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I Was So Wrong For So Long: The Art of the Apology

The words “I am sorry” can be difficult to say and sometimes even more painful to accept. Working as representatives of the United States, individuals in the Foreign Service are accustomed to using apologies as powerful tools to repair tense relationships and acknowledge mistakes.

These excerpts form a collection of both serious and humorous accounts of apologies in the Foreign Service. The selections range from an officer working towards reconciliation in post-WWII Germany to a school teacher’s experience with an unruly student. The common link between the excerpts demonstrates the often ignored and under-appreciated roles that apologies serve in the Foreign Service, and, more generally, in interpersonal relations. 

J.D. Bindenagel worked in the State Department Economic and Business Bureau from 1997-1998. He acted as Stuart Eizenstat’s diplomatic advisor to work with the U.S Military Government compensation program for Nazi victims in its zone of West Germany. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1998. Michael Mahoney served in the Peace Corps in Liberia from 1968-1969; Kennedy interviewed him in 1995. Robinson McIlvaine was ambassador to Guinea 1966-1969; Kennedy interviewed him in 1988.

James G. Lowenstein worked on the Foreign Relations Committee Staff from 1965-1974 and was interviewed by Dennis Kux in 1994. Malcolm Toon served in Moscow from 1976-1979 and was interviewed by Dr. Henry E. Mattox in 1989.

For more Moments about the aftermath of war, Africa or incidents that gave rise to apologies, please follow the links.


“Apology is not enough if the victims are forgotten”

J.D. Bidenagel, Economic and Business Bureau, 1997-1998

BIDENAGEL: The U.S. Military Government [Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS), created in Occupied Germany after World War II]   began a compensation program for Nazi victims in its zone of West Germany with Occupation Law 59 in 1947. We had, as policy for 50 years, sought compensation for victims… The government lawyers approached this as a foreign claims settlement issue. If victims had a claim, how much time did they work in the camps? How much money should they receive of this?

The plaintiffs’ attorneys made that case very strongly that the victims could relate economic value of their forced labor. In the end, my view was that no amount of money could compensate the victims; you couldn’t place an economic value on any of their forced labor.

The Germans tried to avoid legal responsibility by casting the payments as “humanitarian” and set eligibility along those lines to strengthen their legal case. At one short point in the talks the industry, trying to weigh in on behalf of the victims in Eastern Europe, proposed the idea that the payments (to double victims) could be needs-based payments.

So, in Eastern Europe, you could reach a lot of people, but those in Western Europe and the U.S. shouldn’t really get much payment because they didn’t need it and that the really needy were those who were behind the Iron Curtain, who had not received any compensation earlier.

That proposal was roundly attacked as differentiating suffering among victims and was immediately rejected, in particular, by the Jewish groups, who asked that victims in the two classes — slave and forced laborers — be treated equally in each group as a major principle. That proposal led to a heated debate over the differentiation between those who were slave laborers, getting three times as much as Eastern European forced laborers.. .

Although we were seeking reconciliation and trying to find political ways to lay the basis for it, the talks focused almost exclusively on legal issues. My job was to keep the political issues from getting pushed out, to say nothing of the moral issues and human rights. I kept reminding the parties that we were there to seek a measure of justice and asked whether payments for justice can restore people’s lives.

Money without the apology is too crass, and not valuable for reconciliation. President Klestil in Austria followed [German] President [Johannes] Rau’s December 17, 1999 statement [of apology] with his own on the occasion of our signing the Austrian forced labor agreement on October 24, 2000. Also Prime Minister Jospin and his predecessor, Alain Juppe, and Chirac made apologies, recognizing what had happened in France.

But even there, apology is not enough if the victims are forgotten. We supported the German Future Fund in the German case and the National Foundation for the Remembrance of the Shoah [Holocaust] in the French case. Simone Weil, an Auschwitz survivor, heads the French foundation up. In the German case, the Future Fund is part of a foundation that is overseen by a group divided equally between victims and German representatives. So, the agreements that we reached for money and legal peace were clearly not sufficient.

