Today’s post is written by archivist David Langbart who works primarily with diplomatic records.
Researchers who use Department of State records may be interested to know a bit more about the types of documents used by Foreign Service Posts to communicate with the Department of State. This is the first in a series of postings that describe the different types of documents used between 1789 and 1976 (the last year for which the National Archives has accessioned Department of State central files). Future entries will discuss telegrams, airgrams, operations memorandums and WIROMs, and official-informal letters.
In the beginning, and for a long time after, there was the despatch. (Note that in Department of State parlance it is dEspatch, not dIspatch.) Despatches are written (or typed) communications prepared at post and sent to the Department, usually in the care of a trusted person or an official courier. For many years, as the only means of communication with the Department of State, they dealt with all matters, from the trivial to the important. During the twentieth century, despatches evolved into documents dealing with policy matters, reports on politics and economics, cultural activities, and other substantive matters. Many despatches include associated enclosures such as more detailed reports and publications. Until 1949, they were addressed to the Secretary of State and signed by the principal officer at the sending post, even if prepared by a subordinate. Beginning in 1949, despatches, while still signed by the principal officer or other designee, were addressed to the “Department of State.”
Early despatches are handwritten, usually by a clerk or secretary, but in some cases by the ambassador, minister, or consular officer. Sometimes the writing is less than totally legible. In the late nineteenth century, posts begin using typewriters. Some despatches from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are written in code (decoded versions are usually filed with the original). Despite the advent of quicker means of communication, such as telegrams and airgrams, the despatch continued in use through June 1962, when it was replaced by the already-existing airgram.