Why Did You Wake Us Up in the Middle of the Night?: Use of NIACT, 1963

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

On January 21, 1963, at the behest of McGeorge Bundy at the White House, the Department of State sent a circular telegram to 14 embassies in Europe and the U.S. mission in Geneva.[i]  The confidential limit distribution telegram went out with the communications precedence indicator “NIACT.”  That was the abbreviation for “Night Action” meaning that the telegram required attention at any hour, including the middle of the night.  Telegrams with that indicator were supposed to be of a critical nature.  The subject of this telegram: the text of a newspaper column by noted commentator James Reston printed in that day’s New York Times.

Reston’s column focused on potential problems in the Atlantic Alliance created by the hard line then being pushed by Charles de Gaulle of France.  It began:

This is a solemn moment in the relations between the United States and Germany.  For President de Gaulle is asking Chancellor Adenauer of Germany to base his future European policy on suspicion of the United States – even on an assumption of bad faith by the United States – and the Chancellor’s answer to this will be watched here [Washington] with the greatest attention.[ii]

In addition to providing a cogent analysis, Reston mocked de Gaulle, calling him “the Walter Mitty of Europe, fighting and winning in his dreams of glory, the second Battle of Waterloo.”

In the telegram, the Department noted that the “White House believes this independent evaluation of dilemma posed nations of Atlantic [alliance] is a sound assessment of the situation.”  The recipient posts were encouraged to use Reston’s analysis in discussions with host governments and elsewhere.[iii]

Stephen Winship, the First Secretary of the U.S. embassy in Sweden, sent the following letter to William Brubeck, the Executive Secretary of the Department of State.  In it he questioned the NIACT designation on the telegram.

120.201[1-2963
Stephen Winship to William Brubeck, official-informal letter, 29 Jan, 1963. File 120.201/1-2963 1960-63 Central Decimal File, RG 59
After looking into the matter, Brubeck responded as follows:

ORG 8 STOCKHOLM
William Brubeck to Steven Winship, official-informal letter, 28 Feb, 1963. File ORG 8 STOCKHOLM, 1963 Subject-Numeric File, RG 59, p1
ORG 8 STOCKHOLM.2
William Brubeck to Steven Winship, official-informal letter, 28 Feb, 1963. File ORG 8 STOCKHOLM, 1963 Subject-Numeric File, RG 59, p2

[i] See Department of State Circular Telegram 1281 to U.S. Mission Geneva and embassies in Luxembourg, Rome, The Hague, Ankara, Athens, Bern, Copenhagen, Dublin, Lisbon, Madrid, Oslo, Ottawa, Stockholm, and Vienna, January 21, 1963, file 611.62a/1-2163, 1960-63 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  Notably, the telegram did not go to the embassies in the capitals of the three countries featured in the column: London, Paris, and Bonn.

[ii] James Reston, “What People Do They Think We Are? Adenauer Is Urged to Base His Policy on Suspicion of U.S.,” The New York Times, January 21, 1963, p. 6.

[iii] For contextual documentation on European economic and political integration and NATO matters see Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume XIII, Western Europe and Canada

One thought on “Why Did You Wake Us Up in the Middle of the Night?: Use of NIACT, 1963

  1. Kudos to David Langbart and many thanks for writing about such an amusing exchange of letters about the Reston article! It does show that at least some button-down, formal, and otherwise-serious diplomats do have a sense of humor! Indeed, I know a few! Brubeck’s description of “timid mice” and “raging carnivores” in the State Ops Center is a phrase that I will try to remember, and his promise to try to avoid disturbing Winship’s dreams is inspired. You probably have come across some of the humorous “intelligence cables” that INR used to send out annually on April Fool’s Day. Maybe they still do. If you have the opportunity to bring some of those “pearls of humor” back to life, I’d certainly appreciate it.

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