Apology is helpful. But really the success is whether or not the memory can be made to do the historical research and whether you can actually prevent such horrors in the future. That’s the really frustrating part, whether or not greater understanding can combat the xenophobic nationalism and ethnic cleansing as we saw in Yugoslavia.

“A devil came and influenced me to behave this way”

Michael Mahoney, Peace Corps Liberia, 1968-1969

MAHONEY: I was assigned to teach in this school in the capital city. I asked the administrator of the Peace Corps why they put me there.

And he said, “Well, this school is attended by the children of the most important people in the country. And these people want white Peace Corps teachers in this school, because they feel that they can get the best education from them. At the same time, these are very arrogant, opinionated young people. They’re driven to school every day in limousines by army drivers. In fact, in the last two or three years, they have succeeded in running out all the Peace Corps teachers who have gone there.”

And then the director of the Peace Corps looked at me and said, “But you seem to me to be the type of person who will be hard for them to run out. Good luck to you.”

And then I was sent off to this school.

The first two or three days I was there, teaching the 12th graders, they gave me a great deal of static. Finally, I said to one of them, “You go home for two weeks, and you think about who’s going to be in charge of the class. It’s either going to be me or you. I want you out of here for two weeks.”

So he left the class. The principal came to see me, and he said, “You can’t send that fellow home. His father is the minister of labor.”

I said, “We have a choice: either he goes home for two weeks or I’m leaving. Then you can decide where you’re going to get your teachers from.”

So the boy went home for about a week, and then came in and made an apology to me. He said, literally, in words that I’ve never forgotten, “A devil came and influenced me to behave this way.”

I said, “That’s fine. Apology is accepted, and you can return.” After that, I never had any trouble with any students in that school.

“It shouldn’t have happened to a dog”

Robinson McIlvaine, Ambassador to Guinea, 1966-1969

MCILVAINE: …when I came back from consultation in D.C., the Guineans were supposed to make an official apology and pay for the broken glass at the Residence.

Well, getting [President of Guinea] Sekou Touré to apologize for anything was pretty tricky, you know, and I wasn’t sure how he was going to handle that. He called me up one day, and he said, “What are you doing tomorrow?”

This was a Sunday. I said, “Well, not much. What do you have in mind?”

He said, “Well, I’m going to Kankan,” which is a major city in the north, in fact, where he comes from.

They were having a meeting of all the regional governors there, and he said, “Would you like to come up with me?” I said, “Sure.”

So I played checkers with him all the way up in his Antonov 24, a Russian plane, with steam pouring out of the vents the whole way. They’re not very well attuned to pressure. Anyhow, we got to Kankan, and went to the meeting. I was the only pale face in the whole room of a hundred or so governors and other civil servants.

He opens up the meeting and says, “I want to introduce, before we get into the business, my friend the American ambassador.”

Now, this is just after we’d had the house arrest. He said, “You all know what happened to him a couple of weeks ago. It shouldn’t have happened to a dog.” They all stood up and pounded their feet and clapped like crazy. And then I was dismissed. That was the apology.

“Well, I am awfully sorry. You are right and I am wrong”

James G. Lowenstein, Foreign Relations Committee Staff, 1965-1974

LOWENSTEIN: Now, on the subject of mistakes, let me just give you the other side of the picture. One day [Senator] William J. Fulbright (seen right) called me down to his office and said, “I am sick and tired of these other countries supporting the war in Vietnam when politically they don’t believe in it. They are supporting it because they are making a lot of money out of it. So, get the facts and give me a speech that I can deliver on the floor.”

So I prepared a lot of correspondence that went to the Defense Department, the State Department, asking all sorts of questions and figures on exports and all the rest of it. I called the Congressional Research Service and they did their usual superb job of a research document. I got all the facts together and wrote a speech. Fulbright went on the floor and delivered this steaming indictment of Allied behavior in Vietnam….

The next morning I got a call from the Counselor of the New Zealand embassy who asked me where I had gotten the figure that Fulbright had given for the profit that the New Zealanders had made in Vietnam.

I described the complicated procedure by which I had arrived at this figure by taking various figures from various attachments and adding and subtracting and multiplying, etc. and assured him that is where the figure had come from.

