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“The State Department has always been a whipping boy”

Charles “Chip” Bohlen (August 30, 1904 – January 1, 1974) served in the Foreign Service from 1929 to 1969 and succeeded George Kennan as Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1953–1957). He later served as Ambassador to the Philippines (1957–1959), and to France (1962–1968) and was one of the nonpartisan foreign policy advisors known as “The Wise Men.”

When the United States resumed diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1933, Bohlen was named vice consul under Ambassador William C. Bullitt. In 1939 he learned details of the Russo-German pact which led to the Nazi attack on Poland, starting World War II. Bohlen was assigned to Tokyo in 1940 and he was interned for several months with other embassy personnel after Pearl Harbor. In 1943 he served as FDR’s interpreter at the Tehran Conference and later at Yalta. He attended the United Nations conference at San Francisco and went to the 1945 Potsdam conference as President Harry Truman’s interpreter. Bohlen’s nomination to be Ambassador to the USSR was opposed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who attacked Bohlen for his role at Yalta; he eventually won Senate confirmation by a vote of 74-13. McCarthy’s performance marked the beginning of McCarthy’s demise. Bohlen later served as Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in the Kennedy Administration. He died of cancer in 1973 at age 69.

In these excerpts from his oral history, taken in November 20, 1968, Bohlen discusses the ever-present problem of poor Foreign Service morale, the State Department as whipping boy, the plague of McCarthyism, his dislike of summits, Vietnam, revisionist history, and the role of the U.S. in the world. He was interviewed by Paige Mulhollan of the LBJ Library. This interview is courtesy of the National Archives and Records Service of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library.  You can also read about Robert Strauss’s experiences as Ambassador to Russia.

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Poor morale and the State Department as “whipping boy”

Q: I’m afraid the State Department doesn’t have a very good press sometimes. 

BOHLEN: Oh, well, the State Department never does. You just find out one thing. The State Department does not have a constituency in the United States politically…. It has always been a natural whipping boy, and I suppose it always will. In the first place, since you’ve raised the subject, it doesn’t have any constituency. By this I mean that it does not employ thousands of people the way the big Departments do all over the United States. Its operations are concentrated in Washington and abroad and nowhere else.

Secondly, since it deals with the foreigner, it is the State Department representative that has to go before Congress and in effect present the case for the foreign country which in their eye somehow makes them look as though they are proponents of the foreign position and not that of an American one. It is the way things inevitably work out, it doesn’t have anything to do with any particular sympathy. But no one else is going to present, say, the case for any country you want to name. It’s got to be made clear why they need this aid or why they need this military assistance and all this. And you have to sort of argue their case.

Now, in general, you know, in any country where patriotism sometimes has a tinge of chauvinism in it, that anybody who does this is regarded as un-American, and this is the case particularly for the operation of this Department, where nine-tenths of its work is abroad. 

Q: The claim that’s frequently made when they talk about what has recently been called the “sad state of State,” is, that it’s unadministerable. Does this have some accuracy in it? 

BOHLEN: Well, there’s no doubt about it, the American system of separation of powers was not designed for the conduct of foreign affairs. It was designed for the conduct of non-foreign affairs, really. If you look at the Constitution and you really read the contemporary writings and opinions that are expressed, you can see that one of the great anxieties of the Founding Fathers, so-called, was that this young, struggling republic would get itself involved in foreign affairs before it was ready to do anything about it.

And, therefore, a certain amount of safeguards were built in, but this was not the reason for the separation of powers, which was to avoid the concentration of too much power in too few hands. But it certainly has not been set up, as I say, for the conduct of foreign relations, and it sometimes has cost the American taxpayer a good deal of money because of the time that it takes to get measures through Congress. In a cabinet system of government, such as the British, the French, Germans — any of them have — as long as the government is in power, it is both legislative and executive.…

Q: The feeling of the career officer, the morale, is frequently mentioned as a weakness of the current State Department. Is that an accurate assessment?

BOHLEN: Well, in a way it is. You see, the Foreign Service of the United States has grown so unbelievably in the last twenty years, and the requirements for admission are so high, and yet an awful lot of the work — I’d say fully 50 percent of the work in the Foreign Service abroad is really routine work. And this is something that no one has licked.

You’ve got to have high requirements to enter because any one of the young people coming in could rise to positions of responsibility. And when you’re abroad, even a vice consul can do things that can harm or help the reputation and standing of the United States in a given country.

