Diplomatic Reporting

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

American diplomats overseas have many functions.  Perhaps the most important is to serve as eyes and ears of the United States and reporting what they learn and what they think it means.  At various times the Department of State has issued reporting guidance to Foreign Service Officers abroad.

One example, entitled “Reporting from the Field,” comes from August 1939.[i]  In this long instruction, the Department notes that “concise reports which emphasize important facts and the reporting officer’s interpretation and comment are especially desirable.”  Furthermore, it states that “clarity, conciseness, and interpretive comment are of far more value to the Department than lengthy reports containing a great deal of detail which must be separated from the essential information by officers in the Department.”  The instruction also noted that

In addition to a record of facts and events, the Department needs the opinions of officers in the field.  These opinions should be based upon knowledge of the local situation and upon careful thought with respect to the information available to officers.  The Department needs to receive preliminary opinions as well as later fully matured opinions.  It naturally does not expect infallibility on the part of officers who express an opinion regarding future trends or the significance of events reported upon. . . .  The Department, of course, will exercise due caution in protecting officers whenever the information and comment contained in despatches and reports makes this necessary. . . .

Definitions found in The Diplomat’s Dictionary,[ii] by the distinguished American diplomat Chas. W. Freeman, Jr., provide additional context for that general requirement.

Reporting, honesty in: Ingratiating as it may be for a diplomat to report what is agreeable to his government, it is his duty to report only what is true.

Reporting, reward for honest: The rewards for diplomats who report honestly and forthrightly on foreign developments that contradict the convictions of their leaders at home have been well established by history.  They will first be ignored, then charged with disloyalty, and, finally, dismissed.  Diplomatic reporting is therefore always a contest between professional integrity of those doing it abroad and the prejudices of those who read it at home.

The following telegrams are two examples of honest reporting by American diplomats overseas.

Example I: Telegram 3047 from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, June 4, 1960[iii]

Example II: Telegram 7262 from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, June 20, 1973[iv]  


[i] See Diplomatic Serial No. 3118, Reporting from the Field, August 18, 1939, file 124.0664/145A, 1930-39 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[ii] Chas. W. Freeman, Jr., The Diplomat’s Dictionary (Revised Edition): Washington, United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997.

[iii] Embassy Moscow to Department of State, Telegram 3047, June 4, 1960, file 761.13/6-460, 1960-63 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. For an enjoyably excellent biography of the underheralded Ambassador Thompson, see THE KREMLINOLOGIST: LLEWELLYN E. THOMPSON, AMERICA’S MAN IN COLD WAR MOSCOW by Jenny and Sherry Thompson (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

[iv] Embassy New Delhi to Department of State, Telegram 07262, June 20, 1973, 1973NEW DE07262, file Electronic Telegrams, 1973 (NAID 654231), Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

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