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Another in our “First Post” series, Mr. Sheinbaum’s contribution reminds us of the early days of post-WWII life in a foreign service assignment.  It was an exotic adventure, yet it was infused with a feeling of family.  It would be hard not to retain warm memories of such an experience.–Assoc. Ed.Before the Afghan War

by Gilbert H. Sheinbaum

I could not have had a better introduction to the Foreign Service: my first posting, to the American embassy in Vientiane, Laos.

In January 1957, toward the end of the three-month orientation for new Foreign Service officers, I was assigned to a two-month disbursing course to be followed by my first posting, as assistant disbursing officer at the U.S. embassy in Vientiane, Laos. Whoever provided that news probably felt badly about my going to Laos and said something to the effect that “Don’t worry, they’ll remember you next time”, not that I believed it. My new F.S. friends moaned about my assignment to Laos, but I was not unhappy about it as I had asked for Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia or Southeast Asia. On the other hand, I was not happy about going into disbursing, as I did not want routine admin work and I had wanted economic work because I had been taking international economics.

I had never been outside the United States other than to Mexico and Canada. All my years had been spent in New York City (except two years in the army). Yet, the transition from Manhattan to Laos was a breeze, perhaps because New York is so multicultural. When I departed for Laos, few people I knew ever heard of the place – when I returned for home leave in 1959, I was in demand as a speaker because Laos had hit the front pages.

My flight into Vientiane arrived late afternoon June 5, 1957, and all passengers but me were picked up. Wondering if this foreshadowed the nature of my two years in Laos, I sat alone for over an hour until Gerry Nollette, the disbursing officer (and my new boss), showed up: he had been given the wrong arrival time. Gerry dropped me off in the center of Vientiane, where I was to live seven weeks in a French colonial villa that was the home of a Thai/Lao speaking officer. He later took me to his house in Silver City, one of twenty-six six-month-old simple two-bedroom structures built in haste for the embassy.

That dinner was an exciting start of my F.S. career. Besides Gerry and his housemate were nine other embassy folks. We sat on the floor around a large round table and were served a memorable Chinese meal by his distinguished cook, Koo, and Koo’s wife. After a very lively and stimulating evening, I left very much at ease in my new profession in which I had made eleven friends on my first day.

After seven weeks, another Embassy staffer and I were moved into a simple, all-wood Lao house on stilts on the other side of town from Silver City. The house shook as we walked on the floor, and we had no air conditioning because we were two blocks beyond the city’s power grid. The embassy gave us a small generator, one that ran only part of each day, enough to power our refrigerator, lights, and overhead fans. I loved that house because it was in a Lao neighborhood, a block from the Mekong and next to a Buddhist wat (temple). I taught English two nights a week to four young bonzes (monks). After two months in that house, we luckily acquired the services of a fantastic Chinese couple whose employers had suddenly been transferred.

I succeeded Gerry as disbursing officer in less than a year when he became budget and fiscal officer. My new assistant arrived, joining two Thais and a Japanese on my staff. Although the work was routine, to my surprise the job was far more interesting than I had expected because by disbursing funds for all U.S. agencies in Laos I learned much about U.S. government operations overseas and the U.S. government in general. I also got to know everyone in the mission because I was paying their salaries. Early on I set up at a local bank the embassy’s first checking account, which reduced our labor and avoided counting errors. To make up for that time saving, however, I was “awarded” the travel duties (mostly airline bookings), normally handled by the general services section.

J. Graham (“Jeff”) Parsons, ambassador for the first six months of my tour in Vientiane, was one of the few career ambassadors for whom I worked and a true professional. I corresponded with him for years until his passing. He was succeeded by Horace Smith, a jovial person with some experience in the region. Smith took all embassy officers to the royal capital, Luang Prabang, for presentation of his credentials to the crown prince (the king had been ailing for years). Smith introduced us individually to the crown prince, after which we had to backpedal to our place in line. As the most junior officer and last in line, I backpedaled so fast that I went clear out the large open doors, provoking laughter from everyone, especially the crown prince.

Because of my job and my interest in learning more about our operations abroad, the economic and political officers gave me much time as they demonstrated how they fulfilled their tasks: getting to know key people and drafting in-depth analyses.

