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Review by John H. Brown, PhD.

The Dissent Papers: The Voices of Diplomats in the Cold War and Beyond. By Hannah Gurman, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0-231-15872-5, Cloth, 280 pp., $30.00


“I am as insignificant here as you can imagine.”
–John Adams, who served as Minister to England for three years; cited in the above volume, p. 4

On November 29, 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, commenting on “alleged to be stolen State Department cables” via Wikileaks, stated that “I want to make clear that our official foreign policy is not set through these messages, but here in Washington. Our policy is a matter of public record, as reflected in our statements and our actions around the world.”1

The first line of this statement, referred to, three times, in the book under review (the second line, however, is not cited) is used by its author, Hannah Gurman, a clinical assistant professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, to set the stage for her volume devoted to “the place and evolution of diplomatic dissent writing in the larger of the ‘American Century.’”

The key point of this scholar’s monograph, well-researched and spared of academic jargon, is that the “voices” of dissenting U.S. diplomats, expressed by the written word, have been all too often ignored or dismissed by formulators of foreign policy in the nation’s capital, to the detriment of America’s national interests. This thesis is not particularly original, but it does warrant repeating, for the sake of our country and the world, especially by persons with the intelligence and sensitivity of Professor Gurman.

The title of Gurman’s volume is based in part on the study by Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), which, she explains, “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.” The Pentagon Papers also provided Gurman with inspiration; but, unlike these voluminous, top-secret reports leaked to The New York Times in 1971, her book is based on “papers,” not currently classified, written by “in-house authors of dissent” who “critiqued the reigning logic” of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II.

Gurman tells the story of these in-house dissenting diplomats in four well-organized chapters: “George Kennan and the Politics of Authorship”; “The China Hands and the Communist-ification of Diplomatic Reporting”; “The Rhetorical Logic of Escalation [in Vietnam] Versus George Ball’s Writerly Logic of Diplomacy”; “The Dissent Channel of the U.S. State Department.” Her conclusion is titled “The Life After: From Internal Dissenter to Public Prophet.”

Gurman’s Foggy Bottom naysayers have several characteristics in common. First, in an often isolationist country marked by a “long history of antipathy toward traditional diplomacy,” these dissenting diplomats, as State Department employees, often were (like their more conforming colleagues) the object of hostility from the White House (and Congress as well). Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gurman reminds us, referred to the Foreign Service as “striped-pants boys.” Truman dreamed, in his words, of “firing the whole bunch.” In the McCarthy era, when the Senator from Wisconsin went hunting for Communists at Foggy Bottom, Eisenhower ditched a large number of FSOs, although not enthusiastically. For Kennedy, the Department was “a bowl of jello.” And Richard Milhous Nixon had the following to say:

We always promote sons of bitches that kick us in the ass … When a bureaucrat deliberately thumbs his nose; we’re going to get him…. The little boys over in state particularly, that are against us, we will do it.

No wonder that the dissenters, often sidelined by those more powerful (less naïve?) than themselves, felt like voices crying in the wilderness. Expressing self-pity that many would not sympathize with, Kennan, enjoying quite briefly his moment of glory via his telegram on the Soviet Union, lamented that, under Dean Acheson, Secretary of State during the Truman administration, he had become a “court jester expected to enliven discussion, privileged to say the shocking things, valued as an intellectual gadfly on hides of slower colleagues, but not to be taken seriously when it came to the final, responsible decisions of policy.” Acheson, who noted in his memoirs “Papers so often divert readers to trivia,” had this to say to Kennan:

The task of a public service officer seeking to explain and gain support for a major policy is not that of a writer of a doctoral thesis. Qualification must give way to simplicity of statement, nicety and nuance to bluntness, almost brutality, in carrying home a point.

Second, the dissidents were paid by an organization that did not, as a rule, encourage dissent or independent thinking. “As the State Department grew and bureaucratized” after WWII, Gurman notes, “it increasingly policed itself through a culture of restraint and passivity, which was reinforced by new bureaucratic layers and checkpoints.” To get promoted, what counted most was following — and thinking by — the rules. To her credit, Gurman does not fail to point out, in considerable detail, that dissenting diplomats did play a “key role” in “several of the most pivotal policies of the period” (as amply illustrated by the influence achieved by George Kennan and George Ball, respectively in the early Cold War and during the Vietnam War). But she emphasizes that “[d]issent posed a social risk, and dissenters were less likely to be welcomed by the ‘in’ crowd.”

