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A new project from American Diplomacy—
An Experiment in Oral History

Anti-Americanism at Ground Level

Connecting Communities

A Most Unusual Type of Work

Further Notes on Method

FSOs Remember the Cold War Caribbean

By A

As a student of diplomacy, I have been somewhat skeptical of oral history. To be sure, it has done wonders to retrieve testimonies of value to social historians, such as those of former slaves or of the downtrodden during the Great Depression. What oral history can do for diplomacy is another matter. Diplomats are far from illiterate. They are generally prolific (even prolix) writers and leave behind enough documents and memoirs to give historians a fair idea of their motivations and interpretations. They can also be prodigious talkers, but collections of oral histories, like those stored at U.S. presidential libraries, often offer little more than a rehashing of previous statements.

Specifically, diplomatic historians doing oral history have perpetuated two problems:

  1. An almost exclusive focus on the “great men” of diplomacy such as presidents, presidents’ aides, and ambassadors, and

  2. difficulties in having interviewees recall the details of policy decisions years later.

How can we find a way around these obstacles to better recover the diplomatic past?

The three interviews I conducted in August and September 1998 addressed these concerns in a specific historical context. I undertook them as part of my dissertation on anti-Americanism in U.S.-Caribbean relations during the Cold War. The former U.S. foreign service officers I interviewed had worked each on one country where I am studying cases of anti-U.S. sentiment and U.S. reactions to it. Ambassador Max Vance Krebs traveled to Cuba in the 1950s and was Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of State and Special Assistant to the Secretary of State around the time of the Cuban Revolution. Arthur Plambeck served as a political officer in Panama in the 1950s, a few years before fatal riots erupted between Panamanians and U.S. citizens living on the Canal Zone. Finally, Dr. Dan Figgins worked in the Dominican Republic as a political/protocol officer in 1971-1972, when the aftershocks of the 1965 U.S. intervention created a violent situation where U.S. diplomats had to navigate between extremist groups from both the left and the right.

The assumption behind the interviews is that they would add a twist to an old-fashioned method: the encounter of memory (what people remember) and history (what the written record tells us “really happened”). Teaming up scholars with former practitioners of the diplomatic craft might yield new insights into ongoing investigations that often get bogged down in theoretical debates and archival paper chases. Primary historical documents such as memoirs and government memoranda would hopefully jog an interviewee’s memory or offer an interpretation of the past with which he or she might agree or disagree. To Arthur Plambeck, for example, I suggested we read parts of Herbert and Mary Knapp’s memoirs of life on the Canal Zone around the time of the riots.1 Ambassador Krebs agreed to read among other documents memoranda he had sent to Secretary of State Christian Herter in 1959 and that I had found in the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas.2 With Dr. Figgins I tried another kind of source material, an anti-American publication issued clandestinely from within the area in Santo Domingo cordoned off by the U.S.-OAS occupation forces in 1965.3 We hoped that history could come back to life to stimulate memory, and thus create a mutual reinforcement between memory and history. All interviewees welcomed this unusual process and, judging from their comments during the second interviews, were pleased to have had the chance to compare their own recollections with points of view from the past. I conducted two interviews per person, in person, for a total of six interviews.

Understandably, the interviews yielded mixed results. A certain failing of memory was inevitable. Some interviewees’ foreign service days were decades behind them; in such cases, even the most provocative documents were of little help in recalling specific memories. But they could stir back to life general impressions and feelings otherwise forgotten. Ambassador Krebs, for example, could not remember his role in ensuring that President Eisenhower in April 1959 would be out of Washington during a visit by Fidel Castro. But he could not forget Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon, both of whom he knew personally, or Castro himself. He reminisced about the confusion between hope and fear that the Cuban Revolution caused among his State Department colleagues.


One aspect of the interviews that first appeared a drawback was my realization that many foreign service officers, even political officers, did not participate in key decisions. Middlemen, it appeared, were just that. They neither did insignificant work nor had their voice heard in the corridors of power. Arthur Plambeck’s judgment was that the foreign service in the 1960s was already depending too much on Washington, which led to the present situation that he described wistfully as one where ambassadors serve as glorified messengers rather than as area experts.

