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The Tiananmen Square Massacre — June 4, 1989

The 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square was one of the most heart-wrenching displays of state suppression of peaceful assembly in recent history. Following the death of pro-reform Communist leader Hu Yaobang in April 1989, thousands of Chinese students gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to march in his memory. Within days the gathering had transformed into a mass demonstration against corruption in the government, with calls for democratic reforms. The students were joined by civil workers, intellectuals, and public servants; at the height of the protests, up to a million people assembled in the Square.

By mid-May protests had spread to 400 cities. After several failed negotiations to persuade the protesters to leave, the government resolved to use force. Soldiers and tanks from the People’s Liberation Army were deployed to take control of Beijing and clear Tiananmen Square on June 3-4. The PLA opened fire on the crowds, killing hundreds to thousands of civilians. Read more

The Chinese Interpreter Who Said “No” to President Nixon

It is one of the most important Presidential visits in American history. Richard Nixon’s meeting with Chairman Mao led to a diplomatic opening with China and greatly altered geopolitics. Being a member of the official delegation was, of course, a great honor, and everyone did what they were asked to do by the White House. That is, except for Chas Freeman, who was the senior interpreter. Read more

Apocalypse Not – The Evacuation from Can Tho, Vietnam — April 1975

The shaky peace that had held in Vietnam since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 began to crumble in late 1974 after North Vietnam began a series of military offensives which pushed the South Vietnamese army back on its heels. By early 1975 it had become painfully apparent that there would not be two Vietnams, as had existed in Korea, but that the North would soon be in Saigon. Despite this, Ambassador Graham Martin refused to believe that a collapse was imminent and had stalled in authorizing evacuation plans, much to the dismay of his subordinates. Terry McNamara at the time was Consul General in the city of Can-Tho. Pushing through the maze of bureaucracy and against the background of an unprecedented American defeat, McNamara came up with a bold plan that would allow him to evacuate a great number of Vietnamese employees in addition to the American staff. Read more

“The U.S. values amateurism over professionalism in diplomacy”

Chas W. Freeman, Jr. is one of those rare diplomats with brilliant language abilities who also was involved in an astonishing range of key events in the last 30 years of the 20th century. While his ancestors may have been a bit rakish, he grew up in the Bahamas in a household where it was expected to speak a foreign language at dinner. He joined the Foreign Service as “a perfect escape from boredom and monotony” and somehow became almost bilingual in Mandarin in two years (an unheard-of accomplishment) and then served as one of the interpreters during Nixon’s historic trip to China.

After serving as Deputy Chief of Mission in China and Thailand (where he also became fluent in Thai), he was named Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs in 1986, then Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (after learning Arabic), where he worked with General Schwarzkopf during Desert Storm (you can read more here).  In these excerpts, Ambassador Freeman frankly (and often critically) discusses his upbringing; his experience in China; his observations about the Foreign Service as a “proto-profession which is unable to learn from its mistakes; Public Diplomacy officers vs. FSOs;  the problem with “Africanists;” interagency negotiating (e.g., when you have a problem with the Department of Commerce, schedule the meeting for early evening since they will want to go home and therefore will make concessions); the difficulties of working in Saudi Arabia and the lack of a war-termination strategy for Desert Storm; and his hope that the Foreign Service will one day become truly professional. He was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in April 1995.

Return to Fascinating Figures

A Rakish Ancestry and a Privileged Upbringing

FREEMAN:  I’m a typical product of centuries of American miscegenation. The Freemans came to this country in 1621. And there is a family tradition (which may or may not be correct) that the reason for this is recorded in a famous English law case called Freeman vs. Freeman, in which, as I recall, my putative ancestor was a rake and a ne’er-do-well in London (the family was originally from Devon) and was persuaded by a wealthy uncle, having lost all his own money in gambling and drinking, that he should marry a very ugly, overage young lady who was the ward of this uncle. Being a scoundrel, he naturally insisted on a written contract. In return for marrying this girl, he got an annual income and a lump sum. The uncle made it clear to him, orally, that the contract was dependent on his refraining from drink and gambling, and his behaving like a

gentleman. He didn’t live up to the terms of the contract, needless to say. And this resulted in a lawsuit in which he tried to enforce the contract against his uncle. He lost. When he lost, he abandoned his wife, went to Holland and became a Puritan, repented of his sins, I reckon, and then moved to the Plymouth Colony. One brother went to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and remarried, bigamously. So that’s the start of the line.

The family has been around in the United States long enough so that I can count thirteen European nationalities and one American Indian tribe in my background, and some illustrious ancestors — John Adams and John Quincy Adams among them, and Governor John Winthrop, in an earlier period….

My mother was an artist and architect from Boston, Carla Elizabeth Park. The two of them [she and my father] ended up in Nassau, the Bahamas, initially running and then later buying a hotel of some antiquity and distinction, called the Royal Victoria, which had been built during the Civil War for the gun and cotton runners of the South…. So I grew up in the Bahamas….

The teachers at that school in the Bahamas included quite an eclectic lot, many of whose backgrounds I didn’t know at the time. A history teacher was arrested, in the course of one of my classes, as a war criminal by the British authorities, and returned to Germany for trial. I never knew quite what happened to him. The Latin and Greek teacher, who was an RAF ace, turned out to have been drummed out of the RAF for egregious homosexual behavior. The geography teacher was a South African Communist in exile. My scripture teacher later defected to a job at BOAC as a stewardess, which probably lowered the standards of beauty in that organization, but certainly improved our scripture teaching….

I should say that there is a family tradition, on my mother’s side, going back at least to the time of my great grandfather, which would be the late nineteenth century, of conversation twice a week at the dinner table in a foreign language. And each generation chose its language. For my grandfather’s generation, it was German, although my grandfather was also bilingual in French, having lived in Strasbourg for a while. For my mother’s generation, it was French, although she also knew Spanish. Having Robert Redfield, who was an anthropologist, as an uncle, she had spent a year with the Redfields in Guatemala while they were doing field research. For my generation, the language was French, again. And for my children, it was Chinese….

First, I should say that my father had succeeded magnificently in business in the Bahamas and had multiple interests — in addition to the Royal Victoria, another hotel, a rental car agency, a recording company, a nightclub, a restaurant, some supermarket investments in Cuba, which proved to be a bad thing as Castro came along…. He was overextended at that time, having just renovated the two hotels, and this brought him down financially. He ended up staying on in Nassau as a real estate agent for several years while he paid off a few million dollars in debt, and then moved to California….

When I was at Yale, I was a full-scholarship student. That gave me an incentive to try to get through quickly. And the incentive was added to when, shortly after I arrived there, I met a girl, whom I courted madly, even dropping out of the swimming team in order to pursue that courtship, got her pregnant, and had to marry her. (Well, at least I thought I did.) I had a quite happy marriage of thirty years with her, which broke up only in the summer of 1992, in a very nasty way….

I took quite a range of courses: history, political science, economics. I took a full accounting course, enough to have probably gone for a CPA if I’d wanted to. I did biology. I did not do any of the physical sciences other than that, though I did some biochemistry. I did sociology and found it inane and didn’t pursue it. I took a course in linguistics. I taught myself, outside of school, some strange things. I had gone to Europe when I was fifteen and met a Danish girl, and I taught myself to read and write Danish to carry on a correspondence. I learned Anglo Saxon in order to read the poetry, although I didn’t take very many English courses at Yale. I took a fair amount of philosophy. So it was a very diffuse experience….

I decided that really what I wanted to do was join the Foreign Service…. It seemed to me that the Foreign Service offered a career that was in some

respects the antithesis of the law. Whereas lawyers are like oysters, who have a free-swimming polyp phase but then soon settle down on a rock and grow a shell of clients and flap their jaws in the tide for a living. In the Foreign Service, every several years, one has a complete change of scene, not simply colleagues with whom one is working, but physical location, cultural location, and linguistic location. Therefore, it seemed to me that it, as a career, offered a perfect escape from boredom and monotony….

My primary encounters with Foreign Service people had been unfortunate. In 1960…two friends and I decided to hitchhike to Tierra del Fuego. As we went south in Central America, things got gloomier and gloomier, and we turned around and went back to Mexico…. I was sleeping peacefully on the beach one night. I was awakened with a flashlight in my eyes and a prick in my throat, which was a bayonet. It turned out that I was sleeping in a maximum-security zone just in front of the oil fields and refinery in Tampico. So the Mexican army rounded me up, and I was taken off to the brig. Somehow the local consul was awakened from his slumbers and came out and got me and my two friends out of the custody of the Mexican military and allowed us to sleep on their kitchen floor (we were fairly scruffy) for the remainder of the night. They gave us breakfast, very kindly.

But what was most notable about them was that, while they had spent their entire career in Latin America, his Spanish was dreadful, and her Spanish was kitchen Spanish, no verb conjugations and the like. I thought to myself, as I reviewed that experience, “My God, if that’s what is in the Foreign Service, I can surely excel.”…

“The U.S. continues to value amateurism over professionalism in diplomacy”

The nature of the training [A-100 course for incoming Foreign Service Officers] I found disappointing…. I commented to you on the work I’m currently doing on statecraft and diplomacy. I had expected something really rather different, having read some memoirs of European diplomats. I expected a bit more emphasis on what I would call professional knowledge and was quite surprised to see that a great part of the course was taken up with explaining the organization of the U.S. government, very little with tradecraft, which was what I was most interested in. I found the A-100 quite spotty, as a course, and quite disappointing. The only thing that I found really satisfying was the consular segment of it, because that had some meat and substance, and, by God, you had to know that stuff or you were going to flunk on the job….

I gave a talk at the Foreign Service Association…on the question of whether diplomacy is a profession. My view is that it ought to be, but is not…. Professions have certain common characteristics. One of them is, by the way, tutelage by elders, a period of apprenticeship. That has now been substituted in the military, the legal profession, and the clergy, by specialized schools. West Point was the first for the military; the Harvard Law School pioneered professional legal education; and divinity schools, which existed from the outset of the university system in this country, have

taken over the function for the clergy. There is no comparable thing for the Foreign Service. Therefore, elders teaching new entrants the rules of the game and the ropes of the trade is essential. And what I found most missing in the A-100 course was exactly that. It was very interesting and useful to know about the organization of the CIA and how it related to the rest of the government, and the NSC structures that then existed, and the organization of the Pentagon, as well as, of course, the Department of State. But the lore of diplomacy, the tradecraft of it, and its relationship to statecraft were not addressed.

A second characteristic that a profession has is a self-certifying process. That is that professional competence is certified over the course of the career. The Foreign Service has that in the form, now, of commissioning in tenure boards and promotion panels and selection in and out of different grades. So that it has this in inchoate form.

Another characteristic is a code of ethics. The Foreign Service has such a code of ethics, but it’s inchoate and unwritten. There are certain rules that we all learn in the course of our careers. For example, the protection of confidences, which is an ethical principle just as much as the attorney-client privilege is in the law….

The importance of all of this is that self-consciousness as a member of a profession leads to better training. It defines what is being trained and stimulates training. Second, it leads to tutelage and apprenticeship relationships in the profession. And third, as the profession is recognized as such, entry by unqualified people is barred. Sometime around the 1840s, it became unthinkable for anyone to be appointed a colonel in the U.S. Armed Forces without having had a professional military education. That was violated in the Civil War, but the basic principle has stood. No one would imagine that a politician with distinguished credentials in that field, or a businessman with distinction in the field of business, was qualified to run a carrier battle group or to command a division. In the clergy, similarly, you cannot now aspire to serious status professionally without credentials….

So the problem of the U.S. Foreign Service is that, whereas the United States pioneered the development of professions of the military, the law, and the clergy, the Foreign Service, for various reasons, failed to acquire those professional characteristics and to formalize its professionalism. And therefore it is vulnerable to the placement of friends of politicians in positions where they exercise great responsibility on behalf of the nation without understanding the simplest elements of what goes into discharging those responsibilities well. The United States is now, to my knowledge, the only significant country, and may be well on the way to being the only country, that continues to value amateurism over professionalism in diplomacy…. My own view is that the Foreign Service is going to be vulnerable to grotesque political manipulation for as long as it fails to follow the military, the law, and the clergy in professionalizing itself….

