Terence Todman is one of the few people to attain the rank of career ambassador – the equivalent of a four-star general – in the Department of State, having served as ambassador to six different countries. He is also one of the few African Americans to be so honored and was known for his outspokenness during a time of segregated dining facilities, when few minorities could be found at any level of the Department. Terence Todman was born on March 13, 1926, in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands as one of 13 siblings. He served in the U.S. Army before joining the Foreign Service in 1954. He served at the UN, in New Delhi, then began intensive training program in Arabic. He was later named ambassador to Chad and Guinea, then Costa Rica, the first African American to serve in such a position in Latin America. Later he became assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, where he helped negotiate the Panama Canal Treaty. In 1978 Todman was named ambassador to Spain. In 1983, however, he declined an offer to be nominated as ambassador to South Africa, since he could not support President Reagan’s stance on apartheid. Instead, he accepted an ambassadorship to Denmark, a position he held for six years.
In these excerpts from his oral history, Ambassador Todman talked about the difficulties he encountered as a black man in the Department in the 1950s, the ignominy of “ghetto assignments” to Africa, his appointment to assistant secretary, the integration of human rights issues into foreign policy, and the frustration he felt over the lack of major progress on minority hiring and respect for Foreign Service officers in general. He was interviewed by Michael Krenn beginning in 1995. To read a brief background on minorities in the State Department, go to our sister site, usdiplomacy.org.
I was born in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands in 1926; that goes back quite a bit now. My mother worked as a laundress and as a house maid. My father was a grocery clerk and also worked occasionally as a stevedore. St. Thomas was a large shipping port and so we had ships of all the nations coming in there. This gave a certain cosmopolitan sense to growing up in the islands….
In the army, after I had completed four years, I was offered the opportunity to go to Japanese language school in Monterey, provided I would agree to serve two years after the completion of the school, at least two years more. I did not want to make the Army a career. I had already served four years by that time. That would have been eight guaranteed, and then you go automatically for twenty. And so I said no thanks, and I was allowed to leave the service. I was discharged. I suppose it’s the most fortunate thing that happened to me, because the Korean War broke out shortly after I left. And my unit in Japan was picked up and sent in to go fill the breach. And they became cannon fodder. I met with a couple of my fellow officers later, and just about every other person that I asked for had been killed in Korea. We had about a fifty percent loss from my unit. So, I just missed that….
On Being Black in the Foreign Service
Getting into the State Department is something that I think is worth saying a word about, because although I had passed the exams and I was told that I was in, the day that I reported for work, the chief of personnel said he was very sorry but State couldn’t hire me. Then I asked what he was talking about. I had turned down everything to come to do this and I had been told that I was accepted. Now here I am reporting for work and you tell me this. “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, we reviewed your record and we found that you’re not the kind of person we can use. We need in the U.S. Foreign Service people who are one hundred percent identifiable as Americans. And we note from your record that in reviewing it again that your accent is not such that you would be readily and immediately identified as American. And so, we don’t really think we could have you in the Foreign Service.” And I asked, “Well, what the hell am I supposed to do now?” And he said, “Well, because of the commitments we had made, we’ll give you the opportunity to go and speak to the head of the office to which we were going to assign you. And if he will take you, then we will not object.”
This was my first day in the State Department. I go over for the interview and, God bless him, William Witman said, “Look, I have a lot of work to do in this office. I can’t afford to have anyone here who isn’t going to be producing to meet what I require,” And I said, “I think very highly of myself. And if you didn’t have work for me to do I wouldn’t want to be in your office,” And he said, “OK, you’ve got a job. Let’s see how it works out.”… And interestingly enough it was Bill, later when he was named ambassador to Togo, who called up and asked if I would come and be his Deputy Chief of Mission. This allowed me to then get into that very exclusive class of people who get a chance to run missions. But it all came from this first thing, when, very frankly, I walked in there ready to go to work and I was told, “We’re terribly sorry, but we only can take one hundred percent identifiable Americans. And with that accent of yours, you don’t pass muster.” So, that was my introduction to the State Department.
