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January 2016

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Old Times on the Soviet Desk
by Peter Bridges

Back in the late 1950s, when Stalin was not long gone and the Soviet state remained our militarily powerful and dangerous adversary, the State Department's basic office for dealing with the Russians was a Soviet desk composed of just four members of the Foreign Service and four from the Civil Service, the latter including an archivist and two stenographers. There were of course other Washington offices that had to do with the USSR, in State as well as in CIA, Commerce, the FBI, the Pentagon, and USIA; but we were the primary interface wth the two embassies, the Soviet in Washington and ours in Moscow.  

Shortly before Christmas in 1957 I became the junior Foreign Service officer on the Soviet desk, after completing the then three-month orientation course for new FSOs at the Department's Foreign Service Institute. My assignment was due to my having a good knowledge of the Russian language and having done graduate study in the Russian field. I had, however, no experience in government other than our orientation course and the two years I had just completed as an enlisted man in an Army engineer battalion.

The officer-in-charge on the desk, which was officially USSR Affairs in the Office of Eastern European Affairs, was a Foreign Service officer named Charles G. Stefan. Charlie, as he asked me to call him, was in his late thirties, had been an Army captain in the Second World War, and had already served in our embassies at Belgrade and Moscow. (At Belgrade, though I did not know it at the time, he had authored a report to the Department predicting that Tito would soon break with Moscow—a report that Washington found incredible.)

Charlie Stefan had strong ideas about how to write Departmental English, as I found when I began to draft memos for him to send to our superiors. My double-spaced draft would come back to me in a day or so with unacceptable phrases neatly bracketed in pencil and Charlie's improvements, again in pencil, written above. I prided myself on writing good English and I found many of his changes hard to take. To his credit, the officer-in-charge was on occasion willing to let me remonstrate. Some of my drafts went back and forth between us for days or even weeks. In one instance this had an effect on Soviet-American relations, as shall be told.

The number-two on the desk, and my immediate superior, was Nathaniel Davis, an FSO then in his early thirties who had lately returned from two years in our Moscow embassy. Nat was, I soon decided, brilliant, hard-working, and principled.

After I had been on the desk for some months I asked him if I might take two weeks' leave during the coming summer. He wanted to know much leave had I accumulated. More than two weeks' worth, I said. Yes, he said, but you should accumulate all the leave you can; you might want to leave the Service one day and it would be good to have at least a month of paid leave as a cushion.

He agreed to my going on leave, but I was saddened by what he said. He was a dedicated Foreign Service officer, and yet he thought of possibly resigning?

It was not quite like that, but it took me two decades for me to learn what was in his mind. By the 1970s Nat Davis had served as minister to Bulgaria and as ambassador to Guatemala and to Chile. He was now the Director General of the Foreign Service, and I was happily working for him again. Each month Nat wrote a reflective essay for the Department newsletter. I offered to begin drafting these pieces for him, but he reacted rather sharply, saying that he wrote them himself and would continue to do so. I understood, having had my own prose amended if not improved over the years by others after Charlie Stefan.

One of Nat's essays had to do with principles. If, he wrote, an officer did not agree with existing policy, he or she should seek to change it, privately and not by leaking to the press. If the officer was not successful there were two choices: go along with the policy, or else resign. And because officers might see a moral need to resign, they should prepare for a second career—and meanwhile save up all the leave that they could!

Among Nat Davis's virtues was a strong belief in racial equality. He and his attractive and energetic wife, Elizabeth, invited my wife and me to a party they gave one evening in 1958 at their small home in Foggy Bottom. Washington was then racially segregated; blacks and whites did not meet socially; the first U.S. civil rights act of the twentieth century had been enacted only a year earlier. Yet half of the Davises' guests that evening were African American.

Nat was also a modest man. I think few of us ever knew that he was perhaps the most accomplished alpinist in our Service. After leaving Washington in 1960 to become first secretary at our embassy at Caracas, he summited a number of difficult peaks over 15,000 feet in the Venezuelan Andes. One of his companions was Douglas Busk, the British ambassador to Venezuela and a still greater climber. Sir Douglas, I read years later in the Alpine Journal, wrote that on their climbs Nat was "highly trusted….His dogged energy and cheerfulness encouraged all of us."

