Foreign Service Friday! The Official-Informal Letter

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 fifth, and final, 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, telegrams, airgrams, and operations memorandums and WIROMs.

The types of documents described previously were all formal means of communication from a Foreign Service Post to the Department of State.  During the early twentieth century, a less formal type of communication came into use – the official-informal letter.  These documents are letters sent directly from a person working at a Foreign Service Post directly to a counterpart in the Department, but outside the channels and distribution of the formal despatches, telegrams, and airgrams.

As their title indicates, official-informal letters dealt with official business, but on an informal basis.  They could be used to obtain or provide background information and personal views, to report on progress, or to develop preliminary thinking on matters that would later be reported through the formal channels of despatches, telegrams, and airgrams.  While official-informal letters may be found among the Department’s central files, they are most prevalent among the decentralized offices files (“Lot Files”).

This type of communication eventually made its way into the telegraphic world.  Some telegrams are directed from one person at a Post to another in the Department.  Such telegrams are usually labeled as “Official-Informal” or “O-I.”