Under the Wire: How the telegraph changed diplomacy

(Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass. & London, 2003), 265pp. (with index), ISBN 0-674-01035-3

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Nickles, who is a State Department historian, has written what I believe is the first full-length study of this important and intriguing subject. Excluding an introduction and short conclusion, it has seven chapters presented in three parts (‘Control’, ‘Speed’, and ‘The Medium’), each having a chapter devoted to a case study: the Anglo-American crisis of 1812, the further Anglo-American crisis of 1861 (‘the Trent affair’), and the Zimmerman telegram of January 1917 – which of course also involved the United States.

I must admit that I found the plan of the book rather confusing, and there is a certain amount of repetition. Some long sections, for example on nineteenth century diplomatic life and work patterns in Chapter 5, also tend to take a sledge hammer to crack a nut, and have too many quotations for my taste. In addition, there are some odd failings of language, two of them occurring in the opening paragraph of Chapter 3, at which point the attention of the Harvard UP copy editor must have been on something else. (‘In the autumn of 1861, public opinion [morale?] in the northern part of the United States had reached a low ebb. … Foreign exhaltation [exhultation?] at Southern excesses added insult to injury.’) Another weakness is the absence of a Selected Bibliography, with the result that one has to sift the copious footnotes to identify the most important secondary sources. Nevertheless, excepting the first, these are not serious criticisms and should not dissuade those interested in the evolution of diplomatic method over the last two centuries from poring over this book, which is full of interesting facts and suggestive hypotheses.

The result of the introduction of the electric telegraph in the middle of the nineteenth century was that thereafter diplomatic messages were much more quickly received. This is what everyone knows and the point is duly emphasised by Nickles. What is less well known beyond the ranks of the specialists, however, is that ‘cablegrams’ by no means arrived with the speed of light, were hopelessly insecure, and often quite incredibly expensive – especially if they had to be transmitted by submarine cables, as for example between Britain and America and Britain and France. Because of their expense and the need for laborious encoding, messages sent in this manner were also sparser in their language and shorter on information than the older, hand-delivered despatch. For a variety of reasons, which Nickles explains fully, they were also much more often garbled. Nevertheless, suggestive of modernity and exciting events, prestige attached to them. What were the results? Among those to do with diplomacy (as opposed to signals intelligence) two stand out. The first is the declining autonomy of diplomatic envoys in the late nineteenth century. This is the conventional wisdom but Nickles is careful to point out that this varied from state to state, and within the diplomatic services of the same state from envoy to envoy: the limitations of cablegrams, he demonstrates, ‘furnished independently minded diplomats with means to subvert their instructions and maintain their freedom of action’ (p. 31). The second consequence of the attributes of the cablegram, and according to Nickles ‘perhaps most important’, was that while (he hints) it had a benign influence on routine diplomacy, it contributed to ‘the accelerated speed of international crises’. This was serious because ‘[t]he faster pace of diplomatic disputes invited more emotional and less creative decisions on the part of statesmen, while public opinion, which sometimes moderates over the course of a long crisis, often exercised a belligerent influence on shorter crises’ (p. 191). This is inherently plausible and, in light of Nickles’ examples, historically persuasive, though no doubt diplomatic historians will argue furiously over it. I look forward to reading Thomas Otte’s review of this book, which is to be published in the European History Quarterly.

One final point: Nickles describes how the initial astonishment of politicians and journalists at the technical achievement of electric telegraphy led to much naive and ill-considered mid-century speculation that it promised the demise of the diplomatic service altogether. Of course, this did not happen, and prognoses of this sort diminished in the later decades of the nineteenth century (pp. 46-7). It is a pity that this was not recalled in the later years of the twentieth century, when a similar degree of intoxication was produced by jet aircraft and computer communication and produced exactly the same kind of rash predictions.