by Felicity O. Yost
My father, Charles Woodruff Yost, joined the Foreign Service at the suggestion of former Secretary of State Robert Lansing, a family friend and neighbor in Watertown, New York.
Lansing’s Watertown brother-in-law, Pastor Allen Macy Dulles, had officiated at the marriage of my Yost grandparents in 1902, beginning the Yost/Dulles relationship that would last until the late 1990s. My father’s relationship with the pastor’s son, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, proved critical. Though their views were often at odds, Dulles always respected my father’s foreign policy acumen. And Dulles’s loyalty shielded my father in the 1950s, an era when his colleagues were being dismissed as “subversives” in the State Department.
A Foreign Service for the 20th century
In the spring of 1930, my twenty-two year-old father moved to Washington, DC, to attend the Crawford Foreign Service cram school. The corpulent Angus Macdonald Crawford was considered the man to go to in order to have the best chance at passing the Foreign Service entrance exam. He accepted my father’s application and his $400 ($5,633 in 2014 dollars), for four months of classes. Five days a week, as he wheezed his way through endless cigarettes, Crawford, who was blessed with an astonishing memory and a highly organized mind, bombarded his students with facts and questions.
Over two blistering hot days in July 1930, my father and three hundred other candidates sat for the written exam. Several months later, he stood for the French and German orals. He passed at the top of his class. A couple of weeks later, with his new diplomatic passport in hand, the newly appointed U.S. Vice Consul to Alexandria, Egypt, was on board the Exarch.
On the first day of January 1931, my father descended the gangplank in Alexandria, and was greeted by the senior Vice Consul Henry A. W. Beck, who he later described as a “natty little man in a Panama hat and a tropical suit.” Henry whisked my father into an open carriage and off to a bar. There, over a bottle of champagne he offered to share accommodations.
My father was one of the first of the new breed of diplomat, whose path was opened by the 1924 Rogers Act, creating the modern U. S. Foreign Service. In 1930, he was offered two posts: A border town in Mexico, transport to be paid by the Department, or Alexandria, transport to be paid by my father, to which my father noted in his memoirs that he was “somewhat puzzled that I was presumed to be more affluent than the U.S. Government.” After choosing Egypt, he was also required to post a bond equal to one year’s salary — $2,500 ($39,062 in 2014 dollars).
On a weekend trip to Cairo, my father was introduced to former Secretary of Agriculture and now U.S. Minister to Egypt, William Jardine. The Minister was a “Kansas dirt farmer,” my father wrote, who seemed “undismayed by his total ignorance of the ways of diplomacy.” Vice Consul Beck also introduced my father to the talents of an Egyptian belly dancer.
In Alexandria, my father assumed his duties, which included certifying the veracity of births, death, and weddings of U.S. citizens in Egypt. In his memoirs, he made a special note of two incidents. The first was his trip across town to the charity ward of a local hospital. He had gone to visit a dying elderly black American, who had come to Alexandria in 1880 as part of an “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” troupe. “He had outlived everyone and was totally alone,” my father recalled, and tearfully thanked my father for visiting. His second duty was prescribed by U.S. customs, which required that all coffins be inspected before being sealed and returned to the States. My father had “the ghoulish duty” of inspecting the corpses, which he managed well enough until the day he had to inspect the coffin of his predecessor, who had died of cholera. My father passed the rest of the morning in a bar.
Within a few months, he had become thoroughly bored with the duties of a consul.
A Sluggish Hierarchy
In March 1932, the State Department ordered my father to return to the States for a three-month stint at the Foreign Service School. At that time, newcomers to the Service were assigned to a trial post before returning stateside for further training. The school was located in the State, War, and Navy Building, later renamed the Old Executive Building. My father attended classes on treaties, shipping, international law, commerce, passports, and accounts, among others. One of his classmates, Charles Burke Elbrick, would later be kidnapped in the 1960s, and held for over three days by Brazilian terrorists. After his release, Elbrick commented, “being an ambassador is not always a bed of roses.” He was not the first nor the last of my father’s colleagues to suffer or die at the hands of terrorists.
In August 1932, after three months of training that he considered of negligible interest (“I have forgotten whatever I may have learned there,”) my father boarded the SS Manhattan, sailing from New York to Hamburg, Germany. He was heading towards his new assignment in Warsaw, Poland.