Dr. Figgins’s experiences in the Dominican Republic speak to two ways in which this gap between information and decision was widening. First, even as a political officer, he relied on the local press for information and was therefore largely oblivious to the government-sponsored counter-insurgency efforts violently repressing groups on the left in the terror-laden Dominican scene of the early 1970s. All he knew was that CIA agents informed him one day that he had been targeted by leftist groups and had to leave the country. His tone in the interviews showed a certain bitterness both at the Dominicans who forced him out of his job and at the CIA agents who kept him in the dark about the very events he was supposed to report.

Second, Figgins also found the opposite flow of information, from himself to his superiors, to be blocked off. At one meeting with Embassy and CIA officials, he suggested that the Embassy consider establishing friendlier channels of communication with a moderate reformist group in Santo Domingo that had, as he says, a “creative, fascinating, rather sophisticated political philosophy about moving the Dominican Republic’s society into a new place.” His superiors’ reaction? “‘How did they do in the last elections?’” When Figgins replied that they were still an embryonic group, the answer came back plainly: “‘Let’s not waste time talking about that.’” Figgins’s experience illustrates how attitudes truncated communication both incoming and outgoing.


Unable to get insight from the inside on key political decisions, however, I realized that interviewing mid-level officers could be of use on another level. New approaches to diplomatic history have emphasized understanding the values, attitudes, and domestic dynamics that set the context in which policy makers operate. Although isolated from high-level policy making, my interviewees—I hoped—could still provide such insight into crises in U.S.-Caribbean relations.

Middlemen, in turns out, may contribute better commentary about U.S.-Caribbean social tensions than their superiors. My interviewees distinguished themselves from the higher ranks. They were more apt at foreign languages, for one. My three interviewees stumbled into service in Latin America through near native fluency in Spanish. Ease with language made them immediately more culturally attuned and often more sympathetic toward Latin Americans. Plambeck ascribes his personal and professional successes in Latin America to being everyone’s favorite “fair-haired boy” who somehow fit in so easily. “Many of [my superiors] had a bookish background,” he recalls, “but I could sit down with a policeman in Panama and crack jokes.” Some diplomats living abroad, therefore, drew a distinction between themselves and Americans who had little or no contact with ordinary Latin Americans. Plambeck recalls how most “Zonians” were “scared to death” of venturing beyond the gates that alienated them from Panama City, whereas he and other Americans living in Panama City itself moved about freely—and perhaps with a hint of the pride that comes with cultural fluency.


Cultural openness had its limits. Attitudes at ground level often reflected those in the supposedly isolated corridors of power. Foreign service officers and their families often joined U.S. soldiers and Americans working abroad in displaying arrogance and smugness that exacerbated or even sparked diplomatic crises. These interviews showed that stereotypes of Latin Americans were so pervasive as to show up at all levels of service abroad. Plambeck’s time in Panama, for instance, allowed him to witness resentment between Americans living in the Canal Zone and Panamanians. In general, he concluded, Zonians considered the area outside their suburbanized oasis to be “dangerous territory.” Zonians were “provincial,” says Plambeck, and “didn’t have a very high opinion of Panamanians.” Although more open to interaction with Panamanians, he admitted his own bias toward those “with American mores and ideas” like political leader Ricardo Arias, who “spoke flawless English. . . dressed well. . . [and was a] good golfer.” Americans, he says, were “happy to have ‘Dicky’ in there; he was one of the boys.”

