This, the third presentation of personal accounts of why and how members of the Foreign Service decided to take up diplomacy as a career, continues an informative series recently begun, one that American Diplomacy expects to continue. To that end, the editors invite all Foreign Service officers,active and retired, to correspond with us, telling their personal tale. There are, we know, innumerable stories to be told. Send yours to the editor or associate editor at, email@example.com.—Ed.
“Doing as Little Mischief as Possible” by John Brown
“Anthropology or the Foreign Service” by Carleton Coon
“From Soldier to Diplomat” by Milt Iossi
“It All Started with the Peace Corps” by Brenda B.Scoonover
“India Called and I Tried to Answer” by Richard Schoonover
“From Toy Soldiers to Vietnam” by Daniel Strasser
Doing as Little Mischief as Possible
I always knew I wanted to join the Foreign Service. It ran in the family. My father, a widely published writer of prose and verse in numerous languages whom I loved and admired greatly, was also a diplomat who served in France, Belgium, Italy and Mexico, where my brother and I, as Foreign Service brats, grew up in the 1950s and 60s. Far more a poet than a bureaucrat, my father avoided the “embassy compound life” as much as possible, mingling and engaging (in his job as Cultural Attaché, or, as it was then known in the State Department, Super CAO*) with local luminaries in the arts and academic life, often inviting them home where his family was grateful, but sometimes awed, to meet such august guests. In his own, idiosyncratic way, my father worked for the U.S. taxpayer non-stop almost twenty-four hours a day, but, incapable of wasting time, he made sure that most of his day was spent outside the office (when asked at receptions what he did at the embassy, he wittily replied “as little mischief as possible”). His job, as he saw it, was to show, to the best and the brightest abroad, that America was a complex and diverse country that had much to offer to the rest of the world, including in the realm of high culture, and especially literature, in which he was an expert (a word he hated), having written widely praised books on the subject. He would have certainly agreed, in his more optimistic moments — which regrettably were not always part of his life, due to what he considered the sorry state of the modern world — with Aimé Césaire’s aphorism that “Contact between cultures is the oxygen of civilization.”
As I pursued my education in languages and the humanities, the Foreign Service was never very far from my mind, in part because I was always in touch with that exceptional man, my late father **. Soon after I received a PhD from Princeton in 1977 in Russian history, one of my advisers asked me (if I recall properly) the rather blunt question: “Well, Brown, when are you going to get a job?” Not trying to be entirely facetious, I replied, “To be honest, I never wanted to work anyway.” In my fashion, what I was telling the good anxious professor was that I was ready for a Foreign Service career rather than seeking tenure in academia, despite the intellectual satisfaction it can provide. My hope was to serve in socialist Eastern Europe, given my specialized interest in that part of the world, which as a baby boomer had intrigued me as the ideological challenge that America, had to face after World War II.
While employed by the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies and as an editor on a joint U.S.-Soviet publication of historical documents on early Russian-American relations (1765-1815), I took the Foreign Service exam several times, finally passing both its oral and written sections in 1980. My first posting, as a USIA [United States Information Agency] officer, was in London, which I always think was due to a personnel error, given my name (I still ask myself: Did they pick the wrong John Brown?). Then, it was off to an unforgettable and rewarding “press and culture” career in Prague, Krakow, Tallinn (on Temporary tour of Duty [TDY]), Kiev, Belgrade and, finally, Moscow, where I served as CAO — not the Super CAO my father had been, but I hope the kind of CAO he would at least not have disapproved of — if only because I, his admiring son, never spent too much time in the office.
*CAO: “Cultural Affairs Officer,” a military-type term used by the Foreign Service bureaucracy to make sure that being engaged in cultural diplomacy sounds sufficiently “serious” and “American” (attaché is far too foreign a word for U.S. domestic consumption). “Super” is the informal part of the title, used by FSOs in the past century to describe the quality of the persons, who are today very much part of the past, then chosen for the position.
