The Fifth Estate


Roger Peace | US Foreign Policy - TRANSCEND Media Service

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain . . . until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” 

–  Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910)

“Sometimes one sees in the school simply the instrument for transferring a certain maximum quantity of knowledge to the growing generation. . . . On the contrary, the aim must be the training of independently thinking and acting individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem.” 

–  Albert Einstein, “On Education,” address at the New York State College for Teachers, Albany, October 15, 1931

“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.” 

–  John Lewis, House of Representatives debate on the impeachment of President Donald Trump, December 18, 2019

Clio, the Greek Muse of History, prepares to record the next chapter of United States history.
(Library of Congress, Udo Keppler 1899, adapted)


I. Writing the history of U.S. foreign policy

  • Interpretive frameworks: A house divided
  • The nationalist orientation in textbooks and scholarly studies
  • The Fifth Estate
  • A progressive framework for analysis
  • Peace & justice values

II. Democratic accountability and U.S. foreign policy

  • Secrecy and covert action
  • Propaganda:  Selling war and intervention
  • Managing the news media
  • The ideological dimension

III. An overview of U.S. foreign policy historiography


About the author


I.  Writing the History of U.S. Foreign Policy

The writing of history is not value free.  Perspectives and biases come with the territory.  Writing involves a three-part process of selection, interpretation, and evaluation.  No two histories on a given topic are alike, first, because historians select different experiences and information out of an ocean of possibilities; second, because they utilize different interpretive frameworks that guide their selection and set forth main themes and plot lines; and third, because they assess historical events and developments according to different value-based perspectives.
Edward Hallet Carr, in his classic study, What Is History? (1961), explains the selection process using a fishing analogy:  “The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab [e.g., readily available].  They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he [or she] chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch.  By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.”[1]
Value-based perspectives may not be explicitly stated in a narrative, but they are invariably woven into the historian’s selection and description of developments.  Consider, for example, the following two divergent descriptions of early U.S. foreign policy:

As early as 1776, American diplomats were busily attempting to woo European governments to support U.S. objectives.  Over the following decades, moreover, the survival of the young republic depended on managing complex economic and military threats from abroad.  Growing confidence encouraged increasingly ambitious uses of power.  By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, U.S. presidents had sent forces into action in territories stretching from Cuba and Peru to the Marquesas Islands, Tripoli, and China.[2]

Reading Two:

From the Ohio Country westward, the American nation-state was built on the conquest of peoples – Native American, Hispanic, French, and others – incorporated without their consent, who were compelled to give up their traditional ways of life, who often faced removal to new lands further west, and who, in some cases, were threatened with annihilation by acts of violence perpetrated either by frontiersmen or by the U.S. military. . . . What is often forgotten is the fundamentally imperial nature of the U.S. conquest of a large portion of the North American continent.[3]