What could be harmless preference for one’s own kind at times led to tragic excesses. Here again, it is the point of view of officers in the field that may best illuminate U.S.-Caribbean relations. Plambeck remembered an incident that left a “bad taste in my mouth” but has been forgotten by historians of state-to-state relations. When he first arrived in Panama, a scandal exploded. At a dance bringing together U.S. soldiers and young women from Panama’s “good families,” one of the women was raped. It was clear to all which U.S. soldier was guilty. However, says Plambeck, the issue was not about guilt or innocence: “The defense [of the Zonians who supported the soldier] was that she was of low moral character and she deserved everything that was coming to her.” The implication was clear enough: Panamanians were “second-class citizens. . . . [The soldier] was found innocent.” It is no surprise that, according to Plambeck, this case became a “cause célèbre among the Panamanians.”

The episode is a good example of the interaction between memory and history. My own research on anti-American discourse in Panama shows that it has often carried heavily gendered overtones. Nationalists often spoke of the “rape” of their country by an overbearing aggressor who “violated” the nation’s integrity by carving a slice of it down its middle for its exclusive pleasure. American observers, all the while, have expressed the need to “protect” Panama from external agitators or internal subversives and to let Panamanians know what was good for them despite their “emotional” resistance. As recently as the Johnson administration, cartoonists portrayed Panama as a woman being whisked away by the U.S. president. A real-life rape unfolding as an expression of tensions between contiguous societies, therefore, adds an anecdote to the larger issues of nationalist discourse and of the social and cultural underpinnings of U.S. influence in the Caribbean.

Finally, the meeting of memory and history gave interviewees the opportunity to stand back from their own careers and draw lessons on the “career” of the United States in the Caribbean. Again, the documents served as a springboard for the interviewees to speak against the views of an expert or a memoirist. Dr. Figgins took the opportunity of having anti-U.S. documents before him to criticize his country’s past mistakes. He described himself as a particularly critical political officer. He agreed with friends who lived in the zone cordoned off by Americans in 1965 that the U.S. intervention had thwarted the potential of any civilian rule independent from the power structure. “LBJ was stepping back in history,” Figgins concludes. On the other hand, the documents from anti-U.S. revolutionary groups made Figgins reclaim sympathy for the United States. “Anti-Yankee” feelings were those of “someone that was ill-informed,” he says.

These interviews offer lessons not only in U.S.-Caribbean relations in the Cold War. More important, they may bridge a gap in communication between retired FSOs, present FSOs, and historians of diplomacy. Those no longer serving will hopefully see that not only were they makers of history in their day but can now be participants in its recording—regardless of their rank. Those still serving or hoping to serve may take heart in the fact that the limitations they face in their work today may provide crucial commentary in the future.

Finally, historians should be open to the possibility that oral histories can take them places they had not envisioned before. While doing these interviews, I overcame my own skepticism toward oral history. I realized that the social dimensions of diplomacy can best be illuminated by emphasizing precisely the non-policy aspects of the experience of run-of-the-mill FSOs. Hopefully readers of American Diplomacy who have served overseas will take away from this brief report a better appreciation of their contribution to diplomacy and will not hesitate to contact us to share their experiences.


1. Herbert and Mary Knapp, Red, White and Blue Paradise: The American Canal Zone in Panama (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1984), chap. 5 and 6; Mr. Plambeck also read Foreign Relations of the United States 1955-1957 vol. 7: 243-317 passim.

2. Ambassador Krebs also read from Wayne Smith, The Closest of Enemies (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987), chap. 2; and Foreign Relations of the United States 1958-1960, vol. 6: 357-440 passim.

3. Roberto Cassá archive, El 1J4, (publication of the Movimiento 14 de Junio) 14 June 1965. Dr. Figgins also read John Bartlow Martin, Overtaken by Events (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 704-25; Jose Moreno, Barrios in Arms: Revolution in Santo Domingo (Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970), chap. 6; and Carlos Maria Gutierrez, The Dominican Republic: Rebellion and Repression trans. By Richard E. Edwards (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), chap. 6 and 8.

Alan McPherson, originally hailing from Canada, earned a B.A. at the University of Montreal and an M.A. at the University of San Francisco. Now at UNC-Chapel Hill, he is investigating anti-Americanism in U.S. relations with Caribbean nations.

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