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date: 24 September 2017

Archival Research in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Although more scholars have used archival evidence to analyze foreign policy in recent years, relatively little has been written on the methods involved in using archives as well as the evidentiary value of different types of documents. Analyses of foreign policy decisions often make use of narratives or process-tracing. Process-tracing should uncover the causal mechanisms wherever possible in order to explain foreign policy decisions. Primary sources are extremely useful in uncovering causal mechanisms, whether public opinion, bureaucratic politics, advisory group dynamics, or psychological processes. Through archival evidence, the researcher can capture how policymakers perceived the world at the time, unbiased by hindsight, and their calculations. Because psychological evidence shows that people do not necessarily know what influenced their decision, scholars should not necessarily take at face value the reasons that policymakers give for their actions.

It is useful for political scientists to carry out their own archival research because historians have different implicit theories and may not gather data of relevance to the theories being tested. In addition, through examining the documents, political scientists may be able to discriminate between competing historical interpretations of the same event. It is important to interpret documents within their historic, situational, and communication contexts. The document’s place in the policy process—the sequence of memos and discussions—helps to determine its meaning and impact on the final decision. In order to interpret statements that are apt to be biased by instrumental motives, the investigator should consider who said what to whom under what circumstances and with what purpose.

Keywords: archival research, causal mechanisms, decision making, history, instrumental communication


Political scientists can develop new insights if they do their own archival work instead of relying on secondary sources written by historians. Primary sources may allow scholars to identify the causal mechanisms underlying explanations of foreign policy events. Documents allow the investigator to determine if potential causes such as domestic politics or economic interests actually influenced policymakers’ calculations and decisions. Along those lines, primary sources are particularly useful for assessing psychological explanations of foreign policy decisions. While experiments provide controls for alternative explanations for cognitive and motivational influences on human decisions, precisely because the laboratory is an artificial environment, such hypotheses need to be validated by real-world data. Since cognitive or motivational processes are not directly observable, the investigator must look for indirect indicators in the form of verbal statements, and so on. Memos, letters, and other documents written at the time are a valuable source of evidence of foreign policymakers’ calculations and preferences.

Recently, an increasing number of scholars have used archival evidence to assess hypotheses about foreign policy analysis. Yarhi-Milo (2014) has studied how Presidents Carter and Reagan made use of intelligence information about Soviet capabilities to arrive at policy decisions. Press (2005) uses documents from the 1958–1961 Berlin crisis to evaluate alternative theories of credibility based on U.S. reactions to Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s failure to carry out his threats. Schuessler (2015) uses documentary evidence to explain why U.S. presidents sometimes lie to the public about going to war. Scholars have also begun to analyze documentary evidence through statistical methods, such as textual analysis and machine learning (Katagiri, 2016) and quantitative content analysis in a large-N study (Tago, 2013; McManus, 2014). But relatively little has been written on the use, interpretation, and rules for weighing the evidentiary value of archival documents (Trachtenberg, 2006; Larson, 2001). Thies (2002) offers guidelines for how to use both primary and secondary sources, citing much of the relevant literature for political scientists.

The Need to Examine Causal Mechanisms

Analyses of foreign policy decisions often resemble history in their use of narrative. As such, foreign policy analysis could benefit by a more explicit focus on causal mechanisms. According to Alexander George and Andrew Bennett (2005), historical narrative is one form of process-tracing, a method that tries to identify the intervening causal process between an independent variable and the outcome of the dependent variable. George and Bennett (2005) advocate a more theoretically informed narrative in which events are linked together by explicit, causal generalizations rather than the implicit covering laws favored by historians.

Causes are events instead of preexisting conditions. The lighting of a match is more likely to be viewed as the cause of a fire than the presence of inflammable material. To be causal, these events should be intrusive, abnormal, or wrong. Thus, in one case, loss of blood was caused by the doctor’s severing of an artery, not the heart’s pumping action (Mackie, 1974). And an accident was caused by the person who made a left turn, not the individual who drove straight ahead.

To explain events, according to realist philosophers of science, it is necessary to uncover the causal mechanism (Sayer, 1984, p. 97). George and Bennett (2005, p. 137) define causal mechanisms as “ultimately unobservable physical, social, or psychological processes through which agents with causal capacities operate, but only in specific contexts or conditions, to transfer energy, information, or matter to other entitles.” A causal mechanism connects the causal event with the effect. The mechanism is what produces or generates the effect, just as natural selection brings about the survival of the fittest species or viruses induce symptoms of disease (Harré, 1972, p. 118; Elster, 1989, pp. 6–7; Little, 1991, p. 15).

