My Picks: A Top 10 List
By Csaba T. Chikes
This “top ten” list is in response to the editor’s request that American Diplomacy board members each select ten articles from our archives, beginning in 1996, that we believed deserved special recognition.
I have relied on hot tips from an inside source as well as a thoroughly promiscuous search of the archives list by topic, by author and by geographic zone. In the final analysis, however, I pursued an inclination toward articles that caught my attention by relating most directly to my career experiences. And I have also favored articles that prompt comment and discussion, and have yielded to the temptation to offer my thoughts on their subject.
The order of presentation, however, is random and does not indicate any sort of ranking. As mentioned by my predecessors, we choose among an embarrassment of riches.
"Jimmy Carter and the 1979 Decision to Admit the Shah into the United States"
By William J. Daugherty (March 16, 2003)
A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening who-done-it, this article is of special relevance to this period of tumultuous regime change throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
It should give pause to those urging immediate response to unfolding events by reminding them to first consider the possible impact on our Foreign Service colleagues who are literally hostages to the situation until safely evacuated.
This is certainly a wonderfully researched and written piece of diplomatic history. And it is all the more remarkable for the author’s evenhanded tone throughout given the fact that he personally suffered the consequences of the White House decision to admit the Shah in the face of Embassy Tehran’s explicit – and accurate – warnings of the probable Iranian reaction. The article is an unfolding investigation of a mystery that retains its ultimate secrets.
Throughout his investigation of “where did the train leave the tracks and why?” the author draws no conclusions he cannot back up with evidence. In this effort he gets small assistance from the key players, who reveal differing if not contradictory memories as to the details of the decision making process which culminated in the fiasco of epic dimensions for the Embassy’s staff.
In its aftermath, not surprisingly, none of the heavyweights involved (including Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, NSC Director Brzezinski, Secretary of State Vance, Vice President Mondale and President Carter) has been particularly diligent in acknowledging credit for triggering one of the most humiliating chapters in American diplomatic history.
The author resists the temptation to pursue a cui bono line of analysis, which would point to President Carter’s political adversaries heavily lobbying him until he ultimately agreed to a course of action ruinous to his 1980 re-election prospects. After all, the President’s own top advisors – with the notable exception of Undersecretary of State David Newsom - unanimously supported the admission of the Shah.
In the absence of access to the still classified documents, key questions remain unresolved. Specifically the vaguely supported assertions of the life-threatening nature of the Shah’s illness; and the tantalizing possibility that there was a “charge of the light brigade –like” misunderstanding of the presidential directive to admit the Shah, especially with respect to its timing.
The author notes about the timing issue that “probably, even with such a clear expression of the threat (to the mission ~ Ed.) the president would still have admitted the shah, but perhaps with one significant difference, the evacuation of the embassy staff prior to the shah's arrival in New York.”
We must all hope that State will release all relevant classified documents expeditiously so that Dr. Daugherty can complete the record for us. Meanwhile, this account gives us much to ponder as we weigh the appropriate US response to the whirlwind of revolutions threatening the political survival of “friends” and allies throughout the Middle East. Not the least of which is the necessity to factor into any decision the potential for disaster of any disconnect between the view from Washington and that of the mission.
My Dependent Wife
by Lucien Heichler (December 17, 2003)
This is a delightful recounting by Lucian Heichler of arrival on assignment in Berlin describes a period just before the Wall became the most recognizable symbol of the Cold War and West Berlin became the glittering metaphor for democratic freedom and prosperity. The Heichler family surely must have experienced a good deal of stress during their subsequent years at the flashpoint of East-West hostilities. To the author’s credit, however, this account emphasizes the kind of positive impact of the experience on his family that we all hope for our overseas careers.
Evocations of first class air travel to post and the perquisites of Foreign Service life in Germany under the US Army umbrella during the late 1950’s must surely seem echoes of some past civilization to today’s officers en route to their first overseas posting. Indeed, I recall vividly from my first posting in 1972 the nostalgia of my senior officers for the golden days of their early postings some two decades earlier. They spoke of travel by ocean liner; or of champagne send-offs on the tarmac when travel was by air, with the entire diplomatic corps toasting their safe return home.