**My father’s papers, kept in the Special Collections Division of Georgetown University, consist of some eighty boxes of materials, and would make fascinating source materials for a study on U.S.-European cultural relations during the Cold War. Professor John L. Brown corresponded with some of the most important people of that epoch. For a partial calendar of his papers, see http://www.library.georgetown.edu/dept/speccoll/cl167.htm
John Brown, Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy and Research Associate at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, compiles a daily “Public Diplomacy Press Review” available free by requesting it athttp://www.uscpublicdiplomacy.org/ index.php?/newsroom/johnbrown_main
I was a World War II veteran, but just barely. V – J Day occurred during my first week in basic training. I spent almost all of 1946 doing unimportant things in Bremen as a Private and, later, a Pfc. I was let out toward the end of that year, and went back to Harvard where I resumed my studies. I graduated two and a half years later, in June 1949, with a major in geography. I married that same month and joined the Foreign Service in early August.
Getting married influenced my career choice, as it reinforced my interest in getting a steady job that paid a living wage (which it did not, for the first several years, but later on the FS came through and of course there were fringe benefits). But the main reason I joined the Foreign Service was because of a strong interest in foreign lands and people.
Back in 1939, when I was twelve, my father took a sabbatical and the family spent six months in the Azores and Morocco. And then came the year in Bremen, courtesy of the US Army. My appetite was whetted and I felt I had only two major choices: anthropology or the Foreign Service.
My father was an eminent anthropologist and I didn’t want to ride on his coattails, or anybody else’s, so the Foreign Service was my target, and for better or worse, they let me in. I haven’t regretted it.
For well over a third of a century the FS supported me while I pigged out on multiple experiences with foreign lands and people, seen in the round. The facts and impressions I absorbed were anthropological and geographical as well as political and economic. I retired at the relatively early age of 58 and have been fully occupied ever since, mostly writing, drawing on my FS experiences and on more recent travels to areas I never got to when employed. You start with information and over your active years you distill it into knowledge. Later on the knowledge in you gets mixed up and if you have been lucky and curious, some of it gets distilled into wisdom. My knowledge base is pretty cross-cultural and cross-disciplined, so I hope I actually was able to synthesize a little wisdom. You can judge for yourself by checking out my books, available on amazon.com.
Carleton S. Coon, Jr., was a career officer in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1949 to 1985. Most of his posts were in or involving the Near East and South Asia. He was ambassador to Nepal from 1981 to 1984. Since retiring he has published Culture Wars and the Global Village and One Planet, One People.
Many high school graduates these days take a sabbatical or a year-long tour of Europe. My Grand Tour was in the Far East thanks to Uncle Sam. When I graduated from Central High School in Davenport, Iowa, in June of 1950, the Korean War broke out a few days later. Although the eldest of eight siblings at a time when our family fortunes were at low ebb, I was determined to work my way through college in some way. My goal was to become a chemical engineer. I worked at a local Alcoa rolling mill for a few months to accumulate some savings while I matriculated at Drake University in nearby Des Moines
My draft board in Des Moines was dipping down into lower and lower age brackets and I realized that my number might come up while I was struggling to meet the tuition and living costs in my first year of college. It seemed clear to me that, if I volunteered through the draft and survived the war, I would have the GI Bill when my service commitment was complete and could pursue my studies in relative financial comfort after the war. (Having been a teenager during WWII, I must admit that there was a lingering sense that joining was also the patriotic thing to do.) The Draft Board was delighted to have a volunteer, needless to say, and I was off to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, for processing into the United States Army. After the usual battery of aptitude tests, the Army decided in all its wisdom that I should be, of all things, an engineer and sent me off to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, for Engineer Basic Training and then a Leaders Course (NCO school). I applied for OCS, but was turned down as too nearsighted. Having scored as a sharpshooter on the rifle range, however, they decided my eyes were good enough for combat and sent me to Korea.
Steaming into Yokohama and Tokyo Bay on the troop ship, I was struck by the fact that this was an amazing sight, as just a few years before I would have been looking at the nerve center of the Japanese Empire. As a young man from the landlocked Midwest, who pored over maps and atlases, I soaked up the atmosphere and the limited contact we had with Japanese civilians. I happened to be on a train coming back to the Port of Yokohama from Camp Drake near Tokyo to ship over to Pusan, Korea, on the day the occupation of Japan ended. Demonstrations and possible violence were feared, and we were ordered to keep the wooden window blinds on the train closed, but when the friendly children along the tracks merely waved and looked puzzled, we opened them and waved back. The transport officers finally gave up trying to enforce their orders. What could they do? Ship us to Korea?
