First-Year Seminar: CIA Operations in the Global Cold War

First years! Some of our Hist & Lit tutors are also offering first-year seminars this year. Check out Beatrice Wayne’s seminar, “CIA Operations in the Global Cold War,” and apply here.

What inspired you to teach this class?

I was inspired to teach this class after reading Marlon James’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. This gripping bookprovides a variety of perspectives from different narrators, all related to the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976. This is perhaps an unusual angle to come at the history of the CIA, but what impressed me so much about James’ novel is the way it managed to capture different facets of the CIA’s involvement in Jamaican politics in the mid-1970s. James is able to authentically give voice to a wide variety of perspectives and personalities who effected and were affected by covert action in the region. So often, both fictional representations and scholarly accounts of the CIA are told from a single perspective. This class takes a page from Marlon James and explores the realities of CIA actions across the globe from the point of view of many different peoples. I’m also passionate about educating students about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and am excited to work with students to familiarize them with the process of declassifying U.S. documents.

What is a source you’re excited to share with students?

I’m excited to share a blank page with my students (see below)! It’s the perfect way to encapsulate the intriguing but frustrating process of working to declassify government documents. Throughout the class, I share my own experience with this unique type of research. A few years ago, I worked to declassify documents on CIA intelligence gathering related to the Ethiopian student movement of the 1960s. In the midst of this process, I was excited one day to receive an e-mail with my newly declassified document attached, which, when I opened, looked like this:

It had been technically “declassified,” yet all the information remained redacted. Analyzing different forms of redacted and newly “scrubbed” documents will hopefully spur interesting conversations about the challenges involved with the long-term process of declassification. There are also some really interesting documents related specifically to Harvard’s long-term relationship with the CIA that it will be fun to explore with students, including beautifully designed posters from the 1969 Harvard student strike, where student activists protested the CIA’s influence on campus.

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

The geographic breadth of the CIA’s covert actions across the globe. I think so often when we think of the CIA and the Cold War, we picture trench coat wearing spies skulking around dark streets in Moscow or East Berlin. Or we imagine tuxedo-clad secret agents driving luxury cars at break-neck speeds down the streets of Paris or Monaco. But this was a global Cold War, and the CIA engaged in a wide-array of intelligence gathering and covert actions outside of Europe. This class looks at the countries, political groups, activists, dissidents and mercenaries that the CIA used and worked with across the globe, from Kingston to East Sumatra to Kinshasa to Tehran.

What does your class help us understand about the present?

The question of the accountability and transparency of our government is, if anything, more relevant now than ever. How we access information about our own institutions’ intelligence gathering and covert actions both domestically and abroad is absolutely an on-going concern. The FOIA workshop and final assignment should be directly relevant to my students lives, and useful to my students’ engagement with present day politics. Students could decide to go on a FOIA-requesting binge after the class ends, looking to declassify documents around topics about which they are particularly passionate. Students will come out the class having the skills to engage with on-going debates about the declassification of documents, and the ability to irritate their friends by contextualizing every piece of pop culture about the CIA within historical perspective. The final week of the class specifically explores the ways in which foreign policy in the global Cold War has returned to shape present day domestic policy, which should help students situate and engage deeply with many present-day discussions of policing, surveillance and peoples’ right to protest, both at home and across the globe.

What advice do you have for a first-year student?

Experiment! Freshmen year is a great time to take a variety of different classes, try anything and everything that might be interesting to you. I think perhaps rather than focusing on the specific content of classes, look for classes that ask the kinds of questions you want to try to answer, and particularly the kinds of classes that provoke you to ask new kinds of questions.

If you had a CIA codename, what would it be?

I wouldn’t have a CIA codename. I’m Canadian, so it would be a CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) codename. But I definitely wouldn’t have that either, since I can’t imagine myself as an intelligence officer in any situation. Although I suppose that’s ALSO what a spy would say.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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