This, the second tranche of a feature on the background to entering a diplomatic career, presents the accounts of five more Foreign Service officers, active or retired. Each officer has an interesting and unique story. We at American Diplomacy believe that each and every one presents a viewpoint that serves to further our understanding of the motivations involved. In order to enlarge that body of information, the journal cordially invites each and every FS officer, active or retired, to contribute his or her story. Send them, please, to the editor .—Ed.
by J. R. Bullington
My family’s roots were in a 40-acre north Alabama cotton farm and the grimy Tennessee River industrial town, railroad junction, and Civil War battlefield of Chattanooga. In their world, when I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, the Foreign Service and the State Department were as unknown as the far side of the moon. They were hard-working, church-going farmers and workers, and I was the first in the family to go to college.
I recall a visit with my parents in Chattanooga shortly after I had passed the Foreign Service exam. We were at a gathering with several extended family members and friends, and a couple asked me about my plans. “I’m going to join the Foreign Service,” I proudly announced. Their eyes widened in consternation. “Now why in hail would you go and do a thaing like that?” asked the husband. Further conversation revealed that they identified “Foreign Service” with “Foreign Legion” (about which they had seen some Hollywood movies), and they couldn’t imagine why I would want to go fight in the Sahara Desert for the French Army.
When another relative asked a similar question, I decided to answer it differently. “I’m going to work for the State Department,” I declared. “Oh,” came the response, “so yer fixin’ to move up ‘ar t’Nashville are ya?”
Asked about my future yet again, by an elderly aunt, I reverted to the Foreign Service formulation, though this time with considerably less pride and confidence. “Well,” she said, “you’ll look mighty good in one of them thar Smokey B’ar hats.” I was totally perplexed by this comment until I realized that she had understood “Foreign Service” as “Forest Service.”
I graduated from Chattanooga City High School in 1957 and enrolled at Auburn to study chemical engineering. I chose this field not because of any particular interest in it, but because the only way I could afford college was through the “co-op plan,” which involved alternating quarters of work and school, and I was able to arrange a co-op job at a Chattanooga chemical plant. Three years of this co-oping convinced me that I didn’t want to be an engineer, so I changed my major to English and managed to finance my final two years of school by part-time work and student loans. My passion, however, was not literature but working on the student newspaper, The Plainsman, of which I became editor my senior year.
I was also active in student government, and in my junior year became involved with the Auburn Conference on International Affairs, an annual student-organized event that brought internationally connected speakers to the campus. At the suggestion of a friend from Montgomery, I invited Ambassador Clare Timberlake, a career FSO who had been Ambassador to the Congo immediately after its independence and was then stationed at Maxwell Field as the State Department Political Adviser to the Air War College.
This was my first encounter with the Foreign Service. When I expressed interest in the career, Ambassador Timberlake was extraordinarily helpful and friendly, and even invited me to his house in Montgomery for lunch. With his guidance, I learned more about it, and decided this was definitely the career I wanted.
I took the written exam in Montgomery in the fall of 1961, and was invited to take the oral in the spring of 1962. I boarded a train from Auburn to Atlanta and from there flew to Washington, my first time ever to be on an airplane or to travel north of Tennessee. The magazine I chose on the plane was a National Geographic in which Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had written about his trip to Mongolia. This proved to be a fortunate choice, since one of the questions I was asked by an examiner was, “Do you think we should open an Embassy in Ulan Bator?” Before reading that article, I wouldn’t have had the foggiest notion that he was speaking of the capital of Mongolia.
But the principal reason I passed the oral exam was not my fortuitous geographic knowledge, but my experience during the past year with the Auburn student newspaper.
Shortly after I became editor in the spring of 1961, the “freedom riders” came to Alabama. These were young civil rights activists who were trying to desegregate the interstate bus lines and stations of the South. In both Birmingham and Montgomery they were set upon and beaten by white mobs while local police and Alabama state troopers looked on in approval.
Previously I had never been involved in civil rights matters, and had pretty much taken the racially segregated society I grew up in as a given. For some reason, however, the freedom rider incidents, combined with my new responsibilities as a newspaper editor expected to comment on the major issues of the day, produced a sort of political epiphany. I wrote a front page editorial in The Plainsman denouncing Alabama rednecks for attacking the freedom riders, condemning the state’s political leaders for letting it happen, labeling segregation as morally wrong, and calling for the integration of Auburn University.
