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Edward Elson: Entrepreneurial Ambassador to Denmark

The fall of the Soviet Union upset long-established power dynamics, leaving East and Central Europe, in particular, in uncharted waters. The creation of the Nordic-Baltic Eight (NB8), a regional cooperation consisting of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden, helped the Baltics transition away from Cold War-style self-identification toward a more regionally-focused identity.

President Bill Clinton appointed Edward E. Elson U.S. Ambassador to Denmark. During his tenure from 1994-1998, Elson helped to strengthen the bonds of the Nordic-Baltic region and secure American alliances in the region. Elson came to the job with impressive credentials. An entrepreneur, Elson pioneered retail outlets in airports and hotels, creating a lucrative retail empire among other businesses. Elson’s many interests led him to become a Charter Trustee of Phillips Academy, director of Hampton Investments, Rector of the University of Virginia, First Chairman of National Public Radio and Chairman of the Jewish Publication Society.

Elson discussed his experiences in Denmark, including an attempted assassination, creating a Baltic-Nordic hub in Copenhagen and having a Russian son foist upon him, with Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2012 and with Mark Tauber in 2017.

To read more about the Nordics, Baltics, Russian spies, assassinations, or Edward Elson’s oral history, please follow the links.

Also, please follow the link to see more Fascinating Figures.

“Denmark is an ally… your brief is to make them into a friend”

Edward Elson, U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, 1994-1998 

ELSON: One day I’m at home and the telephone rings. And it’s the President [Bill Clinton] on the other end of the phone. And I was stunned.

And he said, “Eddie,” this is exactly what he said. He said, “Eddie, I’d like you to be my Ambassador to Denmark.”

Well, I was stunned for two reasons. One, to be called on the telephone by the President without a secretary intervening, just picking up the phone and there’s the President. And two, that I was stunned because I was thinking in terms of UK, Spain, or Austria. And suddenly he says Denmark.

And he gives me his reason for wanting me to go to Denmark and he says essentially that, “Denmark is an ally, but not a friend. And your brief is to make them into a friend. And we have been taking them for granted for too long and we have to show more attentiveness to them.”

And I said, “Yes sir, thank you very much, sir,” and hung up the phone…

Shortly after I arrived, I went to the National History Museum, and spent four days walking around it. The museum is located in Frederiksborg Castle outside of Copenhagen, where each room, or several rooms, represented a different period in Danish history through the use of pictures and the decorative arts, furniture, porcelain, all sorts of objets d’art, which provided an impression of various points of their history.

After I left the museum, after spending many days, I sat down and wrote an article for one of the many papers in which I said, “I can’t understand the Danish people. They have such extraordinary pride in their country. But yet, they celebrate their history by showing great military defeats.” All the pictures I saw in the museum were Danish defeats.

I said, “How can you teach your children to love their country, to have pride in their country, with such a negative view of their past?” And I said, “Why don’t you have pictures of your brave troops in ex-Yugoslavia?”

The Danes had a lot of troops in Tuzla, and they were really great warriors and peacemakers as well. During the Bosnian conflict, they were the only foreign country who really conducted themselves and comported themselves in a manner which the United States military thought was extremely professional.

So I suggested, “Why don’t you have a picture of these young men on the walls of your history museum?” The next day I received a telephone call from the director of the museum.

She said, “That was a silly idea.”

And I said, “Lady, look, fine, if you don’t like it, forget about it. It was just an idea that I had.” I hung up the telephone thinking I’m not going to be bothered with this.

About two months later I was at a dinner party, and I was seated next to the Queen. And she turned to me and said, “I read your article.”

I said, “Yes, ma’am. What did you think of it?”

She said, “You’re right on.”

So I said, “Why don’t you and I do something about it?”

And the Queen and I commissioned a painting for the Natural History Museum, which was the first new painting in the museum in a hundred years. The Queen deputized me, my wife Susie, and General Lyng, who was the Chief of Defense, to work on the picture. My job was to choose the artist. Susie and the Queen would oversee the project. And the General was to give military information — to assure military accuracy in the picture. It was a picture that was about six feet by six feet. And it’s now in the Danish National History Museum… (“Et Kort Ophold” by Thomas Kluge is seen at right, above.)