Q: Did you have any trepidation about entering on a State Department career? I mean, in 1952 there were very few black Americans in the Department and at that time there were a number of articles in magazines talking about the limited career opportunities for black Americans in the State Department. Was that any cause for concern?
TODMAN: The only thing they had blacks doing then was serving as messengers and secretaries. So it was starting out in rather difficult circumstances. I remember people coming to my office for meetings, and they’d come and say, “We’re here to see Mr. Todman.” And I’d say, “Well, I’m Mr. Todman, come on in.” And it was, “You’ve got to be kidding!” It took them a little while, several people, to accept the fact that I could be the person responsible for some activities. It was a different world….
The arrangement for meals, the possibility for black Americans to be able to eat in the State Department cafeteria. This was in 1957. The State Department had just established a Foreign Service Institute over in, I think it was Rosslyn, Virginia. And the courses, the introductory courses on countries, for people who were going overseas were held there. When I was assigned to go to New Delhi I therefore had to attend courses over at the Foreign Service Institute. When I got there I discovered that the only thing they had for any meal arrangements was a very small coffee shop where you could basically get some coffee cake and some coffee, tea, or whatever. And at lunchtime all of the white officers went across the street to a regular Virginia restaurant and had their meals. On my first day, when I went to the coffee shop and saw there were no eating facilities, I asked where I could have lunch. They said they were sorry, this was all they had. And I said, “Well, I’m accustomed to a good warm lunch at midday and I’d like to be able to do that, so how can we work that out?” I said I was willing to go into town across the bridge, if that were necessary, but it meant that I couldn’t go and get back in time for the class. So we would have had to adjust the class schedule. Or they would have to find some place where all State Department people could eat. They regretted that they were in Virginia, and the laws of Virginia didn’t allow blacks and whites to eat together and they had no control over the policies of the restaurant; it was privately owned and run. I said, well, no one forced them to move there. There were other places they could have gone where this would not have been a problem.
And this got to be a major issue. It went up to the Under Secretary for Management. They said people had gone there before I had and no one else had complained; they had just managed to get by on it; they had taken it. I said, that’s fine, they took it, but I’m not going to and so we need to work something out. The outcome of this, after a lot of unhappiness on the part of many people, was that the State Department leased a half of the restaurant and a partition was put up. The same kitchen was used, the same waiters, but one half belonged to the State Department, or was leased by it, and the other half was a regular private restaurant. And so we were able to go over to the State Department leased part and have lunch there. And you ran into ridiculous situations where one side would get full and then overflow into the other. But basically the State Department recognized that it had to make provisions of an equal nature for all its employees. And eventually, of course, with the changes, then the restaurant gradually became integrated in fact, because people were moving back and forth. As I said, the same kitchen, the same waitresses, and so the matter was resolved. But I was considered a troublemaker, and that was all right. But it was an important change for everyone else who went to the institute after that, to know that things were being done properly….
“That business about not being able to send blacks to the Middle East was concocted within the State Department”
Q: I came across a number of State Department documents, all the way from the 1940s, all the way, really, up into the 1960s talking about where the State Department could and could not send black Americans to serve because of the country’s practices and so forth. One of the areas that they seemed very tense about, was sending black Americans to Arabic nations. Did you find any problem?
TODMAN: Absolutely not! I am prepared to say that that business about not being able to send blacks was purely concocted within the State Department; it was made out of whole cloth. It was a total lie. I never found in any of the places that I went to that there was any question of any resentment or anything. The only question that people ever had, and you would get this as they got to talk to you, you would feel some doubt: “Does this person have the influence with his own country to be able to get for us what we need?” But as far as color, as far as any of those other things were concerned, zero. The problem has been, and is, in the United States of America. The only opposition that I ever found, anywhere, has been from Americans. I found it in Costa Rica: Americans, only Americans. In Spain: Americans, only Americans. In the Arab world? Not a hint, absolutely not a hint of it. And the Arab world would be the last place. You go through the Arab world and how many blacks do you find? And you find them doing everything. You find them in positions of importance, in their own country and they’re all over. So, this was story concocted by Americans to keep from doing these things. It’s damned nonsense.