The first description paints a far more benign picture of the United States than the second, making no reference to U.S. conquests and depicting the nation as responding to “threats from abroad.”  The value-perspective of the second will not be lost on readers, as aggression is commonly understood to be both morally wrong and illegal (under domestic and international laws).  The value-perspective of the first description is less obvious.  It is rendered by the omission of any mention of conquest or aggression, even as U.S. forces are sent “into action.”  Juxtaposition of the two statements makes it clear that each is rendering a particular view of history.
Interpretive frameworks:  A house divided
Writing the history of United States foreign policy, in particular, is not value free because historians are not the first to write this history.  On any major topic, the first drafts are written by Washington officials seeking to explain and justify their actions, and by the news media adding chronicles and commentary.  Historians arrive on the scene late to examine the evidence anew and rewrite the script.  They must take into consideration existing accounts, especially if the public accepts official storylines as accurate and true.  The scholarly studies they produce, moreover, will be judged in large part on how closely or distantly they align with official accounts, validating or contradicting them by varying degrees.
The relationship between scholarly studies and official accounts of U.S. foreign policy can range from near-total collusion to radical dissension.
The most contentious debates among historians of U.S. foreign relations hinge on this relationship between their studies and official accounts, which can range from near-total collusion to radical dissension.  Much depends, of course, on the specific policies and wars under discussion, but over the course of many decades two divergent orientations have developed:  a nationalist, traditionalist, or conservative orientation that generally aligns with official accounts, viewing U.S. leaders as well-intentioned and U.S. global power as a force for good; and a critical, “revisionist,” or progressive orientation that is deeply skeptical of U.S. global ambitions and frequently reproving of U.S. wars and interventions.[4]
The nationalist orientation may be further distinguished by its ideological and “realist” threads.  The former hails the expansion of U.S. power as synonymous with the advance of freedom and democracy, conflating power and principles, while the latter focuses on the realpolitick of statecraft – international competition, national security, hegemonic aspirations, and grand strategies.  The ideological thread is embedded in celebratory histories and cultural rituals that are popular with many U.S. citizens, while the realist thread is popular among international relations scholars and political strategists.[5]  Divisions can also be found within the progressive orientation, especially between historical critiques that focus on underlying systems and structures, often linked to empire-building, and those more concerned with eclectic policy choices.[6]  There are many variations of all these views.
Individual historians do not necessarily belong to any school.[7]  As independent scholars, they can approach each issue on its own merits and can change their minds based on new information and understandings; hence the utility of debating perspectives.  Historians also utilize and benefit from each other’s original research regardless of different interpretations.  Still, like the Supreme Court, a conservative-progressive divide is often evident.  Unlike the Supreme Court, however, there are no final judgments in the historical profession; hence, debates can continue indefinitely without resolution, ebbing and flowing as historians find new angles, twists, and evidence to bring to bear on topics (historiography is the record of these continuing debates).[8]
The nationalist orientation in textbooks and scholarly studies
Critical, progressive studies of U.S. foreign policies and wars are more abundant at higher levels of education than at lower levels.  Grade school history is designed in large part to cultivate national identity, loyalty, pride, and good citizenship.  As students advance to higher grades, critical thinking is gradually introduced, presumably stimulating independent analysis and judgment.  In recent decades, a multicultural value orientation has become part of established curricula, edging out certain parts of traditional celebratory history.  “The history we teach,” declared the Organization of American Historians in September 2020, “must investigate the core conflict between a nation founded on radical notions of liberty, freedom, and equality, and a nation built on slavery, exploitation, and exclusion.”[9]
Dana Goldstein, an education reporter for the New York Times, obtained 43 middle and high school U.S. history textbooks and read “about 4,800 pages of mostly sterile, written-by-committee prose to figure out what American teenagers are learning about our nation’s history.”  She noted that high school textbooks in both liberal California and conservative Texas “emphasized the brutal displacement of Native Americans as the United States fulfilled its ‘Manifest Destiny,’” thus testifying to the influence of progressive critiques in this particular area.[10]
Most high school U.S. textbooks have few explicit criticisms of U.S. foreign policy.
Beyond the frontier experience, however, the broad swath of U.S. foreign policies and wars has largely escaped moral scrutiny.  In a study of 102 high school U.S. history textbooks published between 1970 and 2009, sociologists Richard Lachmann and Lacy Mitchel concluded that “textbooks still have few explicit criticisms of U.S. foreign policy.”  Although the textbooks exhibit increased “concern for the experiences and suffering of individual U.S. soldiers,” especially during the Vietnam War, this concern “does not extend to the soldiers or civilians of America’s enemies or allies.”  Moreover, “Americans are shown almost exclusively as victims rather than perpetrators of the horrors of war.”[11]
The idea that U.S. soldiers were the victims of the Vietnam War fits well with the official storyline that developed after the war.  At a news conference on March 24, 1977, President Jimmy Carter was asked if he felt “any moral obligation to help rebuild that country.”  Carter replied, “Well, the destruction was mutual.  You know, we went to Vietnam without any desire to capture territory or to impose American will on other people.  We went there to defend the freedom of the South Vietnamese.  And I don’t feel that we ought to apologize or to castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability.”[12]

U.S. Air Force UC-123 planes spraying Agent Orange in South Vietnam in 1966 (AP Photo)

In reality, the destruction was nothing near mutual.  U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia resulted in the deaths of 1.5 to 3.8 million Vietnamese, 600,000 to 800,000 Cambodians, and about one million Laotians, as compared to 58,220 U.S. soldiers.  Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped 6,162,000 tons of bombs on Southeast Asia, which is 2.74 times the amount dropped in all of World War II.  The U.S. sprayed some nineteen million gallons of environmental poisons on South Vietnam, resulting in miscarriages and birth defects long after the war ended.  Vietnamese soldiers, of course, did not invade, occupy, bomb, burn, poison, kill, and wreak havoc in the United States.[13]

