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by Henry E. Mattox, Contributing Editor

A retired Foreign Service Officer recollects some of his fleeting encounters with several notable world figures, and reflects on a more substantive and especially memorable encounter with a Portuguese revolutionary leader. – Ed.

I hazard the guess that for most American Foreign Service personnel one of the most interesting aspects of their careers, especially when looking back in retirement as I am now, would be their personal encounters with notable world figures. Assignments abroad provide a myriad of opportunities at least to see or maybe meet famous people. Diplomacy as a profession often enough brings a practitioner of whatever rank into at least incidental contact with high dignitaries or other notables. To illustrate the point, there follows a brief roundup of some of my personal encounters of that sort over the years. Following that segment, the persistent reader will find an account of a specific instance of interaction with an impressive individual back nearly a half century ago. Be assured I remember well that latter encounter to this day.

Exalted people this observer has glimpsed in passing:

  • Charles De Gaulle, being chauffeur-driven down a Paris street not long before his return to power in 1958.
  • President John F. Kennedy, arriving for a press conference at the Department of State.
  • Ousted short-term President Jânio Quadros of Brazil in 1962 at a vacation resort near Santos, where the military had just banished him that day.
  • In Washington, former president Harry S. Truman in the distance at a Democratic Party dinner.
  • Sitting in on a rather large policy conference in State that included Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
  • On a lot more personal contact level, drinks and conversation late one night with former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker in a Kathmandu hotel bar.

There were also the more formal occasions. In 1974, my wife and I, togged out in formal wear, represented our embassy in London at Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday celebration on the Buckingham Palace grounds. Her Highness and the entire family, including Prince Philip and Lord Mountbatten, were all there, not fifty feet away on the rear lawn. Some few years later, in Egypt, I had the interesting duty frequently of accompanying as note taker my ambassador, Hermann Eilts, and various visiting Congressmen in their frequent calls on President Anwar Sadat. The Egyptian president and I got to be nodding acquaintances in those, the last years of his life. Also in Egypt, on a couple of occasions I shook the hand of President Jimmy Carter, as did other formal greeters, upon his arrival at the Cairo airport during his shuttle diplomacy days. Once I attended a formal dinner in Cairo with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance not long before his resignation in 1980.

Further instances of personal high-level interaction include an almost macabre visit to Papa Doc Duvalier’s lying-in-state in Port-au-Prince following his death in 1971. My ambassador, Clinton Knox, sent a couple of us from the embassy to the Presidential Palace to view the remains so as to verify that he really was dead. Having seen him previously often enough, we were able to determine that he had indeed expired; Palace contacts hustled us through the basement and jumped us to the head of the extremely long line of mourners. Thereafter, incidentally, I often saw his replacement, son Jean Claude, at official functions carrying a firearm more or less unobtrusively down by his side.

Other such encounters or sightings of varying interest and significance took place over my career, as of course they do for all Foreign Service people.

The most memorable character encountered:
Looking back, this observer concludes, somewhat to my own surprise, that probably the most memorable character encountered, a person who made a lasting impression despite limited interaction, was a once-notorious, now little remembered Portuguese revolutionary named Henrique Galvão. No one surpassed him as far as I was concerned in presenting an aura of sheer menace – no one, not even Papa Doc, a truly powerful and dangerous figure himself. Galvão, a former Portuguese army officer who opposed the long-standing regime of Antonio Salazar, had been cashiered from the military and had served prison time for his opposition. Eventually he ended his days in exile in Brazil.In early 1962, Galvão and a band of like-minded revolutionaries hijacked a Portuguese-flag cruise ship with its 600 passengers off the coast of South America. The object: publicity for the anti-Salazar cause. They killed the captain — reportedly Galvão himself did this — and wounded several ship’s officers. No passengers were harmed. Eventually the hijackers surrendered the ship in Brazilian waters and accepted asylum there.

