An Exercise on Using Primary Sources in the History of American Foreign Relations

Essential Question: How do different historical sources help us understand how the United States has interacted with the world?
Common Core Standards: RH2, RH5, RH6



Redacted: Making information ready for publication. In the case of classified documents requested through the Freedom of Information Act, information may be blacked out so that it is not available for public consumption.

Top secret: This is the highest security level that if publicly disclosed would cause "exceptionally grave damage" to national security.

Secret: This is the second-highest classification. Information is classified secret when its release would cause "serious damage" to national security. Most information that is classified is held at the secret sensitivity.

Confidential: This is the lowest classification level of information obtained by the government. It is defined as information that would "damage" national security if disclosed to the public.


Students will be able to identify the benefits and challenges presented to foreign policy historians by six types of historical sources
Students will evaluate the utility of historical evidence


Initiate the lesson by either distributing copies of LP-Exercise-Resource1 or displaying the image. Ask students to read the document and to list any information provided by the source and questions to the document generates for students. Use the discussion of this one source to introduce the types of sources that historians of foreign policy utilize and the challenges these sources provide. Inform students that they will be examining six of these types of sources and identifying the benefits and challenges presented by these sources.

Learning Activities:

Expand students’ understanding of the benefits and problems generated by a variety of historical sources used to study American Foreign policy by having students examine the chart found on (file missing) and ranking the sources from most (5) to least (1) problematic. Students should examine the sources as if they were an historian who researches foreign policy.

Discuss student rankings and the types of sources used by historians of foreign policy. There is no right answer to the ranking, but the process of having students develop one enables them to compare and contrast the various sources and the benefits and problems generated by each.

Apply student’s understanding of the impact of documents on an interpretive problem by introducing students to the relationship between the United States and Chile in the early 1970s. Special emphasis should be placed on the impact of the Cold War on U.S.-Chilean relations, the nationalization and reaction of ITT Corporation, and election of Salvador Allende. Useful background information can be found at:

U.S. Relations With Chile

Chile: A Country Study

Chile - Relations with the United States

Inform students that they will be asked to analyze a series of historical documents and to determine:

To what degree was the United States involved in the 1973 overthrow of President Salvador Allende in Chile?

After establishing the situation, inform students that they will be examining one of six primary sources and asked to determine the degree to which the United States is responsible for the removal of President Salvador Allende. Ask students to examine one of the following sources: (Click on the hyperlinks to go to the original copies of each page of the memo) (click on the White House Audio Tape)

Covert Action During the Allende Years, 1970-1973

Note to teacher: Depending on time constraints and reading level of students, these documents may benefit from being shortened, typed, and/or having important vocabulary and contextual information defined and identified.

Students should determine the information provided by the source and the challenges presented by that type of source.

Discuss the information provided by each source and the challenges provided by each. Students can record this information in their notebooks. After all the sources have been shared, discuss with students how/why they should be critical of the information derived from each source.

Have students use the evidence derived from their analysis of the historical sources to develop an interpretation of the focus question on Allende and Chile. Remind students that they should make reference to specific pieces of evidence.

Further Reading:

Kornbluh, Peter, editor. The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability (A National Security Archive Book). New York: The New Press, 2004