U.S. history textbooks used in U.S. high school and college survey courses typically embrace a nationalistic orientation when addressing international affairs, highlighting “the rise of American power” and omitting serious evaluation of the use of that power for good or ill (the ill is largely omitted).[14]  The world is viewed through the eyes of Washington policymakers – hence the rise of any other world power is regarded as a threat – and U.S. foreign policies are often explained in the very terms used by U.S. political leaders.  The parameters of discussion are wide enough to allow for criticism, but such criticism rarely rises to the level of generalizations that would challenge nationalistic presumptions regarding American benevolence.[15]
A case in point may be seen in the popular college textbook, America: A Narrative History (2013), by George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi.  In describing the U.S.-directed coup in Guatemala in 1954, the authors briefly note that the U.S. “installed a new ruler in Guatemala who created a police state,” thus acknowledging a serious contradiction to stated U.S. principles.  Yet they draw no lesson from this experience in assessing the Eisenhower presidency just a few pages later.  Instead, the authors write that President Dwight Eisenhower “maintained the peace in the face of combustible global tensions. . . . For the most part, he acted with poise, restraint, and intelligence in managing an increasingly complex cold war that he predicted would last for decades.”  The authors fail to point out that the “police state” in Guatemala lasted for decades, sparking a civil war that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and that the U.S. aided many other police states during the long Cold War, effectively undermining its moral claim to be leading the “free world.”[16]

Wall mural in Guatemala City painted in 2004, depicting the democratic spring in Guatemala (left ) buried by the U.S.-directed violent overthrow of the Árbenz government in 1954, signalling to the world that the U.S. would pursue its power interests irrespective or democratic principles and international law

More detailed scholarly studies do not necessarily produce more enlightened interpretations.  Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman, in Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy (1998), describe U.S. covert operations in Iran and Guatemala as “tests” for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Allen Dulles.  Regarding Iran, they write, “he succeeded fully.  By August 1953 the CIA had routed the Tudeh party, forced the resignation of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and returned Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne.”  The success of the operation in overthrowing Iran’s democratic government is said to have “reinforced the administration’s confidence” in the CIA’s next mission to oust Guatemala’s democratic leader Jacobo Árbenz the following spring.  The authors go on to quote, without irony, the Eisenhower administration’s National Security Directive 162/2 which declares that the U.S. should “assist in achieving stability” in the Third World.  The authors, as such, have not only adopted the views of Washington officials but also their coded language.  In reality, U.S. leaders sought “stability” only for U.S. allies and client states while plotting to undermine and overthrow governments perceived to be unfriendly, the overall effect being global instability.[17]

Recognition of such contradictions lies at the heart of progressive “revisionist” narratives.  According to the historian Thomas G. Paterson, writing in 2007, “Historians have documented beneficent American assistance to appreciative people, but revisionists, more than others, have spotlighted the hypocrisy and immorality – and ultimate tragedy – of American foreign policy.”

U.S. officials lectured about democracy while they and their covert operatives undercut free speech, bought foreign politicians, encouraged fixed elections, and plotted to assassinate foreign leaders . . . The United States pressed certain nations to honor human rights while turning eyes away from human-rights violations committed by allies and trading partners.  American policymakers championed the principle of self-determination while they clung to decaying colonial regimes and snubbed the nonaligned movement.  Washington lobbied for open trade doors abroad while practicing the closed door at home.  The United States raced toward nuclear supremacy while it demanded nuclear nonproliferation for others.  If the double standard did not undercut American assertions of moral superiority, other behavior did.  U.S. bombing campaigns and sabotages left millions jobless, homeless, and dead.  The unsavory embrace and arming of dictatorial strongmen such as [Cuba’s Fulgencio] Batista, the Shah [of Iran], and [the Philippines’ Ferdinand] Marcos facilitated their schemes to spy on, jail, and murder their domestic critics.  The United States fueled civil wars, often through covert actions, disrupting societies and economies, keeping the poor poor, and spawning a plethora of anti-Americanisms.[18]

