by Rick Sherman
The author, now retired in Washington, D.C., served as a career U. S. diplomat from 1966 to 1993. Among his six posts abroad, he was consul general at Auckland, New Zealand. See a previous contribution of his to American Diplomacy, The Unpleasant and Uncopromising Captain Q. Members of the Foreign Service go to many exotic places, but in this article Sherman describes one of the more unusual assignments that an American diplomat can expect to receive — Ed.
Now that efficiency reports, inspections, promotion boards, etc., are things of the past for me—now that I’m retired, that is—I can freely admit that it was more the life style and the exotica than the substance of the work that originally attracted me to—and kept me in—a Foreign Service career. When I was sixteen, a Foreign Service officer (FSO, for short) came to my high school civics class to tell us about international diplomacy. He spoke of his work, but what stayed with me was his description of the wonderful places he had visited; the languages he spoke; and the exotic people he had gotten to know. I set my goal that day to become a diplomat and partake of those experiences.
In the ensuing years I finished my schooling and entered the Service as I had planned. My first three assignments took me to three very different exciting and colorful postings. I learned languages and interacted with members of wonderfully alien cultures, just as I had hoped.
As broad and enlightening as they had been, however, nothing in those postings abroad prepared me for what the Foreign Service had in store for me thereafter—an assignment in Kansas! Yes, Kansas in the Great Midwest, the land of wheat, corn, never-ending flatness, prairie dogs, and that unforgettable duo, Dorothy and Toto. But I digress…
In 1975 I returned to the State Department from those three tours abroad to a job in the Department of State staff secretariat. There I joined the team of young FSOs running to keep up with Secretary Kissinger through the period of mid-east shuttle diplomacy and a seemingly endless series of visits to Europe and the People’s Republic of China. By mid 1976, thoroughly exhausted but also exhilarated by the heady experiences, I was assigned to a desk in the Africa Bureau. Within a few weeks, however, I was contacted by a colleague in the personnel division who asked me to make an appointment to see Larry Eagleburger, then deputy undersecretary for management, about “something important.”
Eagleburger was watching over the assembling of the first group of FSOs to participate in a new domestic assignments program. The program aimed to put FSOs into various positions with state and local governments for a year, with the goal of improving mutual understanding between the Foreign Service and the people it served—Americans. The legislation creating the program was, as I remember, a piece of the department’s authorization bill and was sponsored by Senator James Pearson of Kansas (hence, the Pearson Program). Eagleburger was eager to get someone into the program and into Kansas. He lauded the program to me and asked me to meet with Pearson to discuss it. I spent most of a day with the charming senator, who exuded enthusiastic support for the program. He believed it could bridge the considerable gap between the average American and his country’s diplomatic corps, an organization that average Americans often saw as a snobbish, elitist fraternity involved in activities of questionable legality and utility, in places with strange-sounding names. And, he said, too often the Foreign Service officer forgets that he represents all the people of our country, not just the State Department and the administration in power. Pearson believed that if we could get our diplomats into the average community where they could serve a useful purpose, the misconceptions on both parts would be dissipated.
When we got down to details, the senator told me that, while they had been having some difficulties finding a proper place in Kansas to which an FSO could usefully be assigned, his office, working with Eagleburger, had finally identified an appropriate organization—a consortium of small private colleges and universities headquartered in a small town in the geographic center of the state. The organization’s members included six institutions, four of which had student bodies numbering fewer than 500. The other two were only slightly larger. All were associated with one or another Christian denomination. When I remarked to him that my personal “religion” was an amorphous mix of humanism, rationalism, Jungian teachings, and a few dim vestiges of a mostly-Anglican childhood, Pearson suggested I visit the locus of my proposed assignment before deciding.
As a sign of the Department’s eagerness (desperation?) to get someone to Kansas, the personnel system agreed to cut orders for a quick trip to central Kansas to look over the territory. Imagine, if you can, them doing that for someone assigned to the Central African Republic.
Arriving in Kansas was a revelation. Other than a few stops at Chicago airports, I had never before set foot in that big chunk of America lying between the coast on which I grew up and the one to which I gravitated. That endless wasteland passing below, while I ate a plastic meal and watched an in-flight movie, had until then remained my terra incognita.
At the Wichita airport language difficulties cropped up immediately. It was only after several “How’s thats?” from me that the attractive young lady at the car rental desk slowed her speech enough so that I could recognize it as English. She adopted her “Avis- talk for foreigners” voice and I soon had a car.
The drive north to the village of my fate was uneventful, but illustrative of Kansas’ overwhelming physical characteristic—flatness. The town itself was a fairly attractive blip on the prairie, consisting of two principal streets (Main and First) which crossed at the only street light. Radiating out from that central point, streets called Maple, Elm, and Ash went one way, and 2nd, 3rd, etc., the other. At about Fifth and Ash the town ended and the wheat fields began.