 “Why don’t you locate an office in Embassy Copenhagen which can cover the entire Nordic-Baltic area?”

So that provided a nice project, but I was getting bored. “What kind of life is this going to be for the next four years?” So I sat down and I wrote a paper…and what I said was this: “The Nordic-Baltics are lemmings. If you choose a leader they will follow that leader… They will follow that leader off a cliff if the leader so marches.”

I said, “What we ought to do, what the United States of America ought to do is recreate the Hanseatic League where we draw all these nations into a unit and we designate who is to be the head of the unit. And whomever we choose to lead will be our surrogate.” (U.S. Embassy Copenhagen is seen at left.)

“And having done that, we will gain the eight votes of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland. We will gain eight votes in every international forum… and I think that Denmark should be the nation so designated as the leader.”

I wrote this to Richard Holbrooke. He read it, called me up and said, “Do it.”

So I flew back to Washington and I went to every agency in the United States government that I could that was not represented in our embassy, such as the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service], such as the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and said, “Why don’t you locate an office in Embassy Copenhagen, which can cover the entire Nordic-Baltic area?”

And I got them all and they all came to Copenhagen. In a sense I created a fiefdom because Embassy Copenhagen then made a decision for all the other embassies.

I made sure the Danes knew about it. And the Danes suddenly, after four hundred years in a secondary position in Scandinavia, became the premiere nation because everything was happening in their capital. And the Danes reciprocated, as I thought they would. And they became America’s closest friends in Europe. Not in Scandinavia, but Europe.

Eventually, President Clinton came to Denmark (seen right), the first sitting American president ever to come to Scandinavia, let alone Denmark. And he came and the Danish press said, “Why is he coming?” I said, “He’s coming to say thank you.” And the press scoffed at that. Two days later he arrived and he stood up and he spoke and he said, “Tak Denmark,” which is Danish for thank you, Denmark.

He said, “Denmark and the United States often stand together, and many times we stand together alone,” which is the highest compliment the Danes could ever receive…

The Danes became our partners. They became our voice. They represented us at the table at the EU. And whatever we needed from the EU or the Nordic Council, we could get…

This was probably the most important thing that I did when I was in Denmark…

 “Sir, you’re under attack. We’re saving your life”

They [Denmark] are the only country we know outside of the United States to celebrate our Fourth of July. There is an open-air theater in Rebild, which is in Jutland, established about fifty years ago by Danish immigrants in the United States who wanted to show their loyalty to Denmark and their great love and affection for the United States (seen left).

On our Fourth of July, they have an annual celebration where anywhere from twenty to fifty thousand people attend. It is open air, and each 4th they have an American speaker and a Danish speaker.

They’ve had everyone from Bob Hope to Ronald Reagan. The Danish speaker is usually the Prime Minister or the Foreign Minister or another prominent Dane. Twice, I was asked to give the American speech…The first time I gave it, I used my granddaughter as a foil to give them an idea of what I felt the United States of America was about.

The first thing that happens when you’re in Europe, the first question you are always asked is where is your family from? They want to know where your roots in Europe lie. It gets annoying to be asked that question over and over. My granddaughter is now a senior at Harvard, but in those days, I started the speech by saying, “I have a granddaughter. She’s brilliant, she’s beautiful, she’s talented and she’s three years old.” And she was…

And I continued, “She cannot answer the question, where your family from” because she is from a new people, a new ethnicity, a new country, she’s an American.” I’ve used that speech many times subsequently.

But on that occasion, when I was giving the speech for the first time, a man suddenly stood up with a pistol about thirty yards from where I stood and took five shots at me. The security people who were with me were all Arnold Schwarzeneggers. They immediately pushed me down and put themselves on top of me.

Shocked, I said, “Let me up.” They said, “Sir, you’re under attack. We’re saving your life.” And I said, “You’re killing me. I can’t breathe.” They let me up immediately, and the police by that time had apprehended the shooter and were hauling him away.

By the way, there weren’t any bullets in the gun, which we later found out were blanks, but nevertheless it was a shocking experience. My wife thought I was dead because when the man stood up with a pistol and fired, and seeing me go down, the only thing she could surmise was that I had been hit. (Edward and Susan Elson at right.)

