Covert action: the secret pursuit of foreign policy from the Second World War to today HIST4269

  • Academic Session: 2023-24
  • School: School of Humanities
  • Credits: 20
  • Level: Level 4 (SCQF level 10)
  • Typically Offered: Either Semester 1 or Semester 2
  • Available to Visiting Students: Yes

Short Description

This course will explore the use of covert action as a foreign policy tool. Students will examine the extent to which secret operations have served foreign policy goals in a variety of contexts. The approach will be global and comparative, since the start of the Second World War. The approach will help students compare and contrast how the conduct of secret foreign and national security policy varies across governments and contexts but consistently challenges decision-makers. The course will raise important epistemological and methodological questions that have challenged intelligence historians. How can we study the history of events that did not officially happen?


10x2hr seminars over 10 weeks as scheduled on MyCampus. This is one of the Honours options in History and may not run every year. The options that are running this session are available on MyCampus.

Requirements of Entry

Available to all students fulfilling requirements for Honours entry into History, and by arrangement to visiting students or students of other Honours programmes who qualify under the University's 25% regulation.

Excluded Courses





Essay (3,500 words) - 60%

Analysis primary source (1,500 words) - 35%

Seminar contribution - 5%

Are reassessment opportunities available for all summative assessments? Not applicable for Honours courses

Reassessments are normally available for all courses, except those which contribute to the Honours classification. For non-Honours courses, students are offered reassessment in all or any of the components of assessment if the satisfactory (threshold) grade for the overall course is not achieved at the first attempt. This is normally grade D3 for undergraduate students and grade C3 for postgraduate students. Exceptionally it may not be possible to offer reassessment of some coursework items, in which case the mark achieved at the first attempt will be counted towards the final course grade. Any such exceptions for this course are described below. 

Course Aims

This course aims to:


■ Provide students with an understanding of how various intelligence services have operated secretly to influence world affairs

■ Familiarise students with the challenges historians and policymakers confront when evaluating the role of intelligence services in the development and implementation of foreign policy

■ Develop professional and practical skills such as the identification, selection, and synthesis of information from a wide range of primary and secondary sources and the use of IT to search for and access historical sources and information

■ Develop oral and written communication skills through small group discussions, document analysis and essay

Intended Learning Outcomes of Course

By the end of this course students will be able to:


■ Identify and explain the political, social, economic, cultural factors that shape the conduct of foreign policy in different countries

■ Evaluate policy and ethical dilemmas in national security decision-making

■ Understand the methodological and epistemological problems inherent in studying secret foreign policy

■ Critically assess a range of primary sources and secondary arguments, and construct a coherent and consistent independent argument

■ Produce a convincing written argument informed by the analytical and historiographical literature.

■ Discuss complex ideas and situations in small group settings

Minimum Requirement for Award of Credits

Students must submit at least 75% by weight of the components (including examinations) of the course's summative assessment.