Publication Date

November 1, 1996

The foreign relations of the United States is a perennially popular topic in the media, on university campuses, and among the general public. The end of the Cold War has not diminished this interest; questions relating to foreign affairs persist. In the post–Cold War years, the U.S. role in Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, South Africa, Haiti, and eastern Europe have been hotly debated, much as issues such as Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iran, and the Soviet Union dominated discussions before 1989. Moreover, foreign policy has consumed much of the Clinton administration's time and energy, even though Clinton entered office determined to focus on domestic issues. The position of the United States as a world leader thus remains an important area for our consideration in the classroom.

Changes in the study of U.S. foreign relations have accompanied this country's struggle to find its way in the world since the end of the Cold War. One important methodological advance has been the internationalization of the field. In recent years, historians have begun to highlight the role of other countries in formulating and implementing policies.1 Before the conclusion of the Cold War, critics correctly underscored the ethnocentrism of many historians of U.S. foreign relations, pointing out that they remained reliant on a traditional approach that focused exclusively on the actions of U.S. officials. These historians wrote books that ignored the role of the developing world, rarely incorporating foreign sources or perspectives. They were criticized for their lack of interest in other areas and for their neglect of the many innovations promoted by social historians.

Prominent historians such as Michael Hunt and Thomas Paterson have accepted the challenge to evolve, encouraging their colleagues to study and write about the role of other core powers and, most important, about the often previously neglected peripheral regions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.2 In response, historians have increased foreign archival research in countries frequently characterized by poor living and working conditions. In addition, many historians have expanded their knowledge in area studies to better understand the importance of the foreign culture. Increasingly, it is demonstrated that, far from being passive, these regions we have tended to ignore have actually played a substantial part in shaping policies, a fact that often has escaped U.S. policy makers and the general public.3 This knowledge has in turn moved the study of U.S. foreign relations further toward that of an international history.

In my first year of teaching, at Centre College, in Danville, Kentucky, I found myself incorporating these methodological advances into my pedagogy. Teaching upper-level courses in U.S. foreign relations and the U.S. history survey, I relied upon techniques and sources often employed by historians in area studies, especially their emphasis on the role of underrepresented groups. Since that time, my discussions with colleagues in the fields of U.S. foreign relations, Latin American history, and Asian history have yielded a variety of ways to teach my students about the importance of foreign actions, primarily those in the so-called Third World.

Selecting Texts and Identifying Nontraditional Materials

The starting point for the process begins with the selection of texts. In my upper-level U.S. foreign relations course, I initially assign traditional materials to provide an overview of the themes in the United States' relationship with the world. Good works include Thomas Paterson's collection of essays and primary documents, Major Problems in American Foreign Policy, as well as any number of textbooks.4 These materials are a significant component of the existing scholarship and provide the foundation for an understanding of U.S. foreign relations for students who often enter the class with limited background knowledge.

Teachers of the survey face a more difficult task in selecting materials on U.S. foreign relations because of the limited classroom time available to discuss a surplus of subjects. I rely on a standard textbook to provide basic information, and I use several techniques to underscore important points on topics such as U.S. imperialism and the Vietnam War. Sometimes, for example, I ask students to bring their textbooks to class. We review the material as a group, emphasizing key ideas, people, and places. In this way, students familiarize themselves with the subject and also receive a lesson in how to use the text effectively. In addition, I employ traditional primary documents, placing on reserve speeches by prominent imperialists and anti-imperialists and a version of J. William Fulbright's essay, "Arrogance of Power" (Paterson, Major Problems in American Foreign Policy, vol. 2, 581–82).

In the area of nontraditional sources, there are several ways to create a more balanced and sophisticated comprehension of the study of U.S. foreign relations. In my upper-level course, I require selected essays in Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson'sExplaining the History of American Foreign Relations, primarily those by Akira Iriye, Robert J. McMahon, Emily S. Rosenberg, and Louis A. Pérez, Jr. Each essayist emphasizes new methods of reviewing the history of U.S. foreign relations, stressing the role of the developing countries and other significant issues such as culture, gender, and dependency theory. In addition, I assign Michael H. Hunt’s essay, “Internationalizing U.S. Diplomatic History: A Practical Agenda,” from Diplomatic History (winter 1991), which provides insights into the move toward international history. I follow the readings with a classroom discussion, providing my students with an opportunity to further explore the comparatively complex information I’ve asked them to read. I encourage them to make connections with contemporary events and ask them hypothetical questions on how the essays could have a bearing on their own approach to various research topics. These essays help begin the process of developing a more sophisticated and internationalized understanding of the study of U.S. foreign relations.5

