Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

FSO Ends Up in an Irish Stew Over His Christmas Letter


Mr. PotatoWe’ve all wanted to blow off steam about our boss, co-workers, or those troglodytes in Human Resources. Robin Berrington, who served as Public Affairs Officer in Dublin from 1978 through 1981, was no different. He talked about his frustrations with his job and with Ireland in general in what was supposed to be a private Christmas letter in 1980 to friends and family, writing things like, “The country has food and climate well matched for each other — dull.”  People have said much worse. However, someone somehow leaked the contents of Berrington’s letter to the media and all hell broke loose. The Irish tabloids ran headlines like “American Embassy Diplomat says We Irish Are Small Potatoes.” And then it went downhill from there. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 2000.

“Hmmm, I wonder if he got a copy of my Christmas letter?”

christmas letterBERRINGTON:  Well, I should preface this by saying I do what many Foreign Service officers do every end of the year, which is write a Christmas letter. My Christmas letter is something I type up myself. It is something I Xerox myself and stuff the envelopes myself, and stamp and mail myself…to my 50 or 60 friends around the world and the U.S. that I have been keeping up with over the years. It is usually a catalogue of what happened the last year…. That year, because it was my last year in Dublin, I figured it would be appropriate to do a kind of summing up of my time in Dublin and how I saw things. My Christmas letters have usually not been “And, oh, Uncle Harry and Aunt Harriet visited, and I had a nice home leave at Lake Winnypoopoo or whatever.” I mean, I would go into some of the issues and things we deal with in the Foreign Service.

Well, that’s what I did. Since this was a private matter going to friends who I didn’t think would reveal any embarrassing confidences, I was fairly frank about a lot of what had been going on in Ireland. Not inside the embassy. I must say my relationship with the ambassador is not something I would like other people to be aware of. A lot of people were aware of this because the problems had been occurring for a few years, people in Washington as well as elsewhere, but it wasn’t something I would write on. So I did the letter, sent it off, and I was going out to a party one night, and I had a phone call from a friend of mine who was the editor of something called Business and Finance, I believe. It was things going on in business…. He said, “Robin, I think you should realize that I received a mailing from you today which contains what looks like a personal letter from you. It has got all these comments about Ireland in it, and I don’t know why you sent this to me, but I will send it back to you so you know what it is; it has gone out in your name.” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

I went off to the party and I thought about it. Then maybe about 10:00 at night I recalled, ‘Hmmm, I wonder if he got a copy of my Christmas letter?’ If he did, how in the world could that have happened? Well, besides trying to figure this out, I didn’t pay too much more attention.

the-irish-timesI woke up the next morning, went in to the embassy, and there spread across the front page of the January 28, 1981 Irish Times is a big story, not the banner headlines but about halfway down the front page, a big story with my picture, “American Diplomat Tells All About Ireland,” or something like that. It then goes on to say that the Irish Times has received a copy of this letter and wanted to show how the Americans view Ireland and how the embassy talks about the Irish-American issue. It made a point of lifting things out of context, quoting certain things that I had written in my letter and portraying all of this in a very critical manner. That was the Irish Times, which was the paper of choice.

“‘American Embassy Diplomat says We Irish Are Small Potatoes’”

That was the morning. By that afternoon, the tabloids started running it, and they were with banner headlines, “American Embassy Diplomat says We Irish Are Small Potatoes” or something to that effect. That day, I think that was a Tuesday, all day Tuesday I was just inundated with phone calls. The Ambassador, Bill Shannon, of course, immediately wanted to know what was in this. It was at that point very clear that it was my Christmas letter. I went up to him and I explained that I don’t have a clue how this got out. Yes, it is accurate, but it is not a letter that I sent any of these people. By the next morning, Wednesday, it happened to be about the same time that there was a major political issue in the Dáil, the Parliament, and by that time the Dáil had superseded the Berrington news, and we thought it was just going to be a 24-hour wonder, because the ambassador and I in spite of all the calls from the newspapers and all that, we just said, “We have nothing to say; there is no comment.” I think the ambassador said something to the effect of I am not privy to Mr. Berrington’s private letters. If this is about Ireland, that is his personal problem…, trying to distance himself from all of this.

By Wednesday we thought it would all be over. No! AP in the meantime, picked this up and sent it to the United States, put it on the wire services that go around the world. By the time the American press took this up, you know, “American Embassy Official in Dublin Says Embarrassing Things About Dublin. Irish All Upset. Here Are Copies of the Headlines.” What we thought was a 24-hour wonder in Dublin suddenly became even more of an issue in the United States, because the Irish-American community said, “Why is this guy in Dublin, our government representative, saying all of these horribly critical things about Ireland?”…

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One of the disputes between me and the Ambassador for a number of years was because I saw our mission there as so small, I wasn’t sure that we needed a full-time USIS [U.S. Information Service] presence. This was the time of Carter, zero budgeting and all that. There were cutbacks in waste, looking at ways for imaginative restructuring of missions and whatnot. The ambassador, of course, would have no truck with this. So, because apart from my press work I felt there wasn’t that much for me to do to keep busy all the time, I had described my job as small potatoes. Well, then this was lifted out of my letter and started running in the press, it became “Ireland is small potatoes.” That was something that was constantly repeated again and again and sort of took on a life of its own. Also I commented about how the weather and Irish food were well matched with each other, grey and dreary.