Meanwhile, as my wife and I departed for post on cabin class jet in 1972 it all seemed perfectly wonderful just to get a free flight to Rome. Admittedly, cabin class then was probably equal to if not better than business class today.
The article also touches on the prevailing conditions for accompanying spouses, which their newly assigned successors can scarcely imagine. For instance, with respect to the spousal “non-personhood” described in the article, 1972 was the first year that mention of spousal performance of expected Embassy “duties” was inadmissible in officer’s performance evaluations. So the resentment of the author’s “independent –minded” wife was somewhat soothed for her successors.
However, the Department is still grappling with the issue of keeping spouses at least satisfied if not outright pleased with the conditions of Foreign Service life. Certainly the emergence of husband and wife officers seeking tandem assignments has alleviated some of the issues while creating other problems, particularly with assignments policies.
The piece’s most amusing anecdote recounts the unexpected delivery of a piano to the author’s residence upon his promotion to today’s FS -2 rank. This was an automatic entitlement to all officers with the rank of Lt. Colonel and above. When the author’s wife phoned the Quartermaster’s office with thanks and to report missing keys and serious tuning issues, she was astonished with his reply.
“Mrs. Heichler, you wanted maybe a piano that plays?”
The logical explanation turned out to be that for the majority of families receiving them, the pianos served as status signifiers, and potted plant stands. However, inasmuch as Mrs. Heichler actually wanted to play her piano, they quickly substituted one in good working order.
This particular snapshot of Foreign Service life under US Army aegis in Germany struck a special chord with me because my tour in Munich coincided with end of that era. In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the mid-1990’s brought the beginning of the massive military drawdown and base closures throughout the country.
On Professionalism Among American Ambassadors
By Henry Mattox (2, 1999)
www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/ AD_Issues/ amdipl_10/ edit_professional.html
Mr. Mattox’ article takes on a topic which is catnip for Foreign Service professionals and the media alike. (For instance the June 9, 2011 issue of “The New Republic”.) The Mattox approach, however, unlike the usual media expose of political appointee incompetence and malfeasance, is the very model of professional discretion and forbearance. In this he certainly reflects what I have found to be the case in thirty years during which I reported to career Ambassadors only three times on overseas assignments – all of whom proved to be an interlude between the 12 non-career appointees. But in every instance Foreign Service officers at post provided unstinting loyal support to ensure that their non-career Ambassador presented America’s best foot forward to the host country and headed a successful mission.
Sometimes, in the case of Embassy Public Affairs Officers, this effort evokes the remark of the legendary Hollywood publicist Pat Kingsley, that “suppress agent” might be a better term for some assignments than “press agent”. To say nothing of the staff morale boost of reporting to an Ambassador who advises his country team that the Foreign Service is vastly overpaid, adding meanwhile that no one worth hiring would work for such pathetically small compensation.
Notwithstanding all, however, in consequence of the tradition of Foreign Service support, even those instances where the mismatch between the appointee’s skill set and the mission is so egregious as to attract media attention, one would be hard pressed to find a single case of serious damage to the bi-lateral relationship. Furthermore, as Mr. Mattox points out, host countries are not unaware of the advantages of having the ear of an Ambassador personally close to the White House.
Now I am pleased to underscore one of the Mattox article’s major observations with a very fond memory of working closely and happily with a highly qualified non-career Ambassador.
As Embassy Copenhagen’s Cultural Affairs 1975-1979 it was my mission to get back into contact with the university and high school students and faculty following the long break during the Viet Nam conflict. Our most effective program for this was to have the U.S. Ambassador appear on campus for a presentation and open question and answer session.
We developed and refined this approach with the enthusiastic participation of career Ambassador John Gunther Dean. Fresh from his Cambodia assignment, he applied himself to achieve fluency in Danish. Given the international publicity assured by the now iconic photo of his departure from Phnom Penh carrying the folded American flag, Ambassador Dean became a lightening rod for discussion about U.S. foreign policy.