From Hamburg, my father drove to Berlin. Little did my father imagine that five months after his visit, when Hitler became chancellor, the Weimar Republic would come crashing down.
After leaving Berlin, he arrived in Warsaw, Poland, in the fall. In 1918, after one hundred and twenty years of foreign rule, and after being wiped off the map of Europe, Poland had reclaimed her independence. My father’s initial assessment, in 1932, was that the social condition in Poland had changed little in centuries – it was still basically a feudal nation. The omnipresent Catholic Church wielded enormous power, but was favored for having sheltered Polish nationalism during its occupations. The Poles in general, my father commented, were “delightful, hospitable, warm and witty.”
Soon after arriving, my father met the professorial looking Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV, who my father described as “happily balanced between stubbornness and gaiety.” Harry was the son of Senator Hiram Bingham III, responsible for unearthing Machu Pichu. In 1940, while serving in the U.S. Consulate in Marseilles and in violation of State Department regulations, Harry would issue visas to over 2,500 Jews fleeing the Nazis, including Hannah Arendt and Marc Chagall.
Soon after meeting, Harry and my father decided to rent an apartment together in the heart of Warsaw. Several months later, in November 1932, my father recalled that they “crouched over the radio, and faintly heard returns of Roosevelt’s victory and Senator Bingham’s defeat.”
Settling in, my father helped organize a gym to keep fit until the ice-skating started, and started horseback riding. In a letter home, he wrote of a ride with Bingham and Virginia Hall, an American clerk at the U.S. Embassy. Hall, who had dreamed of making a career in the Foreign Service, saw her plans derailed after shooting herself in the leg while out hunting. Despite losing the leg, the matronly looking Hall became an unlikely spy during the war, working with the British Special Operations Executive, and the American OSS and CIA.
By the spring of 1933, my father had started to consider a change of careers; he was finding his work to be “an appalling bore.” The American ambassador had requested my father’s transfer from the consulate to the embassy, but the State Department Personnel Board refused. The refusal reinforced my father’s opinion that “the Service was a most sluggish hierarchy.” In the fall of 1993, my father resigned from the Foreign Service and returned to the States.
FDR’s State Department
Within a year, my father would be married to my mother, a Polish girl he met just before leaving Poland. After temporary jobs with the New Deal, my father sought employment with the State Department – and his timing could not have been better. In the summer of 1935, the Office of Arms and Munitions Control was established in the Department to control the export of arms by the U.S. in accordance with the recently passed “Neutrality Act.” The intent was to keep the United States out of a European war by banning shipment of any materiel that could be used by the enemy for war-making purposes. Quite by chance, Joseph Green, who had been my father’s history professor at Princeton, became the head of the new office and asked my father to serve as his deputy. In the late 1930s’ the State Department had not yet grown into a bloated bureaucracy. Rather, it was a place where everyone knew each other and where “there was always room for all and sufficient time for everything,” he wrote in his memoirs, and “most inhabitants left their office at 4:30 to play a little tennis or to mow their lawns.”
In later years, some members of that small community would suffer at the hands of House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Truman Loyalty Board. In 1935, my father shared an office space with Noel Field, who was, my father recalled, immensely popular in the Department. After the war, Field and his family disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. Alger Hiss was at the State Department with my father, who found him too cautious, with a tendency to nitpick. Another Department colleague, Larry Duggan, “probably the most popular young man in the Department,” either plunged or was pushed to his death during the McCarthy era. My father also worked with Harry Dexter White, who was instrumental in founding the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). In 1948, White was fingered as a Communist, and while being investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), either died of a heart attack or committed suicide.
Shortly after my father’s office was created, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and the Neutrality Act was put to use. Soon after the that, the Spanish Civil War broke out. My father’s two-man office, now rechristened the Office of Controls, quadrupled, and “moved openly and substantially into the exercise of economic warfare. The export of most commodities having any military utility was placed under our control.” In early 1941, the office came under the jurisdiction of Dean Acheson, the new Assistant Secretary of State, whom my father described as “one of the most delightful, witty and humane gentlemen.” He added, “though I differed sharply with some of the prepossessions of his old age, I consider him by far the best Secretary of State under whom I served.” Soon after Acheson came on board, he sent my father to the Philippines to help its government close a loophole in the Neutrality Act that was allowing the Japanese to buy iron and copper. My father traveled on a Pan American Clipper, which took five days to fly from San Francisco to reach Manila.
