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When Techno-Diplomacy Failed: Walter S. Rogers, the Universal Electrical Communications Union, and the Limitations of the International Telegraph Union as a Global Actor in the 1920s

John, Richard R.

The Great War of 1914-1918 transformed the relationship of the United States to Europe, creating a raft of new opportunities for commerce, diplomacy, and public understanding. Among the public figures to find these possibilities inspiring was Walter S. Rogers, a liberal journalist dedicated to the cause of improving the quality of foreign reporting. Rogers was best known to the public in 1918 as the director of a New York City-based international news service that he operated for the Committee on Public Information, the government's official news agency.

Rogers's expansive conception of the possibilities of the press would inform the position that he took as a delegate to an international communications conference that the victorious powers convened in Washington, DC, in October 1920. Attendance at this conference was limited to five countries: the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Italy, and Japan. Its original rationale was to resolve a number of issues left over from the Paris Peace Conference. Of these the most pressing was the legal status of German cables that the allies had cut, and in some instances, repurposed, during the war. Yet the conference soon acquired the much more open-ended rationale of drafting the charter for an entirely new international organization--a Universal Electrical Communications Union--that would create for the first time in world history a single forum for the regulation of every form of electrically mediated communications--telegraphy telephony, cable, and radio. No longer would cable and radio be regulated under different international conventions, as they had been in the past.

The failure of the 1920 Washington conference reveals some of the limitations of liberal internationalism. These constraints become especially evident
if one views the conference through Rogers's eyes, which it is possible to do, given the existence in the National Archives of several boxes of Rogers's official files. Little used by historians, these papers provide a window on the challenges that confronted US public figures like Rogers who had hoped in the aftermath of the Great War to expand the role of the United States in world affairs.


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History of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
De Gruyter Oldenbourg

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August 31, 2020