From the perspective of 2005, this sounds rather anodyne, but in Alabama in 1961, it was revolutionary. Almost all the students and a majority of the professors denounced me (“nigger-lover,” “Yankee agitator,” and even “Bolshevik pig” were among the common epithets); the Klan burned a cross on the front lawn of my fraternity house; and Governor John Patterson (who had defeated George Wallace in the most recent gubernatorial election because he was perceived as more militant than Wallace on preserving segregation) threatened to cut Auburn’s appropriation unless the administration did something to rid the campus of this blasphemy in the student newspaper.
The story was picked up by the Associated Press and gained some national attention. Primarily because of this, and their consequent fear of losing Auburn’s accreditation if they fired or expelled me, the University administration stopped short of such drastic action. The President demanded that I submit all future editorials for censorship; but I adamantly refused and continued to write against segregation, pretty much daring him to remove me as editor (with the expectation that if he did, I would be offered a scholarship at a prestigious journalism school). This made for a very interesting senior year.
My mentor Ambassador Timberlake brought these events to the attention of the Foreign Service Board of Examiners. I’m confident that this experience is the only possible reason they could have invited a naïve 21-year-old kid, who had not yet even graduated from an academically challenged state university in the Deep South, to become a Foreign Service Officer.
When I joined my A-100 class immediately after graduating from Auburn in December 1962, I was by far the youngest and least experienced member. Almost all were graduates of Ivy League or other leading universities, and most had advanced degrees, military service, international experience, and other qualifications I sorely lacked. But even then, the State Department was beginning to proclaim its dedication to diversity in filling the ranks of the Foreign Service. I laid claim to being that year’s token hillbilly.
During his Foreign Service career, Jim Bullington served in Hué, Saigon, Quang Tri, Chiangmai, Mandalay, Rangoon, N’djamena, Cotonou, and Bujumbura (where he was Ambassador), as well as at the State Department and NSC. He retired in 1989 as Dean of the Senior Seminar. He was subsequently Director of International Affairs for the City of Dallas and headed the Center for Global Business and Executive Education at Old Dominion University. Since 2000, he has been Peace Corps Country Director in Niger.
In the wake of World War II, with sixteen million men and women being poured back into the economy, an obscure bill passed through congress. It offered a four-year college education to any veteran. The bill was modest. Large enough to cover tuition at State universities and $65.00 a month subsistence. The authors of the bill thought at most 200,000 vets would take advantage of the offer. Five million, who would otherwise have gone back to work at the bottom of the pay scale, poured onto the campuses.
One of the unintended consequences of the GI Bill was the democratization of the career Foreign Service when graduates under this program began taking the entry exam in the early nineteen fifties, destroying the monopoly of the diplomatic establishment by the Ivy League and the top twenty private colleges in the country.
I was one. My family were southern kulaks, land poor with two thousand worn out and worthless acres cutting across the site of the Battle of Lick Skillet Road just outside of Atlanta, allowing me to boast that I was born in a place called Lick Skillet. The battle was cited in Shelby Foote’s three volume history of what we called in my youth, the War of Northern Aggression.
On my seventeenth birthday on February 20, 1943, I volunteered for the navy. Three years later I entered the University of Georgia which, in order to get rid of the horde of veterans who descended on the campus ferociously intent on a degree, gave us all an examination which essentially allowed us to skip the freshman year if we were functionally literate. I had read voraciously during two-and-a-half years of immense boredom on two so-called jeep carriers, the Bogue-CVE13 and the Card-CVE-11, and took college level extension courses. By taking a maximum class load and going year round I graduated in 1948 with two years left on my G.I. Bill. A sophisticated Yankee friend came through Atlanta where I was working for the United Press from midnight to 8 A.M. rewriting the newspapers for the radio wire for $40.00 a week, and convinced me to go to France with him.
“Sell that old heap of yours and take the Niew Amsterdam with me.”
“What the hell,” I thought. “Why not?”
