Analyzing Official Documents

David Trask
an icon of a document. beneath it are the words view document. Treaty of Versailles thumbnail of the text The first page of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, titled An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas and passed by the thirty-third Congress of the United States


Official documents produced by governments, supranational organizations, courts of law, and more are abundant in supply, but can be intimidating and confusing to approach. They are often filled with language that seems convoluted, emotionless, and highly technical. Despite this, official documents can be key sources for historical analysis and can reveal much more than what their wording entails. By learning to read and critically analyze these documents, historians can gain access to the underlying nature of these documents, as well as the societies in which they were created. 


One of the first questions historians ask when analyzing documents is: “Who is the author?” The author is often seen as a historical actor with goals or experiences that shape the document. Is the author male or female? An identifiable member of a minority or majority ethnic group? A possessor or a pursuer of political power, economic wealth, or social status? What is the author’s purpose in writing the document? To what extent does the document provide an accurate insight into events? This kind of information can provide a starting point for analysis.

But what if the author is not an individual? What if the author is a national government, a corporation, a legislative body, or a United Nations commission? How does this affect historical analysis? These official and often “authorless” documents are staple features of all societies. They include government reports and laws, press releases, diplomatic communication, and local policy statements. How should historians respond to these authorless documents? If they have no author, can we assume they have no bias?

Many of these writings are pretty bland in their language. Lively events are submerged in legalistic language and stripped of emotion. If you came “cold” to the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, would special terms such as the "war guilt clause" leap out at you as an obvious basis for future grievances and fuel for a political movement? Authorless documents present a different set of issues for analysis than do those authored by individuals.

Even without an identifiable author, these documents are still historically constructed writings ripe for careful analysis. By understanding the nature of the processes that resulted in a particular authorless document, historians are able to mine these sources for more information than might be apparent to the novice reader. For example, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was the result of a long, drawn out negotiation among many contending parties in the French National Assembly in 1789. As evidence of these compromises, historians point to the provisions calling for liberty and those calling for property rights. The sweeping declaration of personal liberty was a demand of the more radical members of the Assembly, while the guarantee of property rights satisfied the more conservative members. Paying attention to nuances such as these gives historians important clues into the underlying nature of these official documents.


What kind of document is this?

What was the formal purpose of the document? Formal statements of purpose can include the terms of an alliance, a declaration of war, a treaty of peace, a statement of diplomatic recognition, a trade agreement, or a communiqué of mutual understandings. Agreements also have instrumental purposes. These are underlying and often unstated agendas that are not immediately apparent. For example is the goal of an alliance to prepare for war or is it to make the allies appear powerful so they can avoid war? Is the goal of a treaty to create terms that will treat a defeated foe fairly or to insure that it cannot reestablish itself as a threat for decades to come?

Answers to these questions are based on an understanding of the document and its historical context. Often, an uncritical acceptance of the surface meaning of the source can lead you astray. Nevertheless, reading the entire document is an important place to start. What, on the surface, does the document actually say? Write down your initial speculations of what is involved. Note where the document fits in relation to other issues you are studying. Check the title and names of any people mentioned against other sources. Are you looking at a famous pronouncement or treaty? Was the decree reversed the following month? Then go back and read the document carefully. Make a list of unfamiliar terms and research their meanings. Write down the names of all countries involved as well as references to specific policies or issues. Note any statements that do not make sense.

The formal relations between nations—the work of diplomats—produce a unique kind of official documents. Diplomacy is largely based on the creation and dissemination of messages that are, themselves, based on established conventions. Basic diplomatic processes convey messages between governments, often through official spokespersons. Traditionally there have been debates over how accurately foreign policy reflects the ideas of government officials. Some argue that the need to protect national security means that diplomacy does not reflect shifts in leadership within nations.

Nations play for high stakes and need to assert their interests while avoiding inflammatory language that might disrupt diplomatic relations or insult other countries. Diplomatic documents, therefore, often use formulaic language stating concerns delicately. This language has emerged over several centuries and such communications tend to be both bland and precise. For example, a joint communiqué issued after a public meeting might assert that “a frank exchange of views” took place. Sometimes we also get the accompanying translation that “frank” means that there was a lot of shouting back and forth. The idea that a meeting resulted in “agreement in principle” actually means that neither nation plans to take any action in relation to the issue under discussion. These conventions help nations work toward solutions in moments of strong emotion and high stakes. Analyzing these documents means uncovering the decision-making processes and the stylized language of the governments involved.


