OK, when you think about State Department types — if you think about them at all — chances are they’re pretty dull. And make no mistake, they do a lot of boring crap, just like the guys in the CIA or the Pentagon, except those guys have Bond movies and Seal Team Six and therefore a better rep. But when the time is right – or when they get really pissed off – the khakis-and-blazer set can surprise you, and not always in a good way.
1. The Cuban government attacks them by making them cartoons
Yep, you read that right.
James Cason was the de facto U.S. ambassador to Cuba (since there still aren’t diplomatic relations between the two countries). He wanted to get more attention for 75 human rights activists who were imprisoned by the government so he put Christmas decorations around the U.S. Interests Section (the de facto embassy) with a giant “75” all lit up. That did not go over well with the Cubans – surprise, surprise. So they did what any tottering totalitarian country does – it countered with propaganda, in this case “cartoons depicting “Corporal Cason”” trying to infiltrate the Cuban people, which changes into a rat that scurries back into USINT. Subtle. Only problem was Cason took a shine to the cartoon and started wearing corporal stripes on his guayabera and even brought in some Corporal Cason dolls to hand out. Regular people loved it and the government stopped making cartoons.
2. They can go full Rambo
Terry McNamara was Consul General in the city of Can-Tho, Vietnam in 1975. As the Viet Cong continued to stretch farther south, the short-sighted and panicky bureaucrats in Saigon insisted on using helicopters but there wouldn’t be enough room for every to wanted to be evacuated. McNamara came up with a kick-ass plan to use boats along the Mekong that would allow him to evacuate almost all the Vietnamese employees who wanted to leave in addition to the American staff. And it was the CIA guys who lost their nerve and undercut his efforts. So he and the Vietnamese headed the river, were stopped by a Vietnamese general who wanted to get the men to fight in the army, and got shot at by rockets, before finally meeting up with a U.S. Navy vessel in the South China Sea.
And then there’s John Gunther Dean, who was the No. 2 guy at the embassy in Laos in 1973, who heard of a coup attempt. He went out to the airport which the coup plotters had seized, went to the control tower with a bullhorn yelling, “Get your butts back over the Mekong River! This thing is over!”
Hey, Hollywood, make a movie about that!
3. They get microwaved by the Soviets
Back in the 1960’s and 70s, at the height of the Cold War, the USSR bombarded the U.S. embassy in Moscow with microwaves. Some say it was just the Soviets’ way of trying to jam radio signals from the embassy; others were more skeptical and point to a rash of strange illnesses that popped up among embassy staff during that time. Three of the U.S. ambassadors who had most recently served there later died of cancer.
4. They get killed. A lot.
When Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were killed in Benghazi, the furor was around what the Obama Administration did or didn’t do in calling it a terrorist attack or not. Whatever. The thing people overlooked was just how dangerous being a Foreign Service officer can be. Seven ambassadors and dozens of FSOs have been killed in the line of duty. They’ve been killed by Palestinian terrorists, snipers, blown up by bombs – and that doesn’t even count those who were held hostage.
5. They become key characters in Tom Clancy novels
Clancy’s 1995 novel Op Center deals with the former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Gregory Donald now head of the CIA’s Operations Center who has to foil a plot by North Korea. The character was inspired by the career of real-life Ambassador Donald Gregg (notice the name change – only professional writers are smart enough to think of something that clever), who served in the Central Intelligence Agency for 31 years, including in Korea, and was Ambassador to South Korea from 1989 until 1993.
6. They can cause international incidents – with their Christmas letters.
We’ve all wanted to blow off steam about our boss, co-workers, or those troglodytes in Human Resources. Robin Berrington, who was in Dublin from 1978 through 1981, was no different. He talked about his frustrations with his job and with Ireland in general in what was supposed to be a “private Christmas letter to friends and family”, complaining that the country was “small potatoes” and that “The country has food and climate well matched for each other — dull.” People have said much worse. However, someone somehow leaked the contents of Berrington’s letter to the media and then all hell broke loose. It made it to the front page of the New York Times and on ABC Evening News, and the Irish Parliament criticized the embassy and the U.S. government. After just a few days of this, the State Department told Berrington he had to leave the country.
7. They can be good at languages. Really good.
Admittedly, Chas Freeman is a bright guy, even for the elite set who walk the halls of the State Department. But Freeman was scary good at languages. He had a photographic memory and picked up words the way most people pick up lint. At the dinner each generation chose its own language to speak — the grandparents did German, his mother French and Spanish. He taught himself Danish when he was in high school to impress a girl. After he joined the Foreign Service, he learned Chinese from scratch and got to basic proficiency in six months – that’s the time it takes to get basic proficiency in a language like French or Spanish. Chinese usually takes TWO YEARS. And then he kept on going. He got to near bilingual level in two more years – something that takes most mortals a lifetime, if they ever get there at all. He became so good, he served as Nixon’s interpreter during his historic trip to China. And if that wasn’t enough, he learned Thai when he was the number two diplomat in Bangkok and then became fluent in Arabic, which was handy when he was Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm.
8. Don’t make them angry. You don’t want to see them when they’re angry.
Most in the State Department are the nerdy, mild-mannered types in suits with glasses, the Clark Kents who, on occasion, can rip off that button-downed Oxford and become Superman (or at least draft a really muscular memo for the Assistant Secretary). On the other hand, there have been a couple of Bruce Banners who, for whatever reason, go Incredible Hulk crazy. Like Alfred Erdos, who was assigned to a two-man post in Equatorial Guinea in the 1970s and became convinced that the communists were plotting against him. And that his colleague was in on the conspiracy. So he forced him into the communications vault, tied him up with an electrical cord and then stabbed him repeatedly with a pair of scissors, killing him. He was declared insane, served 18 months in an asylum, was released and then got his full pension. Then there was Brad Bishop, who was perhaps not quite as crazed as Erdos but who still managed to kill his wife and three sons. He somehow escaped and was never heard from again.