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The Dissent Papers: The Voices of Diplomats in the Cold War and Beyond

Hannah Gurman

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January, 2012
Cloth, 296 pages, 11 illus.
ISBN: 978-0-231-15872-5
$50.00 / £34.50

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On November 28, 2010, a date that some called “the September eleventh of diplomacy,” the Internet whistleblower organization WikiLeaks dropped its latest bombshell of classified information—251,287 State Department cables, mostly written in the last three years, exchanged between U.S. embassies and Washington. “Cablegate,” as WikiLeaks called it, constituted the biggest leak of classified information in history. Hundreds of the leaked documents were posted immediately on the WikiLeaks Web site, and the organization’s founder, Julian Assange, promised to post them all in the course of the ensuing days and weeks. Unlike the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs released in previous months, this collection of documents contained reports from around the globe and promised to reveal a much broader glimpse into the secret world of U.S. foreign policy.

Over the next several weeks, as the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and El Pais published and reported on dozens of the leaked cables, the public gained access to some illuminating, if not altogether shocking, information. The cables revealed that, behind closed doors, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states had been pressuring the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Yemen’s president had taken responsibility for U.S. drone attacks on al Qaeda in that country, the State Department had directed diplomats to obtain financial and biometric data on foreign officials at the United Nations, and the United States had offered deals to countries in exchange for taking Guantánamo Bay prisoners.

The cables also offered glimpses into the personalities and antics of foreign leaders. One report, for example, described Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fear of flying over water and dependency on a blond “Ukrainian nurse.” Others characterized French president Nicolas Sarkozy as “thin-skinned and authoritarian,” mockingly dubbed Russian prime minister Vladmir Putin “Batman,” and called Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi “feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader.” More than mere gossip, these profiles helped to shed light on the broad outlook of these leaders as well as the prospects and limits of specific negotiations. For example, a February 9, 2009, report from the Kabul embassy detailing a meeting with Kandahar Provincial Council chief Ahmed Wali Karzai, known as AWK in official circles, revealed not only AWK’s attempts to charm U.S. officials into funding large infrastructure projects in the region, but also Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s awareness of AWK’s manipulations. The problem, as Eikenberry concluded, was “how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt.”

As the news analysis increasingly shifted from the content of the cables to the fate of those who leaked and posted them, a less sensational, albeit equally illuminating revelation of “Cablegate” made a brief appearance in the world of political punditry and radio reportage. Blogging for Salon, Christopher Beam noted that the leaks had given the public a glimpse into “the art of cable writing itself.” “At their best,” Beam observed, “these cables read like their own literary genre” in which diplomats employ elements of sociology and travel writing to paint a picture for senior policymakers. “Somewhere within the diplomatic corps lurks literary genius,” declared Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank. When asked on NPR’s Morning Edition whether and how the leaked documents changed his view of U.S. foreign policy, historian Timothy Garton Ash said, “It revises upward my personal opinion of the State Department. In other words, what I’ve seen about how they report and how they operate is really quite impressive.” “If the WikiLeaks cables are any indicator,” Beam similarly concluded, “this job is in capable hands.” Writing for the New York Times, Mark Landler characterized the world’s praise for the quality and style of the leaked reports as the “silver lining” to the WikiLeaks scandal. In form, as well as content, the State Department cables seemed to offer something of positive value that counterbalanced the leaks’ unseemly portrait of U.S. foreign policy.

Even as segments of the public who actually read some of the cables expressed appreciation for the documents’ analytical value, the State Department went out of its way to underscore the leaked reports’ lack of influence on policy. “I want to make clear that our official foreign policy is not set in these messages,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her initial comments to the press. Though Clinton intended to resolve the obvious diplomatic problems created by the leak, she inadvertently revealed another, less obvious problem—the gap between what diplomats had been reporting accurately and insightfully from the field and the policies the United States had actually adopted.

“Cablegate” thus raised important but largely unexplored questions about the role of the diplomatic establishment and, more specifically, the nature, purpose, and influence of diplomatic writing, even or especially when that writing runs against the grain of official policy. As the coverage of the leaks exemplifies, these questions have only temporarily and sporadically made it into the national and international debates on U.S. foreign policy. This book is an attempt to put them at the center of the story of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Second World War—to show the place and evolution of diplomatic dissent writing in the larger arc of the “American century.”

“The success or failure of a country’s foreign policy and its ability to preserve peace will depend upon the reliability of the diplomat’s reports.” So declared Hans Morgenthau in Politics Among Nations, the classic theory of international relations written in the aftermath of the Second World War.