Knowledge of the causal mechanism provides a more satisfying explanation of events (Harré, 1972, pp. 118–119; Bhaskar, 1975, pp. 46–47, 186–187; Salmon, 1990, p. 156). For example, it has long been known that smoking is correlated with cancer, but until scientists identified the mechanism of genetic mutation by which inhaled smoke produces cancerous cells, cigarette industry representatives could deny that cigarettes caused cancer (Stout, 1996).

In social science, hypotheses about causal mechanisms can be tested by gathering data about the structures and processes intervening between causes and events. This process involves reducing the event to be explained to a lower level where the analyst can uncover detailed cause–effect linkages that can be explained by generalizations (Elster, 1983, pp. 23–24). The investigator goes down the ladder of abstraction to uncover the connection between cause and effect. In political science, the causal mechanisms can sometimes be directly observed. If a foreign policy is shaped by interest group pressure, for example, scholars may be able to study association meetings, campaign contributions, presidential speeches to affected industries, and so forth (Sayer, 1984, p. 106). Domestic politics may shape U.S. foreign policy by means of Congress, electoral accountability, or public opinion polls that assess presidential popularity. Galen Jackson (2015) has found evidence from internal memoranda and meetings that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Ford were concerned that supporting a comprehensive peace plan in the Middle East might cost Ford votes in the 1976 presidential election. At the decision-making level, the causal mechanisms include beliefs, explanations, calculations, deductions, predictions, and motivations, which have observable indicators such as memos, speeches, and the minutes of meetings. For example, a president or other official may refer to a historical analogy such as Munich or Korea in private meetings (Khong, 1992). At other times, it may be necessary to use indicators or proxies of complex psychological variables (Beach & Pedersen, 2013, p. 44).

Counterfactual analyses (Tetlock & Belkin, 1996) are useful for assessing the relative importance of causal mechanisms and are strengthened by the use of primary sources. To establish that there was a missed opportunity also entails showing how changes in a set of historical conditions could have led to a different outcome. Primary sources can strengthen counterfactual judgments by indicating whether policymakers considered alternative options that could have led to a better outcome. An opportunity was more likely missed if a different course of action was available at the time, and not just in hindsight.

The Need for Primary Sources

History is necessarily selective; for example, a full recounting of all the people and events leading up to a major foreign policy event such as the Truman Doctrine or the Marshall Plan would be impossible. Political scientists and historians have different theories and criteria for selecting evidence, which makes it risky for political scientists to rely solely on secondary sources written by historians. It is highly likely that historians will not have collected data on variables that are of interest to political scientists, such as bureaucratic politics, status concerns, audience costs, and costly signaling. In addition, historical accounts may become dated, as documents are released for access by researchers. Some political science theories may be based on “stylized facts” from erroneous or outdated historical knowledge.

Structural and rationalist theories in international relations do not perceive any need to investigate foreign policy decision making; their goal is to place state actions into a larger explanatory framework. But there is sometimes a disjuncture between the strategic goals imputed to leaders and what policymakers thought and believed. The assumption that policymakers consciously direct their actions to achieve larger goals is called into question by social psychological experiments showing that on many important issues they have no stable beliefs (Larson, 1985, p. 13). Certainly, it is necessary to consider what policymakers thought they were trying to achieve when they decided on a policy. But it should also be recognized that officials sometimes make snap judgments and then later rationalize. It is important not to overrationalize foreign policy by assuming that policymakers must have anticipated the results of their actions, and that their purposes can be inferred from the outcome.

To infer the goals and intentions of foreign policymakers, various types of evidence are of differing evidentiary value. Scholars may use speeches, interviews, press conferences, diaries, policy memoranda, and minutes of meetings. Why not accept the public explanation of the thinking behind a particular policy? If, as cognitive social psychologists have discovered, people are often unaware of how their beliefs influence perception and judgment (Wilson, 2002), then historians and political scientists should not necessarily take at face value the explanations that officials give for their actions. Even if officials are cognizant and self-aware of their goals in a given situation, they may not express their intentions publicly. A politician may use ideological rhetoric to rationalize and legitimize actions that were chosen for pragmatic or strategic reasons. Private assertions made at the time are less likely to be biased by partisan or political considerations than public statements or retrospective justifications. Historians recognize that self-reports are not always reliable, and they consider, for example, that private remarks are more revealing than ghostwritten speeches and that diaries are more reliable than memoirs written many years later.

