Publication Date

November 1, 1991

Perspectives Section




Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from a paper delivered during a session entitled, “Historical Research in Foreign Affairs Records in the 1990s,” at the 1990 AHA Annual Meeting, New York. Participants of the session included Chair Norman Graebner, University of Virginia, and panelists , John Jay College, CUNY; Steven Garfinkel, director, Information Security Oversight Office; J. Kenneth McDonald, chief historian, CIA; and William Z. Slany, historian, U.S. Department of State.

Generally, we historians have tended to avoid the arena of immediate political tumult. We have tended to walk away from current conflict in the interest of historical perspective. But frankly, historians of international relations no longer have that luxury. We are in crisis: Our history is embattled and endangered and the interpretation of security interests by certain agencies and players has caused the erasure of significant amounts of our history.

Our documents are at the mercy of classification stampers, leakers, and shredders, and we as historians with aspirations to recreate the past accurately and fully someday in the future, are becoming an endangered species. I do not mean to sound melodramatic: Some of us may decide it is a good thing to shred and bury the past. But for those of us who think it unwise, if not cowardly, we need now to do battle to preserve the integrity of our effort. We’ve chosen this battlefield, so we may as well enjoy the process. But first we need at least to set the rules of the game.

What is being kept secret, deleted, removed from history? And why? The reasons may be whimsical, personal, rule of thumb; or they may involve critical considerations of state and survival. I had understood that our committee (State Department’s Historical Advisory Committee) was created in part to participate in the process of balancing such issues as security against the public’s right to know, mindful of the fact that the public was already well informed about many of the issues. We didn’t want the historical record to look like it had been compiled by fools who failed to read the more controversial books about the most controversial issues of state.

In the three years or so I have been the AHA’s representative to the State Department’s Historical Advisory Committee, we were never allowed to exercise our judgment on such matters. Presiding over all State historical decisions are members of the Historical Documents Review Division (until 1988 known as the Classification/Declassification Center, or CDC), a collection of retired foreign service officers who differed among themselves about what should become part of the record, though they were unanimous in opposing the participation in their deliberations of historians outside their circle. We were never given policy statements about their policy recommendations—how they were made, or what considerations were involved. We were never allowed to see the documents that were removed to determine how they shaped the official published record, even as compared to the unofficial published record many of us through happier years of Freedom of Information efforts, during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter years, worked so hard to establish.

For example, it is my understanding that over two-thirds of the material relating to Guatemala, which I and others got declassified, were reclassified during the informational slash-and-burn years of the Reagan Administration. Never before in United States history were records reclassified after they had once been declassified and published. This precedent impacts on the historical record into perpetuity. Today’s covert operations blind and distort the record, erasing our future history. Without our history, we build on the sands of misinformation. Which brings us to the current crises.

If we care about Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), if we think it important to continue the compilation of this historical record, we have very narrow choices. We must insist on its integrity and we must work for guidelines to postpone publication until the record can be complete and accurate. Otherwise we acknowledge that it is time to wave goodbye to a historical anachronism: Truth in the telling of our international relations.

These choices are very specific. For example, I remain grateful for the FRUS volumes on the l950s that involve Europe. Although volume 8 about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1952–1954, did not include a good deal of material that I had gotten declassified, the details and the scope nevertheless present an accurate overview. Scanning any of the thousands of pages of information one sees the point of Eisenhower’s Cold War effort. The global schism and issues that have marked the twentieth century are truthfully presented with all the daunting alternatives: Do we win converts to capitalism (called “democracy” by the political warriors) by raising “the material standards for the common people throughout the world”? A “premature,” sustainable development idea that—like premature anti-facism—was degraded to subversion. Instead, generations of Military Assistance Programs (MAP) scuttled all alternatives. Quicker hits always seemed attractive to the policy makers, even when such hits were fraught with unknowable consequences. The crowd that sought absolutely to destroy the Soviet Union’s ability to cope never addressed the results of such a victory. Thus we may now read in 1991, discussions held in the 1950s of, for example, The Effect of Stalin’s Death and the Psychological Strategy Board’s plan for the “psychological exploitation of Stalin’s death.” It was agreed that without Stalin communist leaders would have a more difficult time “subordinating the impulse of nationalism” in their respective “satellite” areas. “What we must do, urged Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, was to play up this nationalism and discontent for all it was worth, to seize every opportunity by this device to break down the monolithic Soviet control over the satellite states….Thus nationalism is the great theme to be developed as the means of breaking down the Stalinist structure….”[1120]

Now that the Soviet world has collapsed, and we are faced with an explosion of nationalism, ethnic hatred, and a return to tribalism that shatters all the countries so blithely put together at Versailles, we face some ongoing questions: With the opening of secret files in much of Europe, information about the activities of secret police agents, spies, and covert operators are now available to historians and journalists worldwide. Why then do we remain so sanctimonious about our own documents, our own spies and covert operators? Where do we go, and where do we want to go from here? We need to announce, as historians, that it depends very much on our own sense of history.