Q: Well, that certainly goes along with what I’ve heard from fellow ambassadors. That all of these that were sort of set aside as “Can’t send blacks there can’t send blacks there…”
TODMAN: Nonsense, Nonsense! And the business of sending blacks to Africa is one of the worst. Because, again, the African countries are looking for the same thing any other country is: what influence does this guy have? And when you’re up on the ambassadorial level, they want to know about that. Many people assume that the ambassador can pick up the phone and talk to the president and get something done. And it’s one of the reasons, quite frankly, why in many places a political appointee is much preferred. Because they assume if this guy isn’t career, yet the president picked and sent him here, he must be a buddy. And if anything happens he can, ”Hey, Prez,” and it’s done. That’s what a country is looking for. They’re looking for a channel of direct communication and a person of influence. So that’s the only thing and that has nothing to do with color. And I think, frankly, that the career people are at a slight disadvantage in this, in terms of what the countries would like, because of their perception that the instrument of influence would be more a political than a career. But that’s the only place where it exists. And the business about racial preference, absolutely not!…
The Lack of Progress in the Lily White State Department
Q: At least publicly, and in some of the actions the State Department took, Secretary Rusk said that one of his priorities was to try and get more black Americans in the State Department. Prior to 1961 it was still being called in many of the black newspapers the “lily white State Department” and so forth. And there were some programs set up by Richard Fox and others in the State Department to do that. Did you see any of that effort resulting in any changes in the makeup?
TODMAN: Nothing significant, nothing significant. In fact, it was just after that we had to go out and bring in senior people from USIA and AID because we didn’t have anybody at senior levels in the State Department. And the recruiting efforts didn’t produce very much. There was no lateral entry, so you weren’t bringing in people at the mid-levels or above the entry level. The record of the State Department had been horrendous; it’s been terrible throughout. There have been spurts at attempts to do things. Dick Fox tried some things, Eddie Williams tried some things, there were a few university programs to try and train some people. Something’s better than nothing, but you’re always talking about very little.
Q: Not to break off from the development of your own career here, but why do you think that’s been such a consistent problem?
TODMAN: A couple of reasons. One is American society as such. But another one is the Foreign Service, the Foreign Service corps. There’s a group that develops; it’s an in-group. Once you’re there, you preserve and protect it, and you want only people like you. Then it’s a heck of a lot easier to protect your own position. Also, it’s an elite group and one of the ways to insure that you maintain the sense of elitism is to not have too many people in who’ll be different. That’s part of the elite too. If you have a different accent, nowadays maybe it’s good to have one, but if you don’t fit the mold, then the people within the group make sure that you don’t get in. And it’s done from inside, because these are the people who man all the positions that are responsible for opening it up. You get senior leadership which says, “Yeah, we’re committed to change.” But the commitment never involves any follow-through of a personal nature. The one case in which I’ve ever seen that to work was in AID when the man who was head of the Africa Bureau said, “You will bring blacks into this bureau.” I wrote about it sometime and made a speech on it, because it was so impressive. He refused to allow anybody else to be appointed. He got, as you always get, the same story: “We can’t find anyone qualified who will do it,” and then you say, “OK, if you can’t find anyone, then I guess I’ll have to yield.” But he said, “We won’t fill it.” And after a while the people who needed to get the work done realized that it was better to go ahead and get someone because he was serious about it.
But that was the rare exception. People come in and make a lovely statement, you know, “This is what I believe in, this is what I’m going to do.” And I wouldn’t question the sincerity of the top people in making those statements. But I will state with absolute certainty there was never any follow-up to insure that it took place. And if you don’t have that follow-up you have a built-in, protective group that wants its own kind and is able to ensure that it goes that way. And wanting your own kind doesn’t imply and is not intended to suggest any animosity towards others. Exclusion often isn’t because you hate one group or that you don’t want them; it’s often because you want some others and that effectively keeps out the other side, without there being any, “I don’t want you around.” It’s not, “I don’t want you around.” It is, “I want him around and I only have room for one.”…
Problems with the “Ghetto” Assignment Process
Q: Your next assignment was back in Washington. You came back from Togo into the Bureau of African Affairs. You had mentioned before that, being made DCM, you assume that’s really a stepping stone to those higher positions. Did you look upon this as a sort of a disappointment assignment back home?
