Before the internet and cable TV, there were atlases and National Geographic. One of my favorite pastimes as a kid was poring over these wondrous repositories of exotic information, committing to memory the capitals and flag designs of all the UN countries, and imagining populations and elevations, cultures and languages, imports and exports. I wondered what it would be like to be a native of these countries, or to go there as a visitor. I wondered if it was possible to make a living doing it.
In 1960 I was about to enter high school and John Kennedy was elected President. Like many of my generation, I was inspired by his enthusiasm and by his commitment and confidence that the U.S. could help make the world a better place. His focus on international issues plus my innate interest in foreign places led me to write to the State Department to ask what one needed to do to become a diplomat. I was also influenced by a wonderful high school teacher, who encouraged me to look beyond the narrow confines of rural Connecticut where I grew up, and to envisage a role for myself on the international stage.
In college, I studied international relations, which taught me theory and whetted my appetite to play a more practical role in international affairs. Two years in the Peace Corps in India convinced me that I had both the taste for living in exotic places and the resolve to continue to do so. I took the Foreign Service exam in New Delhi, passed, and then waited about six months before being assigned to the A100 class at the Foreign Service Institute. Most of my classmates were assigned to foreign posts immediately following A100. However, in my case, I spent several months in the Department on short term assignments.
I remember well that I reviewed closely the list of likely jobs, and thought I had anticipated any possibility. I was very surprised therefore when I received a call from personnel telling me I was going to be assigned to Khorramshahr. My first reaction was “Where in the world is Khorramshahr?” Turning to the post report with an open mind, I was a little daunted by the first sentence, which read: “Khorramshahr is a drab, khaki-colored city in Southwestern Iran.” Nevertheless, I dutifully packed my bags, flew the 14 hours to Iran, and as I walked across the tarmac to the customs building felt a sudden blast of very hot, humid air. Unfortunately, this was not the exhaust of a taxiing plane, but the normal breeze of August in the Persian Gulf! Nevertheless, it didn’t take me long to adapt, and in spite of the climatic hardship, I learned one of the most important general rules of the Department – one makes the best friends and has the best time in small, isolated posts. And where else would a 24 year-old vice consul enjoy a six-bedroom house with servants, a garden with a great river view, and a three minute walk to the office!
My tour in Iran was fascinating. It was the time of the Shah; Americans were welcome. I found my Persian language training a great help in exploring this ancient land’s culture, history and society. This part of Iran had a large Arabic-speaking population and was thus a great introduction to the broader Middle East. I was off to a great start in the Foreign Service.
Upon completing my military service in 1963, and still not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, I entered the Peace Corps, which had begun sending volunteers abroad the previous year. In the fall of that year I began teaching English in Ceyhan, a small town in Southeastern Turkey, where I quickly found that I loved living and working abroad. The following year, when it appeared that hostilities might break out between Greece and Turkey over the future of Cyprus, I and other volunteers were told to go to the nearest Foreign Service post for instructions. In my case this was the city of Adana, and my two fellow volunteers and I went to the small consulate there. While waiting to speak with the principal officer we chatted with the vice consul who had recently entered the service. It was during this casual conversation that I became aware of the Foreign Service; and realized that there was a profession that would enable me to continue living abroad – and earn a salary at the same time. We also learned that the next written exam would be given at the consulate later that year. Getting a day off from my classes I took the local minibus to Adana to take the exam. With a BA and MA in history, and months of reading the International Herald Tribune and Time and Newsweek magazines (compliments of the Peace Corps), I passed that test.
After returning to the US and teaching high school for a couple of years in the New York City area, I called the Department and set a date to take the oral exam in Washington. My lack of familiarity with the State Department and the Foreign Service’s elitist reputation worked to my advantage. (I was unaware that in 1965 it may not have been that common for a person with my background to be accepted into the service: City College undergraduate education, strong New York City accent, and a first generation US pedigree.) Among my relatives there still existed the belief that “we” did not belong in the Foreign Service, but I was too naïve to think this might be a problem – and it never was, to the best of my knowledge. The oral interview with a panel of senior officers ended with my acceptance into the service.