After the controls were in place, the Japanese Consul General in Manila informed my father that the Japanese government was deeply annoyed. My father’s response was that the U.S. government was equally annoyed. He witnessed “causal preparations” for war but felt that no one seemed to be taking it very seriously, including the Americans. On his return home, he sailed on the President Pierce, the last U.S. liner to cross the Pacific before the outbreak of hostilities.
In the fall of 1941, the functions of my father’s office were taken over by the Board of Economic Warfare. The theory was that the State Department was unfit to wage war. At first, my father served as political liaison to the Board under Dean Acheson, but shortly thereafter, Under-Secretary Sumner Welles abolished the office altogether. Over the years, my father enjoyed pointing out what seemed to be his inability to hold a job. The Roosevelt Administration, often to its detriment, was prone to regularly reconfiguring offices and divisions. Some future foreign assignments would also prove brief. The advantage, my father wrote, “I got the reputation of a trouble-shooter.”
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the State Department asked all personnel to wait for a call-up, so as not to lose the staff needed to wage the war on the home front. My father was never summoned and saw his work as a valuable part of the war effort.
In November 1942, when the Board of Economic Warfare was dissolved, Ray Atherton asked him to join the Division of European Affairs to work in the Office of Foreign Territories with Tom Finletter. Following the Allied invasion of Italy, and under the assumption that the Italians would not be fit to run their own country after twenty years of Fascism, an Allied civil administration was planned, and my father signed up to join the State Department team going to Italy. Unfortunately, Dean Acheson and Tom Finletter neglected to consult with the White House, which created a new office and removed “all of the functions we in the State Department had been performing and planning to perform.” A side result was that Edward Stettinius was transferred from the Lend-Lease Administration to the State Department, as Under Secretary of State. The transfer, my father noted, “was shortly to determine my fate for some years to come.”
My father recognized Stettinius’ shortcomings when the former industrialist became Secretary of State at the end of 1944, but he felt that Stettinius’ reforms “of the antique and sclerotic State Department” were transformative. Stettinius, my father also remarked, “was even more notable for his indefatigable attention to the well-being, self-esteem and morale of his subordinates.” In addition, he viewed the staff Secretary of State Stettinius surrounded himself with, as unequalled in caliber. In particular, my father mentioned Ambassador Joseph Grew; Dean Acheson; Nelson Rockefeller; Will Clayton (“one of the ablest public servants”); and Archibald MacLeish (“aided incidentally by a young man who then emerged for the first time in the public eye, Adlai Stevenson”).
My father next worked with the “small, intense, impatient, brilliant” Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle. As political supervisor of the various clandestine activities that the war effort now necessitated, my father sat in on meetings of the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and coordinated activities with the OSS. Each morning, he read the political part of the previous night’s intercepted messages. The U.S. had successfully broken some of the enemy’s codes, including the Japanese ones known as MAGIC, and my father was to flag those messages that he thought important enough to be read by the seven or eight senior Department officials who were authorized to read them. My father felt that the information they gained from these messages was useful but, during decades reading such intercepts, “I can recall extremely few such intercepts which contained information I had not already learned, deduced or guessed from more conventional government reports and from the newspapers.”
For the next eight months, my father worked in the Division of Special Research that Secretary of State Cordell Hull had entrusted with secret postwar planning. The division was headed by Leo Pasvolsky an, “extremely sharp and guileful gentleman,” my father recalled, and one of the two men my father credited for hammering out the United Nations Charter. As Pasvolsky’s assistant, my father worked on the armistice and surrender terms. He also examined the problems of military governments, which were issues not taken very seriously, in part because many inside and outside the Department already assumed that the Soviets would be the ultimate arbiters of what happened in Eastern Europe.
In the intimate atmosphere of the 1940s State Department, my father also got to know a number of the so-called “China Hands,” who would later be accused — wrongly, he believed — of losing China. Republicans “claimed that we [Democrats] lost China which is ridiculous. Chiang Kai-shek lost China because he was in charge.”
In January 1944, my father accepted a position as Executive Secretary to Under Secretary of State Stettinius’ Policy Committee of senior Department officers. Up until then he wrote, “the Department had been divided into a number of feudal fiefs, barely maintaining diplomatic relations with each other and in fact usually engaged in covert internecine hostilities.” Three times a week, the “feudal barons” would gather to work out joint Departmental policies, after my father had attempted to draw up an agenda based on their suggestions. As none of the “barons” was ever willing to propose anything, my father started drawing up his own agenda, based on his knowledge of what was happening in the Department, after which he presented it to Stettinius for his approval. He then circulated the memo as Stettinius’ agenda.
