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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

January 1998

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The Army Specialized Training Program:
Gateway to the Foreign Service

by Curtis F. Jones

America's unreadiness for World War II was systemic. At Bowdoin College, student attitudes mirrored the national pattern. As late as the fall of 1941, a number of us spent a nocturnal bull session complacently assuring a Canadian fraternity brother that the United States would be crazy to get caught up in the mess in Europe. Our guest kept his temper until someone asked him, in the patient tone used with the mentally impaired, "Do you really think democracy is worth saving every twenty years?" The debate was abruptly ended by the logistics involved in prying the Canadian's hands from the questioner's neck.

Then came Pearl Harbor. Public opinion reversed itself overnight. The campus was rapidly emptied of students old enough and fit enough to serve. The war was more than a grisly duty; it was the most sweeping American learning experience since 1865. Uprooted from sheltered obscurity, millions eventually were tossed into the unforgiving military machine, a gigantic concrete mixer from which they emerged usually either smoothed or broken, but assuredly changed.

The first lesson driven home by military service was the staying power of stultifying tradition. From the democracy of civilian America, trainees were transported back into the rigidities of a caste system that replicated the medieval division between noble and serf. We collegians, steeped in the prewar view of the army as a refuge for lazy incompetents, felt the transition most keenly. A direct commission eased the shock of entry into the military, but for those denied officer status by bad luck, bad eyesight, or bad planning, the service offered no recompense other than the glow of patriotism and the exhilaration of the unknown.

The indulgent cocoon of the fraternity house, the seductive pretexts for avoiding the books, the intoxicating camaraderie of other irresponsible activities -- all this was abruptly exchanged for the obstacle course, close-order drill, Neanderthal platoon sergeants, mind-deadening KP, and 5:OO a.m. sprints through the snows of Fort Devens.


In early 1943, word filtered down through the ranks of an organization that offered GI's with college degrees the prospect of liberation from such travail. The Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) had been created out of thin air for the rumored purpose of meeting the military's needs for more engineers, doctors, dentists, and administrators, these last to staff the military governments expected to be set up as the Arab world and Europe were freed from Axis rule.

The ASTP selection process was plain and simple: written general information examinations and "I.Q." tests conventionally evaluated in those days in terms of proficiency in vocabulary and arithmetic. Compared with the intellectual demands of some college exams, or the physical stresses of army basic training, they were child's play. The snows of 1943 had hardly melted before those individuals the Program selected began a seemingly miraculous repatriation to the campus. From Fort Devens, many, including this writer, were shipped a few miles north to a holding center at the University of New Hampshire, where the congenial ambience was considerably enhanced by the preponderance of females in the student body.

Like all new government programs, the ASTP was monumentally disorganized. To maintain the fiction of useful employment,
UNH made virtually random assignments to classes, but every military unit has its operators and ours quickly evolved a foolproof formula for beating the system. Forming up after breakfast under the ostensible command of the only member with a stripe on his sleeve, our squad would march smartly and purposefully across campus to the athletic field, where we whiled away the day, safe from the rigors of either the classroom or army chores.

No one, however, was innovative enough to serve out the entire war in friendly New Hampshire doing nothing. Within weeks we entrained for serious assignments at other schools. Over a hundred of us would-be students came to ground at the University of Pennsylvania, which greeted us at the first assembly with an intensive schedule of courses in French or German and in Moroccan Arabic. Few of us knew that Arabic was a language, let alone that it had a Moroccan variant. Nonetheless, that was the course of study in which I landed.

We were luckier than we realized. The vagaries of the personnel process had put us into one of the best language programs in the country. In the United States before the war, a foreign language was intended only to be written or read. Far from polyglot Europe, Americans never contemplated having to transact serious business speaking a foreign tongue. The languages they were taught in school were presented from the top down, through pedantic constructs such as declension, mood, and conjugation, and one of those languages often studied was long dead.

By 1943, however, a new generation of scholars had revolutionized the science of linguistics. Breaking language down into its essential sounds -- phonemes to the initiates -- they taught it from the bottom up, the way every child learns to speak his native tongue. At Penn, the language faculty included Dr. Selig Harris, a pioneer in the new science, and Dr. Charles Ferguson, who went on after the war to help the Department of State build a language school that produced fluent speakers of the "hard" languages -- Russian, Chinese, Arabic, and the like -- languages that previously had been routinely relegated in U.S. posts abroad to native interpreters or the offspring of missionaries who had learned to speak the language as children.

For the Penn ASTP language students, there were no aimless recitations in the amo-amas-amat tradition, but rather relentless drill in everyday expressions. The training laid special stress on mastering sounds unrecognizable to the untrained ear, sounds which are critical indices of meaning in the language under study. Every language has its own unique "alphabet" -- its own set of phonemes. Arabic has the 'ayn, a sound an American might never make unless swinging a pick or going up for a strenuous jump shot. And Arabic leans heavily on the doubling of consonants, which occurs in English so inconsequentially ("coolie" versus "coolly") that teachers of the language see no reason to mention it.

