A Life in the U.S. Foreign Service
Reviewed by Michael Hornblow
Living Diplomatically: A Life in the U.S. Foreign Service, by William N. Dale, Hamilton Books, 71 pages
Bill Dale, our colleague at American Diplomacy and good friend, notes that much has changed in the Foreign Service since he joined in 1946, yet much remains the same. It was a much different time when he began his career right after the Allied victory in World War II. Grateful barbers in Copenhagen, his first post, refused to charge him for haircuts, and doctors in Ankara would also not charge for their services due to their gratitude and respect for the United States.
In this eminently readable memoir, Bill looks back on a long and rewarding career and tells us 23 stories, some hilarious and some saucy. A few of these (“A Worm’s Eye View of the High and Mighty,” “What’s a Bidet?,” “Lady Astor and Me“) have already appeared in American Diplomacy. Interested readers should go to our archives section and click on William Dale.
The memoir begins with little Billy growing up on the campus of Hamilton College in upstate New York. Senator Elihu Root, a former Secretary of State, was a neighbor. Billy wanders around the campus and the college golf course and wonders what it would be like to visit faraway places and thinks about joining the Navy or the Foreign Service. As it turns out, he did both.
After his U.S. Navy service and a year of postgraduate work at Harvard, Bill joined the Foreign Service and learned firsthand “What’s a Bidet?”
In Copenhagen at a party given at Bill’s, an amorous and drunken Danish couple tries to slip away for a tryst in the bed occupied by Bill’s mother-in-law. But there is a more serious side to his first assignment, as a trip to postwar Berlin and his work with Baltic refugees reveals.
And so it goes. There are great stories from a variety of posts. Bill works with Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, and Richard Nixon and encounters Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. He has a memorable confrontation with Lady Astor in a hotel room. We are with Bill when he visits the “Teasing Room” in a Turkish nightclub, converses and almost dances with Queen Elizabeth, witnesses a failed coup in Turkey, and experiences the Six Day War in 1967 as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. embassy in Israel. While in Tel Aviv, Bill and his wife become good friends with Moshe and Ruth Dayan, and his account of that friendship is one of the highlights of the book.
Bill’s last assignment — his reward — was the Central African Republic as ambassador. He calls it “Bokassaland.” For Bill and his family, Bangui was an exotic and dangerous place, and he saw firsthand what life was like under the rule of a dictator “whose history seemed to be an argument for the existence of positive evil.” In one of the final chapters Bill makes a persuasive case that President (and later self-proclaimed Emperor) Jean-Bédel Bokassa may have been a cannibal and possibly served parts of school girls to his diplomatic dinner guests.
In 1975 Bill was becoming increasingly uneasy with U.S. foreign policy, believing it to be more and more influenced by domestic groups. He submitted his resignation and prepared to leave Bangui. One of the wives of an African ambassador, whose father was chief of a large tribe, offered Bill a beautiful young woman as a farewell present to brighten his declining years, but his wife’s reaction to this generous offer induced him to decline it in a hurry.
Bill had mixed feeling about leaving the Foreign Service. On July 25, 1975, he had an appointment with the Assistant Secretary for African affairs which lasted about five minutes. This constituted the State Department’s official farewell after almost 33 years of government service, and Bill was not altogether happy about it.
But his story has a happy ending. He welcomed a new environment and the new discoveries retirement would bring, and like so many of us he found a vibrant cultural and intellectual life in Chapel Hill and its environs. He has never been sorry and neither have we, as it is a blessing to have him nearby. Those of you who decide to read this lighthearted memoir will for several hours be in the company of a world class raconteur.