Sometimes Foreign Service Life begins even before an individual takes the oath and officially enters on duty. In this short vignette the author looks back on the period between passing the exams and his first assignment. While he does not claim to have “invented” the Internet, he does lay claim to another innovation of the modern age. –Ed.
by J. Edgar Williams
This is a story about an incident in my life immediately before entering the Foreign Service. I had taken and passed the Foreign Service written exam in Sept. 1953. At that time, it was a 3-1/2 day exam. I took and passed the oral in the spring of 1954. At that time, the Foreign Service was not taking in any new officers. The reason was said to be “McCarthyism” — that is, McCarthy’s assertions that there were influential communists in the Department of State and other parts of the Executive branch. This, of course, has been proven true (see, for example, the Venona Papers) but McCarthy was discredited because he was such a disgusting human being, not because his assertions were shown to be false. I was fooled by the well organized far-left, as were millions of others. I still have a button that I often pinned on my coat that reads: “I don’t like McCarthy” — a take-off on the “I like Ike” buttons.
Since no one knew when the State Department might start hiring again, I took another exam — the Junior Management Assistant exam. If you passed it, you would be offered jobs by several government agencies and could choose. I passed it, and was offered jobs by 6 or 7 departments/agencies. I chose to go to work for the Department of the Air Force in the Pentagon. This was immediately after the end of the school year, in early May 1954. I went to work as a GS-7, because I had just finished my M. A. at the University of North Carolina. (If you had only a bachelor’s degree, you went in as a GS-5.) In this program, the first 6 months were rotating assignments in various offices of your Department. I had rotated among several offices when, in the late summer, I found myself working in a deep sub-basement of the Pentagon which housed the Air Force’s computer. That’s right – “computer”, singular. At that time, the U. S. Government had 3 or 4 computers, UNIVAC-1. It was a huge machine, occupying a very large room. It was used primarily to keep track of Air Force planes (including flight hours) and personnel.
My main job assignment was to organize the spare parts, mostly vacuum tubes that kept blowing out. This great machine used almost 6000 vacuum tubes, all different kinds (I still remember the 35Z5, the 12SA7, the 12SK7.) Some lasted longer than others, but the practice had been to stock equal numbers of spares of all of them. This meant that a lot of money was tied up in spare parts that weren’t really needed. So I spent the first couple of weeks of this one-month assignment keeping count of the average life of each kind of tube. I then worked out a table of periodic orders for each kind of tube so that we could keep on hand a safe but not excessive number of each. In other words, I developed what later became known as the “just-in-time” system of ordering replacements, and left it to my successors when I moved on to my next assignment. I don’t know why I’m not famous for this. I finished my last rotating assignment in December, and was trying to decide in which part of the DAF I wanted to start my permanent work, when I got a call one evening at home from the Department of State asking me if I was ready to enter the Foreign Service and take an assignment in London. Wow! So by late December, I was an FSO-6 (this was before they had FSO-8’s) and in January 1955, I was on my way to London as a junior aide to Ambassador Winthrop Aldrich. I never again got to mess around with vacuum tubes.
J. Edgar Williams, Secretary of American Diplomacy Publishers and a member of this journal’s editorial advisory board, served for twenty-seven years in the U. S. Foreign Service.