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House Un-American: Foreign-Born Wives of American Diplomats

Before World War II, there was a concern, particularly with upper-level Foreign Service officers like Ambassador William C. Bullitt, regarding American diplomats marrying foreign-born women. He used his influence with President Franklin Roosevelt to encourage a rule requiring FSO’s to submit their resignation and formally request permission to marry foreign spouses. Many people felt that marrying foreign wives took away from American diplomacy and created un-American homes and embassies.

After the war, many men came back to the States and requested marriages to women they had met abroad, so the rule became unsustainable and was changed. Though the rule was changed, tensions prevailed between American wives and foreign-born wives, as they subtly competed against one another to show that they were classier, better educated or more suited to the role of the diplomatic wife.

Margaret Jones Palmer served as the receptionist and visa clerk in Hamburg, Germany from 1938-1939. She was interviewed by Jewell Fenzi beginning February 1992. The following excerpts examine the problems of foreign wives in diplomatic circles.  Elizabeth Lewis Cabot was the wife of four-time ambassador, John Moors Cabot. She was interviewed by Jewell Fenzi beginning April 1987. Charles Gillespie served as the Supervisory Security Officer in Brussels, Belgium from 1966-1967. He describes the tension between American and foreign-born spouses. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning September 1995. The book Foreign at Home and Away: Foreign-Born Wives in the U.S. Foreign Service also deals with this issue.

Read about the challenges of being a woman in the Foreign Service in the 1950s and 60s. Go here to read about Wives Gone Wild. Read about security investigations for homosexual behavior.


“Down deep inside, I thought, “They’re wonderful, but they’re not American”

Margaret Jones Palmer, Receptionist and Visa Clerk in Hamburg, Germany, 1938-1939

PALMER: One thing that struck me when I first arrived in Hamburg — and this is absolutely nothing against foreign wives, either, they are just wonderful and contributed an awful lot to our Service — but in the huge Consulate General there was only one American wife, which I found amazing. I loved and admired them all. And in those days, any American staff member, as I was, was immediately made part of the official family.

We went to every single reception, you were wined and dined and taken care of. But there was, to my way of thinking, a Polish household, a Swedish household, a French household, a Latvian household, and all the men were very American. But at home, those weren’t American homes.

I thought, “If I ever” — in those days I was already planning that one day I would join the Foreign Service, — “I will establish an American home.” Now, that’s probably not a very valid comment….

The vast majority of Foreign Service Officers went abroad when they were young, of a marriageable age, and they were introduced to very attractive girls and they all became engaged and they all got married.

But still, down deep inside, I thought, “They’re wonderful, these are dear and sweet people and I love them but they’re not American and they do not project an American home.” And the children weren’t American either. I think that stuck with me.

“The American embassy ought to be represented by American women”

Elizabeth Lewis Cabot, Spouse of Ambassador John Moors Cabot

CABOT: During [World War II]…no man was allowed to marry a foreign wife. That was the first thing. And after the War, it was very troublesome, because so many men had met wives abroad. When they came in, all those other letters, AID [Agency for International Development], USIS [U.S. Information Service] — into State, they had to change the law.

For instance, one of our oldest Foreign Service men, Joe Satterthwaite, met his wife in Turkey. She was Turkish, White Russian.

He sent her back to Michigan where she lived with his three spinster sisters the necessary three years in Michigan to get her American citizenship while he was abroad. And the day she got it, he came back and got her and they were married, because he was not allowed to marry her as a White Russian…. It couldn’t have been more different — Constantinople to a small town in Michigan….The cruelty was that they made her wait so long to be married.

[At Embassy Paris in 1936, where Bullitt was Ambassador], they had a counselor, who was called Wiley, Johnny Wiley, and he had a Polish wife called Irena, and I’m trying to remember the other wives, but they were probably French wives and Polish wives, and Bill Bullitt (pictured) said, “Nothing doing. The American embassy ought to be represented by American women.” (laughs)….

Well, you see, as soon as the War came, and we added the Information Service and a great many other services, so many men were already married to foreign wives, you couldn’t possibly follow that rule.

“There was sometimes resentment from bottom to top”

Charles Gillespie, Supervisory Security Officer in Brussels, Belgium from 1966-1967

GILLESPIE:  As an aside on a non-work kind of activity, at this point in the 1960s your spouse was rated at the same time as a Foreign Service Officer. Part of the efficiency report system was a LIMITED OFFICIAL USE portion which talked about your representational abilities and your family. The family was a big deal. We hadn’t gotten into this in Asia, because I hadn’t been around enough, and the situation was anomalous. In Belgium I found that there were people who were called, quite frankly, “European” wives.