The college consortium leadership had organized a day for me with the presidents of the colleges and members of certain faculties. These people proved familiar—academics with interesting minds, worldly in their way, and extremely welcoming of my candidacy. I was sufficiently flattered and convinced to take this assignment to phone Pearson’s and Eagleburger’s offices from there to say I was in.
Arriving to begin the assignment several weeks later, just before classes commenced at the colleges, I set myself up in the consortium headquarters and undertook visits to each campus. Three proved to have delightfully green and well-treed campuses, looking like ideal settings for an Andy Hardy movie. The other three, located in villages which made my new hometown feel like Manhattan, inhabited less grassy and less oak-y campuses cut from surrounding prairie land which, following the recent harvest, appeared particularly desolate to my urban eyes.
My reception at each college was warm and welcoming, but I was questioned fairly closely at some of the institutions about what I planned to do during my assignment. I explained my intent to offer classes in the realities of international relations. The first semester they would be presented at three of the colleges and open to students from the others. The following semester, I proposed to teach different courses at the other three colleges. In addition, I would present special programs at each college and (as the Department had insisted) I would be a “resource” to all the communities of Kansas—meaning my presence had been announced and I could expect invitations to address church, school, and civic groups.
The reserve with which my course descriptions were received by some of the college officials should have prepared me for what followed. Initially all went well. Classes began and I found myself teaching a basic course in international relations on three of the campuses, including the one I had privately identified as the “most primitive” of the lot. The college’s entire town was populated by members of a particularly conservative sub-sect of a church that operated one of the other colleges, and was the least accepting of ideas alien to its particular Biblical interpretations. A review of the college’s offerings for the semester showed me that my class was essentially the only course offered which might have been said to look outward. This college specialized in agricultural sciences, physical sciences as they applied in the practical world faced by the community, accounting, and courses focusing on its religious denomination, its history, its personalities, and its dogmas.
This particular college, unlike the other members of the consortium, was not known for creating broad-based historians, lyric poets, beatniks, Peace Corps volunteers, nor, indeed, FSOs. I found that on this campus the way my students could connect their own experience to what I was teaching was to compare my course material with their church’s missionary undertakings. Those activities, focused in Central America, consisted of admirable efforts to teach farming methods and health sciences to rural people, and —less admirably perhaps—to convince those people of the validity of the church’s dogma. I spent an inordinate amount of class time trying to differentiate, in the abstract and the particular, between diplomacy and the practice of “mission.” Little did I suspect that my efforts were under close and critical scrutiny by elders of the denomination—elders who wrote the checks and controlled the college’s academic leadership.
The first I knew that something unexpected was afoot was when I returned to my office at the consortium headquarters one day to learn that the president of this particular college, accompanied by a few of the church elders, had visited my office that morning, ostensibly to see me. It seemed strange to me that they should have come during the time I was scheduled to be on their campus thirty-five miles away. According to the consortium secretary, the group had waited in my office for thirty minutes, then departed rather hastily without a word to her. I looked around my office. My books and pictures were all where they should be, so the elders hadn’t been bent on larceny, I decided.
The mystery bothered me enough for me to telephone the academic dean at the college. Though a devout member of the church, the dean was liberally educated and had always seemed a reasonable interlocutor. He was evasive, however, when I asked why his boss and the elders had come. They had not yet returned, he told me, so he was unable to enlighten me. He would let me know.
I wasn’t scheduled to teach on that campus until the following week and had pretty well forgotten the incident when the dean called me just before my next class. In a reserved and tense voice he said he had something to tell me. I mentally girded my loins for bad news. The college board of directors and elders had been meeting over the previous few days on general college policies and had, inter alia, discussed me. I was only moderately interested, not for a moment believing that I could have been an important issue for the august body. “They have made a pronouncement,” he told me, “concerning you.” He added that any pronouncement by this board was serious and would go out to all members of the denomination. I took this in, waiting patiently for the substance of the ukase. He continued in a hoarse whisper: “They have declared that you were sent by the Devil to tempt us and to lead our children astray.”
My immediate, unvoiced reaction was a sarcastic “wow, recognition at last!” After a thoughtful silence, however, I asked what this meant. The dean explained that the board, after debate and hearing witnesses (including himself, he admitted), had decided that the devil, apparently not Eagleburger, had sent me to try and lead their young people astray. They were prepared, however, for such forays by the dark demon and had swung into action. The board’s declaration was sufficient, they felt. They had decided that I was not to be denied access to the college, nor was I to be constrained in my activities in their college or community. I was to be monitored closely, however, and my true identity was to be exposed to all from the pulpit.
I was shocked, finally, and, just for a moment, wondered if my leg was being pulled. I pressed the dean for an explanation of how the board had come to this conclusion. I was bemused by his explanation. In a deep serious voice he explained that the college president and his colleagues had visited my office during my absence, after hearing from a student, who had visited me there, that they would discover clear evidence of my diabolical background. And evidence they found.
