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The Rough Road to Moscow for Malcolm Toon  

Malcolm Toon was a fluent Russian speaker and one of the State Department’s top experts on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He was ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Israel, and the Soviet Union. Toon was characterized in The New York Times in 1978 as “one of the most influential of the postwar ambassadors in shaping the policy of the United States toward the Soviet Union.”  On May 1, 2017 The New York Times published an article referencing Toon’s death in 2009, titled “Malcolm Toon Made Waves as a Diplomat, but His Death Went Largely Unreported.”

Outspoken and opinionated, while serving as an ambassador Toon had direct access to several Secretaries of State and met with the President. According to Toon, Henry Kissinger asked him to serve in Tel Aviv because he wanted “a tough-minded S.O.B.” in Israel as ambassador in order to put the Israelis in their place.

The son of Scottish immigrants, Toon grew up in Scotland and the United States, graduated from Tufts, and was accepted into the Foreign Service but delayed joining the State Department to enlist in the Navy where he captained a PT Boat during WWII in the South Pacific.

He was interviewed by Henry Mattox in 1989.

To read more about the USSR, the Cold War, or Israel, or to read Malcolm Toon’s oral history, please follow the links.


I said, “Well, President Nixon wants us to go to Moscow as ambassador.” And she said, “Over my dead body”

I was first appointed ambassador to Moscow by Nixon in 1973 when I was serving as ambassador in Belgrade. I received a telegram over the weekend in what we call the agreement channel, which pertains to ambassadorial appointments, from the Under Secretary of Management, who said that President Nixon had decided to send me to Moscow as ambassador, that they were updating my FBI check, but that the Department wanted to know now if this gave me any personal problems before going further down the road.

Well, it did give me a really serious personal problem. That was my wife’s attitude (Toon is seen with his wife in 1977 at left.) We had spent, I would say, at that point, about five years in the Soviet Union under very difficult conditions. I was there first as a third secretary when Stalin was running the show. We had no maid. The tap had been turned off by Stalin.

Since my wife spoke no Russian then, I had to do the shopping. It was a very unpleasant time. It was a little bit better when I was Counselor of the embassy in the ’60s, but not much. One still felt one was surrounded by the enemy. So that I knew that I would have a problem with my wife.

Well, when I received this telegram, I gave my wife a ring at home–it was a Saturday. I said, “Look, I am coming home for lunch, since we have a very serious problem to discuss. Why don’t you crank up a few martinis, and we will get to it.”

So I went home for lunch. She said, after a martini or two, “What is the problem you want to discuss with me?”

I said, “Well, President Nixon wants us to go to Moscow as ambassador.”

And she said, “Over my dead body.”

I said, “Well, I am not willing to pay that price.”

I finally convinced her that it was very difficult for an ambassador to say no to the White House. If the President wants you to go somewhere, you go.

I said, “After all, you and I have been partners in this difficult diplomatic business for years now. I don’t think you should say no.”

Well, she said, “All right, but only for two years.”

I sent a message back to Washington that weekend saying, “Flattered, honored, and so forth. Let me know as soon as possible when I can tell Tito,” I had a very good relationship with Tito and I felt he should know as soon as possible that I would be leaving.

I said, “He is going to be pretty mad if he learns first from the press that I am going to Moscow as ambassador, so make sure that I can tell him before this is publicized.” And I got word back on Monday saying that they understood my relationship with Tito, and they would get word to me as soon as possible.

If, as I suspect, the Soviets have tried to muck-up this appointment, I want my day in court before the final decision is taken”

That afternoon, I got another cable from Washington saying, “There has been an apparent change of signals at the White House. It is doubly important that you tell no one about this appointment. We will clarify the situation and get word to you, as soon as possible.”

I called in my secretary, and I dictated what undoubtedly would be regarded as a very irascible message to Washington saying that, in effect, “If, as I suspect, the Soviets have tried to muck-up this appointment, I want my day in court before the final decision is taken.”

And I said to my secretary, “Send it off. I don’t want to see it in draft. Just send it, I don’t want to change it.” And the message went as dictated.

Then I got a telegram back the next morning, which was Tuesday, saying in effect: “You are wrong. The Soviets have nothing to do with this. Understand your concern, will clarify the situation as soon as possible and let you know.”

I received no further word from Washington about that appointment. And we went without an ambassador for a whole year in Moscow. [Adolph] Spike Dubs (seen left) was Chargé for the most part. And then Walt Stoessel, who was then Assistant Secretary of State, was appointed in December as ambassador in Moscow. (The U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1977 is seen at right.)

Now I tried to find out from Bill Rogers, who was the Secretary of State, and Walt Stoessel, who was his Assistant Secretary to European Affairs, what had happened to my appointment. They couldn’t find out. They just kept putting my name before the White House, and the answer was dead silence from the Oval Office. I finally discovered from correspondents, whom I knew well and who were covering the Washington scene, what had happened.

Henry Kissinger was then National Security Advisor in the White House. When Nixon had decided to send me to Moscow as ambassador, he had a drink with the Soviet ambassador, [Anatoly] Dobrynin.

Kissinger said, you know, “The President has decided to send Mac Toon to Moscow as ambassador.”

Dobrynin said, “That’s the end of détente,” which was nonsense. No matter how powerful an ambassador you are, you don’t carry out your own policy. The policy at that time happened to be détente. Therefore, obviously, I would carry it out.

