This essay won’t mean much unless I explain how it happens that Foreign Service officers have the opportunity to observe the high and mighty of the political world. It happens when a junior or middle grade officer has the luck to be the only one to know the details of a situation which suddenly becomes a hot item. It also occurs when such an officer gets an appointment as assistant or advisor to a senior officer on his way up the career ladder. It happens too when, as is the custom, a junior or middle grade officer is appointed to take notes at a conference involving the top people. Another opportunity for observation arises when a superior officer appoints a middle grade or junior officer to handle a visit from a VIP (Very Important Person) and, finally, just plain chance can play a role.
There’s one obvious flaw in this method of observation. The glimpses one gets of the high and mighty don’t give a complete picture of any one VIP either in terms of activities or character. But these glimpses are at least small pieces in the picture puzzle which, when complete, represents the whole person. For instance, I was fortunate enough to have extensive contact with Dean Acheson, secretary of state under President Truman, because there was nobody in the department’s hierarchy between him at the top and me as Canadian desk officer near its bottom who knew much about the details of our relations with Canada. Therefore, I was the individual he addressed when he turned down Colonial Airlines request for a privileged route from New York State to certain Canadian cities without any quid pro quo on the airline’s part. Mr. Acheson wrote on the covering paper of the proposal “Mr. Dale, No tickee, no washee.” We transmitted the Secretary’s message to Bob Peach, president of Colonial Airlines, in somewhat different language.
One of the State Department’s major, though unheralded, achievements of the end of the 1940s was the treaty with Canada leading to construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Secretary Acheson and his assistants conducted many interdepartmental conferences on the subject. He was always cheerful and witty, giving every indication that he was a man who enjoyed his work. The desk officer had to act as a sort of executive secretary for these get-togethers, preparing the agenda and keeping close touch with the Canadians. The desk officer also had to prepare the briefing book for the secretary’s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This briefing book contained the secretary’s opening remarks brimming with reasons why the treaty should be approved, as well as a list of answers to possible Congressional questions and objections—largely from the railroads, which feared a loss of business to the Seaway. Luckily, nobody asked a question we had not foreseen, which speaks less for the skill of the writers of the briefing book than for the lack of imagination of the senators. Some questions were actually quite stupid, and I’m afraid the secretary did not hide entirely his opinion of them or of the senators who asked them.
When the Seaway hearings were at their height, our ambassador to Canada, Stanley Woodward, a poker playing companion of President Truman, traveled down from Ottawa to make sure the president was firmly on board. He dropped into the Canadian desk office, his home away from home, and said he was going over to the White House in a few minutes to leave his message for Mr. Truman with one of his aides. He asked whether I would like to go along in the capacity of an ambulatory briefing book. At a room on the lower floor of the White House we found Legal Council Charles Murphy, David Bell, and George Elsey, aides to the president. As Ambassador Woodward got started on his oral message, another man joined us. His attire was more formal than the other White House denizens, but, with one exception, nobody removed his feet from the table or otherwise took special notice of the newcomer. The exception was Ambassador Woodward. He stood up, greeted President Truman, and introduced the somewhat confused Canadian desk officer—me. The President asked me where I came from and when I told him Upstate New York, he had a question for me. He said he had been reading a book about the Aztecs, who were quite civilized according to that (now outdated) book, and he had been wondering whether they would have defeated in war the Six Nations of the Iroquois tribe, whom the president considered to be uncivilized. He was apparently equating the Aztecs to the West and the Iroquois to the Communist nations of Eastern Europe as the Cold War got underway.The president then asked me what the names of the Six Nations were. I could only think of five. Ever since that fateful failure I have been imagining what prestigious post I might have received had I been able to rattle off all six tribes. President Truman stayed around about half an hour, which allowed Stanley Woodward and me to deliver the message about supporting the Seaway—support he was ready to give anyway. Mr. Truman was good natured and appeared downright buoyant during the discussion, again an indication that the high and mighty sometimes enjoyed their roles.
