Michael Rives joined the Foreign Service in 1950 and served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Brazzaville from 1963 to 1966. In this excerpt from his oral history, he remembers the rather unforgettable Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. G. Mennen Williams, whose grandfather, Gerhard Heinrich Mennen, founded the Mennen line of men’s personal care products, was nicknamed “Soapy” and wore a trademark green bow tie with white polka dots. After serving 12 years as the governor of Michigan, he served in the Kennedy Administration and had a unique way of keeping diplomats on their toes.
“Soapy was able to do things a lot of Assistant Secretaries couldn’t have”
Q: How did Assistant Secretary Williams operate within the Bureau?
RIVES: I’m not sure that he used it any more than any other Secretary, or any less. We wrote papers and think pieces, you know, that kind of thing, put forward suggestions. But he set the overall tone at the top, which we followed. When all these new African embassies were established, we all had to work with him like mad to find places to live, where they wouldn’t be spat upon by the neighbors, and that kind of thing…
Soapy, I must say, was very conscientious, and having a lot of money, he was able to do things a lot of Assistant Secretaries couldn’t have. You know he was a very good square dancer. He was a caller for square dancing, and very good at it, too. So he would insist on having square dances, which was something.
At the first one, on the eighth floor [of the State Department], all the Africanists, of course, had to be there. We all arrived there, and when we headed for the bar, there was no liquor. He didn’t believe very much in drinking, although he did drink a little bit. So after that one, we all used to tank up before we went to these things! They were sort of drawn out. I must say, the African Ambassadors were not very pleased, either, but we all did the do-si-do’s and things like that! And he held special classes for us in the Department of Commerce Cafeteria for this kind of thing.
And then we went on that famous trip. I think it was in Fort Lamy or Ouagadougou, or someplace like that, they put on native dances, and — this was in the middle of the night, mind you — and suddenly he turned to us all, and we had to get up and do square dancing. I think the people thought we were absolutely insane. Soapy called for us, and, as I say, he was a good caller…