TODMAN: I did, because the assignment to Togo, as far as I was concerned, was out of area. I considered myself an Arabist. I had been trained in Arabic. I used the language, I knew it, I had served in the Arab world, I had shown that I could do that very well. My assumption was that on coming back I would be assigned to one of the desks having to do with the Arab world. I could think of nothing that would say, “You go to Africa,” except that, there again, there’s this fixation. It has been and remains that if you’re black you have to be associated with Africa. I realized that’s what had happened. It didn’t make any sense to me. Furthermore, it was East Africa, about which I knew nothing except that which came from my time at the United Nations.…
Q: And you got your first ambassadorial appointment and that was to Chad. Was that an “out of left field” appointment, was that unexpected, or was this something…
TODMAN: No, out of left field. As a career officer I knew very well how ambassadorial appointments are made and we know better than to expect ever that we are going to get one. So it had to be out of the blue, totally unexpected. Furthermore, I wasn’t at the seniority level or the rest of that which would have led me to expect an ambassadorship. I was, as far as blacks were concerned, very senior, because there weren’t any others around. But I was not looking at blacks being assigned separately from non-blacks. I was looking at the Service and I didn’t see anything at that point that would say that I would go out as ambassador. But I was the senior black and I guess since they decided, if they were going to appoint one, there wasn’t anybody else to appoint. But I hadn’t even been thinking about that. And it came out of the blue, and then to Chad….
Q: You say that you were eager to get out of Guinea, anyplace…
TODMAN: Out of Africa, out of Africa.
Q: But Costa Rica, when that came up, was that an exciting possibility for you?
TODMAN: It was getting out of Africa, it wasn’t where I was going to. I wasn’t looking to go to Costa Rica. What I have insisted all along, and I continue to insist, that Foreign Service officers, whoever they are, should have the opportunity and the possibility to serve anywhere in the world. I resented, and I still resent, the “ghetto” assignment of blacks to Africa or to Caribbean nations. I resent it. I resented it then and I still do. And the United States still does that. We haven’t learned a thing over all these years.
Q: Right, it’s about eighty percent [of black appointments go to Africa or the Caribbean.]
TODMAN: And it was the old story then about, you know, the Costa Ricans wouldn’t like this, wouldn’t take this. The only people who ever showed any reserve were the Americans living in Costa Rica. And I could care less, because I was not appointed to them. And the Costa Ricans could not have been nicer. And once they saw, those Americans, the nature, closeness, and strength of relations with the Costa Ricans, then they all sort of came around. Because to be in with the ambassador becomes a great thing and I knew that that’s what it would be. So they came around and I said, “Well, if I get some time I’ll see you.” It worked its way out after a while. But, you know, it wasn’t for me, “How exciting, I’m going to Costa Rica.” For me it was, “I am breaking out of this ridiculous mold of being assigned only to black countries.”
Here I was trained as an Arabist, but they can’t send me to an Arab country. Once they got their hooks into me in Africa, “This is it buddy. You escaped for a while, but we’ve got you now.” But I was determined that that was going to end. I’m thoroughly delighted that it turned out to be Costa Rica, because I haven’t lived with a more wonderful people ever, a nicer people, a great place. And I was there during an exciting time also, because it was a time when the Nicaraguan movement, the Sandinistas, started spilling over the border as the fight with Somoza got to be bigger….
On Being Named Assistant Secretary
Q: In 1977, with the coming to power of the Carter administration, you were called back to Washington and made assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, the first black to ever be made head of one of the geographical divisions. Was that quite a surprising job offer for you from the Carter administration?