The third officer on the Soviet desk was Paul A. Smith, who was, like Nat Davis, in his early thirties. He had served at Bucharest and Vienna and would soon go to Moscow. There he came down with hepatitis, which forced him to leave the Foreign Service. Joining the Civil Service, for over a dozen years he edited Problems of Communism, a journal published by the U.S. Information Agency. It was a government publication but when in 1992 it closed down, the New York Times said that "the journal's reputation was as an independent publication and not as a propaganda tool."

Our fourth officer on the desk was a Civil Service officer named Virginia James. She was a liile older than the rest of us; she had finished high school in Frederick, Maryland and come down to Washington in 1918 to work as a War Department clerk. She transferred to State, and several years later went to work in what was then the Division of Eastern European Affairs, headed by Robert F. Kelley. We had no diplomatic relations with the USSR until 1933, but Kelley had spent some years as a military attaché on Russia's fringes, in the Baltic republics. He was scholarly and strongly anti-Soviet.

In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Joseph E. Davies to Moscow as ambassador. Davies had a respectable record in law and government, hsd married General Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, and wanted to hear nothing about Josef Stalin's tyranny. Many Western Communists broke with Moscow over Stalin's Great Purge of the 1930s, but Davies could not believe that the top Soviet officials whom Stalin executed were innocent. Later he was to publish a memoir called Mission to Moscow which whitewashed the USSR and was made into a well-known wartime film. Meanwhile, Davies got his friend FDR to close down Kelley's division as being too anti-Soviet. Kelley was transferred to the embassy at Istanbul and Virginia James moved elsewhere in the Department, but by the time I arrived the Soviet desk was back in action, with Virginia the custodian of our organizational memory.

She knew, it seemed, everyone who counted in the Soviet field and they often came by to see her when they were in town: Chip (Charles E. Bohlen), George (George F. Kennan), Foy (Foy D. Kohler), Fred (G. Frederick Reinhardt), and others. On occasion I got to shake the hand of one of these greats.

Virginia and our office archivist, Frances Shugrue, were custodians of four or five file cabinets full of old cables, memos, and other papers that Virginia had found interesting and asked Frances to file. On occasion, when there was no pressing business, Virginia would pull out things she thought I should read. I learned much about past events in our relations with Moscow that I had never found in published works.

Some of these files went back years and even decades. The cabinets containing them took up a certain amount of space. Paul Smith told Virginia James that she and Frances Shugrue were volating Department regulations, that required older fles to be retired to the Department's central repository.

Virginia was a fine lady but there was fire in her heart, as I had deduced from her abstract paintings in violent colors that she showed my wife and me one evening at dinner. She told Paul in strong words to mind his own business.

When we came to work the next Monday, the cabinets were gone. Paul had arranged for the central files people to come take them away during the weekend when no one was around.

Virginia was furious, and seldom if ever spoke again to Paul Smith before he went off to Moscow. I was not furious, but very sorry to lose access to so much interesting stuff.

I did not, to be clear, have many idle moments in EE. One of my more time-consuming duties was to monitor Soviet officials' travel in the United States, and the trips that our Moscow embassy staff made in the USSR.

The Soviet government severely restricted the travel of foreign officials in the USSR, including, as I learned years later from a Czechoslovk diplomat, travel not only by Westerners but by Moscow's own allies. About 35% of the USSR was officiially closed to foreigners. Before traveling to a supposedly open region, a diplomat's embassy was required to submit a formal note to the Soviet foreign ministry stating that, for example, Second Secretary Jones intended to travel from Moscow to Kiev by train on January 12, from Kiev to Kharkov by train on January 14, and back to Moscow by train on January 16. If the embassy heard nothing from the ministry, Jones would ask the official Intourist agency to make travel and hotel reservations. Sometimes, though, the ministry would call to say that the trip could not be "registered."  Wny? The answer was always po vremennym prichinam—for temporary reasons. One never knew whether the trip was perhaps turned down because of military movements  or whether it was just to bedevil us. And if they chose not to turn us down flatly, it was always possible for Intourist to regret that reservations were not available.