When Morgenthau wrote these lines, the memory of the years leading up to the war was still fresh in his mind. It had been only eleven years since Morgenthau left Germany for Spain, after being told that because he was Jewish, he would not get a position in the German university. It had been only eight years since he left Spain for America after his apartment was bombed and his bank account confiscated in the civil war there. Intellectually rooted in the old world, Morgenthau had been a reluctant émigré to the United States. Entering New York Harbor on the SS Königstein in 1937, he did not entertain the stereotypical American dream, but rather brooded over the question of whether the United States was ready to deal with the harsh realities of the brewing international conflict.

The next decade would be as fateful and formative for the United States as the previous one had been for Morgenthau. Before the war, the United States had been a rising power, but still walked in Europe’s shadow. At the end of the war, with Europe in physical and financial ruin and the Soviet Union still reeling from its twenty million dead, the United States was the strongest nation in the world. Against the backdrop of the newly established United Nations, with its vision of world peace, Morgenthau wanted to make sure that American leaders understood the realities of international power politics. In addition to a manifesto, Politics Among Nations was intended as a primer for the statesmen of Morgenthau’s adopted country. In the book, Morgenthau stressed the need for diplomacy, even or especially in a world formally guided by international law. More important than the abstract idea of diplomacy were actual diplomats, who, he believed, understood international conflicts from the ground up as well as from a conceptual grounding in a realistic view of international affairs. The reports and analyses of the diplomatic corps were thus critical to the future of America’s international relations. Diplomats, wrote Morgenthau, ought to be the “fingertips of foreign policy.”

Politics Among Nations became an instant sensation in international relations and political science theory, paving the way for its author’s occasional role as advisor to the U.S. foreign policy establishment. In the coming years, however, Morgenthau would become frustrated by the contradictions between his theories of international relations and the practice of U.S. foreign policy. In American foreign relations, he lamented, there was “no room for traditional methods of diplomacy,” nor for the “peculiar finesse and subtlety of mind” of the diplomat.

The odds were against anyone who believed that diplomatic writing might actually influence the course of U.S. foreign policy. Though the last sixty years have been especially trying for the diplomatic establishment, the longer history of the State Department is threaded with the frustrations of diplomats who felt ignored or undervalued. The first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, resigned in frustration over his inability to undo America’s preferential trade policies with Britain. John Adams, who served as minister to England for three years, wrote from his post: “I am as insignificant here as you can imagine.” In the ensuing decades, diplomats would experience a more systematic form of marginalization that reflected the nature of U.S. foreign policy in this period, as well as broad presidential and popular distrust of the diplomatic establishment.

In Europe, the profession of diplomacy evolved alongside the commitment to a system of strategic alliances that were the centerpiece of what would come to be known as a classical realist approach to international relations. Forged and maintained by diplomats, these alliances were designed to balance and temper the struggle for power between states. While intellectually influenced by this worldview, U.S. diplomats were beholden to America’s avowed desire to avoid permanent alliances. Thus, throughout the nineteenth century, the American foreign policy establishment remained extremely small. While the number of diplomatic missions grew in the first decades of the nineteenth century, in 1861 there were still only thirty-four, almost all in Europe.

As in Europe, the U.S. diplomatic establishment remained exclusive and exclusionary. The diplomats who occupied the highest posts in the diplomatic corps hailed almost entirely from the white male aristocratic elite. They were generally handpicked by the president or secretary of state to serve on temporary missions, which they often funded themselves. This elite class of diplomatists contributed to the perception of the diplomatic establishment as clubby, cosmopolitan, and more in tune with their European colleagues than with ordinary Americans.

As the diplomatic establishment grew over the course of the nineteenth century, a new layer of career diplomats emerged. If high-level State Department officers had limited influence on the great international power struggles of the day, these rank-and-file officers had even less. Under the spoils system, high posts were typically filled by political cronies who lacked professional expertise in foreign affairs. This left the careerists to function more as clerks than as foreign policy advisors. As historian Robert Schulzinger describes, rank-and-file diplomats in the mid-nineteenth century “copied dispatches into large volumes for their chancery’s archives, while dreaming of doing important political work.” At the end of the century, the department was, according to its own secretary, John Hay, “an antiquated, feeble organization, enslaved by precedents and routine inherited from another century” and burdened with tasks that could only be described as “drudgery.”