Who created this document?

Official documents exist for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes the identity of a writer is deliberately concealed. In other situations, documents are produced by committees whose members claim joint authorship, or the documents are negotiated among a number of groups or governments. The common practice is to say that “the government said” or “the committee decided,” treating documents as historical actors that decree or demand even though we have great difficulty saying exactly who is involved.

The first step, then, is to ask who created a document. Is the work attributed to an individual, or is it the presentation of a committee, an organization, or a government? What does the document say about its origins? Is it signed? If the statement appears to be authorless, try to figure out what it claims to be. Then ask yourself if the statement has additional clues. Are you looking at a treaty, a diplomatic note, or an instruction to an embassy? The answers to these questions help establish the direction of your analysis.

The identity of an author may be deliberately concealed from view. For example, a national government official may publish an article in a major journal such as Foreign Affairs or be quoted “off the record” in a newspaper. Sometimes an organization does this in an effort to test reactions to an upcoming policy initiative or provide the rationale for a policy already in place. The article may be signed “Anonymous” or “X,” while the news source may be identified as a “high-ranking” official. The goal of this approach is to prevent recrimination against the author or the government in case of negative public or international reaction.

In other cases, a document is signed by a committee or by committee members. The individual preparing the document tries to capture the “sense” of the committee. While the “known” writer may have been influential, the committee perspectives also shaped the final document. The press releases and other documents produced over the last half century by the African National Congress are frequently presented as the work of committees. Today, the ANC website adds the notation that Nelson Mandela was present or approved of the statement. This attribution should not be taken as proof that Mandela, the former president of South Africa, actually wrote each of these statements, but they do imply his agreement with the views expressed in the document.

When working with official documents, we often start with a definable document over which no individual can claim authorship. Congressional bills, for example, often begin but do not end up with identifiable authors. A bill, once introduced, goes to a subcommittee for review and, if approved there, goes on to a committee for further review or modification. Once the bill reaches the legislative floor it may be further modified by amendment. If it passes, the bill goes to the other branch of Congress that repeats the process of review and amendment. Then, in many cases the two different versions of the bill—the one that passed the House and the one that received Senate approval—have to be reconciled by a conference committee. New features are often added during the conference.

The front page of the Kansas-Nebraska Act
Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854)


In this example of the legislative process, there generally is an identifiable “author” of the bill—members of Congress and their staffs—but the final product is the result of a process that may have amended the bill into a form that bears little resemblance to the original proposal, even though the legislation may still be known as the Smith-Jones Act. The process involves many actors and many decision points. Along the way there were lobbyists who initiated or modified the proposal, congressional staffers whose understanding of the issues helped shape the language of the law, and congressional representatives who agreed to support the bill only if it contained an extraneous provision of interest to voters in one state or district or to a special interest group. While it is often possible to identify the person who inserted a particular provision, there is no clear author for the totality of the measure.

The same issues of analysis apply to other kinds of organization. Corporations often “speak” as legally constituted entities (in contrast to small business owners, who are readily identifiable as the voices of their own companies). This is true because public corporations are owned by stockholders who have no role in daily management. Indeed, the owners (stockholders) do not directly authorize specific actions of a company except at rare moments when they are asked to approve the decisions of executives at stockholder meetings. They reach their decisions through bureaucratic processes that try to account for all of the different areas of corporate activity and concern. Similarly, churches often speak through councils that issue their statements collectively.

The United Nations (UN) provides another good example. One of its best-known measures is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The Declaration states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Who wrote this statement? The UN description of this passage of the declaration refers to Eleanor Roosevelt, an inspiration for the declaration, and Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1997. Overall, though, it presents nations rather than people as the prime actors in its development. Thus, passage of the Declaration is portrayed as the result of widespread consensus.

We rarely refer to these official documents as “authorless,” saying instead the Smith-Jones Act or the UN declaration; that the church “said” or Congress “passed” a resolution. Remembering the difference between the historical actions of individual actors and the processes created by people working in groups is important, even though this approach separates individuals from the processes they create. This elimination of an identifiable writer of a document does not make the document neutral—but neither does it mean that the agency that produced it can be automatically regarded as an author comparable to human authors.