Because of their complexity, the essays in the Paterson and Hogan volume are of less value to the survey teacher. Nonetheless, abundant materials exist to internationalize the study of U. S. foreign relations at all levels. In both halves of the upper-level U.S. foreign relations course as well as in parts of both U.S. history surveys, the teacher can use sources that highlight the perceptions of Native Americans among whites, such as Black Hawk's surrender speech, which laid the pattern for future relations between Washington and non-European peoples, especially in terms of racism and ethnocentrism (Paterson, Major Problems in American Foreign Policy, vol. 1, 220–21). Other materials could include descriptions of the perceptions and responses of Mexicans to the Mexican-American War, the writings of nationalists such as José Martí or José Enrique Rodó, and accounts of the initial responses of Asians such as Filipino guerrillas or Chinese peasants to American merchants, missionaries, and soldiers. For the modern era, the teacher can accumulate a variety of sources. The wars of national liberation and increased U.S. involvement in the developing world resulted in numerous speeches and editorials by critics and supporters of the United States, making it relatively easy to emphasize the foreign role in the relationship.

Using Documents in the Classroom

A variety of techniques are available for using documents in the classroom. Peter J. Frederick outlined some effective procedures in his article, "Motivating Students by Active Learning in the History Classroom" (Perspectives, October 1993, pp. 15–19). One is for the teacher to review step by step U.S. and foreign primary sources and to ask questions about the different political cultures surrounding the development of ideologies that support public and private statements. A teacher could also assign documents to individuals or groups, requesting that they return the next class period prepared to defend the viewpoints represented in the documents. For example, students could be asked to consider U.S. involvement in Vietnam from the perspective of Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese peasant, Mao Zedong, Lyndon Johnson, a U.S. soldier, or a war protester. This method ensures class participation and usually sparks constructive debates. It also helps students understand the importance of documents and improves their skill at analyzing them. The exercise can be incorporated into a variety of settings, including the discussion sections that often supplement the large lecture classes employed by many universities.

Humanizing Peoples of Other Nations and Exploring Special Themes

Another goal of internationalizing the subject is to expand students' experience by humanizing the peoples of other nations and the effects of policy-making decisions. To accomplish this, I supplement the relatively straightforward foreign relations texts that I assign in my upper-level courses with nontraditional works, including Le Ly Hayslip's When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace (Doubleday, 1989) and Rigoberta Menchú’s I Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (Verve, 1984). Both authors present provocative portrayals of their struggles in periods when Washington strongly influenced events in their countries. Their stories provide perspectives different from the official histories of American involvement in Vietnam and Guatemala by highlighting the foundations of the domestic struggle in their countries, their decisions to resist, and the effect of U.S. policies on their homelands and cultures.6

The two books also can assist teachers in discussing factors such as class, race, and gender because, in many ways, the two women's experiences underscore the significance of race, class, and gender in their societies and show how these issues influenced American policy makers and the general public. Eleanor Leacock and Helen I. Safa, eds., Women's Work: Development and the Division of Labor by Gender (Bergin and Garvey, 1982) and June C. Nash and Maria Patricia Fernández-Kelly, eds., Women, Men, and the International Division of Labor (State Univ. of New York Press, 1983) are also useful in studying class, race, and gender in relationship to foreign relations. In addition, lectures can stress the importance of these and other concepts, such as the “green revolution,” environmental and cultural policies, and the impact of U.S. aid (military, economic, and social) on foreign societies. Discussions, written assignments, and other methods exist to emphasize the concepts and to broaden the approach to international relations in order to include nonelites.

I often use the Hayslip book in the survey course as well with a great deal of success. It is typically necessary to provide some background to help students understand the origins of the Vietnam conflict and the reasons for U.S. involvement. Teachers can then build on the work to discuss various issues in an international context, complementing the discussion of domestic considerations on topics such as race, class, and gender.

Using Literature

Teachers should not ignore the enormous potential of literature. As a Latin Americanist, I understand the importance of literature in area studies classes, especially for a region where books and poetry mirror attitudes. A large number of relevant and readable texts exist, but I especially like the works of Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García-Marquez. Both writers present distinctive portrayals of the United States and the influence of the "Colossus of the North" on Latin America. Works such as The Old Gringo (Perennial, 1986), The Death of Artemio Cruz (Farrar, Strauss, and Geroux, 1964), and One Hundred Years of Solitude (Harper and Row, 1970), while not entirely covering U.S.-Latin American relations, have a number of passages that yield perceptions of hemispheric relations different from traditional U.S. sources. Teachers can combine these representations with others, such as Carolina Maria de Jesus’s, Child of the Dark (Mentor, 1963), to present contrasting views of the role of the United States in Latin America.

