Two Careers, Two Eras, Two Views of Changing Times in the Foreign Service: Memoirs by Jean Wilkowski and Robert Ober
Reviewed by Richard Gilbert
When a young Jean Wilkowski, fresh from two years of teaching and other starter tasks at a small Catholic girl’s college in Florida, stops off in wartime Washington to investigate a job “in foreign affairs,” she casually walks in on an assistant secretary of state without much of an appointment. Redirected to the department’s recruiting office, she strolls past the office of the acting Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, who is in the midst of a press gaggle. Interested, she slips into the group and, once out of sight of the undersecretary, eagerly inquires about positions abroad with the Department’s Press Office. Once again, she’s brusquely sent on her way to recruiting where, she hears, “yes,” the Department is looking for people to do “general consular work.”
“Lucky you,” she’s told, “it’s wartime and all the men have gone into the services. We are literally scraping the bottom of the barrel and taking in 4-Fs and women.”
Bob Ober came later to the Foreign Service, and while the changes he witnessed since beginning his career in 1961 have been less dramatic, these may turn out to be even more significant in the long run than the erosion of gender barriers. As he states in his self-published memoir, referring to the current “reform” effort now shaking the workplace at Foggy Bottom, Secretary Rice’s notions of “transformational diplomacy” and “global repositioning” will likely “only lead to the watering down of what is meant by ‘expert’ and a further loss of the authentic expertise that Washington so badly needs.” Ober’s models are the likes of George Kennan, Chip Bohlen, and Llewellyn Thompson, America’s illustrious mid-century trio of Russian-speaking Sovietologists, whose careers, like Ober’s, included multiple tours in the Moscow embassy (whose former street address Ober appropriates for his book title).
Both Wilkowski and Ober left the Foreign Service prematurely, casualties of the Foreign Service Act of 1980; Wilkowski forced out because of age (a limit pushed back just after her departure) and Ober retired for time in class. Still, their quite different careers and perspectives, recollected and recorded now in the tranquility of retirement, add importantly to the history of the Foreign Service. Although theirs are very different voices from very different times, each holds strong views about the institution in which they served, and each offers insights into the events of their times and the issues which dominated their service aboard.
Jean Wilkowski was the first woman named as U.S. Ambassador to an African country, and her service in Zambia 1972-76 forms the substantive heart of her book recounting her career. Still, as interesting as the details of her four years in Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambia may be to a handful of Africa specialists, Wilkowski’s is the broader story of a lone woman in a bygone man’s world, a tale she pens with verve, wit, and the occasional twinkle in her eye, absent the absolute anger to which her pioneer experiences might have entitled her. For example, assigned to the 1962 Senior Seminar with 24 male colleagues, she finds herself dining below stairs with the kitchen help during a visit by the Seminar to the infant Air Force Academy. Women were not then allowed in the cadet’s mess hall (14 years would pass before the first woman was admitted to the Academy). In Wilkowski’s words, “I thought the treatment was totally out of order, but what could I do. I was hungry.” She does tell of one singular advantage of having been the Seminar’s only woman. During the group’s courtesy visit to the White House, President Kennedy spots her and orders: “Come up here and stand next to me,” a fact recorded in the group photo which followed. “I can’t remember a single word President Kennedy said to me,” Wilkowski admits, “but it must have been charming.”
Wilkowski delightfully recounts the early years of her service in Trinidad (Vice Consul, 1944-46); Bogotá (Economic Officer, 1947-48); Milan (Vice Consul, 1949-51); Paris (Deputy Commercial Attaché, 1953-56); and Santiago (Economics Officer, 1957-59). Along the way, she provides mention of her cars, her golf, her beaus (“romance in the tropics can be almost overwhelming”) and the flights and ocean voyages that took her to post. (Her description of her arrival in Trinidad aboard a Pan Am DC-3 complete with “a male steward nattily dressed in black slacks, a short white dinner jacket and a bow tie” is priceless. ‘So I pulled on my white gloves, adjusted my small hat, and went primly down the stairs . . . .”) More than a window into the mores and manners of a forgotten Foreign Service past, Wilkowski’s account holds a mirror to an America that was, and reminds us of how genuinely revolutionary the changes in our lifetimes have been.
In addition to her four years (1972-76) as U.S. Ambassador in Lusaka, Wilkowski’s other assignments included Deputy Chief of Mission in Honduras, senior economic posts during two tours in Rome, interim assignments at the Dillon Round of GATT negotiations in Geneva in 1960-61, and a side-step as Diplomat in Residence at Occidental College in California in the mid-seventies.
She also served in the Department as coordinator for the U.S. Delegation to the 1979 U.N. Conference on Science and Technology in Vienna (an assignment that finds her fact-finding in China in the company of Notre Dame’s President Theodore Hesburgh, the U.S. delegation head). With the end of the U.N. conference in mid-October, she returns to Washington anticipating her next assignment. Instead, on the morning of her call on Director-General Harry Barnes, the Washington Post carries the news that the Congress has voted to lower the mandatory Foreign Service retirement age to 60, an age Wilkowski reached a few months earlier in Vienna. In short order, with a few words from Barnes, her “35 years of loyal and dedicated service” comes to an astonishingly abrupt end, a fact made doubly bitter when, a few months later, after she’s gone from the Foreign Service, Congress reverses itself and reinstates the 65-year limit.
