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by William N. Dale

A common perception of American diplomats by the public, sometimes abetted by scholars,1 is that they are largely from northeastern states, the products of socially prominent families, who have attended preparatory schools followed by Harvard, Yale or Princeton. Often, it is thought, they enjoy private incomes in addition to their salaries. In recent decades, Dean G. Acheson, secretary of state from 1949 to 1953, and John Foster Dulles, secretary from 1953 to 1959, come to mind as well-known prime examples at the top of the profession. “Mainstream” Americans from the heartland, it is thought, diplomats do not make, even in this greatest of all democracies.

 To be sure, hearkening back to years gone by there may be a grain of truth in this idea, given that the merit-based Foreign Service of the United States came into existence only in 1924, well after most industrialized nations had set up career services. But in my experience as a post-Second World War U. S. diplomat, such simply was not the case. By no means most of the Foreign Service personnel that I knew, even the older senior officers, fit the wealthy Ivy Leaguer description; rather, they came from all around the United States, from all sorts of colleges and universities (and occasionally without a college degree), and from families from all walks of American life. Such was my impression.

In evaluating the accuracy of this impression, as contrasted with the stereotype of the U. S. diplomat, it may be instructive to take a quick look at the backgrounds and careers of three senior American diplomats. I chose them became they became heavily involved in American Cold War initiatives of particular importance to the nation. All three were major actors on the U. S.-Soviet policy scene prior to the time when the collapse of the U.S.S.R. could have been very easily even imagined, much less predicted. All three, it happens, were influential on policy questions for years after I entered the Service in 1946. How well does the socioeconomic elitist image fit when applied to these influential Foreign Service officers? Let us see.

Loy Wesley Henderson

 We begin with Loy W. Henderson — Mr. Foreign Service,” as he was known upon retirement after a long career in Washington and abroad.

Henderson was born at Rogers, Arkansas, in 1892, the son of a Methodist minister who moved frequently in the search for a church that would pay enough for him to support his five children. After working his way through Northwestern University and following employment with the Red Cross in Central Europe, Henderson entered the Consular Service in 1922 (until 1924, the U. S. Consular and Diplomatic services were separate entities). He had as his first major task investigating the connection between the Soviet Comintern and left wing organizations in the United States, followed significantly by assignment to the American Embassy at Riga, Latvia, a listening post with its attention directed toward the Soviet Union. Here he came into contact with a broad range of anti-Soviet exiles, all highly critical of the Moscow government.

In 1934, upon the Roosevelt Administration extending diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union, Henderson began his direct involvement in U. S.-Soviet affairs by reopening, as second secretary, the American Embassy in Moscow. William C. Bullitt, a member of the Philadelphia social elite and sometime-diplomatic emissary, was the first ambassador. Junior career diplomats George F. Kennan and Charles E. (“Chip”) Bohlen aided in the effort. When in 1935 the Soviets broke their pledge, made at the time of diplomatic recognition, not to interfere in U. S. domestic politics, Ambassador Bullitt returned to Washington in disgust, leaving Henderson for a time as chargé d’affaires. In that position of responsibility, he had occasion early on to warn Washington that the Soviet Union was likely to cooperate with Nazi Germany, despite the ongoing war of words between the two countries. The U.S.S.R. later did just that, for reasons having to do importantly with Stalin’s fear of provoking Hitler; the startling Soviet-German Non-aggression Pact of 1939 paved the way for Germany’s invasion of Poland and permitted the Soviet Union to share in carving up that unfortunate nation.

Henderson, meanwhile, had returned to the Department of State, in 1937 taking charge of Eastern European Affairs. After Pearl Harbor, Henderson saw as the principal job of his office expediting military aid to the Soviets in the fight against the Axis, but at the same time he believed that cooperation would last only as long as the Soviet government saw an overwhelming need for American assistance. He remained convinced that Moscow sought global aggrandizement of communism and that this aim put the Soviet Union and the United States on a collision course. Therefore, Henderson argued for caution in extending U. S. aid. As a consequence, he became a target of criticism from the Soviet embassy in Washington, leftist groups in the country, and some of the more liberal members of the Roosevelt Administration.

