Re-learning to Read, Write, and Construct History

by Jissel Becerra Reyes

As a history major with a special interest in modern European history, stepping into a project focused on Argentine history was a bit daunting. Without necessary in-depth knowledge of the region, I thought I would surely flail and struggle to contribute to the Archive’s ongoing document analysis. Nevertheless, within my first week of the internship, I learned that asking questions, rather than having the answers, and knowing what one does not know help in appreciating the Archive’s collection and declassification projects.

My first week at the Archive can almost be described as a Swarthmore directed reading course, one in which I was the only student and my supervisor, Latin America senior analyst Carlos Osorio, was my professor. My only assignment: read Martin E. Andersen’s Dossier Secreto: Argentina’s Desaparecidos and the Myth of the “Dirty War.” This book, with its not-so-brief overview of twentieth century Argentine history, provided the basis for my foray into Argentina’s “Dirty War” and the foundation for historical discussions with my supervisor. From the specifics of certain Argentine generals in Videla’s government to broader conversations on U.S. policy towards Argentina, we discussed as much as we could in that first week. But even then, as Carlos made clear, there were nuances in this history, a history that while not covering a wide range of time (1976-1979), was full of diplomacy, secret conversations and understandings, and information only available in the declassified documents at the archive. To fully grasp these nuances, my assignment was to gather as many documents regarding certain topics (e.g., Kissinger’s policy towards Argentina, Operation Condor, etc.), an assignment that was not as clear-cut as I originally thought.

Building a collection of documents under broad historical terms proved an exercise in interpretation. What documents are ‘relevant’ enough, and how do you build criteria for relevance? This question was especially difficult to answer when dealing with subject matter that was classified and/or referred to in diplomatic language, language that is often veiled and implicit. Such was the case with finding documents pertaining to Operation Condor, a secret military operation involving various Southern Cone countries. Thus, while expanding the Operation Condor database, I quickly learned that certain coded language was used to refer to the operation; from ‘collaboration’ to ‘cooperation,’ particular key phrases yielded search results that were part of the process of both finding key documents and understanding U.S.-Argentine diplomacy.

In that regard, language and search skills proved imperative, but ultimately, it was having historical narrative guiding the collection-building that helped me understand how to find ‘key’ documents. With a narrative in mind (e.g., Kissinger’s implicit approval of Argentine human rights procedures), ‘relevancy’ becomes easier to define. Does this document fill in the blanks of the collection’s historical narrative? Does it make it clearer or does it obscure it? Does the document help the collection speak for itself? Those kinds of questions became crucial to creating coherence in my document search, coherence which is particularly needed when reading declassified documents that often come without the contextual information that one would find in a standard history book. Narrative, as a I learned from reading the National Security Archive’s briefing books and from working on my own collection(s), proved to be a final piece in reading and understanding declassified documents.