The Bureau of Diplomatic Security presents “None Swifter Than These: 100 Years of the Diplomatic Courier Service, ” an exhibition highlighting the role of couriers in supporting diplomacy throughout the American century.
In wartime and in peacetime, diplomatic couriers carry the sensitive materials, equipment, and information that make diplomacy possible.
Diplomatic Couriers Throughout History…
Couriers served as the world’s earliest messengers in ancient
times and in mythology.
In Greek mythology, the god Hermes
served as messenger
– for all of the other gods.
• Runners served the King of Mesopotamia
– five thousand years ago.
• The rulers of ancient Egypt had a
well-developed courier service,
– and in the 5th century, B.C., a vast
courier system existed throughout the
• The Greek historian Herodotus coined the
phrase, “none is swifter than these,”
– paying tribute to the speed and reliability of ancient Persian messengers.
• The Greeks developed a highly efficient
courier system, but the Romans had a
state-of-the-art courier service for the era
– thanks to the roads they constructed in the 1st and 2nd centuries, A.D.
• After the fall of the Roman Empire, the
Arab peoples possessed the fastest
couriers in the world
– riding camels across the desert to complete their rounds.
• During the 16th century,
Shakespeare’s plays often included royal messengers bursting into the scene with vital information. • It was not until the 17th century when England’s Charles I developed the first organized modern courier service – then known as the King’s Messengers and today known as the Queen’s Messengers.
(Excerpts from the Foreign Service Journal, February 1954)
U.S. Diplomatic Couriers Before Amos Peaslee…
From the founding of the United States, diplomats relied on a variety of arrangements (military, government, and commercial) to safely move sensitive dispatches and shipments.
• 1776: First American Courier
Benjamin Franklin, America’s first diplomat, was among the members of the Continental Congress who commissioned Captain Peter Parker as the first diplomatic courier 10 days after the Declaration of Independence. Parker commanded a sailing ship named “Dispatch.”
• 1776-1914: Bearers of Despatch
The U.S. Department of State used “bearers of despatch” to move sensitive documents. Bearers were trustworthy American travelers including lawyers and merchants.
• 1851: First Female Bearer of Despatch
Matilda Frye, traveling with her husband, became the first female “bearer of despatch” to carry a newly signed treaty from Peru to the United States. The treaty delivered by Frye is in the National Archives.
• 1900-1912: Bilateral Agreements on
The U.S. Department of State negotiated more than 25 bilateral agreements to allow for the unimpeded exchange of diplomatic pouches.
• 1914: London and Paris Courier Operations – When the war between European powers began, official postal systems were disrupted. U.S. embassies in London and Paris began exchanging documents via courier.
• April 6, 1917: “War to End All Wars” – The United States declared war on the German Empire–and the Department of State required more secure and reliable ways to move documents.
• October 1917: A few proud Marine Couriers – At the request of the U.S. Secretary of State, the Navy assigned nine U.S. Marines to courier duty. The noncommissioned officers received diplomatic passports and wore civilian clothes.
Women Diplomatic Couriers
Trekking Through Parts Unknown
In the 1940s through the 1960s, before the onset of the jet age, diplomatic couriers – all men at the time – traveled tens of thousands of miles per year, often spending months on the road, sometimes in unsafe, hazardous conditions.
During that male-dominated era, there were women assigned to the Diplomatic Courier Service as Foreign Service secretaries. They performed administrative duties, usually working in the diplomatic courier hubs, but sometimes they traveled alongside the diplomatic couriers under hazardous conditions. Other times, women stepped in and transported sensitive diplomatic pouches while on travel in other government or military roles.
It was not until November 1, 1972, when the first woman professional diplomatic courier, Susan Shirley Carter, reported for duty. Today the ranks of women diplomatic couriers continue to grow – not only in numbers but also in leadership roles and impact.
Women Diplomatic Couriers
Trekking Through Parts Unknown
Nearly one-quarter of the 100+ diplomatic couriers are female. Three of the recent recipients of the distinguished “Courier of the Year” Award have been women. Female couriers hold approximately 30 percent of Diplomatic Courier Service leadership roles.
The Amos Peaslee Collection
In the aftermath of World War I, the United States established its first official Diplomatic Courier Service, a handpicked group of U.S. Army messengers dubbed the Silver Greyhounds.
On Dec. 2, 1918, the U.S. Department of State assigned Major Amos J. Peaslee to the U.S. Embassy in Paris with the mission of dispatching officers across war-torn Europe to support the American Commission to Negotiate Peace.
A lawyer before his wartime service, Major Peaslee returned home to an international law practice after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in July 1919. During the 1950s he served as President Eisenhower’s ambassador to Australia.