TODMAN: It sure as hell was! It certainly was. I couldn’t believe it. As a matter of fact it’s rather curious, because I got this call from Peter Tarnoff saying that Secretary Vance, the designate, would like me to be assistant secretary for Latin American Affairs. I said, “Gee, thanks a lot. I’d like to come up and talk to the secretary about it.” And he said, “Look, there’s a lot of pressure to name someone and the secretary has inquired all around about you and all the reports have been favorable and he wants you to have it. He has a very busy schedule and he wants to announce it right away.” And I said, “Well, you know, I’m very flattered by all the he things you’ve said, and I know a couple of positions the secretary has held, but I’ve never met him and I haven’t inquired about him and I really would like to meet him before giving an answer on this.” He said, “Are you turning down the position?” I said, “No, I’m not turning it down; I’m asking for a meeting so I can decide.” He said, “Look, the secretary’s preparing for the hearings. He’s terribly busy; there are all kinds of things that have to be done. He really doesn’t have any time for a meeting.” I said, “Look, I’ll meet with him at breakfast, in the middle of the morning, at lunch, in the middle of the afternoon, for a drink at the end of the day, at dinner, any time that he says. I can’t believe that he wants me to be his assistant secretary and he doesn’t have any time that he can meet with me. Is that what you’re telling me?” He said, “Well, I’ll have to go back to him.” I said, “Please do and then let me know.” And then I got back a call saying, OK, Mr. Vance can see you on such and such a date and time. I said, “OK, I’ll be there for the meeting.”…
In retrospect, I realize now that I was risking blowing a major opportunity. You know, for a black American to be an assistant secretary of state and head a geographic bureau, and I hesitated. But it was important to me to do that….
Q: Well, what reasons, when you had this talk with Secretary-designate Vance, what reasons did he give for having selected you?
TODMAN: None. We didn’t talk about why he selected me. We talked about how we viewed Latin America. The issues, the opportunities, the kinds of things that had to be dealt with, the approaches and that’s what we talked about. We never talked about why he had selected me. It didn’t matter to me. What mattered to me was, are we going to be working on a job and are we going to be doing it together? Are we on the same wavelength for getting something accomplished? And that’s all that I wanted to establish. Once I was able to establish that and once I met him and knew that this was a person that I could deal with, you know, that I could relate to, that I could say things, get things back, communicate with, then that took care of it. The “why” didn’t matter. It was can I sit down and have a conversation with him about issue and know that we’re going to be talking about issues and dealing with them…?
While I was director of East African Affairs, during that same period, I noticed that cables were being sent out directly from the Department of Defense to posts in the field without clearance by the State Department. One thing that was established and was practiced very much was that messages had to be cleared and that instructions went from the secretary of state. And people were continuing to violate this, and a couple of messages went out from the Pentagon, instructing the ambassador to do things without ever having been cleared with the State Department. And I sent out a cable one Friday afternoon, referring to one that went out in the morning and saying, “Ignore the instructions. They have not been cleared.” And I sent a copy of my cable to the Pentagon.
The next Monday morning a four-star general was on the phone raising hell with the assistant secretary, saying, “Who the hell is this that is sending out messages countermanding instructions that I have sent to the field?” When the assistant secretary called me, I reminded him of our regulations, that nothing goes out unless cleared by the Department, he said, “You’re right,” and he called back the general and said, “You send them here for clearance in the future. They are not supposed to go and no ambassadors are to follow instructions if they’re not cleared.” I think, again, this is very important, because one of the things that this country needs, has always needed, and needs today, is some kind of clear direction for its foreign policy. The president of the United States relies on the secretary of state and his department to insure that. And when the State Department does not function in that way, then there’s no coherence, there’s no telling where our foreign policy is, because each agency then decides to do whatever it wishes. What I was doing was taking a stand for a principle that I considered to be fundamental. Obviously when the general was called on it and reminded about this, he had to concede. But this was something that otherwise just would not have happened. I thought it was worth mentioning because there you have a critical point in the establishment and management of United States foreign policy….