Q: Which is true.

BERRINGTON: Oh, yes. And, you know, I made some negative remarks about the IRA and, oh gosh, it is hard for me to recall it all. Clearly negative derogatory comments but done in a light humorous bantering kind of way which anybody who saw this letter would know. In the meantime, as I say, the Americans picked up the story and started running with it.

peter_jenningsApparently my mother was ironing one night and suddenly heard “American diplomat Robin Berrington” and she looked up and there I was. Peter Jennings was reading parts of my letter on ABC TV. Almost every American paper covered it.

“He didn’t really write anything that most of us don’t joke about ourselves anyway

It was on…the front page of the February 1, 1981 New York Times. You know, it just took on a real editorial life of its own. Once the Americans picked it up, then the Irish felt, “Oh we have to look at this again.” So it was kind of like one side of the Atlantic suddenly energizing another side and this sort of back and forth, as far as what was a dead issue at one point suddenly takes on a new life again. By I would say, Wednesday night, Thursday morning, I was told that the State Department wanted me out of the country, that I had become so much of a point of controversy that it would be best if I left and was out of there so that there would be no more concern about this.

Well, the idea that I was suddenly being called back to Washington started a new wave of interest: “Irish American diplomat being called back to be chastised, to be fired.” “American diplomat being called back…” for whatever the press decided the point they wanted to hit best. Many of the people at that point were saying “Wait a minute. What did Berrington write? He didn’t really write anything that most of us don’t joke about ourselves anyway. There is nothing new here.”

Suddenly a number of Irishmen, journalists, started saying, “Wait a minute. Aren’t we making more of this than deserves to be made?” So, kind of another wave of support developed for me. For example, a friend of mine who is the editor of the Independent got a copy of the entire letter and printed it verbatim from beginning to end to show that this was clearly a personal letter and not as the Irish Times portrayed this.  In follow up stories the next day and afterwards, you know, they were trying to say this was really an in-house document and it was an example of the kind of reporting that the embassy sent back to the Department of State. This shows that Berrington was really an intelligence officer. The Times was just going berserk with this, because the Times was the paper that broke it and it was starting to get a lot of criticism from the other media. Why have you done this to this poor guy when it was clear if anybody had any smarts they would realize it was just a personal kind of end- of-the-year holiday letter?

Anyway, in spite of this backlash of support, the National Union of Journalists, for example, sent a telegram to the White House saying Berrington has been the best Foreign Service officer we had here in 50 years. He is the only one who calls a spade a spade. We can trust him. Why are you firing him or taking him back to the U.S.? Letters to the editor just went for days saying Berrington, attributing to me greater virtues and positive traits than I ever thought of myself. Anyway, I had to go because the Department was not going to change policy on this. So I left Dublin Airport on a Saturday, 48 hours. I was given 48 hours to go.

Q: This was by the State Department.

BERRINGTON: Yes. I was not PNGed [declared persona non grata and told to leave the country]. The Irish government, well, there were a couple of ministers of state who huffed and puffed for the first 24 hours to try and get political advantage from it. You know, 24-36 hours after they all kind of chuckled at how silly this all was too. So I had 48 hours to leave the country. It just got so bizarre by that time that there were so many Irishmen thinking there must be something more to this, because why does the State Department call him back.

I can remember one night, I went home, I was still trying to follow my usual schedule even though it was increasingly difficult to do so. I went home and there was a guy waiting at my door with a cameraman to take a picture of me and to try to interview me. I was out for lunch one day and I was just walking down the street from the restaurant, and a journalist walked up to me and said, “Are you Berrington? We would like to find out what really happened.” So the newspapers had clearly assigned people to follow me around. When I left Dublin Airport, we had arranged with Air Lingus for me to sneak in through the back door. I was wrapped up in a scarf; because this was early February it was cold. I was wrapped up in a scarf with dark glasses and a hat pulled down, and I had to sneak through. In the meantime, we asked a friend of mine in the embassy, a colleague, reportersto go to the desk and check me in. Everybody was all prepared for this. Meantime, there was a huge group of photographers and reporters waiting to waylay me at the airport. They waylaid him, and in the meantime I snuck onto the plane. It was that sort of silliness. It was astonishing that the Irish media turned this into the circus that they did….