With the Eastern world jubilant over its quest for democracy, driven by nationalistic hatreds, free to proclaim independence and publish truth and evidently to choose its own fights free of Cold War considerations, we have some soul-searching to do. Who are we now? Where precisely is the vital center without the disapproving and critical left? Why are we willing to allow our own past to be secreted, shredded, and our public misinformed? If we won why aren’t we simply proud and bold about what we helped achieve? England and Rome were proud of their empires. We shun the very word. Can it be we have never decided quite who we are—an imperium or a democracy, a country of law where the people have a right to know, or a brutish informational dictatorship?

Where are the plans for covert operations in East and Central Europe today; are they retired? Are we out of business? Who knows? What will our history tell us in the era of computers, when simply to press the delete button may erase the entire game. No shredder needed. Our security shield has become an historical eraser.

Which brings us to Guatemala, Central America, and Iran. Even before Oliver North put in all those hours at the shredder, we had a sorry story at FRUS. The facts of our real history have been deleted, distorted, or erased. Everybody knows that the CIA had something to do with the overthrow of Iran’s popularly elected leader Mossadegh in 1953 and of Guatemala’s elected president Arbenz in 1954. We know the story; we have the particulars but the official record ignores them. Here we become a mockery. Here then is the core of the question: Should FRUS continue to exist? Should we spend time and money publishing historical jokes, sly evasions that are not even self-serving?

We need to have a public policy commitment for FRUS: agreed upon guidelines for what should be included in the publication. If we don’t agree on those guidelines we, the historians who serve as advisers, should go out of business. Otherwise we will be seen to be an oversight Committee that has no function. Without guidelines and access our Committee is being used and betrayed.

But these agreements need to be public and agreed upon as a Committee. If we believe in the value of FRUS, this is worth one more battle. If FRUS is actually to survive, we need specific policy agreements for publication; a commitment to accuracy. We are all fair-minded. We agreed years ago that names can be deleted. I think there has been consensus among historians that we need to understand the vagaries of policy more than we need to know the names of all the players in the field.

We, historians, agreed that we were willing to wait thirty years to begin the slow process of reconstructing our history. Although, some of us argued for twenty-five years, to date no waiting period has been agreed upon. In my opinion the number of years do not matter, so long as the published volume is accurate. I have no trouble with time constraints. I have trouble with lies, deceit, misinformation. FRUS should not continue if it is to become a fraud.

I have been asked why I did not resign in protest when Warren Cohen, the chair of our Committee, resigned in February of last year. I did not resign because I did not approve of the private deal that led to his resignation. Although I honor his bold gesture, for too long private deals have been made between individuals. And this deal between the chair and a representative of the CDC proved not to be a deal at all. Warren was merely insulted; the entire historical process was mocked, as it has been by the CDC’s gambits for years, and he resigned. After his resignation, Warren Cohen suggested that the Committee should be expanded to include journalists, congressional staffmembers, and other foreign service representatives, which I consider sound.

This should not be a cozy, intimate in-house affair. For too long the State Historical Office chose its advisers, who were given low-grade security clearances and were led to believe they would be able to advise. One had a sense of team effort. But neither diplomacy nor history has been played predominantly at State in recent years, and all players have their words reviewed.

During my first morning as a member of the Committee, I was followed into the women’s room by a very congenial woman who informed me that I was legally mandated to remain silent about what happened at Committee meetings. She told me that I could go to jail if I published anything about our deliberations. After lunch that afternoon, she followed me again into the women’s room and repeated her dire warnings. I would go to jail if I went public with anything said or seen in the meetings. Subsequently our chair, Bradford Perkins, noted a similarly menacing threat: Any leaker on the Committee was liable for “criminal action,” he had been told by an assistant secretary.

Now this has rather a chilling effect. As a journalist, however, I was unconcerned because absolutely nothing worthy of publication happened or was said, although I did think occasionally of writing a column about my experiences in the toilets of the State Department. It took me two years to ask Bill Slany if the strictures meant I couldn’t even report to my constituency, since I represented, after all, the AHA. Since the chairs were good at reporting and there was so little to report, I was merely relieved when he assured me I could print the proceedings and the discussion in the AHA’s publication, Perspectives.

But there is a real problem about the public’s right to know here. We have no idea what is removed from any given volume. For every major deletion, the editors of FRUS should have a footnote describing the document in question and the reason for the deletion. When I made the suggestion, a representative from CDC asked if I thought a black box of mourning should surround the announcement. I said I did, and I do. I also believe a black box of mourning should encircle the 1986 decision of the Superintendent of Documents to remove deposit libraries—all those college, university, and public libraries—from the FRUS distribution list. We face a two-front battle: the integrity of the series and then the distribution of the volumes. We are losing on both fronts for reasons that are both budgetary and willful. As always there is money for war, but not for education.

The Historical Office of the State Department and historians share a vision of history: It should be accurate, far-reaching, and all-inclusive. With increased security and secrecy precautions, and because most of our important international relations no longer originate in State, the battle between accuracy and secrecy has intensified. The National Security Council, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency have their own agendas and perspectives. Journalists and historians need now to become activists in the pursuit of the future integrity of our historical record and our history.

