A Diplomat’s Perspective
by Louis V. Riggio
Having passed the Foreign Service Written Examination in December 1961 and the Oral, in June 1962, shortly after the latter I found myself at Parris Island for Marine Corps Recruit Training; I was in the Reserve component. Shortly prior to that, Senator Kenneth Keating (R-NY) had begun showing evidence that the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba. The White House had remained silent on the question until October when the Missile Crisis, as we know it today, received the merited front-page attention.
Back at Parris Island, the senior enlisted ranks were enthusiastic for action, an opportunity for The White House to make right the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster. So far as that effort was concerned, I remembered being stunned as our very distinguished UN Ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, conveyed misleading information to the world body. I had felt he had been “sandbagged”, if you will, something that would occur similarly in 2003 when Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to the Security Council on the supposed Iraqi WMD’s. Something similar may have happened to UN Ambassador Susan Rice given her explanation on the Sunday talk shows of the tragic events in Benghazi.
Returning to The Island, the senior enlisted men had “volunteered” me to go to the Naval Hospital in neighboring Beaufort, SC to give blood. Because of the brewing crisis and the fact that I’d have access to a telephone at the Hospital, they asked me to find out what I could. Believe me, they were raring to go! I spoke with my brother Philip, a Navy veteran then at Harvard Law School. He had been following matters closely and, in a few words, his analysis was that (a) Both Kennedy and Khrushchev would claim “victory”; (b) Castro wasn’t going anywhere and (c) neither were we.
Once again at The Island, the senior people weren’t very pleased with Phil’s summation. They were vociferous, to say the least (for Marines!), that he was wrong; they were sure that, this time, Kennedy would take care of Castro. Well, the latter may not be too well these days, but he’s probably waving an habano at us, surely in the vertical position. Over the next 35 years I’d learn a lot more of what we’d hope to do and how we were organized but Phil’s assessment was correct. We did send a few Corpsmen to Guantánamo but that was about it.
My FSO appointment became effective in very early January, 1963, just about fifty years ago. I was in the 54th A-100 Class, fourteen strong, and one that produced three exceptionally distinguished ambassadors, Bob Lamb, Grant Smith (both at Parris Island while I was but we didn’t know one another then) and Jim Bullington. After Junior Officer Training and a detail to the House of Representatives, by April, I was in Caribbean and Mexican Affairs, the junior officer on the Haiti, Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago/Jamaica desks. Respectively, they were headed by very talented officers, Forrest Abbuhl, Bill Sowash and Mel Sinn.
Plenty was happening in these countries, the first two going through crises, some of whose effects linger today, especially in Haiti. I recall the Cuba Office was down the hall; one of the old-timers advised me not to go near there because The White House was seeking “scapegoats”, surely an exaggeration. Our policy toward Haiti and the Dominican Republic (as well as Vietnam and elsewhere) had been influenced by the “Wave of the Future” hypothesis in vogue at the time, possibly reinforced by the President’s “Revolution of Rising Expectations”, still evident today as witness the enthusiasm, now in question for the Arab Spring. The thinking was that because someone was of this or that ethnicity, religion or persuasion, he/she would be a person to support for leadership. At the time, I believe this phenomenon affected our initial support for Papa Doc in Haiti, Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic and the coup in Vietnam against Ngo Dinh Diem.
So far as Haiti was concerned, after having got nowhere, really, with Cuba, The White house decided upon an effort to dislodge from power President-for-Life Dr. François Duvalier, the infamous “Papa Doc”. I recall that, at The White House’s insistence, we interviewed a supposedly promising exile leader who told us he’d be proclaimed president-for-life if only we’d provide 5,000 men and rifles. That came to naught although the Administration did send naval vessels to “demonstrate” around Haiti but no gunfire. Also, I believe we convinced the Dominican authorities to send troops to the frontier, also to “demonstrate”. The whole matter fizzled out when Papa Doc sat tight, took the matter to the UN and, eventually, we backed off. When Forrest Abbuhl, the Haiti Desk Officer, was away, I would be on the phone with The White House regarding developments, a heady matter for a newly minted FSO.