After another Engineer school near Seoul, I was assigned to a small Engineer unit above the 38th Parallel where I did a variety of what might be called, civil engineering tasks for the Xth Corps Headquarters. While I was fascinated by the different languages and cultures I was being exposed to, the engineering work seemed humdrum to me. R&R leaves in Japan also seemed like an opportunity to see the world. Sometime during my eighteen-months there, it occurred to me that people got paid to work in U.S. embassies and consulates all over the planet and that I preferred working with people, rather than things. I turned down several opportunities to stay on in the regular Army and started shopping for universities with international relations curricula
In 1954, I entered the University of Minnesota to prepare for a career in the Foreign Service, majoring in International Relations. After my first two years, I decided to take the FS exam for practice and, to my surprise, passed it. I went on and took the oral exam and was offered an immediate appointment to work at the consular operation at the Port of New York in the summer of 1956. I asked to be excused until completing my Bachelor of Arts degree and the examiners agreed to put my application on hold until that time. In the summer of 1958 I graduated with honors, got married and headed to Washington DC ready to join the FS.
During the years after the McCarthy Hearings, State had very irregular recruiting practices for junior officers and I was shocked to find out that there would be no entering class in the summer of 1958. They agreed to keep me in the queue until they could find budgetary authority to hire again, but I had to eat and support a family at that point while waiting for appointment. Fortunately, one of my professors had talked me into taking the Management Intern exam during those last two years at Minnesota and I had been offered a number of other jobs in Washington. He convinced me that working for the International Division of the Bureau of the Budget (now OMB) in the Office of the President was a better opportunity than being a junior Foreign Service officer in any case. Indeed, working directly with the top management at all the foreign affairs agencies did give one a unique perspective on the whole foreign policy process.
During this time, State called me up again before a panel of examiners and I had to justify why I was asking them to temporarily postpone my accepting an appointment. I explained what had happened and they agreed to postpone my entrance without prejudice. In the meantime, I was being offered jobs at State, AID, CIA, and USIA at mid-career levels, some at posts abroad. Working with Edward R. Murrow during the Kennedy administration impressed me with the importance of public diplomacy and I did finally accept an appointment with USIA in 1962 at a five-level, rather than an eight, at the Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where I had the great, good fortune to serve under Ambassador George Kennan. Later, doing graduate work at Princeton, I studied under Kennan at the Woodrow Wilson School.
During my career, I had a number of challenging assignments with State and USIA in Washington, including the National War College, as well as postings to Belgrade, Paris, Rabat, Karachi, and Dhaka. Although it can be dangerous, unhealthy, and hard on families, I cannot imagine a more fascinating career for someone with a lively intellectual interest in the world and its peoples than the Foreign Service. At the same time, you are serving your country in the front lines of national defense and making a difference in the relations among peoples, while constantly moving, learning new languages, cultures, and histories, making and renewing friendships with first-class people, and seeing the wonders of this amazing planet. What other career can offer all that along with the excitement of malaria, dysentery, death threats, bombings, and frequent moves?
That young soldier in Korea may have seen only the glamorous side of the Foreign Service, but he was right to be steered away from a possible career as an unhappy engineer in one place and in the direction of continuing service abroad for his country as a diplomat.
Milton L. Iossi, a retired Foreign Service Officer, spent much of his later career in the Islamic world. He lives on the Carolina coast and is a very active Rotarian, notably chairing the Diplomatic Protocol Committee of Rotary International.
It All Started with the Peace Corps
by Brenda B. Schoonover
In considering the question of why I joined the Foreign Service, I must start with my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer. In many ways, I look at the Foreign Service as an extension of or natural progression from my Peace Corps experience as a volunteer and member of the Peace Corps staff. I believe that my early Peace Corps training in cross-cultural sensitivity and what we used to called “learning to roll with the punches” have served me well in the Foreign Service and that some of the initial so-called hardships of the Peace Corps made it easy for me to appreciate and to adjust to the life in the Foreign Service.