The Ambassador’s deft handling of these student audiences, sometimes outfitted with Chinese Peoples Liberation Army hats for the occasion, left even those who disagreed vehemently with his positions with great respect for his willingness to meet with them.
As Ambassador Dean moved on to the next of his three additional Ambassadorships, and we received word that his successor would not be career appointment we were left wondering who would carry on this important public affairs role for the mission. This was indeed a hard act to follow.
Our worries proved unfounded because Ambassador Warren Manshel rounded out his credentials as an investment banker with a Harvard PhD in Political Science. In addition, as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and co-founder of “The Public Interest” and “Foreign Policy” magazines, his credibility with the Danish intelligentsia was assured. Especially fond are memories of Ambassador Manshel in the well of a Danish university lecture hall leaving a largely “Marxist” inclined audience completely perplexed with his liberal on domestic while conservative on foreign policy approach.
In sum, one cannot help wondering how enthusiastically the professional military to say nothing of the public at large would receive the idea of routinely assigning nearly one- third of the four star positions to non- military appointees.
Furthermore it is probably safe to assume that the general public is completely unaware that the Foreign Service is unique within federal civilian personnel in that, like the military, the Foreign Service employs an up-or-out promotion system. Understanding this is key to some appreciation of the impact of of appointing Ambassadors from outside of the career ranks.
In the 12 years since Mr. Mattox’ editorial the number of politically appointed ambassadors has continued to hover around the traditional 30% level, still concentrated heavily within the EUR Bureau.
So notwithstanding the appreciation for their fine performance we have all surely experienced at one point or another in the service of non-career Ambassadors, a major troubling consideration will certainly remain beyond remedy.
Fortunately, we may take professional comfort that our history has shown that the Foreign Service has faithfully pursued the British admonition to keep calm and carry on.
By Bart Moon (October12, 2009)
www.unc.edu/depts/ diplomat/item/ 2009/ 1012/fsl/fsl_moon.html
I confess that I was tipped off about why this story would be of special interest to me. It had to do with the most interesting aspects of a Cultural Affairs Officer’s job: care and feeding of top American writers, artists and musicians who are visiting your post as cultural envoys participating in your programs.
Bart Moon summarizes the importance of these “soft diplomacy” programs during the Cold War: “to show the world that the United Sates was not the greed driven cultural wasteland depicted by our foes (not to mention some of our allies)”.
Moon’s enjoyable account relates the most adventurous – and potentially disastrous - portion of the 1981 visit to Venezuela by famed Pulitzer Prize winning author John Updike and his wife for a series of programs, interviews, meetings with students and other public appearances.
The day before their scheduled departure for Boston from Caracas, the Updikes were treated by the Venezuelan government to a special visit to a newly completed immense hydroelectric project deep within the country’s foreboding terrain near the borders with Guyana and Brazil. With Moon and his wife assigned as last minute escort officers, the party ventured out via small aircraft, dugout canoe and helicopter to the remote site.
The party’s helicopter crashed atop a 3000-foot tall mesa within yards of a large formidably deep crevice, stranding the party. Fortunately no one was hurt and the project’s freight helicopters rescued the group. The small plane that was to return them to Caracas damaged its wing while landing but managed a safe – if white knuckled - flight back, notwithstanding the strangely bent wingtip.
The author’s main point of the tale was his lasting impression of Updike as a charming travelling companion throughout this near-calamity laden adventure. Here was one of America’s most prominent authors without the slightest hint of being self-impressed--truly one hell of a nice guy. And it was all the more memorable for being so rare at this level of accomplishment and fame.
The article’s special resonance for me was my own experience as host for the Updikes’ visit to Copenhagen in the late fall of 1977, shortly after his marriage to his now widow. He was the perfect cultural envoy for my Danish target audiences during this period of widespread anti-American sentiment on campus and the media.