Former British Crown Colonies, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, independent for less than a year, weren’t problematic. In fact, their diplomats had been extremely well trained and knew how to go about business in Washington without depending upon the State Department. On a Jamaica Peace Corps matter, I was able to meet Sargent Shriver and Bill Moyers, the Deputy Director. During the meeting, the latter never or hardly ever spoke, quite different from the Bill Moyers we know today! Present, also, was the even then legendary Jack Hood Vaughn. Another meeting was with USIA’s Edward R. Murrow, indeed, quite a figure. President Kennedy had sought to bring in competent people, known and unknown, the Best and Brightest.
Jamaican Prime Minister Alexander Bustamente, surely the Commonwealth Caribbean’s most striking figure of the period, had hoped for an official visit invitation from President Kennedy. That hadn’t been forthcoming so Mr. Bustamante decided to come anyway. I met him and his delegation at Idlewild Airport with instructions to quash any mention of “official visit”. I couldn’t stop the Prime Minister, though, and that’s how he described it to the media. I had to tone it down to them later. (Frankly, I was surprised he hadn’t received an official invitation.)
A little later, in mid-1963, one weekend I was designated Duty Officer for ARA (now WHA). Early on a Saturday afternoon, I received a call from the Operations Center advising me of a “mini-national alert” and to stay where I was until further notice. The “voice” on the phone said the measure was called for because President Kennedy couldn’t be located. Incredulous, I replied that maybe he had gone to the bathroom or something. To continue, the “voice” called again a few hours later advising the alert was over, the President having been found. So far as I know, news of this “mini-alert” never got out, a curious episode, indeed.
The Dominican Republic had a new government headed by 1930’s revolutionary Juan Bosch, one we supported and for which we had great hopes. (Long-term dictator Leónidas Trujillo had been assassinated the year before.) Indeed, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas also was an active supporter, concerned especially about the civil- and human-rights provisions of the country’s new constitution. Another was Representative Rev. Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY), many of Dominican origin populating his Congressional District. Everyone was convinced Mr. Bosch represented the “Wave of the Future”. Washington’s enthusiasm was tremendous for the Dominican Republic’s new and hopeful “Wave”.
About the same time or, perhaps, a bit later, Bill Sowash, Dominican Desk Officer, took a two-week leave or holiday leaving me, a 25-year old, in charge. During that period, the Bosch government became increasingly tyrannical. We were aware they were smuggling firearms for their secret police and, also there was an incident, if memory serves, of a reporter or news anchor being arrested on live television. The people and the military became restive. Things really weren’t developing the way The White House had hoped and all this was happening on top of the Haiti affair described above.
As it happened, the day Bill returned, we had an area meeting scheduled, all the desk officers present and the area chiefs. It went around from desk to desk, each giving a verbal report. When it came to the Dominican Republic, Bill asked me to speak because he’d been away. I outlined the dreary matters set forth hitherto, the restlessness of the military and, indeed, much of society. One of the top officers, I think it was Bob Sayre (later, Ambassador to Brazil), but am not 100% sure, asked me what I thought would happen. I replied that I thought the way things were going, the military would act in six months, deposing Juan Bosch and his government. I remember the room as being very silent when someone blurted out, “But he’s our man in the Dominican Republic!” Of course, one can’t be right all the time; Bosch was overthrown about four months later, not six. Needless to say, this was another unfortunate setback for The White House, first, the continuing Cuba conundrum, second, the embarrassing Haiti matter and, now, the collapse of the Dominican Government in all of which we’d invested much time, prestige, treasure and, also, in Cuba, lives at the Bay of Pigs.
Later, LBJ would lead an international intervention in the Dominican Republic to try to sort out the ensuing chaos.
