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The Headache That Is the Fourth of July Party

The Fourth of July is a celebration of the United States’ independence.  It is a day of family, friends, food, and a few beers.  However, this is not typically the case for those representing the United States overseas.  When the time comes, members of an embassy overseas are charged with putting on a big party to showcase the American pride and unity that comes with this historic day.  Yet, these parties often come with more headaches and fake smiles than one would expect. Hosting a Fourth of July party comes with the responsibility of representing the United States to the host country; this type of party could help mend or, possibly, worsen relations between the two countries. Below are a collection of stories from Fourth of July parties all over the world, including an embarrassing speech in Zimbabwe in front of former President Carter, the clever ways ambassadors signal guests that it’s time to go, and a well-meaning, but criticized, hot dog reception.

Ambassador Edward Lanpher was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2002; Rebecca Burrum Matlock was interviewed by Patricia Squire in 1990; William E. Rau began his interview on July 7, 1998, with Charles Stuart Kennedy; Anna Romanski by Stu Kennedy in May 1990; Donna Edmondson was interviewed by Patricia Norland in March 1994; William Howard Taft III and Virginia Carson-Young by Stu Kennedy in April 1987 and July 1992. See also Halloweens around the world.

An Awkward Toast

Ambassador Edward G. Lanpher

On the Fourth of July 1986, I was having my usual July Fourth reception. Because it was winter and there was a chance of bad or cold weather, I always had it at the big hotel in Harare in the ballroom at lunchtime. I was never much for these receptions, but we did it out of tradition. Coincidentally, I got word that former President Carter was going to be in Harare on a visit. He played a very important role at Lancaster House. He was sort of one of the godfathers of Zimbabwe’s independence. So, I informed the ministry for foreign affairs he would be at the reception. The Zimbabweans had also organized an appointment for Carter for about 11:00 a.m. with President Mugabe. Because the Zimbabweans had had at that point a recent history of sending ministers to speak at national day receptions and say stupid things, gratuitous things, I negotiated with the permanent secretary for foreign affairs an agreement that there wouldn’t be any speeches, simply an exchange of traditional toasts and that Carter wouldn’t be speaking, I wouldn’t be speaking, and he agreed that the Zimbabwe side wouldn’t speak.

So, I had 350 people in this ballroom. Carter and his wife and daughter were there. It was one of those happy occasions. The manager of the hotel had had a cake as big as this table baked in the shape of the United States. Everything was very nice. Bars were open and booze was flowing and a happy time was being had by all. About a half an hour into it, I decided it was time that we did these toasts and got that over with. So, everybody did their toasts. I did a toast. Carter did a toast. I’m still up next to the podium. Carter and his wife had moved across maybe 20-30 feet away to be in the front row of the audience. And a Zimbabwe minister got up. I thought he was going to do the Zimbabwe toast to the good health of the people of the United States and so on. But he drew out of his pocket a sheaf of paper. He obviously had a prepared speech. This guy was the minister of youth, sport, and culture. He stood up and said he’d be delivering a speech on behalf of the foreign minister. I turned to the foreign secretary, Alex Mashangazi, and said, “Alex, we had an agreement: no speeches. What’s going on here?” He was standing next to me.

All Alex could do was look at his shoes. This guy started to speak. It was a prepared text. It was a vile diatribe against the United States, against the British, going after things that had been of interest to Carter, like Afghanistan, you name it, he threw the book at us. After about five minutes, I said to Alex, “This is nonsense.” We were all sort of stunned.

Finally, I looked across the room at Carter. I was hot. People who know me know that I don’t have a huge temper, but when I’m angry, I go cold. I looked at Carter and gave him a cold look. He caught my eye and he was steamed up, you could see. I nodded my head towards the door and Carter nodded back. So, I left. The podium was on the far side of the room from the door. I started towards the door across this open space in front of the podium. As I got even with Carter, he and Rosalyn fell in behind me and everybody else in the room, save a few people that had probably had enough to drink, followed us out. And the minister kept speaking, droning on and on with this diatribe.

So we walked out of our own July Fourth party.

