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History PhD Student's Dissertation Adventure

Aaron Bell

Photo courtesy of Aaron Bell.

In 1992, El Salvador ended nearly 50 years of military control and fighting. The peace came about with substantial intervention from the United States during the nation’s 12-year-long civil war. Aaron Bell, U.S. history doctoral candidate, is taking his personal interest in U.S.–Latin relations to new academic heights as the topic of his dissertation; he’s also taken it on the road.

Bell’s research has entailed an extensive journey around this country and to Central America to unearth information about the role of the United States in providing aid to Salvadoran political parties, like Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA), during the 1980–92 civil war. 

“I’m really interested in Latin America’s history in the past 100 years,” he says, “because there have been so many struggles through democratic and revolutionary means over what I think are really essential questions about how human societies should function.”

He’s particularly interested in looking at the extent of this country’s power in Latin American affairs and the impact of that influence on the region’s citizens and governments. “The U.S. has had a tremendous amount of influence in the region, and it’s interesting to me to see how our country has understood those struggles and interacted with a variety of political and social movements,” he says. “I feel like there’s conflict between our espoused values and more practical concerns—or at least what policymakers have believed to be practical concerns.” 

Bell spent two months in El Salvador, an academic payoff during which he hoped to open more doors. “Going down there gave me this chance to talk and work with historians to get their perspectives on things and see the circles they’ve uncovered that I wouldn’t even know to look for,” he said. 

The payoff, however, came only after Bell did extensive groundwork. To prepare for his study in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America, he embarked in early summer on a month-long road trip across the country to visit various archives. “That was pretty interesting to spend a month on the road. I’ve always wanted to see the U.S. I had never driven past Kansas, so it was a really good opportunity to do that.” 

Bell’s research took him to university archives in New Mexico and Idaho and at Stanford, as well as the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California. The ultimate challenge was piecing together all the information, like a puzzle. Bell has had to learn so many names—of countless organizations and politicians and policy makers— and understand their roles in the context of El Salvador’s transition to a constitutional democracy. “You sort of have to play investigator,” he says. “You have to read and find out who the people are, and figure out how they all connect, and you have to do all that legwork to [tie] it all together.” 

He discovered it wasn’t so easy to find what he was looking for (in some places, information was poorly organized at best), which he attributes in part to the dearth of U.S.–Latin American studies programs and general lack of interest in the subject.

“There’s some really excellent journalism from the early 1980s, and that’s probably the best stuff written on this particular topic. There just hasn’t really been anything in depth since then,” he says. “Everything references that reporting, and I think that’s a lot of the appeal—just constantly chasing after that and getting, incrementally, a little closer.” 

Bell decided he had one more base to cover in preparation for his trip. Back from his research odyssey, he immediately headed up to Vermont for an intensive Spanish language immersion program at Middlebury College. For seven weeks, he had to communicate exclusively in Spanish. When he emerged from that experience, he had bumped his language skills up a level and was sufficiently fluent to hold his own with Spanish-speaking scholars and others. 

After all the preparation for his international research, Bell was finally ready for the real challenge. 

“I think that’s been the good thing about this dissertation in general: getting to see all these different people and places that I wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise,” he says. “It makes for a better dissertation. The more places you see and the more archives you go to make your work a lot better.”