The United Nations invited Galvão to speak, before the General Assembly as I remember. To get to that body in New York City, he had to obtain a U.S. transit visa. Then living in São Paulo, he therefore applied to the U.S. Consulate General’s one and only visa officer, me, in an interview arranged by one of the many local travel agents. It was just the two of us in my small office, with the Brazilian employees at nearby desks trying to appear busy and the office of my direct supervisor, Consul Ernie Guaderama, somewhat distant.

I interviewed the then-notorious, dangerous ship hijacker, and it was not a fun occasion. The applicant, in his sixties but looking younger, and of medium stature with regular features, was utterly humorless and unsmiling; clearly he was annoyed that the American vice consul had anything to say about his opportunity to denounce the Salazar regime before a world audience. He looked daggers through me and answered questions tersely, with little or no elaboration.

I soon decided, for a couple of reasons – his notoriety and the fact he’d not previously held a U.S. visa — that I would have to request an advisory opinion of the Visa Office in the Department. The glowering Galvão was not pleased when I announced this course of action, but there was little he could do to advance his cause. He could only glare at me, express quite vociferously his displeasure, and go away. I was relieved that he did go away.

Then, after the usual long wait, it got sticky. The procedure called for the Department to inquire through our embassy in Lisbon as to possibly disqualifying factors in his background — if, that is, the Portuguese government had information on the applicant that would adversely affect his eligibility for a U.S. visa. The Salazar Government, it turned out, most certainly did: Galvão had been convicted of “fraudulent bankruptcy” as of such-and-such date, the Foreign Ministry advised. Therefore, according to our Visa Office in Washington, he was ineligible under the Immigration and Nationality Act for a U.S. visa of any sort, even the transit visa necessary for him to get to the UN in New York.

Inasmuch as the Galvão case very clearly now had the potential for adverse publicity in Brazil, and because I didn’t want to monopolize all the fame and glory that might be associated with the case, I thought it well to enlist a heavyweight from the Consulate General to participate in my second meeting with Sr. Galvão. I therefore asked to hold that next confrontation in the office of Consul General Daniel Braddock, with him in attendance.

The meeting started out on a low point and never rose any higher. Galvão appeared to be startled, then quietly outraged, when I informed him he was ineligible for a U.S. visa because of information from Portugal that he had been convicted of a felony — fraudulent bankruptcy, that is — on a given date. He looked startled, disbelieving, and finally outraged. After making sure of the time frame involved, he informed us in no uncertain terms that he had, at the time of the supposed crime, been jailed for a fairly lengthy period for political opposition to the Salazar government. Galvão demanded clarification on just what “fraudulent bankruptcy” consisted of and just how he could have committed such a crime while imprisoned.

Neither Consul General Braddock nor I had much to offer in the way of clarification, but I noted for the irate applicant that our embassy in Lisbon obviously had forwarded, as it was obliged to do, information officially provided by the Portuguese Foreign Ministry. We promised to follow up on the matter with Washington but could make no promises as to a changed outcome. The consul general wished him luck in pursuing his contacts with the UN. I saw Galvão out of our quarters in the Conjunto Naçional building after assuring him I would transmit his comments and objections to Washington. Even though by this time I had become somewhat more accustomed to being in the presence of this most formidable, probably dangerous revolutionary, I nonetheless heaved a large sigh of relief when he left the building peacefully.

I departed the post on transfer not too long after the events described above and never saw Galvão again. Nor did the success of his efforts to speak at the UN, or lack thereof, come to my attention. I noted just recently that he died in Brazil in 1970. His nemesis, Salazar, died in Lisbon the same year.End.


Henry Mattox
Henry Mattox

Henry Mattox, the journal’s contributing editor, was a Foreign Service officer from 1957 to 1980, serving in France, Portugal, Brazil, Nepal, Haiti, England, and Egypt, in addition to a couple of Washington assignments. After retiring from the Service to North Carolina, he entered academe, studying, writing, and teaching part time, a course of action that led to a Ph.D. in U.S. diplomatic history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1986. He was editor of American Diplomacy from its founding in 1996 until July, 2007.


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