An Amazing Student of Chinese

I reported for Chinese-language studies at FSI the day after New Year’s, 1969. There were two other starting students, both of whom had graduate degrees in Chinese studies and Chinese language from the University of Michigan. However, the linguist in charge…tested them and found their

grammar and pronunciation greatly wanting, and decided to start them again at the beginning, which was quite humiliating for them. And I found it embarrassing for me, because I thought I would hold them back and would to some extent destroy the utility of this experience for them. So I determined to work hard and to try to catch up with them. And I worked very hard. And the result was that, within about three months, I passed them, and within six months, I had a 2+/2+ in Chinese [reading and conversation, on a five-point scale], which I think was unprecedented. So rather than continuing for the full year at FSI Washington, they sent me to T’ai-chung, to the language school there.

I arrived there August of 1969. The school in T’ai-chung was deliberately separated from the embassy in Taipei in order to prevent the embassy from raiding the student body, as it would have. And I continued to work exceedingly hard. I managed to talk my teachers into allowing me to have nine and a half hours of class a day. I’d start at 6:30. The result was that, several months after I arrived there, I got a 3/3, which was supposedly the objective of the two-year course. I kept grinding away, and I ended up eventually with a 4+/4+ [reading/speaking; in this case, nearly bilingual] in Mandarin. But along the way, some things happened. I decided to learn Taiwanese, which is as different from Mandarin as Dutch is from English. I ended up with a 3+ in that.

But as 1970 unfolded, the Department was casting around for an interpreter to replace Don Anderson…. I suddenly got a call, March 1970, asking me whether I would go to Warsaw, where the talks were held with the Chinese Communists, as interpreter…. I should say, one thing I did at T’ai-chung was exhaust the library. And I ended up producing an annotated bibliography of the library for the student body. So I was still reading, even though I was getting up every morning and writing a thousand-character essay for the 6:30 class….

I also was aware that classroom environment is not Chinese. My wife, who was from New Jersey, learned Chinese. We gave up English and spoke nothing but Chinese at home. My three children all became proficient in it. My youngest child, Nathaniel, who was an infant when we arrived, left Taiwan knowing no English, only Chinese. I sight-translated the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkien’s book, into Chinese for my children. I’m probably the only person who’s ever done that….

Following up on the China Trip – How to Work the Bureaucracy

Part of the process that led up to the Nixon visit [read more about his experience as interpreter during the visit] was signaling the Chinese by the removal of restrictions on trade and travel and exchanges of one sort or another. But that process was far from complete, and there needed to be major adjustments made in American law and regulation to accommodate the new relationship with the Chinese.

As I recall, within a week or so of the president’s return from China, Dr. Kissinger commissioned two National Security studies, one on economic relations and one on cultural relations with China. And he set about a one-week deadline for the conclusion of these, imagining, I suppose, that there was a vast army of bureaucrats below him who could now fill in the details of what he had done.

Well, that vast army of bureaucrats for both studies was basically me. So I spent a week, often a whole night at the office, now out of the Ops Center, drafting two National Security study memoranda, and then circulating these drafts on an interagency basis, and spending much of the following day negotiating with other agency representatives in an effort to get some kind of agreement.

The bureaucracy was especially recalcitrant on the issue of relaxing export controls, and the difficulty of coming up with agreed language was quite considerable.

I discovered a number of things about the culture of Washington bureaucracies.

For example, if you called a meeting for five o’clock in the afternoon, by about six-thirty, the Department of Commerce representatives were

desperate to go home and have their martinis and dinner, and would begin to make major concessions. So the first lesson was always to call meetings late in the day when there was a controversy with Commerce.

The second lesson was that the Department of Defense, unlike the Department of Commerce, would sit there all night and obstruct. But their bureaucracy was so cumbersome that if you stayed up overnight and produced a redraft and then scheduled a meeting for the early afternoon, they would not have had time to coordinate their position, and you could rule them out of order as not having a position, and push forward.

Treasury was the wiliest and most insistent of all the bureaucracies we were dealing with, partly because the subject matter in which they had real expertise was minimal. They had opinions on many things, but their expertise was quite limited.

Q: Was it limited because China had just not been in their orbit? Or was it limited because they were limited? 

FREEMAN: Treasury historically has professed some sort of a major role in trade policy. But Treasury doesn’t promote trade in any way. It has no direct involvement with the business community, as opposed to bankers. And there is a real question as to whether bankers are an intelligent life form or not. So it was Treasury speaking as the custodian of national interest, as it saw it, even though it had no effective role in the issues that it often addressed…. 

On Public Diplomacy officers vs. State’s FSOs

USIS [U.S. Information Service] is, in a sense, a purer form of the Foreign Service (although my former colleagues at the State Department wouldn’t agree) than the State Department, in that its meaningful activity is almost entirely abroad and in interaction with foreigners. USIA, the headquarters, is a dull, uninteresting, boring place to work, generally. The people who run USIA won’t agree with that opinion, but it is commonly the opinion among those who must serve there.

Whereas, at State, there are really two kinds of FSOs. There are those who glory in overseas work. Most consular officers and many political and economic officers fall into that category. A lot of admin officers love the scope that they have to do things overseas, which they don’t have in the vast bureaucracy at the State Department. But there also are FSOs who see their role as policy formulators, and who are desperate to be where they think the action is, which is in Washington.

In USIA, you don’t find that sort of person. Or if you do, that sort of person is attracted to details to the State Department and not to the USIA headquarters.

But the interesting thing is, during my tour in India with USIA, I got incredible management experience, at a very young age, managing budgets, people, activities, programs, a sort of experience that, frankly, State does not offer, except perhaps in a few areas of consular work and refugee programs, at any point. Even the administrative function does not offer program management in this sense, experience that USIS officers get early on. They see themselves as doers, and they see the people at the State Department as twiddlers. This mirrors, I think, the image that many administrative officers at State have of those in the political and economic business. They don’t perceive the difficulties or the arcane nature of that work, and deny its professionalism. So I think it’s a profound difference.

Then there are other differences. Overseas, State officers work closely (or should, and most do) with colleagues from the intelligence services, whether they’re civilians from the CIA or military from the defense attaché’s office. They are collectors of information and reporters of information as much as presenters of it. To the extent that they are purveyors of information, they purvey an official line, rather than their own opinion, although they may use their own method of presentation, and they may embroider the official line with their own supporting views. But they are not free to express individual opinion.

USIS officers see themselves as presenting the diversity of American opinion. They don’t take easily to the official line.

And so there is a certain tension always between the mentally free-wheeling and, frankly, irresponsible USIS officer (irresponsible in the sense of not being responsible for the formulation of policy) and the State officer, who is responsible for the implementation of policy, and contributes to its formulation, and is, in a sense, always an official spokesman for the U.S. to the government to which he or she is accredited.

Now that exaggerates the situation quite a bit, but it is a description of a chasm that exists between the two, which makes the relationship very uneasy and leads to some mutual disrespect, I think, again, to the detriment of both….

I should mention one other cultural difference, which was very striking and quite difficult for me to adjust to. At State, I had worked on the China Desk and in other contexts where there was a 12 to 14-hour day. When you went home, you were never sure if you were going to have to go back, and you were constantly working under tight deadlines. When I went to USIA, I suddenly found that if I stood in the doorway at quitting time, I would be trampled by my staff, who rushed out the door. By 5:45 or so in the evening, I’d be all alone in the office. It was very difficult for me to adjust to a more abbreviated, leisurely work style; much more a sort of Civil Service type of work style than that at State. I think USIS officers also react the same way when they come back from overseas, where they have a day that is in the office, but then in the evening are usually involved with activities of one sort or another. When they find themselves in an organization where, frankly, the workload is not what it is overseas, they also have withdrawal symptoms…. 

On the Problem with Africanists

Q: What was the mood with the Africanists and others in the African Bureau, and also outside forces playing on you, such as Congress and the National Security Council? Can you describe that? 

FREEMAN: One thing that I discovered, in the course of reading, was that Africanists make Latin Americanists seem objective and balanced.

I’ve often thought (as I mentioned, my first education was in Latin American affairs) that Latin Americanists tend to be flagellants, beating themselves for the sin of being American, and blaming the United States for much of the ills of the Western Hemisphere, some of which indeed may be laid at our feet, but not all, by a long shot.

Africanists are even more passionately aligned with woolly-minded left-wing African causes, and prone to provide excuses for African lapses into strange institutions like single-party government. Human-rights violations that were committed against, for example, South Asians in East and Southern Africa passed without notice from these people. Many Africanists, I found, were apologists for really dreadful regimes in Africa. I think this is probably, in part, due to the American obsession with race. By becoming Africanists, these people were, in a sense, expiating the sins of their ancestors, or taking a stand in domestic American politics. Psychologically, that was important to them.

So this is one factor in the difficulty of managing a policy toward Africa that is realistic.

A second one is the level of ignorance. Most Americans, black or white, know very little about Africa, and tend to see it, depending on their political orientation, in terms of Shaka Zulu or Sheena of the Jungle or Tarzan. Africa is, of course, a real place, with real people, very complicated, good people, bad people, able people, and people who are not able. All of this essential detail fades away at this distance. You could say, in a sense, that Africa’s a blank screen on which Americans could project their fantasies about the issue of concern to them, for or against.

So that was a complication.

Finally, of course, having, in the 1960s, finally begun to come to grips with the travesty of American race relations, Americans felt self-righteous and inclined to pontificate and believed that we had the solutions for other people’s problems. We saw in South Africa (I should say, misperceived in South Africa) something resembling the Mississippi of Jim Crow.

Ronald Reagan came into this with a peculiar insensitivity to these sorts of issues. He was a man of enormous goodwill, I think genuinely color blind, in a sense, but at the same time, full of country club stereotypes, and prone to generalizations that wouldn’t withstand scrutiny. He swallowed various lines produced by South African propagandists to the effect that South Africa’s issues were not racial, but were tribal in nature. There’s an element of truth in that, but it’s very misleading. He had essentially, by his public statements from time to time, appeared to side with the apartheid regime against its opponents, or to endorse that regime against some of its weaker and beleaguered neighbors. So, essentially, by the spring of 1986, he had lost credibility on the central issue of concern to Americans, which was apartheid.

There was an effort made, in the spring and early summer of 1986, to turn this around, by having the president make a speech. And I actually wrote a draft. I wrote a hell of a good speech, actually, which was American, non-apologetic, realistic, but compassionate, which would have provided a basis for sustaining a policy of engagement with South Africa while at the same time stepping up the pressure against apartheid and helping the forces inside South Africa that were attempting to produce reform. That speech went to the White House pretty much the way I had written it. And exactly two lines of it survived the pen of one Pat Buchanan, who was the speechwriter for Reagan, and who himself has very definite views on racial issues and on Africa, about which he knows nothing.

The speech, which the White House took over and gave, was catastrophic, in terms of its political impact. It essentially cemented the total loss of control by the administration of the policy. And it resulted, by the late summer, early fall, in the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-apartheid Act over the president’s veto. That was a policy humiliation for him, and, I think, in many ways a misguided stance by the United States. Sanctions for the purpose of producing political reform have a very dubious history generally, even where American influence is paramount, as was the case with Noriega in Panama at a later time. Sanctions have proven incapable of producing internal reform.

In the case of their application to South Africa, as is normally the case with sanctions efforts, they became a very convenient vehicle for protectionist impulses in the United States.

So, for example, South African apples were banned, at the insistence of the Virginia and Washington State apple growers, despite the fact that the apple growers in South Africa were predominantly colored. We wiped out a good deal of the colored middle-class yeomanry in South Africa with this action.

The South African sugar quota was taken away and redistributed to the friends of various lobbyists. And yet sugar in South Africa was grown primarily by Zulus, not by whites. We impoverished this important non-ANC element of the black population….