In June of 1965 my new wife and I resigned from our high school teaching jobs (taking a substantial salary cut in the process of changing careers) and drove down from New York to find an apartment in Falls Church. Then I began the A-100 course while she found a job in a local bank. I think the fact that my only foreign language was Spanish may have been a factor in our assignment to Guatemala. In spite of the fact that we lost our two military attaches to assassination within the first ten days, and our ambassador (John Gordon Mein) shortly thereafter, Guatemala was a wonderful first post. Barbara, who was a Spanish teacher and had done her graduate work in Madrid, easily found a teaching position, and I was blessed with a couple of great consular supervisors, with whom I still maintain contact and friendship. I loved the work, my colleagues, and the country, all of which cemented our commitment to my Foreign Service career.
David Bloch was born in Boston, and raised in New York City. He attended Queens College as an undergraduate and the University of Michigan where he received his masters in history. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkey. He joined the Foreign Service in 1967 and served in Guatemala, Turkey, Afghanistan, Italy and Brazil.
My story is probably not typical.
When I graduated from Harvard in 1950 I had no clear career choice. The Korean War was on, and I requested active duty in the Marine Corps. Mustered out in May of 1952, I remained uncertain about plans for the future. But having repeatedly been told that the Foreign Service was about the most difficult institution to enter, I decided to accept the challenge and applied for the next written examination in September. I signed up for a ten-week cram course first at George Washington University.
To my surprise, I passed the written, scoring an 86 in economics. (I had not taken a single university course in economics, and this confirmed a life-long prejudice that this academic discipline is essentially a sham.) Since I failed the language section, I used my mustering out pay to spend five months in France studying the French language. Back in America in the spring of 1953, I found that Senator Joseph McCarthy’s erratic rampages had caused such severe cuts in State Department appropriations that employment of new officers was indefinitely suspended.
With no prospect of early appointment, I pursued a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri under the G.I. Bill. My new wife worked to support us (we recently celebrated our 50th). Interestingly, I found that journalism is the alternate choice of profession for many FSOs. I returned briefly to Washington in December to take and pass the oral examination, but there still seemed little likelihood of appointment.
Having pursued the Foreign Service this far, I had become psychologically taken with the notion of a diplomatic career. Out of the blue, in June, 1954 I received a telephone call from the State Department offering me an immediate appointment— if, and only if, I was prepared to report to Washington in exactly two weeks and proceed to my post in Palermo (which I misunderstood on the phone as Salerno). The timing could not have been worse: my wife was expecting our first child in two weeks, and I was three weeks from my master’s degree. But a career beckoned: after consulting with my wife, I agreed to report in two weeks. By luck, the baby arrived the day before I had to leave for Washington. I never obtained the master’s.
It turned out that the State Department, without normal funding, had exploited passage of the Refugee Relief Act of 1953, and related appropriations, in order to appoint some forty new FSOs from the exceptionally long waiting list. The Refugee Relief Act was justified as a vehicle to bring displaced refugees from World War II into the United States. But it also provided tens of thousands of special immigrant visa opportunities for the parents and siblings of immigrant Americans. So the new FSOs were sent out to Naples, Palermo, Athens, Madrid, Belgrade and various posts in Eastern Europe to process visa applications from refugees and, more numerous, relatives of naturalized American citizens.
Our cohort of new FSOs never experienced the traditional A-100 orientation course. In fact, I spent just 18 hours in State Department processing and then left immediately for Palermo. My wife and new baby son followed two months later.
Thus began–almost by chance– a marvelously fulfilling Foreign Service career of 39 years on five continents.
Amb. Harrop served in the U. S. Foreign Service from 1954 to 1994. He held ambassadorships to Guinea, Kenya and the Seychelles, Zaire, and Israel. He was deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa, 1977-80, and inspector general of the Foreign Service, 1983-86. Ambassador Harrop is a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, this journal’s parent organization.