Although Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Chile were the favored topics of students, writers and intellectuals in any dialogue with the Embassy, Updike easily won them over with his emphasis on the situation of the average, non-heroic American struggling to make something of his life, particularly throughout the famed “Rabbit” series. In this, he readily found a common ground with the Danish everyman to which his audiences related with empathy and openness to dialogue.
My very positive experience with the Updikes on a personal level mirrored completely that of the Moons. Perhaps my favorite memory is of the reception at our place when my eight months pregnant wife expressed her appreciation to Updike for having created a most desirable pregnant woman in “Couples” (if not in all of American literature) as the prime object of the womanizing protagonist’s desire.
We were struck by how insistently Updike emphasized that he was simply accurately reflecting the feelings of the protagonist and did not deserve special credit for that. His characters had their own reality, after all.
The Futile Search for Root Causes of Terrorism
By Michael Radu (August 16, 2002)
Dr. Radu’s article, now coming up on its ninth anniversary since publication, has compelling relevance today with pro-democracy activism erupting throughout the Middle East and North Africa. But during the intervening decade we appear no closer to grasping the root causes of terrorism, let alone a solution to its growth and threat to democratic societies.
The current situation on the ground is severely testing the fundamental principle of supporting the establishment of democracy throughout the Muslim world as the best assurance against terrorism. Indeed, throughout the current turmoil, a chief obstacle governing our response has been that we are more confident in our ability to identify the bad players to oppose than the good ones to support.
Dr. Radu offers no sure solutions. He is scrupulous in his analysis of false premises hindering our grasp of the causes of terrorism, to the degree that he explicitly disavows any attempt on his part to “explain” terrorism. His stated intention is to refocus the debate by casting doubt on the conventional explanations based on “poverty, injustice, exploitation and frustration.”
His persuasive case against such oversimplification is based on the fact that the practitioners of the most spectacular acts of terrorism (9/11) are decidedly not poor and uneducated but to the contrary, middle class, relatively privileged and well educated, often by universities in the countries they later target.
For the situation facing us today, most directly in the case of the revolution in Libya, Dr Radu’s analysis leads to the sobering thought that should the triumph of the anti-Qaddafi rebels led to an Islamist state, we may well face a far greater threat of terrorism from that quarter than we have under Qaddafi in recent years. Specifically, Dr. Radu states, “ we are told, the Islamic states are poor and undemocratic, which justifies rebellion against their tyrannical rulers.
Why is that so, and what can be done about it by Muslims and others? Perhaps most Muslim countries are undemocratic because they are Muslim… And why would "democracy" be better in Saudi Arabia morally, ideologically, and practically, where the chances of an Islamist getting elected are at least as great as in Algeria?”
Finally, this is how Dr. Radu sees a link between poverty and terrorism: “The poor in Muslim states may be the popular base of terrorist support, but they have neither the money nor the votes (who votes doesn't count, who counts them does, in Stalin's immortal words) the privileged do. Ultimately, Islamic terrorism, just as its Marxist or secessionist version in the West and Latin America was, is a matter of power—who has it and how to get it—not of poverty.”
One of his statements which gave me pause was that Muslim terrorists share with “Marxist-cum-separatist groups like the Turkish PKK, the Basque ETA, the Sri Lankan LTTE, and the Irish Republican Army” a common hatred of the western culture of democracy”…including “capitalism (hated in a very ecumenical way by Marxists of all stripes and Islamists).” We had understood that a powerful motivation of the mujahedin (including bin Laden) fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was theirloathing of atheistic communism. Overall it is a most provocative and insightful article.
America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire
Reviewed by Gerald J. Loftus (January 15, 2008)
America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire. By Mark L. Gillem (University of Minnesota Press, September 1, 2007, 350 pages, $24.95)
www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/item/ 2008/0103/ book/book_loftus_americatown.html
What I found so appealing about this piece is Gerald Loftus’ perfect execution of a book review’s raison d’etre: he has made me want to read the book by giving me the right information to whet my interest. This includes his analysis of the book’s subject matter as well as his estimation of the author’s presentation of it.
