Documents on British Policy Overseas, Series III, Vol. IV (Routledge: Abingdon, Oxon, 2006, on behalf of the Whitehall History Publishing Consortium)

This is the latest volume in the DBPO series, which has proved so invaluable to diplomatic historians over the years. It comes as a package consisting of two CDs, a slim hardback volume, and an A4-size booklet, and is described in detail on the FCO website.

Putting the documents on searchable CD-Roms is a new departure for the FCO Historians and I congratulate them on it. That they are searchable is an obvious advantage of great value but the new format also enables them to make available far more documents than usual, bring them out more quickly, and actually save copies of some doomed to subsequent destruction because they do not meet the criteria for acquisition by The National Archives – 12 documents on this occasion. The accompanying hardback volume contains: a very useful 43-page thematic Introduction to the contents of the documents by Keith Hamilton, the Senior Editor of the series; a very comprehensive list of the persons who feature in the documents, together with their official positions (invaluable); and a list of all 568 documents together with a one sentence summary of each – what used to be called a ‘calendar’. As for the A4-size booklet, this is a ‘trailer’ for the volume. Put together and also well introduced by Keith Hamilton, this contains a selection of tasty documents on ‘Britain’s role in Kissinger’s nuclear diplomacy, 1972-1973’ – ‘Operation Hullabaloo’, as the FO code-named it. Here there are two items of particular interest to the student of diplomacy.

The first is a reminder that in those days ‘public diplomacy’ still meant diplomacy being conducted with the knowledge of the public – meaning just that they know it is going on, not what is actually being said, so not to be confused with ‘open diplomacy’. (To Henry Kissinger, at the time still National Security Adviser to President Nixon, public diplomacy was almost as distasteful as open diplomacy, though sometimes for good reasons.) Today, of course, and despite all the semantic wriggling that surrounds it, ‘public diplomacy’ is just a euphemism for propaganda conducted by diplomatists and MFAs. The second point in these papers that I found instructive was the revelation that a very senior member of the British Foreign Office was in effect used by Kissinger as his desk officer for the Soviet Union on the highly sensitive issue of whether or not Moscow and Washington should sign an agreement not to use nuclear weapons against each other. The knowledge that this happened is further evidence that Kissinger’s well known contempt for the US State Department did not mean that even he could do without the services of somebody’s ministry of foreign affairs – hence more grist to the mill of those among us who still believe that such ministries remain important.

I shall end this review with just a few words of warning for digital dunces like me. First, though you will be told that you need Adobe Reader 6.0 to run the CDs, they also run on the later versions. Secondly, when you get to the Contents page do not click on the ‘START’ button, which will merely … ahem … take you back to the start, i.e. the title page; instead, click on one of the lines on the Contents page itself. Once you have avoided these traps, into which of course I plunged headlong, all is plain sailing.