In August, 1959, at the National Student Association (NSA) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, Jose Puente Blanco, the head of the Cuban Student Association, invited a number of delegates to visit Havana at reduced rates. I signed up and the week-long trip there was a memorable one: a meeting with Fidel and his then mistress, a wild trip to the Bacardi rum factory, and a reception at the American Embassy — my first meeting with an American diplomat, Ambassador Philip Bonsall, and the first of many such receptions.
I returned to college and started my sophomore year still not sure of what I wanted to do with my life, but a seed had been planted. The following summer I signed up for Operation Crossroads Africa and was sent to Cameroon with about eleven other students. Our project was to work with African students and build a church in Batouri, a small town near the Congo border.
There were two first-tour officers at the U.S. embassy in Yaounde in the summer of 1960: H. Allen Holmes and Dick Moose – rising stars. both. I became acquainted with them, saw them at work, and fell in love with Africa that summer. More seeds had been planted. In September upon returning to college I changed my major from English to government and determined to pursue a Foreign Service career in Africa.
In my senior year I took and passed the written exam and went to Washington that spring for my orals. The three-person panel advised that I was too young and needed “seasoning;” the members suggested work or the military. I graduated, signed up for a three-year stint in the Army Security Agency and was assigned to a small base near Kassel, Germany. In December 1964, after more than two years of heavy seasoning I took the written exam again in the library of the I.G. Farben building in Frankfort. I remember while taking the exam looking at the proctor, a first tour FSO, and thinking that might be me in two years.
I passed the written and took the oral in the summer of 1965 and with the help of heavy U.S. army seasoning, passed. In February 1966 I joined the A-100 class that also included Mary Ryan, April Glaspie, and Dan Simpson. I made it clear to PER that I wanted an assignment to Africa -– it did not matter where in Africa, but it had to be Africa.
At that time it was customary for everyone in a junior officer class to put five bucks in an assignment pool. The winner would be the individual receiving the worst assignment. There were forty of us. One of our classmates was sure that he was God’s gift to womankind and would get Paris and had told everyone how the jeune filles there were all awaiting his arrival. On our last day the big announcements came. My classmate did not get Paris. The PER representative announced Jeddah and we all laughed. Then my turn came. “Michael Hornblow is assigned to Kabul.” Again, there was much laughter. “Kabul”, I thought, where the hell is that?
My friend who went to Jeddah was awarded first prize and the $200. I came in second.
In December 1966, while in Kabul, I served as proctor for the written exam.
Twenty-nine years later I retired from the Foreign Service, never having served in Africa.
Michael Hornblow is an Associate Editor of American Diplomacy.
Many years ago I had the privilege of meeting the Honorable Joseph C. Grew, the former long-time U. S. envoy to Japan who later was, upon occasion, the acting secretary of state. Along with three or four colleagues, I was introduced to the gentleman, shook hands with him, and accepted his gracious thanks for our assistance that evening. It was some time in the year 1943. The place was Jackson, Mississippi, and the occasion was a civic center auditorium War Bond rally, with the ambassador as the principal speaker before an audience of many hundreds of people. My duty there that evening was serving as a tenderfoot Boy Scout usher.
I remember now nothing at all of what Ambassador Grew said in his speech, but I only recall that those in attendance received his remarks, without doubt patriotically suited to the occasion, with considerable enthusiasm. I therefore cannot explain just why the venerable (or so he, then in his early sixties, seemed to me) gentleman made such an impression on me.
He did, however. The event sparked in me a lasting personal interest in foreign affairs. I reflected at the time, with all the maturity that a twelve- or thirteen-year-old can muster, that whatever it was that the impressive, courteous Ambassador Grew did in the world – that was the career I wanted to follow in the future. This resolve came, I can note with some disbelief now, from a boy whose parents had traveled widely in the States, to Canada, and to Cuba, but who himself had never been anywhere, not with them and certainly not alone. Nor had I had any exposure to a language other than English. True, with my father and other family members for some time I had closely followed, mainly by radio, overseas events leading to our entry into the war, but that had little to do with diplomacy. Admiration of the ambassador, however, trumped all the cards dealt me that would have indicated some other career path, be it medicine (my grandfather), business (my father), education (my mother and various aunts) or agriculture (my great uncles).
