Interpreting Telegrams

Why are telegrams useful primary sources?

Immediate forms of communication, like telegrams, can be valuable sources to help historians understand the decisions and actions at pivotal moments and the thoughts and emotions which lay behind them. For example, after the Japanese agreed to the terms of surrender (but while negotiations were still continuing and no formal announcement had yet been made of Japanese surrender), Winston Churchill was already communicating his congratulations to the King.

How to interpret telegrams

Example

Source: CHAR 20/229C/335

Description: Telegram from WSC to King [George VI] congratulating him on the surrender of Japan. [Carbon copy].

Date: 10 August 1945



Method

1. Think about what this source is

This source is a telegram sent from Churchill to the King, offering his congratulations on the victory over Japan.

2. Consider the background

After the bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, Japan accepted the Potsdam Conference terms for unconditional surrender on 10 August. Japan announced its surrender on 15 August and formally signed the surrender on 2 September to end World War II. 

3. Consider what surface level information you can interpret from this telegram

Ask yourself:

  • Why is Churchill congratulating the King?
  • Telegrams were a common way to communicate quickly over long distances, particularly when phone lines might not be available or might not be secure. How do you think a message like this might be sent today?
     

4. Consider what deeper level information you can interpret from this telegram

Ask yourself:

  • Why do you think Churchill sent this message when he did, instead of waiting for Japan to announce the surrender?
  • How would a message about an enemy surrender have been sent 200 years before 1945? How might it be sent 200 years after? How does the technology at our disposal shape our communication and the speed and accuracy with which we can transmit information?

Need more help?

Note that the technology used to transmit messages wirelessly by telegram meant that messages sent in this format were usually very brief and the words very carefully chosen. This means that Churchill’s economical use of words does not necessarily imply terseness.

You can listen to historical announcements of the surrender of Japan, including those from Prime Minister Clement Atlee and King George VI (#127-130)

You can learn about V-J Day in the United States from this resource from the American National World War II Museum

How do I interpret other types of primary source?