History, a double-edged sword for the intelligence field

The use of history in intelligence and its limitations

Essay, 2017

6 Pages, Grade: 60.00


History, a double-edged sword

for the intelligence field

Giovanni Coletta

The rapport between the study of history and the field of intelligence is intriguing and multi-faceted at the same time. The general assumption is that «by studying history, intelligence agencies can learn from past mistakes and aim to improve their performance»[1]. However, the truth of this belief must be necessarily weighed against some limitations that historians meet and that could affect their work. Foremost, the problem of the bias of historians and how it can affect the objectivity of their work; secondly, the lack of applicable patterns in using history as source from which gleaning “lessons learned”; lastly, the inevitable gaps that historians encounter in seeking evidence of the past. This essay focuses on these limitations and on what extent they can affect the intelligence performance. It will be argued that the study of history is a double-edged sword to the intelligence field.

There are two preliminary issues that must be herein discussed: The role of historians and the inevitability of certain restrictions in the historical research. The first concept deals with the idea of history as not merely a narration of the past, but as a «form of political activity»[2] inasmuch it «serves to confirm a certain view of what human beings and their relationships are like»[3]. The degree to which historians prioritise the ends towards the means must be taken into account in the understanding of how useful history can prove itself for intelligence. Secondly, it has to be established if these limitations represent a pathological, or rather, a physiological feature of historical research. As Gaddis puts it in Landscape Of History, «individual historians […] are of course bound by time and space, but history as a discipline isn’t»[4]. And furthermore, how passionate and dedicated historians can be, they «can view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present»[5]. In other words, «it’s only by standing from the events they describe […] that historians can understand and, more significantly, understand events»[6]. Historians’ commitment to the value of objectivity is naturally bound to some fixed variables that can be nothing but dealt with.

Whether historians are aware or not, their work is highly likely to be biased by a number of factors. That being said, this must not justify any possible bias of historians. In 1931, Herbert Butterfield meekly acknowledged that «perhaps it is true that impartiality is impossible»[7] ; notwithstanding, the only horizon historians are to look at is the rigorous respect of the values of objectivity and the freedom from any preconception. Both in the narration of the past and in shaping perceptions, in fact, historians wield a power that has to be handled with subtlety, because «it’s the historian who selects what’s significant»[8]. In selecting what is relevant, the historian chooses the most significant facts, but «the facts do not speak for themselves; we speak for the facts»[9]. This leads to a further problem of historiography: Interpretation. The interpretation of historical facts itself may be biased by three major factors: Author’s political or religious beliefs, his own agenda or the agenda of the organization he works for, which could compromise the accuracy of his work. With the regards to the first factor, Elton cautions that «ideological theory threatens the work of historian by subjecting him to predetermined explanatory schemes»[10]. One clear example of a deliberate and explicit use of a “personal agenda” is the first book of Thucydides’ The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians. Explaining how difficult it was to report each and every «speech» word by word, he admits that those discourses were «given in the language in which, as it seemed to me, the several speakers would express it»[11], even though caring to comply «as close as possible to the general sense of what was actually said»[12]. In choosing this methodology, Thucydides’ purpose of preserving that legacy prevailed on a thorough and truthful narration of how things actually went between those civilizations. Finally, the question of employers’ agenda, which plays an important role in the intelligence field. Intelligence historians sift through large Security Services Archives, an experience which can be «both thrilling and intimidating»[13], but that carries with itself the risk of a self-given direction with regards to the expectations of their employers. To put it as sharply as Efren Torres did, «the historian might interpret history the way the organization being examined wants to be perceived»[14]. Overall, it is clear that whether it is their intention or not, historians give a certain direction. But if they cannot avoid the entirety of the bias involved in the course of their work, it is history readers and users’ duty to be aware of the potential fallacy of historiography.