In what historical and organizational context was the document produced?

Official documents are written within a historical and organizational context. When analyzing an official document, think about the events and issues of the time period and apply this knowledge to a close analysis of the statement and the processes that produced it. If it is a diplomatic note or a treaty, look at foreign policy issues. If it is a constitution, learn more about the domestic political history. For example, reading the pronouncements of the African National Congress, you may encounter references to proposed laws or general strikes. Learning more about the history of South Africa opens up the significance of these documents.

A map of the African continent with South Africa highlighted and the ANC logo

If this is a constitution, ask about the relationship between government and people. Does the constitution assume that “government rests on the consent of the governed”? Or does it assume that people are subjects who should be ruled for their own good or whose interests are subservient to those of the state? The key issue is how the members of that particular culture looked at the world. Is it a new government or one that has been around for a long time? Many new governments go through a process to establish a workable, long-term structure of governing. Some never achieve stability in this regard. What are the challenges confronting this government? Survival? Expansion? Economic growth? How does this government make decisions? In the name of a single ruler? On behalf of a ruling class? In the name of the people? With a process fully involving the citizenry? Answers to these kinds of questions help explain the underlying cultural assumptions and lead to deeper understanding of the document.

Most official documents are the result of a process. An understanding of the process—and the groups that participated in the process—is essential. For example, school dress codes are the result of negotiation that involves predictable steps with identifiable actors. The process usually includes school board administrators, elected school board members, parents, teachers, and (sometimes) students. In this process, an initial code is developed by administrative officials, perhaps in response to school board pressures that reflect public concerns about student fashions, such as body piercing. The proposed policy is presented at one or more public hearings for parent and community reactions, and then is modified and may be enacted as policy. The result is a policy without an identifiable author, even though teachers and school administrators are expected to enforce the policy and must reprimand students for violating “school policy.” In this case the process has produced a legally enforceable document whose initiators—those concerned with student behavior or appearance—cannot be singled out for criticism. Everyone involved in enforcement can say, “Don’t blame me, I’m only following policy.”


Who was the primary audience for the document?

All documents can have specific audiences. Indeed, they can have several audiences. Messages directed toward other governments can also have multiple audiences. A message from the government of the United States to the government of Cuba may also be intended to show Cuban Americans that the American government (and the political party in power) is responding to the concerns of this influential segment of the Florida electorate. A strong statement of concern that one nation is conducting its affairs in an unacceptable manner may also be directed toward other nations that might contemplate similar actions. A government can also choose to present information about its own internal affairs in a way designed to avoid harmful consequences in the international arena. An optimistic press release on economic growth can be intended to calm international investor fears about the stability (and security) of foreign investments within the country.

Such documents provide valuable insight into a government’s intentions or strategies, but may not provide critically important information about an issue. In addition, significant amounts of international correspondence are classified and not publicly available for many years. Statements from the diplomatic archives of the Soviet Union and the United States often began their existence as “classified” (secret) documents, but now are part of the public record. Often the declassification of these formerly confidential sources leads to a revision of the historical record.

a map showing the range of missiles being built in Cuba, 1962
Cuban Missile Crisis - Missile Range

For example, scholars had long suspected that United States President John F. Kennedy promised the Soviet Ambassador to Washington that he would remove American missiles from Turkey in exchange for a Soviet promise to remove their missiles from Cuba—something the Kennedy Administration vehemently denied at the time. Recently declassified sources indicate that such a promise was indeed made.

A pink telegram detailing Kennedy's response to Moscow, 1962
State Department Telegram conveying President Kennedy's reply to the Radio Moscow Announcement, October 28, 1962

Was the intended audience very small? Was the document ever intended for public viewing? How can you assess primary audience? Secondary audiences? When confronted with an official document that has many possible audiences, the first step is to make a list of all the possible audiences you can think of. Next, examine the text carefully to determine which passages of the text seem to be directed at one or more of these audiences. Finally, consult other sources, especially books and articles written by professional historians that offer insights into the source and its context.


How did the document affect the flow of events?