In early August, 1963, I arrived in Trinidad for my first overseas assignment, vice-consul, a very interesting, vibrant and welcoming culture and people as I’m sure many readers know. The Ambassador was Robert Miner, an OSS veteran, the DCM being Park Wollam, a very experienced Latin America hand. Just like junior officers elsewhere, I received add-on designations, namely Post Security Officer and Top-Secret Control Officer. Single, often in the evenings I’d tag along on the USIS jeep piloted by fearless FSN Mr. Alleyne. We would set up in a village up a “trace” in the mountains to show a President Kennedy movie. Many inhabitants and the local leaders would turn out; we’d show the film and I’d give a short talk and attempt to field questions and comments. Quite a few wanted to know when the President would come to Trinidad. I remember one evening I was trying to fumble this question when someone said, “Well, what about Frank Sinatra?” Too bad neither ever got there, the welcome would have been tremendous!
Of course, I’m sure the Administration’s reverses in the Caribbean may have been perplexing rather than critical, given the growing problems in Vietnam. As Top-Secret Control Officer, I could get a look at what was happening there as well as in nearby Brazil where a giant version was developing of what had happened in the Dominican Republic.
The assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem on November 2, 1963, wasn’t too surprising at the time given the number of previous coup attempts. Nevertheless, what I saw convinced me that probably The White House had had a role in the affair, something we know more about today. Because of our presumed involvement, I was shocked and saddened by Diem’s murder; a possible corollary of our Vietnam policy, he was off the “Wave”. Playing politics with men’s lives isn’t my thing and, I feared, there could be an application of the old saw, “What goes around, comes around.” I believe The White House hadn’t wanted Diem’s murder but, of course, what happened, happened.
President Kennedy’s assassination twenty days later shocked the world and continues to do so. Nobody in Trinidad knew what had happened when, suddenly, all the telephone lines went down. Rumors spread that President Raúl Leoni of neighboring Venezuela had been killed. I put on my short wave radio and found out what had transpired. General communications were restored within an hour or so and, then, the whole island knew. (Trinidad and Tobago had no television at that time.)
As the news spread, Embassy personnel and everyone else were overcome with emotion. As Post Security Officer, I asked those in tears to please go to their offices to compose themselves before the swarm of sympathizers and media arrived, something that didn’t take long. I thought, sadly, “There it is; what goes around, comes around”, and didn’t lose composure as the many mourners arrived.
A few days later, a publication arrived for us to place on the waiting-area table in the Consular Section. As I recall it today, the headline read: LBJ: Always a Firm Friend of Civil Rights.
President Kennedy and his administration had an excellent domestic performance and were highly respected overseas. He had the “best and brightest” everywhere. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that everything will go one’s way. A decorated naval officer, undoubtedly, President Kennedy applied the military Principle of the Objective to foreign as well as domestic policy. At the time, the “Wave of the Future” and “Revolution of Rising Expectations” attitudes prevailed, rather akin to today’s sympathy for the Arab Spring and crowds crying for change in capitals and major cities around the Globe. There are many different countries and realities; one never knows what an outcome may be. In the cases described, the Foreign Service reporting was commendable. Foreign Service Officers can only hope their work, experience and reporting gel into something worthwhile while recognizing there are some 190 countries competing for attention. Whoever is at the helm not only must be able to manage this, he or she ought to have a real Foreign Service staff. One hopes the tragic loss of Ambassador Stevens and colleagues in Libya may not have been occasioned by faulty enthusiasm, the “wind having been sown”, as it were. If it was, let’s hope a lesson has been learned, one that may have eluded us for well over fifty years.
A former Foreign Service Officer having served most recently as Consul for Commercial Affairs in São Paulo (1982-84), during the 1970’s and early 80’s, he was principal negotiator for the Latin American Debt in Japan. A graduate of Yale with graduate degrees from Colombia, since 1991 he has been a contract interpreter to the Department of State in the Portuguese Language. Military service as with the USMCR. He resides in Hollywood, FL with his wife Patricia. They have two grown children. Memberships include AFSA, DACOR, National Defense Industrial Association and Foreign Service Retirees of Florida.