But Kissinger sent a back channel message to Moscow, “Don’t ask for agreement for Ambassador Toon until you hear further from me.” And that was the end of it.

“What is at stake is the good name of the United States”

When Kissinger became Secretary of State, he revived the whole idea of sending me to Moscow. I think he probably recognized that it was time to send somebody there who, in the first place, could report back accurately what the Soviet positions were and, secondly, who could be tough and outspoken with the Soviets, if necessary.

What happened was that the Soviets sat on my appointment, my agreement, for almost three months. That’s unprecedented, as you know. In fact, it is almost unprecedented for any host government to turn down an ambassadorial appointee unless he happens to be a convicted felon or something like that. But they didn’t turn me down; they just did not act on it.

The assumption was that if they just sat on their hands and quietly passed the word that Toon was not really the ideal man for the Moscow job from their point of view, that President Ford would change his mind. And Kissinger would change his mind.

But to their credit, the President and the Secretary of State (seen left) stood firm. They said, “Under no conditions will we change the appointment.”

Then it was assumed that what the Soviets were doing was waiting until the election. As you know, Carter beat Ford. So it seemed likely that the Soviets would just wait it out, and Carter would appoint somebody else.

What happened was–again I behaved in my usual cantankerous and irascible way–I called in my secretary in November to send a personal message to Kissinger. “What the Soviets are doing is absolutely unacceptable conduct. Don’t misunderstand this message. It has nothing to do with me personally. I’ve had a good career. I’ve headed three embassies, important missions, and I have no complaint.

But what is at stake is the good name of the United States. You simply cannot tolerate Soviet refusal to accept an appointment by the President of the United States. My advice to you is to call in Ambassador Dobrynin (seen left) –he was then, I think, in his twenty-third year as ambassador–and tell him that unless we, the United States, receive positive word on Toon’s appointment within forty-eight hours, you, Mr. Ambassador, will pack your bags and go home and we will get along without ambassadors.”

Well, within forty-eight hours, I received a telephone call from Washington at 4:00 in the morning–Washington never has had a clear understanding of time differentials–saying that the Soviets had accepted me. The President and Kissinger wanted me back in Washington in time to arrive in Moscow before the end of the year.

And so when I got back to Washington, I was met at the airport by a junior officer who said, “The Secretary wants to see you right away.”

I said, “Sure.”

I went in to Mr. Kissinger’s office, and I said, “What happened?”

“What happened? We followed your advice.” This is a very interesting development, because it meant that the Soviet Union attached great importance to having Dobrynin stay on in Washington. After all, he was a very effective guy.

As I have said publicly, he snookered so many Presidents and Secretaries of State down through the years, that the Soviets felt they could not, you know, pay the price of having him leave. They were willing to accept me in exchange for keeping Dobrynin down in Washington.

“The only reason he decided to keep me on was that he was told… that if he dumped me, he would be accused of being soft on the Soviets”

I went to Moscow in December of ’76. I presented my credentials to [Nikolai] Podgorny (seen right), who was then Head of State, in January, and I was then the ambassador. Now when Carter came in–well, before Carter came in, when he was trying to arrange his administration, he was advised–I found this out later–by people I thought were good friends of mine but who turned out not to be–to like Governor Harriman–dump me as the ambassador and replace me with a businessman in order to convey a positive gesture to the Brezhnev leadership.

I heard about this through the grapevine–again mostly from correspondents. Then shortly after Carter was inaugurated and entered on duty as President, the brains from Plains around Carter–as I have described the President’s staff–discovered that there were fifty-six interim appointments about to be confirmed by the Senate.

As you know, interim appointees had to be confirmed within five days of the reconvened Senate, or the appointments lapse. So the people around Carter decided that they better pull these names back. And they did.

Of these interim appointees, there were four ambassadors; all the rest of them were purely political appointees for domestic jobs. But there were four ambassadors. One was a purely political appointee; I think he was ambassador to Jamaica. Another was the ambassador to Botswana–another was the ambassador to Malta–neither was an important post. And the other one was myself.

Overnight, there were headlines all around the world, “Carter cancels Toon’s appointment.” (Toon and his wife are seen with a Soviet musician at left.)

I began receiving phone calls from my ambassadorial colleagues in Moscow saying, “Gee, sorry, old man, that you have to go. We are just establishing a good relationship.”

I said, “What a minute. I’m not going anywhere. As far as I’m concerned, this is a pure technicality, but we will have to wait and see.”

But it took Carter, I would say, at least two months to decide to keep me on. Meanwhile, I was in limbo in Moscow. I had not met the President–I hadn’t really ever heard of him before he became President. I knew some of the members of the Cabinet, Harold Brown and Vance in particular, but I had not met them as members of his Cabinet.

I had not been privy to the formulation, for example, of our arms control package, which later turned out to be a complete fiasco. I felt out of things and somewhat in limbo. I kept saying to Vance in my cables: “Look, I would like to come back and talk to you and give you the Moscow ambassador’s point of view on what the nuances of our policy should be toward Brezhnev and his regime.”

“No, it would be very awkward at this time until the President decides what to do,” Vance replied.

Well, Carter finally decided to keep me on, but later I found out–primarily from Jody Powell–that the only reason he decided to keep me on was that he was told through Jody Powell by the American press that if he dumped me, he would be accused of being soft on the Soviets.