By this time, Europe’s diplomatic establishments had already embarked on the process of transforming themselves into modern bureaucracies. Voices outside the diplomatic establishment highlighted the need for similar reforms in the United States. In his lectures, Max Weber, the seminal theorist of bureaucracy, pointed to America’s preference for cronyism as a symptom of its almost childlike resistance to the inevitability of modern organizational structures. Henry James argued that the lack of a professionalized Foreign Service in the United States reflected America’s naiveté and unsuitability for membership in the circle of major world powers.

Efforts to reform the diplomatic establishment had already begun in the 1880s as part of a larger project to rein in the spoils system, create a more modern civil service, and build a diplomatic corps that matched the growing power and importance of the United States on the world stage. In 1883, Congress passed the Civil Service Reform, or Pendleton Act, which took steps toward transforming the federal government into a modern merit-based bureaucracy. In the ensuing years, under the leadership of Wilbur Carr, who headed the consular bureau from 1902 to 1924, the State Department moved decisively in this direction. Between 1905 and 1909, the department established regional divisions and a modern filing system for organizing the increasing flow of information from abroad. The department expanded further in World War One, after which the position of undersecretary of state was established. In 1924, at the behest of Massachusetts congressman John Jacob Rogers, Congress passed the Rogers Act, which streamlined the formerly separate consular and diplomatic services and established the modern Foreign Service, with its merit-based entrance exam, as well as regular pay and a promotion schedule. This period marked the transition from a department of political appointees to one of careerists.

Attempts to democratize the diplomatic corps and modernize the diplomatic establishment were only partially successful. Especially at the high ranks, the Foreign Service was still mostly composed of the social elite. As in other elite institutions that claimed to be merit-based, undesirables, including Jews, Catholics, and women, were typically weeded out in the oral interview. Despite its holdover elitism, the department continued to grow. By January 1936, it had 33 divisions, offices, and bureaus and 750 officers. Expansion took place at an even faster pace during the Second World War, at the end of which the department had more than 50 divisions. As one Department of State historian noted, 1944 “marked the dividing line between the old Department of State and the present agency.” The 1946 Foreign Service Act created a stronger administration arm to manage the expanded agency.

However uneven, the bureaucratization of the State Department was premised on the idea that a modernized diplomatic establishment would have more influence over the shape of U.S. foreign policy. But the promise of greater influence remained mostly that. In fact, the opposite happened. As the State Department grew and bureaucratized, tensions and distance between the diplomatic establishment and both the White House and Congress also grew. During the period between World War One and World War Two, as careerist Charles “Chip” Bohlen would later recall, when diplomats wanted to express their views on a specific foreign policy, they were typically told, “Don’t get involved.” A combination of presidential hostility toward the diplomatic corps, congressional isolationism, and economic disaster made the late 1920s and 1930s an especially low moment in the morale of the Foreign Service. The department continued to grow throughout the Second World War, but remained largely subordinate to the military offices and personnel in charge of the war effort. After the war, the State Department had to compete with the new organizations that gave rise to the national security state—including the Defense Department, the National Security Council (NSC), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Between 1950 and 1960, as the budgets of these agencies skyrocketed, the State Department budget actually declined. In 1960, while $40 billion were allocated to the Defense Department, only $246 million were allocated to State.

Morgenthau may have overstated his case on behalf of diplomats, but he did not overstate the degree to which, since the end of the Second World War, presidents and senior policymakers undervalued, if not outright rejected, the analyses and recommendations of rank-and-file State Department officers, further diminishing the role of the diplomatic establishment in the formulation of policy. While each administration had its own reasons for marginalizing the diplomatic establishment, these generally included a combination of substantial disagreement over the direction of major policies and distrust of the State Department as a bureaucracy.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who presided over the rise of the United States to world eminence, was content to write off the Foreign Service as a bunch of “striped-pants boys.” Truman, in whose term the State Department has been seen by many to be at its zenith, fantasized about “firing the whole bunch.” As a result of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s accusations against the State Department in 1950, he and Eisenhower did fire dozens of them, albeit reluctantly. Though he attempted to revitalize the department, Kennedy quickly came to the conclusion that it was just “a bowl of jello.” For Nixon, the State Department did not merit even a derogatory metaphor. It was, quite simply, filled with “sons of bitches.” While a few presidents in this period empowered their secretaries of state, they almost universally belittled and alienated the diplomatic establishment as a whole.