On the Difficulties of Dealing with the American-Jewish Community

The American Jewish community, which had always been extremely suspicious of people who trafficked with the Arabs (who, of course, were professed enemies of Zionism in the Jewish State, and who, by and large, over the period of the ’50s and ’60s, abandoned the policies of tolerance

they had had toward Jewish minorities, and made life miserable for these minorities or actually expelled them), became increasingly hostile to Arabists in the State Department. It essentially became difficult, if not impossible, for Foreign Service officers dealing with the Arab world, or with the Middle East generally, to take anything other than a stance that was assertively loyal to causes espoused by the Israelis.

Whether the officers believed what they were saying or not was another matter, but they knew that the price of remaining in business was appropriate deference to Israeli interests.

By the ’80s, as AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), which was only formed at the end of the ’70s, achieved the transcendent influence in the Congress that it did, there was an atmosphere of intimidation, worthy of the McCarthy era, in many respects, imposed on Arabists.

So, when I spoke of poisonous politics (without taking any position on the merits of Israel’s case versus Arab countries’), I was referring to the sense that those of us in the Department of State, observing NEA [the Near East Asia Bureau] from afar, had that the Arab specialists there were operating under extraordinary political constraints, really worthy, in many ways, of those that apply in totalitarian countries. They could not speak, even privately to friends, an ill word of Israeli actions, let alone Israeli policy, without fear of consequences to their career. So this was not the sort of situation that one voluntarily moves oneself into, unless one has some great affinity for the Middle East, which I didn’t….

On the Dearth of Arabic-Speaking FSOs and the Challenge of Working in Saudi Arabia

I think a larger barrier, frankly, was language. By contrast with China, where as deputy chief of mission and, before that, as country director, as normalization began, I insisted on a level of linguistic competence that was virtually total in the embassy, a great part of the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia and the consulates consisted of people who had either no Arabic at all or whose Arabic was rudimentary. There were some exceptions, but there was not the depth of linguistic talent that I had seen when I worked in China.

One can speculate about why that is. Arabic, like Chinese, is, of course, an intimidatingly difficult language, although, frankly, I think its difficulty is overrated. The expense of training people for two years in a hard language is such that it is difficult to sustain, budgetarily, over a long period of time. But I suspect that it is because a great many of the most distinguished ambassadors that we had had in the field, and those who had worked in Washington as assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, themselves knew no Arabic. And since they managed to get along without it, they imagined that it was not necessary.

When I started learning Arabic (and I did, during the entire time that I was there, including during the war, except when it was simply physically impossible, put in at least an hour and often two hours a day on language, with a tutor or reading), I asked one of the most distinguished American diplomats in the field whether he had any particular insights into learning Arabic. And he told me, much to my surprise, that he had never learned it, and that he had not done so because, in his words, “I saw no point in acquiring the key to an empty room.”… It’s not an insight; it’s a slander and a very parochial attitude. Arabic culture is far from an empty room. To proclaim that the people with whom you are working inhabit an empty room is to say something very profound about yourself, rather than about them.

So, over the years, evidently, language-designated positions, at least in the establishment in Saudi Arabia, and I believe elsewhere in the Arab world, had either been de-designated as no officer suitable for the position could be found with Arabic, or had never been designated in the beginning. Of course, the problem is that if the positions are not designated, the training positions are not created. So you get into a vicious circle.

I would say, of the senior people on my staff, in a very large establishment, there were only two or three who really could handle Arabic at a level that I considered moderately impressive.

My own Arabic, as I studied, finally got to the point where I could understand virtually everything that was going on around me, as long as it was in the local dialect, rather than classical Arabic, which I made no effort to master. I couldn’t, of course, speak well, and in fact made no real effort to learn to speak well, because my concern was to be able to understand my environment. In any event, if one is an ambassador, I think one should speak with the precision that one’s native language provides, and not speak in a broken version of local language.

I think really the lack of linguistic depth in the embassy was a greater barrier to interaction.

You had asked earlier about how people got around. The restrictions of language and religion, I have discussed. Sexual apartheid in Saudi Arabia was a very significant barrier as well.

The Department of State, in its wisdom, and reflecting the drive toward affirmative action and diversity in American society, decided that Saudi Arabia should be treated like any other post for purposes of the assignment of female officers. This was, in my view, grotesquely unfair to them, even if they were interested and volunteered for the slots, and unfair to the rest of the embassy.

There was, for example, a very, very bright, able, young woman officer who was assigned to the political/military section. She could not get access to the Ministry of Defense, as a woman. She could not get into the building, nor could she have any social interaction with the officer corps. She was restricted, in her contacts, to foreign contractors and subcontractors or to telephone conversations. The net effect of this was that she became enormously frustrated and resentful. The work that she was supposed to do had to be done, and therefore it had to be done by others. Eventually, I managed to move her to a position where she could display her talent, and in fact she did all right.

It is difficult, not impossible, but difficult for female officers to be effective in certain functions, of which the political/military function is clearly one. In others, perhaps it’s less of a barrier.

There was another problem. Normal social life in the non-Islamic world is conducted between couples, but many Saudi couples would not appear in mixed company, so that evenings tended to be sexually segregated. There were nights when my wife would go one direction, and I would go another, and since evenings tend to be very late, we would not meet up until the wee hours of the morning, when we were separately delivered back to the residence. Saudi couples would come to the residence if they were sure who the other couples were. Women are concerned about their reputation in Saudi Arabia, as they are anywhere, and public appearance before strange men will become the subject of gossip and innuendo. Therefore, a great deal of time was spent arranging that nobody ever met anybody new, and that certain circles of friends were reassembled. Very often, I would invite people to the residence, and they would say, “We’d really rather that you come here,” not for any reason other than that they could then control the guest list.

Now having said that, when I did have the opportunity to meet the upper echelon of Saudi society, as couples, I was very, very impressed by the professionalism and level of education and competence of many of the women. They were doctors, they were businesspersons, they were engineers and professionals of one sort or another, who were managing to conduct very successful careers in this society, despite its peculiar strictures on contact across gender lines. They seemed to have very comfortable relationships with their husbands. Most Saudis are monogamous, but some are polygamous, up to the Koranic limit of four wives. Sometimes we would be in the company of a man with two wives, and it was very interesting to watch the interaction. The husband might well request that the wives unveil. But generally they wouldn’t, because whoever unveiled first might be criticized then by the other as a brazen hussy of some sort…. 

On the Aftermath of Desert Storm and the Bankrupting of Saudi Arabia

There was a huge battle, which really began in ’91 and continued through ’92, between my embassy and Washington, more particularly INR [the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research], on this issue.

INR persisted, right up through 1993 when the Saudis finally did essentially collapse financially, in insisting that the Saudis had all sorts of money squirreled away, in places that INR was never able to identify.

My perspective was that, no, they didn’t. Second, that it’s all very well to sit in Washington and say that the private wealth of members of the royal family should be available to the government. But the private individuals who make up the royal family are no more inclined to share their private wealth with the government than wealthy Americans are. Therefore, this equation simply was erroneous.

I think enormous damage was done to American policy by the persistent failure of the intelligence analysts, particularly in INR, to a lesser extent in the Central Intelligence Agency, which was a little more open minded on this, to recognize the financial strains, which are now acknowledged to exist. I had the misfortune of being right, before my correctness was recognized, and that was indeed interpreted as special pleading. And it contributed a great deal to friction between Secretary Baker, or, more accurately, Dennis Ross, and me.

But the fact is that the Saudis, on the eve of the outbreak of the war, August 2, 1990, probably had liquid assets, above the currency cover that was required by law, of only $3 billion. They went through that and then some in the first week.

The net result of the war, notwithstanding INR’s frankly injurious and self-serving analysis, since they were telling Secretary Baker what he wanted to hear, was to take Saudi Arabia from zero national debt to a national debt equivalent to 55 percent of GNP, overnight. In other words, the Saudis spent unbudgeted funds equivalent, in terms of the U.S. economy, to roughly $4 trillion. The Saudi Arabian economy is an economy of about $100 billion, the size of the State of Georgia. And while that provides fabulous wealth for a few, and a moderate standard of living for the many, it does not provide an endless cornucopia of dollars with which to do everything they wish.

The Saudis ended the war, in fact, financially lamed in a way that has had all of the consequences that I anticipated with apprehension from the fall of 1990, and, more particularly, from January 1991, on. We have had to do a sort of Chapter 11 reorganization on the foreign military sales program. Ironically, I ended up doing that, as assistant secretary of defense, in February 1994. We have had to curtail many programs in Saudi Arabia.

The general view in Saudi Arabia of the American role in the war has shifted from affection, respect, admiration, and gratitude to resentment of financial exactions, as the extent of those exactions became known.

At the end of the war, in fact, the DOD [Department of Defense] accountants had to struggle to show that we had not made a profit on the war. I believe, in fact, if it were not for accounting sleights of hand, we did. Now a good deal of that was not accounted for by the Saudis, but much of it was. I personally collected $16.9 billion from King Fahd, including $3.2 billion that he had never agreed to….

At any rate, one of the problems of fighting wars with other people’s money is that the other people may come to resent what you’re doing. And that was, I’m afraid, the case here.

When I left Saudi Arabia, in my farewell call on the finance minister, I treasured his remark when he asked me what I was going to do when I left. I said that I thought I had done enough government service, and I planned to go to the private sector. He said, “Well, I don’t know what you’re going to do, but if you ever need a letter of recommendation, say, for example, you decide to become a mafia bill collector, I will provide the letter,” which, unfortunately, I never did get from him, but I would have treasured such a letter.

So I found myself in the odd position of arguing with Washington that Saudi Arabia was strapped, and arguing with the Saudis that they could and should pay more. And I was more successful, I think, with Saudi Arabia than I was with Washington…. 

On the Failure to Conclude the Iraqi War Well

I think the results of the failure to devise a war-termination strategy were very far reaching. I imagine that the Iraqi generals must have gone out of that tent at Safwan having great difficulty restraining a broad smile. They must have assumed that one term that would have been laid on them, at a minimum, would be a requirement for a meeting between their government and the governments of the coalition forces or the United States or the U.N., at least someone representing the coalition forces, to arrange the terms of a permanent cease fire and, in effect, some sort of Iraqi capitulation.

The fact that no such meeting was requested or ever took place meant that the United Nations, several days later, ex post facto, defined war aims, to include reparations; demarcation of the Iraq-Kuwait border; an intrusive inspection regime to eliminate some elements of the Iraqi armaments industry, especially those related to weapons of mass destruction; a series of further restrictions on the movement of Iraqi forces within Iraq; and so forth. But Iraq never was compelled to agree to these explicitly, and since it did not accept these terms and has not really felt bound by them, it has cheated ever since.

The second major consequence of the failure to insist on a political negotiation to end the war was, in effect, that the war never ended. The military disgrace that we had visited on the Iraqi armed forces was not translated into political humiliation for Saddam Hussein. He was, in effect, able to stand in Baghdad and declare that he had survived the worst that the world could throw against him, and was a man of great staying power, strength, and formidable political skills. In a sense, much as Gamal Abdel Nasser did after the Suez Crisis, he was able to transform a military defeat into a kind of political vindication, with the result that he remains to this day in power in Baghdad, plotting revenge against the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, the Americans, and others who injured him. Therefore, as I say, the Gulf War, in a sense, never ended.

All of this, I think, is an extraordinary lapse on the part of the American-led coalition, which could have easily been remedied.

I think it was not remedied mainly because of the speed with which our attention (that is, the attention of political Washington) turned from the war to the task of bringing the troops home and getting on with the 1992 election. This must be unique among wars in that it produced no clear political result, despite the ample opportunity to do so….

On the Inability of the Foreign Service to Learn from its Mistakes and Become More Professional

Q: We’d just been through a hell of a mess, a war. It was certainly a very traumatic time, and lives were not only risked but lost. When you came back, did you find any particular interest by the Foreign Service and the Department of State at looking at how we operated? What did we do right? What did we do wrong? How could we do it better? Was there any interest or any effort made to do this? 

