All posts, History, Research postgraduates

PhD research trip to Washington DC

By William O’Neill, PhD Candidate, Department of History

Outside the White House

Having been awarded funding from the Faculty of AHSS, I was able to embark on a research trip to the United States in May 2017.

I visited the National Archives and Records Administration building just outside Washington DC, called NARA II. This is where the United States foreign policy records and presidential transition files are kept. I spent a whole week in NARA II, scanning and copying documents that I was unable to obtain from the vast array of official archives online.

It was important for my research to look at the foreign policy documents related to Central America under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. My goal was to discover the decision-making protocols and processes in relation to conducting foreign policy, but also to uncover more records which would have detailed certain covert operations being sanctioned by the US government. While this involved examining policy documents, it was also vital for me to study documents in relation to the implementation of these policies. The decision-making structure of both of these administrations allowed me to see how policy was carried out, and which agency was responsible for specific aspects of foreign policy. While a select number of documents were redacted, the vast majority of primary source material that I scanned and copied were not redacted.

Redacted material

What was also of great interest was the presidential transition records. These files gave a glimpse at how both administrations wanted to operate. Did the Reagan administration want to replicate the structures and processes of the Carter administration, or did they want to strip away the bureaucratic protocols in favour of a more streamlined approach to running foreign policy?

These records dovetail together to give greater detail on how the Carter and Reagan administrations operated at a diplomatic level, but also how the internal structures bypassed usual White House protocol in comparison to previous administrations.

On a side note, I was in Washington DC during the same week that the bill for abolishing the Affordable Care Act was sent by the House to the Senate for repeal, and FBI director James Comey was fired from his post. It was an ‘exciting’ time to be in the city, as there was speculation building as to what may happen to Comey. Local media was reporting that president Donald Trump was growing more and more frustrated with Comey’s perceived lack of loyalty to the president. If Comey was fired, it would only bring more pressure on Trump and potentially open up an Obstruction of Justice case. Being so close on the ground to this unfinished piece of political history left me in awe. While the timing was coincidental, it was because of the AHSS funding that I was able to not only conduct my research, but also witness history in action.

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