American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

June 1999

Highlight map


Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook


Thus was launched a distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service, a beginning that was typical in broad outline for many of his colleagues of the era. But Ambassador Bridges, in this somewhat whimsical account of his first post abroad, also provides the reader with an inside look at the operations of an American mission abroad in a place and time the like of which we probably will not see again.

Ambassador Bridges has contributed to American Diplomacy in the past, including Mr. Carr Goes to Prague (Fall 1998).


IT WAS JUNE 1959, and hot summer in Washington. I was completing my first two years in the State Department and waiting to learn what would be our first post abroad. I came home one evening to our little Virginia apartment which lacked air conditioning, and my suffering wife said ‘I don’t care where they send us, just so it’s not the tropics!’ Two evenings later I came home with our assignment: Panama. Well, we decided, it could hardly be worse than this. We outfitted ourselves for the tropics, as best we could afford. In my case this meant buying one more $40 lightweight Haspel suit to add to the two I had, plus new swimming trunks. And there we were on an October day with our two small children, heading south in a DC-7 to the tropics, which we imagined would prove less exotic and more Americanized than what we had seen of Europe

We arrived at Panama’s Tocumen airport at six that evening, the hot sun almost down and the runway still wet from rain. At plane side we were met by my new chief, the First Secretary and head of the Embassy’s political section, and his pleasant wife. As we drove away from the airport towards Panama City the tropical night suddenly came down. The countryside was utterly black, with only an occasional candle or lantern visible in a roadside but, and the warm humid air was full of exotic smells. It was a new adventure for us; it excited me. But what my new chief and his wife were telling us was that we would be able to shop at the commissary and PX in the Canal Zone and they were well stocked; that there were two military swimming pools we could use in the Zone; that we would want to join the Fort Amador officers’ club, which had the only usable beach near Panama City. That was not the stuff of adventure; not what my wife and I wanted to hear on our first night at our new post in the tropics. I wondered what the future would bring.

We were to stay at the Tivoli Guest house until we could find a permanent place to live. This was a big old wooden hotel with a long veranda, on the Canal Zone side of Fourth of July Avenue which formed the border between the Zone and the Republic of Panama. The Tivoli was a vestige of the days before World War I when the Americans were building the Canal and President Theodore Roosevelt told the world ‘I took Panama.’ We settled into two high-ceilinged rooms. At the rear of the hotel was a quiet cool courtyard shaded by a great corotu tree. It was the kind of place we had hoped to find in the tropics, and no less pleasant for being a remnant of a semi-colonial past.

I had been assigned to Panama as Third Secretary of Embassy and Vice Consul, with responsibilities as a political officer, the most junior of three such positions in the Embassy. I was not well prepared to take on my new responsibilities. Two years earlier, our small class of new Foreign Service officers had taken a three-month orientation course at the Foreign Service Institute. We had toured the various State Department bureaus and several other federal agencies claiming an interest in foreign affairs. We had been told a little about protocol, and two entertaining gentlemen from the U.S. Information Agency had impressed on us how different foreign cultures and foreign usages might he from our own. A personnel lady had explained the pension system, which interested us little at this stage in our careers. We had also received instructions on bow to prepare travel vouchers.

But what no one had impressed on us was that the President and Secretary of State needed from our Service succinct reporting on the world and effective representation of American views and policies to other governments. Nor did our course teach us anything about international law, though few of us had studied law before entering the Service. Nor were we taught anything about diplomatic practice, beyond an hour or two of instruction in preparing diplomatic notes.

Fortunately my first two years in the Service had been spent in the bowels of the department as the most junior of five officers on the Soviet desk. I had at least learned how the department functioned, and had come to realize that lengthy despatches from posts abroad were not going to reach the eyes of an over-busy under or assistant secretary while a terse, timely cable might. In the weeks before we left Washington I had also read all I could about Panama and our position there.

Map of Panama

Our Embassy was in the Republic, but the Republic was cut in two by the Canal Zone, a belt of land five miles wide on either side of the Panama Canal which the United States held, by treaty with Panama, in perpetuity. The Canal and the Zone were administered by the Panama Canal Company, a corporation with a single stockholder, the Secretary of the Army; and the Governor of the Canal Zone was always a major general from the Army Corps of Engineers. We paid Panama not quite two million dollars a year for our position on the Isthmus, which was all we said we could afford; but we had not raised canal tolls since the canal was opened in 1914; low tolls benefited trans-canal traffic between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States. It seemed the relationship between Panama and ourselves was at best tense. In the past, it had erupted into violence more than once.

It was seven o’clock on a Thursday morning when I first walked into the American Embassy on the sea front, a few hundred feet from the monument where Vasco Nufiez de Balboa stands looking proudly out at his great discovery—discovery for Europeans—the Pacific Ocean. The instruction of the junior political officer began. My boss the First Secretary explained what I already knew; that there were normally three officers in our section but for now there were just the two of us, plus Natalie Worcester who had worked there for years. She was married to a Canal Zone teacher, and she was both our stenographer and the person responsible for preparing our biographic reports on important Panamanians. She was quiet, and she knew a lot.

So what was I supposed to do? Reporting and representation, the boss explained briefly. He and his wife were planning a reception for my wife and me, the following week, to introduce us to a number of influential people. I thanked him. Meanwhile, he said, today was a ‘weaker’ day. At least that was what it sounded like in his Louisiana accent; but I knew that he meant Weeka. In those days before optical character readers and computers made it possible to send cables faster than we could write or read them, embassies were instructed to send the department a summary and assessment of the local political scene, once a week, by diplomatic pouch. This was the Weeka, and of course it was supplemented by cables on urgent matters and by longer despatches reporting on various subjects in detail.

My boss said he would show me how he composed his, or rather our, Weeka. I could start helping the following week. It began with the scissors.

There were four or five American intelligence agencies, civilian and military, operating on the Isthmus of Panama. Each sent a lot of reporting to Washington on recent and potential Panama events, and they copied our Embassy with their reporting. My chief found it convenient to snip pieces from the various reports as they came in during the week. Then, on Weeka day, he would combine these snippets, using Scotch tape, with little paragraphs he pounded out with two fingers on his typewriter. Thus was the Weeka constructed. By late morning there were four or five pages of it, which the master let his apprentice read. What the master typed largely summarized the reporting in Panama’s numerous and generally unreliable newspapers. My chief had very little of his own to contribute. He handed the mess to Natalie to type in final form as a despatch to the department, and invited me to join him for a sandwich in the Embassy snack bar. Next day, he said, he would introduce me to an informal Friday luncheon group which included some of the Embassy’s most reliable contacts.


white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC