Loy Henderson (1892-1986) is one of the most storied figures in American diplomatic history. Beginning his career in 1922, he would spend the first two decades of his nearly 40-year career in various posts across Eastern Europe. This includes an assignment to Moscow in 1933, where Henderson worked alongside such diplomatic notables as George Kennan and Charles “Chip” Bohlen as America’s first envoy to the USSR.
However, his strong criticism of the Soviet Union would get him transferred out of Eastern European Affairs and into the Near East, where he would severe as Ambassador to Iraq from 1943 to 1945. He would then return to the U.S. to head the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau until 1948. During this time, he was faced with the crisis caused by the creation of the state of Israel.
Some have speculated that Henderson’s personal skepticism toward U.S. recognition of the Jewish State led to his “promotion” to Ambassador to India in 1948, then a newly independent country. From India, Henderson would go to Iran, where he would serve as Ambassador from 1951 to 1954, during which time he aided in the CIA-organized coup to overthrow democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in favor of Shah Reza Pahlavi.
Henderson would serve the last stretch of his career (1954-1960) as the Under Secretary of State for Administration. While in this position, he would oversee the process of “Wristonization,” whereby numerous Civil Service Officers were transferred to the Foreign Service, and vice versa, despite his opposition to the policy. During the final year of his career, Henderson would take a tour of the newly decolonized countries in Africa, and would be heavily involved in forming embassies in these newly formed nations. The Loy Henderson Auditorium, one of the main halls at the State Department, was named in his honor.
James McCargar was just entering the Foreign Service in 1942 and had the pleasure of meeting then Director Henderson immediately following his oral examination. John Steeves, who would later serves as Ambassador to Afghanistan, was a junior officer in the Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) Bureau under Henderson, and would accompany him to India. John Stutesman was a consular, and later political, officer in Iran from 1950 to 1953.
John Harter, then a junior FSO and American Foreign Service Association board member consulted with Henderson during the “Wristonization” process. Alan Lukens was a junior officer who became charge d’affaires in Brazzaville when the French colonies in Africa became independent in 1960. Finally, Robert Ryan Sr. was Executive Director of NEA from 1955 to 1958 during the twilight of Ambassador Henderson’s amazing career.
For a first-hand account from the diplomat himself, an interview with Henderson is stored in the Truman Library archives, and can be accessed from their website. Learn how he helped push for better language instruction at the Foreign Service Institute.
Go to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History
“Collective security or territorial aggrandizement?”
John McCargar, Foreign Service Candidate, 1942
McCARGAR: On the 6th of January 1942 I took my oral examination [to enter the Foreign Service]…. [During the examination, Assistant Secretary of State] Dean Acheson said, “Now, Mr. McCargar, you’ve studied Russian. You’ve studied Russian history. You apparently know a great deal about Russia. What is your estimation of the post-war policy of the Soviet Union? Collective security or territorial aggrandizement?”
Well, I may have been young but I wasn’t that stupid. So I walked all around that question. After some of my meandering, Acheson raised his fist and slammed it down on the table in front of him. No Board laughter here. Acheson said, “Stop evading the question! Answer it!” So, stifling a gulp of panic, I said “Territorial aggrandizement.”
Exam’s over, [Secretary of the Foreign Service Board Robert] MacAtee comes out and says “You passed,” and (presumably because I spoke Russian) took me up to Loy Henderson, at that time Director of East European Affairs, and — apart from Ray Murphy — the Department’s chief expert on the Soviet Union.
The first thing I said to Mr. Henderson was, “I don’t know whether I’ve made a terrible mistake, but this is what I said to Assistant Secretary Acheson in response to his direct question.”
Henderson looked up at me from his desk, and said “You didn’t make a mistake.”
Q: So Loy Henderson had no illusions about the Soviet Union.
McCARGAR: None. And one result was my assignment to the Soviet Union.
“There is only one thing that we can do, and that is to be good soldiers in carrying out the policy”
John M. Steeves, Near Eastern Affairs Bureau 1945-1948, New Delhi 1948-1950
STEEVES: Prior to our departure that year , the discussions on Palestine and its future was all consuming. The Balfour Declaration [the November 2, 1917 letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild that made public the British support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine] had been passed by Britain, virtually washing their hands of this naughty problem. In doing this the British had passed the buck to us to shepherd to some kind of solution with the help of the United Nations.