Like Mr. Loftus, I too used to marvel at the near perfect cloning of American suburbia of the 60’s which our housing compounds and military bases represented in host countries. Indeed, the book’s author refers to these settlements as “America Towns”. In Bonn, for example, the diplomatic community was housed in a movie set, compound where white columned clapboard protestant churches formed a focal point in a green sea of perfectly groomed lawns and Little League baseball fields.
But while the reviewed book’s title “America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire” raises warning flags against an anti-imperialist screed, Loftus credits the author, Mark L. Gillem with an even-handed approach to a subject which all too readily has been the object of ideological polemic.
Thanks in no small part to Professor Gillem’s unique background as an architect with extensive military experience (he is a retired Lt Col in the US Army Reserves), the book’s interdisciplinary approach raises rarely posed questions about the link between America’s forward bases and US foreign and military policy.
As Mr. Loftus points out, “Bothersome as some might find the notion of “empire” and its military manifestations, Gillem points to a trend that could be even more troublesome: the prospect that technology could obviate the need for overseas bases… [but] U.S. bases on foreign soil require coordination with allies, permissions from hosts. “CONUS” based B-2s allow for unilateral action.
“America Towns” are in fact tripwires, with both negative and positive aspects for the practice of international relations…But if there’s no American tripwire on the ground at all — and if it is possible to rain down “shock and awe” from a continent away — will there be a consequent brake on the decision to use military force?
Mark Gillem gives us much material for reflection, and his book is a valuable contribution to the study of American engagement with the world.” As Mr. Loftus’ review is a valuable contribution to our readers in bringing to our attention this special perspective on how the way we live overseas may have an impact on our strategic possibilities, as well as on our projected image.
Smith-Mundt: Censorship American Style?
By Gregory L. Garland (March 3, 2009)
This article caught my eye because it takes on a topic understandably unfamiliar to readers who have not been involved with USG public diplomacy effort overseas, especially during the years that USIA was its responsible agency.
I remember vividly sometime during the first year of my USIA career some sort of major flap between the White House and Senator J. William Fulbright over a Smith-Mundt violation involving the “unauthorized” screening of a USIA film (“Czechoslovakia ‘68”) for U.S. audiences.
Alas, the details blur but the upshot was that the Justice Department refused to intervene on behalf of the Senator’s complaint to the Attorney General based on their interpretation of existing U.S. law. And based on this event, Congress amended the Smith-Mundt Act in 1972 to explicitly prohibit the domestic dissemination of materials produced by the USIA.
Ironically, at the opposite end of my PD career, a post consolidation/post retirement year in the Bureau of International Organizations once again brought Smith-Mundt to the fore in a most unusual context. Specifically, with the assignment for the first time of PD officers to the U.S. Mission to the UN, State Department lawyers parsed the Act to specify under what conditions we were permitted to carry out PD programs in New York City.
The ruling was made that inasmuch as the UN building was legally extraterritorial, we went ahead with exhibits and speakers programs, as we would have at any of our overseas missions. Ditto for published material where distribution occurred only on the premises of the building. The fact that U. S. citizens could happen across these materials on site was similar to their ability to listen - as Greg Garland notes - to VOA shortwave or access USG material via Internet.
I have heard from a retired USIA colleague, echoing Garland’s point that the relevant provisions of the Act are unenforceable and without sanction, that Smith-Mundt has also served as an all too easy excuse for inaction by lazy or incompetent public diplomatists to avoid doing their work. The argument is that they need only invoke Smith-Mundt to slow down the process and de-rail a program they don't want to carry out.
Certainly Garland’s very practical angle that Smith-Mundt shields PD-specific programming from PA resource raids rings painfully relevant in a lean and hungry budget environment. In any event, I have also found persuasive the case that prohibition of domestic dissemination reflects a patronizing, if not condescending, attitude toward our fellow Americans. We owe Greg our thanks for putting this relatively obscure topic into play for our readers.
www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/item/ 2009/0709/fsl/ fsl_sommers.html
By William Sommers (September 14, 2009)
William Sommers’ allusion to Proust’s masterwork is certainly well founded in his own remembrance of things past. His article is crafted with remarkable candor as he owns up to the sorrow and struggle he inflicted on Saisith, the Thai colleague he respected most, by forcing on him the difficult and dangerous assignment of turning around the situation of a Thai province under relentless assault from communist insurgents during the height of the Vietnam war.