FREEMAN: There was certainly an effort made by the Defense Department and the military. Partly, this grew out of a joint U.S.-Saudi study, which Major General Dennis Malcor chaired for the U.S. side, on ways of strengthening Saudi self-defense capabilities so that the threshold at which American assistance would be requested would be raised.

There was no interest whatsoever at the Department of State or in the Foreign Service. To my mind, this points to the lack of professionalism of the Foreign Service, that it does not learn from experience in a systematic way, it does not do after-action reports, it does not consider why things went well or why they went wrong, with a view to improving performance in the future. All of those attributes are the attributes of a profession. The Foreign Service, as I think we discussed at the very outset of this series of interviews, in my view, is at best a proto-profession.

Q: I keep coming across this again and again. Is it a mindset? My personal bias is, I think we hire a bunch of quite-bright people who figure that they can wing it every time something happens. Whatever starts, they can do right from the beginning and take care of it. They’re too “bright” to learn from history. 

FREEMAN: I think there is a failure within the Foreign Service to recognize the function of diplomacy in its several meanings: meaning foreign policy formulation, foreign policy implementation, and the translation of policy into activity in foreign lands. I think there is a failure to recognize this as the core function of the Foreign Service.

Instead, members of the Foreign Service identify with their specialty, whether it is some sort of area specialization, linguistic and cultural, or whether it is functional, for example, economic reporting, or trade and investment matters, or the like. It seems to me that, when you raise the question of professionalism with most Foreign Service officers, they look blank, because they define themselves not as diplomats, but as specialists on Iran, on Latin America, on international trade and finance, on consular matters, or on administration.

Since that is the way people define themselves, they look at the experiences they undergo in terms of: What happened? From the point of view of an area specialist: What was it that caused this event, and what are the results? From the point of view of an economist: What is it that caused this adjustment in the pattern of international trade and investment, and what are the results? From the point of view of a consular officer: What is it that I was able to do to help so and so escape a life of misery in some Third World jail for the rest of his or her life? They don’t see what they’re doing as shedding light on how diplomats might be more effective professionally as diplomats. I’m not sure if I’m making myself clear, but it seems to me that this is a fundamental problem.

It’s been aggravated in the U.S. Foreign Service by rigid insistence on cones.

Q: Cones being the term for specialties. 

FREEMAN: Yes. And by the view of area specialists that the only thing they bring to the table is their area expertise. I find it absolutely remarkable that the Foreign Service accepts the appointment of totally unqualified political appointees with such equanimity. They do so because, in fact, there is no pride in the core functions of the profession.

Now I would argue that someone who has learned how to make a demarche, how to listen for what is not said as well as what is said, how to observe and report, how to persuade, how to manipulate, if you will, how to form foreign opinion, and who knows what instruments of statecraft the United States government has to bring to bear on these things, and understands what therefore each section of a diplomatic mission can contribute to an overall effort, does, in fact, have a body of knowledge that he or she could profess to be uniquely expert in, and therefore see as the core of a profession equally relevant to service in Rwanda and in Russia.

But I am sorry to say that I have not found this mentality among my colleagues.

Q: Have you observed a more professional approach by any other foreign service, or is this a problem with all diplomats?

FREEMAN: No, there are several foreign services of which I know that are very self-consciously professional, some of them very effectively so, some of them less so. I think of the French foreign service, which is quite self-consciously professional; of the German foreign service; of the Brazilian foreign service; of the Ghanaian foreign service; of the foreign service of Singapore, which I think is probably, pound for pound, by far the most effective in the world. These are people who not only see themselves as area specialists, as functionaries doing a particular function, but who also see the combination of that expertise with the management of government functions, intergovernmental relations, relations between governments and foreign peoples, the management of embassies, the conduct of foreign relations, in a broad sense, as what they are and what they do.

I don’t find that in the American Foreign Service. Partly, in the American Foreign Service, that is because anyone with a diplomatic passport is considered a diplomat, and diplomatic passports are handed out like lollipops to whiny agencies that demand them.

Furthermore, I think there is an American anti-elitist sentiment and anti-hierarchical sentiment that refuses to acknowledge the distinction between professionals and staff.

I would argue that the Foreign Service is a profession potentially as much as, let us say, the practice of law or medicine or military science. No lawyer would ever assert that a legal secretary was a full member of the legal profession, although no law office can function without a legal secretary. Clearly, in the realm of other professions, whether it’s law or medicine or military science, there are people who are at the core of the profession and who are seen as professionals, and there are people who are para-professionals, who are essential to the functioning of the profession, but who are not themselves regarded as part of it. Just so, I suppose, a combat infantryman or woman is, in a sense, at the core of the military profession in a way that a supply clerk is not. But all of them have a sense of belonging to the military.

We don’t have that sense in the Foreign Service, to my distress….

There really isn’t, in the Foreign Service, any mechanism by which people report to colleagues on their achievements and failures in a particular task of this nature. In the case of the military, all of the major participants found themselves enormously busy when they came back, addressing various staff colleges and professional training institutions, partly, I suppose, to pass on whatever knowledge they had gained, but equally, I believe, to buttress pride in the profession and in the ability of the American military to excel. We don’t really have a mechanism like that in the Foreign Service.

I must say, I didn’t expect anything, and therefore I wasn’t at all upset. But you point to an interesting thing: one day, you’re an ambassador in charge of the largest diplomatic mission in the world; the next day, you’re just another guy pushing a cart down a supermarket line….

I think that looking at the experience of professionals, in this case, diplomats, from the vantage point of what professional lessons can be learned, how things can be done effectively, or how they’re done less effectively, how mistakes can be avoided, and why mistakes are made, in other words, after-action review of significant events, is the prerequisite for professionalization of the Foreign Service. I, for one, have always hoped that the Foreign Service would, like the professions of law, medicine, the military, and theology, professionalize itself, in the sense of having an awareness of the need for members of the profession to accredit other members of the profession, to recognize professional skills, as opposed to those skills that are not unique to the profession. So I think the oral history project is very, very important potentially in this regard. I don’t believe, however, that the Foreign Service will become truly professional until its members, not retirees, perceive the need and the benefits from professionalization.

I consider it absolutely shocking that, at the end of the 20th century, the United States still follows a 19th-century practice with regard to appointments to the most senior diplomatic positions. We are, I believe, now virtually unique among countries in entrusting important diplomatic functions to people without proven ability to manage them. That is not to say that the Foreign Service invariably has the best candidate or the most effective person to be an ambassador. It is to say that the Foreign Service ought self-consciously to work toward being able always to field the best-qualified candidate for a job. And part of that depends on recognizing the core functions of the profession and trying to develop them in a systematic way.

Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady

One of the most prominent political figures in Cold War history, Margaret Thatcher, led Britain as the only female prime minister from 1979 to 1990. In these brief excerpts from their oral histories, Tom Niles recalls the surprisingly acrimonious meeting between President Reagan and Thatcher over sanctions, which eventually led to Secretary of State Haig’s resignation. In a very different anecdote, Lynne Lambert, who was trade policy officer at Embassy London, tells of a rather awkward situation with the Chancellor of West Germany. Read more

Clare Booth Luce: Ambassador, Congresswoman, Playwright

Born in New York City in 1903, Clare Boothe Luce led a diverse career as a playwright, journalist, editor, and congresswoman, and became the first woman to ever be ambassador to a major diplomatic post. Though she was a talented writer in all genres, her sharp wit and biting sense of humor served her best in playwriting. (She is famous for such tart one-liners as “No good deed goes unpunished” and “Widowhood is a fringe benefit of marriage” as well as for her famed rivalry with writer Dorothy Parker.) Her most famous work was The Women, a satirical commentary on the lives of Manhattan socialites that features an all-female cast. The play was made into a movie in 1939 starring Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford (and was remade in 2008, featuring Meg Ryan and Annette Bening).

Just before The Women opened on Broadway and after her first marriage ended in divorce, Clare married Henry Luce. Publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune, he gave his wife many opportunities to work as a correspondent for those magazines during World War II. She reported on countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa and interviewed such famous people as Nehru and Chiang Kai-Shek. Luce won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1942 as a Republican and outspoken critic of FDR’s foreign policy. Luce was admired for her incredible ambition and intelligence. But these same qualities, combined with her alluring sexuality and pointed humor, often drew criticism as well. FDR campaigned against her reelection, publicly calling her

“a sharp-tongued glamour girl of forty.” Nevertheless, Luce won a second term and played a vital role in the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission.

In 1953, after campaigning for Dwight Eisenhower, Luce was rewarded with an appointment as Ambassador to Italy. Her greatest achievement was the negotiation of a peaceful solution to the Trieste Crisis of 1953–1954, a border dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia. Trieste had been declared an independent city-state – the Free Territory of Trieste – under the protection of the United Nations in 1947.

However, the territory was divided into two zones: Zone A governed by the U.S. and the British and Zone B controlled by Yugoslavia. Worried that the territory would escalate conflict in the region, Luce played a critical role in negotiations that eventually led to the signing of the London Memorandum, which granted civil administration of Zone A to Italy and Zone B to Yugoslavia.

Luce left Italy in 1956 after suffering arsenic poisoning, and in 1959 she was nominated to be Ambassador to Brazil. (Her farewell gifts from the diplomatic corps are part of ADST’s collection of diplomatic artifacts.) She was confirmed by the Senate, but her appointment was met with strong opposition from a number of Democratic senators and she resigned from her new ambassadorship having only served four days.

In 1964, the Luces retired; Henry Luce died in 1967. In 1973, Richard Nixon named Luce to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. President Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the the first woman member of Congress to receive the award. Luce died in Washington, DC in 1987 at age 84.

In these excerpts from her 1986 interview, Luce discusses her time in Congress, how she worked the Washington bureaucracy on the Trieste issue, the problems she had with the Italian press, including those over a black cultural affairs officer, a funny misunderstanding in Italian, and the difficulties of being a woman in the State Department and Congress. She was interviewed by Ann Miller Morin.

Return to Fascinating Figures


“Being ambassador is not as broadening an experience as being a congressman”

Q: How would you place your experience as an ambassador in the totality of your life?

LUCE: Speaking of it as a human experience in life, it was very interesting, very rewarding, very exhausting at the time, but I wouldn’t say it was as broadening an experience as being a congressman. In other words, I think being a congressman would be very helpful to anyone who is appointed an ambassador. Now, it would not be helpful to him in learning the language of the country; you’d have to know that before you went.

The State Department would certainly give you what they gave me, a quick course. But the diplomatic experience is very different. Now I’m leaving out personalities and language, but just as a process, a technique, the diplomatic experience is very different from the political experience, because in politics, to use the phrase of one of the founding fathers, the people are the king and you are getting your orders from the people. We live now in a democracy and not a republic.

The function of being representative for the people and making decisions for the people has long since passed. They make the decisions and you are supposed to follow them out. Their decisions are often very close decisions, they’re often confused, they’re often ignorant, they’re often conflicting, so that the poor congressman is driven to guess what it is that his constituents really want.

Now there are, I suppose, still constituencies in America where your constituents would be largely represented, let’s say, by the tobacco companies, or the tobacco workers as well as companies–for all the workers in the company, or by the largely agricultural, or whatever. But sometimes a congressman will have the misfortune, misfortune or good fortune, call it what you will, of representing a district like the Fifth Connecticut District, which has a–it’s a little America where there’s a little of everything, so as you can’t possibly please everybody, you please yourself.

You do what you think is right. I mean, all the time that I happened to be in Congress I only on one occasion made a vote that I did not in my own conscience believe in. But that I couldn’t have done if I had represented, say, a different kind of a district. I would probably have been voted out of office if I’d followed my conviction. So, the political experience is one of trying to keep your conscience and your constituencies together.

The diplomatic experience is a good deal more agreeable because you’re taking orders from your commander-in-chief. And while you do have the right, and the duty, even, to disagree with the Department of State’s policy, and you sometimes can change their minds, nevertheless, you have the comfortable feeling of following orders for the United States and the American people as a whole. And that’s a very rewarding feeling after politics…. Also, the diplomat has a great deal of privacy compared to the politician.

Q: Is that so? I’m surprised. I would have thought it was a sort of goldfish-bowl-like existence, being the chief…

LUCE: Oh, it is a goldfish bowl as far as you are, so to speak, on parade, but you are not subject to the intrusion, at least in my day, of the press. You didn’t have to account for your actions to anybody but the boss man, who was the secretary of state or the president, and your private life, while it

had to be above board and all the rest of it, which is very important, your privacy when it was invaded was invaded by your peers rather than anyone who met you on the street who could come up and say, “I’m your constituent. Will you take me home and give me a cup of tea?” You know?

And not always a cup of tea, either. So it is different in that respect. Then I think that we’re seeing more and more women ambassadors. It doesn’t distress me at all. It’s a funny thing for a woman to say, that I should even suggest I might be distressed, but I’ve always thought myself that getting the job done as well as possible was a good deal more important than whether you put in a black or a woman or an ethnic of some sort or someone who had a certain religious bent.

Oddly enough, women are well qualified as diplomats; I think much better than these politicians. I mean, by nature. By nature, not by where they went to school or anything of that sort, but by nature, women like to strive for agreement. In fact, I’m not with it. I don’t sound like a member of NOW [National Organization of Women], and I never have been one, either. But I think women are better negotiators. I think they do what is diplomatic, always must do, seeming to be a breeze and getting along and seeking for an honest compromise, and women are very good at that….

Negotiating the Treaty of Trieste

Q: In connection with that, would you explain your part in the Treaty of Trieste? I have seen so many different versions.

LUCE: You’ve seen many different versions partly because I never wanted to press my own view on anyone. I was content to let everyone figure it out the way they wanted to at the time. But the actual fact was, very soon after I arrived, the prime minister at the time ordered the Italian troops to Trieste, to the border. And I had been briefed about the so-called Trieste situation, and faced with what looked like war which was about to come, I remembered that what State Department advice had been was, “When it boils up, calm it down; when it calms down, forget it.”

And that struck me as a recipe for constant conflict. The Italians were doing, or the Italian leadership was doing, pretty much what leadership does in any country when in a domestic jam, trying to create a diversion with a foreign country with whom you have sufficient disagreement so that the diversion seems logical. So there it was, and I strived to find out from my minister counselor, who was a man called [Elbridge] Durbrow, what steps we were taking, what steps I should take to get the question solved, and was told that it was probably insolvable within the present context, you know?

So I wrote some letters, as I remember, to Livy [Livingston] Merchant, who was the head of the European desk, and got back equivocal answers and they all came to the same thing: “As soon as they calm down, they’ll forget it, forget the whole thing.” I knew it was boiling up again, because the situation in Italy was such that the next prime minister, and the next, would all return to Trieste to settle their own political disagreements. As a matter of fact, De Gasperi [Alcide De Gasperi, leader of the Christian Democratic Party and sometime prime minister of Italy] said to me, “If I had had this Trieste settled, I would still be Prime Minister.”

So I then said, “Well, how do you get this thing settled?” And somebody in the embassy, and I couldn’t remember who it was, said, “You have to get [to] the National Security Council; you have to get it on the agenda.”

So I said, “Well, how do you get it on the agenda?” And he said, “Well, you know the president. He can put it on.” Well, I did know the president, and this was one thing where it goes to show that it’s important to know, and by know, I don’t mean just shake his hand. I knew that Ike, President Eisenhower, was the kind of military man who never could read more, never had the time to read more than a page on any question.

So I sat down at my own typewriter and tried very hard to put the complicated Trieste question–it was terribly complicated–and the reasons for solving it on one sheet of paper. I was always running over onto two and three, and pulling it out of the typewriter. I said to myself, “My goodness! This guy is a soldier. If there’s anything that he is familiar with, it’s that famous little childhood poem, ‘For the want of a nail the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe, and so on’.” So I paraphrased it….

Anyway, the way the thing began was, “For the want of a two-penny town.” And I wrote at the bottom of this letter, “Dear Mr. President, please let us try to solve this. Put it on the agenda,” or whatever. And the word came over, “Go ahead. Try to solve it.” Well, cheers!

And then, it was impossible, of course, to solve it without the British, because the occupying powers were the British and ourselves in Trieste then. Somehow or other–I’ve forgotten all this history; it was a long time ago–but the end of the war left Americans still in Trieste, which was disputed between Tito [Yugoslav communist leader Marshal Tito (ne Josip Broz)] and the then caretaker government of Italy. As it happened, with De Gasperi towards the end, and with [Mario] Scelba, and then with I’ve forgotten whom. We had a new prime minister every year, as you know.

Then it was all right to try to do this, and it was not only all right, it was most agreeable to do it with the British ambassador. Meanwhile, the news was that we could put it on the agenda. Permitted my opposite number in Yugoslavia – Riddleberger [James Riddleberger, Ambassador to Yugoslavia, 1953-1958] Riddleberger could tell Tito to lay off because we’re going to get this solved and, obviously, Riddleberger was in favor of his client; it was Tito’s argument. I was in favor of the Italians’.

So anyway, everybody fell back and the arguments began. At what point the French latched onto it, I don’t know, except to say that the French always latched onto to everything pour la gloire or pour raison d’autre…and they don’t give up. Anyhow, there the French walked in on it, and not only did they walk in on it, but I never will forget that French ambassador — he’s a career ambassador — who insisted that he sit in on the meetings at the American embassy and insisted that every word of everything should be translated into French, and the final document should be in French.

That wasn’t bad enough, but we had to go to the Foreign Office, and there we finally became like a musical comedy, with the English ambassador and the American ambassador and the French ambassador marching three abreast to the Chigi. And there would be reporters as we went in, and reporters as we left. And after a while — I think that went on for some time. I didn’t write up the experience or keep a diary, but, anyway, it then occurred to me that it would never get settled, because trying to conduct these diplomatic negotiations in public…that’s when I first realized that modern communication had absolutely ruined the diplomatic technique of getting things solved. It’s really a very serious problem….

So I said, “How do we get this thing where it belongs, where it isn’t in the headlines with the dope story, or whatever? I told my husband what I had in mind and he said, “It’s worth a shot.”

I made a trip back to Washington and I went to see the Secretary, whom also I knew very well, Foster Dulles, and said, “Foster, why not–if I can get them to agree, and I’ll do my best, and you tell Riddleberger to go ahead on his end, and we’ll persuade the Italians to appoint a team and the Yugoslavs to appoint a team to negotiate this thing in the place where they will both agree; not in Italy and not in Yugoslavia.

And then you pick a diplomat and the British pick one to chair it, and see if you cannot decide [on an agreement]. Now, they began those negotiations and I think they took over a year…. Tommy Thompson chaired the Trieste proceedings. Who his British opposite number was, I don’t know.

In any case, in the end, when they began discussing the ownership of Trieste, the whole city and everything it encompassed, when they got to the end, they hit a road block. It had a certain similarity to the difficulties the Israelis are having with Golan Heights. What they were arguing about was the crest of a hill, 14 acres — I mean, a little more than that — the size of a golf course. That’s all there was, a golf course, but it was on the crest of the hill, and the Israelis’ idiotic nationalistic things come in. The Yugoslavs didn’t want the Italians looking down on them, and vice-versa. And there it was, absolutely, hopelessly stuck.

Now, I was dressing to go to a dinner when someone came to me, and I shall not tell you the name at this point because it would be breaking a promise made many years ago. A telephone rang and it was a man. I was told it was very urgent and I went to the phone. Oh, yes, I remember my husband was there, and he said to me, “It’s So-and-So,” who asked for me, and it was someone who’d worked for my husband.

And my husband said to me, “Doesn’t want to talk to me. He wants to talk to you.” I got on the phone and he said, “May I come and see you? It is really very urgent, and your husband will tell you I’m a serious man.”

I was going out to dinner, but I put aside the time and he came to see me. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. He laid down a map and that’s how I remember his pointing. He said, “This is all that it’s about. These few little acres.” And he said, “Now I’ll tell you why, what the real argument is about, the real argument.”

Twisting Tito’s Arm

Now if you’ve been reading the history of Trieste, you might come to think it was about fishing rights and this or that. Even today I’ll be in trouble if I tell you what real troubles it was about. I just can’t tell you. All I can tell you is there was something – there was a way in Tito’s own interest, and there was a way that certain very important people in Italy would be satisfied on the question of the debt they thought was owed to them.

Then this man – I said to him, “Why are you telling me these things instead of the CIA?”

“Well,” he said, “I’m telling you first because I’ve never met you and I’ve always liked you and, secondly, because I’m going to tell them tomorrow but I thought you should have the first crack at it because you have worked so hard and you’re the only person that has.” So there I had the secret, but I did not have the means at my disposal of twisting Tito’s arm, and there were reasons why it couldn’t be twisted, even on the cables, so I was very unhappy about it and said, “I will go back to Washington.”

I got back to Washington, and the day before I was going to see the president there was a big dinner given at the Pan American Union, a ball of some sort, a big diplomatic dinner, enormous. And the man I sat next to was an old friend, Bob Murphy. And Bob said to me, “How is the Trieste affair going?”

And I said, “Bob, it’s hung up because we have a little problem that I can’t solve. I can take care of the Italian end, but I can’t take care of the Yugoslavian, because our Ambassador there has gotten us painted into a corner, because he insists that there is no possible way of changing Tito’s mind.” That was also part of my information.

And I said, and I remember using that phrase, because it always stuck in my mind, “What we need is someone who knows Tito well enough to twist his arm.” And he said, “You’re talking to the man….”

It always reminds me of Churchill, when we were talking about what makes a great man, and he said, “I’ve told you all these things and you’ve forgotten the most important thing.”

I said, “What’s that?”

He said, “Luck.”

Well, anyway, there I was, lucky enough to sit next to Bob Murphy, who had been in the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] during the war and who had had OSS contacts with the partisans in Vis. He was on a first-name basis with Tito. This I can say now because Tito’s dead and all of that doesn’t matter. We were then giving wheat to Tito under our Marshall aid….One of the unbreakable rules in the State Department was…you were not permitted linkage…. Kissinger got all over that by coming outright and saying, “We’re going to proceed on a quid pro quo basis.” But in my day you weren’t supposed to link things.

So I said, “Now, if you will go over and tell Tito that unless he gives in on those 14 acres, no wheat.” He won’t know because he’s a totalitarian and he thinks that the State Department, the President, and everybody would act the way he would act in those circumstances…. I said, “Could you go? He said, “I can’t go like that unless the President sends me.”

So the next day I went to see the President. I said, “Mr. President, I only have one favor to ask and we’ve almost gotten this Trieste thing solved. If Bob will stop in Rome and then go on to Belgrade, and be briefed in both places, and make his call on Tito, we can settle this thing.”

And I think if you looked this up in the papers, you will see that he wasn’t gone but three days, or four days. And a few days later, with great sighs of relief, Tito and the Yugoslavs signed the treaty….

“In Italy the only man is a woman”

The Archives in Congress are full of the cartoons that they wrote about me. And, incidentally, my name has always been a misery here – you know, “loose woman,” “loose talk,” all that kind of thing.  But in Italy, it was just wonderful. “Clara Loo-chay” meant “clear light.” And there were a lot of cartoons, many of them puns on my name, during the Trieste thing. “The light at last,” you see….

I remember one Trieste cartoon with two characters. The “Mike and Ike” kind of characters were in one of the Italian papers, and one was saying to the other, “It’s a strange thing. In Italy the only man is a woman.” I thought that was funny.

And really, the funniest one is – this is again having the sense of the Congress – I wrote to Foster [Dulles] and said, “Foster, one of the big things the Italians are talking about is how badly we treat our blacks. Could you find me a black cultural attaché?” And we brought over – I think I was the first who ever had a black man [as cultural attaché] in an embassy – a Dr. Snowden from Howard University. He was Master of Romance Languages at Howard, and a charming man. He never speaks much about the extraordinary honor. He just fell so much in love with Italy that, while he returned, his daughters married Italians. At any rate, he was very good. I’ll just tell you this, because this is a very amusing pun.

The Italians did not very much like blacks…. The day after he arrived, there was a cartoon in the paper and it showed me…. The Communist papers made me look like a hag. You know, I was made to look like an awful witch, with shrunken bosom and everything. And the papers that were for me would have me going along with bosoms pointed out; it really was very funny. They couldn’t get their act together as far as what I looked like.

Anyway, there was this cartoon of me spanking along down the Via Veneto, followed by a black man, and the thing underneath it said, “Dopo la luce l’oscuro,” which quite literally means “After the light, the dark.” The way we put it is, “After the night comes the dawn.” But anyhow, there were lots of cartoons, an enormous number of cartoons….

But if I allowed myself to be distraught by every piece of bad publicity, I mean, I wouldn’t have a peaceful evening. Now, furthermore, most of my bad publicity, as far as Italy went, was in the American papers.

Q: Is that so? Why were they vilifying you at that time?

LUCE: Well, my mission got off on the wrong foot…. This was in the McCarthy days, and most of the embassies were staffed by people of the Rooseveltian heyday, really, when New Dealers sponsored a very, very mild and very necessary reform. I myself began as a New Dealer, as you know. Ellsworth Bunker was the Ambassador. He had called the entire staff together and told them he would have no more talk about me becoming the ambassador.

Q: Was this because you were Mrs. Luce, “Harry” Luce’s wife?

LUCE: Yes, and because I was a Republican. 

Oops — Some Problems with the Italian Language

Q: Because you were a Republican. It had nothing to do with your being a woman?

LUCE: And the idea of being a playwright. Oh, yes, it did…. Well, anyway, an interviewer came, and he spoke hardly a word of English, very poor English. I said I wouldn’t see him unless he spoke English, because my Italian was not, at that point, very good….

I’d just begun my Italian lessons. I said I knew De Gasperi. Because, see, I told you to begin with, I’d known De Gasperi during the war, before the war. Where did I meet him? I think I met him at some kind of a business conference that my husband had for foreign economists and that sort of thing. Anyway, I said to this interviewer,” What kind of hobbies does Mr. De Gasperi have?” And there’s no word in Italian for hobby. But I finally said to him, “What does he like to do when he is not working, to amuse himself?” You know. And very gradually got the idea through to him. Then he replied to me that he did not know the English word, but he’d say it in Italian. And I said, “Oh, we have the same word for it in English.” And I repeated, “entomology.” And he said, “Si.”

Okay, we now found out that Mr. De Gasperi was interested in insects. And I said, “Butterflies,” and he just didn’t understand “butterflies,” and I didn’t know the Italian word, but I assumed “Si, si, signora,” as being agreeable, and so on.

So I reported to my husband that I had made my first interesting discovery in having discussed Italy with a foreigner, with an Italian, that De Gasperi collects butterflies. Harry had the Time people get a frame and box of beautiful butterflies of North America for the entomologist. I told the State Department that I’d already picked the gift I’m taking to the foreign minister, and they asked me what? And I said, “He’s an entomologist and he’s a butterfly collector.”

The next thing I’m told is that I have made a serious mistake. He’s not an entomologist, he’s an etymologist. He collects books on linguistics, or languages. Fine, except someone in the Department thought it was so funny they started to tell the press, and it gets in the press that I am so ignorant I don’t know the difference between butterflies and books.

But it also gets into the Italian press, where one little writer, who said his knees were shot off by the Red Brigade, called Montenelli, was the wittiest and the cleverest of all the Italian writers, political commentators. (He wrote something called L’histoire des Papillons; it was Pappilloni in Italian.) He said that it was appropriate that a well-known American butterfly – that was me – should bring butterflies to the man with the butterfly brain….

On Being a Woman in the Foreign Service (and Congress)

Now, the first woman I ever met in the Foreign Service I met under the most extraordinary circumstances, and that was on May 10, 1941. I was coming from Amsterdam and spent the night at Ambassador Cudahy’s. And that was the morning that the Phony War [the early part of WWII, where there was little military aggression] ended.

Q: You were in Brussels then?

LUCE: Yup, this remarkable woman and myself, not knowing at any moment whether the Germans would go on bombing, because they only dropped two bombs on Brussels, and one of them sent the house next door right up. She became an ambassador. I think she probably was the first ambassador to Switzerland. She was a regular Foreign Service officer.

Q: Frances Willis. [Frances Willis was the first female FSO to become an ambassador. She had three embassies (Switzerland, Norway, Ceylon) and was the first woman to achieve the personal rank of career ambassador]

LUCE: Frances Willis. A wonderful woman. She and I had an extraordinary morning that morning, and she helped me get out of the place with the wife of another ambassador, a French woman, Hugh Gibson’s wife…. Well, Frances Willis…or I would have been startled if anybody had come in and said, “You’re both going to be ambassadors.”

Q: Isn’t that amazing? And you liked Frances Willis?

LUCE: Oh, yes. I thought she was une femme serieuse. She was straight and very effective. But I’d always thought that the women undergo the same hazard in this occupation – I mean, the ambassadorial career – as they do in federal office. You may have noticed that whereas there are a great

many women mayors and aldermen, and even a number of governors, there are still very few senators, you see, or even congressmen. There were 17 women in Congress when I was in Congress, and there are now only about 25.

The problem for women is that once they have to leave, the husband must either give up his business or there’s a divorce ahead of them. I mean, I refused to take the post when Ike offered it to me unless Harry would promise to spend six months with me. And in those days you got three months off for the summer, so that was nine months of the year….

And now, of course, they can conveniently get a divorce, which they couldn’t. Look at Von Damm [Helene von Damm, while Ambassador to Austria (1983-1986), divorced her American husband to marry an Austrian. Von Damm was born in Austria and is a naturalized American citizen]; she not only got a couple of divorces, she – well, we won’t say much about that….

Q: [Laughs] We won’t talk about that.

LUCE: No I don’t like to talk about that. I don’t know what became of the old idea that you had to be a native-born American to become [an ambassador]. But, even if you weren’t, you shouldn’t be sent to the country of your origin. I mean, mes colleagues diplomatiques, mes amis – I had a lot of good friendships with many of them. And I had a good feeling about Italy and the Italians and made many lasting friends and, in many ways, it is the heart of my life in Washington, the many, many friends that led to other friendships, and so on. That and congressional life is why I like to live here.

So after Italy I was appointed to Brazil, and appointed ambassador twice, and you know the story and my decision not to go Brazil, which I think was the right decision…. When it said that the President [should] send the best man, we sent John Cabot.

Jack Kennedy said to me, “Clare, you’ve only made one mistake in your life. You’ve made a terrible mistake, because if you had not resigned, I would have kept you. You know that.” He was a good friend of mine.

I said, “Jack, you would have kept me? How would you have done that?” I said, “John Cabot was a lame duck. He was THE expert ambassador in the field of Latin American affairs, and the Brazilians asked him to leave four months after he got there.” So anyone who got there was in trouble….

Q: I think, after your tremendous success in Italy, any other country would take it as a great compliment to have you sent to them. I think that’s about the size of it.

LUCE: Yes, I had a little trouble about that. I’ll tell you a story that was never printed; or I don’t think it was ever printed. [Winthrop] Aldrich, our Ambassador [to the U.K.], for some reason or other was not altogether a success. And somebody – it was toward the end of my stay in Rome – put it in the paper that I was going to replace Aldrich.

This piece of news, which was instantly printed in Italy, not only startled me and my husband, it embarrassed us because we had just accepted an invitation from Aldrich for a dinner that he was giving for the Queen. And so, what to do? Nothing to do but go. So we got there and I was sitting in earshot of my husband — it was not difficult to do because he had a very loud voice — and on this occasion I couldn’t be more pleased, because he was sitting next to Harriet Aldrich.

The Value of a Good Spouse as Ambassador

And there was a little silence and Harry’s voice was heard to say, “Harriet, there’s something I want you to know, and that is that I’m not trying to get your job.” And everybody laughed, you know, and it broke the tension. Then after that he said, “I assure you that there’s nothing in the rumor.” Then from the time I came back, things started about where I would go next.

But it was too much of a strain on my marriage.

Now the only reason that Harry consented – found it easy in Rome – was because he had an office in Rome. Time had an office in Paris and London and Berlin, so he was [an] overnight [flight] away from any of his offices, and he enjoyed it. He loved to travel and he loved parties, and altogether he was happier when he was my husband….

He wasn’t when I was a very successful playwright making a half a million dollars a year.

Q: Why do you think that was? 

LUCE: Why, I think that’s very simple. I could write my plays entirely alone. I couldn’t have done the embassy thing without him….Even a male ambassador is ten times as effective if he has a good wife. You’ve got to have a wife.

Now, in one sense, he was not a “wife,” in that he paid no attention to the embassy. But where Harry was wonderful was that he knew inside and out what I was not very good at, which was the actual talk of business.

You see, all the businessmen in Italy, not to mention all the people who owned newspapers and magazines — Harry was great from the start on the publishing, and he was a man who understood success and how to get from the bottom to the top — so they were just as eager as possible to lunch alone, man-style, with him, you know. So I was very fortunate. And he was aware of the important part he played.


Max Kampelman, A Hard-Nosed Pacifist

Max Kampelman (November 7, 1920 – January 25, 2013) was a key negotiator for the United States on major issues with the Soviet Union. After serving on Senator Hubert Humphrey’s staff and practicing law, Kampelman was asked to lead the U.S. delegation to the Madrid Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1980. The CSCE, which had its roots in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, was a forum for dialogue on human rights and military issues and helped bridge a divided Europe. It eventually became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest regional security organization. (Photo: Washington Post)

In 1985 President Ronald Reagan asked Kampelman to lead arms-control talks with the Soviet Union. Kampelman’s negotiations ultimately led to the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 1987 and the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1991, both of which succeeded in reducing nuclear arms for the first time. President Bill Clinton in 1999 awarded Kampelman the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.

In these excerpts from his 2003 interview, Kampelman discusses the Quaker influence which led him to become a conscientious objector during World War II, his participation in the (in)famous Minnesota Starvation Experiment, his work on the CSCE, and negotiating strategic arms treaties in Geneva. 

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Quaker Influence as a Conscientious Objector

Both of my parents came from a portion of Europe which was then considered a part of Romania, although it’s gone through different transitions over the years. They met here in the United States. Though they both came from the same community, they didn’t know each other in Europe, but they met in the United States. They married in New York. I was the only child…. We lived in the Bronx…. My father died when he was fifty-four, a relatively young man. But he left no money really and we ended up living in what I would then call a slum.

It was an apartment in which my mother’s sister was living. She was a religious person, so we had that orientation. We were not particularly observant, but my parents and I went to high holiday services in the orthodox synagogue wherever we lived. I guess that’s the way it went. I received a rather intensive Jewish education. They felt, even though they were not themselves observant in an orthodox sense, they wanted me to have training in this. And therefore, beginning with kindergarten, I attended Jewish Hebrew schools. They were called yeshivas.….

Most of the class felt they were pointed toward the rabbinate…, practically all did. I chose not to. I wanted to be a lawyer and there was a college very near where we were then living, about four or five blocks. So I enrolled in that college at New York University…. When I was on the college campus I became an anti-Stalinist, an anti-communist, and specialized in studies on democracy….

My total instinct was against dictatorship and against the communists. I found myself actively engaged in an anti-communist clique on campus…. I also had a professor who taught social legislation and remained my friend until he died…. He recommended that I spend a month during my last summer in college with a Quaker work camp…. We were fixing up slum buildings.…

[The Quaker approach] influenced me. It influenced me a great deal. The power of love. I read Tolstoy; I read the Quaker, and I really became a conscientious objector (CO). But I became an anti-communist conscientious objector, if you know what I mean. It didn’t blind me. It also didn’t blind me to the existence of evils. I kept in touch with the Quakers all during my law school days and the essence of what persuaded me to be a CO at the time was that wars and violence don’t solve the problem. The elimination of evil requires something different from killing people. We read Gandhi about his success with the British and his non-violent approaches….

