Elective Courses

American Foreign Policy: Past, Present, and Future

Course Features as taught by MIT

Course Description

This course explores the reasons for America’s past wars and interventions. It covers the consequences of American policies, and evaluates these consequences for the U.S. and the world. History covered includes World Wars I and II, the Korean and Indochina wars, the Cuban Missile Crisis and current conflicts, including those in in Iraq and Afghanistan, and against Al Qaeda.



Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session

Discussions: 1 session / week, 1 hour / session


There are no prerequisites for this course. This is an undergraduate course but is open to graduate students.

Course Description

The mission of this course is to explain and evaluate past and present United States foreign policies. What caused past U.S. involvement in foreign wars and interventions? Were the results of U.S. policies good or bad? Would other policies have produced better results? Were the beliefs that guided U.S. policy true or false? If false, what explains these misperceptions? General theories that bear on the causes and consequences of U.S. policy are applied to explain and evaluate past and present policies.

The course covers foreign policy episodes including U.S. involvement in World Wars I and II, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean and Indochina Wars, the 2003 Iraq war, and the 2001–present “War on Terror.” Functional topics are also covered: U.S. national security policy, U.S. foreign economic policy, and U.S. policy on human rights and democracy overseas. Finally, we predict and prescribe for the future. What policies should the U.S. adopt toward current problems and crises? Problems discussed include threats posed by Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and by ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State; the potential spread of weapons of mass destruction to states and non-state actors; possible threats emanating from Syria, Iran and Iraq; North Korean nuclear weapons; managing China’s rise; the Ukraine/Russia conflict; climate change; threats to global public health; human rights; and more.

Communications Intensive Requirement

This is a Communications Intensive (CI) course, and counts toward fulfilling the HASS-D and CI requirements.

CI courses, including 17.40, require 20 pages of writing, require early submission of at least one paper, and include two public speaking exercises in section. Sections normally include 10 or fewer students.

Format and Requirements

Class Format

The class has two 1-hour general meetings and one 1-hour discussion section meeting per week. Students are expected to complete required readings before each discussion section meeting and to attend section regularly. Section attendance is mandatory. Unexcused absence from section will be penalized.

Sections will include a public speaking exercise in the format of mock presentations to the National Security Council (NSC). You will be asked to frame and defend to the Council a viewpoint on a foreign policy issue.

Writing Requirement

Students will write two short ungraded papers—a response paper that reacts to a course reading or lecture or class discussion, and a paper summarizing your in-section presentation—and two longer papers on questions arising from the course material. The two ungraded papers each will be two pages long, double spaced. The longer papers will be 8 pages. One 8-page paper assignment asks you to explain a past case of American conduct—what accounts for American behavior? A second 8-page assignment asks you to evaluate a past American policy: was the policy appropriate, or would another policy have produced better results?


Two short (15 minute) quizzes will be given. Quiz dates are Session #9 and Session #20. You will be asked to answer three short (define-and-identify) questions on each quiz.

Final Exam

A list of study questions will be circulated before the final. The final exam questions will be drawn from this list. Students are encouraged to study together to prepare their answers. The final will also include short-answer questions that will not be distributed in advance.


A couple of optional evening film showings will be organized during the term, on topics to be chosen by acclamation of the class. Topics could include the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, Iraq, nuclear war, or other subjects. Some of the film to be shown include:

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Black and white, 95 min. 1964.

Eye in the Sky. Directed by Gavin Hood. Color, 102 min. 2015.


Buy at Amazon Paterson, Thomas G., J. Garry Clifford, Robert Brigham, et al. American Foreign Relations: A History, Volume 2: Since 1895. 8th edition. Wadsworth Publishing, 2014. ISBN: 9781285433332.

Buy at Amazon Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780195174472. [Preview with Google Books]

Buy at Amazon Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. 5th edition. McGraw-Hill, 2013. ISBN: 9780073513256. [Preview with Google Books]

Buy at Amazon Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. W.W. Norton and Co., 1999. ISBN: 9780393318340. [Preview with Google Books]

I also recommend—but don’t require—that students buy a copy of the following book that will improve your papers:

Buy at Amazon Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. 7th edition. University of Chicago Press, 2007. ISBN: 9780226823379.

Turabian frames basic rules for formatting footnotes and other style rules. Follow these rules and your writing will look spiffy and professional.

For additional readings, see the Readings section.

Grading Policy

Grades are based on:

Section participation 15%
Two 8-page papers 40%
Two quizzes 15%
Final exam 30%

Students must also complete two ungraded two-page papers, one that reacts to class readings or lectures, and one that summarizes their in-class presentation. For more detail, see the Assignments section.

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