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American Diplomacy
Opinions and Editorials

June 2005

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The Origins of the Species

Assuredly no fault can be assigned to a U. S. Foreign Service officer if he or she hails from the northeastern United States, has an "old family" heritage and a comfortable financial situation, and holds a degree from an Ivy League university – Harvard, Yale, Princeton or the like. To the contrary. The nation’s representatives in embassies and consulates abroad with that kind of background serve the country well, and have for a long time. A perception probably lingers in some segments of the American public, however, that most diplomats, in line with what’s viewed as their elitist upbringing and education, spend their time sipping tea or attending rounds of cocktail parties and formal dinners. The derisive phrase "cookie pushers" sometimes attaches to the nation’s Foreign Service; the adjective "effete" even surfaces in that context.

This perception may once have contained an element of truth regarding the Diplomatic Service, especially back before the reforms of the Rogers Act in 1924, but also to a lesser extent with respect to the Foreign Service through much of the twentieth century. Such perceptions today of Foreign Service officers as being wealthy Eastern Ivy Leaguers most decidedly lack any basis in fact and have for many years. America’s FSOs, the nation’s career diplomats and consular officials, come from all over the country, from a wide variety of backgrounds, both educational and personal, and fulfill their often dangerous duties around the globe without pushing any cookies or sipping any tea, at least not in high society.

The point about varied backgrounds came to the fore here at American Diplomacy recently with the publication of a Foreign Service Life segment that sets forth the factors in the personal upbringing, education, experience, and interests that led an initial sampling of one active and five retired FSO’s to take the exams required to enter the Foreign Service. These commentaries spanning two-plus generations of officers indicate the variety of their backgrounds:

  • One officer grew up in rural Connecticut and went to school at the City University of New York and the University of Michigan.
  • Two others took Harvard undergraduate degrees. Prior to entering the Foreign Service, one of those officers, a retired ambas-sador, served in the Marine Corps and studied at the University of Missouri; the other did volunteer work in Africa and served in the Army before passing the exam.
  • Yet another (yours truly) was born and educated in the Deep South and had Army service before becoming an FSO.
  • The last of the officers active or retired covered in the journal’s current feature is a senior colleague who was a Navy "junior" who lived mainly on the East Coast and obtained his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

Further evidence in this highly unscientific, more or less random sampling of FSO backgrounds can include several other retirees who are closely involved in producing American Diplomacy. The journal’s publisher came from the Midwest, got his education at the University of Missouri, and served in the Air Force prior to diplomatic service. The associate publisher, a retired ambassador, also hailed originally from the Midwest and holds a law degree from the University of Michigan. The secretary of the journal’s governing board was born, reared, and educated in North Carolina; he, too, served in the Army before entering the Foreign Service. An associate editor of the journal grew up and received his education on the West Coast, notably at the University of California at Berkeley. A co-founder of American Diplomacy, a retired career ambassador, earned a degree at Harvard but hailed from the Southwestern United States. One of the prolific writers for the journal, a retired ambassador, grew up in the Deep South and received a degree from Auburn University, the first member of his family, he notes, to go to college. A valued Foreign Service colleague of ours from days gone by, now retired, came from Michigan, served in the Navy, and earned a degree at Michigan State. Many more examples could readily be cited.

The conclusion drawn here centers on the diverse nature of Foreign Service officers’ backgrounds and how appropriate that is in staffing the Service’s positions of responsibility, both at home and abroad. There is no intent here to denigrate those officers who happen to have Ivy League backgrounds and origins in the Northeastern United States. Quite the contrary. Given that the Foreign Service represents the nation as a whole, however, it is only appropriate that the nation as a whole should provide the staffing – fully qualified, to be sure – for the career officer corps, thus best furthering and protecting U. S. interests abroad. In diversity we find strength.

Editor Henry E. Mattox,
June 2005

American Diplomacy
Copyright © 2005 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC
www.americandiplomacy.org

Dr. Mattox is the editor of American Diplomacy.

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