A number of conscientious objectors…objected to the concept of conscription. I did not. I then, having majored in political science, believed a society has a right to defend itself; a society has a right to conscript if its national interest requires it. So I never had any problems with that. It permitted me to do work of national importance. I said that’s what I would do. I could not envisage myself killing anybody…. I had to present a written statement, which I did. I also submitted myself for an interview, a long interview, and I had no problems with them. They asked intelligent questions. They wanted to see consistency and I showed them consistency with the Quakers and my activity in the pacifist movement, and they gave me no trouble….

Minnesota Starvation Experiment

A notice went around saying that the Church of the Brethren Service Committee, not the Friends Service Committee, was looking for volunteers among our group to be human guinea pigs in a starvation experiment. I thought about it and I volunteered to do that. I was interviewed in Boston by, I remember, three physicians who would be part of that experiment, two of whom were Henry Taylor, who was a cardiologist, and August Henchel, who was a physiologist.

They interviewed me and gave me an examination. Of course, I had been in good health as a result of the conservation camp and now working on the farm. So they accepted me. Okay, so I reported to the University of Minnesota, which is where the experiment was being held. The director of the experiment was a man by the name of Dr. Ancel Keyes. You know the K-ration [used by the military in World War II]? The “K” stands for Keyes. He developed the K-ration….

There were about forty of us from different parts of the country who had volunteered and been accepted. I learned many more volunteered than were accepted. It was explained to us that there had been no studies available on human starvation, which surprised me.

Their purpose would be to first put us all on an equal standard of health and diet and that would take a number of weeks–I think six weeks; I don’t remember now–where we would eat the same food, every one of us, the same amount, the same everything. Secondly, we would then be put on starvation regimen for six, eight months, something like that. We would be divided, without our knowing where we are, into different groups and each group would have a different rehabilitation treatment with different vitamins, calories, minerals, whatever the experts decided.

Let me say to you the result of it was two volumes, which I have in my library, the only authoritative work. I am still receiving visits from physiologists–not many now. Six months ago or so somebody from Canada called and came to visit. Again, these two volumes are the only authoritative work that today exists in the field.

Q: Could you give a bit of a background on why we’d be doing this?

KAMPELMAN: Why as a country? Oh yes, it was explained: concentration camp victims and prisoners of war. That’s why the Defense Department financed this. The responsibility was civilian, but the money came from the Defense Department. Ansel Keyes had persuaded the Defense Department to put up the money. As a matter of fact, they became so eager for this that they would be pressing Keyes for reports even before he was ready to make any final reports.

I got down to about 100 pounds. Now, we were told that we could eat nothing other than what they gave us. We would live there underneath the football field in cots, which was fine; we would be examined physically every day; there was to be a treadmill every single day and a blood test every single day. We were also to do exercise outside of the exercise they had….

We had a full-time psychologist. We had to keep a diary every single day of dreams and anything else that we did. As I said, the psychologists worked with us constantly, because they were looking for psychological damage also…. And I’m about to make a statement that I can’t prove, but I believe that every single one of the campers except me began collecting cookbooks and recipes. An interesting development. Their minds were so preoccupied with food. It did not hit me as something that I would want to do and it’s probably because I was taking courses….

You either accept evil or you resist it

Let me say to you that I began to question my pacifism with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You know I had been taking courses in political science. The faculty was a young faculty and they became friends of mine as well as teachers. My commitment to pacifism had, I’m sure, without even my knowing it, all different categories, one of which was a reading in Tolstoy and Gandhi and the power of love instead of killing….

With the dropping of the atom bomb I remember thinking to myself, this doesn’t work. These guys flying up there never see the damage they’re inflicting down below. How do you reach people who are attacking? This is not going to work. You either accept evil or you resist it, and the power of love is not capable of resisting it. That had a very profound effect on me and I began to talk to the political scientists about it and I began to think too.

By then the war was coming to an end. The authorities asked me to stay on after the experiment and the war in order to close up the unit. The year 1945 came and the war was over….

Since I thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual challenge in teaching political science, I thought I would stay at Minnesota…. Who would show up frequently at eleven, ten o’clock at night? The newly elected mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey. We would have great evenings talking.  In 1944, when I was not knowledgeable at that point about the CIO, Humphrey merged the Farmer Labor Party with the Democratic Party so as to help Roosevelt win in ’44. They became the Democratic Farmer Labor Party. And Roosevelt won in ’44. In 1946 at the state convention Humphrey invited me to the convention. I went to the convention, not as a delegate, but as an observer…. So I was active, you see, politically at the same time as I was teaching and writing a dissertation….

Humphrey in Minnesota was running for the Senate in November; I was in Vermont, not voting in Minnesota, but he and I had become friends from these Saturday night meetings and I helped out. As mayor he asked me to do a few things on the new city charter. He called me on the phone after he won the election. He said, “Max, Muriel and I are going to be in New York at a meeting of the League for Industrial Democracy, where I’ve been asked to make a speech. Why don’t you and Maggie meet us and spend the weekend with us?” So Maggie and I drove down. I heard the speech and I met a lot of old friends there….

Christmas came and I received another call from him. “…I want you to help me open up my office and get it together. Bill Simms is going to be there handling Minnesota problems; he’s not policy.” So, instead of finishing my dissertation, which I had time to do, Maggie and I went to Washington. Frankly, I hired myself. I had a question in my head, “How do you work for a friend?” But I quickly saw this was not a problem. We were partners. I was his junior partner…. So I then took a year’s leave of absence, thinking I would spend another year in Washington, and I stayed for six-and-a-half years….

Working with Hubert Humphrey

Q: Tell me a little bit about Humphrey. He had a reputation that he talked so much that it was hard to get a conversation going with him. How did you find this? 

KAMPELMAN: Full of ideas. And he did talk too long. I mean it is said, and I believe it, whether it came from here or from somebody else, Hubert’s speech need not be eternal to be immortal. But his speeches were eternal. But you know, he was a great listener as well as a great teacher. Believe me. I once talked to him about that. We became very close friends. I became his lawyer. Until he died really we were intimate friends.

But I once said to him, “You know, everybody criticizes you for talking too goddamn long.” I said, “Why do you talk so goddamn long?” This was early on. He says, “Max, you and I are teachers.” He says, “When you really want to be a good teacher, you’ve got to tell them what you’re going to tell them, and then you tell them, and then you’ve got to tell them what you told them,” and that was his philosophy. And he did look upon his politics as an educational teaching job. He was never superficial….

Q: You arrive in Washington in 1949. This was your first time in Washington. What was the flavor of the political situation and the things you were dealing with?

The Southerners looked upon Humphrey as some terrible outsider, forcing the Democratic Party to split. As you know, they left the Democratic Convention, walked out of the convention. The Southerners looked upon Humphrey as some goddamn upstart. Secondly, Time magazine had his picture on the cover as he came to Washington. It was a picture of this whirlwind blowing into Washington like a tornado. If you’re a freshman senator you don’t get that kind of recognition, and as far as senators were concerned, that was evil. Times were very, very tough: he’s an enemy; they treat him like an enemy. There’s no question about it. And I think the word cruel is an accurate description of the treatment….

Now all these things hurt, particularly for a gregarious fellow who never looks upon himself as having any enemies. He was a gregarious, friendly human being. So what do we do about it? We would talk about it. As far as the southerners were concerned, he was the enemy, with one exception: Lyndon Johnson.

He and Lyndon came to the Senate at the same time, but Lyndon came from the House; but somehow, after about a year or two, they became increasingly friendly. Humphrey wrote his master’s thesis on Roosevelt’s New Deal. Johnson felt that his career was due to Roosevelt’s help. Both were very serious people. I don’t mean to be negative about anybody, but if you were looking for where Jack Kennedy was later on you’d have to look at the golf course….

On Madrid and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE)

Carter was elected president of the United States and all of a sudden we don’t see the Carter who was in the Navy and who campaigned supporting

defense. We suddenly see him pursuing detente with the Soviet Union and being very soft on defense…. Then Afghanistan happened. Carter changed his foreign policy toward the Soviet Union….

A few months later, on a Friday morning, I got a call from [Vice President Walter] Mondale: “Max, I’d like to see you.”

This was not unusual. He would sometimes want to talk over things with me. I said, “Fine.” Our office was then at the Watergate, so I walked over to the White House and then to his office. And he said, “Your name was proposed, not by me,” he says, “to head up our delegation in Madrid, and the President has asked me to talk to you about that.”

I’ve got to say to you, I did not know what the hell was happening in Madrid or what it meant to go to Madrid and head up a delegation in Madrid….He then said, “It would only be three months and you don’t have to leave your law firm.”

So I said, “Look, if it’s three months of service that doesn’t require me to leave my law firm, then I’d be delighted to do whatever is required of me to do.” As we talked a little bit I recognized the Madrid Conference as being a follow up to a conference attended by Arthur Goldberg three years earlier in Belgrade. And I remembered that Goldberg considered it a miserable experience, but that didn’t trouble me….

I read the Helsinki Final Act to prepare….The Soviet Union in the 1950s had proposed a European security conference. As I think about it, their purpose at the time was twofold. One, there were no boundaries in Europe, and no peace treaty, after the Second World War. So they wanted an agency that would legitimize those boundaries. Secondly, they wanted an all European conference as a way of subtly undermining NATO. The United States was not a part of Europe. The European West resisted that proposal by the Soviets in the 1950s because they saw that it meant separating and undermining NATO and they would have no part of it.

Then Nixon became President with his detente. The West in Europe saw the United States getting closer to the Soviet Union and said to themselves, ‘Well, we maybe have a green light to get closer as well.’ The United States agreed somehow to this and discussions began, I think in 1972 or ’71, about how to organize this conference….

In any event, by 1975 they had an agreement, which was called the Helsinki Final Act because it was signed in Helsinki, Finland. It was an agreement that had in effect three fundamental sections or baskets, one of which was a security basket which provided for military confidence-building measures among the thirty-five members. Apparently there were thirty-three European countries…plus the United States and Canada. So the Russians accepted those modifications.

The one basket was security oriented; the second was an economic basket among the thirty-five, so as to help produce cooperation; and thirdly was the humanitarian: freedom of religion, freedom of human rights, freedom of travel, all broadly stated and without specifics….

The earlier meeting in Belgrade had been a fiasco…. There were serious problems…. NATO had decided to put Pershings and cruise missiles into Europe to balance the Soviet weapons. This was their great objective…, so that was their position and they wanted to get rid of that problem and move away. Their request was for a disarmament conference to take place in Europe. They [the USSR] finally agreed that that disarmament conference should include the Americans and the Canadians. At first they were trying to exclude us in order to undermine NATO, but then they saw that was not feasible, so the United States was to come in.

During the course of the Madrid meeting they saw they weren’t getting anyplace. Though they continued to call it a disarmament conference, what they were really talking about was a conference on military confidence building measures. NATO had a counter to that, which was a French proposal for military confidence building measures. That too was interesting, because by the time I went to Madrid in September of 1980, the United States had not agreed to the French proposal and I was not authorized to sign on to the French proposal….

After the preparatory meeting and the beginning of the main meeting, at a meeting at the White House I asked for permission to support the French proposal at a time when I thought it would be helpful to us in the negotiation. I did not wish to give a blanket endorsement, but in back of my head I was always aware of the fact I could have a problem with the French and I wanted to have a bargaining tool. The recommendation I made was finally accepted….