Why not indeed. He stayed six weeks and I was there two years finishing a graduate program at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques. I was desperate to stay in France, for which I had developed a lifelong love affair, and as my GI Bill expired I applied for a menial job at the American Embassy. Rejected, I filled out a form on the way out to take a Foreign Service exam about which I knew essentially nothing. The rest is history.
I became over the next forty years an international bum. After passing the written and oral exam exams for the Foreign Service, the oral solely on the basis of my impeccable French, elicited by questions from a French diplomat who was observing the panel. After the exam one of the elegant former ambassadors suggested I work on improving my southern accented English.
I did not last long. At the end of three years in Vienna I married a Viennese who lived in the Russian zone of the city, and my proforma resignation was accepted. Much like a second rate Don Quixote I was fired from the copy desk of the Minneapolis Tribune after 18 months in agonizing efforts to be allowed to write. Broke, I crossed the street and answered an advertisement for a French speaker willing to work in Africa. After an apprenticeship learning the flour trade I spent four years along the west coast of Africa Reporting on the probability that Pillsbury Mills would lose its dominant position in the market as the Africans took over their countries.
Well paid, I had saved a fair amount of money and, when I sold my first novel in 1960, we decided to go for it and moved from Africa to Barcelona which, at the time, was one of the least expensive cities in Europe. I survived for seven years doing free lancing and selling two more novels until hunger was at my door and with two sons and a wife clinging to my essentially feckless legs, I re-entered the Foreign Service, this time with USIA spending the next twenty years in Warsaw, Ankara, Madrid and both East and West Berlin with a bizarre two-year interlude writing speeches for Richard Perle in the Pentagon. Along the way I published more “cold war” novels and a memoir Unintended Consequences.
My latest book is An Enchanted Valley about my ten-year retirement in Provence. Another a futuristic geopolitical novel Reasons of State which takes place in 2052, is in press with Jane Books and should be out in the fall.
At seventy-nine I empathize with the character of Mehitabel the Cat in Don Marquis’ brilliant satire of the nineteen thirties Archy and Mehitabel. Archy is a cockroach who writes in the dark of night by jumping on Marquis’ typewriter and hitting the keys with his head. Mehitabel soliloquizes as she tries to eat Archy. Her tagline in the columns is: There’s a dance in the old dame yet, Archy.”
After working as a reporter for the “Sanford Florida Herald”, United Press and “the Minneapolis Tribune, Mr. Harper was an editor for Radio Free Europe in Munich and a foreign correspondent in West Africa and Spain. He entered the career foreign service in 1967, serving as press attaché in Warsaw, Ankara, Madrid, East and West Berlin. Mr. Harper has written a number of novels and a political memoir “Unintended Consequences” published in 1997. A personal memoir “An Enchanted Valley” has just been published. .
There are those who might say that I never was in the “Foreign Service.” And, indeed, with assignments in Paris, US Mission NATO (Brussels), and Ottawa spliced with negotiations in Athens and Geneva, my career with the Department of State never encompassed traditional consular assignment service in Deepest Darkestan.
Abstractly, I hypothesize that I “missed something.” But while I can review these regrets with some detachment in the term of missing exotic climes and high adventure, I also recall that adventure can be defined as someone else having a very unpleasant time a long/long way away. I do not regret for an instant not experiencing personally the stories that colleagues (in the “real Foreign Service”) tell of a wife now suffering from lung failure due to extended inhalation of airborne fecal matter in South Asia, a child medevac’ed with encephalitis from Africa, a child dead through inadequate neonatal care in old Yugoslavia, a wife murdered in an aircraft bombing, others murdered by terrorists (or simply temporarily evacuated when worthy local citizens violently expressed their discontents with the existence of the United States and its diplomatic representatives).
It was tough work—and I didn’t do it.
Nor can I claim to being linguistically gifted. Learning a foreign language was like chipping stone with my tongue; I was never better than workman-like in my competence.
Instead my Foreign Service métier was politico-military issues and nuclear and conventional arms control. And these topics did not lead to assignments in most developing nations.
It is hard to identify a precise point when the Foreign Service became a career objective. Certainly it wasn’t a family professional pattern and, while my parents were university educated, they had never gone further abroad than Canada (which every American of the era would have said was “just like us”). My teachers in the 1950s were intelligent, sometimes even inspiring, but didn’t awe their student with slide shows of their summer travel to Europe (or even to Mexico). Nor was there some luminous meeting with the mighty to inspire a lad from Scranton.
