A new project from American Diplomacy—
During August and September 1998, I conducted oral history interviews with three former members of the U.S. Foreign Service who had worked in the Paris Embassy in the 1950s and 1960s. These interviews offered a valuable resource for my dissertation on American tourism in France from 1945 to 1969. Traditional diplomatic history sources such as the Foreign Relations of the United States series have relatively little to say on the subject. Oral histories with Foreign Service officers who had worked in the Paris embassy consular section thus offer insight into an otherwise poorly documented realm of U.S. foreign relations. Consular officers can also illuminate the general life of Americans in a foreign city and thus represent a great source, not just for diplomatic history, but also for cultural and social history.
But oral histories are not perfect tools for historians. My interviews raised as many questions as they answered. For every new insight or anecdote, I found suggestive evidence that will prove difficult to corroborate. I also discovered that the topics I brought to the interviews often did not correspond with the experiences or views of the interviewees themselves. But even these differences proved useful in revealing a gap between the behavior of the embassy toward American tourists and the lofty discourse about tourism in Washington and the popular media. In sum, whatever limits exist in oral history should not obscure how the interviews both enriched and took me in new directions.
The basic concern that I carried into the interviews was how international tourism after World War II attracted the hopes and fears of U.S. foreign policy and cultural elites. For better or worse, millions of American tourists each year were venturing out into the Cold War world, spending billions of dollars, and creating and receiving impressions that in turn could affect U.S. foreign relations. The U.S. Information Agency and the State Department’s International Education Exchange Service thus worked on ways to convince American tourists to be better representatives of their nation abroad. Highbrow magazines like Saturday Review praised the power of “the awesome tourist” to promote world peace, and leaders like President Dwight Eisenhower gave speeches that described U.S. tourists abroad as vital actors in the United States’ battle for world opinion in the Cold War.2 On a less rhetorical level, tourism played a significant role in U.S. foreign economic policy. Beginning with the Marshall Plan, the United States took action to increase the volume and spending of American tourists in Europe and throughout the world. This policy, designed to spread dollars abroad without using foreign aid, lasted until the mid-1960s, when the United States’ own balance of payments crisis forced Lyndon Johnson to urge Americans to keep their travel dollars at home.
These issues and events, however, were largely absent from the recollections of the Foreign Service officers I talked with. Consular memories suggested valuable new material, concerns, and actors but provided few connections to the themes and perspectives of my earlier research. While not exactly the result I was hoping for, this discrepancy between the two levels is significant. It suggests that the discourse of tourism’s importance to international relations lost most of its strength at the consular level. The consular experience, while an important part of tourist history, was guided more by institutional interests and notions of serving U.S. citizens than by debates about cultural or economic diplomacy.
Former consular officers are full of information and ideas that would be difficult to come across otherwise. The everyday work of consular officials in the Paris embassy offers tidbits on Americans tourists and expatriates that escape travel guidebooks or historical accounts. From the former consuls I learned that an average of one American a week died in Paris, and that many of those deaths were suicides. I discovered that about once a week the embassy dealt with a mentally-ill American, usually after the unfortunate traveler or expatriate had ended up in a French police station or mental hospital. I learned how a few Americans in Paris every year fell prey to police sting operations in gay bathhouses.
This evidence is mostly suggestive, which is at once an advantage and a challenge. No matter how rich, this material on American life in Paris is often insufficient on its own for a finished history. To follow up with my research, I still need to look for quantitative data on deaths, suicides, and arrests. And because only the problem cases ended up with the embassy, the cases that consuls encountered were almost certainly not the typical American experience in France. Yet this information would be difficult to find otherwise, and it provides leads for further exploration. In my research in France, for example, I now know to look into French police records for whatever information I can find on bathhouse raids.
The interviews also broadened my perspective on some ideas that I had already been developing in my dissertation. In my research on tourism and Cold War cultural diplomacy, I had been focusing on the efforts of the U.S. Government and on civic-minded media publishers. Through the interviews, I learned about another set of actors, namely the American community in Paris. I asked the former consuls about their work in the welfare unit of the Paris consular section. In the process I learned in great and colorful detail about the efforts that U.S. consuls went through to protect the welfare of traveling Americans in distress. From ordinary cases of tourists running out of money and in need of a free telegram home to the more extraordinary story of a U.S. federal judge arrested for rowdiness in a Paris nightclub, the interviews offered details too “mundane” for diplomatic history archives and too private to appear in magazines and newspapers.
