How should the WikiLeaks cables be viewed as historical documents? One historian suggests caution:
In the short term, this is a potential gold mine for foreign-affairs scholarship. In the long term, however, what WikiLeaks wants to call “Cablegate” will very likely make life far more difficult for my profession.
For now, things certainly look very sweet. Timothy Garton Ash characterized the documents as “the historian’s dream.” Jon Western, a visiting professor of international relations at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, blogged that WikiLeaks may allow scholars to “leapfrog” the traditional process of declassification, which takes decades. While the first wave of news reports focused on the more titillating disclosures (see: Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Ukrainian nurse), the second wave has highlighted substantive and trenchant aspects of world politics and American foreign policy. The published memos reveal provocative Chinese perspectives on the future of the Korean peninsula, as well as American policy makers’ pessimistic perceptions of the Russian state.
Scholars will need to exercise care in putting the WikiLeaks documents in proper perspective. Some researchers suffer from “document fetishism,” the belief that if something appears in an official, classified document, then it must be true. Sophisticated observers are well aware, however, that these cables offer only a partial picture of foreign-policy decision-making. Remember, with Cablegate, WikiLeaks has published cables and memos only from the State Department. Last I checked, other bureaucracies—the National Security Council, the Defense Department—also shape U.S. foreign policy. The WikiLeaks cables are a source—they should not be the sole source for anything.
Seems like a reasonable argument to me. Much research, history included, includes collecting a variety of evidence from a variety of sources. Claiming that these cables represents THE view of the United States is naive. They do reveal something, particularly about how diplomatic cables and reports work, but not everything. How much one can generalize based on these cables is unclear.
As this article points out, how these cables have been portrayed in the media is interesting. Where are the historians and other scholars to put these cables in perspective?