Do World Leaders Still Use Telegrams?

Don’t they have e-mail like the rest of us?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were among those who sent telegrams to Barack Obama last week upon his election as president of the United States. In 2004, Brendan I. Koerner explained why world leaders still send telegrams to one another. The article is reprinted below.

(Click here for an “Explainer” on how world leaders reach each other by telephone.)

The New York Times reports that German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sent President Bush a congratulatory telegram on Wednesday, urging cooperation on issues ranging from security to climate change. Do politicians and diplomats really still send telegrams?

Archaic as it may seem, Schröder actually sent a telegram. It’s standard practice when heads of state exchange ceremonial notes, whether to congratulate one another on political victories, mark national holidays, or offer condolences. The telegram remains the preferred means of communication partly because of tradition—Schröder, of course, could have sent a letter via FedEx instead, but that’s not the way it’s been done in the modern era. But a telegram is also practical for ceremonial purposes: An e-mail or fax doesn’t have the same elegance, nor are they quite as suitable for framing.

Rank-and-file diplomats, on the other hand, are using telegrams less and less nowadays. American embassies and consulates still occasionally use telegrams—”cables” in diplo-speak—to send memos to one another or back to State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. They stick with cables when they want a paper trail, when Internet access is lackluster, or when they want to ensure confidentiality. (Click here for a lengthy 1998 memo on telegram preparation, including guidelines on how to produce confidential telegrams.) But the practice has tailed off as the foreign service has become more adept at e-mail security. The State Department estimates that its far-flung employees send 66 million official e-mails annually, and just 1 million cables. And the department has plans to phase out cables entirely by the end of 2006.

As recently as the early 1990s, the telegram was the primary means by which American diplomats relayed sensitive information from distant locales. This past June, for example, a secret 1989 telegram from a Beijing-based consular officer, James Huskey, was declassified. It had been the most detailed account Washington received regarding the atrocities at Tiananmen Square and included Huskey’s personal account of seeing upward of 300 bodies that had been crushed by tanks.

If you’d like to follow Chancellor Schröder’s lead and send your own congratulatory telegram to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., you can attempt to do so using Western Union’s online telegram service. But it’ll cost you $14.99, and there’s no guarantee the deliveryman will pass muster at the White House gates.

Update: Western Union suspended its 150-year-old telegram service in January of 2006.

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Explainer thanks Chester Crocker of Georgetown University, Terry Ann Knopf at Tufts University, and Kay Khandpur for asking the question.