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January 24, 2007 12:12 PM   Subscribe

This spring I'll be teaching a workshop on memos that changed the world. Help me think of some.

The workshop will be called "Memos That Changed the World," and I'll be teaching it at the Kennedy School of Government as a writing workshop, that is, in a way focused on the use of language and rhetoric. I'd like to use memos that (a) really mean something historically and (b) have particularly powerful or interesting language.

So far the only two that I've come up with are George Kennan's "Long Telegram" and Winston Churchill's Poison Gas Memo. What are some others? I'd be open to great business memos, too. Thanks!
posted by josh to Writing & Language (35 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Does Thomas Paine's Common Sense count as a memo? Or Martin Luther's 95 theses? Or what about Martin Luther King's letter from the Birmingham Jail? If you expand the definition of memo you might be able to come with more ideas.
posted by bananafish at 12:20 PM on January 24, 2007

Changed the world? no. However, the Pinto gas tank memo changed the way businesses thought about retaining records.
posted by caddis at 12:28 PM on January 24, 2007

I'm more interested in writing that comes in memo form: lots of lists, numbered items, a clear hierarchical structure, very pithy and short, and so on.
posted by josh at 12:29 PM on January 24, 2007

Kennan Letter - Instrumental in Post WWII American foreign policy
posted by JPD at 12:48 PM on January 24, 2007

I'm an idiot
posted by JPD at 12:50 PM on January 24, 2007

Give it a little historical perspective and compare Bismarck's doctored Ems telegram with the original.
posted by Wilder at 12:51 PM on January 24, 2007

How about The Zimmerman Note. Which helped draw the US into WWI.
posted by humanfont at 12:58 PM on January 24, 2007

Martin Luther's 95 Theses?
posted by mrmarley at 1:03 PM on January 24, 2007

The "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US" memo? (link to The Smoking Gun)
posted by SuperSquirrel at 1:07 PM on January 24, 2007

This 1969 Brown and Williamson discussed how to counter the growing anti-smoking movement: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public..."

Now it's frequently cited as textbook example of corporate misinformation campaigns, and as an inspiration to campaigns casting doubt on climate change.
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:10 PM on January 24, 2007

There's an excellent chapter in Edward Tufte's Visual Explanations (I think; possibly one of his other books) on the failures of communication in NASA engineers' memos that led to the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger in unsafely cold conditions. It's one of the best takes I can think of on the rhetoric of the memo.
posted by RogerB at 1:13 PM on January 24, 2007

I dun been scooped: I'd second the Zimmerman telegraph (humanfront) and the Downing Street Memo (unSane).

A quick search for memo at Yale's Avalon Project also turned up some interesting hits (mostly concerning 9/11), and a search for "memorandum" provides some more historical memos.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 1:15 PM on January 24, 2007

Assuming you are confining yourself to memoranda rather than epistles, I second the recommendation of the Zimmerman Telegram. There is also Kissinger's "salted peanuts" memo on Vietnam. There is also a WW2 memo vividly describing the first atomic bomb test.
posted by Urban Hermit at 1:33 PM on January 24, 2007

The Ems Dispatch was a telegraph (memo) that Otto von Bismarck "edited" to cause the French to declare war on Prussia and thereby start the Franco-Prussian War. The hangover from that war is credited with contributing to the start of WWI.

A very short "memo" is General Anthony McAuliffe's response to the German demand that he surrender his troops in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. The General wrote on a piece of paper delivered to the Germans: "NUTS!"
posted by GarageWine at 1:34 PM on January 24, 2007

For a feminist perspective, how about Ani DiFranco's letter to the editors of Ms. Magazine, which has been circulated over the internet for ages? It's not numbered and bulleted so it may not fit your criteria -- it is certainly not your traditional business memo -- but it's well written and compelling on the small issue that it addresses (i.e., criticism of supposedly feminist publication for adopting patriarchial business rubric for measuring success).

I recognize it's not of the significance of the Churchill memo, but might be a fun tangent.
posted by onlyconnect at 1:42 PM on January 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Absolutely King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. That's one of the most important pieces of rhetoric I ever studied.
posted by limeonaire at 2:03 PM on January 24, 2007

Zimmerman and Downing Street were my only two bullets.

