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“Drain Your Glass” — Alcoholism in the Foreign Service

Each and every job has a certain set of requirements and restrictions. Alcohol has played a large role in diplomacy, helping to lubricate relations at state receptions, meetings with heads of state, or just with other diplomats at the end of the day. Unfortunately, for some people, the constant exposure to alcohol and expectation to imbibe may lead to a drinking problem.

These excerpts deal with the issue of alcoholism in the workplace and how the Foreign Service dealt with it, beginning in the 1960s, when people did not know quite what to do, to later years when more and more people began to view alcoholism as a disease.   

Charles A. Gillespie Jr. served as the Assistant Regional Security Officer in Manila from 1965-1966. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning September 1995. Lisa Manfull Harper served in the Political Section in Paris from 1986-1988. She was interviewed by Kristie Miller beginning April 1990.

Samuel Fry served in the Inspection Corps from 1984-1986. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning January 1993. Marshall Adair served as the Economic Officer in Beijing from 1984-1986. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning September 2011. Douglas Watson served as the Administrative Officer in Quito, Ecuador from 1973-1975. He was interviewed by Thomas J. Dunnigan beginning January 2000.

Read about Russian toasts.


“At that time people were not entirely sure what alcoholism was”

Charles A. Gillespie Jr., Assistant Regional Security Officer, Manila, 1965-1966

GILLESPIE: Alcoholism was a problem, or, rather, an incipient or latent problem. What could you do about it? At that time it was all dealt with on a completely ad hoc basis. There was no institutional approach to it. In the mid-1960s the Medical Division of the State Department and, I think, probably into the mid-1970s, to my knowledge, did not have any specific approach to the problem of alcoholism. At that time people were not entirely sure what alcoholism was. Today we all say that it is a disease, but then it wasn’t necessarily regarded as such — or maybe that was a revolutionary thought.

I can give you my personal experience. The dependents of the staff of the Embassy in Saigon were evacuated out of Vietnam in 1965, not long before I left the Embassy in Manila to go to Jakarta on temporary duty. They were evacuated out of Vietnam and Cambodia — wherever they had been. They were still in Thailand. Manila was set up as a safe haven, which meant that dependents of members of the staff in Vietnam and Cambodia could live there.

As I was getting ready to leave the Philippines for Brussels in the spring of 1966, the Security Office in the Embassy in Manila was getting a lot of complaints of drunken, lewd, and lascivious behavior and fornication on the part of married dependents and older children, or minor dependents of personnel assigned to Vietnam and Cambodia in Manila.

This was becoming a serious management issue. The first inclination was to point to the Security Office in the Embassy in Manila. People said, “Oh, that’s a security problem.” Well, I don’t know how they really worked it out in the Philippines because, thank goodness, I got out of there in time. It never reached that stage in Brussels. We had somewhat similar instances in Brussels.

Everybody enjoyed going to parties, and different people party in different ways. I had one or more of the Deputy Chiefs of Mission and supervisory officers call me in or come to see me and say that they were worried about so and so, because he was drinking too much. They asked whether this was a security problem, and did I want to do anything about it? They asked how I would deal with that. We looked at each such case on its merits and treated it on an ad hoc basis.

The assumption was that excessive use of alcohol, if not a disqualifying condition, was certainly a warning light and needed to be looked at, because that meant that it was a point of vulnerability to recruitment by another country’s espionage service if they knew about the condition. We always looked at the situation and tried to decide how to deal with it.

In two particular cases in Brussels we had young-ish, not junior, Foreign Service Officers who were having really serious alcohol problems. Eventually, the tours of both of these officers were curtailed, and they were sent back to the U.S.

This was done on the basis of a combination of personal suitability and security grounds. Suitability was the big word. Security always wanted to dump into the suitability basket everything that it could, because we didn’t want to get into the Alger Hiss kind of situations where we would have to lift somebody’s security clearance.

We always wanted the Personnel people to take the case and relieve us. We would give them everything that we had and hope that they would deal with it. That’s basically what we did with these two cases that I was involved in. These were personal tragedies, but they show the kinds of things that we had to deal with on occasion.

“We think we’re helping the employee by not telling anyone”

Lisa Manfull Harper, Political Section, Paris, 1986-1988

HARPER:  This might be a good time to talk about alcoholism. There’s a tremendous amount, I think, of drinking that goes on. It’s just part of our profession in the Foreign Service. Think about it: You go to something at lunchtime, it’s a vin d’honneur, you raise your glass of wine. Okay. In the evenings you’ll have a reception. If you’re invited to a representational dinner at another embassy, they’re going to throw out four or five different kinds of wine, and cognac. Before you know it you are drinking every single night.