This fallacy that both users and producers of historiography have to beware of may also be caused by the lack of applicable patterns. «What is the issue, therefore,» Evans argues, «is how historians use documents not to establish discrete facts, but as evidence for establishing the larger patterns that connect them»[15]. The struggle to find patterns at all costs is a sterile intellectual exercise that too often misguides historians and leads to misconceptions. One reason is that even though «pattern-making cannot be avoided [because] interpretation forms the historian’s proper and necessary task»[16], the pattern itself is «at least too simple, possibly quite wrong»[17]. As Elton bluntly asserts, «that a trend ever decided or did anything is, given the real meaning of the word, palpable nonsense»[18]. The problem is that history as a learning tool will never be entirely accurate nor an exact science. On the one hand, it is because there is no reproducibility worth trusting without being misled[19] ; on the other, as history is not made by machines but by humans who often do not answer to the principles of rationality, trying to find a cyclical orderliness is a vane effort and rarely the key to understand trends. This means that it is no nietzschean “Eternal Return” that drives the course of history, which is rather the result of a puzzle of unpredictable variables. The further specification of this problem is the improper use of analogies. How this concretely resulted in history – is demonstrated by the Memoirs of Harry Truman. In the second volume, recalling the Korean War, Truman notes that «this was not the first occasion when the strong had attacked the weak […] Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini and Japan had acted ten, fifteen and twenty years earlier»[20]. It is obviously hard to know «how much of this recaptured his actual thinking […] given his habit of reaching for historical specifics»[21], but «this analogy led Truman to a wrong decision»[22]. Also, May agrees that things would have gone differently if only «Truman and his advisers […] paused to think about […] the aptness of the analogies they were invoking»[23].

If both bias and patterns are avoidable limitations at least partially due to a rigorous and thorough methodology, the gaps of evidence represent an immutable (but yet problematic) condition which historians can only adapt to. History has been defined like «an incomplete puzzle»[24], in which even the smallest of the missing pieces can be crucial to frame the historical events considered or undermine the work and the understanding of them. This problem leads back to the discussion of the “interpretation” of historians wrestling with the decision of whether limiting themselves to the narration of the past in its fragmentation or resorting to the narrative as a tool for filling those gaps. Carr warns about the second case and suggests: «Study the historian before you begin to study the facts»[25]. In fact, before realizing what the missing puzzle pieces are, historians have to make sense out of a certain historical age without gaining a direct experience of it. «No Egyptologist has ever seen Ramses»[26], and as archeologists well know, «even when the relics are in a perfect condition they are likely to provide only few tiny clues to the total picture of what life was like»[27]. In finding evidence, the historian can either follow a source-oriented approach («takes […] group of sources which fall within his or her general idea of interest […] and extracts whatever is of value»[28] ) or a problem-oriented approach, which «is the exact opposite»[29]. Whatever the chosen methodology is, there will always be a certain degree of freedom for historians to deal with the gaps of evidence. This might as well result in deep misconceptions for those who look at history as a learning tool. Regarding the intelligence field, the problem of gaps in evidences finds a privileged ground in the issue of the declassification of secret documents. The key point is how the research on historical events and historians’ efforts to try to make a pondered sense out of it is concretely affected by the lack of information still classified and that, if declassified, could reshape the conclusions of their work. There are two enlightening examples in support of this. The first (and the most resounding) is the revelation of the «Ultra Secret», admitted by British authorities in the ‘70s and pivotal for the understanding of WWII’s dynamics. In fact, «historians knew something about the remarkable Enigma machines developed by the Germans»[30], but nothing more than some shreds of information about an effective intelligence machinery that permitted the British to anticipate some of the Germans’ advances. The impact of this revelation on the work of all those unaware historians who tried to reconstruct the events of WWII before the ‘70s was so overwhelming and shocking that it required «reexamination of vast complex problems»[31], and consequently «new thought […] and a renewed use of the pen»[32]. The second example is Hitler’s behaviour during the Second Italo-Abyssininan War in Ethiopian Empire between 1935 and 1936. As written by Arrigo Petacco, as an attempt to exacerbate the relations between Mussolini and the League of Nations, which had previously imposed rigid economic sanctions on Italy, and to get his ally closer, the Führer supplied the Allies and Haile Seilassie fighting the Italians with massive military aid secretly and for free[33]. Aggravating the hostility against Mussolini and letting Hitler gain his ally’s endorsement on the Anschluss operation, the Machiavellian game proved itself effective, but it was revealed years later. All of the historical analyses and reconstructions about the Abyssinian War Campaign which couldn’t mention this aspect have probably missed a certain perspective anything but secondary.

Overall, history presents three major epistemological limitations that a well-considered approach to history has to take into account. Firstly, the problem of historians’ bias, as a result of which it must be born in mind that «the facts of history […] are always refracted through the mind of the recorder»[34] ; secondly, the unreliability of pattern as learning or predicting tool, against which it must be weighed that «historical precedent isn’t an infallible guide»[35] ; finally, the incompleteness of evidence, which might force historians to profound reviews of large sections of historiography hitherto taken for granted.

