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Will Harding’s Mistakes in International Telecommunication Cooperation be Repeated?

The International Telecommunication Union recently began a well-deserved celebration of one of the real success stories in international cooperation—the 110th anniversary of the Radio Regulations as a treaty instrument. An ITU publication describes the historical highlights. Global cooperation among governments in managing radio spectrum via the Radio Regulations has been generally regarded as essential from the outset in the early years of the 20th Century and remains so today. Over the decades, the work has been almost universally supported and constitutes the largest of the ITU activities among governments and industry.

A part of that history that is almost unknown, however, is how Warren G. Harding’s election as President almost a hundred years ago killed off the ongoing efforts to establish the ITU as a means of international multilateral cooperation—together with the Radio Regulations. Harding is widely regarded as perhaps the worst U.S. president in its history, and his term of office was marked by crony capitalism scandals and disastrous decisions on multiple levels. Today there are many eerie parallels to the election of Donald Trump as he strives to exceed Harding’s notorious status as the worst. The interesting question over the coming months is whether Harding’s mistakes in international telecommunication history will be repeated by Trump.

Woodrow Wilson’s international telecommunication cooperation vision

Wilson’s effort to create the League of Nations is well known and there are memorials all over Geneva to that vision. Almost unknown was an independent initiative to bring about a visionary “Universal Electrical Communications Union” and foster global communications “for the entire world” which occurred at about the same time and has remained essentially invisible. One hundred years ago, there was no actual ITU—only a relatively static Telegraph treaty that included telephony, an outdated Radiotelegraph treaty, and a small secretariat in Bern that separately attended to both sets of signatories and their occasional plenipotentiary meetings.

There were enormous developments in telecommunication technology during World War One—especially relating to radio. A group of visionaries in the Wilson administration and a few foreign counterparts pursued a new effort starting with the EU[États-Unis]-F-GB-I Radiotelegraphic Commission in Paris meeting on a warm summer day in August 1919 to produce the basis for new Radio Regulations. The success of the cooperation led Wilson a few weeks later to request the U.S. Congress approve hosting a major international conference in Washington:

to consider all international aspects of communication by land telegraphs, cables, and wireless telegraphy and to make recommendations to the powers concerned with a view to providing the entire world with adequate facilities of this nature on a fair and equitable basis.

It is at this point that the visionary leader for the effort in the Wilson Administration emerges in the person of Walter S. Rogers—a senior official in his State Department. Rogers also was the special advisor to the Peace Conference at Paris among 27 nations in January 1919 on matters relating to international communication. The Conference was largely controlled by U.S., Britain, France, Italy, and Japan which produced many agreements including the creation of the League of Nations.

What was effectively the first Plenipotentiary Conference of the Electrical Communications Union met in Washington DC in December 1920—preceded by a smaller sub-committee meeting in September to further consider the 1919 draft Radio Regulation provisions. After considerable work over many weeks, it produced a draft Convention for the creation of a Universal Electrical Communications Union with Telegraph and Radio Regulations. One of the entities created was an International Technical Radiotelegraph and Visual Committee (CIRV) charged with “giving advice on all problems concerning radiotelegraphy and visual and sound signaling.” It was a fascinating period of cooperation and innovation that led to a draft Convention that integrated the separate radio and telecommunication regimes and produced fully developed Radio Regulations.

Harding replaces Wilson and kills all international cooperation

An admitted know-nothing Republican candidate - Warren G. Harding—by chance was nominated in 1920 and elected President on the slogan “A Return to Normalcy.” Much like what is occurring now in the U.S., one of America’s most visionary Presidents - Wilson - was replaced by an ignorant, incompetent man who saw his role as the modern day equivalent of a reality show and admitted he knew nothing about the subject matter.

Harding brought with him crazies intent on overturning everything Wilson had been doing, destroying the environment, introducing ultra-free market policies, and ceasing international cooperation. To run the government, he surrounded himself with dishonest cheats, who came to be known as “the Ohio gang.” Many of them were later charged with defrauding the government, and some of them went to jail. Harding knew little about foreign affairs when he assumed office and gave his Secretary of State a free hand to secure foreign markets for wealthy contributors to his campaign.

Harding took office 4 March 1921. Eleven weeks later at the Commodore Hotel in New York City, one of the more notorious meetings in international telecommunications history unfolded where Walter S. Rogers was grilled for two days by friends of the new Harding Administration on the efforts to create a new International Communications Union organization and Radio Regulations. Still, at the State Department, he was essentially made to repent for his visionary efforts, and it was made plain that all international cooperation efforts would cease. If not for a 311-page transcript of the meeting that Rogers tucked away in the U.S. archives marked “confidential,” no one would have known what occurred.


Although Harding was never linked to any crooked deals, the public was aware of his affairs with at least two women, one of whom was a German sympathizer during the war- who tried to blackmail Harding and was paid hush money by the Republican Party. Another mistress 30 years younger than Harding was given a job that enabled liaisons in the Oval Office that resulted in his fathering her child. As scandals unfolded, and Harding’s appointees began going to jail, he succumbed to a heart attack at 57 after being in office only 2 ½ years. It would not stop there, as the economic policies that Harding set in motion ultimately gave rise to the Great Depression, destruction of the environment, and internationally facilitated the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler.

Walter S. Rogers’ subsequent history is unknown. After the Commodore Hotel incident and having his vision belittled, he wrote a sage albeit a poignant set of reflections published in Foreign Affairs. His admonition seems as appropriate today as it was in 1922:

To what extent, under the circumstances, the American Government should participate in general international communications conferences is a question that concerns not only the United States but the other countries as well. Without taking a new tack the United States certainly can not participate in limited international arrangements looking toward the joint provision, by the countries immediately concerned, of new facilities or the joint regulation of rates of services provided by commercial enterprises.

Though it is not apparent that Rogers ever participated in an international communications meeting again, the value of his work and his vision as Wilson’s emissary was blessed by history.

After a long, dark hiatus of U.S. international telecommunications cooperation, Herbert Hoover as U.S. Commerce Secretary found the work on the Radio Regulations compelling. He called the 1927 Radio Conference in Washington using the work done six years earlier as its basis and it produced the Radio Regulations and Consultative Committee activities that still exist today. The work on the Convention for an integrated cooperative international organization was picked up in 1932 at the Madrid Conference and became the basis for the International Telecommunication Union coming into existence in 1934 and its treaty instruments enduring as the basis for cooperation among all nations.

Although Trump’s pronouncements on international telecommunication cooperation remain unknown, the views and approaches espoused thus far give cause for great concern. China has already in recent years assumed a level of visionary global leadership and engagement in telecommunications venues once enjoyed by the U.S. Bully bilateralism as a replacement for international cooperation in the sector is also doomed to fail. Perhaps the ultimate message here from a hundred years ago is that stable means of global cooperation and vision on matters of fundamental importance for all people have compelling value and will ultimately prevail over the jingoism, self-serving incompetence, and demagoguery of transient national political figures.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

The author is a leader in many international cybersecurity bodies developing global standards and legal norms over many years.

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Thank you Michael J. Oghia  –  Dec 12, 2016 6:37 PM

Excellent and very engaging post, Anthony. Let’s hope not. But at the same time, I am encouraged by the story of Hoover and how he advanced the ideas that had been all but abandoned. To me, it is a reminder that there is always hope for the future.

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