Wikileaks provides people around the world with information about what their governments are really up to, making large numbers of previously secret documents available so that citizens can take informed action. It’s a beautiful thing, politically, but Wikileaks also can serve as a tool for cultural historical research. By making large batches of documents easily searchable, Wikileaks makes it possible for us to look at the way particular groups of political insiders use language to express their ideas.
An example: Thanks to Wikileaks, we can now investigate the history of silly diplomacy in 1972 and 1973, in the thick of the Cold War.
I searched The Kissinger Cables, a cache of diplomatic documents from the 1970s, for the word “silly”, and found among them the following items from 1972 and 1973:
- American diplomats blasted a negotiating protocol drafted by Laotian military negotiator General Bounthieng as a “childish effort”. They briefing concluded, “after reviewing Bounthieng’s draft protocol in some horror,” that, “IT WAS GROSSLY INCOMPLETE. IT CONTAINED SUCH SILLY REFERENCES AS A PROHIBITION AGAINST ‘QUARRELLING OR ARGUING IN ANY MANNER.’”
- In 1973, Soviet diplomats admitted to American diplomats that their own colleagues had behaved in a silly manner toward West German authorities at a recent industrial fair in Berlin.
- During negotiations over the role of Pakistan in the Central Treaty Organziation, American diplomats complained that Icelandic diplomats had complained that American diplomats had not complained to the United Kingdom about the UK’s treatment of Iceland. The diplomatic cable noted that the purpose of NATO was not to settle squabbles between Iceland and the UK.
- A cable from 1973 comments that, at a diplomatic dinner in Bogota, the Colombian foreign minister had flattered the Peruvian foreign minister, indulging in “unnecessary and silly phrases aimed at impressing the Peruvian with his revolutionary vocabulary”, using words like “colonialism” and “neocolonialism”.
- A message from American diplomats in Moscow reported on a lecture there by K.M. Smirnov, dismissing dissident Andrei Sakharov as merely a silly nuisance, rather than a serious threat to the Soviet system.
- A diplomat in Togo advises that it would be silly to bring in a guard of U.S. Marines for the embassy there, given that the Marines would then constitute one third of the entire American delegation there, and make the Americans “look scared”, creating a “serious psychological handicap”.
- Referring to a diplomatic disagreement over arrangements for the study of dentistry in Berlin, in which the British supported a local prosecution of a man found carrying an “antiquated gun”, while a red coat and bearskin hat, American diplomats complained, “Positions such as those noted above in this day and age only make allies look silly when developments in question surface in public media.”