Website Review

National Security Archive: Sources on Europe

National Security Archive, The George Washington University

This website offers recently unclassified documents dealing with key issues and events related to Europe in the mid- to late 20th century. There are six electronic casebooks exploring various Cold War era topics: "The 1956 Hungarian Revolution,” “Uprising in East Germany, 1953,” “Solidarity’s Coming Victory: Big or Too Big?,” “U.S. Planning for War in Europe, 1963-64,” “Why There Was No Crackdown on the Revolutions of 1989,” and “Did NATO Win the Cold War?” Each “briefing book” begins with a narrative of the event, setting the context for the declassified documents that follow (documents vary in number from four to 60). These documents are not only from American sources, but are frequently acquired from the countries in question, making for a fascinating insider’s view of these critical events.

Through these casebooks and documents, readers can learn about the worries of U.S. government officials reagarding the success of Solidarity in Poland in 1989. In “Solidarity’s Coming Victory: Big or Too Big? Poland’s Revolution as Seen from the U.S. Embassy” (edited by Gregory F. Domber), a set of 10 documents raises the question “[W]as the labor movement, turned political movement, going to be ‘too’ successful?” Would it invite a Soviet response à la 1956 Hungary (discussed in a separate casebook of 12 documents, edited by Malcolm Byrne)?

Another briefing book (edited by Thomas S. Blanton) highlights seven documents from various Eastern European countries that attempt to shed light on why there was no crackdown in 1989. In a memorandum of a conversation between Gorbachev and Hungarian Secretary-General Grosz, for example, the Soviet leader announced that the Brezhnev doctrine was dead, effectively ending the threat of military intervention and assuring the fall of the Iron Curtain.

In “U.S. Planning for War in Europe, 1963-64,” editor William Burr offers a selection of documents designed to shed light on America’s Cold War nuclear policies. These materials can be compared to a collection of 1964 Warsaw Pact documents (available on the website of the Parallel History Project on Cooperative Security). Each side, readers will discover, saw the other as an aggressor to be countered.

What all these briefing books offer is a chance to explore the difficult nature of policymaking, which is often shaped by pre-existing attitudes, incomplete intelligence, and policymakers attempting to make sense of it all. These materials help students discover that history does not follow a predetermined course, but is the result of decisions, any one of which could drastically alter history’s outcome.

These casebooks are potential gold mines for the classroom teacher. Not only can they serve to deepen a teacher’s understanding of key events of the late 20th century, but they can also prove to be a resource in the classroom as well. The documents and casebooks can be printed out individually or purchased for reference as a book/CD combination. Advanced Placement teachers, especially, will appreciate this site as they assemble document-based questions or use the documents to help students gain appreciation for the complexities of both policymaking and the study of history itself. These documents (many made possible by the Freedom of Information Act) are also invaluable to the social studies/citizenship education teacher in that they can help demonstrate the importance of a well-informed and critical-thinking citizenry to the maintenance of democracy. This is truly a remarkable site and a remarkable resource.

Reviewed by Wayne Hanley, West Chester University

How to Cite This Source

"National Security Archive: Sources on Europe ," in in World History Commons, [accessed December 8, 2021]
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“These materials help students discover that history does not follow a predetermined course, but is the result of decisions, any one of which could drastically alter history’s outcome.”