How did the document shape policy, public response, or daily life? Did the document have a short-term influence? Were there any long-range implications? The Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw war as an instrument of national policy was signed by numerous nations, but had no apparent impact on the frequency of war. Violation of the treaty, though, was used in the post-World War II prosecutions at Nuremberg. The Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I was intended to usher in a world of peace based on the principle of national self-determination. World War II broke out 20 years later. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed in 1948 but, although it stands as an ideal to be honored, the world is still home to egregious violations of the rights proclaimed in the document.

The front page of the treaty of versailles
Treaty of Versailles

Does the document you are examining seem to signal the end of a historical episode or era? Or is it a statement that shows a government unaware that it is on the eve of a crisis? Is the statement related to a forthcoming policy or shift in alliances or change in approach to an issue? Did the document seem to be a straightforward statement? Or did the document appear to be the tip of a historical iceberg of issues that became increasingly complex?

When you are assessing the impact of an official document, one of the best methods is to search for text that appeared in the original and that has been reproduced in subsequent documents. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, mentioned earlier, is the basis for prosecutions of war criminals by the United Nations following wars in Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. When the member states of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration in 1948, they intended its provisions to become the basis for such prosecutions, in particular under the category of “crimes against humanity.” The Tribunals dealing with the wars in Yugoslavia and Rwanda were the first instances of these provisions being invoked since the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals following World War II.

A map of the African continent with Rwanda highlighted

If you read the UN resolutions setting up the Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, you will find some of the language of the Universal Declaration reproduced verbatim. You will also find changes in the way that the intent of the Universal Declaration has been applied to the Tribunals. Historians are always alert to both continuities and changes over time.

Primary Sources

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 26 August 1789

an icon of a document. beneath it are the words view document.

Once they had agreed on the necessity of drafting a declaration of rights, the deputies of the National Assembly still faced the daunting task of composing one that a majority could accept. The debate raised several questions: should the declaration be short and limited to general principles or should it rather include a long explanation of the significance of each article; should the declaration include a list of duties or only rights; and what precisely were "the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man"? After several days of debate and voting, the deputies decided to suspend their deliberations on the declaration, having agreed on seventeen articles. These laid out a new vision of government, in which protection of natural rights replaced the will of the King as the justification for authority. Many of the reforms favored by Enlightenment writers appeared in the declaration: freedom of religion, freedom of the press, no taxation without representation, elimination of excessive punishments, and various safeguards against arbitrary administration.

This source is part of the Analyzing Official Documents methods module. 

Treaty of Versailles

Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I was intended to usher in a world of peace based on the principle of national self-determination. World War II broke out 20 years later.

This source is part of the Analyzing Official Documents methods module. 

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

thumbnail of the text

The years following World War II marked a key shift in international policy related to human rights. Few, however, connect the history of human rights to the children's rights movement. By the early 20th century, urbanization and industrialization led many reformers to focus on child welfare and on children's rights as separate from those of adults. Several years later, Congress responded by creating the U.S. Children's Bureau, the first federal agency in the world mandated to focus solely on the interests of a nation's youngest citizens. The United Nations, influenced by the exposure of Nazi war crimes and the world-wide refugee problem and drawing upon earlier debates over rights, including those of children, ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on December 10, 1948. Eleven years later, in November 1959, the U.N. adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child. This source is a part of the Children and Human Rights (20th c.) teaching module.

This source is part of the Analyzing Official Documents methods module. 

Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854

The first page of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, titled An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas and passed by the thirty-third Congress of the United States

By the 1850s, tensions in the United States were falling in around a major issue: slavery. As the country expanded relentlessly westward and more territories and states were coming into existence, the question of slave states versus free states grew in its intensity. Previously passed in Congress was the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which drew a line from east to west along the 36th parallel, dividing the nation into competing halves—half free, half slave. The decades following the Missouri Compromise saw the further industrialization of the country, including the proposal of a transcontinental railroad. Free states wanted the route of the railroad to pass above the 36th parallel, while slave states wanted the railroad to pass through well below the 36th parallel. Senator Stephen Douglas, a chief promoter of the railroad and supporter of a northerly route, introduced a bill that would organize the massive territory that then encompassed the modern-day states of Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and the Dakotas under “popular sovereignty.” This would essentially leave the question of slavery up to the individual states and their state constitutions and sparked massive controversy both in Congress and out in the territories. However, the Senate voted to pass Douglas’s bill in what would become the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, sparking a violent uprising between proslavery and antislavery settlers of the new states known as “Bleeding Kansas” and setting the stage for national civil war.