In April, 2018, the family of Major Peaslee donated his papers and artifacts to the U.S. Department of State. Many of the pieces in the Peaslee collection originated in Paris a century ago and traveled across Europe.
They found their way to the Peaslee family estate in East Greenwich, New Jersey, then to a family garage in Seattle, Washington, and to a suburban townhouse in Colorado Springs. They ended the journey in 2018 when the Peaslee family donated them to the U.S.Department of State in Washington, D.C.
Major Peaslee’s personal, engraved copy of the Treaty of Versailles, as well as historic photographs and travel documents from across Europe and throughout his career make up the collection. Many photos, papers, and artifacts from the collection are on display at the Department of State’s Harry S Truman building, Washington, D.C., U.S. Diplomacy Center. The photos show diplomatic couriers in their travels throughout Europe in 1919.
1900s -1940s – The Early Years
At the end of World War I, the U.S.Department of State assigned a group of handpicked Army officers, led by Major Amos J. Peaslee, to support the peace negotiations that led to the Treaty of Versailles. They traveled via automobiles, motorcycles, biplanes, trains, ships, horses, bicycles, and on foot carrying diplomatic pouches across war-torn Europe and into Bolshevik Russia, providing crucial support to U.S. diplomacy and humanitarian relief missions.
A century later, the Department’s 100 badged diplomatic couriers travel the globe safeguarding the United States’ most sensitive information and materials.
On the Frontlines of the Cold War
After World War II, tensions between the United States, the Soviet Union, and other Communist nations gradually escalated into the Cold War. The East-West rivalry reinforced and elevated the Department of State’s concerns regarding diplomatic security. Diplomatic couriers played an increasingly important role in safeguarding the transport of sensitive information. During this period, diplomatic couriers were among the few Americans who regularly traveled behind the Iron Curtain and into other Communist countries.
In 1973, diplomatic couriers were some of the first U.S. officials to enter the People’s Republic of China, carrying the documents that formally reopened ties between the two countries.
Diplomatic Couriers in Pop Culture
In the 1950s and 60s, the term “diplomatic courier” conjured up Hollywood images of dashing jet-setters and rugged loners safeguarding the nation’s secrets as they adventured through foreign lands delivering the U.S. government’s most important communiques.
Actor Cesar Romero with Actress Betty Furness, 1950. Romero played a diplomatic courier in the 1950s television series, “Passport to Danger,” from 1954-58.
Each week Romero’s character, Steven McQuinn, fended off enemy agents in exotic locales as he delivered classified documents to U.S. posts overseas. (AP/Wide World Photos)
The 1952 movie, “Diplomatic Courier,” was described by a New York Times review as “a continental spy mystery [with]…State Department secrets, European trains, murderers…Soviet agents, beautiful and unpredictable dames, military police, [and] zither music.”
Harpo Marx – unofficial courier: In November 1933, comedy star Arthur “Harpo” Marx, one of the Marx Brothers, performed a goodwill tour of the Soviet Union and became a secret diplomatic courier.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Marx to visit Moscow during a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations because his act was based on pantomime, thereby overcoming language barriers.
Throughout his hugely popular six-week tour, Marx was constantly under the watchful eye of a political officer who identified herself only as Comrade Malekinov, acting as interpreter but also on the lookout for hints of espionage.
During the tour, Ambassador William Bullitt asked Marx to carry confidential messages back to the United States. Malekinov never discovered the messages, which Marx kept hidden for ten days by taping them tightly to his leg beneath his sock. (From the autobiography, Harpo Speaks)
“Bugs” and Diplomatic Couriers
Soviet officials presented this carved Great Seal of the United States to the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1948. It hung in the ambassador’s residential study until 1952 when a security sweep revealed a cavity resonator microphone embedded in the center of the Seal.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States experienced increasing surveillance by foreign actors and nations. State Department security officers frequently discovered listening devices and other “bugs” embedded by local construction crews inside embassy buildings and equipment. To address these new security challenges, diplomatic couriers began transporting sensitive equipment and secure construction materials.
Department of State Director of Security John Reilly (right) holds the cavity resonator “bug” microphone found inside a carved wooden image of the Great Seal of the United States, presented by Soviet officials to the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1948. A State Department special agent (left) points to where the bug was placed in the carving. It hung in the ambassador’s Moscow residential study for seven years until it was found in 1952. Photo circa 1961. (U.S. Department of State photo)
One of at least 16 “bugged” IBM Selectric typewriters discovered in the U.S. Embassy in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. The discovery led to the Diplomatic Courier Service delivering more than 20,000 pounds of communications equipment to the embassy to counter Soviet espionage. (U.S. Department of State photo)
Listening devices illustrate Soviet techniques to embed surveillance equipment into the very fabric of diplomatic buildings during the Cold War.
U.S. government teams discovered this listening device (now encased in resin) in a preformed concrete slab during construction of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The building was eventually razed, and construction began again with only cleared U.S. workers and secure materials in the mid-1990s.
The U.S. Department of State now takes measures to prevent this type of tampering and the Diplomatic Courier Service plays a central role. Even materials as large as concrete pillars are sometimes sent via classified diplomatic pouches to ensure any potential risk is mitigated. (U.S. Department of State photo)
A listening device found in the U.S. Embassy in Prague in 1954. During the early years of the Cold War, many listening devices were found in U.S. embassies in Soviet bloc countries. (U.S. Department of State photo)
After recovering an antenna system hidden by the Soviets in a chimney, a security engineer searches for other Soviet listening devices at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, June 1978. (U.S.Department of State photo)
In 1985, U.S. security officers discovered that Soviet workers had planted electronic eavesdropping devices throughout the recently constructed New Office Building, part of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The State Department demolished and rebuilt the upper five floors, using U.S. labor and U.S. materials for security precautions. The Diplomatic Courier Service mission expanded to include the movement of equipment and secure construction materials. The U.S. renovations are pictured here in 1989.(AP/Wide World Photos)
Danger During the Age of Flight
On horses, jeeps, gondolas, ox carts, trains, and by airplane, U.S. diplomatic couriers have used all sorts of modes of transportation to carry out their duties.
During World War II and later, as the Cold War took hold, the Diplomatic Courier Service relied more and more on airplanes as the age of flight unfolded.
Air travel of the era was glamorous – and dangerous. All six diplomatic couriers who have died in the line of duty lost their lives in air crashes.
Four of them were lost in pre-jet-age aircraft accidents in sub-Saharan Africa. Numerous other diplomatic couriers Suffered serious injuries.
Diplomatic Couriers In Memoriam – Honoring Our Fallen
Briefcase still handcuffed to his wrist:
James N. Wright
On February 22, 1943, James N. Wright, serving as a Department of State diplomatic courier during World War II, was
among passengers and crew who died aboard an aircraft that crashed while landing at Lisbon, Portugal, en route from the Azores. Wright’s body was reportedly found with his diplomatic briefcase still handcuffed to his wrist. He became the first diplomatic courier to die in the line of duty.
Declared dead a year after his plane crashed:
Homer C. White
Homer C. White was on board a U.S. Army military transport aircraft that went missing after departing Liberia, en route to what is now Ghana. The military members and civilians aboard the aircraft were declared dead on December 4, 1945, a year after their disappearance.
Wreckage found on a 1,000-foot mountain:
Willard M. Fisher, Jr.
Richard T. Dunning was among passengers and crew members killed in an airplane crash in Liberia, June 22, 1951. The aircraft departed Accra, in present-day Ghana, radioed in, then was not heard from again. Following a massive multi-nation air search, the wreckage was found the next day on a 1,000-foot mountain near the village of Sanoyie, Liberia.
Aircraft broke apart in storms:
Homer C. White
Willard M. Fisher, Jr., was among passengers and crew members killed in the crash of an aircraft that broke apart in storms over Tanganyika, modern-day Tanzania, March 29, 1953.Heavy winds reportedly caused structural failure.
Survived the plane crash but died six days later:
Joseph P. Capozzi
On May 10, 1963, Joseph P. Capozzi died from injuries incurred in a plane crash six days earlier. En route from Douala, Cameroon, to Lagos, Nigeria, he was transporting diplomatic pouches when the airliner crashed halfway up the side of Mount Cameroon shortly after take-off. Initially the only survivor, Capozzi was hospitalized but later died of his injuries.
Crashed in shallow waters while landing:
Seth J. Foti
Seth J. Foti was the only American among passengers and crew who died in an airplane crash near Manama, Bahrain, on August 23, 2000. The airliner was en route from Cairo when it crashed into shallow waters north of Bahrain International Airport. U.S. Navy divers secured Foti’s diplomatic pouches.
Diplomatic couriers used tan pouches to transport documents through the 1950’s. As the mission of the Diplomatic Courier Service changed and begun to include electronics and even secure construction equipment, the loads that couriers transported grew larger. Instead of one small pouch carried by hand, today’s couriers sometimes move thousands of pounds of materials at a time.
The orange pouch is one of the smaller examples of the newer, larger pouches used today to transport large shipments of materials and equipment. Once the tag and seal are placed on today’s pouches, they become classified as “Top Secret.” In this particular display, the seal and tag are separated so that they can be stored here and not in a secure classified vault. (U.S. Department of State photo)