It was an incredible scene. It made the front page of all the British press. It made the front page of The Washington Post and The New York Times. Both their reporters were there. And the Reuters guy and the BBC guy. The BBC guy called me up at the office later in the afternoon and said, “Thank you, Gib. That was the first time I’ve made the BBC domestic service in many years.” But it was quite an event. We also got lead editorials out of the Post and the Times on subsequent days commending what we had done, having stood up for America. I suppose it probably helped get me promoted that year. Then 10 days later, I left the country.

But I should say I went back to the office and obviously called Washington and sent in a written report of what had happened, what I had said, and the fact that I had communicated with the government that I expected a formal apology right then and that absent an apology, I would not be signing two aid agreements totaling $16 million which I had been planning to sign the next Wednesday.

I put this in a cable to Washington. It was one of those “Unless otherwise instructed, this is what I have done and what I intend to do” and I never heard from Washington except by phone saying, “Hey, we’re with you, man.” So, I didn’t sign over the aid. As a matter of fact, Washington decided to totally suspend our aid program. It stayed suspended for about a year, a year and a half. I, actually as country director for Southern Africa, which was my ongoing assignment, got the aid program restarted.

But it turned out that as far as we could tell, and I had our intelligence people look into this, we came to the conclusion based on all sorts of information that Mugabe had had no wind of this speech, hadn’t authorized it, and that this had been the work of his foreign minister, a complete idiot. I discovered years after I retired from the service, on a later trip to Zimbabwe for the International Crisis Group as a consultant, who had written that speech that was read that day. It turned out it was a white in the foreign ministry that was still around. He was a very skillful writer.

Taking the Long View on Apartheid

William Rau
South Africa

RAU: Without mentioning names, I can tell you that there was almost a dividing line down the middle among those who felt that the current South African government had the right answer and others who said that this was wrong and that we should be opting or trying to get people to be on the side of democracy and get the Africans too.

As I say, this division was pretty stark, but the embassy was playing the game of, for example, when we had the Fourth of July reception [in the 1960’s] we had two receptions. We had one for the government people and others who would come, and normally that was a fairly good turnout, and then we had a second one, which was an open reception, where we invited the Indian community, Chinese, black, whatever, of prominence, and to that one the government people would not come. And so we held two separate receptions for the Fourth of July.

Now we were lucky. I say we as diplomats there, because if we wanted to entertain blacks or others in our homes, we could do that. They probably were watched, and if they were on any suspicious list, they might have been picked up and questioned after leaving. But we were lucky in another sense. My wife was part of a group that tried to get scholarships for African students, for black students. And they also ran a feeding scheme for one of the townships, Mamelodi Township outside of Pretoria.

So through them I got to meet the principal of the Mamelodi High School, which in numbers was the biggest high school in the area. He had gone to Fort Hare, which was the only university blacks could attend in South Africa then, and he was a fairly well educated man. And we had them out for a dinner party….There were a few whites there, but it was mainly blacks, friends of this principal of the high school and others….

And at one point, Dixon Mphahlele, who was the principal — we’d had a couple of beers or drinks, I can’t remember which — and after the dinner party, I was sitting with him, and I said, “Dixon, you’re an educated man,” I said, “How do you survive in a system like this, where your horizons are definitely limited?”

And he said, “Oh, yes,” – the South African blacks at that time, at least those in the country still that weren’t in jail, were pretty docile – and he said, “Yes, it’s a problem at times. However,” he said, with a little twinkle in his eye, “we have one thing going for us that they don’t know about.”

And I said, “What is that they don’t know about?”

He said, “We can out-produce them.” He had eight children, I think.

Short a Few Hundred Glasses

Rebecca Burrum Matlock
Soviet Union

When we came here in 1981, Jack was at that time Ambassador-designate to Czechoslovakia. He had been appointed by President Carter. And then President Carter lost the election. So he was one of two people whom President Reagan picked up to continue with the appointment. But President Reagan asked him to come to Moscow while he decided who he would get as ambassador and then after that Jack would go to Czechoslovakia. So Jack said he would be willing to come, but only if I could come along too. This was for temporary duty and that was a little unusual, but they did agree to let me come also. And it turned out to be a very long time. We thought it might be as long as six weeks so we came with three suitcases each! It turned out to be ten months, so it was a long time, but we enjoyed it.