On Human Rights and Foreign Policy
Q: One of the issues that is so associated with the Carter administration is the issue of human rights, and you mentioned the human rights abuses going on in Latin America. Of course it was a policy that came under severe criticism at the time afterwards. What did you think of that new accent on human rights by the Carter administration?
TODMAN: It was a difference in nuance and approach. I kept insisting that showing value for human rights, the human person, for the well-being of the individual, had to be an integral part of every single thing we did, that you shouldn’t separate human rights from other activities, as if it was something that could be dealt with by itself. But you made sure that it was incorporated into everything that you did, that it was part of a value system. That was extremely important for me. The other thing was to insure that we did not add to the suffering of poor, suffering people as a way of getting to the despicable leaders. This was critical. Because there were many people who felt that if the leader of a certain country were not behaving properly then the thing that you did was to punish the entire country.
And we had one thoroughly outrageous thing that occurred. I think it was in Paraguay, where people were dying from water-borne diseases. There was a project being financed by one of the international financial institutions. It was quite clear that the project was bona fide, that it was going for water purification, and the position taken by some people in the administration was that we must oppose doing this project. Of course, the decision of the United States on projects and IFIs [International Financial Institutions] was critical. And I said, “For God’s sake, these people are dying of water-borne diseases now. This is something that’s going to at least save some of their lives. How can we oppose this?” And the basis for the opposition was, this was to make sure that General Alfredo Stroessner didn’t get any credit. So, it’s OK to go ahead and see hundreds more Paraguayans killed in order to be sure that Stroessner doesn’t get any credit? Well, Stroessner wasn’t going to get credit anyway; but even if he did, for God’s sake, if it’s credit for saving people’s lives, then get it. And this was one of the issues, because there were some people there who wanted to save the world and this was “let’s go out and do that.”
I suppose the third thing is that I was and am results-oriented, and I believe in pressing, screaming, cajoling, doing what is necessary to obtain the results that you establish, that you want to get. And sometimes this is done by getting up on a public platform; sometimes it’s done by going in and quietly twisting somebody’s arms. The methods vary depending on the case. There were a number of people around who believed that the answer to everything was a great deal of shouting. And it seemed to me that the consideration was what was going to make them feel good: “I have gone out and shouted about it. What happens to the individuals after, that’s not important. I’ve gone and shouted. So, I’ve done a great deal.” And, quite frankly, I resented that, because my concern was the suffering people and wanted to see things done that would ease the suffering. And I recognized that sometimes this is a whisper in the ear, sometimes it’s a poke with your finger, it’s different things. And I don’t think that it’s possible to say that the same kind of approach would work in every situation. And I found that in many cases there were people who were not willing to be nuanced in dealing with the issues.
Q: What was the reception to this new emphasis on human rights in those nations? Were they confused by it; were they concerned with it?
TODMAN: They were concerned by it, but they were concerned by the fact that people were screaming at them rather than sitting down and pressing things with them. And in every case, I brought up particular cases on every visit that were concerning us, that we wanted something done about, to try and get acceptance of visits by human rights commissions, which have that as their agenda. And I was able to get that in many cases. I remember in Uruguay, for example, there was one time that I just went straight out in the public square, answered some questions, and said the military has no business running the country. You know, “Uruguay has been known for a long time for its democracy and Uruguay should come back to being a democratic nation. And the military should find a way to get out of this position as soon as possible.” It’s rather interesting, because some of these things I had forgotten. Then I saw the president of Uruguay at the inauguration of President Menem, and he came over and thanked me for what I had done; he said, this was the thing that gave hope to the people that the change would occur and that the United States was ready to stand up to see those changes occur. That kind of thing warms the heart, because you know that it made a difference.…
Q: At the end of your time in Spain you were assigned to Denmark in 1983. I sent you a copy of an article from the New York Times which was talking about some of the very heavy criticism of the Reagan administration, especially early on, about its non-use of black personnel in the Foreign Service, its misuse and so forth. And your case, in that article, was specifically cited, that, well, “Here’s a perfect example. A career Foreign Service officer being sent from a class-one embassy–Spain, to a class-three embassy–Denmark.” First, I want to ask you, in general, do you think those criticisms of the Reagan administration were warranted. And secondly, let’s go particularly to your case with the assignment to Denmark and what you thought about that.
