National Security Archive: Sources on Latin America
National Security Archive, George Washington University
George Mason University
The National Security Archive is a nongovernmental, nonprofit institution that uses the Freedom of Information Act to declassify United States government documents related to this country’s foreign policy. The Archive is funded by the MacArthur, Carnegie, and Ford Foundations and is located at George Washington University, where its collection of more than 100,000 documents is accessible to the public. An extensive selection of these documents can be consulted on the Archive’s user-friendly website. Since the Archive has been particularly interested in U.S. policy in Latin America, the website is a valuable teaching tool for the recent history of the region.
The website contains declassified U.S. government documents related to events in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Uruguay. The site presents documents—either as downloadable PDF files or as scanned images—within “electronic briefing books,” each of which is dedicated to a particular topic. There are 80 briefing books related to Latin America, and each contains between five and 50 annotated documents as well as a detailed analysis written by the Archive’s staff. Typically, a 1,000- to 3,000-word introduction explains how the Archive secured the documents, situates them in historical context, and draws conclusions from them. The majority of the briefing books focus on U.S. policy. For example, there are briefing books on the U.S. role in the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954 and on the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. But even though the documents were all produced by the U.S. government, they often shed a great deal of light on local events. The 48 documents included in the briefing book, “The Guatemalan Military: What the U.S. Files Reveal,” provide an illuminating look at the structure and behavior of that institution during Guatemala’s decades-long civil war. Similarly instructive are briefing books on Argentina during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s and on the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968, when the Mexican army opened fire on students engaged in a peaceful protest. Not all the topics covered are quite this serious; one briefing book presents documents related to U.S. and Cuban efforts to conduct diplomacy through baseball.
The National Security Archive is not a disinterested repository of material. On the contrary, the Archive’s analysts are quite critical of U.S. foreign policy, and their efforts at declassifying documents aim to blow the whistle on U.S. malfeasance. This political perspective not only shapes the Archive’s analyses; it also affects the selection of documents that the Archive makes available on its website. Still, the Archive is hardly an extremist organization, and its interpretations are generally reasonable. The introductory essays provide very useful background information and often point the user to excellent secondary sources for further reading.
The documents on the website provide students the opportunity to construct their own historical interpretations. Although the briefing books do provide useful background material, they work particularly well in conjunction with other historical accounts. For example, students might read a scholarly account of Argentina’s “Dirty War” of the late 1970s, when a military dictatorship kidnapped, tortured, and killed an estimated 30,000 people suspected of “subversive” behavior. They could then examine the fifteen documents collected in the briefing book, “State Department Opens Files on Argentina’s Dirty War“ and draw their own conclusions about the standard operating procedure of the Argentine military in this period. Teachers might ask students how the documents corroborate or contradict the version presented in the scholarly account they read. Or students might read two very different accounts of an event such as the 1973 military coup in Chile: one that emphasizes U.S. complicity in General Pinochet’s overthrow of Salvador Allende and one that instead stresses domestic variables. Students might then be asked to determine which account (if either) is supported by the sources on the website.