But what sparked my interest in the Peace Corps?
A few months before graduating from Morgan State college in Baltimore, Maryland (now a university), I was inspired by two documentary films I happened to see about young Americans participating in developmental programs in Africa: “Teachers for East Africa” and “Crossroads Africa” – both about American volunteers working in Africa. Learning of these two programs peaked my interest in doing some kind of volunteer work abroad after graduation.
At the time, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was outlining his idea for the Peace Corps. Americans would volunteer to serve in developing countries for two years to teach or work with the host country nationals on programs to meet the developmental and/or educational needs of the country. I count myself among those touched by President Kennedy’s famous line in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
The Peace Corps came along at just the right time for me. Once the agency was established, I immediately volunteered and twelve hours after taking the exam, I had a telegram offering me an assignment as a teacher of English as a second language in the Philippines. I accepted it with little hesitation. It wasn’t Africa, but it sounded like a great adventure and challenge. I am among the first two hundred volunteers to join the Peace Corps and therefore considered a charter member, an honor and distinction our group carries with great pride.
As a volunteer, I worked in the rural town of Magarao on the island of Luzon. I had the opportunity to meet American diplomats in Manila on occasions such as the Ambassador’s reception honoring the volunteers and when American officials visited the provinces. The more I learned about how U.S. Missions functioned abroad, the more I gained respect for its officers. I was particularly impressed with officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United States Information Agency (USIA) who were responsive and generous to requests for resources for community projects a group of us had established, a town library and children’s summer day camp.
A few years later after my P.C. Volunteer experience, I took a position as Associate Director of the Peace Corps in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, supervising approximately seventy volunteers. I had finally made it to Africa. It would turn out to be, in addition to assignments in other regions, the first of three tours in Sub-Saharan Africa. While in Dar, I met Dick Schoonover, a career Foreign Service Officer with the United States Information Agency. After finishing our tours in Tanzania, Dick and I were married and I accompanied him to Nigeria and from there to Tunisia. As the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer, it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to establish and retain a consistent career. Besides, living and working abroad had become a part of my normal existence. I was already a Foreign Service spouse and becoming an F.S. Officer seemed the logical next step for me to take. So, I joined and Dick and entered the ranks of Foreign Service tandem couples.
I look back on my 27 years with the Foreign Service with no regrets, many fond memories of enriching adventures and a wealth of incredible experiences both Dick and I have shared. I look back with pride and nostalgia on my beginnings with the Peace Corps, which provided me the foundation for a fulfilling Foreign Service career. And, I encourage others to consider the challenges and rewards the Foreign Service has to offer.
Ambassador Brenda Brown Schoonover is a retired career Foreign Service Officer, formerly with the United States Department of State. She served as U.S. Ambassador to Togo, West Africa. Mrs. Schoonover’s last overseas assignment was Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, Belgium (2001-2004) and Charge d’Affaires ad Interim (acting Ambassador) during her last year in Brussels. From 2000-2001, Ambassador Schoonover was Diplomat-in- Residence at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In addition to an earlier tour in Belgium (1992-96), her other State Department assignments have included the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Washington, D.C. Ambassador Schoonover is a member of the Board of Directors of American Diplomacy.
India Called and I Tried to Answer
by Richard Schoonover
I was majoring in political science at the University of California at Riverside, not having much of an idea what I would do with it afterwards, when I had an opportunity after my junior year to visit India on a summer exchange program. I had never left the state of California in my life, nor even flown in an airplane at that time.
Our group traveled around India speaking to university groups about life in the U.S. and exchanging views about our student experiences in a program that was arranged in part on the ground by the local U.S. Information Service (USIS) offices. It was an eye-opening and exhiliarating encounter with people from another and most different culture. That was also my first encounter with Foreign Service officers and I must admit I was impressed.