As they hauled the shooter off, the thirty thousand people present fell silent. They had witnessed what they thought was an assassination attempt. I didn’t know what to do at first.

Then I leaned across the podium and pointed at him as they carried him off, and I said, “Okay, buddy, you think you’re a tough guy? Well, my granddaughter’s really tough. If she thought you were treating her ‘Far Far’ (which is Danish for grandfather), this way she’d come here and she’d take care of you. She really is a tough cookie,” and everybody started cheering and it saved the day.

“You’re going to have to keep my son in the United States. He can never return to Russia”

The Russian ambassador and his wife, Olga, his name was Obukhov, became great friends of ours. He had been the former deputy foreign minister and also had been arms negotiator in Geneva for 19 years, and he was a very important diplomat. But he had bet on Gorbachev when Yeltsin won, so he was exiled, so to speak, as ambassador to Denmark. (Alexei Obukhov is seen at left.)

His wife, Olga, who was with him, was as wide as she was tall. She was a KGB colonel, which I knew through our chief of station. They had an extraordinary art collection of turn-of-the-century Russian Cubism, and Susie and I were avid art aficionados. That brought us together as friends.

Obukhov had been sent in the 1960s to the University of Chicago to study with Hans Morgenthau. So you can see he was considered as part of the hierarchy of the Russian State Department, Soviet before that.

He had two sons. One of his sons, Fedor, was in Copenhagen, and he was about 15. The other son, Platon, I think he was head of the American desk at the Russian Foreign Ministry.

One day I said to Alexei, “Why don’t you send your son to school in the United States? “And he asked, “How would I be able to do that?” I said, “I’m a trustee of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts (seen right), and I think I can help get him in there.”

I knew I could just put him in, which I did. And so he went to Andover. The school gave him a scholarship. The kid was a difficult kid, but he was a nice, hard-working boy. Sadly, he had emotional problems and he was somewhat, more than somewhat, a total introvert.

During the holidays, they would farm out-of-country boys out to local homes. Whenever they sent Fedor, the family would send him back, so I had to bring him with us at Christmas with our family in England.

Anyway, he was at Andover about three years. At the end of his first year, we were having dinner with Alexei and Olga, Ambassador Obukhov and his wife, and Olga says to me, “Alexei has been called back to Moscow. He’s going to be made the Foreign Minister of Russia.”

And I’m thinking, “Oh wow. I’ll be the star of the State Department. My best friend is going to be the Foreign Minister of Russia.”

And I said, “Alexei, how come you didn’t tell me.” He puffs his chest out like a peacock, and he laughs, “Ho, ho, ho.” So he and I shared his big secret.

The next thing is that about a week passes and I get a telephone call at the residence. Alexei has returned and he says, “Can you come over to my residence right away?” And I said, “Well, Susie and I are going out for dinner this evening, and we will stop by on our way.” He said, “No, no, not Susie, you, now.” So, I thought to myself, it must be important.

I then get in the car and my driver takes me over to the Obukhovs. I walk to the front door, ring the bell, the door opens, and Alexei is blanched; his face is white. And I said, “Alexei, what’s wrong?” and he puts his finger over his mouth to indicate, “Don’t say anything.”

I looked behind him, and there’s Olga, and she is bawling, crying her eyes out. We go into the house, and he sits me down across from them and I start to say, “What’s going on?” and he puts his finger up to his mouth again to say, “Keep quiet.”

He takes out a pad of paper, writes on the paper, “We are ruined. Our son is a scoundrel. He has betrayed us.” And it turns out that his eldest son in the foreign ministry has been arrested as a British spy. (Platon Obukhov is seen at left.)

Alexei was brought back to Moscow, not to be offered the foreign minister’s job, but to be put under investigation. He returned to Copenhagen and consequently prepared to leave. But before he leaves, he takes me out for a walk, and we walk along the Oresund, which is the water separating Sweden from Denmark, near our residence, where there is probably nobody listening.

He says, “You’re going to have to keep my son in the United States. He can never return to Russia.” He said, “They will kill him.”

I said, “Kill him?” He said, “Yes, they will send him to Chechnya and they’ll shoot him. He’ll be killed, and they will say he was fighting in Chechnya.”

So I just said, “Okay.”