Through most of the pivotal foreign policy decisions of the “American century,” diplomats largely accepted their marginalized status. This tendency reflected the longer history of the State Department as well as the structure and culture of the institution as it evolved in the twentieth century. As the State Department grew and bureaucratized, it increasingly policed itself through a culture of restraint and passivity, which was reinforced by new bureaucratic layers and checkpoints. Promotions and careers depended on playing by the rules, not flouting them. Dissent posed a social risk, and dissenters were less likely to be welcomed by the “in” crowd. The only alternative option, which few careerists chose to exercise, was to leave the State Department altogether.

But there were exceptions. In his classic 1970 study of declining organizations, Albert Hirschman used the term “voice” to describe the actions of the few bureaucrats who decide to express their opinions rather than resign or resign themselves to the status quo. China hand John Paton Davies expressed the sentiments of such internal dissenters in a 1945 letter home to his family. “To get out of it and speak the truth would be a refreshing experience. On the other hand, somebody has to carry on with the job. We can stay on hoping that things will be better, that our experience can be productive of some good.”

This book highlights the experience of Davies and other diplomats who attempted to “voice” their opposition to the status quo. While my title is inspired by the more illustrious and scandalous Pentagon Papers, there are important differences between The Dissent Papers and the forty-seven-volume, top-secret study of U.S. policy in Vietnam leaked to the press in 1971. Unlike The Pentagon Papers, the dissent papers, as I collectively refer to the documents I analyze in this book, are not currently classified nor do they pertain to a single foreign policy. While The Pentagon Papers tells the story of U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam primarily through documents that reflected the status quo, my analysis of the dissent papers tells the story of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Second World War through documents that critiqued the reigning logic. As individuals, and as a group, the diplomats whose stories are told in this book have not been the “fingertips of foreign policy” so much as in-house authors of dissent.

Often, the main purpose of stories about dissent is to heroize the dissenter and increase awareness of alternative perspectives that might have been but were not adopted—in short, to bring some neglected wisdom to the fore. The reports, memos, and telegrams in The Dissent Papers do indeed contain a good deal of neglected wisdom. In its own complicated way, the very act of internal dissent is heroic and deserves some attention as such.

That said, The Dissent Papers is decidedly not an ode to the ever wise and always tragic voice of American diplomats. In addition to the fact that not everything the authors of the dissent papers wrote was wise, not all of it was entirely rejected. In the majority of cases, diplomats had only a limited influence on the final decisions of policy. In several of the most pivotal policies of the period, however, dissenting diplomats played a key role in the debates leading up to and following the moment of decision.

In the following pages, I examine diplomatic dissent in four pivotal moments in U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. Chapter 1 traces George Kennan’s opposition to the militarization of the Cold War after he helped to formulate the policy of containment that initially defined the conflict. Chapter 2 examines the critique of U.S.-China relations in the 1940s articulated by John Stewart Service and John Paton Davies, who were later accused of “losing” China to the communists. Chapter 3 analyzes George Ball’s dissent against the escalation of the war in Vietnam within the close circle of President Johnson and his advisors. And chapter 4 details the creation of an official Dissent Channel in the State Department in 1971, its role in the Watergate-era politics, and its use in the opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Broadly speaking, the arc from Kennan to Service and Davies to Ball and more recent dissenting diplomats reveals the temporary rise of the State Department’s influence on foreign policy in the immediate postwar period and its subsequent decline in the ensuing decades.

Considered separately, the foreign policies that these diplomats challenged had a specific context and logic, which I examine in this book. Collectively, however, they reflect the overarching logic of the national security state that emerged at the end of the Second World War, crystallized in the Cold War, and continues to structure U.S. foreign policy today. While dynamic and complex, this logic encompasses a set of broad tendencies that characterize policy in this period, including the tendency to: frame international conflict in terms of ideology rather than power, understand foreign policy in the context of domestic politics, empower the defense establishment, and solve conflicts through military rather than diplomatic means.

Just as each policy had its own contours and context, so did the authors of the dissent papers have their specific views, which were shaped by where and when they served, their position in the State Department, and their individual backgrounds and personalities. While their specific views differed, Kennan, Service, Davies, Ball, and other diplomats featured in this book shared a general concern about the long-standing impotence of the State Department and its continued decline over the course of the twentieth century. Broadly speaking, they resisted the logic of the national security state and believed in the foundational tenets of diplomacy, in which power matters more than ideology, foreign policy and domestic politics are considered mutually exclusive, and diplomats, rather than the military, forge and maintain a stable international order.

This book is as much an account of the tradition of diplomatic writing as it is one of dissenting diplomats. More specifically, it examines the tradition of writing in the diplomatic establishment and traces the evolving promise, practice, and limits of dissent within that tradition, from the administration of Franklin Roosevelt to that of George W. Bush. How did diplomatic writing change over the course of this period? How did those changes both reflect and contribute to the prospects for dissent within the diplomatic establishment? And how might the evolution of diplomatic dissent writing shed light on the logic and formulation of U.S. foreign policy in this period?

