Is the history of intelligence the secret history of the twentieth century, or just a good spy yarn?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 11 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


The world of espionage is as fascinating and present in the current affairs of international relations as it is ambiguous. Although everybody can estimate the merits of intelligence work its significance for the development of historical events or even matters of today remains unclear. Part of the reason for that is certainly the secrecy under which operations are conducted and information is gathered, but also the unknown effects other factors and policy decisions have on a situation. It seems strangely familiar that we assume intelligence agencies have a very important role in the decision-making process of the policymakers and they probably do, but there has been and is a great debate among historians what kind of a role these agencies played and what their contribution was, if any, to the decisions ultimately made by the government officials. As we can witness today, this debate continues and will most likely never completely disappear. The latest controversy has shown this very clearly. What was the role of the intelligence community in the lead up process to the war in Iraq? How did certain findings or the absence of them influence the Bush Administration? Did the White House base its decisions on intelligence reports by the CIA or on personal convictions? And would different intelligence reports, or none at all, have made a difference in the course of events? Those are questions that will not and cannot be answered by this essay. But these are the latest examples of issues surrounding the same question that has been debated on for quite some time. Did intelligence work in the 20th century make a difference or would events have happened anyway? Along those lines another question has been formulated. How can we know for sure that one way or the other was the case? How can historians and other scholars shed light onto some of those pressing issues that are kept so secret? This essay will focus on some of these problems and methods of historians working on intelligence and will then provide a perspective on the matter of intelligence work and their effect on history. The main argument is that espionage was very important, especially in the Cold War, and is still today, but that it remains unclear what impact it had on the developments and decisions of past and present. There is a danger to overemphasize the importance of the intelligence agencies on government officials’ decisions. That said, there is no doubt that intelligence work was and is very crucial in many ways but can also be counterproductive as some examples in history have shown which will be referred to later on.

The main problem is that we just cannot be certain why a political leader makes a decision. There are too many factors which come into play such as personal opinion, convictions, other advise, outside pressure, inner conflicts and other policy sectors. It seems impossible for the historian to get close to an accurate analysis but at least certain conclusions can be drawn from things we do know from historical events that might lead to some evidence of involvement of intelligence agencies.

Historians and Intelligence

It seems that no other topic in the field of historiography is so difficult to assess as the work and impact of intelligence agencies. It is also one of the areas where not as much research has been done as in many other fields. That is especially true for the Cold War era and Soviet and American intelligence work before and during that time. John Lewis Gaddis, one of the experts on the Cold War era, noticed that phenomenon in the late 1980s and published an essay titled Intelligence, Espionage, and Cold War Origins. In it he identified some of the problems historians face when dealing with espionage during the Cold War. His argument is that scholars are “forced to rely upon a thin thread of evidence spun out in a bewildered array of mostly unverifiable writings and recollections by former officials (both disgruntled and not), defectors, journalists, parahistorians, and novelists.”[1] Gaddis is very pessimistic when it comes to the study of espionage and its effects on historic events. He does not see the basis for solid history, some kind of clear evidence to support an argument for or against. One of the reasons for that is that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other counterpart intelligence agencies have been very reluctant to declassify any documents which would give insights into the work and reach of the intelligence services. Even though documents have been released every few years there are still a lot more kept secret than public. That is why historians have to rely on sources such as diaries, books or other sources provided by former secret service officials in order to have at least some kind of evidence in their argument. Gaddis remains sceptical even towards evidence from former officials. He notes that if not clearly documented and in written form, evidence such as interviews or recollections can be misleading because people subconsciously remember things differently or pursue a specific personal agenda when going to the public which is not what Gaddis perceives as basis for solid history but rather as anecdotal evidence. Every once in a while a historian would have a breakthrough discovery by accident and force the intelligence community to release some of their documents or provide an official statement which implies some proof for further analysis but that happens very rarely.

Historian D. Cameron Watt commented on John Gaddis’ piece on intelligence and rebuts his “defeatist survey of the problems historians face in attempting to integrate the factor of covert intelligence into accounts of the making and conduct of British and American foreign policy after 1945.”[2] Watt argues that the reason why historians have not been able to address the issue of intelligence properly is not because of the scarcity of reliable evidence but because scholars have to deal with a partly psychological problem and partly methodological problem. It is psychological because scholars fear losing their professional reputation when they publish a work on secret services which has been labelled by critics as sheer unhistoricism. The difficulty of finding adequate sources becomes a psychological problem because according to Watt historians of twentieth-century developments have been spoiled with detailed source material in comparison to colleagues in medieval or early modern times. It also becomes a methodological problem when historians do not treat the development and continuity of intelligence services as an element in the decision-making process in the same way that they would treat the evolution of any other institution. He aggressively drives this point home when he attacks Gaddis’ references and explains how historians can work on the subject of intelligence without being forced to rely on controversial evidence by focusing on continuities and developments of personnel and practice of the secret services.


[1] John Lewis Gaddis: Intelligence, Espionage, and Cold War Origins. In Diplomatic History 13 (Spring 1989), p. 192.

[2] D. Cameron Watt: Intelligence and the Historian: A Comment on John Gaddis’ “Intelligence, Espionage, and Cold War Origins”. In Diplomatic History 14 (Spring 1990), p. 199.


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Indiana University – History Department
Foreign Relations American Century



Title: Is the history of intelligence the secret history of the twentieth century, or just a good spy yarn?