This source is part of the Analyzing Official Documents methods module. 

Quebec Order, 7 July 1796

The title page of the Quebec Order, titled Order of the Governor in Council of the 7th july 1796 for the regulation of commerce between this province and the United States of America

Only a few years after the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1788 and following the peace treaty signed between the U.S. and the British in 1794, the Governor in Council of British-controlled Lower-Canada, Guy Carleton, passed an act meant to regulate commerce between the province and the new country. The act, known as the Quebec order, first establishes free trade between British Canada and the U.S. “for the purposes of Commerce” per the terms of the 1794 treaty, and then ensures the free access of inhabitants of the United States to Lower-Canada, including free navigation of all “Lakes, Rivers and waters thereof.” The order outlines the prohibition of certain goods, duties and tariffs applied to merchandise and vessels, and the rules of customs, among many other things. The Quebec order acknowledges the free movement of American Indians across the new border between the U.S. and Lower-Canada, and also exempts them from many of the restrictions and fees set on U.S. citizens. The Quebec order exemplifies the complexities of an international trade that involved not just Europeans, but Indigenous nations as well.

This source is part of the Analyzing Official Documents methods module. 

Map of the Range of Nuclear Missiles in Cuba, 1962

a map of the western hemisphere showing the united states in white. A red bullseye target centered on Cuba shows the range of various nuclear missiles with the outer rings reaching as far as Northern Canada.

Marking one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 16, 1962, when U.S. national security advisors alerted President John F. Kennedy that a Soviet missile base was under construction in Cuba. Only 90 miles from the coast of Florida, a communist Cuba aligned with the Soviet Union posed a significant nuclear threat to the United States should the construction continue. After many discussions, President Kennedy chose to implement a naval blockade around Cuba, and on October 22nd gave a televised speech calling for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. Tensions were impossibly high—should a U.S. Navy vessel fire upon a Russian ship heading for Cuba, it could ignite an irreversible nuclear war between the major global superpowers. By the 25th, the U.S. government became aware that some of the Cuban missiles were now operational and President Kennedy again called for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to halt Soviet ships to Cuba and remove the missiles. Public debate between the U.S. and the Soviet Union dominated the United Nations and eventually a solution is offered: the missiles will be removed from Cuba in return for a pledge that the U.S. will not invade the island. Later, documents were released regarding a secret additional understanding that the U.S. would also remove their missiles from Turkey, though at the time this was not public information. Khrushchev accepts these terms, ending the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 28th, 1962. This map was used as a briefing material for President Kennedy in the earliest days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This source is part of the Analyzing Official Documents methods module. 

Excerpt from the Kellogg-Briand Pact, 1928

an icon of a document. beneath it are the words view document.

Also known as the Pact of Paris, the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 was an international agreement sponsored by the United States and France aimed to eliminate war as a means of conflict resolution on the international playing field following World War I. As the United States did not join the League of Nations, the Pact was an attempt to tie together another series of international alliances to prevent, in French foreign minister Aristide Briand’s eyes, a revival of aggression on the part of Germany. Despite almost all nations across the globe eventually signing the Kellogg-Briand Pact, signatories took many interpretations of exceptions to the agreement, such as wars of self-defense and other military obligations to political policies. This combined with the lack of enforcement methods in the treaty have led many see the Pact as largely ineffective relative to its intended scope. Despite its seeming ineffectiveness, however, the Kellogg-Briand Pact served as a legal basis for future prosecution of “crimes against peace” such as the Nuremberg Tribunal and the Tokyo Tribunal and similar wording to the Pact appeared in the Charter of the United Nations.

This source is part of the Analyzing Official Documents methods module. 

Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

an icon of a document. beneath it are the words view document.