Indeed, if there was any early professional inspiration, it was for the post-Sputnik era student to seek a science career. Upon arriving at university, I had never even heard of political science or international relations as defined academic disciplines. Chemistry was to be my concentration; this, however, was a course major that lasted (barely) through three semesters of the calculus but foundered on the rocks of physics.
Happily, the University of Pennsylvania offered other options. Among them were courses by Robert Strausz-Hupe, whose articulate expositions of the elements of power and “realism” in foreign affairs provided a structure for my personally inchoate but inherently conservative thought. (Interestingly, at 65, having retired from Penn, Strausz-Hupe began an extended ambassadorial career suggesting that diplomacy as a second career has its possibilities even late in life.) A more direct connection to the Foreign Service was provided by another Penn professor, John Melby, an FSO “China hand” purged during the McCarthy years, who provided some wry guidance for a naïf probing the possibilities of becoming a U.S. diplomat.
Much of the rest of the “progress” was traditional. I took the written exams in the autumn of my senior year along with what seemed hundreds of others in a huge room on an upper floor of a Philadelphia post office. I was barely 21 when I faced my three-man board at the bottom of that “T” shape table arrangement at USUN in New York. One of the examiners appeared to be suffering from third-world type complaint albeit in New York, and clearly they were more amenable to my candidacy when made aware that I contemplated further graduate study and had a 2-year Army ROTC obligation to complete. So I was an easy “stockpile” possibility.
Several years later, I was at the cusp of career decision-making. I had successfully completed a highly interesting tour as an Army intelligence officer in Korea. The CIA had told me that it would be congenial to my application. There was a fellowship (and GI Bill support) waiting at Penn. And I had a “reserve officer” appointment at State so I was no longer under the 30 calendar month eligibility clock for entering the Foreign Service.
As is often the case, one temporizes; I straddled several bridges then and maintained this contortion for much of the rest of my career. I continued graduate study/research and wrote and published whenever possible. I remained an Army reserve officer for 28 years, attempting inter alia to demonstrate to Pentagon colleagues that the same man could wear striped pants as well as Army green pants.
And most fortunately of all during my first junior officer tour in Paris, I rotated into a political section so manifest with talent that seven of its officers became ambassadors. These men, most prominently among them H Allen Holmes and Maynard (“Mike”) Glitman, were the epitome of professional excellence and would have provided examples of principled, dynamic, and humane leadership in any field. As a profession, the Foreign Service was fortunate to have had them, and I personally benefited and still benefit from their examples.
Sometimes the strongest incentive for being a Foreign Service Officer is to be one.
Retired Foreign Service officer David T. Jones earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and pursued further graduate studies, all at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written extensively over the years for U.S. and Canadian publications..
I was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on May 22, 1932 in Fayette County 17 miles from the Mason-Dixon Line. Uniontown had been a busy Underground Railroad (UGRR) station connecting to seven onward routes. I heard UGRR tales as a small boy and my family even lived on Baker’s Alley which had provided shelter for freedom seekers.
My father was of old pioneer tri-racial (black, European and Indian) stock dating back to the French and Indian War. He was a coal miner. His coal miner father had been born in 1856 and died in 1906. His tough, flinty mother, who had a warm side for me, lived to be 103.
My mother came from a similar background but her ancestors had been enslaved in Virginia. Her parents, James and Sallie Dangerfield Roberts migrated to western Pennsylvania in 1901 where he became a coal miner.
My parents separated in 1940 and I went to live with my mother’s parents in Standard Shaft in Westmoreland County outside Mount Pleasant, a town of 5000 persons. “Shaft” was a coal camp of about 300 duplex company houses constructed by the Henry Clay Frick Company.
My grandparents had strong characters and had managed to send three sons to college despite the Depression.
My mother remarried in Detroit in 1947 and I went there to finish high school which I did in June, 1949. I went to nine schools in the 1938-1949 period.
