To Avoid Embarrassment: Setting Priorities for the Handling of Documents in the Department of State, 1907

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

The pre-World War II Department of State is often referred to as a sleepy, slow-moving bureaucracy.  This is especially true of the period before the First World War.  Even departmental officials made remarks along those lines.  In a June 1918 speech, to the Maryland Bar Association, Third Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long spoke about “The State Department in War Time.”  His talk outlined the department’s activities and how they had changed as a result of World War I.  At the beginning of his talk, Long noted that “the days of peace when diplomatic correspondence was a quiet, thoughtful and studious pursuit, and when the events of the world were not crowding so fast one upon another that the very rapidity of their sequence created a pressure nearly incomprehensible to those immediately within the sphere of the activity” had ended.

But these comments were all made in retrospect.  Certainly, the officials before World War I and between the two World Wars did not believe that U.S. foreign policy was quiet and slow moving.  Important issues that needed to be addressed arose on a daily basis.  One need only look at the documentation printed in the official documentary series Foreign Relations of the United States and the mountain of files in the National Archives to see that this is true. For the period before World War I, this is further borne out by the following notice to the clerks working in the Indexing Bureau.  That office was responsible for maintaining the central files of the Department of State.  Incoming communications were divided into three categories: (1) routine; (2) important; and (3) urgent.  Particularly striking is that matters of an urgent nature “are not to be laid down, but are to go from hand to hand.”

directing that 3 classes of communication be established
Notice to Clerks, April 3, 1907 (NAID 19086784, image 59)


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