I think probably the most instructive little story in that period was the one about the Fourth of July that I thought you might be interested in hearing about. We decided that since he wasn’t the ambassador we should cut the guest list considerably and just have a ”coupe de champagne” for about 1500 people here and that it shouldn’t be a full-blown Fourth of July reception.

So we got busy and got all of the American champagne that we could find in Western Europe flown into Moscow. It was all chilled and waiting. Someone asked me about the reception the day before and I explained that we were going to have macadamia nuts and champagne and that was all. And she said, “Oh, do you have fifteen hundred champagne glasses at Spaso House?” And I said, “Oh my goodness!” I checked with Clemente, the Italian butler. We had one hundred and three. So, what should I do?

In Moscow what you do is call Stockman’s in Helsinki. Stockman’s can solve any problem you might have in Africa or Moscow. They’re wonderful. All you do is call Stockman’s. So of course they did have the plastic champagne glasses. Then the problem is, how do you get them to Moscow overnight? Someone remembered that an American was traveling in Scandinavia and would be coming back through Finland by train. So Stockman’s sent glasses out to the train, found the person, and asked him if he would be willing to bring them to Moscow. He very nicely said, “Yes.” So he came back with his compartment loaded with cartons of champagne glasses.

I saw him a few days later and thanked him again and asked if he had enjoyed the reception. He said, “I wasn’t invited.” He had been on the list that was cut!

Gee, It’s late. Have you met my German Shepherd?

Anna Romanski

The other thing that I remember about Ambassador Burt was the July 4th reception. In Germany, the Fourth of July receptions were quite a big deal and anyone who was anyone wanted to get an invitation. I was quite surprised, therefore, to attend the reception and discover that it had been catered by McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and similar American venders. Apparently, the Admin Officer leaned on various American food chains to provide free fare for the event as publicity and, remarkably, they all did it. It created a rather bizarre menu, but the high-level Germans seemed to enjoy it — probably more than I did. It was the one time of year when I knew I would ingest (and hopefully digest) junk food.

This event provided quite a contrast to the 4th of July reception in Warsaw, where as in Germany, it was a much sought-after invitation. Since these were Commie times, there were no American vendors to recruit and the Ambassador’s representational fund had to cover everything. The Ambassador’s residence was not nearly as large as the one in Germany, but the invitation was at lea

st as coveted. The result was that all embassy officers had to work three two-hour shifts on that holiday. By working, I mean that we had to stand the whole time and chat up the Poles (who were invited in three shifts, although many overstayed their welcome). I would get so tired of standing the whole time in my high heels that, in the later hours of the event, I would practically drag any woman I could find to come sit with me inside just so that I could rest my feet a bit. I grew to resent our national holiday when I was in the Foreign Service. It was anything but a holiday.

Poles in those days, and perhaps now, tended to overstay their welcome at the Ambassador’s because there was free booze. Of course, the bar would close down when it came time for guests to leave, but this was often not enough of an incentive. Each of the two ambassadors I served with had his own way of signaling the end of the party. Ambassador Richard T. Davies would flip the lights on and off which was the signal for us to start escorting the guests out as efficiently as we could. Ambassador William Schaufele, on the other hand, had an even more effective signal. He would simply unleash his large German shepherd who would bound down the stairs, barking noisily, and start mingling with the remaining guests, who would generally not remain too much longer.

A Hot Dog Picnic

Donna Edmondson
South Africa

When we went to South Africa, Bill was a Carter appointee and there was a lot of anti-American press; relations between the National party and the American government were probably at an all-time low because of the Carter administration’s strong anti-aparthe

id views, which Bill agreed with. When Ronald Reagan was elected, our country’s policies changed toward South Africa — they were much more friendly toward the apartheid Nationalist government — their policy was called “constructive engagement.”