What did we expect to get out of a trip, anyway? Very little, sometimes. But Washington needed to understand what was going on inside our principal adversary and that could not be done by reading the Soviet press, though of course we did read it. There were limits to what our intelligence officers, no matter how good, could learn. And there were in fact things to be learned on trips. An agricultural attaché could get some idea of the coming harvest, driving through Ukraine in late summer. In 1963 an Australian colleague (and future Australian defense minister), Bill Morrison, and I got to tour the world's largest hydroelectric station, at Bratsk in Siberia. We found that most of the turbines were not working. The Soviets had completed the plant, but it would be years before it went into full operation because there was little demand for energy in the region. We left it to Washington to decide whether or not this was a triumph of Soviet planning. On other trips, one might hope to visit a local branch of the Writers'  Union, or an institute or university, and have some exchange with writers or academics. Once in Chernovtsy I attended a performance of a very un-Soviet comedy, given by one of the two itinerant Yiddish theatrical groups that continued to exist after the Yiddish theater in Moscow had been closed and its director murdered on Stalin's orders. 

There was one thing we could do in the face of the Soviet travel restrictions, which was to impose similar restrictions on the Soviet officials based in Washington and New York. We did not deceive ourselves as to how much, or little, this mattered to them, given the immense amount of information available in our open society. Still we reciprocated, hoping it might hurt them at least a bit.

Unfortunately we heard complaints from Americans about these restrictions. The Soviet ambassador when I joined the desk was Georgii N. Zarubin, an experienced man with whom I would on occasion spend several minutes, meeting him at the Department entrance and escorting him up to see the under or assistant secretary who had called him in, usually to protest some Soviet action. Zarubin was a gruff man who wore ill-made Soviet suits. In 1958 he was replaced by Mikhail A. Menshikov, who unlike Zarubin wore good suits and often had a smile on his face. The American press was soon calling him Smiling Mike, and clubs across the country were soon inviting him to come speak. All too often the club would receive a polite letter from the ambassador regretting that he could not accept their kind invitation because the Department of State would not let him travel to River City. We would get a furious letter from the club, saying what fools we were not to let the Russian come see for himself that America was not as Moscow described it. No matter; the important thing was to do what we could to get our people to Khiva or Ryazan.

On occasion I would be called on to carry some message in person to the Soviet embassy, located in the mansion on Sixteenth Street that the widow of George Pullman, builder of sleeping cars, had built for their daughter in 1910. I usually saw a first secretary named, as I recall, Ivanov. He once told me that he was a peasant's son and had gone to work as a factory hand in Moscow at fourteen. At sixteen, when the Germans were advancing on Moscow in 1941, he had been evacuated to the Urals together with the plant's machinery and the other workers. He was, I think, the only Soviet official I ever met—other than Ambassador Zarubin—who came from proletarian origins. The others were all from the New Class that Milovan Djilas had described in his recent work of that name; these new Soviet diplomats were sons (no daughters!) of officers, officials, and academics.

One day I received a call from a Soviet embassy officer named Zaostrovtsev, whom I had never met. He asked if he could come see me in EE; there was some piece of our closed-area restrictions that the embassy did not quite understand, and of course they did not want to violate our rules. The man came by, and I spread out on our office floor a map showing our closed areas. There was nothing, I said to him, that could be confusing. He thanked me and left after a few minutes.

Several months later we were told by the Department's security people that a young Foreign Service officer had confessed to taking money from a Soviet embassy officer named Zaostrovtsev. The Russian and the American had met at some social function, and had lunched sometime later. Zaostrovtsev asked the young FSO for help. He had been told, he said, to prepare a report for Moscow on how our Foreign Service officers were trained and promoted. He had found references to a number of published documents that should prove useful, Congressional committee prints and articles from the Foreign Service Journal. It was all harmless, unclassified stuff, but no one would want to provide copies to a Russian Communist. Could the American help him?  Sure.

A couple of months later Zaostrovtsev invited the American to lunch again, and told him his report had won him a bonus. He insisted on sharing it with the American, who finally took a hundred dollars from him.

The next time they met, the Russian asked the American for some classified telegrams. No! said the young American. Ah, said Zaostrovtsev, you have already taken my money. Do you want your superiors to know that? The American, badly scared, told a friend, who told a Department security officer.

Charlie Stefan told me to draft a memorandum to the Secretary of State recommending we declare Zaostrovtsev persona non grata. I quickly did so, thinking at the same time that the real reason that Zaostrovtsev had come to see me was probably to size me up as a possible recruit.