As the arc of The Dissent Papers suggests, the evolution of diplomatic writing is directly related to both the ongoing process of bureaucratization and the evolving relationship between the diplomatic establishment and the White House in a given administration. State Department writing was most influential in the years immediately following the Second World War. However, as I examine in the context of Kennan’s official writings, career diplomats in this period not only shaped but also responded to institutional, political, and cultural pressures to represent the emerging Cold War as an ideological clash of good versus evil, rational versus irrational, and capitalism versus Marxism-Leninism. Generally speaking, the tradition of diplomatic writing and its influence on policy decreased over the course of the Cold War. As chapter 2, on the dissent and fate of the China hands, shows, the power and influence of diplomatic dissent writing was radically diminished in the 1950s. This was the result, in large part, of the McCarthyist attacks on the State Department, which punished diplomats whose reports transgressed the ideological framework of the Cold War, a framework that, ironically, diplomats like Kennan had helped foster just a few years earlier. Under Eisenhower, in order to survive, would-be dissenters in the State Department engaged in a culture of self-censorship, which continued into the 1960s. Characterized by vague bureaucratic prose, diplomatic writing of the early 1960s reflected the repressed culture and thinking of the diplomatic establishment in this period and contributed to President Kennedy’s frustrations with the State Department. The lack of bold diplomatic reportage and analysis in this period both reflected and contributed to the weaknesses of U.S. policy, especially in Southeast Asia. The vexed style and repressed substance of diplomatic dissent continued under Lyndon Johnson. Thus, George Ball, a political appointee, wrote his dissent memos on Vietnam against the backdrop of a particularly low moment in the quality and candor of writing in the diplomatic establishment. As chapter 4 shows, paralleling popular disenchantment with the war, diplomatic writing became bolder and more outspoken toward the end of the Johnson administration. Nixon effectively thwarted and contained its potential power, by implementing an official Dissent Channel, which remained in use for the duration of the Cold War and is still in existence today. One effect of the Dissent Channel was to ensure that diplomatic dissent writing would not be leaked to the public. As Secretary Clinton’s remarks on “Cablegate” suggest, senior policymakers continue to marginalize and contain the voice of rank-and-file diplomats. In recent years, as some dissenting diplomats have publicized the cables they wrote against the invasion of Iraq, and as WikiLeaks has published its stash of diplomatic communiqués, we are perhaps entering a new era of diplomatic dissent writing, in which classified diplomatic writing has played a more substantial role in public debates over policy.

While the dissent papers were written over the course of the last six decades, the tradition of diplomatic writing in which they participate goes back much further and itself figures into the history of diplomatic dissent writing in the American century. In 1948, when Morgenthau underscored the potential importance of diplomatic writing, he was consciously invoking the founding era of professional diplomacy, which dates back to approximately the sixteenth century, when the dynasties of Europe began to erect a permanent network of statesmen to manage their foreign relations. The institutionalization of diplomacy continued over the next two hundred years. By the eighteenth century, most European states had the early makings of foreign offices and departments of state. In addition to building departments, institutionalization involved the production of a shared vocabulary, as well as a shared set of principles and practices, for emerging diplomatists. Edmund Burke is credited with first using the term “diplomacy” in the sense of high-level relations between nations, in 1796. Before then, as its etymological root diploma (as in official paper) suggests, “diplomacy” referred not to high-level international relations but instead to the handling of state documents, such as grants, treaties, seals, and passports.

Although we tend to associate the diplomatic establishment with highly visible moments of oral negotiation—the 1815 Congress of Vienna or the 1918 meeting at Versailles—diplomats have long argued that the most important function of the diplomatic corps is routine reporting as well as synthetic written analysis of ongoing developments and conflicts. One of the first handbooks for diplomats, written by the French statesman Monsieur de Callières in 1716, emphasized the importance of knowing how to “write well.” This book was extremely influential in shaping the practice and self-image of European diplomats. More than two centuries later, British diplomat and diplomatic historian Harold Nicolson upheld Callières’ treatise as the greatest theory of the diplomatic profession. In line with Callières, Nicolson declared, “Diplomacy is a written rather than a verbal art.”