Psychological hypotheses about how beliefs affect information processing provide some operational indicators of how judgments and decisions are made. If policymakers are influenced by their general beliefs about the world or other states, then those beliefs should affect their deliberations. Biases might be seen in an official’s selection and interpretation of information, his definition of the situation, or his evaluation of policy alternatives. If an individual has an enduring personality disposition or belief, then continuities should be sought in his behavior over time and across different situations. Gaddis (1997) applies such a test to decide whether Stalin had a disposition to wage Cold Wars, adducing numerous instances, despite changing circumstances, where Stalin demonstrated suspicion and mistrust of his allies during World War II, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Gaddis concludes that the question of whether Stalin wanted a Cold War is “a little like asking: ‘does a fish seek water?’ Suspicion, distrust, and an abiding cynicism were not only his preferred but his necessary environment; he could not function apart from it” (Gaddis, 1997, p. 25).

Primary sources are useful for such fine-grained decision-making analyses. Through memos and letters, it becomes possible to reconstruct the world as perceived by policymakers at the time, untainted by hindsight. The tendency is to assume after the fact that everyone knew what would happen all along (Fischhoff, 1975; Fischhoff & Beyth, 1975; Bernstein et al., 2011). Experiments show that information about the outcome of an event leads subjects to estimate the retrospective probability of the event as higher than they did before knowing the outcome—an example of hindsight bias or the knew-it-all-along effect. Moreover, people are unaware of the distorting effects that outcome knowledge has on their memories; they are not consciously trying to put themselves in the best light by shading their recollections. People’s judgments of what they knew about factual information, political events, and economic decisions have all been shown to be subject to hindsight bias (Christensen-Szalanski & Willham, 1991; Hawkins & Hastie, 1990). Aware of how things turned out, many observers find it hard to recapture the perspective of decision makers who could not predict what might happen next. In hindsight, the end of the Cold War seems “overdetermined, yet no one predicted it” (Larson, 2001, p. 340). Documents can show what information policymakers were exposed to and how they interpreted it. In light of the distorting effects of hindsight on memory, though, oral histories and memoirs should be used cautiously, preferably corroborated with documentary evidence. Of course, the use of primary sources alone is not sufficient to avoid hindsight bias, as historians have also been criticized for “presentism” (Thies, 2002, p. 360), that is, interpreting the past in light of current preoccupations and policy issues.

Political scientists who describe historical analyses as anecdotal complain that case studies are unscientific because history can say anything one wants. Often, foreign policy analysts are accused of cherry picking secondary sources to support their theories. Only perceiving facts that are consistent with one’s hypothesis may be a case of intentional or unintentional confirmation bias. One way to guard against this possibility is to indicate in advance what evidence would support each theory, the observable implications of the theory tested, as well as alternatives (Thies, 2002, p. 355, 364).

Levy (2001, p. 61) argues that use of primary sources does not offer any guarantees against selectivity in the use of evidence and bias in its interpretation. Yet, many scholars who have worked in the archives have had the chastening experience of finding out that the documents they find do not support their original ideas, and they end up modifying their hypothesis. If the documents are not there, they cannot be selected.

Then too, a political scientist reading conflicting historical accounts such as the dispute over Germany’s responsibility for World War I may be baffled as to which one is correct. Without examining at least some of the key documents on which historical arguments are built, it is difficult to know which interpretation seems to accord best with available evidence. By checking out the documents for themselves, political scientists may be able to discriminate between competing explanations of the same event (Trachtenberg, 2006, p. 73). A scholar may have paraphrased a passage more categorically than would a more dispassionate reader. Another passage might omit language from a quotation that alters the meaning. Finally, a historian may have inadvertently or deliberately failed to include some documentary evidence that bears on the question of motive and intention. If alternative arguments are framed in advance, with clear expectations for the type of evidence that might be expected if a given interpretation is valid, then the evidentiary value of particular documents will be more apparent.

Lustick (1996) discusses the dangers of using secondary sources reflecting historians’ “selection biases,” but argues that political scientists can guard against bias by identifying theoretical differences between competing historiographical schools, choosing one school or another and providing a justification, or finding points of convergence in the accounts of different historiographic schools. While political scientists should acknowledge in a footnote that historians differ over interpretation of an event, the question that remains involves how they are able to discriminate between conflicting accounts, particularly when the differences hinge on interpretation of specific documents.

