Foreign Service Friday! The Telegram

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 second 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). The first posting covered despatches. Future entries will discuss airgrams, operations memorandums and WIROMS, and official-informal letters.

During the nineteenth century, use of the telegram grew as the international electric cable system expanded and foreign policy imperatives demanded quicker communications. Because telegrams traveled over cable wires, they were often called cables, a term that persists even though most telegrams have not traveled that route since the 1960s. As with despatches, telegrams are formal communications signed by the principal officer of the sending post, even if prepared by a subordinate, and addressed to the Secretary of State. Telegrams were used to deal with urgent policy and other matters where time was of the essence.

Until the U.S. Government established its own communications network during the Cold War, telegrams traveled over commercial cable lines. To protect security, they were sent in code. To hold down expenses, the Department directed that telegrams be used only for time-sensitive matters or where surface communication was impossible or unreliable. To reduce the number of words or code-groups, and thus save money, a unique language called “telegraphese” came into existence. Unnecessary words and phrases, such as prepositions, pronouns, articles, and expressions of courtesy were omitted and punctuation was reduced to the minimum while preserving clarity.