I also learned about how the U.S. embassy would cooperate with private aid organizations established by American residents in Paris to provide food and lodging for indigent Americans in the city The motives of the American community in offering this aid are impossible to pin down precisely, perhaps combining elements of charity with a more self-interested fear that a few down-and-out Americans in Paris would hurt the reputation of all Americans among the Parisians. Indeed, the self-interest thesis was suggested by one of my interviewees, who remarked, “It was a blot on the American community to have a bunch of indigent people running around Paris. And so they had an aid society.”3 This idea has taught me that any study of tourism and cultural diplomacy needs to take into account the perspective of the expatriates and other long-term residents who had perhaps the most direct stake in the reputation of their fellow Americans in the host city.4 By learning more about the people who were actually trying to improve the reputation of Americans abroad, I learned that the social context of American expatriates in Paris may have been even more important than Cold War concerns about winning friends in France.
The interviews also modified my thoughts on tourism’s diplomatic importance through discussions of the consular section’s interactions with French merchants. I came into the interviews expecting to hear the former consuls speak in terms of U.S.-French relations. I found instead that they spoke more in the language of domestic public service. The work of the embassy complemented the work of travel agencies, in the sense that they both handled inconveniences for tourists. One former consular officer described the “clean-up operation” each fall, when the summer’s tourists, now back in the United States, would shower the Paris embassy with complaints over the service or goods they had purchased in France. According to him, “we did everything we could to satisfy the American public, and if that meant we had to lean on a few Frenchmen or a few French enterprises, at the hotels, wherever the disputes were, we did.”5
In another interview, a former vice-consul described the embassy’s damage control activity after the arrest of the federal judge in the nightclub. Although the French police released the injudicious judge after he paid and apologized for his damages, the consular section made a visit to the night club the next night to ensure that the French establishment would not launch a complaint against the high-ranking American. But here the embassy’s focus seemed less on French attitudes toward the United States than on the fear that any scandal involving a prominent American would ultimately reflect poorly on the Paris consular section. According to the ex-vice consul, the section would not have visited the nightclub if the offending American had been just an ordinary citizen.6
It must be stated that both interviewees noted that the French on the other side of these difficulties were generally cooperative. What surprised me, however, was that the embassy’s principal frame of reference was providing service to taxpaying tourists and avoiding angry letters from Congress about constituent complaints. While probably not unusual for consular sections, these goals surprised me for being more prominent than any direct concern with tourism’s place in U.S.-French relations.
A similar gap between high-level government concerns and consular memory occurred with regard to the French government’s tourist ministry. The French state ran campaigns designed to improve the French reception of foreign tourists, yet the officers who were in Paris reported no recollection of such efforts. While also not the answer I hoped for, it at least suggests that the French tourist reception campaigns failed to reach all corners of the tourist system in France. Once again, silences in memories can illustrate ideas or help shape arguments.
Having the interviewees read primary sources is another rewarding option, but as I found out the hard way, getting the best use of them requires two rounds of interviews. After my interviews, I mailed copies of several documents from the time relating to tourism and foreign affairs. In one case, the documents proved helpful in eliciting additional material from an interviewee, perhaps by jogging his memory, or perhaps by giving him a concrete example of the issues that interested me. But without a full follow-up interview, I was unable to explore how the former officers responded to the documents themselves.
From their memories, consular work appears stressful, at times rewarding, but more often tedious or difficult. Moreover, consular work seems to have lacked the prestige of economic or political work. I conclude with the hope that, apart from the pleasure of reminiscence, the interviewees also enjoy seeing their consular work placed in the context of other themes in diplomatic and cultural history.
2. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “U.S. Dependence on Foreign Trade,” U.S. Department of State Bulletin 29 (26 October 1953): 540; Francis J. Colligan, “Americans Abroad,” U.S. Department of State Bulletin 30 (3 May 1954): 663-68; and William D. Patterson, “The Awesome Tourist,” Saturday Review 38 (1 January 1955): 16.