If the Jews were to be given their temporal state again, their homeland, it had to be done with the utmost care to keep it from blowing the Near East wide open. There might be ways for it to be done if it was done gradually and with the proper safeguards, but the way it would be looked upon in 1947, by the Arab World and those who sympathized with the Palestinians, was that there had been ruthless rape of the Palestinians and their rights.
They were thrown out lock, stock and barrel with no arrangement for compensation, for their homes, for their lands and cruelly being sent into refugee camps and being told, “You Arabs take care of yourselves somehow, we don’t care how you do or who does it.” Those close to the problem saw rather clearly what would happen. NEA [Near Eastern Affairs Bureau], the policy operating group advising the Secretary and the President, tried very hard to see not only what was necessary, because we could see that probably the idea of a home for the Jews of some kind had to be satisfied.
Political pressures back home were great, but it had to be done right or we would see the storm it would create in the Near East. NEA got to be looked upon, and Loy Henderson and his staff in particular, as the people who were dragging their heels in carrying out a policy that the Zionists and their sympathizers were hammering home by leaders like Eleanor Roosevelt and President Truman.
Because of his well-known advice to move with extreme caution at this delicate time, neither Ambassador Henderson nor the Department of State was informed that the act of supporting the U.N. Resolution was going to take place. The action was learned of from The New York Times that the United Nations had passed the Resolution. Then, of course, all hell broke loose….
I can remember one of the remarks indicative of Loy Henderson’s principle of loyalty to authority even if he personally disagreed with it, which he made the very next day, “Well, our position has been thrown out and there is no room at all for the feelings that NEA or I personally hold, nor any of our recommendations. There is only one thing that we can do and that is to be good soldiers in carrying out the policy. So from here on out the explanation has got to be that this is the United States’ policy and the status of the new Israel must be protected and the Arabs must learn to get along with the United States support of Israel.”
I sat with him during some of his interviews in the days after that and you would never know that he ever held a different view in his life. (Photo: President Truman with P.M. David Ben Gurion and Ambassador Abba Eban)
Q: Did you have the feeling at the time that Loy Henderson was sent to India [in 1948] because he was so sympathetic with the Arab world and the idea was to get him out of the picture…?
STEEVES: There could have been an element of that. Henderson was not well accepted by the Zionists. They had him targeted and as you know when they have their ways of influencing action. If that was there, it was out of my sight. I didn’t see it.
“Loy Henderson had no peers in his knowledge of protocol and procedure and policy”
STEEVES: When [Ambassador Henderson and I] got to India, independence had been declared the year before . They had gone through the bloodbath of the first few months of it. The awful scenes of the massacres and slaughter of innocent people by the train load when they were exchanging people, Muslims allegedly going north and Hindus coming south. There was a train load of Muslims passing through the native state of Patiala that were stopped at a station and the Sikhs systematically went through that train and murdered every single individual on it. Of course, coming the other direction, the same thing was likely to happen to Hindus going south.
We had excellent relations [with the Indian government]…. For instance there came the event very soon after our arrival when we went to present our credentials to the new President of India. Ambassador Henderson was the first full-blown American Ambassador there in the new India and the Indians had no other understanding of pomp and ceremony, but to carry the ceremony out about like the British had done.
Having been in India before and remembering some of the same affairs with the British; there were those same Sikh guards, with their long lances, high turbans, etc., so statuesque you could have stuck a lighted cigarette in their eye and they would not have blinked.
We got up to the Durbar Hall where after all of the dramatic ceremony before the great oaken doors would be swung open, to match the scene nothing less than seeing an armored knight on a white charger come out to announce the President would have been appropriate. But instead a little man leaning on a cane came out wearing a turban, a dhoti, and dark glasses….
This was [Chakravarti] Rajagopalachari — the first President of India .He was a wonderful scholar, a truly great man, but still of the old-fashioned orthodox Brahmin ways. He was very strict in the observance of his Brahmin caste rules.
I had heard this story the day before and knowing a good deal about India I believed it. In order to purify the food that came out of the great fancy kitchen downstairs he had to have the walls smeared with cow dung in order to purify it. When he came to Loy Henderson’s house for a meal, which he finally agreed to do, he had to bring his own bearers along with his own utensils to stand behind his chair and serve it to him. He couldn’t touch anything in the place….
Loy Henderson had no peers in his knowledge of protocol and procedure and policy and things of that nature. He was a wonderful gentleman and a good teacher to learn from and take instructions from. I can see him just sitting there going over your draft and saying, “Take this or that out, save superlative words of that nature for some really demanding moment.” He was a good preceptor and disciplinarian when it came to that type of form. He was the same way when dealing with people in a very correct and proper way.
Now, having said that, his usefulness with all of that ability in dealing with leaders like [Indian Prime Minister] Pandit Nehru was diminished a little bit by the fact that secretly he disliked and mistrusted Nehru. He disliked Nehru with a passion and didn’t appreciate him but dealt with him very correctly.
The day that Truman ordered American troops into Korea [in June 1950]…, President Truman sent instructions out to the Ambassador to go to Prime Minister Nehru and see if he could get his permission to send an Indian contingent in the United Nations force into Korea.
Loy Henderson, with all the experience he had had in Russia and elsewhere, made a remark I found a bit strange. What he said to me in the car going up there that day (he had asked me to go up with him to see Nehru) was, “Today is one of the proudest moments of my career.” He would have rocked me back on my heels if he had said that when I was standing up.
I figured out in thinking about it years later that he was so glad to be the messenger of that kind of a tough message to this Nehru, and to tell him what the great United States expected of him if he wanted to be a decent member of the world community. (Photo: Ambassador Henderson with Nehru)
The Ambassador couldn’t forget that after all that China had done when the Communists took over the country, Nehru, in the early days of the independence of India, had been the first to recognize the brutal Communist regime. He had stabbed the poor Chinese in the back by throwing out the Nationalist Chinese [Taiwanese] Ambassador and was one of the first to invite in the Communist Chinese Ambassador….
Henderson was kind of a purist in the way he lived and thought of other people. He didn’t want you to profess to be one thing and then turn out to be something else. Nehru to him was in a way a British country gentleman and then turned around and tried to be an Indian peasant in politics and the two didn’t fit at all. One personality was always jarring against the other. For him to be almost kissing Gandhi’s feet was next to ridiculous, almost comic opera to see him in this sycophantish way act around Gandhi….
“Mr. Henderson had a deep reluctance to have a covert operation displace a chief of state”
John Stutesman, Consular/Political Officer, Tehran, 1950-1953
STUTESMAN: I go back to when [Henderson] arrived in Tehran, he was a complete, really a dramatic change from [Ambassador Henry] Grady, without in any way trying to say one was better than the other. The fact is, without any question, that Mr. Henderson was a more certain person in dealing with the quagmire and walking across the bog of Iranian politics.…
By the time Henderson came, it had been clear that almost all avenues [of negotiation between Britain and Iran] had been exhausted. So Henderson came in, in my view, with an instruction to do what he could, but mainly to set up lines of communication to [Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad] Mossadegh and to the Shah, upon which we could build something new. Of course, that’s what he did…
Loy Henderson was one of the great classic diplomats of all time. He was a man of astonishing honesty, sincerity, gentleness, and a wonderful mind. He was just an extraordinary man. He treated the Shah with absolute sincerity and respect. He never gave the Shah any sense of looking down on him nor treating him as a less than emperor of emperors….
My recollection is that Henderson’s first attitude toward Mossadegh was one of treating him openly and continuing to try to work out some negotiated settlement with the British which would meet British and American concerns.…
The decision to overthrow Mossadegh was made, I believe, by [Walter B.] “Bedell” Smith, who was then Under Secretary and who, as you know, had come from the post in CIA, and who had been Chief of Staff to Eisenhower, so that you had a very tight family relationship there. You had Eisenhower as President, John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State, his brother Allen as the head of CIA, and Smith having been the closest associate of Eisenhower during the war and having been the Deputy in CIA, now as the Deputy in the State Department. So when “Bedell” spoke, he spoke not only with direct instructions, but also with a deep understanding of what his principals were thinking….
Now, they obviously did not work without involving Mr. Henderson….But I believe that Mr. Henderson had a deep reluctance to have a covert operation displace a chief of state. I think he had a long-term reluctance and a long-term sense of uneasiness about what this might do to the future.…(Photo: Shah Reza Pahlavi with Mossadegh)
Henderson’s role was nonetheless to carry out policy, and he very carefully developed an attitude and helped to sponsor an attitude in Iran that Mossadegh was leading the country to ruin and to Communist control. Whether Henderson believed that or not, I don’t know, but that’s certainly the way he worked. He did it, including removing himself from the scene. I don’t remember the exact timing, but it seems to me that he was out of Iran….