Established by United Nations resolution 827 of May 25th, 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was a body with the purpose of prosecuting war crimes committed during the Yugoslav Wars and had jurisdiction over four groups of criminal activity committed since January 1st, 1991: serious breaches of the Geneva Conventions, violations of the laws of war, genocide, and crimes against humanity. From 1997 to 2004, the ICTY indicted 161 individuals of all stations, from common soldiers to prime ministers. The ICTY cites trials regardless of individual position as thanks to “its precedent-setting decisions on genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity,” though skeptics argued that the court could not function until the end of the Yugoslav Wars themselves. Other criticisms of the ICTY include the court having a pro-NATO bias and whether the Tribunal unnecessarily worsens tensions, among other things. The ICTY issued final judgements in November of 2017 and was formally closed in December 2017.

This source is part of the Analyzing Official Documents methods module. 

Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, 1994

an icon of a document. beneath it are the words view document.

Established in November of 1994 by Resolution 955 of the United Nations Security Council, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was intended to try those responsible from the Rwandan genocide ethnic Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu and other Rwandan violations of international law from January 1st to December 31st of 1994. Similar to its sister tribunal, the ICTY, the ICTR had jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the Geneva Conventions. The ICTR characterizes itself as the “first ever international tribunal to deliver verdicts in relation to genocide, and the first to interpret the definition of genocide set forth in the 1948 Geneva Convention,” as well as “the first international tribunal to define rape in international criminal law” and its recognition “as a means of perpetrating genocide.” However, the ICTR was widely criticized for its failure to prosecute war crimes by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the ruling political party of Rwanda, or to try its leader, Paul Kagame. Many characterized this as “victor’s justice” by many authors in journals of human rights and international law. The Tribunal was officially closed on the 31st of December, 2015.

This source is part of the Analyzing Official Documents methods module. 

Policy Statement of the Federal Military Government Issued by Nigerian Embassies Abroad, 1966

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In 1966, Nigeria was only a few years removed from colonial status. Nigeria as a unified political and economic entity had only been established in 1914 with the merger of the very different regions of northern and southern Nigeria. Faced with a Nigerian colonial population comprising almost 200 different ethnic groups loosely divided into Muslim, Christian, and traditional religions, the British resorted to a policy of “indirect rule” in the 1930s. After Britain’s costly victory in World War II, the British moved relatively quickly to establish a less costly, independent Nigeria in 1960 based on British institutions, the English language, and local control of many issues that might allow for both local ethnic autonomy and a centralized government. Conflict arose between the variety of ethnicities despite British attempts to firmly establish English democracy, resulting in country-wide violence. In January of 1966, the Nigerian military attempted a coup d'état with the intent to suspend many pieces of the constitution. The following year saw the beginning of a civil war from July 1967 to January 1970 between Nigeria and the dissident Republic of Biafra, ending ultimately with Nigerian victory. There have been arguments that Nigeria’s actions against Biafra was genocidal, though no perpetrators were held accountable.

This source is part of the Analyzing Official Documents methods module. See the attached modified document as part of the practice analysis within that module. 

Sample Analysis

The Nigerian Civil War and Its Documents

The document selected to illustrate this analytical approach is a routine announcement from one national government to all governments with which it maintains diplomatic relations. These communications represent the ongoing work of ambassadors—passing information back and forth between their governments and the governments to which they are assigned. It is an official, “authorless” document. How does a brief, initial reading reveal this point? The first sentence lists the author—the Military Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The next to last paragraph asserts that the military leaders comprise the legitimate government of Nigeria through a “voluntary transfer.” The last paragraph states that the document itself is directed toward other governments and assures readers that Nigeria’s new leaders plan no changes with other countries— “its foreign policy will continue to be based on non-alignment.” The only individual names mentioned in the statement are those of the military governors of different regions of Nigeria.

A map of the African continent with Nigeria highlighted

Read the Selected Document Here

One strategy for analyzing and discussing the document is to number each “thought” separately (see the modified document). If we do this, then the initial comments made above are easier to follow. The author of the document appears in line 2 and the assertion of legitimacy occurs at both the beginning and the end of the document (lines 4 and 53). The intended audience of the statement is presented in line 56 and the list of regional commanders is offered in line 38. Now apply the rest of the analytical questions to the document.

The document, in the restrained language of diplomacy, tells about a change of government in the nation of Nigeria in January 1966, as the result of a military takeover of a constitutional government. For example, lines 5-12 describe growing civil unrest including rigged elections (line 9) and rioting (line 11) that made up the background of the events of January. Lines 13-19 describe the actual January crisis (assassination of two regional Premiers, for example, line 16) while lines 20-27 present the actual transfer of power to the military to save the nation and restore stability (line 23). Taken collectively, this first part of the message is the justification for a military coup by the loyal majority of the army (lines 17-19) to thwart a coup by “certain army officers” (line 12).