By July 1943, at FDR’s behest, Henderson found himself named to Iraq as minister, presenting his credentials in November. He began assiduously to acquire a knowledge of the Middle East, a region new to him, and by 1945 when he returned in Washington, he was named as director of Middle Eastern Affairs. It was a fateful assignment. The following year, Moscow made demands on Turkey, including demands for territory in eastern Turkey and participation in control of the Dardanelles, which would give the U.S.S.R. its long-desired warm water access to world sea lanes. Henderson, with Acting Secretary of State Acheson, was instrumental in helping to convince President Truman to express support for Turkey and to dispatch fleet units to the eastern Mediterranean. The Soviets thereafter withdrew some of their demands.

In February 1947, the British embassy at Washington informed Henderson that the United Kingdom had come to the end of its ability to bolster Greece, which was then undergoing an active communist insurgency, and Turkey. He began the process of persuading his superiors up the line, including Truman, that the United States would have to take up the British burden in the region. He was directly involved in drawing up the plans to strengthen Greece and Turkey, and to sell this new Cold War development to the American public and the Congress. The result was the Truman Doctrine, the first formal program under the administration’s Containment Policy contemporaneously enunciated by George Kennan, which was to provide overall direction for U. S. foreign policy for decades to come.

The senior diplomat’s next undertaking met with less success, as far as he was concerned. Henderson feared that active Washington involvement in setting up a Jewish state in Palestine, a development that was anathema to the Arab majority in the region, would cost the United States Arab nations’ support in programs designed to block Soviet expansion in the Middle East, and could endanger U. S. access to oil.

“In the election year of 1948, Henderson’s views [on partitioning Palestine] did not prevail . . . Truman banished him to India as ambassador.”

A major controversy arose between Secretary of State George C. Marshall and Henderson on one side, and Presidential advisors such as David Niles and Clark Clifford on the other. Marshall and Henderson, speaking for the Department of State, opposed the United Nations resolution dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, while the latter advisors, along with American Jewish groups and much of the general public, favored it. In the election year of 1948, Henderson’s views did not prevail; after a number of heated debates, Truman sent him to India as ambassador, banishing him again from the Washington policy-making scene.

In the fall of 1951, the White House switched Henderson back to the Middle Eastern region, naming him as emissary to the problem spot of Iran. There he dealt with the prime minister, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, on questions associated with Iran’s oil reserves previously owned by British interests that Mossadegh had recently nationalized. Although he admired the Iranian leader in many ways, he feared that a long struggle over prices would permit the communist Tudeh party to take control. Therefore, he helped put together the controversial 1953 CIA-assisted coup. After the successful overthrow of the Mossadegh government, the new Iranian leaders speedily reached agreement with the West and the Iranian oil problem remained in remission for nearly thirty years. In 1954, Henderson returned to Washington to receive the Department of State Distinguished Service Award and appointment as deputy undersecretary for administration. After more than two years spent reorganizing the Department, he retired in 1957, the widely-admired model of a Foreign Service officer for a whole generation of career diplomats.

In 1986, Loy Henderson died at the age of ninety-three. Although he was heavily criticized for his deep suspicions of Soviet motives and for his inflexibility in applying the doctrine of Containment, were Henderson alive today, he could reply that at least the policy he advocated had worked.

George Frost Kennan

 George F. Kennan came from the Midwest, born in 1904 at Milwaukee to a family with a farming background and a Scottish heritage. One of his forebears was a Revolutionary War colonel and another, a cousin of his grandfather, was a well-known earlier writer on Russian affairs, also with the name George Kennan. The family was respectable, if not especially distinguished, and certainly not wealthy.

Kennan did, however, fit the elitist model in that he attended Princeton. There, he had to work to make enough money for the bus fare to return home on holidays, and found it noteworthy that he actually knew a few students who were “even poorer” than he.2 After graduation, the socially diffident and little-traveled, but intellectually gifted youngster from Wisconsin began a Foreign Service career in 1926. There followed a succession of posts abroad and a steady progression in rank, responsibility, and self-confidence. From early days, he specialized in Soviet affairs. Like Henderson, he served at the American Embassy in Latvia. As already noted, in 1934 he was a member of the newly reopened mission in Moscow. By the mid-1940s, he assumed charge of the Embassy in Moscow in the absence from the country of Ambassador Harriman.

In that capacity he first set forth the principles of Containment, the foundation, in one form or another, of the U. S. position on the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.

“It would be difficult to overstate Kennan’s influence on foreign policy formulation in the crucial first few years after the close of World War II.”

His thinking over years of service in Moscow, other European posts, and Washington found expression in classified form in what came to be known as the “Long Telegram,” sent from Moscow in February 1946. The message put cogently the arguments for adopting a hard line against the Soviets, arguments to which official Washington was receptive; Kennan’s professional reputation was made. His subsequent “X” article in Foreign Affairs.3 and its restatement of the rationale for containment — “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” — made his name in the intellectual community.

