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The Pursuit of Perfection: Dilemmas in the Foreign Service

Capturing, preserving, and sharing the experiences of America’s diplomats. ADST’s maxim perfectly encapsulates the diverse nature of a Foreign Service career that arguably makes every officer’s professional journey unique. And yet, underlying the idiosyncratic nature of these experiences are undoubtedly core values and challenges that unite most—if not all—individuals in this particular field. This is not to say that there is a uniform set of reactions towards them, but it should nevertheless be considered paramount for us to acknowledge this base uniformity in order to truly understand the fundamental roots of a given matter and properly address it.

Coat of Arms of Jakarta (2010) Gunkarta | Wikimedia
Coat of Arms of Jakarta (2010) Gunkarta | Wikimedia

Robert Kinney is one particular individual whose career demonstrates the constancy of certain values and challenges. For instance, the hostility that he faced when initially transitioning into the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs is merely one example of the bias that certain labor attachés have historically experienced while in the Foreign Service. Furthermore, although he himself did not have any issues on this front, his discussion of the topic reveals just how crucial the influence of family can be on the decisions and life of a Foreign Service officer. It is worth noting that Kinney retired in 1973, a few years before the Foreign Service Act of 1980 addressed some of these very issues. However, that is not to say that these dilemmas have simply dissipated since then; if anything, the essence of his words continues to bear significance today: we should appreciate more the differing views and backgrounds of each individual to gain a balanced and informed opinion on any given issue.

Kinney spent the majority of his Foreign Service career in South East Asia, dividing his time between Manila, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur as a labor attaché. Furthermore, apart from his tour in Lagos, Kinney additionally spent time throughout his career in Washington, D.C., whether as a Special Assistant to the Labor Advisor of the Economic Cooperation Administration, or as the Labor Advisor at the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1973.

Robert Kinney’s interview was conducted by Morris Weisz on January 15, 1991.

Read Robert Kinney’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by: Will Shao

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“I didn’t do particularly well before the Board and decided that the Board was somewhat hostile, which later turned out to be true.”

A Challenge from Within:
Henri had been the Labor Advisor in the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs.

Q: At State?

KINNEY: At State. That was after he had been in India, and he wanted to go to Japan next. He wiggled some sort of a deal and became the USIA labor man in Japan. I was then asked to come in and take his place as Labor Advisor of the Bureau. All these years, I was a reserve officer. Therefore, after two years in Indonesia, I went home and was given an examination for lateral entry under Section 518. I didn’t do particularly well before the Board and decided that the Board was somewhat hostile, which later turned out to be true. They rejected me, and the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs then sent me back to Jakarta again as a reserve officer, which I still was but strictly for the Embassy. We then brought in a wild character from the Operating Engineers in California, who was the AID Labor Officer. I was totally in agreement at that point that there was just too much to do on both sides for one man to handle.

Q: So, you finished out your assignment with a second tour in Indonesia…

KINNEY: As a reserve officer.

Q: As a reserve officer, and then went to Washington for another exam?

KINNEY: No, I took another exam a year later. I went in as a reserve officer, but still as Labor Advisor to the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs. Jim Bell, who was then Director of the regional subdivision of the Bureau—it was called Southeast Asia and the Pacific—looked into what had happened during my examination the year before, and he and several others in the Bureau of Examinations…what did they call it?

Q: BEX, Board of Examiners.

KINNEY: The Board of Examiners said that the other board had been somewhat biased against labor attachés at all and that they would give me another examination, which I did pass.

“When I went to Washington, she went to work for The Washington Post in their art department, but she was eager to go overseas. I did appeal to her.”

The Familial Influence:
Q: Before then though, I would like to get you to comment on something, and that is what your wife did during all these shifts back and forth. As you know, the wife is an important person in the Foreign Service.

KINNEY: Sure, I agree with you.

Q: In some cases, they stayed out of all the activity, in some they cooperated, and some their unhappiness made the husband unhappy and all that. But generally, your wife went along with you. Did she have a professional attachment to a job that interfered with your career? Or was she willing to go along without any problems?

KINNEY: She was working for The Washington [Post]; she had always been a graphic artist. She went to school, graduated, and worked at the news profession in New York. She worked for several advertising agencies and national agencies in New York, and she became art editor of a national magazine called This Month.

Q: Your work then interfered with her profession, did it not?

KINNEY: Yeah. When I went to Washington, she went to work for The Washington Post in their art department, but she was eager to go overseas. I did appeal to her. When we got to Manila, she got a little bored. So, she became a teacher, and taught art in the International School.

Q: That’s interesting.

KINNEY: Then when we went to Indonesia, where she didn’t do anything much except volunteer work and the usual sort of thing, [like being] active in the Women’s International Club. She became very fascinated by Indonesian art.

Q: O.K., I just wanted to get into that because in each case the wife can contribute or interfere with the progress and happiness of the officer in his job by virtue of her own condition. But that was not a problem to you. Children? Do you have children?

KINNEY: Yes, my son was with me. He was in grade school when we went to the Philippines. He went to the International School there until we were transferred to Jakarta, where he continued his education as far as the International School in Jakarta permitted. We then put him in a prep school. Initially, he was going to the American School in Beirut, but then Beirut blew up, so we sent [him] to a school in the Philippines mountains near Baguio on the island of Luzon, which was run by Episcopalians but was coeducational. It was a very old school and well known school; admittedly not very luxurious, but a good school nevertheless.

Q: So, his schooling was satisfactory in spite of your shifts from place to place?