Not just in Paris — anywhere. And Bujumbura. And I’ll tell you one thing that’s efficiently organized is getting the liquor in. The support flights bring in food. If you’re at the end of the earth in Bujumbura or Addis Ababa, your liquor’s coming in regularly, and in the hard places, of course maybe there’s a rationalization, in a way, to drink. And I think also that we really have been remiss in systematically teaching people how to recognize — I mean, supervisors and people themselves, teaching them to recognize the symptoms of alcoholism.

I’ve had a lot of experience with alcoholics, so I know what to spot. And now I can read a personnel file and can look at certain things and I can tell, “Ah, there may be a drinking problem.” You know, people that come in late to work, especially after a weekend; people who show personality changes:  if you’re drinking too much you tend really to become bitter against the system, and paranoid.

Not that this is a symptom only of alcoholics, but you’re going to find, for example, trembling hands in the morning, people who isolate themselves, somebody who wants to go home early and doesn’t want to go out. There are people who reorganize their whole lives so that they can drink. In Paris we had problems with people just going home and leaving their safes open.

It’s an institutional problem. And there’s also a real reluctance to confront the employee. If it’s becoming an office problem, it must be done. I know personally of one case where a wife was drinking at home, she was very unhappy in Paris, and I couldn’t get anyone in my upper management to address the fact that this woman was calling her husband every hour on the hour, that she’d been mugged in the Métro because she was drunk, she was picked up by the police on suspicion of prostitution because she was wandering around in inappropriate clothing but also under the influence of alcohol.

You know, there are psychiatrists who can be brought in, it is kept confidential, there is rehabilitation; and yet there’s often a conspiracy of silence. And we think we’re helping the employee by not telling anyone.

The institution is set up to handle it but it’s just not applied enough, or maybe sometimes applied too late. The question of whether or not you can get the person into treatment is another issue. But I also think there has to be a real effort by employees to have functions that don’t involve drinking. Just to say, we’re going to have a tea party, or we’re going to have some kind of an outing or an activity; that we’re not just sitting down and drinking…

And usually ambassadors do take the lead in matters like organizing Christmas parties for children and national holidays like Fourth of July. But in my whole life I can recall very few instances where an ambassador has taken the lead to discuss social issues, or societal problems. It doesn’t have to be “we’ve got too many drunks in this embassy.” It can be, “These are questions of concern to me.”

You can bring in lecturers, you can have a concert come out or even your regional medical officer come out and have seminars on certain subjects…

Well, I’m not sure what the policy is, there might be but I haven’t seen it applied in a systematic way. It has to be periodic, because you have tremendous rotation of personnel, you’ve got to keep these issues in front of people.

“In the Foreign Service people, in general, accepted the idea that alcoholism is a disease”

Samuel Fry, Inspection Corps, 1984-1986

FRY: I’ve had during my time as DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], Inspector, and once as an Officer Director in the Department, five cases where I got directly involved in alcohol-abuse matters. The first time was with a civil servant and I was very discouraged at the way this was handled. Not that I wanted any punishment, quite the contrary, I wanted medical help.

But by the time I did the monitoring and writing the report and talking with her and going through all the procedures — but this was in the ’70s — it ended up that nobody really did anything about it. Nor did she, and she therefore continued on a path which eventually was really bad for her health and led to her leaving the government for that matter.

In the Foreign Service people, in general, accepted the idea that alcoholism is a disease and deserves to be, at least in the first instance, treated with government help. After that the rules get tougher. So in the Foreign Service I had excellent cooperation.

The Department came through beautifully with support in the field, with the rehabilitation program in the Department, and then a good onward assignment. Cases were resolved so favorably that the people had long and interesting careers in the Foreign Service. That was very encouraging to me, that these things can definitely be worked out.

I was always impressed with the modern-day attitude of the Medical office both in mental health problems and in alcoholism. The psychiatric advice which I received in two posts in and near Eastern Europe for people that I was responsible for, was excellent and thoughtful and responsive to the point of a doctor visiting the post and really getting down into the nub of the problems.

In the Inspection Corps it was more a matter of going to a supervisor or to the DCM and saying, do you understand how bad the situation has gotten? We would usually have her or him on an airplane within 48 hours. That’s the kind of response time the Department was willing to give us.

Q: What would happen if you found an officer, staff, but basically an officer who had a spouse problem–usually a wife- -who would say that alcohol was making a serious problem?

FRY: That’s a difficult situation because the dependents, the spouses, were, in effect, out of our jurisdiction, unless a situation had a direct and immediate effect on the performance of the officer or the staff person in question.