He said that that was what they had assumed since Fulbright had outlined the procedure in his speech and they had done the same thing. However, their figure was 20 percent of my figure. I assured him that he was wrong and said I would check. I checked my figures and called him back and said, “Well, I am awfully sorry. You are right and I am wrong. So what do we do about this?”

He said, “Well, it may interest you to know that the Prime Minister made a statement in parliament about two hours ago. The ambassador, in fact, is in the State Department right now delivering a formal protest to the Secretary of State. The only thing that my government wants is a formal apology from Fulbright on the floor of the Senate.”

So I went crawling down to Fulbright’s office and opened the door and said, “I am sorry, I quit, I am leaving, etc.” He said, “Well, what’s the matter with you?”

And I said, “Well, the matter is that this happened and it is embarrassing you and I will be out of my office by 3:00 this afternoon. All I can say is I’m very sorry.”

And he said, “Ah, come on, don’t be so silly. All right, so they are not making what you said they are making, they are still making a lot. What difference does it make?”

I said, “Well, the difference it makes is that the Prime Minister has made a statement in parliament and the ambassador is protesting to the Secretary of State and they want a formal apology from you on the floor.”

And he said, “So, they want a formal apology. Do they really want a formal apology?” “That’s what they said.” “All right, I will give them a formal apology,” he said.

So the next day he got on the floor and said, “We made a mistake, they didn’t make “x” they made 20 percent of that and we are sorry we made that mistake. But they did make 20 percent of “x” which just proves my point that here they are. Now it is true they didn’t make “x” but as I said they did make 20 percent of “x”.

I thought to myself at the time that if this had happened to me in the State Department I undoubtedly would have been fired, transferred, gotten a bad efficiency report, etc., but there it was just another mistake made in the course of a day’s work. This shows that contrary to his reputation, Fulbright was a tolerant, understanding person to work for.

 “Get the scorpions off the premises”

Malcolm Toon, Moscow, 1976-1979

TOON: I was a third secretary in the embassy under George Kennan. Let me, if I may, give you the nature of the relationship between myself and George Kennan. I, together with another junior officer, wrote a paper called, “After Containment, What?” Now, we wrote this paper before we knew that Kennan was to be our ambassador. I may have been brash, but I wasn’t stupid. I certainly would never have written this paper if I had known he was going to be our ambassador.

The paper was submitted to the serious essay contest in the Foreign Service Journal. Kennan was then named the ambassador. This other young officer and I were just quaking in our boots as to what would happen to us. “Friends” of ours in Washington gave the paper to Kennan to read during his briefings.

Kennan’s reaction was, in effect: Get the scorpions off the premises. He started the wheels turning for our transfers. I was transferred before my term was up. I was transferred after eighteen months. But I stayed there a lot longer than George Kennan, because he was booted out, as you know.

But the interesting thing is that the only time that I was in the foreign office was when I went down with the Chargé d’affaires, who I think was Jack McSweeney at the time, to receive the note from Vyshinsky, who was then foreign minister–he was a terrible character who presided over the purge trials in the late 1930s–declaring George Kennan persona non grata. That was the only time I was in the foreign office in my first tour of duty in Moscow.


since then, Kennan and I have developed a very good, close relationship. We don’t agree on a number of issues, but we see each other frequently. As he told me in Berlin after he had retired–you will recall that he was ticked off, he was finished, and he went to Princeton.

He came to Berlin, when I was stationed there, to deliver the Ernst Reuter memorial lectures, which he did beautifully in fluent German. I was sort of his escort officer. He asked to see me privately. He said, “You know, Mac, some of us who think we are adults, behave like children. I want to apologize to you for my behavior toward you in Moscow.”

Instead of having the grace to say, “Gosh, that’s great, Mr. Kennan,” I said, “Well, I’m just sorry you didn’t feel that way in Moscow, because my career is just about ruined.”

There is no question that I had a very difficult time recovering from my transfer from Moscow and from the efficiency reports that were written on me at Kennan’s instigation. I finally was reasonably successful. But since then, we have developed a good personal relationship, and all the sordid past is forgotten.