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The Secret ‘Backbone’ of the U.S. Embassy in Delhi, India

Historically, Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs) have been working behind the scenes and supporting foreign service personnel who often serve in public-facing roles. They are therefore commonly called the “backbone” of the embassies, and their in-country expertise and continuity serve as valuable contributions to American diplomacy.

Second Group of FS Employees Visit Washington, Department of State Newsletter
Second Group of FS Employees Visit Washington, Department of State Newsletter

In the first decade after World War II, the U.S. Embassy in Delhi hired P.K.V. Krishnan as an FSN. Later, he was heavily involved in the development of U.S.-India labor programs abroad. Unlike FSOs (Foreign Service Officers) who work and travel in different countries, Krishnan, like other FSNs, spent his entire career working locally in the labor section to build experience, deal with complex issues, and solve problems.

During World War II, India remained a British colonial possession and officially declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939. Around the same time, the U.S. government appointed its first local labor employees in Delhi, India to help formulate administrative goals and duties in the labor field.

FSNs, now known as Locally Employed staff (LES) of the U.S. Department of State, both advocate for U.S. interests to the rest of the world on behalf of the American people and serve as America’s eyes on the ground. They also provide resources and assistance within the U.S. government and in host-country communities. However, their stories have not been shared as widely for a variety of unintended reasons, such as not being interviewed, or the content of the interviews is not yet public. Therefore, in an effort to help bridge this gap, ADST is sharing this snapshot of Krishnan’s story to learn more about the contributions, sacrifices, and untold insights of LES. Foreign Service LES have and continue to contribute to the fabric of American diplomacy.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” we see that Krishnan’s early professional experience laid the groundwork for later opportunities and self discipline at the U.S. Embassy. At the age of fifteen, he held his first job as a court clerk in Udumalpet, South India. After graduating from high school, thanks to his fluent English and self-taught shorthand, he was hired as a stenographer in the labor section of the U.S. embassy. During his thirty-three-year career, Krishnan worked with many labor attachés, labor officials, and labor professionals. He also went through periods of working alone without any U.S. government-appointed labor officials. Rather than holding him back, these challenges and difficulties inspired his determination and ability to work autonomously. As he put it, “I’ve been on my own for a year and a half, and I think that was a real period to advance my development in this field.”

P. K. V. Krishnan’s interview was conducted by Morris Weisz in 1992.
Read P. K. V. Krishnan’s full oral history HERE

Drafted by Katherine Liang

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Excerpts:

“I began to learn without any real guidance, the hard way. I am kind of used to being left alone to fend for myself.”

A Close Call:
About American labor. I said ok there has to be some way. I have to find answers for these things. This is probably an opportunity for me to pick up something on American labor. I read the letter very carefully and tried to make some references in the books that were there. So I started really learning in that kind of a process. Otherwise I never had any kind of formal training. But two weeks later for some reason the political officer, Mr. Anderson says, “Is this the way you draft these letters? I am very unhappy, I will fire you if you don’t improve.” I was concerned about his statement. I came back to my office.

A little later Mary London comes to my office, all the way up and pacifies me and says, “No, there is something I mentioned to him which apparently annoyed him. Basically it was my fault. I shouldn’t have done that. Don’t worry about it. He will not do anything.

He is a little short-tempered person but a very nice person in his heart. Don’t get exorcized. In the future, I will make sure that when any paper goes to him it will be in the style that he wants. So you don’t worry about it. Even if it has to be retyped or something I will do it there myself. I am going to tell him that you did the job.” So I said, “No, Mary, I think you should really educate me since you know his preferences and let me see if I can adapt myself to that.” From that time on I got along extremely well with him….

“Somehow I would have to build whatever I could here.”

           
Thousands visited the Chancery when it opened in January 1959, US. Department of State
Thousands visited the Chancery when it opened in January 1959, US. Department of State

A Tenacious FSN:
At that time, because I was only recruited as a stenographer, my own role was very, very limited in terms of attending to the correspondence. As I began to understand things, I began to understand quite a bit about Indian labor. I began to read newspapers regularly with particular emphasis on labor aspects. These may be portrayed in the newspapers. I began to develop contacts myself, and Mary London had a list of contacts that Henri Sokolove, who had been the labor officer probably two or three years before, had given her. She had a list of the contacts and she came out with that list and suggested that maybe I could use that list as a basis for any of the contacts that I wanted to develop. There began the exercise and for the first time David Burgess was appointed as the labor attaché to come to Delhi. He arrived in December 1955. In the meantime the political officer said that I was the only person knowledgeable here. I had to brief him on this, that and other aspects and I was all ready for it.

One of a kind memcons:
One of the wonderful understandings that Dave and I had was that whenever he went for a meeting he came back and reported what happened at the meeting. Together we would start making notes. Basically he was dictating to me and I was taking down the notes and transcribing them. They became a part of the record in the form of what used to be called “Memorandum of Conversation.” One very good thing Dave did was, whenever he met with people, he started by asking for some biographic data about these people just by way of introduction. He was able to draw so much information from them by way of simple conversations that all of these things were recorded in these memoranda of conversation. At the end of his tour we were sitting in the office late into the evenings for nearly two and a half months. Drawing upon the resources of the various memcons and just purely organizing the biodata we produced an evaluation of the individuals. To the best of my memory we did around two hundred and thirty such biographic data reports. I don’t think any other section in the embassy including the political section had prepared such a volume of documentation.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Background
Born in India, 1929
Office Clerk / Tehsildar’s treasury office 1945–1949
Hired as Foreign Service National in Labor section
Delhi, India 1954
Retirement 1987