I go back to the residence and I call the Queen’s lawyer, who is our lawyer as well and the embassy’s lawyer as well, Baron Henrik Wedell-Wedellsborg, and I said, “Henrik, can you come over to the house. I need some help.”

I said, “Henrik, I want you to draw me up papers through which I will become the guardian of Fedor Obukhov.”

About three or four days later, Olga Obukhov, a KGB colonel, comes to our residence, knocks on the door and comes into our house. I’m standing in the entrance hall with her, and she takes a white envelope and hands it to me.

She says, “This is for Fedor” (the son in the U.S.), and it is $50,000 in one hundred dollar bills. Can you imagine the American ambassador in his residence receiving an envelope from a KGB colonel with $50,000 in it?

I scream, “Everybody come in this room immediately.”

All the help comes, and Susie comes downstairs and I say to everyone in the room, in front of Mrs. Obukhov, “Mrs. Obukhov has just given me this envelope with $50,000 U.S. dollars in one-hundred dollar bills for her son Fedor,” and I took the envelope and I handed it to one of the people in the residence.

Then I went to the telephone. Again I called Baron Henrik Wedell-Wedellsborg, and said, “Henrik, get out here immediately. I have a major problem here.”

He arrives, and I say, still in front of everyone, “Now, I want you to set up a trust.” I handed him the envelope, which I took from the person holding it, and handed it to him, the envelope with the $50,000 in it, for Fedor Obukhov.

“You will be the trustee. The money will remain in Denmark From this moment, I will have nothing to do with this.”

Subsequently, the Obukhovs leave, and I’ve got the kid, albeit in the United States. He is still at Andover, and he graduates and he has to go to college.

Well, I had to figure out that one; as I was the former Rector, which is chairman of the University of Virginia, I had him admitted to the University of Virginia, which is an excellent school, by the way. Again, he is an introvert, isolated. We have to have him on vacation, take care of him during the summers, and he becomes… a child of ours, a very difficult child.

Finally, it comes time for him to graduate. He calls me and tells me, “I’ve got a job, it’s really fantastic.” He went to one of these placement agencies at the university. I said, “Where is it?” and he said, “Texas – Houston. And I said, “Terrific. What’s the name of the company?”

And he tells me it’s Enron. Nine months later, Enron goes out of business and I’ve got the kid back. Enron was then out of business. Obukhov has the money his mother had given to me for him, but no job.

So I called a friend of mine in Houston, and I said, “Do me a favor. Can you give this kid a job?” which he does. A year and a half later, he calls me and says, “As a friend of yours, I’ve taken care of the kid, but enough is enough…”

So [the Russian boy] called me again many weeks later. He said, “I’ve decided I’m going to go immigrate to Israel.” I said, “Fedor, you cannot get into Canada. How are you going to get into to Israel?”

He said, “By the law of return.” I said, “Fedor, that’s for Jews and you aren’t Jewish.”

And he said, “Yes, I am.”

I said, “Well, wait a minute. Your mother is a KGB colonel, and your father is one of the leading diplomats, deputy foreign minister, there’s no way you could be Jewish. Explain that one to me.”

He replied, “Well, my mother’s father or grandfather,” I can’t remember which one he told me that this man was a leading scientist, and they wanted to keep him off the Stalin purge list, so they changed his passport from Jewish to Russian.

Fedor then said, “That’s how it came about.”

Well, I thought to myself, “What am I arguing with him for? I want to get him out of the country anyway. If he goes to Israel, I will be free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’ll be free at last.”

I write letters to the Israeli embassy saying, “This kid is the best thing since sliced bread,” to help facilitate his immigration. Now he is in Israel; I don’t know whether he has a job or not, but the next thing I hear from him is that his mother and his brother are there with him…

He was a manic-depressive, the leading spy novel author in Russia, and would write an entire book over a weekend, which, of course, is probably possible because he was a manic. How he got out of the hospital, I do not know. But, I have inquired of friends in the agency, and they did not know as well.

That’s the last I’ve heard from them, save for a book I received from his father about the history of Danish-Russian relations, sent from Denmark without a return address, and a yearly Christmas card from Fedor. (Edward and Susan Elson are seen below in Palm Beach in 2017.)