1776: First American Courier - On July 10, 1776, four days after the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress commissioned the first diplomatic courier, Captain Peter Parker, as commander of the U.S. sailing brig named Dispatch to carry sensitive correspondence to France.
1776-1914: Dispatch Agent System – During more than a century the U.S. Department of State used “bearers of despatch” (the spelling at the time) and forwarding agents to move sensitive documents. Bearers were trustworthy American travelers including lawyers and merchants. Forwarding agents arranged deliveries via payments to ships captains.
1851: First Female Bearer of Despatch – In 1851, Matilda Frye, traveling with her lawyer husband, became the first female bearer of despatch when the U.S. minister in Lima hired her to carry a newly signed treaty from Peru to the United States.
1900-1912: Bilateral Agreements on Diplomatic Pouches – As the United States began assuming a more global role, the Department of State negotiated more than 25 bilateral agreements to allow for the unimpeded exchange of diplomatic pouches.
1914: London and Paris Courier Operations – War between European powers began in August 1914, disrupting official postal systems. The U.S. Embassy in London hired an individual to serve as a courier. The U.S. Embassy in Paris followed suit, and the two embassies began exchanging documents via courier.
1917: “War to End All Wars” - On April 6, 1917, the U.S. Congress declared war on the German Empire. With the United States no longer neutral, the Department of State required more secure and reliable ways to move documents.
1917: Marine Couriers – In October 1917, 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, wore civilian clothes, and covered three routes in Europe, later adding an East Asia route. Four Marines carried dispatches into St. Petersburg amidst the Russian Revolution and were hastily reassigned to Embassy security. The Marine couriers were well received, but Marine Corps commanders pushed back on requests for additional couriers, believing their seasoned noncommissioned officers were better needed in frontline combat units.
1918: Silver Greyhounds - In March 1918, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing authorized U.S. Army Major Amos J. Peaslee to organize a wartime courier service. Peaslee’s “Silver Greyhounds” (denoted by the greyhound patch on their uniforms) immediately reduced transit times between Paris and Washington from roughly five weeks to less than two weeks.
1918: Diplomatic Courier Service born – With the November 1918 Armistice, the Silver Greyhounds’ consignments shifted from being primarily military to being primarily diplomatic. On December 2, 1918, the Silver Greyhounds formally were assigned to the U.S. Department of State in advance of the Paris Peace Conference delegation. President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Europe in mid-December. The Silver Greyhounds became the first U.S. organization dedicated specifically to the movement of diplomatic pouches.
1919: Building a Courier Network – In support of peace negotiations, the Silver Greyhounds established routes to U.S. embassies across war-ravaged Europe, including Berlin, Bern, Brussels (via biplanes), Bucharest, Constantinople (now Istanbul), London, Stockholm, Tours, Trieste, Vienna, as well as headquarters of the American Expeditionary Force in Chaumont, France, and Mediterranean ports via British ships.
1919: Silver Greyhounds Disband – After the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the U.S. Army’s Silver Greyhounds disbanded and returned to civilian life. The Department of State, however, continued to employ civilians as diplomatic couriers, as well as U.S. Marines until 1920.
1920s-1930s: Understaffed and Overworked – Courier services were periodically disbanded and restarted – and always understaffed – through the 1920s and early 1930s. During the Great Depression, the Department briefly eliminated courier services altogether. President Franklin D. Roosevelt reinstated the service in 1934, and couriers have served continuously ever since.
1941: Washington Headquarters and First Chief of Couriers – With the growing diplomatic pressures of World War II, the first Courier Service headquarters was established in Room 109 of the original Department of State site (the Old Executive Office Building, now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building). Edwin Schoerlrich, a Foreign Service Officer, became the first “Chief of Couriers,” the first central head for the group since Amos Peaslee, more than two decades earlier. The Courier Service faced a workload explosion due to the deteriorating global situation.
1941-1945: Collaboration between Civilian and Military Couriers – U.S. entry into World War II brought a high level of cooperation and overlap between diplomatic and military couriers, with military personnel frequently assigned to support the Department of State.