Because historians and political scientists approach their topics with different sets of questions, it is useful for political scientists to carry out their own historical research. Standard historical accounts may not contain the kind of data that political scientists need to test a theoretical hypothesis about the sources of a foreign policy.

Documents in Context

It is important to interpret documents within their historic, situational, and communication contexts. Political scientists try to find generalizations across time and space, a quest that leads to insensitivity to differences in the meaning of language across historical eras or even situations within the same era. Words and concepts such as “democratic” or “empire” may have different meanings in other historical periods. Political scientists have been admonished to avoid conceptual stretching (Sartori, 1970)—in other words, of making the definition of a concept overly broad so that it will apply across historical eras and geographic contexts.

The situational context refers to the events that prompted the need for a decision—such as a forthcoming summit meeting, an international crisis, a request for foreign assistance, or a conflict that raises the issue of military intervention. It is necessary to understand the purpose of a document and the events leading up to it in order to interpret its meaning correctly.

The communication context refers to the document’s place within the policy process—the sequence of memos and discussions and their relationship to other communications on the same issue in the past, present, and future. An official may write down observations in case a crisis arises but file it away. A single memorandum may not be at all representative of the general consensus of opinion. Military officials write contingency plans, for example, for various situations, including fighting a nuclear war, but that does not mean that they intend to carry them out. During and immediately after World War II, officials wrote contingency plans for war against the Soviet Union. These planning exercises do not prove that U.S. officials were actually contemplating starting a war. Process-tracing the evolution of policy—the streams of thought and discussion—will help to assess the influence that a memorandum had on the final decision. Because an argument’s causal weight depends on the flow of the deliberations and counterarguments, extracting a paragraph from a document does not prove that it influenced the decision. Nor will providing active links in references to quotations from particular documents prevent biases in interpretation, contrary to the argument advanced by Moravscik (2010) and others. It is necessary to read the sequence of memos and discussions in chronological order. The documents before and after the one in question may be very important for the light they cast on a purported piece of evidence.

Before visiting the archive, scholars should review available secondary sources, with special attention to historiographic disputes, especially those relevant to the theory or hypothesis being tested. They should “triangulate” by consulting a wide variety of sources, and not just those that support the theory or hypothesis being tested (Thies, 2002, p. 362, 364; Lustick, 1996). Studying a variety of sources will help alert the researcher to key issues of fact and interpretation that bear on the validity of a theoretical argument. Secondary sources are also likely to have references to particular archival collections and the location of documents.

At the same time, the researcher might want to focus on different issues by asking general questions (Trachtenberg, 2006, p. 141). What does each country want? What is each state’s policy? What is the thinking behind that policy? What does each side do? These questions provide an overall framework useful for determining the significance of particular documents.

The next step is to consult published collections of documents, such as the Foreign Relations of the United States series, or FRUS as it is usually abbreviated. The volumes in FRUS are organized by region, state, or subject. Although the collection is published by the State Department, the department’s historians who assemble the volumes select the most important documents, which include those from other agencies, such as the National Security Council and the Defense Department. Trachtenberg (2006, pp. 163–164) discusses other collections of government documents, such as those from France, Germany, and Germany. Many of the documents found in the archive are duplicated in FRUS. The advantage of going to the archive, in addition to using published collections, is that the researcher can look at the other documents in a file folder or box. It may be possible to trace the evolution of successive drafts of the policy or to identify paths that were not taken.

In his book on propaganda analysis, George (1959, pp. 37–44) recommends applying the formula: who said what to whom under what circumstances and with what purpose? This is a useful set of questions that can be applied to any purposive communication. One should try to determine, whenever possible, who actually wrote a memorandum or cable. Higher-level officials such as the Secretary of State or Defense typically sign off on memoranda or speeches without writing them. Often, however, the official who wrote a document will write his or her initials at the bottom of the page. Unfortunately, published collections of documents such as the Foreign Relations series do not have this information, but it is available in the State Department or military archives. There is also the question of whether a president or leader contributed language to his or her public speeches, which can be ascertained through marginal comments in speech drafts.

Once the speaker is identified, it may be necessary to construct a model of the individual’s personality and behavior in different types of situations. Truman often let off steam by writing memos to himself in which he attacked various people, calling them crooks, liars, communists, “pinkos,” stuffed shirts, and the like. But he never expressed such sentiments openly. Once he had expressed his anger, he was prepared to handle events in an even-tempered manner (Larson, 1985, p. 248; Ferrell, 1980). It would be misleading to take Truman’s outbursts in his private memos as a reflection of his true beliefs.