During a subsequent tour in London in the mid-1950s, a number of conferences took place with the object of solidifying the Western alliance. Top NATO and American officials met with the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, at 10 Downing Street. Many of his comments were laced with humor; even to this inferior officer taking notes, meetings with Churchill were never boring. I must add that the prime minister radiated an aroma of brandy and cigars, as well as wit and good cheer.
I was fortunate enough to be in the House of Commons when Sir Winston gave one of his last great speeches, this one on the subject of nuclear war. In the course of the address, he raised the red dispatch box from the podium and declared that the amount of plutonium that would fill that box could, in the form of a bomb, destroy all greater London. It was a great speech in which the prime minister exercised his ability to deliver carefully crafted sentences as if they were remarks that had just occurred to him..
Sir Winston dominated London life in fields other than politics. During these years, cocktail parties resonated with jokes, all of them funny and all of them ‘way off color. His personal secretary told me the prime minister was the sole source of this fountain of that particular kind of humor.
Anthony Eden succeeded Winston Churchill in 1955. Convinced that Egypt’s Gamil Nasser was in league with Soviet Communists, he joined with France and Israel in a surprise attack on Egypt in 1956. President Eisenhower and the Soviets came to Nasser’s defense. The American government cut off financial credits to the United Kingdom, which speedily brought it to heel. The Suez War was a disaster for the three attackers and as soon as it was over, a series of conferences took place with the object of restoring the special relationship between the United States and Great Britain. Middle grade Foreign Service officers recorded the proceedings and extremely efficient secretaries, working far into the night, typed up the notes for the principals to review first thing in the morning. President Eisenhower read them over carefully, but I can recall only one change he made. The media portrayed him sometimes as a rather bumbling character, but, during these conferences at least, his comments were clear and intelligent.
Only once did I see him caught out. Near the end of a top-level conference in Nassau, Britain’s new prime minister, Harold Macmillan, came to the last item in his briefing book and asked President Eisenhower whether he could do something to reduce the tariff on British needles. The president knew his briefing book contained nothing about needles, so he turned to Secretary Dulles for enlightenment. Being equally uninformed, Mr. Dulles turned to me. I turned to the window and looked out at the golf course.President Eisenhower could only promise Mr. Macmillan that he would see to it that the needle situation would receive thorough investigation and that Her Majesty’s Government would be promptly informed of the results. In spite of our lapse regarding needles, President Eisenhower continued to support his staff with kind words and humor. He already knew all of us by name.
My exposure to his successor, John F. Kennedy, took place long before he became president. The Government 1 section meetings at Harvard in 1937 were crowded and somewhat stifling. The teaching assistants tried hard to keep the students’ attention focused on announced topics. This task became especially difficult in the section I inhabited because three young men who always sat in the rear usually came in late and noisily. Once they had seated themselves with maximum fanfare, they exchanged remarks which were audible to everyone for the remainder of the period. One of these three students was John Kennedy and the other two were his cronies from one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs. It’s hard to believe that this was the same man who handled the Cuban Missile Crisis with such skill twenty-five years later.
One of the steps contributing to the restoration of the U.S.-British relationship after the Suez War was the dedication in November 1958 of a chapel in St. Paul’s Cathedral to those who had died in the defense of Britain during the Second World War. Illness prevented President Eisenhower from attending the ceremony, so Vice President Nixon had to go from Washington in his place, with the current Department of State officer in charge of UK Affairs tagging along as speech writer and briefer. When our plane reached the vicinity of Gatwick, the vice president ordered the pilot to circle the airport for almost an hour. During that time, Mr. Nixon pretended to be the British correspondents at the press conference he knew was scheduled. I pretended to be the vice president and had to provide answers to the questions Mr. Nixon thought the reporters would ask. My answers were flat statements of policy, but when Mr. Nixon answered the same questions at the actual press conference, the policies took on a vitality and style which was lacking before. Mr. Nixon later gave a major speech at the Guild Hall. He added just enough of his own ideas to transform the pedestrian draft I had written into a really good address. Perhaps the desk officer’s greatest contribution to that London expedition was the loan of a dress shirt to the Vice President who had forgotten to bring one.