I'm slow.
posted by rokusan at 2:07 PM on January 24, 2007

I don't know if this qualifies, but the mention of the Brown-Williamson letter above brought to mind the Canuck letter, part of the Nixon administration's ratfucking campaign against Muskie.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 2:11 PM on January 24, 2007

The mention of the Birmingham Jail letter reminded me of a document I remeber being very moved by when I studied it in college: "Integrated Bus Suggestions", a page of recommendations on how to ride the newly integrated buses after the Montgomery boycott. Dr. King was one of the document's authors. An easier-to-read version is here.
posted by Miko at 2:23 PM on January 24, 2007

Also, maybe Alberto Gonzales' memo to President Bush justifying the use of torture in the "war on terror"? ("As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. . . . In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges . . . ."

In some ways it could be interesting to compare it to the Churchill memo.
posted by onlyconnect at 2:33 PM on January 24, 2007

Microsoft's Halloween Memos. Internal memos admitting that Open Source movement is a serious threat to Microsoft's business model and ways to combat said movement. With tact and finesse that we've come to expect from Microsoft.
posted by aeighty at 2:42 PM on January 24, 2007

Seconding Tufte, for the general theme of the workshop.
posted by ontic at 2:51 PM on January 24, 2007

How about Chief Justice Rehnquist's memo "A Random Thought on Segregation Cases" that is attributed with the Plessy v Fergusson's ruling affirming separate but equal?
posted by CAnneDC at 2:58 PM on January 24, 2007

Also, the 1954 memo that saved the Corvette. (Note that you would need to get permission to reproduce it from the Corvette folks, as per a pop up on this page.)
posted by onlyconnect at 3:14 PM on January 24, 2007

Or, also on the business end, maybe the McElroy memo that launched the practice of brand management in 1931? (Sorry for the multiple posts.)
posted by onlyconnect at 3:22 PM on January 24, 2007

Einstein's letter to Roosevelt August 2, 1939 encouraging the USA to build an atomic bomb before the Nazis did.
posted by mrbugsentry at 3:28 PM on January 24, 2007

It strikes me on preview, that a lot of the suggestions (in addition to being political axe grinding) didn't change history. (Even mine took years to have much effect).

"Bin Laden determined to strike," for example, was ignored until after the fact. Ditto the space shuttle memos. How much "change" did Gonzales make? Did GW really have a problem with torturing jihadis until he read the Gonzales memo? Somehow, I think not.

Just because they are interesting to us now, or politically useful, doesn't mean they actually changed history. Usually the opposite: the stuff we find most interesting isn't about changing history, it is about reinforcing our perceptions.
posted by mrbugsentry at 3:44 PM on January 24, 2007

OK, I promise I'm done....

On preview again, the Bin Laden memo would be an interesting writing exercise, so long as you mixed it with the 200 or so false alarms that accompanied the one warning that mattered.

How do you differentiate one of these alarms from the rest? If everything is at the same volume, (shrieking hysteria) then it is pretty easy to get ignored. Forceful writing is therefore the problem most of the time, but sometimes you need it.

That's a problem for your memo writers.
posted by mrbugsentry at 3:48 PM on January 24, 2007

let me just 2nd aeighty's vote for the halloween documents since that's what i clicked in here to post. it seems to be a staple in contemporary computer science coursework, as myself and several of my coworkers (all holding CS degrees from various universities) have all read them due to instructions from a professor at one time or another.

not really a memo, (though, debatable, for what do you call a memo to a non-entity? namely, the "open source community") there's the unofficial, yet universally recognized "reply" to the halloween documents, Eric S. Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar, also a staple in CS's historical readings
posted by qbxk at 5:22 PM on January 24, 2007

I think one of the take-aways from this thread is that memos often present bad news or radical reassessments in very explicit ways, sometimes accompanied by a single extremely vivid metaphor. Sometimes they are ignored and sometimes they aren't.
posted by unSane at 7:08 PM on January 24, 2007

Here's a page with a bunch of US govt memos about the Rwanda genocide as it unfolded. Some quite remarkable -- e.g. showing that the US State Department knew ahead of time the scale of killings that were likely to take place; US govt deciding that they'd better not call it "genocide" becasue that would require intervention; deciding not to bomb the radio stations in Rwanda that were a primary means of directing the killings. (Wikipedia has quite a good listing of other sources for context)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:45 PM on January 25, 2007

Does MLK's Letter from a Birmingham Jail count? It was an open letter, not a memo...
posted by sneakin at 5:48 PM on February 2, 2007

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