So many people in the National Party thought that Bill would be immediately replaced, probably soon after Reagan’s inauguration.
Sometimes there were gibes in the Afrikaner press to the effect that the American ambassador should be leaving. But it was some time before a replacement was named, so Bill was asked by the Department to stay on.

On the Fourth of July that year — 1981 — I decided that instead of the usual reception I would plan to have a real American picnic. We got a lot of help from the embassy family and planned a wonderful picnic with hot dogs and hamburgers, red white and blue bunting, American flag stickers for everyone, and a real holiday spirit.

Well, the Afrikaans press gave this a political cast: “Obviously,” the press observed, “the American ambassador is not in good standing with his government because they seem to be cutting off his funds. He can’t afford to give his usual reception — he is going to have a party with hot dogs!”

This infuriated me. The whole idea had been mine and it was a wonderful party. Hundreds of people came, more than we had ever had, including the foreign minister and other top government officials. Everyone had a great time. And after the party there were some very nice comments in the English-language newspapers about the U.S. Fourth of July picnic — a great success and a nice change from the usual diplomatic reception. I felt vindicated.

Of course that was the party where I foolishly — I guess I have to tell you this — ran into the house at one point (the party was held in the garden) to check on how the food was holding out (an unnecessary trip since I had so much help) and on my way back to the garden, I tripped and fell, and broke my arm and my nose. I was quickly whisked upstairs and the party went on without me. I remember thinking that at such a big party it wouldn’t be so obvious that I wasn’t there to say goodbye — people would just assume that I was somewhere else in the crowd. Very few guests knew that their hostess was upstairs with broken bones!

My arm was set later that day but it had to be reset about a week later. (My nose had just been cracked so that wasn’t a problem.) We were due to leave the country on July 22nd so I wore a cast at all the farewell parties. At a party that the foreign minister, Pik Botha, gave for us, he cut up my meat for me and made a little speech about how sorry he was that Donna was leaving the country with a broken arm.

The Fourth of July — in January

Ambassador William Howard Taft III

When we went there to the Embassy [in Dublin in the 1950’s], we had — Barbara and I — a great advantage because we had already lived there three years… We were relatively poor at the time. We got some entertainment funds but such were rather few, especially considering our magnificent residence where one wants to give parties; there had been a tradition of the Fourth of July party, which is right in the middle of the summer and all the American tourists came, even in tourist buses. I observed the first Fourth of July, we had a big party and when we got through, on July the 5th–the fiscal year then began on July the 1st–all our money was gone.

It made a few Irish people a little annoyed when I changed all this by having our big party for what it should be, to entertain the Government and other important people in Ireland. I switched it to January the 1st, when there was hardly an American in Ireland from this country and I think the tourists in July became a little annoyed with this practice, but it meant that we were spending our money not on Americans – we didn’t have very much – but on Irish people, as we should have been.


Virginia Carson-Young 

One Fourth of July in Merida, the Governor of Yucatan attended the consulate celebration. This was the first time a governor had attended the Fourth of July event in several years. In spite of the overt friendliness to the U.S., I think there were official instructions that said you had to be somewhat cool towards the official day. In any case, this was the first time he had come…

I decorated with red, white and blue crepe paper Mexican flowers, had the “Star Spangled Banner” on a little portable recorder, had fireworks set up in the front yard. I pushed the button on the recorder just when the fireworks went off. My Spanish is not excellent, and I spoke extemporaneously. The speech was far from grammatically perfect.

But I made a little joke, a play on words. The Governor had been trying to find a way to extend his term, because in Mexico you cannot be reelected to the same position. He had been appointed to the job so he was trying to “prorrogar” or extend his term. So I started my remarks by saying, “I have served two years in Yucatan and I like it so much, I have been able to `prorrogar’ my assignment. Then I paused, and said, “That is a word I learned here.”

There was total silence. Then a moment, when I think people were saying, “Did she say what I think she said?” Then a swell of laughter, the governor joining in. Well, the idea that you can say something amusing in a foreign language and have it appreciated, was wonderful. The governor, who spoke no English, told me later he wanted to learn an American word: Re-election!