The researcher should also consider which officials have more influence on particular issues. What is the status and power hierarchy within the government, and how does it affect advice given to the leader (George & Bennett, 2005, p. 100)? The identity of those individuals who had the greatest influence may come out only later, when the documents are declassified. The biases and concerns of officials may affect how they record minutes or report their impressions of the leader’s views, as Greenstein and Immerman (1992) show in a fascinating article about the four conflicting accounts of whether President Dwight David Eisenhower had recommended to John F. Kennedy that he intervene unilaterally to save Laos from falling to communism. The officials were referring to a January 19, 1961, meeting between Kennedy and Eisenhower to discuss several political issues, the most pressing of which was Laos. Differing accounts of what Eisenhower actually said were provided by Washington attorney Clark Clifford, incoming Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of State Christian Herter, and Eisenhower chief of staff William B. Persons. Greenstein and Immerman (1992, p. 583) conclude that it is inappropriate to infer that a single source provides a definitive account of a particular meeting. Where only one version is available, they recommend interpreting documents through the lens of the likely biases of those who created them.

One must also consider the nature of the audience to whom the speaker is making the statement. For example, in President Ronald Reagan’s speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, in March 1983, a conservative speechwriter inserted the phrase the “evil empire,” a phrase that came to epitomize the president’s view of the Soviet Union, although the speech had not been considered to be a major policy address and had not gone through the normal interagency review process (Cannon, 1991, pp. 316–317; Shultz, 1993, pp. 266–267). Reagan did not use the term “evil empire” in other situations, suggesting that he used a moralistic phrase to win support from the evangelical ministers.

The author of a memorandum or speaker at a meeting may be trying to ingratiate himself with superiors, create a favorable impression of himself, put himself on the record in case of leaks, or persuade others to adopt his preferred policy. An official is likely to adjust his views to make them consistent with the leader’s opinions, once they have been stated. Whatever his goals, the communicator’s state of mind cannot be directly inferred from his or her arguments without considering his or her immediate aims. It is necessary to consider what anyone in that situation would say, given those objectives.

That officials may also use communication for reasons other than to express their opinions and beliefs—such as to express an emotion—means that a particular document should be viewed as conclusive proof; it should be part of a pattern. If a document is construed as evidence of an official’s beliefs or outlook, one expression of such sentiments should be available. The president may have been indulging himself with a flight of fancy, thinking aloud, expressing his frustration, or testing out a new idea. Greenstein and Immerman (1992, p. 579) observe that Eisenhower was bold and imaginative in advancing ideas for discussion but cautious and controlled when making a decision. Lower-level officials may frequently change their mind before a consequential policy decision, such as the decision to send ground troops into South Vietnam or to adopt the blockade in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Before concluding that a “smoking gun” has been found, one must determine whether a document is part of a larger pattern.

Even if an individual’s actions and statements were generally consistent with his or her beliefs, that does not provide proof that her actions were guided by those beliefs. The correlation could be spurious; both beliefs and behavior could be effects of some other external factor, such as bureaucratic, political, or role pressures. The domestic political context can help indicate whether a politician is expressing her true beliefs or trying to please a constituency.

Documents referring to top-level officials are the most revealing and probative but also much scarcer than written communications from lower-level officials. The foreign policymaking process is a pyramid, with most work done at the lower levels by officials who may not know the thinking at the top. These officials send communications to the next level, along with data and interpretation. As the level of policymaking rises, the number of participants grows smaller while their importance increases, until one reaches the highest level of the leader. How can it be known whether a memorandum written by a lower-level staff member influenced high-level deliberations (George & Bennett, 2005, pp. 103–104)? Sometimes national security documents include paragraphs extracted from memoranda written by officials farther down.

The researcher also has to deal with what is not in the documents. For example, note takers may not record informal contacts between the president and his advisers. Foreign policymakers may not go into great detail on issues that have been discussed extensively in the past, or on which there is already a consensus on the correct strategy (Larson, 1988, p. 248). To limit the explanation to what was actually said at the meeting may provide an incomplete or misleading explanation of the causes of a policy. In sum, Thies (2002, p. 359) recommends evaluating documents relative to what is known about the actors, their intentions, interactions with each other, and the situation in which they are placed.