That experience, however, did not lead me immediately into a Foreign Service career track. Instead, I determined to study India and South Asia at the graduate level, which I did at UC Berkeley in the political science department for three and one-half years after finishing at Riverside. My goal was to obtain a PhD and pursue a university teaching career. More than three years of graduate study later, I realized that the rather sedentary life (as I perceived it) of a university professor no longer appealed to me and I itched to get into a more active life style. My first move was to interview at the Asia Foundation, across the bay in San Francisco. The Asia Foundation, I knew, had offices in the region and a very rich program of educational activities. We were interested in each other, but the hitch was that new program officers were then obliged to spend at least two years in the head office before going abroad.
That was when I remembered those USIS officers I had met in India. So, I decided to try the Foreign Service exam, which I fortunately passed – written and oral, having opted for the information/cultural specialty. I was called within three months to proceed to Washington and begin my career. The year was 1964 and it was -I am told-the first year that a university from outside the Ivy League produced the largest number of new FS officers and it was UC Berkeley.
After the initial training period at USIA headquarters my class received their initial assignments. I had naturally made India my first pick. So I was a little surprised when Uganda was the system’s response. And was a little annoyed when another member of my class did get assigned to India. He hadn’t even mentioned it on his preference list!
All’s well that ends well, however. After just a few months in Kampala, I was urgently reassigned to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to fill a sudden vacancy. It was in Dar that I met my wife, Brenda, and we subsequently married 37 years ago.
Richard (Dick) C. Schoonover is a retired Foreign Service Officer. While in the Foreign Service with the United States Information Agency (USIA) during a 32 year career, he held assignments as cultural affairs or information officer/press attaché in Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Tunisia and the Philippines. Later he was public affairs officer in Sri Lanka and Tunisia. Among his assignments in Washington, he was in charge of USIA programs for North Africa and a Senior Inspector. Before retiring in 1996, Mr. Schoonover was Deputy Public Affairs Officer/Mission Spokesman at the U.S. Mission to NATO, Brussels. Mr. Schoonover is associate editor of “American Diplomacy” and a member of its Board of Directors.
From Toy Soldiers to Vietnam
by Daniel Strasser
Selecting the Foreign Service as a career came effortlessly to me. I guess I wanted to be “a diplomat” ever since I knew that such a profession existed, when we began to get some serious history at school in about the 7th grade. But the origins of this interest went back even further and to multiple sources. As a child I loved geography and assiduously collected stamps, living a vicarious understanding of foreign places through them. I also picked up a small collection of Chinese coins (with square holes in them) and a print of the destruction of the Chinese Navy, my reward for accompanying a beloved aunt on her tours of Connecticut antique stores. This same aunt took me as a little kid on my first trip to New York’s Chinatown. Enjoying foreign foods became part of my interest in living abroad. I became enamored of an early 1950s TV series called “China Smith”, starring Dan Duryea, an American adventurer who prowled the back streets of Singapore. I began to have dreams of exotic adventures. As a kid also, I was heavily interested in war movies and most of my toys consisted of toy soldiers, tanks, cannons and model fighter planes. Moving to suburban Los Angeles, in our neighborhood “playing war” was the alternative to soft ball as a street diversion. My older brother used to taunt me with chants of “Danny loves the Army.”
But it was in junior high that I really discovered that diplomats played a crucial role in avoiding or ending wars, and their work seemed more interesting to me. I believe it was in the 8th grade that we had a half semester course on vocational choices. I was able to find considerable material on the US Foreign Service to make my final presentation. Aside from writing away to the State Department, I discovered that a major New York insurance company put out pamphlets on different professions and ordered one which convinced me this was the career for me.
Another thing helped propel me towards diplomacy in school: our school library was rich in resources on history, and I checked out many books about famous international people and events, from Marco Polo to Commodore Mathew C. Perry. I must say that I had some really outstanding high school social studies teachers. Finally, growing up in a Mexican American California neighborhood-home of Ritchie Valens–we were offered Spanish from the seventh grade on, and I had six years of it before reaching college. Not particularly caring for math or science, I majored in Spanish in high school and took a variety of courses such as speech (and joined the debating team, which prepared me to discuss many world issues), journalism (including working on the school paper) and business law and was sent during one summer to an Honors Course in International Relations. I graduated as my class valedictorian with a 4.2 GPA due to the honors course counting as a double 5.0. Taking international relations at UCLA, I continued to study Spanish, including a year abroad in Madrid, and-already specializing in Latin American Studies–took Portuguese just as the bossa nova was catching attention. I continued on to a two year graduate program at the School of International Affairs at Columbia University, where the United Nations played a big role in people’s thinking about foreign relations.
