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In Ambassador We Don’t Trust: Working Under the Leadership of the Infamous Turner Shelton

As movies like “The Devil Wore Prada” attest, bad bosses can make everyone’s life miserable (and can be quite entertaining for those who don’t have to work for them). When he served in Managua, Nicaragua, James Cheek had a front-row seat to Ambassador Turner Shelton, whom he describes as “the worst of the worst.” Shelton was notorious for his fawning admiration for Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza and at times even had to be warned by Washington about his behavior.

As a result, Cheek’s tenure as Political Counselor consisted of trying to thwart Shelton’s efforts to rule the embassy as a monarchical ambassador. In an odd footnote, Somoza put Shelton on the 20 cordoba bill, which has to be one of the only times in history that a U.S. ambassador was so honored. But even with the darkest cloud there is often a silver lining:  Cheek notes that he learned from Shelton how not to behave as ambassador.

Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Ambassador James Cheek in September of 2010.

You can read this Moment about another bad ambassador and one who managed to get herself evicted from the official Residence in Nepal. Go here for other Moments on Diplomats Behaving Badly.


Constantly Fighting with the Ambassador

CHEEK:  [In 1971 I was posted] to Managua, Nicaragua…What happened was I am in Rio and I get this call from Bob White who was over in Managua. He hadn’t been there too long as DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] with Turner Shelton, this incredible ambassador.

Q: Yes, Turner Shelton was renowned, and not in the positive sense.

Bob was sent in to try to counterbalance Turner. The State Department knew what they had on their hands with him there. [Shelton] didn’t just admire [Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio] Somoza; he literally worshipped Somoza and almost embarrassingly so. Bob was in there in a constant daily battle with him to try to keep him honest and try to keep us from just being at the service of Somoza….

The head of the political [section] I discovered had quite a status in Nicaragua because there had been a tradition of non-career ambassadors. None of them were as bad as Shelton as far as worshipping Somoza but our government policy was to back him. So the Political Counselor was always viewed as the place Nicaraguans could go and get a fair hearing and get their views to Washington, or as the place where officers of other embassies could touch bases with the U.S.

This made me realize I had a unique standing in the local situation…. I was going to be a bigger fish in a little pond…. I was the number three person in the embassy, the counselor of embassy for political affairs….

The political counselor was always called the “secretario politico” in Spanish. Then there was the label, ‘the dark hand.’ I was known as la mano escuda….the dark hand. It means you are always involved in everything. The opposition looked to us. The main function of the political counselor since the ambassador traditionally was in bed with the government and supportive of Somoza; in Shelton’s case it reached to the level of adoration of the Somozas, and the DCM was seen as an alter ego to the ambassador. The political counselor was sort of where the opposition to Somoza went to get their hearing. Because of the ambassador’s intimacy with Somoza, he didn’t allow the DCM to deal with the opposition. So my job was very much the de facto, sort of the ambassador to the opposition and, of course, there was a lot of opposition.

Now you’d think the opposition would be beat down. I remember Somoza telling me in one of his philosophical moments:  he said, “I don’t torture them like some Latin countries do. I don’t imprison them even. If I do, I treat them well. I don’t assassinate them but nothing good is going to happen to them.” That was pretty much the case. He tolerated a very active opposition….

The problem was that Bob was constantly fighting with the Ambassador. For example, Shelton didn’t want any of our cables or reports to go in to Washington as we drafted them. He wanted to change all our conclusions and they were supposed to be pro Somoza. As we would find out about Somoza’s corruption and suppression and disappearing people, although they didn’t do it on a wholesale basis, that was supposed to be all censored out. Of course, it was our job to see that it somehow got through Washington. Then that shifted everything down to me as the number three.

Warner would faithfully execute what Shelton wanted; every cable, every report. Sometimes we would spend two or three days just negotiating over what was in these reports, particularly anything that reflected badly on Somoza. We discovered Shelton would allow a cable could sit there for days. He didn’t refuse to sign it; he just never signed it. We worked our way around that by using airgrams [messages sent by courier via diplomatic bag]….

In Toad We Trust

One of the interesting things that happened was during Shelton’s tenure, most people don’t remember, but we originally thought that we were going to take a second canal across Nicaragua. The idea was you could come up this river and get into this large lake and then go across this short strip of land and get to the Pacific Ocean. We had grabbed the rights, called the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty [1916]; William Jennings Bryan was our Secretary of State then when we acquired — like in Panama — in perpetuity the rights to a wide swath of Nicaragua which would be the route of this transoceanic canal. We, of course, were able to detach Panama. Panama was a better routing. We went to Panama and the canal was built there but the Nicaragua treaty was on the books. We still had these rights if we wished to assert them. We could take over just as we did the Panama Canal Zone to have sort of a de facto sovereignty over a huge swath across Nicaragua. The State Department started cleaning up these old things and decided to get this off the books. Shelton got instructions saying we want to, in effect, abrogate this, give up our rights, to sign an agreement to in effect abrogate the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty.

Shelton and Somoza cooked it up to make it look like Somoza had demanded or forced us to abrogate and this was a great victory for Somoza, as he had reclaimed Nicaraguan sovereignty. They staged a big ceremony and Shelton got to sign on behalf of the United States.

To celebrate this, they commissioned a new currency bill, the 20 peso [cordoba] note, and they put Shelton’s picture on it. It was the first time an American ambassador appeared on the currency of the country to which he was accredited. Shelton had a hunched-over countenance. If you saw him behind his desk his shoulders were hunched up and he sort of looked like a frog so our nickname for him was ‘the frog’.

Well, the Nicaraguans picked up on this as well and so the nickname among the Nicaraguans who knew all the truth about him and everything was ‘El Sapo’, the toad. We didn’t call him ‘the frog’; we called him ‘the toad’. This 20 cordoba bill became known as the “el sapito,” the little toad bill. With a Nicaraguan cab driver or in a bar you’d pay “dos sapitos” [or] two 20 cordoba bills. I don’t know if he ever realized that was happening. Shelton, of course, was very proud of it.

“I learned at least what not to do when one became ambassador”

It was just a strange, strange place. It would never happen again that we might have another Somoza and another Shelton. We had in our file a collection of pictures of him sitting, usually prominently in the front row with Somoza when Somoza would make a speech or appearance because he went to everything that Somoza did to show American support for him. It got so bad that sometimes Washington would instruct him not to go and that was hard for him to do. He’s looking up at Somoza; it’s like looking at a young guy looking at his girl or lover, the adoration on his face. He really worshipped this guy. It was really funny. Imagine working at an embassy because the ambassador is like an absolute monarch within his own embassy. The Foreign Service is very hierarchical.

You don’t take on an ambassador even though you might be right. That’s often the worst thing to do. It is a very dangerous thing to do. I lived with that for three years, walking that tightrope. He could be wrong every time but you could only be wrong once. If you slipped up and he got you, you were dead. It was a dangerous game.

On the other side I guess it helped make a good officer out of me. I learned at least what not to do when one became ambassador.

There was a guy going to write a book about the good, bad and the ugly about American ambassadors. I think it was John Lee Dixon. He is famous, a son of an FSO, and he was going to do chapters on the good ambassadors, the best, you know and then the worst and Shelton was going to be the worst of the worst. I collaborated with him. This was after I left a year or two. The book never got published. I don’t know what happened because he was researching and collecting materials….It would have been an interesting book….