Lines 28-46 describe a number of internal governmental changes that make little sense to the reader without further analysis but which were very important for Nigerians. Lines 47 through the end of the document comprise the actual message from the new government to other governments around the world: that the coup has the support of all Nigerians (line 54) and that the military leaders envision no changes in their country’s relationship to the rest of the world (lines 49 and 50). The Foreign Ministries, the agency that circulated this document to Nigerian embassies, is charged with carrying out their normal functions—with the added note that this group now reports directly to the Federal Military Government.

What is the historical context of this coup? In 1966, Nigeria was only a few years removed from colonial status. Although the British people or their government had intervened in the area that became Nigeria from the start of the slave trade era, Nigeria as a unified political and economic entity had only been established in 1914 with the merger of the very different regions of northern and southern Nigeria. Faced with a Nigerian colonial population comprising almost 200 different ethnic groups loosely divided into Muslim, Christian, and traditional religions, the British resorted to a policy of “indirect rule” in the 1930s. This strategy involved working with multiple traditional leaders rather than imposing a direct British system administered by a blend of British and collaborating Nigerians.

After Britain’s costly victory in World War II, which left that nation financially strapped, the British moved relatively quickly to establish a less costly, independent Nigeria based on British institutions, the English language, and local control of many issues (a federal system) that might allow for both local ethnic autonomy and a centralized government. This history is clearly present in the diplomatic note. Line 29 refers to a constitution that provided for both a parliament (suspended as a result of the coup) and a prime minister (also suspended) while the next line refers to the suspension of a wide range of provisions related to the regional governments that were more directly connected to the diverse peoples of Nigeria.

There are also broader issues of context. After much of Africa made the transition from colonies to independent states in the 1960s, had the European colonial powers adequately prepared the colonies for independence? Had these same powers provided only political power while continuing to control their economic interests? The 1960s were also a major decade of the Cold War; world events were analyzed for their impact on the global balance between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. These factors underlie the assurances in the note that Nigeria’s “foreign policy will continue to be based on non-alignment” (line 57) and that it will honor all prior financial and diplomatic agreements (lines 48-49-50).

This document was written in the midst of a moment when many issues were uncertain in Nigeria. Note the verb tenses in this document: the structure of the Executive Council “will be announced later” (line 32); the foreign ministries will be responsible to “the Federal Military Government when constituted” (line 33); the government “is determined to suppress” unrest (line 44); that the government “will declare martial law” if needed (line 45); and it is the “intention” of the government “to maintain law and order” (line 46). Obviously the new government has a lot of work to do in order to establish internal stability in Nigeria.

The purpose of the document is ostensibly to assure the world outside Nigeria that events inside the country are moving toward stability, and that relations with the outside world are not going to change and, therefore, outside powers should not fear a sudden change in the global balance. Support for this generalization rests in the assurances of the widespread acceptance of the military government within Nigeria: the military was invited into power (line 4 and again in line 26) because the vast majority of the military remained loyal to the constitutional government (line 18); leaders from all segments of society have expressed their support for the new arrangement (lines 54 and 55). Collectively this list of assertions presents the image of the rebels as isolated from the core of society and on the verge of being neutralized.

The purpose of a document often points toward its true audiences. In the first place, this document serves a basic diplomatic purpose. The assertion that the Federal Military Government is firmly and clearly in charge is prerequisite for diplomatic recognition of a new government. The military government claims its power derives from the invitation from the constitutional government to take over the administration of Nigeria. If this group can show that it has a legitimate claim to power and is actually in control of the internal situation, then it can expect continuing diplomatic recognition from other nations. If the government is not regarded as legitimate or not in control of the territory of Nigeria, then outside governments could consider intervention or covert support for one faction or another within Nigeria.

