Couriers are as old as diplomacy itself. Shakespeare’s plays often included royal messengers bursting into the scene with vital information, for example, but for much of the early history of the United States, diplomats relied on temporary arrangements (military, government, and commercial) to safely move sensitive dispatches and shipments. However, when the United States decisively entered World War I in 1917, the nation emerged as a world power and required more secure and reliable ways to move increasingly sensitive documents.
The Diplomatic Courier Service traces its formal origins to the U.S. Army “Silver Greyhounds” messenger unit established in Paris in 1918. The Silver Greyhounds adopted their name from U.K. royal couriers (formally known today as the Queen’s Messengers), and the courier’s Army uniform insignia included a greyhound symbol. Their motto, “None Swifter than These,” is still used by the U.S. Diplomatic Courier Service.
The Silver Greyhounds originally carried urgent documents on behalf of U.S. military operations in France. Following the Armistice of November 1918, they were reorganized into a true diplomatic courier service to support the U.S.-led peace talks that culminated in the Treaty of Versailles. Throughout World War I, numerous ad hoc civilian and military couriers had been dispatched overseas, but the Silver Greyhounds of 1918-1919 represented the first time in U.S. history that a group of professionals was organized specifically to safeguard and transport U.S. diplomatic shipments.
In 1985, the Department of State consolidated its separate security activities into the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and the Diplomatic Courier Service formally became part of the new bureau’s “principal element,” the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS).The safe passage of diplomatic pouch is guaranteed by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. By international agreement, diplomatic pouches do not go through normal airport baggage-checks and must not be opened, x-rayed, weighed, or otherwise investigated by customs, airline security staff, or other parties. Instead, such shipments must be personally accompanied by diplomatic couriers.
While yesterday’s couriers primarily carried leather briefcases holding files and documents, today’s couriers also serve as specialized freight and cargo expediters who daily travel the globe safeguarding our nation’s most sensitive shipments. They supervise not only the safe delivery of sensitive and classified documents, as did their predecessors, but the security of equipment and construction materials destined for nearly every nation where American diplomats work.
With regional divisions in Washington, D.C., Miami, Bangkok, and Frankfurt – as well as courier hubs in Abidjan, Dakar, Manama, Pretoria, Sao Paulo, and Seoul – more than 100 diplomatic couriers travel the globe, constantly trouble-shooting and innovating to ensure secure deliveries. In 2017, the Diplomatic Courier Service shipped 116,351 items weighing approximately 2,428,000 kilograms (about 5,353,000 pounds).
Check out the full historic timeline of U.S. Diplomatic Courier Service milestones and historic dates.
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About the Author: Vince Crawley serves in the Diplomatic Security Service's Office of Public Affairs.
Editor’s Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State’s publication on Medium.