As for the so-called “Dissent Channel” created during the Nixon administration, it was (and remains) more a way of controlling and isolating contrarian thinking than encouraging it, Gurman contends. Not surprisingly, the best option for some in-house dissenters, since the Nixon presidency, has been to resign, as illustrated by the case of John Brady Kiesling, an FSO contributor to the Dissent Channel, who left the Department of State in opposition to the planned war in Iraq. His book, Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Power, was “a hit with the public” to which Gurman devotes a number of pages.

Third, the dissenters were, above all, diplomats who put their voices in writing. Indeed, Gurman underscores that her book is “as much an account of the tradition of diplomatic writing as it is one of dissenting diplomats.” By their emphasis on “writing well” (a skill highlighted by François de Callières in 1716, in his how-to book on diplomacy), the dissenters reflected the long-standing tradition praised by the British diplomat Harold Nicolson: “Diplomacy is a written rather than a verbal art.”

During the Cold War, however, the discipline of diplomatic writing (not always observed in preceding eras) lost its cachet. “Instead of amplifying and enriching the policy debate with new information and innovative analysis,” Gurman notes, “most diplomats wrote routine and innocuous reports, memos, and letters designed to deflect rather than gain attention.” Contrary to this tendency, the Cold-War in-house dissenters composed the written word carefully and thoughtfully (to be sure, sometimes writing, and changing their drafts, to win over higher-ranking officials, thereby on occasion becoming, as was the case with Kennan and Ball, “courtesan” writers).

Still, the Foggy Bottom dissidents, no matter how imaginatively they used their pens to advance their careers, “shared a commitment to the promise that their writing could help change policy.” Also, they wanted to create documents that, by their respect for language, reflected an appreciation and understanding of the literary art. George Kennan, who, perhaps pretentiously, considered himself F. Scott Fitzgerald’s soulmate (they both went to Princeton), wrote in 1934 that “[i]f Chekhov could describe Russian small town folk with an appeal so universal that even American reader gasps and says: ‘How perfectly true’ why cannot the Moscow diplomatic folk be written up the same way?”

(As I read Kennan’s words, I wondered how he would have judged twittering and facebooking — new means of communications, now hyped by the State Department, regrettably not covered in Gurman’s study — which, conceivably, reduce the craft of diplomatic writing to the “ash heap of history,” to steal a phrase from Ronald Reagan about communism).

It is said in Russia that the country’s dissident poets, so often persecuted by the authorities when they are alive, are most venerated upon their death, including by the officials who wished them far, far, gone from this world. This leads us to the fourth point of Gurman’s book: In the United States, dissenting diplomats — when no longer numbered among those in seats of power — are, according to Gurman, “transformed from false prophets of the U.S. foreign policy establishment to true prophets of the nation’s foreign policy.”

But the subjects of her study, Gurman notes, were “not necessarily and absolutely wise.” More important, from her perspective, the dissenters can’t be reduced to modern-day Johns the Baptist. Rather, they were thinkers skeptical about “the predictability of foreign affairs and about the possibility of knowledge more generally.”

The dissenting diplomats’ lasting contribution, Gurman suggests in her impressive study, was not providing definitive answers, but thinking about important current issues and speculating about their implications for U.S. national interests. In other words, these non-conformist in-house outsiders, in their own imperfect intellectual ways, were trying to link the best of diplomatic writing (“thinking”) to policy, a challenging task if there ever was one.End.

(1) Full disclosure: I was one of three Foreign Service officers who left the State Department to express opposition to the US intervention in Iraq.
My name is mentioned in Gurman’s book.

(2) John Service and John Davies, who lost their State Department jobs in the McCarthy era because of their criticisms of U.S. China policy, “Between 1950 and 1953,” Gurman notes, “twenty of the twenty-two Foreign Service officers who specialized in China were either marginalized or dismissed.”

[Book Editor’s Note: See also Ms. Gurman’s 2010 book review in American Diplomacy:]

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Dr. John Brown
Dr. John Brown

Dr. John H. Brown, a Foreign Service officer for more than 20 years, currently is Adjunct Professor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown University, where he teaches about public diplomacy.

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