Filling in for the President in London was an achievement for Mr. Nixon.In return for the contributions to the trip’s success, even though they were not great, made by the UK desk officer and the State’s chief of protocol, who also came along, he invited them and their families to his Christmas party. There the vice president enlivened the festivities with piano solos before a boisterous crowd of his supporters.
During the period before the 1968 Presidential election, the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv received two visits from Mr. Nixon. The first occurred in 1966 when he was a private citizen. As chargé of the embassy, I gave a dinner in his honor, with a few Israeli dignitaries, including General Yitzhak Rabin. When members of the Tel Aviv press corps asked whether they could take pictures of the proceedings, Mr.Nixon readily assented. We gave the most public dinner party we ever attended. Luckily no hitches developed and the future president seemed pleased with this bit of publicity.
During the Nixon’s second visit to Israel, my wife conducted Mrs. Nixon and her two daughters on a tour of the Galilee. Even though the hospitality offered him and his family was official entertainment, the Nixons again treated it as though it was a personal, voluntary activity. Mrs. Nixon sent my wife a lovely hostess gown which did duty for many years. When we returned to Washington and he was president, he invited us to a prayer breakfast during which he expressed thanks for his reception in Tel Aviv. Mrs. Nixon invited my wife to tea at the White House. The Nixons treated this low-ranking bureaucrat who could do nothing for him with consideration and even affection during the whole course of our relationship. There was no sign of the dark side of Mr. Nixon’s nature, about which we have heard so much.
Having redecorated the London embassy to his satisfaction in the mid-1950s, Ambassador Aldrich decided there was no better way to exhibit it than to give a ball for young Queen Elizabeth. The Queen enthused over the proposal and remarked that she would like most to dance with some young Americans. The question quickly arose as to how young an American had to be to qualify. Ambassador Aldrich passed that question on to his deputy, the minister, who in turn passed it to Andrew Foster, the political counselor. He made a private command decision that the first three males to come into his office would be by definition “young” and therefore assigned to dance with the Queen. First to walk in was Peter Rutter, whose son happened to be in school with Prince Charles. Mr. Foster’s second visitor was a shy young Foreign Service officer, Bob Zimmerman, who reacted as though a sentence of death had been pronounced. I was number three.
We all showed up at the ball as directed without the slightest idea of what to do next. After watching the Queen dance with Prince Philip for quite a spell, Mr. Rutter ventured forth upon the dance floor wrestling with an earthshaking query—Does one cut in on a Queen? He followed the dancing couple around for several endless minutes with his right hand raised in the air but not touching anything. Finally, the Queen turned to him and they began to dance. At least they could talk about children. Then Bob Zimmerman dragged himself reluctantly on to the dance floor. He became so pale that his black moustache stood out from his face like a separate entity. He followed the Queen around longer than Peter Rutter before she recognized his presence and began to dance with him.
In order to avoid the undignified pursuit of Queen Elizabeth on the dance floor, I asked Ambassador Aldrich to introduce me before the next dance started. He did so and the orchestra began to play a waltz—my favorite dance. I was happy until the Queen remarked that she did not like waltzes and invited me to sit on the stairs with her and talk. Since according to protocol, a monarch brings up subjects of conversation, I didn’t have to think much. The only problem was that I couldn’t tell her a thing about women’s clothing stores in New York, where she might visit on her forthcoming trip to the United States. She seemed to be enjoying herself, though, and suggested that we “young Americans” drop over to Buckingham Palace for another ball. The young Queen was quite handsome, with a beautiful complexion. She was an enthusiastic and animated conversationalist with a nice sense of humor. I would have enjoyed the talk on the stairs even if she had not been a Queen.
Queen Elizabeth did visit the United States a few months later and I had another opportunity to meet her. When my turn came to shake hands in the endless receiving line, she gave not the slightest hint of having ever seen me before. That is what it means to have a worm’s eye view of the high and mighty.
Amb. Dale, retired in North Carolina and active in foreign affairs-related organizations, earned two degrees at Harvard before entering the Foreign Service. He served as an officer in the U. S. Navy during World War II.