TODMAN: I don’t think the Reagan administration thought about, you know, I don’t think they paid much attention to, “Are we going to be sending blacks? There’s a certain number that will be taken care of, and, OK, we’ll do that.” I don’t think it was a particular issue with them. And in my case, I asked for Denmark….
Denmark, a member of NATO, really very important. But I had sentimental reasons. I’m from a former Danish island. I’d been exposed to things Danish before, and the thrill of being able to be the American ambassador in the country which used to formally own my island was something which was just great. Also Denmark, I knew from Spain and the NATO connection, was extremely important to us. Denmark with its EC connections and its leadership role were extremely important. Really, although Denmark is a small country, its voice isn’t at all small. It is heard in councils because it has the courage to speak up. And Denmark, in terms of social organization and so on, represented something. Denmark wasn’t formerly available for career appointees at all. So a chance to go to Denmark was one that I just…I decided that I wanted to go there. I had to go from Spain; I knew that. The people who talk about, you know, class-one posts, whatever they mean by that…. Where was I going? You mean I had to be sent to Paris, or to Bonn, or to London? You know, that’s crazy. And the people who talk about that don’t have a realistic sense of how the business works. It’s what’s available at the moment, who is pressing, and there are some posts that are not available for career people. So you look at the gamut and you say what it is you want. No, it was a choice. It was not by any means a put-down and not regarded so by me.…
“The position of ambassador has lost importance”
Q: You held ambassadorial positions for about a quarter century, from the late-60s into the early-90s. Did you see any changes in the status and the position of the ambassador in terms of the foreign policy making chain of command in the United States during that period? Did the ambassador lose importance, gain importance? What kinds of changes took place, it any?
TODMAN: I think that the ambassador lost importance. I think that it started when you got a peripatetic secretary of state, who decided that if there’s any important issue he would have to go out personally and deal with it. And as this occurred you got chiefs of state saying that it’s not worth talking to the ambassador because that means it’s not important enough; we need to discuss it and we need the secretary to come. There used to be more roving ambassadors who would come and bring a special message sometimes, which was OK. But the secretary of state was at home controlling the whole thing and looking at it, and you could go back and ask about it. That’s gone. I think some areas of the world get neglected, totally, because there’s nobody back home minding the shop who can send out the serious kinds of instructions that you want. You don’t get the consistency you need. And some other areas get over-attended, but attended at a level that they shouldn’t be getting, at least in personal and direct terms. I think it’s a change for the worse. I don’t know whether or when we can ever recoup from that, but it’s unfortunate.
The change in the news media, the ready availability of news, has made an enormous difference also, because you’re not now often taking in news, you’re commenting on it. Because some story has broken and people have heard about it or seen it, and so when you go in, so what’s new? And one of the more irritating practices that we continue to have in the Foreign Service is to send cables out after the thing has been on the news instructing you to go tell the country that this has happened. For Christ’s sake, what do you think they’ve been doing? They saw it on CNN ten hours ago. Go wake them up at 2:00 in the morning to tell them that this is what happened? That has had a major difference in the way diplomacy is practiced, because now there’s a need for a lot more thoughtfulness and giving more rationale for action rather than telling what the action is– precision about what happened and explanations of why it happened, and bringing people along.
And the other way the role of the ambassador has been diminished, which is even worse, is by the number of direct contacts that are made between senior U.S. government officials and senior host country officials. Increasingly, people bypass the embassy totally and pick up the phone and call somebody that they met in a conference. And it doesn’t have to be from the secretary, from the Department of State even, where at least you’d know what was going on, but it can be from any department that has business overseas, any of them, directly to counterparts in foreign governments, with the result that the department, the ambassador, may or may not know. And I found increasingly in my last time, at the end of my period there, that I would learn from the Argentines things what U.S. government officials had done. I would be the first to learn of it outside, and then I would inform the State Department of what had happened. State would not have known at all. But these things were done, and conversations were going on, and I would know only because of the nature of my relations with the host country. In many countries I’m sure the ambassador never gets to know until the thing is signed, or done, or some consequence of it appears. They’re the kind of things that concerned me, and that I wanted very much to talk to the secretary of state about. Because I think that they are creating problems for the United States and they will create even more serious problems.