It would be difficult to overstate Kennan’s influence on foreign policy formulation in the crucial first few years after the close of World War II. He argued basically that the United States should cease making concessions to the Soviets, should support resistance to Soviet expansionism, and should await the development of internal weaknesses in the sprawling country. Such, with variations, was the essence of America’s Cold War policy through at least the decision to withdraw from Vietnam.

Kennan himself did not last in the halls of power nearly as long as did the Containment Policy he spawned (and later came to disavow). Soon after the outbreak of the Korean War, he was eased out of the influential position to which he had risen so quickly; he took leave of government, to return briefly as ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952 and to Yugoslavia, 1961-1963. The rest of his long life has been spent as a highly prolific and respected historian and Soviet analyst in academia. At present, in his nineties, he is on emeritus status at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.

Llewellyn E. (“Tommy”) Thompson, Jr.

If Henderson and Kennan formulated American policy for the Cold War, “Tommy” Thompson took a major role in carrying it out. Born in 1904 at Las Animas, Colorado, the son of a rather unsuccessful rancher, Thompson worked his way through the University of Colorado at Boulder, graduating in 1928. He heard from a retired consul about the attractions of a diplomatic career and entered the Foreign Service in 1928. After initial assignments in Ceylon and Switzerland and a course at the prestigious Army War College, he went to Moscow in late 1940 (unlike Henderson and other American experts on Soviet affairs, he did not serve in Latvia for what amounted to an introductory tour on the Soviet Union). With the approach of the invading German army the following year, most of the diplomatic corps left the capital, but Thompson stayed on at his post to protect American interests.4

This first experience in the country heightened his admiration for the Russian people, but he developed a fundamental distrust of the communist government. He believed that Moscow intended to impose its system on any territories the Red Army would occupy after the war. Like Henderson and others, his great concern was that as a consequence armed conflict might break out between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Following a post-war tour in the Department of State as the head of Eastern European affairs, Thompson went to Vienna in 1952 as ambassador and high commissioner, representing the United States among the four occupying powers. He took the lead in negotiating the Austrian peace treaty, managing to thwart the Soviets’ plans to impose restrictions on Austrian sovereignty. It took nearly 400 negotiating sessions and eight months of separate talks on the disposition of Trieste, but Thompson and his British, French, and Soviet colleagues reached agreement on the creation of an independent, non-aligned Austria. His negotiating skills earned him an outstanding reputation in the Eisenhower Administration and, like Henderson, the Distinguished Service Award.

A natural progression upward was assignment in 1957, for the first of two tours, as ambassador in Moscow. On his initial posting to the Soviet Union, one of his prime duties was dealing with the volatile premier, Nikita S. Khrushchev. Thompson had some success in containing the premier’s outrage over the U-2 incident in 1960, even though Khrushchev did stamp on his foot once at a diplomatic reception. The following year, the ambassador, acting on instructions, managed to convince the premier that the United States would meet with force any attempt by the Soviets or the East Germans to block Western access to Berlin again.

Thompson departed in July 1962 to take up the a position as ambassador at large in Washington with responsibilities as special advisor to the President and Secretary of State on Eastern Europe. He arrived back in the United States just in time for the fast-moving Cuban Missile Crisis in October. A member of the inner group of Presidential aides, he advised President Kennedy against attacking the Russian missile bases in Cuba, noting that his knowledge of the Soviet premier’s personality led him to believe that Khrushchev would feel forced to retaliate, either in Berlin or against American missiles in Turkey, if the Soviets suffered casualties. Instead, he recommended replying to one of the Soviet leader’s letters in terms that would permit a modicum of face saving. Afterward, several American leaders praised his wise counsel in a time of great tension and pressure.

Thompson returned to Russia to spend another tour of duty during the period 1967-1969, but was unable to establish effective working relations with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev due to controversy over U. S. involvement in Vietnam. Back in the Department of State, despite illness, he agreed to serve on the delegation to the SALT I strategic arms talks. Senior officials considered his knowledge of the inner workings of the Soviet government essential to successful negotiations. In addition, he served on the CIA Board of National Estimates. His health deteriorated, however (for some years, milk and graham crackers had formed staples of his diet). Finally, Tommy Thompson retired in 1971 and died of cancer the following year after a career devoted to helping guide his country through one of the most dangerous periods of its history.