And so it came to pass more than a decade later. After army service, after earning a couple of degrees, after a visit to Ole Miss (where I held forth as a visiting lecturer) by a recruiter – he a Foreign Service officer on home leave – from the Board of Examiners, and after attacking the written entrance exam finally in 1955, it all came about that I entered on duty as a Foreign Service officer. Or rather, I did after also passing the orals and a year and a half on the FSO appointment waiting list.
These later developments are another story, however, one that I might be prevailed upon to write about some other time. If I do so, I will be certain to remark upon one of those curious coincidences that we encounter in life. In this instance, against all probabilities or expectations, at my first post abroad I came into contact – indirectly, to be sure — once again with the gentleman once famous but now obscured by the shadows of time gone by: Joseph C. Grew.
Henry Mattox is editor of American Diplomacy.
There were many ways that future friends and I found our life profession in the new Foreign Service. In my high school sophomore year, I learned that some retired naval officers were developing a sea training cruise to Europe during the summer of 1928. They had acquired a small decommisioned ship, the Albatross, that had the basics needed: sufficient bunks, a restricted training area, and food and feeding space. They had a small cadre of seagoing subordinates to teach seamanship in lectures and in practice.
At the time I had been thinking of the Naval Academy, with my father’s friend Adm. Moffett to recommend me. Graduating from Annapolis could facilitate a possible shift to foreign affairs, which was becoming increasingly attractive. But there was a flaw in my vague plan – my innate weakness in mathematics. I think this stemmed from my eight grammar schools in eight years, a legacy of my naval officer father’s assignments. This proved to be crucial. Accordingly, I entered an Annapolis prep school but ingloriously finished the exams with my math an academic failure.
Math clearly was not my dish. Perhaps fortunately I had become increasingly attracted by the scope of political science, exemplified by our foreign affairs and relationship with our military. Then I thought of the student European cruise. My folks, aided by a grandmother, saw that interest and arranged for my place on the old Albatross, soon leaving Boston for Europe.
It was quite a cruise. Our first stop was Nova Scotia, then successively Ireland, France, and Holland for some of the Olympics at Amsterdam. Our final port was Hamburg, We attracted some attention with our cruise uniforms and the older college-age cadets drew the girls, some of questionable repute. We younger fellows observed and learned. By the end of our journey we knew the score.
In those days there were no pre-built accommodations for Olympic athletes, this lack usually being remedied by national ships docking at the site and serving as hotels. We visited our U. S. accommodations at Rotterdam and were not impressed by their life styles.
The cosmopolitan life we viewed during our travels and the national variations in styles we saw, stimulated by an already latent bent toward foreign operations, proved stronger to me than our shipboard routine of sometimes monotonous lectures and exercise. This was so along with our increasing awareness of the ship’s financial problems. By Hamburg the ship was broke.
We students had no recourse except to have our parents get us home third class in a passenger liner. In my case it was the British Aquitania. Our group of destitute students faced the local American consulate general with some complicated problems, and I was impressed by their aid, which increased my resolve to have a Foreign Service career.
Years later, when I focused on the Foreign Service exams, these had been fortuitously reinstituted after a three-year absence from the scene. I passed despite thirty to one odds against and presently found myself in Washington in the junior Foreign Service officer school at a lecture session on ships and seamen assistance as a Foreign Service function. The speaker remarked at length on the most difficult and vexing such problem his Hamburg office ever met with: It was the student ship Albatross gone broke.
On the conclusion of his presentation, I identified myself as having been a student on the Albatross and expressed my sincere appreciation for the very fine actions taken in our behalf, a response that steered me toward the Foreign Service as a career. At first, he was clearly confused, but as I continued he soon smiled, ending with a broad grin.
Dr. Melbourne served as a career U.S. diplomat from 1937 to 1972. He held assignments at nine posts abroad and now lives in retirement at Durham, NC.
Joining the Foreign Service
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