Q: I take it the Ambassador wasn’t taking a very strong stance.

BERRINGTON:  Now to understand this we have to backtrack a bit. As I had said earlier, the ambassador was not terribly enthusiastic about having me come in the first place. Again, not me, but me as USIS officer, because he wanted somebody else to fill the job. He had his own candidate, allegedly somebody from NASA. But anyway, there I am, and for most of the three years plus that I worked with him, he would, I think it is safe to say that his interest in public affairs, press work, well you know, a lot of ambassadors take more interest in PAOs [Public Affairs Officers] than they do in a lot of other embassy officers because we can do more for their public image and all of that.

So he was constantly after me to do this or do that. Sometimes things which I just couldn’t do because of the nature of his demands and because it was incapable for any PAO to have done some of the things that he wanted done…. When this incident came up, his reaction must have been, “Aha! I was right, Berrington is incompetent. He is incapable of doing the job as he should. People should have listened to me.” So his official reaction was to distance himself from this as soon as possible, and he did it in not a terribly offensive way. But within the embassy, he immediately called a meeting that morning in which I was pointedly told not to attend and in which he told everybody else in the mission they were not to have a thing to do with me.

Q: Oh my God!

“It was clear it was an inside job”

BERRINGTON: I had gotten myself in my own trouble, and I made my bed; I would have to lay in it. People then from that meeting came back and told me you know, the Ambassador…. Of course there was great sympathy for my position in the mission, because my relationships with most of the other people, not everybody, but most other people were pretty good…. The DAO [Defense Attaché], with whom who I had a particularly good relationship, said at one point, “If Berrington goes; I go. I am not going to allow this kind of nonsense to shape the way our personnel are seen at this mission.” I told him, “Bill, don’t put your career on the line like that.” So I knew that I could not count on any support from the ambassador. I have learned since that one of the reasons why I got called back by my own government was that the ambassador had in effect called in to Washington and said, “I have no confidence in this man anymore, and there is no need to keep him here. If he is sent back to the U.S. that would make me very happy, and others as well.” So that is in effect why I got called back.

Q: Did you ever find out how that letter got out to people?

BERRINGTON: No, I never have found out, and of course this is one of the really great mysteries of my career. I have my own ideas. Once this happened, of course, it was clear that it was an inside job. In fact it was a coincidence, but on the day that this happened, we had security people in from the mission in London. The security officer is responsible for Ireland as well as England. They met with me immediately because I had said, “Whoa, something is very fishy that this letter gets out.”…

So he went to the Ambassador and said, “Look, clearly somebody has had access to Berrington’s safe that shouldn’t have, or somebody has done something to sully the image of the mission. I think this has become a security issue as well as a public relations issue, and I want to look into it.” The ambassador wouldn’t let him. The ambassador said, “No, I won’t allow you to investigate.” So the ambassador apparently wasn’t interested in getting to the bottom of this himself…. I mean, there really wasn’t much time for me to do much asking and checking around, because once I learned I had to leave I was busy trying to pack and prepare myself for departure.

mean-secretary-receptionist-300x224But in the weeks after I left…I got letters and things from people. The consensus seemed to be, and this is only the allegation, not proof, was that my secretary, an Irish woman, was the one who was responsible for this.… Because my secretary and I did not get along. We had a very stormy relationship, although I should add she had a stormy relationship with everybody in the office and with many people in the building. Her temperament, her emotional stability, was such that I had at one point recommended that she seek therapy. What I didn’t realize was that in Ireland when you suggest this it is like suggesting the absolute worst thing.

Q: Yes, it means you’re crazy.

BERRINGTON: Yes, and apparently she was gravely offended by my suggestion that she have some therapy or talk about her problems with a professional, that she was my enemy ever since then. So she had a motive to perhaps do this, if she was the one, and I am not saying she was or not. There may have been someone else that I didn’t realize who might have done it too, maybe to sully the embassy not just me personally. But, whoever did this I think probably didn’t realize it was going to develop into the kind of international story that it did. I think whoever did it probably thought it would cause a little bit of mischief, 24-36 hours, and be done with, because that is the way most things are done. But, we found out afterwards, it had been sent out to about 12 or 13 people, and only 12 or 13 people in the Dublin political journalistic columnist world. In other words, whoever did it knew exactly what kind of audience they were sending it to.

Q: Of course, your secretary would know because that was her milieu.

BERRINGTON: Would know, exactly…. Now, because the ambassador refused to allow any investigation and because once I left, the topic as far as something within the embassy, officially within the embassy, the door was shut, case over, nothing was ever done to find out what really happened, and that was the end of it. Anyway, I came back to the United States….