These limitations being considered, the use of the study of history to the field of intelligence is a double-edged sword. Following Michael Herman’s thesis, according to which «history is understanding the past, intelligence aims at the present and future»[36], it is clear that the main purpose of history for intelligence concerns the “lesson learned”: If it is not helpful for «predicting the future […] what it does, though, is to prepare you for the future by expanding experience»[37]. But history can also discern and define previous convictions as well as provide wider breadth backgrounds, useful to frame the harshest decisions to take in the most effective and rational way. In relying upon history, the degree to which intelligence will take into consideration the limitations above discussed will most likely determine the quality of the outcome of its performance.


[1] Efren Torres, “The Limitation of History to the Field of Intelligence”, E-International Relation Students, http://www.e-ir.info/2014/02/14/the-limitations-of-history-to-the-field-of-intelligence/, Accessed Nov 6.

[2] Costantin Fasolt, “The Limits of History: An Exchange”, Historically Speaking, VI:5, May/June 2005, 5.

[3] Costantin Fasolt, “The Limits of History: An Exchange”, 6.

[4] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 17.

[5] Ed H. Carr, What Is History? (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1961), 19.

[6] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 24.

[7] Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, (London: Norton, 1995), 90.

[8] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 23.

[9] Lt. Col. Muhammad Zaman Malik, “The Importance of History for Decision Makers”, Defence Journal, http://www.defencejournal.com/jul99/history-makers.htm, Accessed Nov 6.

[10] Geoffrey Elton, Return to the Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study (Cambridge, UK, 1991), 51.

[11] Thucydides (translated by Charles Forster Smith), The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians (London: Harvard University Press, 1919), 39.

[12] Thucydides, The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, 39.

[13] Christopher Andrew, The Defence Of The Realm. The Authorized History of MI5 (London: Penguin Books, 2009), xxii.

[14] Efren Torres, “The Limitation of History to the Field of Intelligence”.

[15] Richard Evans, In Defence of History (New York: Norton & Company, 1999), 69-70.

[16] Geoffrey Elton, The Practice of History (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1967), 90.

[17] Geoffrey Elton, The Practice of History (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1967), 90.

[18] Geoffrey Elton, The Practice of History (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1967), 93.

[19] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of Hstory, 39-43.

[20] Harry Truman, Memoirs by Harry S. Truman (New York: The New American Library of World Literature, 1956), 378-379.

[21] Richard E. Neustadt & Ernest R. May, Thinking In Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (The Free Press, 1986), 36.

[22] Richard E. Neustadt & Ernest R. May, Thinking In Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, 36.

[23] Ernest R. May, “Lessons" of the past: the use and misuse of history in American foreign policy (New York: Oxford Universty Press, 1973), 84.

[24] Efren Torres, “The Limitation of History to the Field of Intelligence”.

[25] Ed H. Carr, What Is History? (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1961), 17.

[26] Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1954), cited in John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History, 35.

[27] Arthur Marwick, The Nature of History (London: Macmillan Press, 1970), 231.

[28] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History. Aims, Methods & New Directions on the Study of Modern History (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1984), 54.

[29] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History. Aims, Methods & New Directions on the Study of Modern History, 54.

[30] Harold C. Deutsch, “The Historical Impact of Revealing The Ultra Secret”, NSA, https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/declassified-documents/cryptologic-spectrum/assets/files/ultra_secret.pdf, Accessed Nov 8, 17.

[31] Harold C. Deutsch, “The Historical Impact of Revealing The Ultra Secret”, 29.

[32] Harold C. Deutsch, “The Historical Impact of Revealing The Ultra Secret”, 29.

[33] Arrigo Petacco, Faccetta Nera (Milano: Mondadori 2005), 206 (ebook version).

[34] Ed H. Carr, What Is History? (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1961), 16.

[35] Michael Douglas Smith, “The Perils of Analysis: Revisiting Sherman Kent’s Defense of SNIE 85-3-62”, CIA, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol51no3/revisiting-sherman-kent2019s-defense-of-snie-85-3-62.html, Accessed Nov 6.

[36] Michael Herman, “What can intelligence analysts learn from historians (and from international relations academics)?” Nuffield College, https://www.nuffield.ox.ac.uk/Research/OIG/Documents/meh%20website%20view%20on%20historians.pdf, Accessed 6 Nov.

[37] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 11.

Excerpt out of 6 pages


History, a double-edged sword for the intelligence field
The use of history in intelligence and its limitations
Brunel University  (College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences)
MA Intelligence & Security Studies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
638 KB
intelligence, secretservices, history, spy, secondworldwar, greece, MI6, MI5, historylimitations, epistemology, epistemologicallimitation
Quote paper
Giovanni Coletta (Author), 2017, History, a double-edged sword for the intelligence field, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/356796


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: History, a double-edged sword for the intelligence field

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free