Q: On vacation, I think.
STUTESMAN: Yes. Of course, it’s so unlike Henderson to take a holiday right in the middle of a crisis. All of these things were worked out.
Wristonization and Personnel Reform: The Great Scrambling of Eggs
John Harter. American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) Board Member, 1959
HARTER: Numerous commissions, expert groups, and reports in the late 1940s concluded the personnel situation at the State Department was not good, because Foreign Service personnel were mostly overseas, and most positions in the Department were filled by Civil Service personnel who had not lived or worked overseas….
As soon as [John Foster Dulles] became Secretary of State [in 1953], he froze all Foreign Service assignments and set up the Wriston Commission to study the Department’s personnel operations. He appointed Henry M. Wriston, who had been President of Brown University, to head it. The Wriston Commission recommended in more shrill terms than ever before that the status quo should not continue. The Department’s Civil Service personnel should immediately be integrated into the Foreign Service, and this should be done quickly. It should not be phased….
[T]he Foreign Service tripled in size overnight. All Foreign Service Officers were obligated to take jobs in Washington, and all Civil Service officers immediately became Foreign Service Officers who could expect to be assigned overseas. That created a lot of turmoil!
A Civil Service officer in Washington who backstopped the issuance of visas could be integrated as an FSO-2 and suddenly assigned to head the visa office at a major foreign post, even if that individual was not psychologically equipped to go overseas suddenly and was insufficiently experienced in overseas operations….
Loy Henderson was the most conspicuous Foreign Service Officer who [initially] opposed Wristonization when the Wriston report came out. He thought it would ruin the Foreign Service, because he thought most Civil Service officers were not qualified to do Foreign Service work.
But, in my view, one of the most intelligent things Dulles did was to ask Henderson to implement Wristonization. I was on the board of the American Foreign Service Association while all this chaos was going on, and that is why I became aware of these developments. Wristonization was the pervasive issue that dominated the board’s attention at that time. Although I was a very junior officer, I recommended to the board that we, as the full board, should meet with Henderson to discuss Wristonization….
Before the board agreed to my recommendation that we should meet with Loy Henderson, most of the board members were quite hostile to Wristonization, but after our first session with him, we were persuaded that this was the way the Department should go.
We had several sessions with Henderson, and he very eloquently explained that two very different personnel systems – systems with very different rules and regulations for recruitment, promotion, allowances, and retirement – were administered alongside each other, all kinds of crises, tensions, and resentments were bound to develop. That’s why he was convinced that the disparate systems had to be amalgamated.
Q: How did the selection-out principle work during Wristonization?
HARTER: Henderson fudged it a little. I was told that he held special briefings for the selection boards, pointing out that Civil Service personnel had been plunged into a new world they weren’t expecting, and they should be given special consideration, especially since their performance records were inherently not comparable to those who had been in the Foreign Service for some years.
In fact, Henderson had doubts about the entire promotion system, based on ranking officers from “the best” to “the worse.” For those reasons, he refused to allow selection-out during his tenure, except for cases involving clear incompetence or malfeasance. This is more or less my recollection of what he told me in later years. Henderson resisted pressures from some younger officers who wanted to get rid of the bald heads and gray heads who had become senior Foreign Service Officers through Wristonization. For that reason, those younger officers were very critical of his policies….
[John F.] Kennedy and his team, of course, heard all of these complaints [after entering office in 1961]. Loy Henderson wanted to continue in his position as the Department’s number five official [Deputy Under Secretary of State for Administration], with overall responsibility for personnel, security, buildings, and everything administrative. He lobbied to retain that position – and he encouraged us on the board to do what we could to pass the word along that he should stay on for a transition period. Unfortunately, in my view, the Kennedy administration rejected that option out of hand.
I think it’s fair to say Henderson was embittered; he knew the Department needed someone at that point who understood what was going on. He knew there was incredibly ill-informed opposition to Wristonization, and he knew many people thought the Department should be de-Wristonized. “We have to unscramble the eggs,” the critics said. And that was the word that percolated through to Kennedy’s principal cohorts.
Dean Rusk was, in many respects, an outstanding Secretary of State. He was brilliant and broad gauged, but hawkish, and he had no visible interest in administration and personnel matters. The Kennedy Administration named Roger Jones to replace Henderson.