The Role of Newspapers

Contemporary newspapers and popular magazines may be quite valuable for establishing the context (George & Bennett, 2005). News accounts can help to establish the atmosphere of the times, the purpose of speeches or statements, or the public reaction to a statement. Newspapers help to show what information policymakers had and provide clues about what events they regarded as important. Policymakers often rely more on the New York Times or the Washington Post for information about what is happening abroad than they do on classified intelligence reports, which may be filtered and therefore delayed as they pass up through the bureaucracy. In this way, newspapers help us to recapture the perspective of officials at the time. For example, the New York Times (Pertinax, 1944) reported the essence of the “secret” spheres of influence agreement on eastern Europe between Churchill and Stalin in October 1944. In the Washington Post, Walter Lippmann (1944) applauded President Roosevelt for sending an observer to the Churchill–Stalin talks rather than assert an interest in an area where the United States was not willing to guarantee a settlement. That influential newspapers saw nothing amiss in a British-Soviet spheres of influence agreement for the Balkans suggests that Roosevelt was not scandalized either.

Immediate events affect the beliefs that policymakers express. Often, presidents and their advisers are responding to particular events when they express an opinion, as recorded by minutes of meetings or memoranda. Newspapers can provide clues as to what might have influenced them. By helping to reconstruct the environment in which a document was written, newspapers can also help the investigator to infer the actor’s goals. Why did Truman invite Stalin to visit the United States in the middle of the Iranian Crisis in March 1946? Democratic Senator Tom Connally had made a speech in which he called for resumption of meetings of the Big Three heads of state (New York Times, March 13, 1946). Influential columnists Ann O’Hare McCormick and Lippmann expressed their support for a Big Three meeting to make peace. On March 19, Truman wrote a letter to Stalin inviting him to come to the United States (Larson, 1985, pp. 168–169). Given the pressure on Truman from influential foreign policy commentators, he was probably trying to show that he had made an additional effort for peace.

Journalistic analyses and interpretations of speeches also provide a code book by which to decipher the meaning of a speech as it was viewed at the time. To be sure, newspapers often portray the government’s position, but that makes their slant valuable evidence for scholars who want to know the leader’s intent. Influential journalists and columnists are often given off-the-record interviews with the president or secretary of state about upcoming foreign policy speeches or initiatives, making their private papers useful sources as well.

The absence of any mention of the administration’s foreign policy deliberations or intentions may also be telling. For example, some might argue that President Truman decided to stay in West Berlin while relying on the airlift in order to convey the image of a strong leader during the 1948 presidential election, which he was predicted to lose. Not only did Truman refrain from discussing how the airlift might affect his electoral prospects, but contemporary newspapers and magazines of the era do not provide any evidence that he made public statements proclaiming the decision to stay in Berlin or that he took advantage of the crisis to sell himself and his leadership to the public, despite his low standing in public opinion polls (Miscamble, 1980; Divine, 1972).

Newspapers enable researchers to develop a chronology of important events that is unbiased by hindsight or interpretation. Once the outcome of an event is known, one’s mental stores are automatically updated, selecting certain evidence and leaving out extraneous details, so that the ending is immanent in the details (Hawkins & Hastie, 1990, pp. 323–324). Conventional historical narratives emphasize particular events while omitting other happenings that were perhaps regarded as more consequential by the actors at the time. Historians may not attend to nonevents—the peace proposal that was not discussed, the offer that was not considered. But such nonevents are critical for analyzing missed opportunities.

It is important to establish an accurate chronology because the sequence of events reveals who was responding to what. The chronology provides clues as to the meaning of individual documents and their significance in shaping the outcome of foreign policy.


Using primary sources to formulate and elaborate theory can contribute both to an understanding of the causes of particular foreign policy events and general knowledge about foreign policy. By uncovering the causal mechanisms underlying decisions, scholars can illuminate how policymakers might learn from the past, take control of foreign policy, and avert unwanted outcomes in the future.

Political scientists can also contribute to theory by using primary sources to uncover the causal connections between events. The theoretical contribution of historical sources depends on having prior theories about foreign policy from which predictions can be derived about what should be found in the archives if the theoretical argument is correct (Wohlforth, 2001). Primary sources can strengthen knowledge of whether a decision was the product of bureaucratic politics, the leader’s preferences, or concern for domestic public opinion. To judge whether decisions were made on the basis of rational cost-benefit analysis or domestic politics, political scientists need to open up the black box and reveal the mechanisms underlying foreign policy behavior. By looking at the world the way decision makers did and trying to reconstruct their calculations, political scientists can obtain a better understanding of how and when public opinion, Congress, cognitive processes, or ideology influence the formation of foreign policy. The formulation of conditional generalizations can help to link together different research foci into a more general theory of foreign policy.


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