On October 12, 1984, for example, both houses of Congress passed Public Law 98-473, an omnibus spending bill that included the Boland Amendment, cutting off all public aid to the Contras. Coincidentally, on the same date CIA Director William Casey entertained congressional staffers of the two oversight committees and the party was by all reports cordial, even convivial. Part of the conviviality had to do with the recently passed exemption Casey, after four years of trying, had just won from Congress: All covert operational activities were now exempt from the disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. The day the Boland Amendment passed was a celebratory day for Casey, because its benefits were offset by the fact that covert operations had become protected from disclosure far into the future.

We are at war with ourselves and our own precepts. Are we governed by a rational chain of command, protected by the sanctity of the separation of powers, congressional oversight, a free press, and a belief in the public’s right to know? Or are we a garrison state, enshrined by secrecy, betrayed by supine congressional leaders who are unwilling to see, to know, and to ask? Is it too much to say, for the future, that it is up to historians. Who else will ask about the covert actors? Their funding? Their actions?

The agony of Central America represents an historical unity. What happened in Guatemala in 1954 is directly connected to what happened in Nicaragua thirty years later. We are the architects and the prisoners of history. Today Guatemala has the worst human rights record in the world, and any conversation with anybody alive and a player in the 1950s results in a vast sigh of nostalgia for an Arbenz, a moderate and a gentlemen, a socialist and a progressive. He was replaced by what became the model for destabilization: economic warfare, political warfare, quick-hit state terrorism—precision bombings of Guatemala City, bridges, railroad tracks, and infrastructure targets. The second major Eisenhower-era covert operation was deemed a great success. It led to forty years of violence and bloodshed. And then it was erased from the official FRUS record. In the name of national security? Whose? Who doesn’t already know about these outrages? It is disgraceful.

And then there is Iran. As we become mired in the politics of the Middle East without intelligent policy directives, with policy planners who know nothing of the history, language, or culture of our enemies or allies, will it matter that our history tells them nothing of a frisky CIA operator named Kermit Roosevelt who said that Mossedegh had no constituency? That Mossedegh represented nobody but radical, probably communist, students and a “few bearded Mullahs”? Operation Ajax transformed Iran. Quick victories in Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, and the Congo seemed stunning successes. And then there is the aftermath, and the absence of history. These CIA counterinsurgency models were erased from history without even a disclaimer.

There are easy, almost obvious, solutions to this historical outrage: a bibliographical essay, for example, comparing the facts with the deleted documents. That involves, of course, the will to tell the story, the only way in my opinion FRUS can struggle for the right to continue.

There are no final victories in the game of nations. In order to know where we go from here, we have to know precisely where we have been. Without our history we will scurry along a treadmill from disaster to disaster; howling victory, victory. What do we stand for? Everybody, especially the Guatemalans and Iranians, knows our history. Why do we stand before the bar of history content to be labelled hypocrites and liars?

Can we see no actual use for historical restoration, as steps toward peace, amity, and international trust? What would our world look like if our intelligence agencies were really dedicated to national security, responsible security that promoted a decent quality of life worldwide? Can we imagine a future dedicated to sustainable development, fair market prices, the environment, disarmament, and the recreation of our own national treasury and fiscal infrastructure? Can we contemplate a serious public debate concerning our future with all the facts on the table? Who will be the players in a democratic movement that calls for an end to covert imperial policies. Or will the East-West schism be replaced by a North-South schism? Who can afford another century of war, covert or overt? And what of the perils to our global environment?

If FRUS is to survive thirty years down the road, international issues of the environment and human rights need especially to be addressed. Who keeps the records of the global environmental meetings now occurring in both the public and private sectors? If we are to survive, the environment must become an urgent issue of state. But until now international issues of the environment have been discarded by history; they remain buried in the files of Agriculture and Commerce. When Rachel Carson began her crusade against the perils of herbicides and other atmospheric poisons, Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson wrote Eisenhower that she was probably a communist; and besides he couldn’t understand why she, a “spinster with no children,” was concerned about the future. State, in the future, may want a retrospective volume on the bumpy road toward international environmental agreements—and the Historical Office should at least know where the originating documents are located.

More immediately, we need a FRUS volume retrospective devoted to human rights, an issue that managed to get lost when that moment of human rights interest between 1945 and 1953 was considered, almost thirty years later. What about multilateral economic and financial considerations, so long limited to what looked like “private” agencies, (like Radio Free Europe looked like a “private” political warfare operation). I am referring to those long-range planning meetings with covert governmental ties, such as the Bilderbergers and the Trilateralists. We need to reconsider the real issues, and the real places where our business has been and is being done.

The fact is our future history will be only as complete as our contemporary oversight and foresight. And so you see historians simply have to become activists.

Blanche Wiesen Cook served as an AHA delegate on the Association's Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation from 1986 to 1990. She is currently vice president of the AHA's Research Division and is a professor of history at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.