The diplomat’s most important job was to gather intelligence about the state in which he was posted. “It is precisely for the purpose of getting information that they are maintained in the courts of friendly powers,” argued a prominent international lawyer in the eighteenth century. Diplomatic reporting was institutionalized before the establishment of regular foreign correspondents. Diplomats were thus the first to satisfy the state’s emerging interest in the routine and systematic gathering of information from abroad, information that would be crucial for maintaining or shifting the established balance of power. They were expected to gather and synthesize all information, both welcome and unwelcome, that might affect the state’s interest. In describing this task, diplomats made sure to distinguish themselves from mere reporters. Although he cautioned fellow diplomats against adopting an overly elaborate style, Callières also cautioned them against superficial writing. “A letter which gives only a bare account of facts, without entering into the motives,” he wrote, “can pass for nothing else but a Gazette.” Rather than simply report the facts, the goal was to first observe “the dispositions of the minds” of the foreign sovereign and the court elites, as well as the conditions of the region, and synthesize one’s observations in a letter back to the home sovereign. In describing this task, Callières and others stressed the importance of honesty and insight, and thus encouraged diplomats to speak their minds, even or especially when their findings contrasted with the reigning assessments.

The United States came into being in precisely the era during which the modern tenets and practices of diplomacy, including diplomatic writing, were becoming institutionalized. Notably, the first body to handle foreign affairs for the colonies was called the Committee of Correspondence. Established in 1775 as part of the Continental Congress, the committee, whose members included Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, was responsible for sending directives to foreign agents and receiving and analyzing the information they sent back to the colonies. In 1777, it was renamed the Committee of Foreign Affairs and charged with “obtaining the most extensive and useful information to foreign affairs.” In 1789, after much wrangling between the Congress and the president, a separate Department of State was established as part of the executive branch. The State Department modeled the practices of the U.S. diplomatic establishment on those of Europe. Its first secretary, Thomas Jefferson, had a copy of Callières’ book on his shelf. In the United States, as in Europe, diplomatic writing took different forms and included various practices, which evolved with the diplomatic establishment. Changes in the form of diplomatic writing both reflected and contributed to individual diplomats’ capacity for independent thought and analysis. Generally speaking, the earlier, pre-bureaucratic forms provided more space for autonomy of thought and action. In the eighteenth century, diplomats typically wrote epistles or letters. The epistolary form was long, leisurely, and intimate. It reflected an age in which there were relatively few diplomats, each of whom had ample time to focus on style as well as content. While State Department officers could not be assured of influence, they could at least assume that the secretary of state, who personally knew his subordinates, would read their reports. Robert Livingston’s detailed and colorful letters from France to Secretary of State Madison on negotiations over the Louisiana Purchase exemplify the leisurely intimacy and almost novelistic narrative style of diplomatic writing. News traveled slowly in the early nineteenth century, and pace itself afforded a degree of autonomy to diplomats serving abroad. When Napoleon asked the United States to make an offer on the entire Louisiana territory, rather than just New Orleans, Livingston spent three hours writing a detailed account of the developments to Madison in which he made sure to credit himself for the stunning turn of events. Before receiving a response, he went ahead with a deal that nearly doubled the size of the United States.

The relative autonomy enjoyed by Livingston and other diplomats of his era decreased as the State Department grew and the scope of U.S. foreign relations broadened. This phenomenon was a product of several parallel and related developments—including advances in communication and technology and the process of bureaucratization. The transatlantic telegraph, completed in 1866, and the transpacific telegraph, completed in 1902, drastically reduced the time between the writing of a diplomatic dispatch and its reception, on the one hand making timely reading more possible, but on the other hand reducing the diplomat’s scope of independent action. Decades later, jet travel would give rise to the practice of sending presidential envoys on key missions, which further reduced the influence of career diplomats on foreign policy.

Combined with the growing role of the United States in world affairs, these technological advances contributed to a rise in the amount of information flowing in from abroad. Bureaucratization entailed changes not only to the social structure of the State Department but also to its process of gathering, synthesizing, and exchanging the growing body of information. In addition to typewriters, which had become widespread by the early twentieth century, the State Department increasingly employed female typists and secretaries to aid in correspondence and filing. Desk officers in the newly established area divisions relayed and prioritized information from abroad. The synthetic reports of mid-level officers and the panoramic analyses of high-level officers served as buffers between the foreign embassies and the secretary of state.

