Published Date

January 1, 2004

From Teaching Difficult Legal or Political Concepts: Using Online Primary Sources in Writing Assignments (2004)

Located at
Reviewed by Sue Patrick

The National Security Archive, which is not connected to the U.S. government, collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. The archive contains more than 90,000 records, some of which it has published at this site, which is hosted by the School of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington University. Accessible from the home page is a list of 11 “Electronic Briefing Books,” on such topics as “U.S. Satellite Imagery, 1960-1999” and “The Contras, Cocaine, and Covert Operations.” The home page also has links to “Nuclear History at the Archive,” “The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962,” the “Nixon-Presley Meeting: The Documentation,” the “U.S.-Japan Project,” and “White House E-Mail.” In addition the home page indicates new additions to the collections and provides access general information about the archive, its publications, the Freedom of Information Act, and related projects. One of the latter was the CNN series Cold War. The site has available the full text of more than 125 interviews and more than 90 primary source documents for that series divided into the 24 episodes of the program.

In each “Electronic Briefing Books,” there is an introduction and an annotated list of the documents available. Some also have a section called “National Security Archive Analysis and Publications” that links to recent research on the topic. Teachers may use the “Electronic Briefing Books” to encourage students to look at U.S. foreign policy critically, to determine whether U.S. actions were justified given the dangers of the Cold War.

“The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962” begins with an introduction that indicates how the history of the crisis has been altered by the release of approximately 2,000 documents by the State Department in the 1990s and by recent conferences involving participants in the crisis from the U.S., USSR, and Cuba. This introduction discusses historiography and the nature of historical research, so it is useful for teachers who want students to understand that “history” is not entirely the revelation of truth but rather the interpretation of facts based on information available. The remainder of the crisis pages contains a chronology of events, biographical information, and a glossary of terms. It permits students to see how the crisis developed and was resolved.

“Nuclear History at the National Security Archive” contains links to specific “Published Collections,” to a description of “Unpublished Collections,” to the “U.S. Nuclear History Documentation Project,” including sample documents, to “MIRV Documents,” to information about “Predelegation of Nuclear Authority,” and to two of the “Electronic Briefing Books.” The publications listed include the electronic version of “The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962” described above, “The Berlin Crisis,” “Nuclear Non-Proliferation,” “The Soviet Estimate: U.S. Analysis of the Soviet Union, 1947-1991,” and “U.S. Nuclear History: Nuclear Arms and Politics in the Missile Age, 1955-1968.” It is obvious that this section of the National Security Archive is under constant development, since nuclear history was an integral part of the Cold War.

I have not provided detailed descriptions of the other links on the home page. I believe the information given is sufficient to understand the varied nature of the different portions of the site and its potential as a teaching tool.

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