The message was also directed specifically toward the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. The reaffirmation of non-alignment (line 57) told the Cold War powers that Nigeria would continue its policy of not taking sides in this conflict. Nigeria was also very reliant on foreign, primarily British, economic investment. It sought to reassure investors with the statement that it continues to seek outside investment (line 51) and that it will not nationalize the industries of Nigeria (line 52). Of course this assurance was tempered by the statement that if nationalization were to occur, investors would be properly compensated (also line 52). [Nationalization of an industry occurs when the government seizes an industry from the private investors who own it. This action frequently involves no payment to the former owners.]

The core assertion of this diplomatic message is that all is (almost) well in Nigeria: the central government is in good hands and widely supported, even though aspects of the national constitution have been suspended by military leaders. The ethnic diversity of Nigeria—the basis of the division of the nation into the regions repeatedly mentioned in this document—appears to be less significant than the overall control provided by the central government. Is this document a record of a momentary “youthful indiscretion” of a young Nigeria on its path toward full independence in a world of nation-states? Or is it a harbinger of future disorder for the country?

In fact, the litany of challenges presented and dismissed in this message to world governments actually represent the outlines of Nigerian history for at least the following 30 years. The nation was immersed in a civil war within a year as the Eastern Region of Nigeria proclaimed its own independence and attempted to secede from Nigeria. This effort came to an unsuccessful end in January 1970. In the years since, Nigeria has moved from a nation of four regions to one of almost 50 regions in the effort to give diverse ethnic groups a “home” that they can govern at the local level. Furthermore, the nation has alternated between long-term military dictatorships and short-lived attempts at representative government.

This document had no author. We don’t know if the Foreign Ministry acted on its own, or if the message was initiated by military leaders. Still, a close reading of the document, coupled with some references to the context of the times, transforms this routine example of diplomatic correspondence into a window on Nigerian history and its ongoing challenges.



Kirk-Greene, A. H. MCrisis and Conflict in Nigeria, 2 vols. Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Professor Kirk-Greene collected a wide variety of authorless and other documents related to the secession of Biafra and Nigeria’s civil war. It is an excellent repository of sources for the further study of the issues analyzed as part of this section.

Osaghae, Eghosa E. Crippled Giant Nigeria Since Independence. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1998.

This work starts with Nigerian independence and the civil war that followed almost immediately after the events explained in the military government’s message to Nigeria’s embassies around the world. It is an excellent source for “what happened next?” in Nigeria.

Using Official Documents

Allen, William SheridanThe Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922-1945. New York: Franklin Watts, 1984.

Originally published in 1965, this book combines the documents of both the local government and the local Nazi party to present a rare view of the inner workings of Nazism within a community.

Dower, John WEmbracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: Norton, 1999.

This Pulitzer Prize-winning book makes extensive use of Japanese and U.S. documents to understand the creation of postwar Japan. 

Fairbank, John KingThe Great Chinese Revolution, 1800-1985. New York: Perennial Library, 1987.

Although this book has no footnotes, the author draws on The Cambridge History of China, a multi-volume work of specialized essays often based on official writings.

Ienaga, SaburoThe Pacific War 1931-1945. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

This work presents the critique of a Japanese author of his nation’s imperial policies with a focus on government actions. Professor Ienaga also conducted a lengthy campaign to have Japanese textbooks reflect the reality of these actions.

Seed, PatriciaAmerican Pentimento: The Invention of Indians and the Pursuit of Riches. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Patricia Seed connects differences in the legal systems of England, Spain, and Portugal to the different approaches of each nation to their colonization of the “New World.”

Stewart, John HallA Documentary Survey of the French Revolution. New York: Orebtuce-Hall, 1951.

This is an extensive collection of documents produced during the French Revolution (1789-1799) including many that were produced by governments and other “authorless” sources.


David Trask is a Professor of History at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, North Carolina, where he teaches world civilization and western civilization. He was coeditor of a special issue of The History Teacher (November 1999) on teaching history at two-year colleges and served as contributing editor for the Teaching column of Perspectives, the Newsletter of the American Historical Association. Trask has worked on a variety of projects that address cross-cultural comparisons and perspectives. His current project compares Episcopal missionary work among the Lakota with Anglican efforts in eastern Nigeria from the 1890s to the later 1930s. This study includes the examination of official, “authorless,” documents against developments within the mission field and requires the extraction of intent from these writings.

How to Cite This Source

"Analyzing Official Documents," in World History Commons, [accessed July 24, 2024]