On my office wall was a souvenir photo of the entire U.S. delegation that had made a trip to Beijing the previous year with President Ford and Secretary Kissinger. There we stood with our Chinese hosts. Above and around our heads were the symbols of the PRC and its communist ideology. Near my photo was a woven silk picture of Chairman Mao playing ping-pong, given to me by one of our Chinese hosts. Finally, among my books behind the desk the visitors spotted works by Marx, Lenin, and the infamous “little red book” of Mao—several copies of which I had brought back from China.
Had they looked further, they would have found books on Lincoln, the Bible, the Koran, and several books on Jewish philosophy. But, the delegation had its evidence. What more did they need?
I ended the phone conversation with a heart-felt lament that an allegedly educated group of men could base their decision on such innuendo. The dean quietly agreed, and apologized for having no power to reverse the decision. In retrospect I doubt that in that environment the dean would have gone very far to defend my freedom of speech or other liberal ideals. Academic positions were hard to find in 1976.
My next appearance on that campus was a revelation to me and hopefully to the college elders. My classroom, usually populated by twenty-five tame and passive farm kids, was overflowing. The policy on auditing classes had never been an issue on these campuses, as students took the courses they needed, and found little of passing interest to bring them to classes for which they hadn’t registered. My overflow crowd then was remarkable.
I don’t remember the subject of that day’s scheduled lecture/discussion but it didn’t matter. We had a lively and highly participatory (unusual on that campus) hour in which the regulars and auditors both were clearly trying to see what the Devil was really like. It must have been a bit disconcerting—or downright discouraging—for the elders to learn that Satan had outdrawn Wednesday mid-day intramural basketball underway in the gym!
At the end of that memorable class, one of my better and consistently more interested students asked me to meet him for coffee at a snack bar in the village. I did so, finding him accompanied by a dozen other students. As we sipped our coffee they admitted they had lured me to this spot to determine whether I, Satan like, cast no shadow! They admitted to being confused because, although it was a dark, gloomy, cloudy day with snow threatening, some were convinced that they could see a faint darkening where I passed. No one was sure, however, and the jury remained out. Before the coffee-session broke up I suggested lightly that we meet again on the first sunny day and take a more definitive reading. These youngsters, who apparently had secretly sought Satan all their lives, thought that a good idea.
Throughout the remainder of that semester, small clusters of students accompanied me on my walks across campus and between car and classroom. While their innate politeness controlled the overtness of their curiosity, I couldn’t help but note their watching for tell-tale signs of cloven feet, shadows, purple breath, etc. In my monthly reports to the Department of State and to Senator Pearson, I duly reported my satanic reputation. In reply, I received advice from the senator to roll with the punches of central Kansas, as I suspect he had, in getting elected. From the department—a resounding silence. Nothing.
As my reputation spread, students on the other campuses teased me a bit, but usually with understanding and sympathy. By the end of the term in early January the subject seemed to have faded and I continued to be accepted—if not warmly welcomed—in the community where I represented the sworn enemy. Both the community and I, however, were relieved that I would not be teaching on that particular campus again for a while.
My Pearson assignment to Kansas overall was so fascinating and satisfying that when the academic year ended in June I requested that the Department to extend my tour. As a part of the extension, the Department determined that during the intervening summer I would have to be inspected! Ironically, the officer sent by the inspector general’s office was the officer who had been my boss in the Africa desk assignment I curtailed to accept the Pearson tour of duty. Although he was a good friend, the inspector took his duties seriously. On his second day on the prairie, he phoned me in breathless di sbelief: “Did you know you’re Satanic?” he asked with great glee. I assured him that I was well aware of my status and that, not withstanding my diabolical reputation, I believed I had performed my duties there quite well.
In the end he agreed. The inspection report was all that could be hoped for, given my unusual setting, circumstances, and duties. The report, which I’m sure still reposes somewhere in the inspector general’s archives, contains the notation that I was, to the inspector’s knowledge and after some investigation by him, believed to be the only Foreign Service officer officially designated by a recognized religious body to be a Satanic influence.
I cannot resist including this anecdote here.
Over the two years I spent in Kansas, I spoke at hundreds of luncheons, church suppers, college convocations, and the like in an area stretching from Kansas City to Dodge. In some ways this activity was the most revealing part of the assignment, as it brought home the “outsider” aspect of the Foreign Service to most Americans.
One incident especially illustrative of this was an evening in a church basement. After eating wonderful fried chicken and homemade biscuits, I was introduced to speak on something like “Your Foreign Service in Action.” I dutifully described what we do, where we do it, why and how we do it for the prescribed forty minutes. Then I asked for questions from the audience.
An elderly lady in a wheelchair, whom I had noticed frequently adjusting her hearing aids during the talk, spoke up: “Young man, I appreciate your talk especially because I had no idea that our Forest Service had people in places like North Africa. Tell me, what sort of trees do they have there anyway?”