Certainly we have all had close friendships with our Foreign Service national colleagues at various posts. But there are undoubtedly few examples of such high stakes at play in a professional relationship between an American officer and his FSN partner. By all evidence presented, Sommers clearly made the right move in 1966 - both in terms of the mission and his friend’s career potential - to better the lives of Saisith’s countrymen.
Saisith was obviously the right man for the job; on the basis not only of his educational preparation but even more on the strength of his unique ability to relate to the impoverished and endangered villagers who needed his protection from the attacks of the insurgents and the torpor of their own government’s bureaucracies.
The author does not flinch from characterizing the pain and sense of betrayal felt by his friend in being forced, as he saw it, into exile. The article moves through the years of Saisith’s success on both fronts. He organized the villagers to defend themselves from the insurgents and assured them of support from Thai soldiers, police and local officials. Within three years Saisith literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency for the benefit of his counterparts throughout the country based on his locally developed methods.
And by the time Sommers was able to visit his friend on a return to Thailand in 1981, Saisith had risen to the governorship of a “small heavily populated tourist oriented province next to Bangkok”. It was on this occasion that Saisith revealed his 15-year-old wounds to Sommers: “You know, Bill, that was a terrible thing you did, sending me to Loeng Nuk Tha. It was the worst, the very worst. It took everything I had and more just to survive. Your visits helped a lot. Then you left…like…your work was done but mine wasn’t. That really hurt. It took me a long time to get over that.”
But it was also the occasion of forgiveness, reconciliation, and closure. With the conclusion of this journey to Sommers’ past, the reader’s appreciation of the author’s craft grows with the recollection that the accidental discovery of Saisith’s book 28 years after their final meeting was the catalyst for this wonderful tale of remembrance.
Opening the cover of Saisith’s book, Fighting The Communist Insurgency With Village Cooperation, the author again finds Saisith’s hand-written dedication in English: “To the only man who knows Thailand and its people – William A. Sommers…Saisith, May 14, 1969.” And is swept back to 1966 in Thailand, taking his grateful readers along for the ride.
The Victors and the Vanquished 2003
By Michael Hornblow (January 12, 2004)
www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/archives_roll/ 2004_01-03/ hornblow_victor/ hornblow_victor.html
These annual New Year’s “who’s in – who’s out” lists are great fun albeit a great challenge to any writer in terms of getting the facts and humor just right. Associate Editor Mike Hornblow’s piece hit the spot as he courageously called them as he saw them and still makes for a lively read more than eight years after the fact.
This is a truly educational while entertaining way to capture the year past in international affairs and well worth the effort in terms of rewarding our readers. Monday morning quarterbacking is part of the fun, especially with the advantage of eight years worth of unfolding developments to draw upon.
But it is equally satisfying to see this genre in terms of the ancient Roman dictum “hodie mihi, cras tibi” which graces so many old headstones. For example, Colonel Qaddafi does not make Mike’s top ten as a winner but appears in the body of the article as an all time loser reemerging as a possible winner. It will be interesting to see where he comes out in a 2011 victors and vanquished list.
Similarly, the seesaw between Wilsonian idealism and Nixonian realism is once again playing out in US responses to pro democracy activism in the Arab world. Let’s hope we can persuade Mike, or another contributor, to carry on with these lists.