But then when you get this high degree of qualifications, education and so forth, and then you have to apply them to really routine tasks, you get a certain amount of discontent. It’s bad for morale. For example, when I joined the Foreign Service in 1929, the total officer corps of the Foreign Service, including Ministers and Ambassadors, was 732.…

Now, there are 3,500 officers in the Foreign Service proper. I couldn’t tell you how many there are in the USIA [the now defunct U.S. Information Agency], or how many there are in AID [Agency for International Development], but certainly the total must run up around 7-8,000 at least. Now, they’re not all competing in the same personnel system because the 3,500 are the ones who are really, so to speak, competing; but you can see the enormous increase in the broadening of the base, and this does create problems which have not yet been licked.… [Note:  The Foreign Service today has some 15,000 people; AID about 3,900.]


Q: You yourself were one of the victims of the attacks that have been made on the Americanism in McCarthy times. 

BOHLEN: McCarthy was a product of sixteen years of being out of office. This is what it was. And therefore McCarthy came along — and there’s no point, he’s dead now, so let him stay in his grave — but this was a purely sort of a opportunistic — I mean he didn’t have any deep conviction on this stuff about Communism in government.

The story that I believe to be true was that there was a luncheon held across from the Mayflower Hotel at which there was a Catholic priest, a fired correspondent from the old Times Herald in Washington, and somebody else, and McCarthy.

And McCarthy was complaining of the fact that he’d been 10 years, something like that, in the Senate and hadn’t made a name for himself, at all, and somebody mentioned the fact that Communists in government was a good thesis, and the correspondent offered to write him a speech to be delivered in Wheeling, West Virginia, which he did.…That’s the start of it [in 1950].

And it grew and it grew and it grew, and as I say, part of it — the reason that he got a certain amount of support from the Republican Party is that the Republican Party was just avid for power at that time. And the country for the first time in history was a little bit scared by the fact that you could have war with a country that could reach you, namely the Soviet Union.

And then the discovery of a number of Communists in government all fed this thing. And for the first time in the history of the United States the people felt alarmed. And this is what produced this disagreeable and very unfortunate aberration known as McCarthyism because I think we’re still living with some of the consequences. 

Q: Do you think that McCarthyism did have a long-term effect on the State Department and upon Foreign Service particularly? 

BOHLEN: I would say no. I wouldn’t say it had a long-term effect. I think it had much more an effect over the period on the national consciousness, particularly in the academic world because that was one of his targets, you know; he was always after professors. I think this had a certain effect. I remember telling Senator [Karl] Mundt [R-South Dakota] at the time when the McCarthy thing was on, saying, you know, this thing is going to make it impossible for us to do any serious job of analysis of the Communist problem. It’s going to so sicken the people when they turn against McCarthy on the idea that it’s going to make anything that’s anti-Communist very discredited.

Q: But the departure of a great number of Foreign Service Officers in the long run?

BOHLEN: There were some victims. There were some very, very bad cases of rank injustices that were done, I think, due to McCarthy. One of them, of course, is John Davies, who used to be one of the best Foreign Service Officers we had. [Read about his colleague John S. Service, who also was a victim of McCarthyism.] But because of the pressures of the time and things like that, he was let go — not on any grounds of disloyalty but simply on the grounds of that they called “bad judgment” about China.

But damn it, all of the judgments seemed to be accurate. He said that the Communists, the way things stood in China, were going to win their fight, and they did.…

Q: You went to Russia in April 1957. Just out of curiosity really, what was the Russian reaction to McCarthyism? 

BOHLEN: They were very much against it, at least publicly. It was too easy a thing, and they thought the United States was going fascist and all this sort of stuff. You’ve always got to remember that the Russians–we had been Public Enemy Number One as far as Soviet propaganda has been concerned ever since about June 1944, and that this is part of the normal procedure. They would never give the U.S. a favorable break ever, and they still don’t.

We are the chief opponent of what they are trying to do, although often what they are trying to do is not what they profess to be trying to do in the sense that they are a Communist country, that is to say, they are run by a Communist party; and ideology still plays an enormous part in their — but not as much in their foreign affairs, as much as one might think. It’s a very complicated subject…..

Summits are “a bad way of doing business”

Q: You mentioned the importance of Yalta, and of course it will be a major part of any work you write. What about the general topic, and Mr. Johnson has been involved in this, of summitry? …

BOHLEN: The Secretary of State wrote an article for Foreign Affairs before he was Secretary of State in which he disapproved of summitry. He said it was a bad way of doing business, and it is a bad way of doing business. And naturally anybody who has been in this business as long as I have, you develop some professional distortions, if you want to call it that, or perhaps experience and knowledge of things a little better than you might if you didn’t have it. And certainly the orderly processes of diplomacy would best be carried out by your ambassadors and by the quiet processes. But given the nature of the Soviet structure where only the very top can make decisions, can do anything, I think summitry is inevitable.…

The difficulty is, and any Western leader ought to be fully aware of it, the fact that you have a free public opinion in your own country means that you are under a certain amount of disability when you meet with a dictator who doesn’t have the same problem. Because it’s very much harder for a Western president, for example, coming from our society or from that of any of the democratic societies in Western Europe, to have a meeting that’s a failure.

