The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to me reading more about foreign affairs and international relations than usual, which in turn reminded me of Arthur M. Schlesinger’s comments about the quality of writing in the US State Department. Schlesinger was a Harvard history professor who became a “special assistant” to President John F. Kennedy. In 1965, he published a memoir titled A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Here’s his discussion of the internal battles over the quality of writing emanating from the US Department of State (pp. 418-419). I’m especially fond of a few of his comments:
“The writing of lucid and forceful English is not too arcane an art.”
“At the very least, each message should be (a) in English, (b) clear and trenchant in its style, (c) logical in its structure and (d) devoid of gobbledygook. The State Department draft on the Academy failed each one of these tests (including, in my view, the first).”
Here’s the fuller passage:
After the Bay of Pigs, the State Department sent over a document entitled “The Communist Totalitarian Government of Cuba as a Source of International Tension in the Americas,” which it had approved for distribution to NATO, CENTO, SEATO, the OAS and the free governments of Latin America and eventually for public re- lease. In addition to the usual defects of Foggy Bottom prose, the paper was filled with bad spelling and grammar. Moreover, the narrative, which mysteriously stopped at the beginning of April 1961, contained a self-righteous condemnation of Castro’s interventionist activities in the Caribbean that an unfriendly critic, alas! could have applied, without changing a word, to more recent actions by the United States. I responded on behalf of the White House:
It is our feeling here that the paper should not be disseminated in its present form. …
Presumably the document is designed to impress, not an audience which is already passionately anti–Castro, but an audience which has not yet finally made up its mind on the gravity of the problem. Such an audience is going to be persuaded, not by rhetoric, but by evidence. Every effort to heighten the evidence by rhetoric only impairs the persuasive power of the document. Observe the title: ‘The Communist Totalitarian Government of Cuba’… This title presupposes the conclusion which the paper seeks to establish. Why not call it `The Castro Regime in Cuba’ and let the reader draw his own conclusions from the evidence? And why call it both ‘Communist’ and ‘totalitarian’? All Communist governments are totalitarian. The paper, in our view, should be understated rather than overstated; it should eschew cold .war jargon; the argument should be carried by facts, not exhortations. The writing is below the level we would hope for in papers for dissemination to other countries. The writing of lucid and forceful English is not too arcane an art.
The President himself, with his sensitive ear for style, led the fight for literacy in the Department; and he had the vigorous support of some State Department officials, notably George Ball, Harriman and William R. Tyler. But the effort to liberate the State Department from automatic writing had little success. As late as 1963, the Department could submit as a draft of a presidential message on the National Academy of Foreign Affairs a text which provoked this resigned White House comment:
This is only the latest and worst of a long number of drafts sent here for Presidential signature. Most of the time it does not matter, I suppose, if the prose is tired, the thought banal and the syntax bureaucratic; and, occasionally when it does matter, State’s drafts are very good. But sometimes, as in this case, they are not.
A message to Congress is a fairly important form of Presidential communication. The President does not send so many — nor of those he does send, does State draft so many — that each one can- not receive due care and attention. My own old-fashioned belief is that every Presidential message should be a model of grace, lucidity and taste in expression. At the very least, each message should be (a) in English, (b) clear and trenchant in its style, (c) logical in its structure and (d) devoid of gobbledygook. The State Department draft on the Academy failed each one of these tests (including, in my view, the first).
Would it not be possible for someone in the Department with at least minimal sensibility to take a look at pieces of paper designed for Presidential signature before they are sent to the White House?
It was a vain fight; the plague of gobbledygook was hard to shake off. I note words like “minimal” (at least not “optimal’) and ‘pieces of paper” in my own lament.