The nationalist orientation in academia today is less nationalistic than it once was.  Successive progressive challenges over the decades have opened the door to mainstream acknowledgement of egregious foreign policies in certain areas.  Indeed, there are now subfields of history in which critical appraisals have become the norm.  The study of U.S.-Native American relations has become a kind of Truth Commission in revealing the cruelties visited upon indigenous peoples by Anglo-American “settler colonialism” and its racist underpinnings.[19]  Scholars of U.S.-Latin American relations have dug deeply into the contradictions of U.S. support for repressive governments and rightist coups d’états.  Stephen Rabe, in The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America (2012), argues that “historians can go too far in denying the realities of the global distribution of power or the active U.S. role in fomenting chaos in the region during the Cold War. . . . Historical inquiry mandates that both the causes and consequences of decisions be analyzed.”[20]

The Fifth Estate
To be clear, the argument here is not against nationalistic bias per se.  Having a favorite team in the international arena does not preclude writing good history.  Rather, the argument is against the exclusion, minimalization, and whitewashing of egregious foreign policies in order to conform to, or at least not contradict, celebratory U.S. history.  Nationalistic bias slips into whitewashing when it (1) fails to cross-examine official rationales and ideological assumptions, (2) ignores the harm done to others by U.S. policies, and (3) omits dissenting voices and alternative courses of action available at the time.  This is not to suggest that all criticism of U.S. foreign policy is valid, as such criticism may go beyond the evidence at hand.  Well-established protocols for factual accuracy, citation of sources, and reasoned and nuanced conclusions should be observed.
If the history profession is to serve a useful public purpose, it should be devoted to telling the truth about the past, insofar as the truth may be known.
The argument is essentially this:  If the history profession is to serve a useful public purpose, it should be devoted to telling the truth about the past, insofar as the truth may be known.  Government disinformation and propaganda should not be validated and perpetuated in history textbooks and classrooms.  Ideological presumptions underlying U.S. foreign policies should not be left unexamined and unexplained.  It would be well if historians considered their profession the “Fifth Estate,” obliged, like the Fourth Estate (the news media), to set the record straight and hold leaders accountable.  This means, invariably, responding to the first drafts of history written in Washington.  If scholarly studies fail to identify official misinformation, ignore deleterious results of foreign policies, and omit alternative courses of action, then official storylines will likely reign and needed lessons will remain unlearned.
A progressive framework for analysis
The essays on this website draw from many sources, including military, CIA, and governmental documents and narratives, participant memoirs and biographies, journalistic reports and editorials, and expert scholarship in the areas of study.  While recognizing the importance of other lenses and approaches, interpretations generally align with, and build on, the progressive, critical tradition in cross-examining official rationales and challenging celebratory histories.  If a single interpretive framework can be constructed out of the various essays, it would contain the following six characteristics:[21]
  1. Historical contexts and perspectives.  Viewing geopolitical contexts and historical developments from different sides and angles (not just through the eyes of Washington officials).
  2. U.S. policy choices and motives.  Investigating U.S. policy choices (the roads taken) and alternative possibilities (the roads not taken), and inquiring into the driving forces of U.S. foreign policy.
  3. U.S. actions and results.  Examining the effects of U.S. diplomacy and wars on other lands and peoples, especially the harm done to others; also, the unwelcome “blowback” for the United States and effects on global security and stability.
  4. Official rationales and assumptions.  Cross-examining U.S. policy rationales and unpacking ideological assumptions; also, assessing administration influence on the media and public opinion.
  5. Domestic debates and peace advocacy.  Exploring domestic debates, challenges to administration rationales and policies from below, and peace advocacy, including analysis of peace movement strategies and influence on Washington policymaking.
  6. Historical lessons.  Reflecting on lessons of importance to the public; connecting the past to the present.
These six streams of inquiry and analysis provide a useful checklist when reading (or writing) about U.S. foreign policy.  Regarding the first, one gains perspective by taking into account the views of different nations and groups, and by having a larger view of “success” and “progress” than the achievement of one nation’s goals.  For example, in the War of 1812 essay on this website, the views of four broad groups are considered:  the Madison administration and its supporters who favored going to war, Federalist party opponents of the war, the British and Canadian governments, and Native Americans, particularly Tecumseh.
Regarding the second stream, examining alternative courses of action available to leaders and others enables one to appreciate agency in history, hone in on decision-making, and consider lessons – how not to repeat past mistakes.  For example, Fredrik Logevall, in Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (1999), documents missed opportunities by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to avoid all-out war in Vietnam, including the rejection of French and UN offers to mediate a peace agreement similar to one that ended the Laotian civil war in 1962.[22]
Regarding the third stream, it is necessary to walk in the shoes of other people in other lands if one is to understand U.S. foreign policies and wars.  One of the most memorable lines from the Vietnam War was a comment made by a U.S. Army Major to correspondent Peter Arnett in February 1968: “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”[23]
Many lessons may be drawn from the study of U.S. foreign policy history and those drawn by the authors and co-authors of these essays are not the last word on the subjects.  Readers are encouraged to explore more sources, ask questions, debate perspectives, and develop independent conclusions.
Peace & justice values