There’s always the temptation to try to reach some form of agreement; the dictator doesn’t have that at all. But simply because the Soviet structure is built that way, there’s not much point in trying to do business, say, with [Andrei] Gromyko, whereas you can occasionally with Kosygin. This was truer in the days of Stalin than I think it is now when you really have a collective leadership.

Q: Does the personality compatibility or incompatibility sometimes loom very important? 

BOHLEN: Very little. I think it can work in a negative sense if some guy, if there were really a personality clash, if they just disliked each other instinctively, why this would hamper business; but by and large the Bolsheviks are very impersonal in their dealings….

Yalta and Revisionist History

Q: You said about Yalta publicly at the time of your appointment as Ambassador to Moscow that it was not the settlements at Yalta but the Russian violation of them that caused problems in the post-war world. 

BOHLEN: Yalta had nothing to do with sort of freezing the Eastern Europe in Russian hands. This is where the Red Army moved certain places. The agreement at Yalta merely confirmed the zonal agreements, and the only change it made was the allocation of a zone to France and a seat for France on the control council of Germany. This had nothing to do with the division of Europe which is the big question that remains unsolved and will remain unsolved as long as the Soviet Union exists in its present form. This was the imposition on these countries on the Soviet form of government. 

Q: A group of scholars sometimes referred to as the New Left or the Revisionists have argued that it was the American overreaction to certain things after 1945 that exacerbated the Cold War. I take it you disagree with that.

BOHLEN: This is perfect nonsense. I never read anything — it’s just a sign that certain scholars always want to find a new angle, a new slant to anything. This had nothing whatsoever to do with the imposition of the Soviet system in Eastern Europe which was done by the Soviets in various degrees:  in Czechoslovakia it was done in 1948; in

Hungary it came along a little earlier or later; in Bulgaria, all these things are perfectly clear. Romania was done long before there was any U.S. reaction to anything. This is really, I think, a very strained interpretation of the events.

The only place that the Russians could have done it and didn’t do it was in Finland, and there perfectly clearly they didn’t do it because they realized that Finland was just a little bit too tough a nut to crack, that there would be a lot of trouble, that there would be guerrilla warfare. In fact, Stalin said that once in a conversation with Churchill. He said, “You cannot but admire people who would be willing to fight for their country the way the Finns have.” And this has nothing to do with the reaction of the United States towards — there was no NATO at all when Czechoslovakia was taken over by the Communists.

Well, now, they go as far as to argue that we exaggerated the degree of aggressiveness of Russia after World War II. Is that a tenable argument? Well, I don’t know if you could be much more aggressive. Obviously no one thought that the Russians were prepared to go to war. In correspondence between the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union and [Yugoslav leader] Tito, you’ll see a statement that we couldn’t use the Red Army to help enforce Communism in France and Italy because it would have meant a war with the United States. This was the statement of the Soviets.

And I really haven’t read many of these books. I think it would make me too mad.

They’re just beginning to come out and they are obviously written out of the framework of Vietnam, I think. But is apparently going to be a field of scholarship that those of you who went through those years and have expert knowledge are going to have to deal with.…

I went through this whole period there, the very beginning of it, the first meeting with the Russians, continuous all the way through, and I saw a series of American attempts to really find some Basis with the Soviet Union and that every time we were thrown for a loss because the system is impenetrable….


I think I first met Mr. Johnson when he was a Senator. He was Majority Leader.…The first time I really was associated with him was in 1961 when President Kennedy called me up and asked me if I would go to Berlin with the Vice President who he was sending over there to the building of the Wall. And we rushed over there in a relatively hurried trip. And there I saw him continuously for about 48 hours, maybe a little more.

I must say he was a very impressive man when he was on this because he was having to project his personality to the people of Berlin, and it was very well received, what he had to say was well received….

Q: What do you think if there is one that you can pick out, has been Mr. Johnson’s chief weakness as a foreign policy leader? 

BOHLEN: I don’t really know what his chief weakness is. I think it is perhaps his apparently rather strong desire for secrecy. It has been detrimental to him in his dealings with the press and the public, the fact that he has created the impression of being a sort of a contriver, a wheeler-dealer, stuff like that. I don’t know whether I can judge him from just what you hear and read in the press, and stuff like that.