A Venture in Scholarship
Editor’s Introduction by Henry Mattox (2/1999)
www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/AD_Issues amdipl_10/ venture.html
An Experiment in Oral History
Comments by Michael H. Hunt (2/1999)
www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/AD_Issues/ amdipl_10/ venturenotes.html
Anti-Americanism at Ground Level: FSOs remember the Cold War Caribbean
By Alan McPherson (2/1999)
www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/AD_Issues/ amdipl_10/ mcpherson.html
Connecting Communities: Using Oral History to Bring Academics and retired Foreign Service Officers Together
By Matthew Jacobs (2/1999)
www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/AD_Issues/ amdipl_10/ jacobs.html
“A Most Unusual Type of Work”
Tourists, the Paris Embassy, and U.S.-French Relations
By Christopher Endy (2/1999)
www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/AD_Issues/ amdipl_10/ endy.html
Further Notes on Method
By Michael Hunt and Henry Mattox (2/1999)
www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/AD_Issues/ amdipl_10/ venturenotes.html
These articles appear bundled in an interesting package entitled “A Venture in Scholarship, cross-generational discussions on the craft of diplomacy, a new project from American Diplomacy.” One cannot help commenting on this exciting initiative as Gandhi purportedly responded when asked about his views on Western Civilization: “It's a good idea. They should try it.” Except in this case a better response would be, “It’s a good idea worth trying again.”
So far as I have been able to determine, there has been no follow-up to this 1998 joint experimental oral history project between American Diplomacy and the UNC graduate program in history to mine the rich resources of the retired Foreign Service community throughout the Chapel Hill area.
Some of the findings of the researchers after conducting fifteen hours of interviews with nine retired FSOs will probably surprise no one who has labored in the vineyards of the State Department.
For example, would a Consular Officer – or even the three interviewed - be terribly likely to be able to determine from the cross section of American tourists seeking Embassy assistance the extent to which such tourists were conscious of their ‘ambassadorial’ responsibilities while abroad? Or even to be aware that the USG harbored such expectations of them during the Cold War?
Further, is a pool of three mid-level interviewees sufficient in number or as a representative sample of Embassy personnel to draw definitive conclusions as to the extent of racism among the staff at a given mission? Also problematic was the reported split in attitude toward the host country between middle and upper Embassy ranks, again apparently on the basis of three interviews.
Surely, it will come as no revelation that mid-level officers do not “make” US foreign policy. For that matter is it altogether clear even to Ambassadors exactly how the fudge factory in Foggy Bottom produces this rarified substance? We need only read William Daugherty’s excellent piece heading up this series of articles to learn that we have been unable to this day to determine exactly who in Washington overruled Embassy Tehran’s pleas in 1979 against admitting the Shah of Iran into the United States.
The most pointed example of the flawed premise issue was perhaps the project soliciting first hand experience of the USG’s apparent Cold War effort to influence a more positive French public opinion of the US by using American tourists as “agents” of Cold War cultural diplomacy.
The most problematic methodology employed in this specific study consisted of providing the three retired Foreign Service interviewees with primary source material on the tourist cultural diplomacy initiative to read in preparation for follow-up interviews once it became apparent that they had never experienced this phenomenon during their work at embassy Paris.
Another researcher expressed surprise at the absence of unanimity of voices and views within the State Department on issues dealing with the Middle East. To his credit, however, this researcher, as well as the other two, appeared aware of the potential for distortions creeping into his conclusions from the prejudices he brought to the interview process regarding State officers and their “agenda.”
It is not clear from the series of articles whether the advice on oral history methodology from American Diplomacy editor Henry Mattox and Professor Michael Hunt was absorbed by the three researchers prior to their interview projects.
But it is heartening to learn from their articles that the researchers came away from this project with minds more opened to the realities of Foreign Service work overseas and the subsequent sharpening of their research goals.
It would be interesting to hear about any additional oral history projects involving retired Foreign Service officers in the twelve years since the launch of this American Diplomacy special project. All the more so because it was already apparent that the graduate students had been honing in on the key to success, which Gertrude Stein spelled out quite succinctly on her deathbed. Supposedly, as she was being wheeled into the Paris operating room for surgery on the cancer which soon after killed her she asked her romantic partner, "What is the answer?" When she received no answer, Stein said, "In that case, what is the question?"