Albert Einstein, advocate for peace in the Nuclear Age, called for a paradigm shift in thinking

The single most important lesson drawn by many people after the Second World War was to avoid a third one, a lesson aptly described in the United Nations Charter as “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”  In May 1946, nine months after U.S. aircraft dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Albert Einstein wrote an appeal to several hundred prominent Americans, warning, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”[24]  He called for new military and foreign policies that would replace international competition and war preparations with cooperation and peaceful resolution of conflicts, freeing up vast amounts of resources and talents for constructive purposes.  Since then, halting steps have been taken toward these goals.  International agreements have been forged proscribing aggression, genocide, and “crimes against humanity.”  Universal human rights principles have been set forth encompassing economic, social, and political rights.  Ecological sustainability goals have been established in response to global warming, environmental pollution, species and habitat loss, and overpopulation.[25]

“Non-Violence,” a sculpture by Karl Fredrik Reutersward, United Nations building, New York

This evolving international moral architecture is relevant to the study of history in two ways.  First, it establishes ethical standards by which scholars and citizens alike may judge the conduct of nations – and all nations should be judged by the same standards.  Second, it cautions historians against “normalizing” war, against treating war as a permanent condition of international relations rather than as a problem to be solved.  In effect, this means defining progress as moving toward a more cooperative world order and nonviolent conflict resolution at all levels.  The goal of abolishing war in the 21st century is not unlike the goal of abolishing the institution of slavery in the 19th century.  Once thought to be impossible, it was nevertheless achieved; and once achieved, it became one of the great hallmarks of human progress.[26]

In December 1963, some fifty historians met at the Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia to establish a new organization, the Conference on Peace Research in History.  The meeting was chaired by Merle Curti, past president of the American Historical Association and the preeminent scholar of U.S. peace movements.  Following the meeting, a call went out inviting historians to join in “the kind of research on the history of war, peace, violence and conflict that can clarify the causes of international peace and difficulties in creating it.”  Peace historians since then have produced a prestigious library of studies on antiwar and nonviolent social change movements.  The Conference was renamed the Peace History Society in 1994.  According to Charles F. Howlett, “Peace history, as part of peace studies, seeks to inform publics concerning the causes of war while highlighting the efforts of those whose efforts have been directed at peaceful coexistence in an interdependent global setting.”[27]
Lawrence S. Wittner justifies the value-based perspective of peace history by asking rhetorically, “If it is appropriate for a biologist to research a cure for cancer, is it not appropriate for an historian to research a cure for war?”  And just as peace historians sympathize with peace movements, so “labor historians empathize with workers, women’s historians identify with the struggles of women, business historians seem captivated by business leaders, and so on.”  Such sympathies do not rule out critical assessments.[28]
Many of the essays on this website begin with the question, “Was this war necessary and just?”  Asking this question opens the door to moral and ethical inquiry and reasoning.  More specifically, it encourages readers to analyze administration rationales for war, explore related developments, imaginatively engage in the political debates of the time, assess alternative courses of action, and apply international norms in rendering any judgments.  Questions of right and wrong are not taboo but serve as catalysts for investigation and debate.  The pedagogical goal is to cultivate critical thinking and evaluation skills, these being essential to an informed citizenry and a democratic society.[29]
II.  Democratic accountability and U.S. foreign policy



Roger Peace is a diplomatic historian, coordinator of this website, and former community college instructor. He is the author of A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012) and A Just and Lasting Peace: The U.S. Peace Movement from the Cold War to Desert Storm (Noble Press, 1991).

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Share this article:

DISCLAIMER: The statements, views and opinions expressed in pieces republished here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of TMS. In accordance with title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. TMS has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is TMS endorsed or sponsored by the originator. “GO TO ORIGINAL” links are provided as a convenience to our readers and allow for verification of authenticity. However, as originating pages are often updated by their originating host sites, the versions posted may not match the versions our readers view when clicking the “GO TO ORIGINAL” links. This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Comments are closed.