This so-called credibility gap is largely a lot of nonsense but on the other hand, the very fact that you can use this is one of the impressions. But I don’t think he has ever had any sort of unworthy ambitions or unworthy aims at all. I think that he has done more than any President in the field of race relationships and domestic things. I think it’s only tragic that this damned Vietnamese thing took so much of his time and energy and so much money and all this sort of stuff as to really take it away from what I know he would want to do which would really be to deal with the domestic problems in the United States….

The Russians — they prefer to have people, sort of working and trying to get along with them, than to have a blast of Cold War stuff going on. I think they have a perfectly good regard for Mr. Johnson as President of the United States.

They naturally have built up Kennedy a little more than they would if he had remained alive as President, but then this is a — you see, the Russians are well aware that the purposes of the United States and what the purposes must be and those of the Soviet Union which stem from the system that is set up in Russia are really not compatible. But there is one thing that I think that is accepted by both sides and that is the total impossibility of having a nuclear war.…

Vietnam and U.S. involvement in the world

There’s no doubt about it but that the Vietnamese thing — [LBJ] inherited it, he did not start it, he inherited it, it came all the way down from Eisenhower through Kennedy. And the beginning in the increase of troops, it was done under President Kennedy, and so I don’t think in any way you can blame — if I can use that term — Johnson for the initiation of the Vietnamese War. It had just turned into active U.S. participation there.

My personal opinion is, and I haven’t been in the whole act so perhaps I’m not qualified to talk about it, is that we took on something that was a little more than we could really handle correctly, simply because of the limitations imposed on our actions by our own civilization and our own thoughts and the nature of guerrilla warfare is something that we were not particularly trained or equipped to handle….

The reality of the impulse that put us in there was a perfectly sound one. It didn’t have any overtones of imperialism or desire to acquire military positions or anything like that. It was simply to defend the right of a small, weak, ineffective in a sense, government, to really get the people to choose their own fate for them and not have it imposed on them by armed action from without.

Q: Why do you think it has been so difficult to explain this, not just to the general public but to a substantial portion of the informed political community?

BOHLEN: I think one of the reasons is that the United States had really a very short time to develop a national consciousness as to what world involvement meant. What are the prices that you pay for being in the world? We’d had 170 years or so of isolationism where we could stand back and take extreme positions criticizing others without being in the game.

When you are in the game, it requires a certain understanding of the fact that you are not going to win every bout, that you are not going to have 100 percent total success every time you turn around. Sometimes it is going to be bloody and long and onerous, as it is in Vietnam.

Also, the fact that this is impossible to relate to the security of the United States. You see, we are a great big country, they are a little country and whatever it is, how many thousands of miles away — 8,000 miles away from us — and it is very, very complicated — it requires a certain amount of sophisticated understanding of what a Communist system does. This domino theory which is very much discredited now is not really very untrue at all.

Engels once said that the trouble with a military frontier is one 100 kilometers farther out is preferable, and this is the same thing for us as for the Communists. When you get a Communist thing here or there, this is the frontier of the clash with the non-Communist world; and if you move it out each step it goes farther.

Q: Do you think the analogies between Asian aggression then hold to European aggression that occurred in the time that you were there? 

BOHLEN: I don’t think you can make quite the analogy with Hitler that you make with the Communists because it was a different proposition entirely. Certainly in all these weak, sort of shaky countries in eastern Asia, if we had not really done what we did in Vietnam I don’t know what would have happened. It’s very difficult for me to see that Indonesia would be turned against the Communists the way they did. And in all of them I think the tide would be running that way.

U.S. rise to dominant role

Q: Do you think it is possible within the system we have to educate public opinion? You mentioned a couple of times the shortness of time to get used to our responsibilities, and so on.

BOHLEN: I don’t know. I think it is going to take a very long time and everything goes so much quicker now. Of course, it ought to be quicker. But the point is that most countries that rose to an eminent position in the world had generations, even centuries, to become accustomed to it — like Great Britain, for example.

But we really had this dumped on us since 1947, is when it happened, when the British revealed that they did not have the strength left to play the role, and they asked and we had to pick it up. And this decision was made at the time of the Greek-Turkish thing. But that was not a provocative decision on our part? I don’t think so at all. It was a question of saving Greece and saving Turkey. The Russians obviously — at that time they had an open claim to two provinces of Turkey and there was a civil war going on in Greece.

I don’t know what these revisionists would have us do. One thing that they ought to remember is that there has never been a recorded case where the majority of the people ever voted the Communist regime in power.…And also that Communism is a room with no exit. None have ever been able to overcome it.

Every President has his own characteristics, and I think one of the difficulties of President Johnson was to come after such a President as John F. Kennedy to whom I was personally devoted. And he brought a whole new breath of change, a different thing. He was young, he was attractive, and it was very difficult for the President who comes after him, particularly in the sort of deification that occurred after his assassination.