Flashbacks of a Diplomat’s Wife Reviewed
Review by J. Edgar Williams
Flashbacks of a Diplomat’s Wife. By Helga Ruge. (Chico, CA: Clay & Marshall Publishing Co., 2002. Pp. ii, 228. $15.95 paper.)
This fascinating memoir of a Foreign Service family spans a period of great changes in the Foreign Service and the world in which we served. When I entered the Foreign Service in 1954, a “hardship post” meant having to endure living conditions not up to European or American standards. As Helga Ruge points out, it also meant an assignment to Washington, where we received no housing or other allowances. The meaning of that term changed radically between 1966 and 1968, after the Intercontinental Conference of Marxist radical groups in Havana, which initiated organized terrorist activity in many countries. Many Foreign Service posts became very dangerous places, as Helga and her husband, Neil, discovered in Guatemala in 1968.
Flashbacks is also a love story. Helga describes herself as a “war bride” and relates how she and Neil met when he was an Army officer in Germany right after the Second World War. Upon leaving the Army, Neil entered the Foreign Service and was posted to Palermo, Sicily. After corresponding with his future wife for three years, he returned to Germany where he was reunited with Helga, whom he married in Palermo in 1949.
The author recounts her “idyllic” life as a ”diplomat’s wife” in vivid terms. A long tour of duty in Casablanca was “exotic and challenging,” marred only near the end in 1955 by terrorist activity directed at the French, not the Americans. Neil’s main duty there was most unusual: equipped with a law degree, he was made Judge of the Consular Court, which had been established a century and a half earlier by virtue of treaties signed by the United States and the Sultan of Morocco. Neil presided over civil and criminal cases involving American citizens, including one entitled in the book, “The Trial of the Last Barbary Pirate.”
From Morocco the Ruges were transferred to London. There I served briefly as vice consul in an incident involving NeiI’s duties as consul. (From that time on we have maintained our friendship.) The London embassy was an ideal example of the “old” Foreign Service, where — as Helga observes — life was “predictable and safe.” The Ruges became “country squires,” living in a great old house on an estate in Surrey. After only a year in London, Neil was reassigned as consul (principal officer) in Cardiff, Wales.
As the wife of a principal officer, Helga gained invaluable experience arranging dinners, luncheons, and formal visits with lord mayors and other dignitaries. Indeed, one of the most captivating aspects of the book is her account (as a full partner of Neil) in the representation activities in which she and her husband entertained local officials and influential people, as well as made friends for themselves and their country. That was also true in the Ruges’ next assignment in Munich, where their friendship with the chief of police and the Bavarian chief of protocol is illustrative of how Foreign Service people work for American interests outside their “official” duties. At that time it was not fully accepted that Foreign Service wives could have separate jobs or careers. Being a Foreign Service wife was supposed to be a full-time position; and for Helga, it certainly was — as her book reveals.
Toward the end of the Ruges’ career abroad, the Foreign Service was becoming what John Naland (President of the American Foreign Service Association) has described as “a front-line organization in harm’s way in an increasingly dangerous world.” In 1968, this became a reality for the Ruges when they were transferred to Guatemala, a country plagued with Marxist guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Helga’s account of the assassination of U. S. Ambassador John Gordon Mein at the hands of Communist urban guerrillas is chilling. Intelligence reports that Neil was high on their list of prospective targets led the Ruges to take early retirement. They moved to California, where Neil became a professor of business law at Chico State College and Helga taught German.
Filled with romance, adventure, and tragedy, Flashbacks is a wonderful potpourri of reminiscences about Foreign Service life and work and provides an excellent introduction to the personal as well as the official aspects of life in the Foreign Service.