The European wives were a force because the young and even not so young American wives were not always in total harmony with the European wives. Many of the American wives did not speak French with the appropriate accent, even if they spoke the language fluently. They often did not know European culture very well.

We had a few British, Eastern European, and Germanic or Teutonic wives. I found out a lot about this from my own experience as Security Officer and from my own wife. Mrs. Colette Knight, who was French, was aware of these differences and managed them beautifully. She took care of all of these wives, particularly the newer, if not younger, American Foreign Service wives. I think she had her moments with some of her French sisters.

She probably said, “Look, lay off these kids. They’re new to the diplomatic game and they have to do their job.” It would not have been her style to say it that way, but I think that that is what she did. This led to some tough moments. Handling that kind of thing was not easy.

One of the problems was that if the supervisor’s wife and the subordinate’s wife were not from the same group, there was often no support system from top to bottom. There was sometimes resentment from bottom to top. Communications were often not clear. Sometimes there was implicit and sometimes explicit criticism — in both directions. I’m not talking about my own wife, but as Security Officer you hear a lot of this stuff.

I had a very competent American secretary who picked up a lot of this. An American wife might say, “Why do I have to do this?”

You would hear, “What is this French woman telling me to do about representing the United States of America?” Or, “Why do I have to entertain in this fashion and wear this kind of clothes or do this?”

I didn’t mention that in Indonesia Lisa Green, Ambassador Marshall Green’s dear wife, a lovely woman, was of the “older than old” school. She gave teas in Jakarta in non-air conditioned rooms at which the women were expected not only to wear stockings, hats, gloves, and a cocktail dress, but were told, “If you’re driving your car on the streets of Jakarta, and the wife of a senior officer in the Embassy is driving ahead of you, don’t pass her.” That was just part of the behavioral patterns.

In Brussels that same sort of spirit continued to exist. However, in this case there was a sort of ethnic dimension to it. That is, the French wives, or the French-born wives would say, “Well, these uncouth American girls from wherever — whether they’d studied at Wellesley, Stanford, or UCLA — don’t know how to act or how to do certain things.” There was very little sense of collegiality or belonging to a single group. There were exceptions on both sides.

There were cases of exceptionally bad behavior, and there was some exceptionally good behavior…. However, it was a very real problem.

This was a time when, without any question, wives told their husbands, “That young officer in your Section is no good because his wife doesn’t wear the right hat.” That could get translated into your efficiency report — not as, “She wears the wrong hat,” but as, “He’s no damned good.” This didn’t happen to me.

Q: Frankly, did you have problems with any of the wives in the security area?

GILLESPIE: Not in the strictest sense. I soon learned that there were at least two kinds of Security Officers. There was what I would call, in my lexicon, the professional Security Officer who had a sense of what the mission of the U.S. State Department and the Foreign Service were and how an effort was being made to accomplish that mission in the particular environment. The security function was there to support that effort — to make it happen. Security was important in its own right, but only insofar as it was supporting United States interests and efforts. You tried to gear everything to that.

Then there were other Security Officers who said, “Yes, that’s true, but it really doesn’t make any difference what the mission is. The security function is a series of commandments:  Thou shalt not spy, thou shalt not deal with spies, thou shalt not fornicate, thou shalt not have sexual relations with members of the same sex, thou shalt not drink too much. Or, thou may drink as much as thou damned well please, but thou had better not show it.”

I ran into Security Officers like that in the security business. For them it was just as important to nail a fornicator as it was to get somebody who might be ready to hand over secret weapons to the communists. Obviously, I put myself in the first category. There were ambassadors who were in the second category.

A lot of moral judgments. So, to return to your question about the wives, there were some security people who were concerned about the views of some of the wives, particularly the farther East their origins were.

At that time there weren’t many wives of Eastern European origin because we had policies against all of that. There were some wives who were perceived to be vulnerable because they were foreign born. However, I never had any of those problems. There was some adultery, there were affairs going on. In those cases either the DCM or the ambassador would ask the Security Officer — me, in this case — “What are you going to do about that?”

My answer usually was, “If I may say so, sir, I don’t see any direct relationship between this situation and the security of this post. I think that you have a personnel problem.”

We were not as neat in those days as we are now, where we try to draw a line. Management’s responsibilities are pretty broad, but today we don’t think that post management should really delve into medical problems and other conditions like these in quite the same way as used to be the case.