Other possibilities exist. Miguel Angel Asturias'sEl Señor Presidente (Penguin, 1972), for instance, could provide students with some understanding of Central American political culture and its influence on policy making from a nontraditional perspective. In the future, I plan to use Omar Ribavella’s Requiem for a Woman's Soul (Random House, 1981) to introduce a discussion of human rights and the role of the international community. With the decline of the bipolarity of the Cold War, human rights has played a more central role in U.S. foreign policy, and it is especially important to debate the human component.

Using Activities and Assignments to Build an International Perspective

In addition to choosing appropriate materials, teachers can bring the internationalist perspective into the classroom by consciously formulating lectures and questions to illuminate foreign viewpoints. In particular, I push students to look at non-American perspectives by actively posing the question, "How did the other side view and respond to U.S. initiatives?" Asking questions to an entire class has its limitations, especially in classes that exceed 40 students, but the attempt to challenge students has rewards. By the end of a semester, my students begin anticipating the queries and prepare accordingly, which leads to some lively debates over a variety of issues that evoke strong emotions.

Various forums can be used to encourage students to take into account different perspectives. Mock meetings of the United Nations, the Organization of American States, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization can provide settings in which to debate a number of historical issues, such as the recognition of the Peoples Republic of China or the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. Students learn how the organizations and their formats often favored the core powers even though weaker nations could sometimes play significant roles. This method can provide students with a better understanding of non-U.S. perspectives and the complexities of foreign relations.

I have used different methods in my lower-level courses because setting up mock meetings consumes too much classroom time. In these course I have employed techniques I developed while serving as a teaching assistant. Two exercises have proved especially helpful. One involves dividing the class into several groups of five to six students. I try to keep the groups small so that everyone has an opportunity to participate. I assign each a different country or political leader to represent in a discussion and provide the groups with about 15 minutes to organize their information from their notes, textbooks, and additional reading. I then act as a mediator of a debate or as the U.S. representative, allowing them to challenge my policies. Another successful technique has been to ask students to write a short essay on the views of a Cuban worker in regard to the activities of the United States against his country. After 20 minutes, I ask students to summarize what they have written. This approach often facilitates discussion because they feel more comfortable talking about the subject after they have had time to organize their thoughts.

Structuring paper assignments to include an internationalist perspective also provides benefits. In both my upper- and lower-level courses, I have had success with a short analytical paper on Hayslip's When Heaven and Earth Changed Places in response to the question, “How did Le Ly Hayslip’s perception of the Vietnam War compare with that of President Lyndon Johnson and many Americans?” Students typically write perceptive papers discussing how the Vietnamese peasant’s view of the origins of the conflict, her role in the fighting, and the ramifications of struggle on her culture differed from the views of Johnson and American society.

Another assignment I use in upper-level courses is a short research paper. I encourage students to select subjects that emphasize interactions between dominant powers and the developing world. Some respond to the challenge and create insightful papers on Latin Americans' response to the Monroe Doctrine, Cuba and the Soviet Union's reasons for placing missiles on that Caribbean island, or Finland's ability to manipulate the superpowers for its own gain. Many students cannot actively incorporate foreign sources into their papers because of a lack of language training and the limited availability of materials, but the process starts them thinking along internationalist lines. I also urge them, in individual meetings, to work on language skills and to learn more about other cultures for classes they might take in future semesters or perhaps in graduate school.

Still another paper assignment that often proves successful, primarily in lower-division surveys, is one that asks students to explain and compare how American racism and sexism transcended national boundaries in Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi (Laurel, 1968) and Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. It is important to examine such patterns of cultural and political interactions between nations and their citizens, especially in the modern era when contacts occur daily between peoples from different countries and cultures.

Other Tools

Additional tools are available to teachers to encourage a better comprehension of the role of other nations in international relations. Since students today are from a visually oriented generation, we can use visual media to broaden interest and understanding. Photographic images, for example, humanize experience, highlighting ways in which diplomatic decisions directly affect human lives, both American and foreign. The visual experience can be enhanced by adding music or videotapes, such as Jackson Browne's Lives in the Balance. This form of popular culture combines powerful vocals with historical images that provoke various emotions. Students enjoy presentations that show the human side of a study of foreign relations, a field that some people try to reduce to an analytical science.