Both dispatches from foreign posts and internal reports written in Washington had begun to take on a more bureaucratic quality. In contrast to the classical format, the bureaucratic format was short, efficient, and impersonal. As it passed through these layers of bureaucracy, diplomatic writing tended to become increasingly homogenized, leaving less room for interpretation and dissent. If disagreement existed within an embassy’s staff, for example, the chief of mission would often deemphasize or erase it in his homogenized synthesis sent back to Washington. As M. S. Anderson writes, “The more highly organized and consciously efficient foreign offices became, the less scope there was for the individual who did not fit easily into these bigger and more complex machines.”

The size of the State Department as well as the pace of bureaucratization increased further in the Second World War. According to one estimate, there were more than 100,000 dispatches a year and 7,500,000 words a month streaming into the department after World War Two, all of which had to be processed in a timely manner. Diplomatic dispatches now had to move through even more layers of the State Department bureaucracy—from embassy to relevant regional and functional bureaus to country desk officer to officer in charge to assistant secretary for the relevant region, back to desk officer to write initial response, back to relevant bureaus and desk officer for revisions, then to correspondence review staff of the secretary’s office, and finally to the telegram branch. This elaborate path functioned as a floodgate protecting senior policymakers from the bulk of information streaming in from the field. Diplomats could no longer assume that senior officials in the State Department would read, let alone respond to, their reports. Of the two thousand cables Dean Rusk received each day as secretary of state, he read only about eight in full and skimmed another one to two hundred.

If, in the classical era, few examples of diplomatic writing lived up to the founding principles and promises of the profession, then even fewer did in the twentieth century. The knowledge that, in all likelihood, one’s writing would never be seen by anyone with the power to make a difference strengthened the pressure to conform. Writing on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War Two, Robert Bendiner observed, “The run-of-mill envoy is generally as noncommittal as possible in the circumstances and his reports rarely err on the side of imaginative foresight.” Clarity, honesty, and insight were typically subordinated to vagary, evasion, and superficiality. A Foreign Service officer who might otherwise express dissent would typically be reminded that the job of the diplomat is not to formulate foreign policy but to execute it.

Over the course of the Cold War, the State Department continued to bureaucratize and began to adopt corporate management practices. The effects of these policies were reflected in the written reports and analyses of rank-and-file diplomats. Instead of amplifying and enriching the policy debate with new information and innovative analysis, most diplomats wrote routine and innocuous reports, memos, and letters designed to deflect rather than gain attention. Their writing belied the institution’s symbolic emphasis on honest and independent reporting and analysis. Recalling the weakness of diplomatic writing in the first half of the twentieth century, career Foreign Service officer Elbridge Durbrow remarked, “We were compelled to go along a lot. . . . We were pedestrian foreign correspondents, and that’s all we were.”

Like the authors of the more noteworthy documents leaked in “Cablegate,” the authors of the dissent papers were, in this sense, exceptional. Just as they were not content to accept the marginalization of the State Department, neither were they content to write irrelevant reports, telegrams, and memos. As much as they had a shared concern over the direction of U.S. foreign policy, they had a shared commitment to the promise that their writing could help change policy. In the tradition invoked from Callières to Morgenthau, the authors of the dissent papers were what we might call “writerly” diplomats, who showed a conscious commitment to the genre of diplomatic writing.

Importantly, being a “writerly” diplomat in the twentieth-century State Department entailed something less romantic and more strategic than Callières’ and Morgenthau’s idealized vision of diplomatic writing. Intervening in moments of relative uncertainty, before decisions had fully crystallized, the authors of the dissent papers sensed a degree of latent support for their views and an opportunity to shape the outcome of a debate. As historian Kenneth Weisbrode explains, in the twentieth century, if a diplomat wanted to gain influence, he had to “invent and reinvent his own channels, practices, and networks in order to be effective.” While they believed in the power of writing, the diplomats featured in this book were all, in different ways, strategic writers. To fully account for the trajectory of their dissent, it is thus necessary to examine the formal strategies and processes of these dissenting diplomat-writers, as well as the substance of their arguments. The dissent papers featured in this book include writing from across the spectrum of the tradition—epistolary and bureaucratic dispatches, internal analytical memos, and even gossipy letters. Each of the episodes described in this book involved different aspects of diplomatic writing and what it means to be a “writerly” diplomat. The chapter on Kennan focuses on the experience of writing for senior policymakers, exploring the influence of institutional and national politics on an individual diplomat’s writing and raising questions about the notion that a rank-and-file diplomat could author the guiding policy of the Cold War. The chapter on the China hands highlights the changing structure and content of diplomatic reporting in the Second World War, with Service and Davies at the forefront of the shift. Chapter 3 focuses on the process of composing dissent and its relationship to the substance of Ball’s dissent against the escalation of Vietnam. And chapter 4 examines an extreme form of bureaucratized diplomatic writing that reflects both the long-term evolution of the State Department and the politics of secrecy that dominated foreign policy in the wake of the Pentagon Papers.

