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The Dissent Papers by Hannah Gurman (thoughts)

January 18, 2012


It’s books like The Dissent Papers by Hannah Gurman that make me love Netgalley. Published by Columbia University Press, it was my nerdy self’s dream: Gurman analyses US diplomatic writing from both an international relations and more literary perspective. The book opens with a general overview of the history of US diplomacy (the bureaucracy, that is) and writing, then proceeds to several specific case studies from the second half of the twentieth century before a more general conclusion. Not exactly a revolutionary structure for an academic book, but one that works extremely well. Gurman’s writing is wonderfully straightforward, which combined with my natural interest in the subject (in college, I had hoped to join the foreign service, before my health degenerated to its current state) made for a quite fascinating book.

I was most intrigued by the chapter on the ‘China hands,’ a handful of foreign service officers who were in China during its civil war and with their deep knowledge of the country (two of them had been born and raised there by American missionary parents) sent back reports on the political situation pointing out the strength of Mao’s side. Later, under Senator McCarthy, these internal memos became a reason to put the officers on loyalty trials for supposedly being Communist sympathisers. While I knew that the McCarthy era had been bad for the State Department, I didn’t realise just how absurd things had gotten. And I enjoyed reading about the way State used to operate; the officers in China often went out into the field, exploring and meeting various contacts, in order to get the ‘feel’ for what was going on. Gurman explains how, in part due to these trials, that approach got scaled way back, which is interesting in light of then Secretary Rice’s ‘transformational diplomacy’ speech, in which she advocates changing the foreign service so that more officers are stationed outside of the embassy/consulate cluster and thus closer to the ‘people’ in various countries. I would have liked to see Gurman address this specifically, but I understand it was beyond the scope of her book, which focused more on how the foreign service as a government bureaucracy dealt with internal dissent under various presidents (and how individual foreign service officers did, or did not, impact national policy).

I imagine anyone with a bit of interest in political science or international relations will very much enjoy this, and I heartily recommend picking it up if my post has sparked any curiousity.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2012 7:23 am

    This does sound really interesting, but I fear I simply don’t have enough background (yeah, zero background to be specific) to really understand it. Do you have a suggestion for a basic beginner book for one as ignorant as I in the area of diplomacy?

  2. January 18, 2012 6:55 pm

    Oh goody! I have been wanting to read a good, detailed book about diplomats and how their diplomaty lives go. This isn’t exactly that, but it looks closeish.

  3. January 19, 2012 2:01 am

    This looks wonderful, I love reading books on a specific subject which throw a light on history. I’m sure this will offer some fascinating insights into American culture.

  4. January 20, 2012 11:56 pm

    Oh, so nerdaliciously fascinating! Great find :-) Having just watched The Ides of March, I have all sorts of conflicted feelings about politics and politicians and I bet this book would completely feed into that.

  5. January 22, 2012 9:32 am

    this sounds like a wonderful book for people with a serious interest in politics. thanks!

  6. January 22, 2012 5:22 pm

    Yes, fascinating book! But anything Rice says carries zero weight with me.

  7. January 31, 2012 9:52 am

    Ooohhhh definitely sounds interesting. Makes me want to use NetGalley more but you know, I just can’t seem to remember to read the books on it!

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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