The views of the three American diplomats discussed here — Henderson, Kennan, and Thompson — carried considerable weight in forming and implementing U. S. Cold War policies in opposition to communism and the Soviet Union. They were among the very best in the profession that the country had to offer. They were experienced, independent thinkers, and professionals all in the arcane world of diplomacy. But these three fail to fit the picture sometimes painted of an élite Easterner from a prestigious university in the Northeast. One was from the a rural state in the South, another from the upper Midwest, and the third from a Western state. One was from the a rural state in the South, another from the upper Midwest, and the third from a Western state.

“[Henderson, Kennan, and Thompson] were among the very best in the profession that the country had to offer.”

They all came from modest backgrounds. Only one attended an Ivy League school, and he found it necessary in part to pay his own way.

Lest the subjects of this study be taken as completely atypical, a larger group intimately concerned with U. S.-Soviet relations may be considered briefly. Building upon the implicit idea that U. S.-Soviet relations were of supreme importance in the Cold War years, I continue with a consideration of all the post-war American ambassadors to Moscow, in addition to Kennan and Thompson, through the end of the 1970s. The first two named after the war, Walter Bedell Smith (who served at the Moscow Embassy from 1946 to 1948) and Alan G. Kirk (1949-51), had backgrounds as career army and navy officers, respectively; the last in this time period taking us into the ’80s, the wealthy Thomas J. Watson, Jr. (1979-1981), was the son of the founder of IBM. General Smith was from Indiana, Admiral Kirk from Pennsylvania, and Watson from Connecticut. Smith did not attend college before obtaining a commission in the army, Kirk was a product of the U. S. Naval Academy, and Watson graduated from Brown University.

Five additional ambassadors, all career diplomats, also filled the post. Charles E. (“Chip”) Bohlen was envoy to the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1957. Born at Clayton, New York, in 1904, he attended an exclusive preparatory school and earned a BA at Harvard University in 1927. Foy D. Kohler, at Moscow from 1962 to 1966, came from Ohio, born in 1908; he attended Toledo University and graduated from Ohio State in 1931. Born in 1908, Jacob D. Beam of New Jersey, like Kennan, finished at Princeton, in his case in 1929; Beam served as ambassador from 1969 to 1973. Walter J. Stoessel, Jr., from Manhattan, Kansas, finished at Stanford University in 1941 and filled the Moscow ambassadorial slot from 1974 to 1976. Finally in this group, Malcolm Toon, born at Troy, New York, in 1916, earned an AB degree at Tufts University in 1937 and an MA at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1939; his tour at Moscow was from 1977 to 1979.

We consider, then, eleven Cold War-era Soviet experts in positions of authority and responsibility, including Henderson, Kennan, and Thompson — eight who were career diplomats and three who were not. All but Henderson served, among other assignments over the years, as American ambassador in the Soviet Union, and Henderson, of course, held the position of chargé there at one time and was intimately involved in the conduct of U. S.-Soviet relations. Of these eight careerists and three nonprofessionals who concerned themselves with American Cold War policy over the decades until 1980, five originated in the Northeast. Five of the eleven attended Eastern universities and one finished at Annapolis.

Another way of putting it is that about one-half of this group, as professionally prestigious and important as they all were in policy terms, comprise an element of American society that by no means could be termed “élitist.” Half of them came from the heartland, sprang from the unrich and socially unfamous, and attended schools relatively unrenowned. The organization that formed them professionally, the Foreign Service of the United States, is an élite group of careerists, but its individual members, I submit, demonstrate that excellence can originate anywhere in this great nation.End.

1. A study of the diplomatic profession worldwide, for example, holds that most U. S. diplomats “have origins in the upper-middle cross-section, . . .” Martin Mayer, The Diplomats. New York: Doubleday , 1983. 128.”

2. George F. Kennan, Memoirs, 1925-1950. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967. 12.

3. See Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946, Vol. VI, Eastern Europe, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1969, pp. 696-709, and Foreign Affairs, XXV, no. 4 (July, 1947), 566-82. Walter LaFeber, The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad since 1750. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. 449-52, presents a useful brief summary of the impact of Kennan and those two documents.

4. The U. S. ambassadors under whom he worked in Moscow were Laurence A. Steinhardt, who departed in late 1941, William H. Standley, 1942-1943, and W. Averell Harriman, 1943-1946.



Bill Dale

Bill Dale, U. S. ambassador to the Central African Republic in the early 1970s, served as a career diplomat for thirty years, beginning in 1946.


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