My draft memo came back from Charlie with the usual politely penciled brackets and required changes in my prose. I made the changes and sent the thing back to Charlie, and it came back to me with still more changes to be made. Now the draft began to sit in my in box, because I was called on for a more urgent task, to help prepare some of the paperwork for the meeting of U.S. and Soviet foreign ministers that was to take place in Geneva in July 1959.

One of our advisers at the coming meeting of ministers was a senior Foreign Service officer named John M. McSweeney, who had so far served twice in Moscow. He was, though I did not know it, urging the elevation of our small Soviet desk to a new Office of Soviet Union Affairs, of which he would become the director. Meanwhile he had an urgent job for me.

"I want," Jack McSweeney said to me, "To have a full record in Geneva of the communications that have been exchanged between us and the Soviets for the last decade. I am leaving for Geneva in a week, and I want everything shipped by then to our mission in Geneva, by air, diplomatic pouch. It'll be expensive but I've got tne budget. You get all the papers together."

I went to see the Deparment's records supervisor, who groaned. There was a myriad of files, which were arranged not chronologically but by subject. He would have to get a crew to work all the coming weekend to make copies, and the copies would be lumped together in boxes; there would be no time to sort them either by date or by subject. I told McSweeney. OK, he said; just get them.

By Monday morning I had them, eight or ten boxes full. Boxes and Jack McSweemey went off to Geneva.

I turned back to the matter of expelling First Secretary of Embassy Zaostrovtsev. Eventually the paper took final form and went up the line to the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who agreed the man must go. We gave him 48 hours to leave the country.

The Soviets would of course retaliate for the expulsion, as they always did, expelling a member of our embassy of roughly the same rank as the Soviet officer we were sending home.

By now, though, we were on the eve of the conference in Geneva. The Soviet government apparently thought we were trying to get away with something by expelling their man at a moment when the ministers' forthcoming meeting was creating relative good will between us.

Zaostrovtsev ranked no higher than tenth, and perhaps lower, on his embassy's diplomatic list. The Soviet government expelled our number-three, David E. Mark, an exceptional officer who might well have become our ambassador to the Soviet Union but now was precluded from ever returning there. (Later he served ably as U.S. ambassador to Burundi. Evgeny Zaostrovtsev reportedly became a major general in the KGB. The young FSO who had taken the Russian's money was fired and made to register as a foreign agent, but was not prosecuted.)

In July 1959 I was soon to leave the desk to go abroad, not to Moscow as I had anticipated but to Panama; Moscow came later. That month Nikita S. Khrushchev sent his protégé Frol R. Kozlov to visit the United States. Kozlov was a member of the Soviet Politburo and the highest-ranking Soviet official to come to Washington in many years. Vice President Richard M. Nixon acted as his host, and gave a reception for him at Blair House. Nat Davis had my wife and me put on the guest list—the only time we were ever to visit Blair House, even when I held relatively senior positions.

I wondered what might come after Kozlov in our relationship with Moscow. The reciprocal expulsions of Mark and Zaostrovtsev had done no lasting damage, except to David Mark's career.

I think it was Nat Davis who drafted a memo our office sent forward, summarizing Kozlov's visit. Indications were that what Kozlov had seen of America had had a positive effect on him. Presumably he gave a good report to Khrushchev, who came to take a look for himself two months later. 

Several years after I had left the Soviet desk I was spending long weeks on temporary duty at Geneva, as a member of the U.S.delegation to the East-West conference on disarmament. One afternoon the head of the U.S. mission's communications and records section asked if I would take a look at something in the back of the records room. There, sitting dust-covered and unopened, were Jack McSweeney's boxes. Get rid of them, I said.

My old colleagues from the Soviet desk are all gone now. They were kind to me and I learned a lot, in different ways, from each of them.bluestar


Author Ambassador Bridges, a U. S. Foreign Service officer from 1957 to 1986, received assignments abroad at Panama, Moscow, Prague, and Rome, in addition to a posting as US envoy to Somalia. He is the author of Safirka: An American Envoy, a memoir of his service in Somalia, and Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel, the first biography of an American diplomat who became the most influential Confederate editor, both published by Kent State University Press. In 2012 Kent State published his Donn Piatt: Gadfly in the Gilded Age, the biography of an American diplomat who became famous as a Washington editor in the 1870s. The book has been selected for inclusion in the ADST-DACOR series on Diplomats and Diplomacy.

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