By Matthew Jacobs
The Memoirs of a Career Ambassador
By Ellis O. Briggs
(Kent,OH: Kent State University Press, 1998.
xvi, 430 pp., 30 pp. illus.$45.00)
Without question, Ellis Ormsbee Briggs (1899-1976) had one of the most impressive careers of any U.S. Foreign Service officer in the modern era. His time of service spanned thirty-seven years, from 1925 to 1962, and numerous foreign assignments. He was appointed ambassador eight times between the mid-1940s and 1962 and served seven of those appointments (Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Czechoslovakia, Korea during the war, Peru, Brazil, and Greece). He could not assume his last post in Spain due to illness, and he retired with the highest possible rank as career ambassador.
Against the backdrop of Briggs’ many assignments, mostly in Latin America, this memoir provides a useful overview of the Department of State, the Foreign Service, and the making of U.S. foreign policy in a period of rapid change. That story can be told in three basic stages, the first of which was the professionalization of the Foreign Service. This process, initiated by the passage of the Rogers Act in 1924, brought Briggs into the service and saw the development of a body of trained officers performing the daily tasks of American policy. The Foreign Service grew markedly over the years and became increasingly bureaucratized. After the passage of the National Security Act in 1947, the wider policy establishment also ballooned with the addition of the Central Intelligence Agency, a centralized Defense Department, the National Security Agency, and the National Security Council.
Looking back on these major developments in U.S. foreign policy, Briggs praised career officers and the occasional principled political appointee for keeping Washington’s relations with the world generally stable and in good order. Individuals such as Spruille Braden and Jefferson Caffery, among a host of others, were for Briggs exemplars of the hard-working, well-trained, and responsible career officer. Briggs also admired Secretary of State Cordell Hull. This Tennessee politician FDR put in charge of the State Department proved his mettle in Briggs’ estimation by opposing Mexico’s nationalization of U.S. petroleum properties in 1938. Briggs fully agreed then that “expropriation without compensation is stealing,” and he remained true to that principle throughout his career. His villains, although numerous, fell into two groups. One consisted of the non-professional and sometimes unprincipled politicians and political appointees who often dominated U.S. foreign policy. For Briggs, no two individuals better represented the inconsistencies and shortcomings of this group than Nelson Rockefeller and Franklin Roosevelt. Rockefeller’s reign as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs “demonstrated the folly of good works unleavened by experience,” while Roosevelt was a “necromancer who dealt in bubbles” and “replaced” the “professional who dealt in facts.”
Members of the expanded policy establishment created by the National Security Act—the second group profoundly disliked by Briggs—created administrative and policy nightmares for ambassadors. He recalled that they “usurp[ed] the functions of diplomacy” by arranging for intelligence officers and military attaches to be housed within embassies without accountability to the ambassador, supposedly the highest ranking U.S. representative in the country to which he was assigned. Moreover, many of the functions of those individuals, particularly from the intelligence community, duplicated much of the work of the regular embassy staff. Briggs gained a reputation as an ambassador who aggressively tried, albeit with minimal success, to reduce the size of his staff by having many of these people removed.
While Briggs quarreled with his colleagues on many issues, he was very much a product of the same attitudes and outlooks that dominated his day and class. He firmly believed in America’s moral and intellectual superiority over the rest of the world, arguing that “it is evident that a large segment of the human race is incapable of handling the tools of representative democracy,” and that “they show little eagerness to make the effort to do so.”
Rather than having policy makers try to remake the world in America’s image, Briggs believed they should instead focus on promoting and defending American interests as they might be defined by Americans and delineated by American and international law. Briggs’ firm adherence to those attitudes can be seen in his analysis of the 1956 Suez Crisis. He believed the American effort to thwart the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt was a farce that smacked of the same attitudes guiding the Soviet invasion of Hungary; it undermined the Anglo-American alliance and allowed Nasser to remain in power to “steal” the Canal. While one might concede that American intervention did permit Nasser to remain in power and in possession of the canal, the U.S. position can hardly be equated to the Soviet action. Moreover, Briggs completely overlooked the very real—even if temporary—gains in American prestige in the Middle East and the concomitant enhancement—again temporary—of Washington’s interests in the region.
The most significant shortcoming of the book is the unsatisfactory performance of its editors, who should have taken as much pride in their own work as Briggs apparently did in his. Problems abound, from errors in syntax, spelling, and an unfinished footnote, to needless repetition of the author’s views on FDR, the National Security Act, and its offspring. Chapters eight through fourteen (out of twenty-four), however, produce the greatest frustration. Most of the work follows a very coherent chronological narrative, whereas these seven chapters bounce back and forth between chronological narrative and thematic discussion, making it virtually impossible to find one’s bearings.
It is unfortunate that poor editing ultimately obscures some of the very real and beneficial insights Briggs had to offer on the practice of American diplomacy between 1934 and 1943. Yet, if readers are willing to persevere and push through this difficult patch, they will likely find that Proud Servant gives a good overview of both the changing nature of American policy making and its institutions during a truly momentous period, along with the many problems associated with that process.
Matthew Jacobs received a B.A. degree from Cornell and an M.A. from UNC-Chapel Hill. His doctoral dissertation will consider U.S.-Middle Eastern relations, 1945-1967