Thursday, October 16, 2014

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose? Walt Lippmann on U.S. Diplomatic Missions during WWI

Note for a Planned Article
"Creel, Lippmann, and the Origins of American Public Diplomacy"
(comments welcome; draft, not for citation)

From Walter Lippmann, "For a Department of State," The New Republic (September 17, 1919), pp. 194-195 [note mention of Creel]:
The diplomatic mission must be in a position to learn what is going on, not only in government circles but among the people. No one will pretend that our [U.S.] European diplomats during the war were tolerably efficient at this. In Paris the Ambassador after many years of service achieved, I believe, a smattering of restaurant and taxicab French. Yet there was an edict in the Embassy by which he was virtually the only channel of information to the French Foreign Office. By temperament he was an incurable optimist, and the rule he set himself was to transmit to Washington only such information as would hearten the folks at home. An examination of his dispatches covering the critical periods of the war would be a good object lesson on the kind of official information on which Washington was supposed to depend. Of the embassy at Rome the most poignant fact was the profound difference in outlook between the Ambassador and the real directors of American policy. In Berne, a group of the very best young men in the diplomatic service did contrive to act as a source of information, but no one has yet discovered the role of the Minister in the whole proceeding. Mr. Francis in Russia was personally couragerous, but his equipment for estimating Russian affairs just about touched zero. From the Near East we have had some ex post facto memoirs -- but how many of the sensational revelations were revealed when they happened?

image from

The truth is that our embassies were either telegraph and passport stations or they were completely engulfed in the officialdom of the capital where they happened to be.  They retailed some of the gossip of the capital; the reported what the bureaucracies in the Foreign Office wanted to have reported. As independent sources of information they did not, with one or two exceptions, exist It never occurred to him to inform the diplomatic service as to what he was about. The proof of this assertion is that the President did not use them. Mr. Creel's agent might know, or pretend to know; some other agent sent from Washington might know some scrap of policy, but the very last place to discover American policy was an American Embassy [JB emphasis].

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