Foreign Service Friday! The Airgram

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 third 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). Earlier postings covered despatches and telegrams. Future entries will discuss operations memorandums and WIROMS, and official-informal letters.

In July 1942, the Department established the airgram as the third official documents used by posts. The Department established this form of communication to relieve the huge burden of code work and to lessen expenditures on telegrams while using a method of communication that still traveled relatively quickly. Airgrams were typed communications on matters of policy, political and economic reporting, and other substantive subjects. These documents are formal communications addressed to the Department of State and signed by principal officer of the sending post, even if prepared by a subordinate.

The format and use of the airgram fell into two periods: 1942-1962 and 1962-1991:

During the first period the airgram was essentially a telegram sent in hardcopy via air. They were prepared using telegraphic style and language and could not be used to transmit enclosures.

During the second period, airgrams were essentially the continuation of the despatch under a new name. They were written in plain expository language and could be accompanied by enclosures.

Use of airgrams ended in 1991.