Generally speaking, the different chapters reflect the shift from more personal to more bureaucratic and corporate writing. While Kennan and Ball enlisted techniques designed to gain and maintain the favor of specific senior policymakers, the vast majority of dissenting diplomats have had to figure out how to make their voices heard through the more impersonal layers of bureaucracy, which increasingly dictated the forms and paths of diplomatic writing. Through structure, style, audience-specific word choice, strategic labeling, and concerted dissemination, Kennan, Service, Davies, Ball, and other dissenting diplomat-writers both employed and tweaked the available forms and processes of gathering, synthesizing, and disseminating information within the diplomatic establishment in order to advance their views.

Rather than presenting a unified and unchanging perspective, The Dissent Papers highlights the complex and evolving positions and strategies of dissenting diplomats in relation to the status quo. In pivotal moments, the critique advanced in the dissent papers involved ideas about the logic and formulation of foreign policy as well as specific views about the policies themselves. Here again, form and process, as well as substance, mattered, and thus represented another aspect of the “writerly” perspective in diplomatic dissent. As I show in the course of analyzing the dissent papers, in different ways, arguments about the logic of a particular policy were often embodied in the form and practice of the dissenter’s own writing, thus revealing important but relatively under-examined connections between ideas about policy and the processes and practices of knowledge production and exchange that undergird them. George Ball’s insistence on radical revision in both the practice and the argument of his dissent memos is perhaps the clearest example of connections between the form and the substance of diplomatic dissent.

The dissent writing featured in this book would not merit more than cursory examination were it not for the fact that its authors succeeded in gaining a high-level audience for their writings, one that included senior State Department and White House officials, as well as, in some cases, members of Congress and the American public. Unlike the vast majority of dissenters within the State Department or the foreign policy establishment more broadly, Kennan, Service, Davies, and Ball played significant roles in the most pivotal foreign policy debates of the era. The substance, form, and process of their dissent writing thus stands to shed light on the contours as well as the outcome of these debates and the policies they determined. Kennan’s willingness to shape and revise his language to gain and maintain the patronage of Secretary of Defense James Forrestal is just one example of how looking at diplomatic dissent writing offers a glimpse into the larger political and institutional contours of some of America’s most pivotal foreign policies over the last sixty years.

Ultimately, for anyone interested in U.S. foreign policy, it is the reception of the dissent papers that matters most. In each of the chapters that follow, I trace the responses of various readerships and constituencies to the dissent papers—in as well as outside of the foreign policy establishment. How did senior officials in the State Department, White House, and Congress, as well as journalists and the American public, respond to these documents? How did their responses both reflect and impact the status of diplomatic dissent writing in various administrations? And how do debates about the form and process, as well as content, of the dissent papers illuminate the fundamental premises of policy and policy formulation in each administration and the “American century” more broadly?

Born in 1904 and dead in 1980, Hans Morgenthau lived through all but the last foreign policy developments I analyze in this book. As a scholar and on a few occasions an advisor to the foreign policy establishment, he participated in the debates over virtually every one of the major foreign policies of the United States. Over the course of his life, he continuously reflected on the philosophy of political realism with which he is associated. Yet, as far as I know, to his dying day, he never engaged in a sustained reflection on his vision of diplomats as the “fingertips of foreign policy.” Had he done so, he would have had to admit that his vision had not been realized. Through most of the “American century,” the promise that diplomatic writing could influence the course of foreign policy has not been fulfilled. The limits of “writerly” dissent in the diplomatic establishment serve, in many ways, to underscore the increasing power of the national security state that the dissent papers sought to curb.

At the same time, if he were to focus on the very struggle of diplomats to make their voices heard, and the internal as well as public contests over the products of this struggle, he might conclude that diplomatic writing played a telling, if not always glamorous, role in the history of U.S. foreign policy in the age of American superpower. An analysis of that role reminds us that like most debates, debates of foreign policy are not just about who is right and who is wrong, but also about who is allowed to speak and how the conversation is structured. In giving diplomats a greater voice in foreign policy, the United States and the world stand to gain more than either can afford to lose.


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About the Author

Hannah Gurman is a clinical assistant professor at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she teaches history, literature, and culture of the United States in the world. Her writing has appeared in Salon and Foreign Policy in Focus, as well as The Journal of Contemporary History, Diplomatic History, and Small Wars Journal.

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