Despite Wilkowski’s many backstage tales of the political and diplomatic events of her career (she unwittingly sends an acrophobic Henry Kissinger out on a “very narrow two-foot plank” over the roaring Zambezi River at Victoria Falls, reinforcing his view of her as his African nemesis), her memoirs stand principally as the story of a Foreign Service woman, not in the musty decades of yesteryear just after high-button shoes and gas lamps, but during well-remembered times right on the cusp of today. Some will find her a puzzling artifact from a time when women “went along to get along.” Certainly today’s women may find little to admire in her acceptance of the male “primacy of place in jobs and leadership in those days” and her belief, so common then, that “quality of performance, experience, and compatibility” was sufficient to overcome ingrained habits of overt discrimination and the sexist culture of the Foreign Service. Still, one has the feeling that, in looking back, her decision “to act in well-mannered, cordial ways, rather than being blatantly assertive and controversial” rankles and is the source of some strong, if unspoken, regret.
Wilkowski’s book of memoirs, despite its notable pedigree from the University of Notre Dame press and its designation as an ADST-DACOR Diplomats and Diplomacy Book, suffers a bit from a stream of minor errors which should have been caught in the editing process. Colombia’s Bogotazo, the country’s infamous political revolution, took place in 1948, not 1947; the El Greco masterpieces are in Toledo, not Granada; Edith Stein, while undeniably saintly, is not a Doctor of the Catholic Church; the Chilean wine family is Undurraga, not Underraga; and the Vistula River is located east, not west, of Berlin. Still, the author can be forgiven such errors of detail for one breathlessly uproarious observation. A person of exceedingly strong Catholic beliefs, Wilkowski admits a few pages before the conclusion of her delightful memoir, “I always had trouble praying for President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger.” Surely a woman of such refined religious judgment deserves our admiration, despite whatever small deficiencies as a feminist model her career may reveal.
Bob Ober brings a bit more heat to his story. He laments “the Foreign Service’s reduced interest in developing language and area experts” and the disappearance of such experts from the Department’s senior policy-making levels. Although Ober’s 26-year career took him to Hamburg, Warsaw, New Delhi, and Athens, his focus is his three tours in Moscow, beginning in 1972, 1979 and 1985, and the changes he observed, both within and beyond the embassy. “The embassy I left in 1987 was a far different place from the one I had joined fifteen years before.” For many former Moscow hands,1 Ober’s observations will resonate, even his nostalgia for the vastly-smaller “old” embassy of Soviet days, a tight pre-NEC (New Embassy Compound2 ) community of Russian-speaking officers and families living chockablock in dilapidated diplomatic buildings, dacha weekends, pouch runs to Helsinki, heaping mounds of semi-licit fresh caviar in Uncle Sam’s cafeteria out back, food orders from Stockmann’s,3 travel approvals, Russian friends, and paddleball tournaments at Spaso House. Ober’s book recounts it all, along with the personalities and events of the time now mostly forgotten: dissidents and refuzniks, Victor and Jennifer Louis,4 Nina and Ed Stevens,5 U.S.-Soviet summits, microwaves, bugged buildings and typewriters, fires, spy dust and spy mania, the Daniloff affair, rampant reciprocity and the withdrawal of the Soviet FSN staff, APD (custodial duty6 ) and mopping floors, and the move to the NEC town houses just at the end of his tour. It’s all there, the pageant of U.S. Embassy Moscow 1970-90, a place so unlike today’s walled, air-conditioned, high-rise embassy fortress a block away as to beggar the imagination.
But Ober’s work is more than an engaging stroll down memory lane. Throughout the book, he steps aside to recount the enormous growth and changing mores of the Moscow embassy from a cadre of hand-picked volunteers, most with Russian language training and an attachment to the Russian culture and language. Already by the late seventies, he sees “the sense of belonging to a single community was eroding.”
“. . . With the swelling of the staff, the embassy had become a different place from what it had been in the early 1970s. ‘The attachment to Russian culture’ and the engagement with language and landscape that [former Ambassador Jacob] Beam had found among his officers were no longer much in evidence.”
By 1987, when he departed Moscow for the final time and left the Foreign Service, an early victim of the time-in-grade provisions of the Foreign Service Act of 1980, Ober leaves behind a security-driven “broken embassy,” a description that, in retrospect, has much merit. Certainly Ober’s memoir contains a strong wistfulness for simpler times, and an America (and a Foreign Service) that once was. Still, as a self-styled area and language expert, he makes valid, perhaps politically incorrect, observations:
“Are administrators more interested in achieving a diverse Foreign Service than a Foreign Service rich in area and language experts, in Arabists, Asia hands, and others committed to mastering the world’s varied languages and cultures? Statements from administrators over the past two decades suggest they have been focusing on developing diversity almost to the exclusion of language and area expertise.”
In their books, published amid the latest changes in Foreign Service theory and practice that are pressuring FSOs and their families, the voices of Jean Wilkowski and Bob Ober tell us where we’ve been. Knowledge of where we’ve been certainly helps us appreciate how far we’ve come and may even tell us something about where we are. Certainly their times too were all about change. In looking back with these authors, some readers may be reassured that the trajectory of the profession is upward. Others, noting the constant principles which the authors advocate, may focus on the risks to our nation’s diplomacy of embracing short-sighted innovation schemes and organizational gimmickry which abound in Foggy Bottom corridors today.
2. NEC, early acronym for the Moscow embassy residences built and occupied in the 1980s. Work on the new Chancery office building at the site (called the NOB), famously stalled in 1984 after discovery that the structure was riddled with Soviet monitoring “devices.” Reconstructed amid much controversy, the building was finally occupied in 2000.
5. Edmund Stevens, Pulitzer Prize winner and the dean of the Moscow press corps, came to Moscow in 1934 and was the longest-serving American-born correspondent working within the Soviet Union. He continued to work and write almost until his death in 1992 at the age of 81.
6. All-purpose custodial duty under taken by American staff in the interval between the withdrawal of the Russian FSN staff in late 1986 and the arrival, in 1987, of the first contingent of replacement Americans from PA&E, Pacific Architects and Engineers. The Moscow winter of 1986-87 was one of the coldest of the twentieth century.