Friday, August 21, 2009

What Are the Wienies Hiding? Probably Very Little

A commenter on this post has a grievance with me and with the "history wienies at State." He makes a fair point, and I think it's worth replying to him here rather than in a comment to a comment.

"Anonymous" said:

So let me get this straight. First, under the "new, improved, Office of the Historian," the State Department fails to acknowledge the existence of a chapter on Uruguay. Then the "new, improved, Office of the Historian" changes its tune to lie about the existence of a chapter on Uruguay, lamely claiming that one was never done due to "space considerations." Then, the "new, improved, Office of the Historian," changes its tune yet again, but only after Steve Aftergood (author of the HNN piece) takes them to task over this issue.

The bottom line here is that after 8 years of progressively improving openness, the first public act by the "new, improved, Office of the Historian" is to lie to the American people and, by extension, violate the spirit and letter of the law. Acting General Editor Dr. William B. McAllister's terse reply to Aftergood's entreaties comes off like that of an irritated child who just got caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. This is a sign of "good management"??? What's next? More important, what else are the history wienies at State hiding?

To review the matter of the revised Preface to the new FRUS volume on Latin America during the Nixon years, here's the current, revised, text with my bolding:

This volume includes documentation on U.S. relations with Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. Coverage of El Salvador and Honduras is limited to a chapter on the U.S. response to the 1969 “Soccer War” between those two Central American countries. Chapters on Bolivia and Uruguay will be added once they have completed the declassification process. Due to space constraints, relations with Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and the colonies and overseas territories of European powers are not covered here. Documentation on relations with Chile between 1969 and September 1973 will be published in a separate volume.

The "history wienies" (which, BTW, I think would look great on office coffee mugs) changed two things from the original version. First, a future chapter on Uruguay is now promised upon completion of the declassification process. And, indeed, the FRUS volume's index now has placeholders for both Bolivia and Uruguay, whereas the original version had one only for Bolivia. Secondly, the revised text mentions the Caribbean countries and overseas European territories that will not be covered due to space constraints. Evidently, there really are such things as space constraints in electronic publications, although I'm sure that wasn't the reason for omitting Uruguay in the original release of the volume.

The bottom line is that when the Office of the Historian (HO) was challenged about the absence of a Uruguay chapter, it said mea culpa and added a placeholder for it, just as it had already done for Bolivia. Why didn't the HO do that in the first place? I don't know, but I doubt it was because there was a conspiracy to lie about something. To believe that, I'd have to believe that there is something about U.S. foreign relations with Uruguay between 1969 and 1972 that's even more sensitive, more embarrassing, or more highly classified than there is in our relations with Chile or Bolivia during those same years. I'd also have to believe that those devious history wienies expected that critics like Anonymous just wouldn't notice the absence of any mention of Uruguay. That's too much for me to believe. I can more easily believe in bureaucratic oversights, slips, and screw-ups.

We're simply going to have to wait for the declassification process to run its course before we see all the FRUS material on Latin America in those years. It's no secret that the CIA is the main obstacle to the clearance of material in the FRUS series. You can read the arguments for and against CIA openness with the HO here. The policy conflicts between the CIA and the HO are regularly aired in public with each publication of the minutes of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation (like this one from last December). I'm sure the declassification process is much more frustrating for the wienies in the HO than it is for interested onlookers like Anonymous and me.

How interesting will that classified material be, once it is declassified and published? Maybe we'll all be absolutely blown away by earth-shaking revelations that change our current understanding of diplomatic history. Or maybe it will be nothing but a big yawn-fest over stuff that we've long known about from unofficial sources and memoirs. As it happens, I've read some of the CIA's internal and classified histories of key events in South and Central America, and they were, at best, only mildly interesting. Deep, dark, official secrets are always best when you don't know them and can still imagine that they must be something spectacular. Once you get access to them, well, my reaction has always been like that old Peggy Lee song, "is that all there is?"

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