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The Red Scare Hits the Foreign Service Institute

The Foreign Service Institute plays a central role in the training of American diplomats and other professionals in the U.S. foreign affairs community. Decades of experience and its hundreds of course offerings–from language and area to studies to management and technical training–have made FSI uniquely qualified in this regard. Despite its importance, the Institute’s existence was once put in jeopardy.

FSI was still a young institution when the Red Scare and McCarthyism reared its ugly head in the 1950s. It had been in business only since 1947, but it had already developed a record of successful training, especially in its language programs thanks to the efforts of people like Howard E. Sollenberger.  A future Director of FSI, Sollenberger was a professor of Chinese studies and an executive officer of the language school at the time. In the following excerpts from his oral history, he discusses how FSI unjustifiably came under suspicion during the McCarthy period.

Although the months-long “fishing expedition” engendered by this suspicion ultimately did not lead to charges against personnel at FSI, McCarthyism did end the careers (for example, John Stewart Service) and persecuted the innocent (such as Vladimir I. Toumanoff ). Sollenberger was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1997.

To read more about what happened to the “China Hands” during McCarthyism, go to our sister site,


“One of them was going through the files in the bathroom”

SOLLENBERGER: Senator Joseph McCarthy and his looking for card-carrying communists in the Department of State. And, of course, this had an effect on the Chinese program also because people were increasingly reluctant–officers–to get into a field if they were going to become targets of an investigation.

For the Institute this was probably the most trying period in its history.  It came very close, I would say, to putting the Institute out of business.  That’s because when they started investigating the Department of State, the first team that they sent in was sent to the Foreign Service Institute.  I think they suspected they would find the long-hairs there and they seemed particularly suspicious of the anthropologists, people dealing with the behavior of foreign peoples.

But it reached the point in the Foreign Service Institute–I can’t really remember whether there were 9 or 13 investigators, and the Institute wasn’t that large at that point–that took up residence and were at the Institute for the better part of three months.

Q:  Good God!

SOLLENBERGER:  Just an illustration if I can give this, I think it would give you a bit of the atmosphere that we went through at that time….

There were three investigators in my office at that time.  One of them was going through the files in the bathroom where I had the Chinese material that had been sent back from Beijing, much of it in Chinese.

And, of course, he was very curious about what these things were.  “You’re welcome to have somebody translate them for you if you want them.”  And I went there and went through them, identified what the different files were, etc.

The other person was going through the books in the bookcase that I had, and these were books on China, and linguistics, language training, etc.  And he was picking up the books by the covers and shaking them to see if there was anything hidden in the pages of the book.  And the third one was sitting at my desk here.

While I was trying to take care of these three people, he was also interrogating me on my experience in China, and particularly on the contacts that I had had with the communists back in 1938-’39-’40, and about Mr. Clubb [Oliver Clubb, Consul General in Beijing].  That was the situation.

“They didn’t really know what they were looking for”

Q:  How many investigators were there at one time?

SOLLENBERGER:  Nine or thirteen.  They had an office, they were set up there, they were interrogating all the staff.…

They were also very suspicious of the instructors who were foreigners, not even American citizens many of them.  At one point they started to call the tutors over to the Department of State for interrogation.  And it was never clear as to whether they were using lie detector tests on them or whether they were simply recording, but they were at least recording the interviews that they had.

They started off at the beginning of the alphabet, and Burmese came up pretty early in that.  The Burmese instructor was called over, who was a well known Burmese in his own country, and his wife worked at the Burmese embassy in Washington, a quiet but very independent person.  When they started to interrogate him and ask him, according to his report back to us, how much he had paid Dr. Smith [Dr. Henry Lee Smith, head of the language school], or me, for the job that he had there.

A number of questions of that sort that didn’t seem appropriate at all.  He got up and walked out, and they didn’t know what to do about that.  They weren’t expecting this.  He came back and of course reported to us on what had taken place, and said that if this is continuing, I’m quitting.  Well, this was a crisis for us because there were other instructors that were lined up to go over.  We were able, through Dr. Smith, to get in touch with Walter Bedell Smith….

Q:  Who at that time was number two in the State Department.

SOLLENBERGER:  Dr. Smith had been a classmate.  He called him up and explained what had happened, and from that point on it was stopped.  They did not call any of the instructors over again.  Within the group that I was familiar with, and I was closest to the linguists and the staff at the language school, I think probably 90% of us, almost all of us, would have resigned at that point, if we could have resigned.  We didn’t dare resign, because that would have been a sign that they were right: the rats are running; they thus must be the culprits.

Q:  What was your impression of the investigation? 

SOLLENBERGER:  They didn’t really know what they were looking for.  They didn’t know how to go about it.  They were following the lead of someone else who was pulling the strings.  Apparently they somehow learned that Dr. Smith had pulled the cord, so to speak, on the instructors.  I gather they were out to get him, and also to get the anthropologists.

Whether they were after me, I don’t know.  Anyhow, we survived that, but that leads up basically to the problem at that time.  It was one of the things that led up to the establishment of the Wriston committee [which merged the Civil Service and Foreign Service], because it was affecting the whole personnel operation in the Department of State.

Q:  In the first place I’d like to ask one more question about the people doing the investigation.  Did you have a feeling, there’s a certain amount of “us and them” atmosphere, and the State Department had the reputation of being elitist.  Did you have the feeling these were–I hate to use the term in a pejorative sense–but sort of anti-intellectuals, and that sort of thing?

SOLLENBERGER:  I would say that most of them were. There were a few who were not.  There was one who had a PhD  who was an academic himself, who tended to be apologetic. Of course, we wondered why he was doing it in the first place, but he tended to be a little apologetic about it.  But generally they did not have the background to do this.  And there was an anti-intellectual overtone to the investigation, which may have been why they came to the Foreign Service Institute as the first place they were going to zero in on.

Q:  It’s a horrifying state of affairs at that time.  I mean, that you were trapped; you couldn’t resign because if you did it would look like you had something to hide.

SOLLENBERGER:  That’s right.

Q: What were you getting from Dr. Smith, and also were there corridor meetings among the FSI people talking about, what the hell is this, or how do we answer this.

SOLLENBERGER: It became a real morale factor, and Smith really would talk–there were not very many of us–it was a small staff at that point. So we were all involved in it. It was really from these meetings that we sort of came to the conclusion we’d like to be out of this. We’d like to quit, but we couldn’t.