“I can still see,” wrote my father, “poor Cordell Hull… pathetically and quite vainly trying to temper the verbal onslaughts” that he encountered at each meeting. After Stettinius succeeded Hull as Secretary of State, he reordered the “high command,” noted my father, put a halt to the “bickering,” and renamed the group the “Secretary’s Staff Committee.” It met every day promptly at nine.
Stettinius, like Roosevelt, had an aversion to reading any document that was longer than a single page. This was problematic during wartime when volumes of daily reports came across the Secretary’s desk. My father soon acquired a new duty — to read all of the documents and to brief Stettinius. As a result, my father wrote, he “was probably, during the last year of the war, one of the best informed individuals in Washington, except about purely military planning.”
Stettinius soon decided that President Roosevelt would also benefit from a daily State Department briefing. My father’s staff was expanded. Being on the list to receive the summaries, my father wrote, “rapidly became a symbol of one’s place in the bureaucratic pecking order,” and competition was fierce to be included.
A New World
In the fall of 1944, Americans, British and Soviet delegations convened to draft the United Nations Charter at Dumbarton Oaks. My father served as secretary of the committee dealing with the security and enforcement powers of the organization. The committee drafted chapters VI and VII of the Charter, those most often cited in times of crisis. The following year, he attended two conferences — as personal assistant to Secretary of State Stettinius at the San Francisco United Nations Conference on International Organization, and as Secretary General of the U.S. delegation to the Potsdam Conference.
At San Francisco his duties as a briefer continued. Each evening he prepared a report, from the Secretary of State to the President, on the events of the day. My father sadly recalled the last meal at the Fairmont Hotel at the end of the conference, with “a stricken Stettinius.” The Secretary of State had just learned that Truman would demand his resignation the following day. “At the pinnacle of his success,” my father wrote, “just after the conference he had shepherded had triumphantly concluded and the United Nations Charter was signed with pomp and ceremony, his own future lay in ruins at his feet.” (Truman’s daughter Margaret wrote that Stettinius’ dismissal was a significant mistake on her father’s part.)
Days after President Roosevelt’s death, in April 1945, Ambassador Charles “Chip” Bohlen sifted through the pile of documents the president had been reading. Among the papers was my father’s request, made a decade earlier, for reinstatement into the Foreign Service. Scrawled across the bottom, in FDR’s shaky hand, was “OK.”
But before his full reinstatement, my father was off to Potsdam with his new boss, Secretary of State James Byrnes. Stalin, my father recalled, was by far the most dominant figure at Potsdam. He completely overshadowed Churchill and Truman “in confidence, competence, and cunning.” My father also recalled the last hurried minutes, at the eleventh hour of the conference, when the fate of millions was decided “offhandedly.”
In September 1945, my father, newly reinstated into the Foreign Service, was posted as chargé d’affaires to reopen the Legation in Bangkok, Thailand. He would remain in the Service until resigning in 1966 — serving at the United Nations as deputy to Adlai Stevenson and Arthur Goldberg; as the first U.S. ambassador to Laos; and in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. In 1967, he served as President Johnson’s envoy to Egypt, just days before the start of the Six Day War, and in 1977 on President Carter’s delegation to Vietnam and Laos to try to determine the fate of missing American soldiers. The following year, he came out of retirement to serve as President Nixon’s U.S. Representative to the United Nations — the first FSO to serve in that position. Two years later, he read in his morning New York Times that Nixon had fired him and replaced him with George H. W. Bush. After resigning from the Foreign Service, my father held eleven jobs, and worked until the day before his death in 1981.
Charles W. Yost: Diplomacy in an Age of Turmoil
1) “Crossing Mekong”: Laos 1954, the author and her father
2) “CWY + Dulles + FM”: Laos 1955 – Yost, Dulles and Lao Foreign Minister Phoui Sananikone
3) “CWY + Stevenson”: United Nations 1963 -Yost and Adlai Stevenson
4) “WH”: White House lawn 1965 – Yost, Ladybird Johnson, U Thant, LBJ, Adlai Stevenson, Ralph Bunche
5) 1958 – Ambassador to Morocco