Ambassador Peck, a thirty-two-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, now retired in the Washington, DC, area, recounts one of his less run-of-the-mill experiences as the principal officer of a small U.S. consulate. ~ Ed.
hen you are proud of and dedicated to an organization like the Foreign Service, if you enjoy what you are doing and believe it is worthwhile, it can be a sobering experience to suddenly see yourself through someone elses critical eyes. The difference in perception is a shock, exponentially greater if you are young, eager, and perhaps even a bit full of yourself.
I was probably all of those things in the fall of 1966, when I became principal officer of the American consulate in Oran, Algeria. Our offices occupied part of the first floor of a magnificent old French Colonial villa on the Boulevard Front de Mer, at the edge of the high cliff overlooking the lower city, the harbor and the Mediterranean. The consulate, now closed, had four Americans assigned, including two operating the USIS Cultural Center and Library downtown..
Oran was a hardship post. Its three short years of existence to that point in the Foreign Service scheme of things had been marred by several major problems, of which two attempted suicides were only the most serious. Algerians are not especially gregarious in the best of times, and times were very bad. The country had just emerged from its psychologically rending, brutish, bloody, and protracted war of independence from France, the economy was in tatters, the government inexperienced, paranoid, and heavy handed.
Moreover, the United States and Algeria shared nothing other than a sharp, outspoken, and dramatic divergence of views on almost everything. There were frequent demonstrations against the combined Consulate-residence, some of them highly unsettling. Add tight restrictions on travel and the pervasive presence of the secret police, and you have the formula for a constricted, uncomfortable existence. Continued operations were justified by the high level of interest in political and economic events in the western third of an oil-rich, newly independent, regionally important, and militantly socialist country.
Then the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War produced thirteen massive, threatening demonstrations, a break in diplomatic relations, and the closing of the post. I returned to open it five months later as a one-man operation under the Swiss flag. (Many years later, in 1985, my eldest daughter and I visited the city again. At the end of our two days, which included being held for three hours by the police for taking photographsshe was working as a photo-journalist in Paris at the timeshe asked how we had ever survived there for two years. The only answer I could give was that we had all been much, much younger.)
That fall of 1967, the receptionist announced one day that an American woman was waiting to see me. I was surprised, since there were no Americans, as far as I knew, for 250 miles in any direction. I was even more surprised when a typical Algerian woman entered, almost completely covered in white robes. But she uncovered long blond hair and a freckled, snub-nosed, blue-eyed face. She was indeed an American and she had a request, or rather, a flat demand.
Ms. X told me bluntly that she would never have considered even coming near the consulate, which represented everything she despised about America (this is the 1960s, remember), but she needed something badly. She had accompanied her Algerian boyfriend to Oran and they now had two small children. Everything was on hand for their civil marriage except an American certificate that she was not already married. It was for that paper alone that she had broken her vow never to deal with people like me, this said with deep feeling, and she wanted it right now . . . . Please.
We did virtually no consular work at Oran and I was years away from my limited experience in Sweden, so I turned to the consular regulations for guidance. They required me to tell Ms. X we could not provide any statements on her marital status. It is even possible that I told her in a manner which reflected my perhaps understandable reaction to the tone and content of her little speech, that is, with a bit of malicious pleasure.
She was obviously crushed, so I relented somewhat and explained that countries like Algeriaor France, on whose example much Algerian government organization was basedhad laws and registries for such matters. In America, however, individual states are responsible for marriages, and therefore no federal records exist. For this reason, U.S. officials have no way of knowing who is or has been married unless passport applicants produce documents validating a marriage, and they cannot comment officially on the subject. I showed her that the manual specifically prohibited certification of unsubstantiated statements on marriage and apologized for my total inability to help.
Ms. Xs second reaction was a volcanic, bitter denunciation. My response, she said, verified what everyone knew about American functionaries, a bunch of bureaucratic stiffs, inept and uncaring. She had told her husband that this was exactly what was going to happen, that the U.S. had no interest in the welfare of its citizens, but he had persuaded her to at least try. What a shameful, stupid, narrow way to respond to a reasonable request from a citizen of the country that pays your wages, she said vehemently. Then her tone abruptly changed .
She began to plead for help. News of the marriage would make her parents so very happy, she said, and it would secure the future of her children. The Algerian officials had made it clear that without the paper there would be no wedding, and she now understood that it would not help to go back to France or try to get in touch with her family in the States. She then began to cry, great wracking sobs, with streams of tears.
sat there in my vast, paneled office, with its French windows overlooking the sea, watching Ms. X collapse. I felt exactly like the kind of drone she had described: hide-bound, rule-ridden, small, mean, and petty. It was easy to understand the reasons for the restriction on comments related to marriage. I had no trouble at all with that, but it was equally evident that the result was going to have a lasting negative impact on Ms. X.
Her need was so very simple, just a single sheet of paper. It might be embarrassing for me, and probably life-changing for her, but there was clearly nothing I could do to help her. I could do absolutely nothing at all.
So I did exactly that. I had a statement typed on a legal-sized sheet of consulate paper, embossed with the Great Seal:
I signed the sheet, gave it the full formal treatment of red ribbons and wax seal, and turned it over to an initially hopeful, then radiant and joyously grateful young woman. She almost ran out of the consulate after a profusion of happy tearful thanks, firmly clutching what I had given her: an impressive, totally meaningless document.
Even though I skirted the regulations, it has always given me a warm feeling to have been able to serve what I perceived to be Americas overall best interests without really breaking the law or doing anyone harm. (Much later, I learned that experienced Consular Officers deal with similar problems by having the individual make a sworn statement; they then authenticate that persons signature, not the statement.) I did not even charge her for it because the non-document I had prepared was not included in the official Schedule of Fees.
Part of my belief that it was the right thing to do was based on an understanding of the operations of large organizations. What the Algerian officials wanted, what their system required, was an official-looking American paper to check off their list and add to the file. I was sure no one would even bother to read itit was in English, after allor would care what it said, or did not say.
Their rules required a paper to the effect that Ms. X was not married, precisely the kind of statement the French and Algerian Governments routinely provide. It probably never occurred to anyone that such a thing was unavailable from the United States. When my beribboned parchment was handed in, the Algerians naturally assumed it contained the information requested. There was no reason for them to assume otherwise. Unable to give them what they wanted, I gave them the next best thing: something that looked like what they wanted. Even Ms. X did not bother to read it, at least not while she was in our offices.
At that moment, I was convinced my efforts would indeed improve her life, as well as the lives of her parents, her husband, and their children. Throughout the many intervening years, whenever my thoughts turn in that direction, I have always drawn comfort and satisfaction from the knowledge that I did the right thing, that the piece of paper made her entire world a far better place. That is only pleasant speculation, however. I never heard another word from, or about, Ms. X.