1945-2004: Long-haul Transport by Military – Long-standing cooperation between the Courier Service and the U.S. military for the delivery of classified pouches continued after the end of World War II. The U.S. military courier services provided “long haul” trunk line movement of diplomatic pouches, which were then transferred to the civilians in the Diplomatic Courier Service for delivery to the final destinations. This arrangement continued until 2004.
1947: Back to Civilian Operations – With the end of World War II, military officers detailed for courier duty were gradually discharged. By 1947, the Diplomatic Courier Service was again an all-civilian operation, although it worked closely with military counterparts.
1950s-1960s: Frontlines of the Cold War – Amid growing Cold War tension, Diplomatic Couriers became symbols of superpower intrigue as they carried sensitive documents around the globe and across the iron curtain. Movies and TV shows depicted them as dashing secret messengers eluding foreign spies through exotic capitals.
1955-’56: First Black Couriers – The Diplomatic Courier Service was ahead of many U.S. government organizations in racial integration. Nathaniel Ragsdale entered service in July 1955 followed by Enoch Woodhouse in March 1956.
1961: Vienna Convention – The United Nations, through the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, formalized diplomatic protocols and laws that had been informally observed for decades. Article XXVII of the Vienna Convention guarantees the inviolability of diplomatic pouches and the couriers that transport them.
1966: Operational Expansion to West Africa – With the growing number of newly independent African nations, the Department of State moved away from reliance on the Military Courier Service’s Europe-focused network and established direct courier routes from Washington, D.C., to West Africa, cutting average transit times by 50 percent.
1968: Hiring Practices of a Bygone Era – There were no female couriers in the 1960s. “Although there is nothing to stop them from applying,” a chief courier of the era explained, “… none have ever made serious applications.” Applicants had to be single and between the ages of 21 and 31. They were required to remain single for the first year of their two-year tour of duty. Only 11 of the 79 couriers were married, and family problems were a significant factor in retaining couriers on duty.
1974: First Female Courier – After having first worked in Department communications, Susan S. Carter became the first female courier. Her first courier mission was on November 16, 1974.
1984: Bugs in Typewriters and Embassy Walls – Security officers discovered electronic recording devices inside electric typewriters in U.S. Embassy offices in the Soviet Union followed by revelations of massive bugging built into newly constructed embassy walls by local construction firms. As a result, the Diplomatic Courier Service was put in charge of securing all shipments of equipment and construction materials to overseas facilities.
1985: Couriers Join Diplomatic Security Service – The Diplomatic Courier Service became part of the Diplomatic Security Service during a Department of State consolidation that included the creation of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The reorganization followed growing levels of terrorist attacks, particularly in Beirut, by elevating the importance of security throughout the State Department.
1992: “Hub and Spoke” System – The Courier Service began establishing hubs in 1992 so that individual couriers would make brief trips to one or two sites at a time instead of the previously lengthy multi-nation trips out of the three regional divisions. By 1999 there were hubs in Miami, Manama, Seoul, Pretoria, Abidjan and, for several years, Helsinki.
2008: First Female Courier Director - Deborah Glass, a security engineer, in 2008 was named the first female Director of the Diplomatic Courier Service.
2016: Real-Time Logistics – The Classified Pouch Modernization Effort (CPME) brought the Diplomatic Courier Service into the modern logistics best practices, to include a courier mobile application for smartphones, scanner applications for inventorying pouches, a customer portal, centralized mission planning tool, and management dashboards.
2018 and Beyond: Current Courier Operations – Today the Diplomatic Courier Service operates regional divisions in Washington, D.C., Bangkok, Frankfurt, and Miami, with hubs in Seoul, Sao Paulo, Manama, Dakar, Abidjan, and Pretoria. There are approximately 100 couriers, with female couriers representing about 25 percent of courier force. As they have since the founding of the nation, diplomatic couriers continue to oversee the movement and delivery of sensitive pouches and materiel to U.S. embassies and consulates around the world.
To see photos and to learn more about the history of the Diplomatic Courier Service, check out this blog.
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- Vince Crawley, Diplomatic Security Service, Office of Public Affairs