“Most of your problems are with your own government”
The concerns I’ve had, and I’ve raised with all of them, is what we do about black Foreign Service officers, on which I think we do a terrible job. In every meeting I’ve ever had with a secretary of state, I have tried to discuss, apart from the matters of substance, the question of doing better on the position of minorities. I have always contended, and continue to contend, that you don’t do this for the minorities, you do this for the United States. We need, as a country, the very best input that we can get into policy formulation and policy implementation. There are sensitivities that people bring into a meeting that you can’t get otherwise, and sometimes the very composition of the meeting, even if the person does nothing, becomes a reminder, when things are being considered, how they ought to be treated. It just clicks something there.
And the same person would see things differently, or speak about things, or approach things, in one context with one group of people, from the way he or she would do with a different group. And it’s not because of any bad intentions or anything else, it’s just that the circumstances, the atmosphere, bring out things that it’s important to have as input into our policy formulation and execution. We’re denying ourselves of this by not bringing in minorities. When we’re talking about China, Japan, and other Asian countries, it would make an enormous amount of difference to have some people of Asian background sitting in that meeting as we discuss what we’re going to do. Just seeing them there, one would react differently. And inputs and sensitivities that they would have would make a difference. So, as I look for what is good for the United States, which is the bottom line for me, I think we’re doing ourselves an enormous disservice. And so I’ve raised it constantly over the years, and it’s just because there is no desire to act on it that nothing has happened.…
The unfortunate thing is that most of your problems are with your own government, because people don’t have a perspective of dealing with others. And we’re so accustomed, in this country, to having everything, to doing what we want, making what we want happen, that we’re not always as conscious about people out there. And we’re very quick to accuse people of localitis, which is unfortunate, because if the people who are on the scene don’t express what they’re seeing, then who is going to?
And the other thing that is disturbing is that the country is not aware of the importance of the role of the Foreign Service officer, the diplomat, for the country, the benefit that this brings to the United States. And actually when you consider that we’re so involved in the world, that so many livelihoods depend on this, the American economy depends on what we do abroad. Unless there are people from the Foreign Service that are out there making sure that the relations can be kept on a sound basis, the United States would suffer. And I’m not sure that that is understood at all. It’s largely our fault, Foreign Service people, because we don’t do very much to let people know what we do and what difference it makes. We let the false images of some kind of strange or high life be spread out there, and we’re considered as sort of extras not involved. And Foreign Service people are far from that. But if we don’t go out and make it known, we’re not out there spreading it, then people obviously aren’t going to know about it.
I used to spend a lot of time, as I spoke in communities around the United States, reminding people that much of what they made was sold overseas, much of what they used, consumed in the U.S., was made overseas, that they live in an interdependent world where the ties are everywhere. And you need some people who are doing the job of making sure that these things work and work primarily for the interest of the United States. I think we get caught up also in military might, that we forget sometimes that that doesn’t solve anything. And so the role of the diplomat is somehow undervalued, even by people who are in government, in policy making. I think today we’re arriving at a time in the United States when we somehow feel that physical, military, security is the only thing that we should look for, and we don’t work with people if they’re not making a definite contribution to that. I think that we can lose a great deal if we get carried away with that, because there are issues of justice, there are issues of decency, of humanity, that are important.
On human rights for a long time we never considered social or economic well-being as human rights; we looked only at torture. So people could starve to death and it didn’t matter, or if they had no place to sleep, it didn’t matter. But if they were in prison, then that was it. And we’ve come a long way, because at the last major meeting on human rights we acknowledged that there might be some validity to including economic rights among the human rights. But it has taken very, very, very many years and a lot of difficulty for that to be brought into our consciousness and to our acceptance. So we’re moving, but the movement is slow and you get times of regression.