The author, who retired from the US Foreign Service after twenty-seven years, is on the journal’s Editorial Review Board. He has published a number of commentaries and essays in the pages of American Diplomacy, including most recently a personal vignette claiming credit for Columbus’ discovery of America, in the journal’s Summer 1998 issue.
Ambassador Lodge Corrects the Record
by J. Edgar Williams
THE LONG-STANDING CONTROVERSY over career US ambassadors versus political appointees—including a relatively recent proposal that the latter be limited to ten percent of the total—causes me to think back over some of my ambassadors. About half of my career abroad at six posts was spent under career people and half under political appointees. One of the ambassadors whom I remember most vividly was John Davis Lodge of Connecticut. Ambassador Lodge had been named to the embassy at Madrid in 1955 after completing a term as governor of Connecticut. Previously he had served two terms in Congress, entering with the post-World War II freshman class which included Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.
I went on direct transfer from London to Madrid in November 1956. During my first eighteen months at the post, I was in charge of the visa section, a duty that ordinarily does not bring one into frequent contact with the ambassador at a large embassy such as Madrid. I don’t recall now exactly how it came about, but the ambassador tapped me as his “traveling aide.” I accompanied him and Mrs. Lodge (and often his younger daughter, Beatrice who married Don Antonio Oyarzábal, later the Spanish ambassador to Washington) on a number of trips around Spain.
Ambassador Lodge was not, to put it mildly indeed, a favorite of the career people in the Department of State who dealt with Spanish affairs. While I am not aware of all the ins and outs, I do know that much of their dislike for him was based on personality ego conflicts. He was a large, imposing man—every inch a New England aristocrat. He simply took it for granted that he would be looked up to and deferred to. It was from him that I first heard the expression “I do not suffer fools gladly.” He had his own ideas about how an ambassador should do his job, and he did not like taking instructions from desk officers or office directors. I believe he saw the assistant secretary as the lowest-ranking person from whom he would accept suggestions. Of course, he would not disobey cabled instructions bearing the name of the secretary, even though he knew quite well that lower ranking officials had drafted such instructions. But he would interpret the content of those cables himself.
Part of the friction between the ambassador and some Foreign Service and Department of State individuals was also due to the fact that Ambassador Lodge was a Republican—a distinguished, senior representative of the party—and it was my observation that by far the majority of career Foreign Service people were Democrats. Some of my career colleagues felt strongly that it was inappropriate for a “right-winger” such as Lodge to be in charge of the mission in Spain, then ruled by General Franco. Some felt that the US Government should not be “cozying up” to this “fascist,” as they saw it; that we should not have signed the 1952 Bases Agreement; that we should not be giving aid to Spain; and that, like the Europeans at the time, we should be virtually boycotting Spain economically and politically. (It has since been amply proven in my estimation how wrong this point of view was.)
Our policy at the time was to emphasize that the United States was cooperating with Spain and its government to benefit the people of Spain, as well as our own interests. Our public pronouncements would seldom, if ever, mention Franco himself as head of state or his single-party régime, but would always center on the Spanish people.
I recall one particular incident, relatively unimportant though it might have been, which illustrated Ambassador Lodge’s firm adherence to overall US policy, rather than following his own whims, the latter an accusation often made in Foreign Service circles. I accompanied the Lodges on a trip to the small province of Cuenca. He was received as a major celebrity by everyone from the governor and the bishop on down. The province’s newspaper and radio station interviewed him (there was no local TV). The radio reporter aired his story on the interview on the evening news and Ambassador Lodge asked him for a transcript, which he always did after radio interviews.
The transcript arrived at the hotel by messenger while we were dining at about 9:00 p.m. He asked me to look it over. I saw immediately that he was quoted as almost parroting the Franco line about the Franco régime being the “advance guard” of Western values—“the sentinel of the West”—against the advance of the Communist East.
The ambassador had said nothing of the sort, but rather had talked about the advances being made by the Spanish people. with aid from United States. He said, “Ed, it looks like we have an evening’s work ahead of us. We’ve got to get them to run a correction.”
We went to the radio station, but it was closed by the time we got there—about ten o’clock. We then went to the governor’s residence to find out how to locate the manager of the station. It took a while, but we found him at his home. He was alarmed by the fact that the American ambassador had a problem with his broadcast. The manager told us we should go and talk to the reporter who had done the interview. It was about 1:30 in the morning before we found him at home. I remember the frightened expression on his face, looking out of an upstairs bedroom window when we knocked on his door. He said of course he would do anything to remedy his mistake, and apologized profusely. He insisted he had simply misunderstood—this although the ambassador spoke excellent Spanish.
We all repaired to the radio station, where we were joined by the manager. They taped a correction. The ambassador and I worked it over carefully so it would not likely be interpreted as offensive to the government, but would conform to our policy of emphasizing our concern for the Spanish people. I wished we had time to consult with the US Information Service people at the embassy, but that was impossible under the circumstances. The correction, the Spanish promised, would be aired twice during morning news broadcasts, and the ambassador in turn agreed to give them a short live interview before we returned to Madrid. USIS usually didn’t like for him to do that without one of them present, but Ambassador Lodge wanted to smooth things over.
We finally got to bed about 4:00 a.m. That morning we listened to the correction and later the ambassador gave them the live interview. All went well, and we resumed our tour of the province. I still have photos of ambassador and Mrs. Lodge surrounded by dozens of beaming children in a rural area of Cuenca, and of myself shaking hands with 105-year-old Tio Lino, the oldest inhabitant.
The next day, we were back in Madrid. The brief episode fortunately had not attracted attention at the national level. But it might have, and my respect for the ambassador had grown as a result of his handling of the incident. He had shown clearly that he was in Spain to promote the best interests of the United States, not to advance some far-right conservative political agenda, as certain of my colleagues seemed to feel.