Jones had headed the Civil Service Commission and was, in that capacity, in constant battle with Henderson over Wristonization. He was expected to de-Wristonize the Department, but, instead of doing that, he appointed a committee to study what should be done. That was the Herter Committee, chaired by Christian Herter, who had been Secretary of State during the last two years of the Eisenhower Administration….The Herter Committee took a few months to complete its report, which essentially recommended maintaining the status quo.
“He wanted an American embassy in every place”
Alan W. Lukens, Chargé d’Affaires, Brazzaville, 1960
LUKENS: This was the situation when I got there in early ’60. Of course, without belaboring the point, that was the big year of African independence. And [French President Charles] de Gaulle by that time had had his referendum throughout French Africa as to whether or not they would like to stay in the French commonwealth. They all voted to, gave the “grande oui,” except that Guiana refused and the French backed out of there in a very arrogant way….
Loy Henderson had decided ahead, of course, that he wanted to have an American embassy in each place, [and] he went through the motions of asking each president.
I’ll never forget in the Chad, [pictured, François] Tombalbaye…was President and standing there in his long boubou (that’s the long white sack that the Chadians wear). We went in to see the President and I was interpreting.
Henderson didn’t know any French, and he would say, “Do you want an American embassy?”
And the President would say, “Oui, patron.”
And then, “Do you want an Ambassador?” “Oui, patron.” And then, I’ll never forget in Chad, in this same wonderful open car, sitting with Henderson as we drove out along the river, and he said, “Tell them that we want these ten acres for the American Embassy.”
And the Minister of Defense, who was a 25-year old boy sitting in the front seat, kept saying, “Oui, oui, oui.”
The only problem with this little trip of Henderson’s was that we had to buy property, or get it in each place. And unfortunately he’d sent a couple of goons out from FBO [Foreign Buildings Operations] ahead of time, and these were heavy-handed guys that got in the hands of the French real estate market in each place, and started to line up houses and buildings.
So there wasn’t any great surprise when I landed there in a special plane with Henderson to ask if they wanted American embassies, because these FBO clowns had already been trying to buy up property. (Read an insider’s perspective on life in the FBO.)
Anyway, it developed then that the plan was to have an ambassador in Brazzaville [Congo] for the four countries [of French Equatorial Africa, which consisted of Chad, Central African Republic, Congo and Gabon], but have a chargé and an admin officer and a secretary communicator, basically, in each of the other three.
The first Ambassador to be named had been Consul General in Frankfurt, Wendell Blancke, and Henderson asked me whether I would like to stay on as his DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], or be Chargé in one of the other places. So I chose Bangui and Fred Chapin…was the one in Chad, and Walter Diamanti went to Libreville, and Leon Dorros, who served as DCM under Blancke in Brazzaville, followed by Hank Von Oss who is retired now, took over.
“They couldn’t bamboozle him and they couldn’t ask him stupid questions that he couldn’t answer”
Robert J. Ryan, Sr., Executive Director of NEA, 1955-1958
RYAN: [Loy Henderson], of course, was Mr. Foreign Service. He was regarded, I think, in my day as the most respected and senior member of the Service. He coupled a heavy substantive background with a fairly good management and organization sense. He had a way of dealing with people that brought about confidence and respect so that he had a pretty good public relations posture.
He had a very good standing with the Foreign Service, with the Department, because he knew them well having worked both inside the Department and the Foreign Service. He was an able and articulate individual who was able to articulate the problems and the desires of the Foreign Service. He was the ideal front guy.
Under Loy Henderson, I think the morale of the Department and the Foreign Service was elevated as was the whole public impression of the Department and the Foreign Service.
I had the privilege of working in the administrative area when he was the Under Secretary and have the highest regard for him.
I think that some of the weaknesses that came about in the Department and the Foreign Service in later years may partially be attributed to the fact that the individual in the post of Under Secretary for Administration and
Management was, more often than not, not a person from the Foreign Service so he had no way of having an intimate knowledge of what was involved. I think if you ran a check you would find that probably seven out of ten of the Under Secretaries of State for Administration and Management were political appointees.
Q: And not staying very long.
RYAN: And not staying very long and not able to particularly articulate the needs of the Service when up with the Congress.
Loy, when he went up before the Congress…they couldn’t bamboozle him and they couldn’t ask him stupid questions that he couldn’t answer. I think that was one of the bright periods of the Foreign Service.