There were numerous opportunities to travel, both within Laos and externally. I made four trips to Vietnam during those two years, a few to Bangkok for long weekends, and one to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat. On some Sundays I drove my two Thai staffers and three Thais at USIS twenty-one kilometers down the road to a ferry over the Mekong to Nongkhai on the Thai side for hot, delicious Thai food.

There were other unique opportunities: (1) another FSO and I took leave to drive a new USIS vehicle, mostly on terrible unpaved roads, south to the branch PAO in Pakse. (2) I showed USIS movies on some evenings in villages near Vientiane. (3) I assisted USOM (the aid mission) in the airdrops of corrugated roofing and foodstuffs to villagers in remote parts of Laos. Ex-navy doctor (and author) Tom Dooley and I became good friends, He was operating two clinics in Laos, one in the south and one in Muong Sing, five miles from the Chinese border. Our military attaché invited me to join him in flying up to Muong Sing where he was to meet Nationalist Chinese generals living in exile with their troops in northern Burma. As we approached the airport, we saw China in the distance and wondered if (not when) we would ever be able to visit China. (I have done so several times since 1980.)

Early on during my tour in Vientiane I joined a play-reading group, a choral singing group and a square dance group. One day the head of the Indian delegation on the International Control Commission (ICC), the Rajah of Khetri, who was in the play-reading group, suggested to me that we stage a play. Although I said that it would be too time-consuming as there was no theatre in town and it would take a lot of work, the Rajah kept needling me. So we looked into it and (1) USOM agreed to build a small stage in its dining hall, (2) someone donated $500 that went for a velvet curtain bought in Bangkok, (3) we found someone who could direct plays, and (4) many people turned up to audition. The first production, a corny English mystery, was a reasonable success and was followed by three other plays including the venerable “Charley’s Aunt.”

The success of the drama group led to the formation, by the Rajah and myself, of la Societe Internationale du Mekong into which the drama, square dance, choral singing and play-reading groups were folded. The Society, which elected me as its first president, exists to this day.

In November 1957 our square dance group performed at the annual That Luang Festival in Vientiane. We did not have a caller, only a number of old 78- and 33-rpm records (which I had to operate as well as to M.C. and dance), but the Lao people loved it because the process was full of action. We did so again for the 1958 That Luang Festival, this time with a caller. I regret to mention this, being a jazz lover, but we outshone the Jack Teagarden jazz sextet which was brought in for the festival – alas, unlike the Thais in Bangkok led by clarinet-playing for King Bhumibol. The Lao people knew nothing of jazz and so the area in front of the bandstand was pretty empty, while the square dancing attracted hundreds.

The Rajah of Khetri was much disliked by the western missions because of his personality and because he always sided with the Poles on the ICC in overseeing implementation of the 1954 Geneva Agreements. The embassy occasionally made use of my informal relations with the Rajah. In addition, I made good friends among the French (notwithstanding my halting French), partly due to the French firm Denis Freres’ opening of its agency in Vientiane for PanAm and Cathay Pacific. Our embassy’s relations with the French were cool. The French resented that their prime position in Laos was being taken over by the Americans. However, one day the wife of the French commanding general, Mme d’Arrivere, came to see me because the French wanted to stage Moliere’s “Les Fourberies de Scapin” and they had neither a stage nor a stage crew. The French greatly appreciated our assistance. Consequently, Mme d’Arrivere, her husband and I became good friends, and so I also had useful, informal links to the French community.

About a month before I expected to depart Vientiane on home leave, a code clerk handed me a cable that stated that my next post would be as economic officer at Embassy Paris! Because I had seen the clerk fake false orders for others, it took him and others twenty-four hours to convince me that the orders were genuine and that I was indeed reassigned to Paris. Wow!

When I departed Vientiane on August 3, 1959. on a CAT (Air America’s predecessor) flight to Bangkok, my entire staff and others came out to see me off, which touched me deeply. As the only passenger on the flight, I sat on a lonely bucket seat in the empty, Spartan cabin and soon became very melancholy about my two most fortunate years in that far away land, Laos. Tears even came to my eyes, whereupon I joined the cockpit crew who cheered me up. A very blissful end to my first Foreign Service tour!


Retiring after a thirty-year career as a U. S. Foreign Service officer, the author since has worked in educational programs with the Department of Defense.


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