Despite all of this preparation for a diplomatic career, I became painfully aware that not everyone passed the Foreign Service Examination. It was out of a sense of anxiety that I took the exam during my first year at SIA. Low and behold, I passed the exam, but just barely: I received a 69.5, and my score got rounded up to a passing 70! And what a curious thing that in my second year at SIA the State Department announced that for the first time in years it would not give the exam that year. As a result, I was the only member of my SIA class to enter the Foreign Service upon graduation. But getting into the Service would not be so easy. The war in Vietnam created a huge problem. Columbia University in 1968 had gone through a veritable student revolution over the war. It had largely been closed down by demonstrations led by the SDS and Mark Rudd and a group of African-American students. I was not a student revolutionary, but I had become an anti-War activist and joined the Gene McCarthy for President Campaign, which led to the resignation of President Lyndon Johnson and, unfortunately in my view, the election of Richard B. Nixon. (It was there I learned the law of unintended consequences.)
I received a letter from the State Department informing me that normal entrance into the Foreign Service was not available at this time, but anyone who had passed the exam agreeing to spend 18 months on an assignment in Vietnam in the “pacification program” would be considered for entry. I wrote back saying that I could not possibly agree to volunteer to go to Vietnam having opposed the war. I received a letter back informing me that I could do as I wished, but should be aware that if in the future I was admitted to the Foreign Service, I might be assigned to Vietnam and I would not have an option to choose another assignment, but would have to resign if I did not accept it. I figured I would never get admitted to the Foreign Service, but I was wrong.
Shortly after the exchange of letters, I received a regular admission into the Foreign Service. And after going through six weeks of the A-100 Course, lo and behold, I was assigned to the pacification program in Vietnam. Five members of my 19-person A-100 class had agreed to go to Vietnam before entry into the Service. Three of us who had refused the offer were assigned to Vietnam anyway. I was the only one of the three to accept the assignment to the pacification program. One fellow resigned and the other was allowed a regular diplomatic assignment at the Embassy in Saigon. But this only happened after I personally assured the Director General of the Foreign Service that I would not raise an objection to his assignment there. This was only possible, because, unlike me, he had not specified his objection to the war when he turned down the first opportunity to join the Service and had not received the warning that I had.
Although I went to Vietnam under protest, I cannot say that my experiences there were not interesting and to some extent rewarding. Perhaps, Latin America had been a diversion from my real interest in Asia and my “forced” Vietnam assignment had fulfilled that interest. I was now “China Smith.” Following a full year of language training, I went to Vietnam fully prepared for the job. And spending six months in the provinces as a grass roots development adviser visiting hamlets and villages every day, I came to speak Vietnamese and understand the people quite well. Soon I was assigned to carry out pretty much the kind of work that regular Foreign Service Officers had been assigned to do, provincial reporting. I could write myself a ticket on Air America to go anywhere in Central Vietnam or Saigon. Most of my reporting was on the failure of the South Vietnamese government to govern honestly and wisely, including the lead up to the one-man election of 1971. I documented why the GVN had failed to “win the hearts and minds” of its own people. Elsewhere (the Foreign Service Journal, December1992), I have written more about the Foreign Service Officers who dissented on Vietnam and Cambodia, but here I will just leave it that my first assignment to a controversial war was certainly a unique and challenging way of entering the Foreign Service.
Daniel Strasser was a US Foreign Service political officer from 1969-96, serving in South Vietnam, Santo Domingo, the United Nations New York, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador da Bahia, La Paz and Washington, DC as a desk officer, division chief and on detail to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI). He was Executive Director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill in Hyde Park, NY, from 1996-2003. He is currently a Political Analyst with Anteon Corporation at the Standing Joint Force Headquarters, US Joint Forces Command, Norfolk, Virginia