In the couple of cases I can think of, where a situation was the talk of the town, the only thing you could do would be to suggest to senior management in the embassy that this was deleterious to embassy operations, in the sense of reputation, and that it was simply cruel to the person in question to keep them in this kind of situation without going for help.

We said, regardless of the immediate responsibility and the willingness or unwillingness of the husband or wife, that the embassy should take a firm step and request that the Medical division help the person go for treatment. In one Latin American country, Brazil to be exact, this was done and I think with great success. In two cases that I can think of while we were there nothing was done.

While I was in the Senior Seminar, I had occasion to visit a post where the senior officer was clearly alcoholic during a luncheon and on into an afternoon session and was a gross embarrassment to everyone present.

He missed his own reception in the evening. The military members of the Seminar were so incensed that they wanted to write an immediate letter to the Secretary of State. They couldn’t believe that someone could be on duty in his condition. Since we weren’t inspectors, we simply talked with the relevant Deputy Assistant Secretary and country director when we returned. We asked if they were aware of this problem or had heard rumors. We could advise them that it was far, far worse than anything they could imagine. That led to the person being removed from the post for what I understood, later on, was full recovery.

So this pops up in the Foreign Service. What I guess amazes me over my entire career is that, given the number of people that you’re crossing paths with, that both in terms of alcohol abuse and drug abuse — and this is certainly not to mitigate it — it was a surprisingly small part of my career both in terms of people that I was directly responsible for and things that I could witness. So while the cards are on the table and the statistics are well known, I think the Service, in general, is probably in very good shape.

“Drinking is a long and honored tradition in China—well, not honored by everyone”

Marshall Adair, Economic Officer, Beijing, 1984-1986

ADAIR: It wasn’t so much the [Peking] duck that was dangerous as what they served with the duck – the famous Chinese “baijiu”. It’s made from grain and is extremely strong. It’s “white lightening” with several thousand years of refinement behind it. When I had been stationed in Paris I really loved drinking the wines and trying all the different kinds of alcohols. I tried it in Taiwan as well.

Drinking is a long and honored tradition in China – well, not honored by everyone. It seems a little bit more civilized than what I have heard about in Russia. It is primarily designed to loosen you up and promote friendship. The phrase “gan bei” means “drain your glass” and they do it. There is also an element of competition, and one has to be careful. I wasn’t careful and learned the hard way.

Within the first month after I arrived we had a delegation of American mountain climbers come through from Seattle. They were led by Lou Whittaker, and were going to make an attempt on Mt. Everest. The Chinese Mountaineering Association hosted a dinner for them at the big Peking Duck Restaurant in the middle of Beijing. It was just an immense restaurant, and foreigners called it the “duck factory” because that’s what they specialized in. I was representing the embassy because the ambassador or the DCM either couldn’t go or knew enough not to go.

I sat next to the head of the mountaineering association, a very jovial and very tough gentleman who loved to drink. I was determined to keep up with him and I did. I counted. I kept track of how many glasses I was drinking. It was served in shot glasses, and I drank 20 of them.

At the end of the dinner I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to stand up. But I managed to stand up, say good night respectfully and walk out to the car. I managed to walk out, get in the car, and go back to the hotel.

Ginger met me in the lobby. She says I smiled and said proudly that I drank 20 glasses, then went upstairs and was sick for three days. It was awful. I had poisoned myself. After that I was more careful.

“Intervention is not an easy thing to do”

Douglas Watson, Administrative Officer, Ecuador, 1973-1975

WATSON:  There come to mind a couple of things of interest, I think, for an administrative person to have been involved with. That has to do with alcoholism, which in the Foreign Service exists as it does everywhere. I was able to intervene in Vietnam in one instance with a chap who we got “on the wagon,” and sent on to counseling, an AID [Agency for International Development] employee.

Then when he later fell off the wagon, in one of the more outrageous, sad, but funny events when I found him at his apartment, instead of at work, with a bevy of young Vietnamese lasses, almost all of whom were only partially clad, as was he. We had failed badly in that we should have demanded more effective stateside counseling.

Later, at another post, I was asked by the DCM to intervene with another problem drinker. I thought the DCM should have taken this responsibility himself, but he delegated it to me. The State officer had a drinking problem, knew it, and appreciated the intervention. Subsequently and quickly straightened out. After several more years in the Service, maybe ten, he retired, still on the wagon. Those alcoholism issues had to be addressed.

Later on, I was able to be a little bit more proactive at other posts where I would of my own knowledge become aware of such behavior, take the person aside and have a serious chat, and more often than not make some difference then and there. I recall that following my last overseas assignment, after I had been back at State for about six months, an officer, now also at State, called me and thanked me for my intervention. That was good.

Intervention is not an easy thing to do.