Needless to say, the three or so days after the story broke in Dublin and before I left on that Saturday were hell on earth for me. You can imagine. I can remember one night I came home from a dinner or whatever, and the phone rang and I picked it up. It was some talk show person from Chicago. “Are you Robin Berrington?” “Yes.” “Well, we are on the air, Robin. We want to find out what you really did and what do you think about….” I just hung up. It was that kind of constant attention, I was getting. I started getting mail in Dublin, some of the most abusive mail that you could ever imagine. I mean saying things, you wonder why people would write and say these things to total strangers

For the first time in my life I began to realize what it must be like to be a celebrity and get this kind of mail all the time. That continued long after I was in the States. Now the upside to this was the reaction from the national news journalists and from a lot of other Irish friends and others who totally supported me and were ashamed and embarrassed at the way the Irish media had handled this and that I was being forced to come back to the U.S. as a result of all this. I had some absolutely wonderful letters. If this had never happened and I had just left Ireland a few months later, I probably wouldn’t have had nearly the file of testimonials and great letters that I have today….

When I arrived in Washington, and went to USIA [U.S. Information Agency] headquarters, I didn’t know if I was going to be fired, if I was going in to have my hands slapped. I mean my assignment, my ongoing assignment after Dublin, was already set for Japan. I was going back to Tokyo. I didn’t know if that assignment was going to be broken. It was, you know, a total mystery. As it turned out, when I went in to the office, by that time, more and more people started to realize what had really happened. As they put it, they slapped my hands and said, “Don’t you ever write anything like this. Stop writing your Christmas letters. Don’t send any more of those bloody things out.” They said, “Look, lie low and come back in a month or two, and we’ll get you off to Tokyo….”

“This issue has not been a total negative experience for me”

CassellsIn a way that letter has haunted me for the rest of my life. I can remember years later going to maybe a hotel bar in New York or Hong Kong or whatever, and you strike up a conversation. People would say, “What do you do?” I would say, “I am Foreign Service” “Where have you been?” “Oh, I have been to Tokyo, Thailand, and Dublin.” “Oh, Dublin. Were you there when that guy got in trouble? What kind of a guy was he like?” I would always say, “Oh, he wasn’t a bad guy.” I continued to get mail that was forwarded to me from all sorts of people. I mean that went on for about a year afterwards. It is funny, just about three or four days ago, I got an e-mail from a friend who had just purchased a copy of Cassell’s Dictionary of Quotations or some such title, and I am in there. One of my quotes from that letter was in there. He said, “This is apparently a new edition that has come out. Did you really….” I had no idea. So this thing has followed me. Not as it turned out, not negatively.

Q: You have entered Irish folklore.

BERRINGTON: In a way I have entered Irish folklore. Two years later I went back to Dublin. I was on my way home from Tokyo…. I stopped there to say goodbye…. The econ officer who was a very good friend of mine who was there when I was there threw a big party for me. I saw a lot of great people. It was you know, really fun. At one point, some guy came up to me at the party, and said, “Are you Robin?” I said, “Yes.” “You don’t know me, but my editor has told me to come to this party and ask you the following questions.” I said, “I think you should go. This is a private party, and this is not appropriate.” He was clearly there to write another story. There was a guy taking pictures of me even two years afterwards. I mean, as I came in and out of the embassy somebody was posted there to take pictures. I just don’t know what it is that that sort of thing continues to be such a big issue for me….

One final thing. As I said, this issue has not been a total negative experience for me. Before I arrived in Tokyo, the ambassador there was Mike Mansfield, a man who I must say was totally different from Bill Shannon. Some embassy person got wind that I was coming to Japan, and said, “Mr. Ambassador, do you know that this man Berrington who got in so much trouble in Dublin is now assigned to come to Tokyo? You know, if he has gotten in that much trouble in Dublin, is he really the sort of person you want on your staff here and you really ought to rethink this.” This person said this in front of a couple of other people. One of the other people who was there was a friend of mine. He said, “Well, I got a copy of Berrington’s Mansfieldletter, and I didn’t think it was so bad.”

Mike Mansfield said, “Let me see a copy of this letter before I say anything, I want to read what this guy actually wrote.” So Mike got a copy of it, and read it. He said, “Hmmm, anybody that can write this well, I want him on my staff.” Ever since then my relationship with Senator Mansfield was probably one of the closest relationships I have had with any ambassador in my career. He was Irish-American, but he knew exactly what the problems were and how the Irish reacted to these kinds of things, and he was not going to let something as silly and trivial as this letter and the brouhaha over it stand in the way of my career. Thereafter in Tokyo, Ambassador Mansfield told all embassy officers that all writing, ambassador speeches, toasts and all that should be sent through Berrington for him to look at. Thereafter I became one of the Ambassador’s close associates in everything he did. It really put a kind of stamp to any kind of official attitude about whether Berrington was a very good officer or not. As much as I have certain feelings about Bill Shannon, I have equally strong warm feelings about Mike Mansfield.

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