The CIA shows its academic side in a pioneering collaboration with history and political science majors to analyze declassified documents from the Reagan years.
John Saucedo, a senior majoring in political science, was barely 2 weeks old when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in the fall of 1989. He wasn’t around when terms such as “Star Wars” and “evil empire” were passing from Ronald Reagan’s lips to newspaper headlines, a time when doomsday scenarios and mutual distrust framed the relationship between two superpowers.
He just missed the Cold War.
Still, Saucedo is no rookie when it comes to that era and all things Reagan. In the spring semester, he joined a select group of CLU students in a first-ever partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency aimed at measuring the value of Cold War intelligence-gathering.
One history class and four students pursuing independent study received access to thousands of pages of recently declassified CIA documents touching on everything from the Soviet influence on Nicaragua to the role that civil unrest played in undermining the Soviet Union.
The collaboration marked the CIA’s most extensive effort to date to engage university students in sifting through its declassified material.
And it provided CLU student-researchers an extraordinary opportunity to collaborate with CIA historians and gain a behind-the-scenes perspective on world-shaping events.
“This project was phenomenal because it really allowed us to see how our government operates and the thought process behind decisions made by our elected leaders,” said Saucedo, whose career goals include military intelligence work and possible stints with the CIA or FBI.
Audience Full of Plants
Under the direction of CLU professor Gregory Freeland, chair of the Political Science Department, four students chose topics and analyzed the correlation between data in CIA reports and the words and actions of President Reagan and his staff in the 1980s. Saucedo produced a 15-page report and a presentation on how the administration assessed the Soviet threat to U.S. security interests.
The projects were the centerpiece of a Festival of Scholars panel last spring titled “Perspectives on the Cold War.” CIA analysts sat in on the student presentations.
“I think the Cold War was one of those things where everyone has a perspective, but there is so much unknown and a lot of room to fill in the blanks,” Saucedo said.
In laying the groundwork for a recent Cold War symposium at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, analysts with the CIA Historical Collections Division met with library officials in the summer of 2009 and expressed interest in working with local universities upon the release of the declassified Cold War documents. The documents were released on a limited basis as part of a yearlong celebration of Reagan’s 100th birthday, which was Feb. 6.
CLU has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the Reagan Library, and CLU professors jumped at the opportunity when approached.
By the start of the spring semester, faculty members had received the first of three information drops, and throughout the semester, CIA analysts were on campus speaking to students and even editing their work.
“It was an extraordinary opportunity,” said CLU history professor Michaela Reaves, whose Cold War America class used the documents to produce research papers on everything from a comparison of Cold War cartoons to a look at the state of Soviet military technology following the introduction of Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense initiative.
Many students were surprised to learn that the CIA’s role in the Cold War was far more academic than cloak-and-dagger, Reaves said.
“Overall, I think this research was probably more rigorous than what many of these students had done before, but as a group they rose to the occasion,” added Reaves, noting that she plans to permanently incorporate the CIA documents into her course. “By the time it was over, they were pretty much little experts in their fields.”
Six of Reaves’ students took their research one step further. They put together poster presentations for the Festival of Scholars, during which they fielded questions from their peers, their professors and CIA historians.
“It was kind of intimidating,” said junior Cortney Jordan, who examined the significance of social unrest among Soviet youth in the breakdown of the Soviet state. “Here I was making judgments about CIA research and then explaining that to the people who wrote the documents.”
The research work was intense, Jordan said.
Because she carried a full load of courses, served as a student teacher and worked out twice a day as a member of the CLU swim team, she had to do most of her research on the weekends.
Luckily, the CIA documents – about 150 in total – were available to her at the click of a computer button via an electronic blackboard set up by her teacher. The department assistant made life easier by sorting the material by topic.
Still, Jordan estimated that she spent more than a dozen hours poring over hundreds of pages of material, some of which was blacked out in true covert fashion
What she uncovered and wrote about was a growing level of dissatisfaction among Soviet youth during the 1980s, a state of unrest fomented by economic instability and punctuated by outright rebellion against the Communist regime. Jordan concluded that the disillusionment of Soviet youth provided a catalyst for the downfall of the USSR.
“Sometimes, when I leave a class, the information doesn’t really stick with me, but I can tell you so much about the subject I researched for this class,” said Jordan, a liberal studies major who plans to teach elementary school. “This is definitely something I’m going to remember forever.”
An Ongoing Collaboration
CIA representatives were pleased with the quality of the student work and have invited the University to participate in a similar research project scheduled to take place next year at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda.
“I was very impressed with [the students’] enthusiasm and excitement over material that happened before they were born,” said Peter Nyren, project manager for the CIA’s Historical Collections Division. “It was refreshing to see that the Cold War has not been completely forgotten by today’s generation.”
Going forward, Professor Freeland is looking for ways to engage CLU students in even broader research efforts – perhaps a yearlong independent study project – delving still deeper into the CIA material. The project dovetails with the University’s goal of sharpening the research skills of its students, especially through the use of primary documents, he said.
“I think their work was significant enough to continue in some form or another,” Freeland said. “This points up the diversity of important research CLU students are involved with.”
Senior Elizabeth Palko wouldn’t mind another crack at the CIA documents.
Using that material, the global studies major spent part of the spring semester in her History and Politics of Latin America class exploring the triangular relationship among the United States, the USSR and Nicaragua. She grew fascinated with how the ideological duel between capitalism and communism played out in far-flung regions of the world.
When it came time to present her information at the Festival of Scholars, Palko spoke on the subject for about 25 minutes. She was supposed to talk for 15.
“I love to research and I loved the idea of getting my hands on documents that people had never seen before,” said Palko, who is considering graduate school and then possible careers in government or the ministry.
“I think in general this is the kind of project usually reserved for students who go to Harvard or who go to Yale,” she added. “I was proud to be able to show the kind of work CLU students can do.”
Fred Alvarez is a high school history and journalism teacher who lives in Ojai. For more than two decades, he was a staff writer for daily newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune.