 in Reactions on the Scottsboro case)

Along with political and societal developments, however, this collection also contains documents revealing the intensity of a constant, though not unidirectional, cultural exchange occurring between the two shores of the Atlantic. A number of reports underline the popularity that different American cultural outputs, from music to literature and cinema, enjoyed in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. Diplomatic accounts tell for instance the story of a very popular Dutch pirate edition of president Franklin Roosevelt’s best-seller On Our Way, which narrated his first year’s accomplishments and the success of his New Deal measures. At the same time, these papers hint at the appeal of American movie production, by reporting, among the others, the story of Vadertje Langbeen, a Dutch (illegal) remake of 20th Century Fox’s Daddy Longlegs. (see pages 1-7 in Controversy about translation Daddy Longlegs)

Another extremely valuable part of this collection is the one focusing on the post-1945 era, as it includes papers on the development and execution of Marshall Plan aid in the Netherlands, on the future of the Dutch colonial empire, and on the development of post-war Dutch politics. While closely following the electoral results of 1946 and 1948, American observers were also interested in the profound changes that the Dutch political landscape was going through, always taking careful note of any possible communist infiltration.[16] Already in July 1945, for instance, the American diplomats in The Hague worried about the creation of the Netherlands People’s Movement, which they saw as a liberal intellectual endeavor leaning toward socialism. And they warned against the rising appeal of allegedly democratic groups, as in the case of the short-lived “Friends of America Club,” a group established in 1948 with the aim to strengthen cultural ties between the Netherlands and the US that Americans disliked because of the wartime association of his leader, Dr. Adelbert Smit, with the Nazi party and because of its deceptive publication, Friends of America, which was actually filled with nationalist and socialist references. (see pages 1-56 in "Friends of America Club" (ex NSB))

The postwar dispatches from The Hague are also a useful prism through which it is possible to read the troubled evolution of European integration. American contacts with Dutch industrialists and unionists, in fact, confirmed a general support in the Netherlands for the so-called Schuman Plan, which proposed the creation of a single authority to control the production of steel and coal in Europe and eventually paved the way for the establishment in 1958 of the European Economic Community.[17] At the same time, these sources show that American diplomats knew already at the beginning of August 1954 that the French National Assembly was going to reject the proposal for the establishment of a European Defense Community, as it actually happened at the end of that month. (see Elections of 1952)

Finally, the papers concerning the period 1963-1966, along with analyses on shared security concerns, anti-communist activities, economic freedom and cooperation, contain documents on the rise of a widespread European anti-American sentiment coinciding with the US escalation in Vietnam.[18] Social unrest started off in the summer of 1966, when roughly 700 people in Amsterdam took to the streets to criticize the American military intervention in Southeast Asia. The protesters openly linked the American bombing of Hanoi with what had happened in Guernica in 1936 and in Rotterdam in 1940. One of them even got arrested for having insulted president Johnson publicly. On Christmas Day 1966, fifty Dutch artists demonstrated against the US strategy by marching through the streets of Amsterdam in silence, while some of them dressed up as undertakers to vividly blame the US for the “2 million dead in Vietnam.” Protests soon spread over half a dozen other cities, and took the shape of rallies, sit-ins, hunger strikes, and even open appeals to president Johnson, who was accused of authorizing a “legitimate starving of the Vietnamese people.” The protests culminated in the early 1970s, when radical Dutch groups fueled a transnational wave of discontent that in the Netherlands saw the “week of international protest against war in Vietnam” and the subsequent occupation of the American consulate in Amsterdam. The growing appeal of these protests alerted American diplomats, who in the first months of 1973 reported with discomfort that all the major Dutch political parties were progressively aligning themselves with this mounting anti-Americanism, and that Dutch people were starting to blame Americans for tolerating the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in Vietnam.[19]


[1] See Willem Frijhoff and Jaap Jacobs, “Introduction: The Dutch, New Netherland, and Thereafter (1609–1780s),” in Hans Krabbendam, Cornelis van Minnen, Giles Scott-Smith (eds.), Four Centuries of Dutch-American Relations (Amsterdam: Boom, 2009), 31-48.

[2] On the relevance of consular posts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century see, among the others, Ferry de Goey, Consuls and the Institutions of Global Capitalism, 1783-1914 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2014).

[3] On the early institutionalization of US foreign policy, see Peter P. Hill, Napoleon's Troublesome Americans: Franco-American Relations, 1804-1815 (Dulles: Potomac Books, 2005) and George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower US Foreign Relations since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). On American exceptionalism see Michael Hunt, Ideology and US Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

[4] The establishment of well-structured foreign policy channels in Jeffersonian America was instrumental to the building of the so-called “empire of liberty,” see Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Peter S. Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000); and Francis D. Cogliano, Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy (New Heaven: Yale University Press, 2014).

[5] Silvia Marzagalli, “American Shipping into the Mediterranean during the French Wars: A First Approach,” in Silvia Marzagalli, James R. Sofka, John McCusker (eds.), Rough Waters: American Involvement with the Mediterranean in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Research in Maritime History no. 44 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), 43-62.

[6] See Hans Gooszen, A Demographic History of the Indonesian Archipelago, 1880-1942 (Leiden: KITLV Press, 1999); Bert Paasman, “Wij gaan naar Atchin toe,” in Liesbeth Dolk (ed.), Atjeh: De verbeelding van een koloniale oorlog (Amsterdam: Bakker, 2001).

[7] Merle Calvin Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia Since C. 1200 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).

[8] Charles S. Maier, Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[9] On this, see United States Department of State, Foreign Relations of The United States (FRUS), Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, With the Annual Message of the President Transmitted to Congress December 3, 1907, Part I (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1908), online at http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/FRUS.FRUS1907v01, accessed on July 30, 2018.

[10] Corrie van Eijl, Leo Lucassen, “Holland beyond the Borders: Emigration and the Dutch State, 1850-1940,” in Nancy Green and Francois Well in Nancy L. Green, Francois Weil (eds.), Citizenship and Those Who Leave: The Politics of Emigration and Expatriation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 160.

[11] Hans Krabbendam, The Model Man: A Life of Edward W. Bok, 1863-1930 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001).

[12] On pro-US sentiments in Europe in the interwar years, see Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998) and Mary Nolan, The Transatlantic Century: Europe and America, 1890–2010 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[13] Doeko Bosscher, “Toward a Community of Interests: The Netherlands and the United States between the World Wars,” in Hans Krabbendam, Cornelis van Minnen, Giles Scott-Smith (eds.), Four Centuries of Dutch-American Relations (Amsterdam: Boom, 2009), 401-419.

[14] Ben Wubs, “Beyen at Bretton Woods: ‘Much More Significant Under the Surface…’,” in Giles Scott-Smith, J. Simon Rofe (eds.), Global Perspectives on the Bretton Woods Conference and the Post-War World Order (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 189-206.

[15] Steve Spence, “Cultural Globalization and the US Civil Rights Movement,” Public Culture, vol. 23, no. 3 (2001), 551-572.

[16] Giles Scott-Smith, Western Anti-Communism and the Interdoc Network: Cold War Internationale (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[17] Piers Ludlow (ed.), European Integration and the Cold War: Ostpolitik-Westpolitik, 1965–1973 (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[18] See, among the others, Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

[19] Yuki Tanaka, Marilyn B. Young (eds.), Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History (New York: The New Press, 2009).

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Dutch-Protestant Immigration to the Americas Online, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2020 <http://primarysources.brillonline.com/browse/dutch-american-diplomatic-relations-online-1784-1973>