KINNEY: Yes, and then when I was sent back to Indonesia in purely a labor attaché capacity, although still an “R,” he didn’t want to go back to Brant. Therefore, we arranged to put him in a prep school in Connecticut near old family friends of my wife’s, who had a son his age. Although he was not a day student, he spent the weekends with them and helped a little bit. He graduated there later.

Q: And went to college?

KINNEY: Then he went on to Cornell, which broke my heart. I wanted him to go to the University of North Carolina.

. . .

Q: I would like to get it on the record the impact it had on the children. In some cases, as you know, it was a disadvantage, in some cases advantages, in some cases they are interested in foreign work and went into it, and in other cases not.

KINNEY: Pity. He speaks fluent Indonesian though.

Q: My daughter speaks fluent French and she…

KINNEY: He’s a French linguist too. He passed the State Department exam.

“One thing is that I don’t think academic training as such is half as important as individual aptitude, one’s capacity to understand other people, and to try to figure out what their problems are and what they want.”

Palestinian Refugees, 1948, Photographer Unknown, Wikimedia Commons
Palestinian Refugees, 1948, Photographer Unknown, Wikimedia Commons

To Educate or Not to Educate:
Q: Would you come to any conclusions about this field as to what type of background is, from your point of view, best for a labor officer? We have had successes and failures from the labor movement, from academia and failures, from those with a Labor Department background, et cetera. How would you construct the ideal labor attaché or labor officer?

KINNEY: Well, it is hard and pretentious to describe this from a personal point of view. One thing is that I don’t think academic training as such is half as important as individual aptitude, one’s capacity to understand other people, and to try to figure out what their problems are and what they want.

Q: I think I get it.

KINNEY: Social consciousness, do you remember that old word?

Q: Right.

KINNEY: That’s number one, of course.

. . .

KINNEY: He said, “Look, you are going to be going overseas as a labor type fellow.” He said, “You are going to find that there are a couple of things, and this is particularly true because you will be over there, and attitudes here in Washington, in the AFL, and in the AFL-CIO, that are going to be a little different. What the Embassy sees as the right thing to do in a given situation or a right policy to have toward a certain country or its elements is going to be, you will find, very often quite different from what the AFL thinks should be done because the AFL has its own point of view. Your political officers, the Ambassador, and so forth, are going to have a broader point of view in which everything is much more balanced if they do their job right. It is going to be perplexing for you and what you do about it. You will learn as best you can what to do about it.”

This gets down to something which is fairly basic: in the average embassy, unless you have some pretty sophisticated officers, senior officers, who have had a lot of experience with labor attachés and why they are there in the first place, will tend to regard a labor attaché as someone thrust upon them either with their consent or because it is politic for the government to do this. And if the labor officer seems to be doing whatever the AFL-CIO wants him to do, and that is his automatic impulse, it’s going to make his position even more difficult.

It’s dangerous, of course, to generalize. I say there are these tendencies to look upon someone as a stranger from another outfit—and not even a government outfit at that—as doubly suspicious. However, the political, economic, and central officers in the embassy, who have had a good experience with labor officers in situations where they proved their value, usually tend to be more encouraging to the new guy and more inclined to see his role as important to the embassy and its work. I think that certainly in the last ten years that I was in the business and in the trade that was more and more evident; there was a widening acceptance. On the other hand, Henri Sokolove used to say in the 1960s that there was a lot of disillusionment with the labor attaché program on the part of the State Department leadership in the field and in Washington. There had been a sort of magic at first, as though they were really going to open the gates for the United States’ acceptance in broader and broader areas of people in their organizations in various countries; there was a tendency, and I think perhaps he’s right to get a little more cynical about it and to think that this is just another sort of reward system for loyal friends of the AFL-CIO or various unions therein. In that respect, perhaps, he’s right to a degree.

Q: But that could be dissipated in individual cases occurring in the embassy in which a positive contribution was made.

KINNEY: Exactly. By your deeds are you known.

Q: Or your contacts. The fact that I was a friend of the President of India because he happened to be a trade unionist thereby enabled me to get some things that might otherwise not have been available. Boy, that meant something. And what I found was in training labor attachés and responding at conferences was that the guy who thought of his operation as a separate labor operation unrelated to the objectives of the post was less successful than the guy who said to the ambassador, “Now, what are you trying to do, and what is the labor aspect of that that I can make a contribution to?” That is a difficult thing to do. Let me ask you in that respect within the embassy, at what point were you a member of the country team? What were the disadvantages of not being a member? What were the results of your membership in the country team? Were you a member of the country team?

KINNEY: Well, the country’s team is made up normally of the officers of AID, the principal officer of USIS, the Information Service—

Q: The military attaché, agricultural, et cetera.

KINNEY: —the military attaché, the agency that shall not be named, and the commercial attaché sometimes.

Q: The section heads…

KINNEY: Right.

Q: Where does the labor attaché fit in?

KINNEY: The labor attaché in most posts I’ve been in was allowed or rather asked to be a member of the country team or to sit in the meetings at the table. [They were given the] same status as somebody else, not sitting in the background.


Works Progress Administration Writers’ Project ~1935–1941
Washington, D.C.—National CIO War Relief Committee ~1943–1950
Entered the State Department 1951
Manila, Philippines—U.S. Embassy, Labor Attaché 1952–1957
Jakarta, Indonesia—U.S. Embassy, Labor Attaché 1957–1960
Washington, D.C.—Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs, Labor Advisor 1961–1964
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—U.S. Embassy, Labor-Political Officer 1966–1968

Retired from the Foreign Service 1973