We learned that the immigrant's giveaway accent can cling to him for a lifetime if he has not learned that the letter on the page can assume a cluster of different identities in discourse. Americans aspirate the "p;" the French do not. Spoken English turns all its long vowels into diphthongs; most languages do not. To the American novice, a small French word like cru, which he wants to pronounce like "crew," represents months of tongue- twisting drill if he is ever to master the gargled "r" and the nasalized "u". We came to appreciate the acrobatic demands that language makes on the human anatomy, and why the word "lallapaloosa" served U.S. intelligence as a latter day shibboleth in unmasking Japanese prisoners who claimed to be Chinese.

Of course, we in ASTP really were starting too late in life. Our apparatuses of speech were freighted with twenty years of iterating our own regional dialects of the American version of the English language; we had lost the subliminal talent for mimicry with which evolution has endowed small children. Some Arabic-language aspirants never made the cut. But most made enough progress in the emission of genuinely Moroccan sounds in Arabic to prove wrong the language traditionalists who saw no prospect at all for adults to learn such "hard" languages. After three months, the more gifted performers in our language program could order a Moroccan meal, rent a Moroccan room, or hire a Moroccan servant. What else did we need to assume the mantle of la mission civilizatrice?

The ASTP, however, also taught us a broader lesson: that the homily about best-laid plans going awry applies first and foremost to the military. There we were, insulated from the crass indignities of army life, even spared the jarring notes of the predawn bugle, which was replaced at Penn at a more civilized hour by the Toreador Song, presented daily with the compliments of the class opera enthusiast. Our existence was so pleasant that I still feel nostalgic whenever I encounter the pervasive aroma of an oil refinery, wartime Philadelphia's unmistakable signature. Then harsh reality intruded. Word went around that the mysterious and privileged realm of army intelligence wanted a few superior Arabists for urgent overseas assignment. Envy contended with admiration the day we formed up in the ivy-clad quadrangle at 37th and Walnut and watched the top four products of the program called out and driven away to a classified destination.

The rest of us went back to our studies with renewed fervor, only to have it dampened some weeks later when the chosen four straggled back to the campus. They had been dropped at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, instructed to hold themselves in readiness for early assignment, and then heard nothing more. After weeks of KP, they had finally negotiated their own return to Penn, wearing the haunted look of escapees from Devil's Island.


That October in 1943, the academic interlude ended for the entire contingent. We boarded a train at the 30th Street station for parts unknown. Clueless as to our destination, those of us in the Moroccan Arabic group grew more disheartened with every mile we put behind us. However fragmentary our North African geography might be, we knew that part of the world lay to the east of Philadelphia, and the train was headed steadily west.

Total disillusionment set in when we finally disembarked in the crystalline air of the New Mexico plateau. Trucked from the station to Camp Luna, just outside the little-known town of Las Vegas, we milled around in the camp compound awaiting some hint of our future disposition. The only visible potential source of information, even if not at all authoritative looking, was a diminutive private sweeping the steps to the orderly room. Questioning him and listening to his story, I felt at one with Balboa and his wild surmise about the Pacific Ocean. Aside from the Moroccan native-speaker of Arabic on the language staff at Penn, this humble individual at Camp Luna turned out to be the first real Arab we had ever met. To put a finer edge on the irony of the situation, he too was Moroccan-born, an acrobat by trade, who had lived in the States long enough to be drafted. He spoke his own language as a native, and ours better than we would ever speak his. If the army didn't need him in North Africa, God knows, we thought, it could get along without us.

So died our hopes of dispensing benevolent American justice to the grateful masses in Casablanca. All of us in my contingent went on to general duty in the Pacific Theater.

The ASTP and its Navy counterpart, the V-12 Program, had been established on many colleges campuses across the country and may be considered the progenitors of the epochal GI Bill, enacted in 1944. Yet today's encyclopedias omit listings of these once-pervasive military training organizations. The many objects of their administrative mischance may be forgiven for suspecting now that the programs' primary function was to keep the American college and university system from going under during wartime.


Whatever ASTP's real purpose, the accident of assignment thereto pointed thousands of men toward life-long careers. The chance involvement in such programs across the country put many veterans on the path to language specialization after the war. Some of us, jostled out of our comfortable prewar orbits by a wartime brush with foreign languages and cultures, went on to area specialization careers with the federal government. One distinguished exemplar was Rodger Davies, a product of the ASTP's Arabic program at Princeton and one of the few who actually received a military assignment to the Arab world. After the war he was a natural for the U.S. Foreign Service. His last diplomatic assignment was Nicosia, where he was felled by a Cypriot bullet during one of the sporadic attacks on the building in which he served as ambassador.

[Curtis F. Jones]Curt Jones, a member of this journal's Editorial Advisory Board, lives in retirement from the Foreign Service in Chapel Hill, NC. His assignments abroad from 1946 to 1975 included Beirut (twice), Tripoli (twice), Port Said, Damascus, and Aden. His article entitled "Terrorism ... a necessary evil?" appeared in Volume II, No. 1 of American Diplomacy
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