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The Historiographical Problem

Many records that historians need for a holistic accounting of the Cold War remain classified. Information detailed in exposés, memoirs or leaked cables are difficult to verify. Freedom of Information requests, Congressional inquiries, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, and declassification initiatives have unsealed records, but many critical documents remain classified or have been released heavily redacted. Lack of access to sources about KGB ‘active measures,’ corporate bribery and insufficient exploration of Eastern Bloc activities leaves a distorted picture of the postwar era. The conscious omission of critical information from official documents, or the conscious destruction of records implicating bankers in crimes or junta leaders in human rights abuses further contributes to an uneven documentary record.

The problem of assessing the impact of the war in the shadows is magnified relative to the ‘Third World,’ where the superpower rivalry not only burned most hot, but where clandestine subversion involved multiple actors, exercising variant forms of subtle influence and sometimes working at cross purposes. Clandestine influence took multiple forms, from black propaganda to recruiting local assets, blackmail and intimidation. Campaigns of influence often lasted many decades, while foreign interests often converged and diverged in complex ways with local interest groups. Recent research has established that the war in the shadows was never a two-horse race between superpowers. On the contrary, the global periphery was awash with clandestine agents of all sorts, ranging from assassins to propagandists, technical experts and commercial bankers. Spies not only entrapped foreign dignitaries in honey traps, but economic hitmen cautioned postcolonial leaders against nationalization measures, manipulated journalists, clandestinely financed opposition groups and cultivated close ties with local elites and ambitious junior officers. Corporate bribery routinely targeted key ministers, commercial bankers manipulated foreign currencies, journalists unconsciously peddled disinformation while deep cover agents recruited useful idiots to unwittingly carry out their missions. The security establishment also directed considerable attention towards manipulating Western public opinion, often in ways that suggested that they were advancing the interests of national security, while assuredly boosting corporate interests. In cataloguing the war in the shadows, we not only suffer from a dearth of records that reveal the depth of western influence upon postcolonial history, but the deeper epistemic problem that we cannot know what we don’t know. Given that the secret campaign to subvert decolonization and profit from non-Western resources did not end with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, powerful interests have good reason to keep the scope, tools and ambitions of this clandestine influence shrouded in darkness. Critical scholars like Noam Chomsky argue that the ‘manufacture of consent’ represents the essence of democratic societies. Propaganda and narratives like containing communism provide a means to separate the liberal values officially espoused by the state from the actions taken by the hidden hand to enrich private interests. This subterfuge provides sufficient motive for a systematic policy to bury records concerning events that transpired half a century ago and where the principal protagonists are all long dead. In those cases where we do now have access to significant evidence, like the Congo Crisis 1960-1965, we not only see the weight of the hidden hand but also how the first-generation histories too reliant upon available records could misrepresent how events unfolded.

Concept Map

An Uneven Record