Movies and documentaries can contribute to the visual experience, as well as provide lessons on the use of film as a historical tool. There are a number of films that I try to incorporate into my class, including The Killing Fields,Salvador, and even comedies such as Bananas. Foreign films and documentaries such as MacArthur's Children and El Norte also present different perspectives. In addition, movies can demonstrate American racism and ethnocentrism, especially relating to World War II and the Cold War. Because of limited classroom time, I use clips and show the movies at night (with attendance resulting in extra credit), at least three to four times a semester. I usually lead a discussion afterward, which is generally successful since most students enjoy the change of pace and relaxed atmosphere of a different setting. Again, the visual presentation humanizes discussions, an important component in internationalizing foreign relations.

This move toward the internationalization of U.S. foreign relations is an important process under way in the field. The changes have ensured corresponding modifications in the teaching of the subject in lower-level U.S. history surveys and in upper-division courses on foreign relations. While following all of my suggestions would be a formidable task, it is important for teachers to adapt more insightful and enjoyable forms of teaching and learning to challenge students. Creating more interest in foreign relations will enhance students' desire to learn more and, to a degree, perhaps offset some of the ability of policy makers to take advantage of the American public's ignorance of issues relating to international relations.

As in the past, the field of U.S. foreign relations will continue to make a meaningful contribution to historical inquiry among the community of scholars and the general public. It captivates teachers and students alike, who enjoy discussing and debating foreign-policy topics that often affect them as well as millions of others. The internationalization of the teaching of U.S. foreign relations can only improve the environment surrounding this already popular study by incorporating many of the changes sweeping historical study and allied fields. Most important, it will make students aware of the significant variable of foreign response to U.S. policies, thus providing some much-needed balance to the understanding of U.S. foreign relations. It is imperative that more Americans question traditional ethnocentric viewpoints, which are often grounded in American exceptionalism and racism. If they do not do so, problems will arise as the United States searches for a new paradigm in the post–Cold War world. We must influence the process positively, expanding our students' lines of inquiry and increasing the sophistication of their analyses of issues that our leaders often try to oversimplify. In this movement, we can make a significant contribution to increasing understanding of the complex issues surrounding the relationship between the United States and the world.

— is assistant professor of history at Arizona State University. He thanks George Herring, Steve Webre, Robert Brigham, James Harper, Alwyn Barr, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Francie Chassen-Lopez, Dempsey Watkins, Charles Endress, and Shirley Eoff for providing many of the ideas behind this essay. He also appreciates the advice of his wife, Tracy, who suggested some good editing ideas and offered the perspective of a nonhistorian.

The contributing editor for this essay, published in the "Teaching Innovations" column of the November 1996 issue of Perspectives, was Robert Blackey.


1. For many years various historians emphasized the foreign perspective, but typically only if they perceived the country as an equal power. Countries perceived as equal powers included Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan.

2. Michael H. Hunt, “Internationalizing U.S. Diplomatic History: A Practical Agenda,” Diplomatic History 15 (winter 1991): 1–12; Thomas G. Paterson, “Defining and Doing the History of American Foreign Relations: A Primer,” in Thomas G. Paterson and Michael J. Hogan, eds., Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), 36–54.

3. For example, see Dennis Merrill, Bread and the Ballot: The United States and India's Economic Development, 1947–1963 (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1990); Peter L. Hahn, The United States, Great Britain, and Egypt, 1945–1956: Strategy and Diplomacy in the Early Cold War (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1991). Some of the other people making significant contributions include Robert McMahon, Nick Cullather, Ann Foster, Robert Brigham, Stephen Streeter, Mark Bradley and Marcia Quirós.

4. Thomas G. Paterson, Major Problems in American Foreign Policy: Volume II: Since 1914, 3rd ed. (D. C. Heath, 1989); Jerald A. Combs, The History of American Foreign Policy (McGraw-Hill, 1986); Thomas G. Paterson, J. Garry Clifford, and Kenneth J. Hagan, American Foreign Policy: A History: To 1914 (D. C. Heath, 1988); Idem., American Foreign Policy: A History: Since 1900 (D. C. Heath, 1991).

5. Several colleagues have questioned the use of these essays that stress more historiography and methodology, arguing that their students are not capable of understanding the materials and that I should concentrate more on facts and information. I understand their concerns, but I hope to continue to challenge students since I emphasize forms of learning as much as information.

6. In the modern context, works on Vietnam and Cambodia are especially numerous. A good work is Truong Nhu Tang’s, A Viet Cong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (Vintage, 1985).

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