My mother tells me that my Detroit high school counselor thought my independent and self-assured temperament would get me into trouble with the law, since my bearing clearly showed that I didn’t realize that I had been born into the lowest caste of society and I acted and carried myself above my station. He said such aspirations were unrealistic and would lead me to frustration and inevitable conflict with the established order. He told her I should be satisfied to go into the automotive factories like the other young black men.
He implied that whites were superior to blacks not the other way around, as I seemed, to believe. I was actually suspended from high school for nearly a week because I held my head high and refused to be intimidated.
Since I had done nothing wrong, except to be myself, eventually some of my teachers must have intervened because I was reinstated.
Somehow, four years of football and basketball helped me keep my discipline. A brilliant English teacher forced me to learn to work up to my potential and made sure I was prepared for college work. She made me do four times the work she assigned to other students. I had to learn and recite in class to her satisfaction the four long soliloquies from “Hamlet”. The others only had to learn one. I had to write four times as many compositions as the others including autobiographical essays. Her constant questions to me were, “Who are you? What will you become? What will you do with your ability?”
I came to Howard University in January, 1950 on a road that led away from the assembly line at Ford’s River Rouge plant in Detroit where I had been laid off in November, 1949.
I went to Ford after high school because I didn’t know what else to do. I had been a footballer and I had been encouraged by a former teammate to join him in matriculating at Detroit’s Wayne University to seek to play ball there on an athletic scholarship. However, I had already decided by then to give up sports and to become a serious student because I knew I wanted to be a diplomat.
I had been motivated by the fact that Ralph Bunche had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949. I also admired Secretary of State Dean Acheson because he was constantly involved in important conferences in London and Paris and I thought I would like to do that one day myself. The fact that Acheson was always so well-dressed was not lost on me either. I noticed that diplomats could be as sharp as Duke Ellington and Billy Eckstine—my other well-dressed heroes. My problem was that I didn’t know how to get started on the road to diplomacy. So since Ford was hiring, I thought I would work for a while and save some money while trying to figure out my next step.
I was surely the most hopeless assembly line worker Ford ever hired. I worked on a drill-press at the head of a transmission line. I took casings and put them in my machine to drill bolt holes. Unfortunately, I often put the casings in wrong and they cracked so the entire line had to be shut down. This made me very popular with the other workers on the line who could lounge and laugh while my machine was being repaired. The foreman developed a noticeable tic, however, caused by the shriek of the metal casings when they cracked in my machine. Doubtless, Ford was as relieved as I was when a November recession caused production to be reduced and led to redundant employees (me) being laid off.
I discovered quickly that unemployment was a horrific experience. Standing in long lines of workers seeking jobs clarified my mind rapidly. I needed to leave Detroit as soon as possible. Seeking ways to do so, I even applied to join the French Foreign Legion. Fortunately, my ex-coal miner Uncle James Eliron Roberts had become a medical doctor by going to Howard and he and my mother’s other brothers Horace Molvin Roberts, Henry Clay Roberts and Russell Edward Roberts had established a commercial laundry in Washington and they invited me to join them in the business. My monetary compensation would be limited but the firm would pay for my tuition and books at Howard. Early in the week of December 15, 1949, I received a call from the French Consulate saying my application to join the Foreign Legion had been accepted, but I was able to decline since I was departing for Howard and Washington on December 15. The Foreign Legion was recruiting at that time because of the war in Indochina. I missed that. I entered Howard in January, 1950 and was required to join the ROTC, so when the Korean War broke out in June, 1950 I was exempted from the draft and missed that war also.
Instead, I found my vocation of working with my mind in evening school at Howard. One night in class during the winter of 1950 I felt my brain stir like some dormant muscle and I realized that some sort of transformation was taking place and I could think logically, quickly and imaginatively.
I found I had a gift for the French language. I liked economics and even statistics. I proudly took classes in Political Science in classrooms where Ralph Bunche had taught. I visited his former office at Howard and sat in the chair where he had sat. Alain Locke, Everett Dorsey, E. Franklin Frazier, John Hope Franklin, Rayford Logan and others gave me encouragement and nurtured my desire to become a diplomat. I became a good student and graduated with majors in Economics and French.
When I started Howard in 1950, there were four black U.S. diplomats: Clifford Wharton, who entered the Foreign Service in 1924; William George who entered in 1929 and Rupert Lloyd who entered in 1941 as clerks became officers in 1945. Charles M. Hanson passed the examinations in 1948 and relieved Lloyd in Monrovia. I heard about Rupert Lloyd in 1953 from his in-laws John and Sadie Harlan and their daughter Jacqueline. By then Lloyd was assigned to Paris. The Harlans encouraged me to take the Foreign Service examination. The examination materials emphasized that the Foreign Service recruited assigned and promoted on merit principles. If merit was the criterion, I knew I could compete.
I was well aware of historical color discrimination where merit had decidedly not been the criterion for black recruitment, assignment or promotion in the Foreign Service or other careers. However, I had been raised and nurtured in the belief that hard work, toughness, ability and dedication to American values could overcome obstacles. I believed in America’s promise.
I was not the best American diplomat in my 1957-1989 period of service but I did my best and I was able to compete with the best and brightest of my generation.
My belief in America’s promise was justified.
Career diplomat Ron Palmer served as U.S. ambassador to Togo, to Malaysia, and to Mauritius between 1976 and 1989 during his thirty-two years in the Foreign Service. Ambassador Palmer now is associated with The George Washington University in Washington, D. C.
When I was in high school in Wilmington, NC, we had a high school ROTC, and I was a real military guy. There were three of us in my class (1944) who had a burning desire to go to West Point and have military careers. All three of us got Congressional appointments to West Point. The other two guys made it (and had distinguished careers) but I failed the physical exam on eyesight. I graduated at 16 and went to NC State, where I was also in the ROTC. When I turned 18, WWII had been over for a couple of months, but I enlisted in the Army (I chose the artillery), and in Jan. 1946 I was taking my basic training at Fort Bragg. I applied for Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill. OK. I was accepted, and graduated as a 2nd Lt. of field artillery in November, the day before my 19th birthday.
Shortly after graduation, most of my class got orders for deployment to Japan. I was assigned to the 24th Division Artillery on Kyushu, the southern-most of the main islands. As a junior officer, I was sent out with a small team on a number of missions all around Kyushu. One, for example, was observing the first post-war elections, to try to insure there was no manipulation. Another was visiting prisons, to make sure no political prisoners were still being held. On these missions and several others, I interacted with Japanese officials at the municipal and provincial levels and found that very interesting. I was studying Japanese, and tried to have conversations with the officials in Japanese – though I had to rely heavily on my interpreter, a young Nisei (second generation Japanese-American) soldier from Hawaii.
I was, of course, thinking of my future. I might have chosen to stay in the Army, but as an OCS graduate, I thought I would never catch up with the West Pointers. I had heard about the Foreign Service and felt that this might be the best future for me. I thought that, in my contacts with the Japanese, I had shown some diplomatic skills. So I accepted an “early out” opportunity and got back to North Carolina in time to enter UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall of 1948. I directed my studies towards a Foreign Service career. After graduating and spending a year in New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarship, I came back to grad school at UNC in the fall of 1953. In September, I took the Foreign Service written exam (a three and one-half day exam then) in Washington, and passed it. In February, I passed the oral exam. But, because of all the hullaballoo surrounding McCarthy, the State Dept. was not hiring anybody. So I also took the Junior Management Assistant Exam, which could get you into almost any Federal Government department. I passed it, and shortly after finishing my MA (Pol. Sci.) in May, 1954, I accepted an offer to work for the Dept. of the Air Force in the Pentagon. One evening in December, I got a call from State asking me if I would be interested in entering the Foreign Service and being assigned to London. I managed to contain myself, and replied that I would be interested. I was told that the ambassador in London, Winthrop W. Aldrich, needed a junior aide, and that two candidates would be brought into the Foreign Service, the Ambassador would interview us and choose one. The other would be given another assignment. So I entered the Service, was interviewed and chosen by Amb. Aldrich, and was sent off to London forthwith (no Departmental training). And that is how I got my first hardship post. You don’t think it’s a hardship post? What about the climate?
J. Edgar Williams served 27 years in the Foreign Service, at London, Madrid, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Auckland, Ottawa, and several tours of duty in the Dept. of State, plus a year of graduate study in economics at Yale. After retiring, he served for 16 years as a contract Spanish language interpreter for the State Dept. He lives in Fearrington Village NC.