The mechanics in Madrid were moving nicely; we were getting support from the neutrals. Now, at the very end of the meeting, the Maltese began to act Malta-like….We were finally all agreed now, except for the Maltese. Saliba was their Madrid representative; I told Saliba, “You tell your minister that I am leaving Madrid tomorrow on the plane and I’m going back to my family and to my private life,”–you remember I was not a Foreign Service officer–“and that I’m asking my delegation to leave with me, but we will have a representative from the American embassy sitting in and instructed to say no every time the Maltese delegation proposal comes up.”

And I said, “When you’re ready to deal intelligently and responsibly, I’ll be glad to fly back for the final meeting.” And I left. And I took the whole delegation with me. Finally the Maltese gave in and it ended the meeting….

“You’ll be getting a phone call from the President and we don’t want you to say no”

So this is now ’83. I’m back into private life and I find myself being called on again…. I received a telephone call at home from a lady–five o’clock in the morning–who identified herself as a lady from CBS radio. She said, “You know, Mr. Ambassador, there’s a conference now in Geneva between [Secretary of State George] Shultz and [Foreign Minister Andrey] Gromyko,” which I was aware of because the newspapers had reported it. They were trying to put together the arms negotiation again because the Russians walked out of the arms talks.

“Well,” she said, “we just got a cable from Dan Rather saying you’re going to be the U.S. negotiator.”

So I said, “I really don’t think that’s so. I haven’t heard anything about this.” I persuaded her that I had never heard anything about this; I was not lying to her.… Furthermore, I did not believe I was going, because nobody had asked me to go.

I was scheduled to speak in Sun Valley, Idaho, at a Young Presidents Organization. My wife and I thought we’d follow it with a few days of vacation at the same time. I was about to be introduced and a lady ran up to the dais, “There’s a call for you from the White House.”

So obviously I stopped. It was Shultz and [Secretary of Defense] Cap Weinberger both on the phone: “Max, you’ll be getting a phone call in five minutes from the President and we don’t want you to say no.” Shultz and Weinberger knew I did not want the job.

And I said, “You know, I can’t take this job. I really can’t take this job. I’m not qualified.” They said in effect, “We’ll get you a top-notch deputy.” The President called me in five minutes. He knew that I was reluctant–he had been told–and he said, “You’re going to go to Geneva, Max” and, “I’m asking you to go.” And, “Where are you?”

I told him where I was and he said, “Can you be in Washington tomorrow?” I said, “Yes. I’ll leave tonight.” Meanwhile, the audience was nervous and excited about the fact, because they were told about the call. So my wife and I left and I went to see the president in Washington. He made it clear to me that he couldn’t find anybody else who satisfies both Weinberger and Shultz. President Reagan said both of them were prepared to accept me…. And with that said, I found myself going to Geneva….

I learned in the process that I had three negotiations occurring simultaneously and I was the head of all three, but my specific job was on ballistic missile defense….

Q: As we moved in toward the end of the Reagan administration, things were really beginning to pop in the Soviet Union. Did you get involved in this at all?

KAMPELMAN: Oh sure. I have no doubt in my mind that Reagan and Shultz had a great deal to do with the changes. We, of course, had nothing to do with the fact that Gorbachev was selected to head up the Soviet Union, but I will say that the interrelationship between both Gorbachev and both Reagan and Shultz, as well as the interrelationship of [Foreign Minister Eduard] Shevardnadze with Shultz, played, I think, a significant role in the transformation of the Soviet Union.

I also believed, with others, that the Madrid meeting had a great impact on the leadership of the Soviet Union. Whether it had any impact on the selection of Gorbachev, I haven’t the slightest idea, but I do know that they took a licking and knew it. And from what we later learned, it was a setback, because we talked to many of the Soviets afterwards.

At the end of those talks–it was close to Christmas and we had a Christmas break–I came back to Geneva in early January. Two things happened. One, before I went back, there was a meeting of the National Security Council, and I was invited to the meetings of the National Security Council.

Reagan made the case and felt very positive about his meeting with Gorbachev. He said, “I think Maggie [Thatcher] was right. I think we might be able to deal with him,” which was interesting. We didn’t go into a great deal about that at the National Security Council meeting, but he discussed a little bit his feelings about the meeting.

When I got back to Geneva [Soviet Strategic Arms Control Negotiator] Victor Karpov took me aside: “Max, I just want you to know that I have instructions from my highest authority not to attack your president.” He didn’t say who it was; I assumed it was Gorbachev.

The Russians were always attacking the President. Whoever the President was, the Soviets were attacking the President. But he said, and then I had to laugh as we broke up to go into the formal meeting, “That doesn’t cover your Secretary of Defense,” which I laughed at.

“They had been briefed about Reagan and expected to find a doddering old man with pretensions, a cowboy, an old movie actor, and not a serious person”

He said, “It’s freezing cold and Gorbachev was bundled in one of the Russian fur coats and hats. We drove up to this place, opened the door, and there is this fellow, Ronald Reagan, without a coat, a big smile, rushing out of the door to greet us. It shocked all of us.…”

I’ll jump now a few years, if I may – the reason I’m jumping now is that after the Reagan presidency I received a call or a letter, maybe both, from Mrs. Reagan saying that the Reagan Foundation was going to have a commemoration meeting about Reykjavik, and she asked if would I attend and speak at the meeting. This was after I was out of government, and I said of course I’d be delighted to do that.

They had the interpreter for Gorbachev there. Gorbachev was not there, but the interpreter of Gorbachev was there, who was at all of the sessions. The Geneva meeting came up. We had a very interesting day chatting about the talks. On the Geneva meeting, the interpreter impressed me with the fact that they had been briefed before the meeting about Reagan and what they expected to find was a doddering old man with pretensions, a cowboy, an old movie actor, and not a serious person.

He said, “It’s freezing cold and Gorbachev was bundled in one of the Russian fur coats and hats. We drove up to this place, opened the door, and there is this fellow, Ronald Reagan, without a coat, a big smile, rushing out of the door to greet us. It shocked all of us.…”

In any event, shortly after the Geneva meeting got under way, the interpreter said, “We were further surprised by Reagan saying to Gorbachev, ‘Let’s just go walk and talk.’” And he pulled Gorbachev into a small lake house. I remember it; I’ve seen it. It was a glorified hut.

And, from what the interpreter said, and from what I later saw in the notes that the interpreter had made of the meeting, Reagan was quite open about the fact of what are we going to do about this relationship between our two countries. The issue of whether or not we were going to war? Are we going to go to peace? What are we going to do? How are we going to handle this? It’s up to us to make the decisions. Do we need nuclear weapons? They found it to be a very constructive meeting and a constructive opening, though they never did get to arms control or any other detail….

Q: At Geneva while the heavy work was done, how did these talks start? Was it saying, we really have to do something here? Do you think on both sides, or not?

KAMPELMAN: The talks started with formal presentations by each side. The Soviets attacked us for wanting to undermine the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty with our missile defense program. I spoke for the United States and my point was that what we were doing was not in violation of the ABM Treaty, but that what we really needed to do was begin to modernize our systems. We knew they had their defenses and we were going to proceed with our defenses. It was very formal and the formal presentations continued practically until the very end. The informal discussions didn’t begin until Gorbachev moved in and Shevardnadze moved in and then the coldness began to break down….

Q: How did the whole Geneva process proceed?

KAMPELMAN: It proceeded. We met formally, I recall, three times a week. We met informally whenever we could. But the fact of the matter is that the deal was not made in Geneva.

The deal was made in private conferences between Shultz and Shevardnadze, with their technical assistants present at each time. They’re the ones who ironed out the differences, which were then reflected in Geneva, but the fundamental work was done between the two and the experts the two brought along….

We ended up, in START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties], the longer range missiles, with approximately fifty percent reductions, which is the first time we’ve ever had any kind of a deal reducing rather than putting restrictions on nuclear weapons. I felt very good to be a part of that process. Relationships developed very well….

Now, in time, therefore, the Geneva negotiations turned into formalities. The real substantive negotiations were outside of the Geneva talks. When it came to the detailed drafting of the treaties, that’s when Geneva again was vital, because there is where we had the experts, on both sides, and we weren’t going to be misled on technicalities. And this took a lot of time….

At the end I was doing two jobs, mostly Counselor work, because the treaty principles were worked out. When tensions arose, I’d go back.… We got it done, so that by the morning meeting, which was supposed to be the final meeting, we had an agreement. But it did occasionally require me to go back and forth and try to be a bit creative about some of these issues. But I was then Counselor, so I was doing, in effect, all things; and as Counselor I was doing anything that came up. I was making occasional public talks as well.

The Century of Democracy

I don’t know if I ever went into the philosophy of the Madrid meeting…. But when I was given the invitation to head up our delegation in Madrid, I was advised by a number of people not to take it because it was nothing but a Soviet front, they said to me. But when I was teaching at the University of Minnesota a book came out by Gunnar Myrdahl. What I learned in Madrid was that it’s very important to take advantage of an “ought.”

The Helsinki Final Act asserted the ways countries “ought” to behave. We then would have a right to say, “Move your ‘is’ to the ‘ought’.” We’re living in a world where there’s a larger percentage of the human race today governed by democracies or near democracies than ever before in known history. There are democratic sources that exist even within countries like Saudi Arabia….

The essence of democracy is that a democracy may decide not to be a democracy, through a vote. But for us democracy is not just an election; it’s a whole concept of a rule of law. And that’s what we’re processing, as a matter of fact, what the Helsinki process produced, for example, in Copenhagen, where I was asked by Jim Baker to go back for a month and represent the United States even though I was out of the government and had finished my Counselor job. He asked me to go back to Copenhagen, to Geneva, to Madrid, to Moscow–one a year, for a month–to help them to strengthen the Helsinki process.

The Copenhagen document has been called by a number of professors of international law the most important international human rights document since the Magna Carta, and it spells out what a democracy means. If anybody was to come and join this process, they would be joining what is apparent, a series of “oughts;” and that’s our task. Once the “oughts” are there, we have a leg up toward the “is.”…

I would like American foreign policy to be directed toward the aim of turning the 21st century into the Century of Democracy. This is my prevailing philosophy…, so that’s where I come from. I do not believe that somehow those of us who were born in the western hemisphere have a unique gene which permits us to enjoy democracy while the rest of the human race doesn’t want it, or can’t experience it, or wouldn’t appreciate it. That’s not my view of the human race, nor is it my view of religion. So I believe those of us who have, have a duty to share to help. I give to charity. This is a giving idea. That’s my philosophy.


The USS Pueblo Incident — Assassins in Seoul, A Spy Ship Captured

January of 1968 saw two of the most serious incidents to occur on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War. Skirmishes had become common along the demilitarized zone since 1967, but none were more brazen than the attempt by North Korean commandos to assassinate President of South Korea Park Chung-hee the night of January 21. An elite North Korean unit successfully crossed the DMZ and came within 100 meters of the Blue House, the president’s official residence, before being thwarted by South Korean security forces.

The failure of this mission may have prompted the North Koreans to seize the American naval intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo, on January 23. While collecting signals intelligence in international waters near the North Korean coast, the ship was attacked and captured, with one crew member killed and the rest taken hostage. Read more

Philip Habib — Cursed is the Peacemaker

Philip Habib (February 25, 1920 – May 25, 1992) was a career diplomat known for his work in Vietnam, South Korea and the Middle East. The New York Times described him as “the outstanding professional diplomat of his generation in the United States.” Habib was Lebanese-American and raised in Brooklyn by Lebanese Maronite Catholic parents. He graduated with a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Berkeley in 1952 then entered the Foreign Service. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 1967–1969 and was part of the Vietnamese peace talk delegation in 1968. He was Ambassador to South Korea (1971–1974), Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (1974–1976), and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (1976–1978), during which time he was the chief mediator between Israel and Egypt in the Camp David Peace Accord.

Habib retired from the Foreign Service after suffering a third heart attack but soon returned to public service in 1979 as a special adviser and in 1981 was sent as special envoy by Ronald Reagan to mediate  the Lebanese Civil War. Habib negotiated a peace agreement that allowed the PLO to evacuate the besieged city of Beirut.

In 1982 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest official honor given to a U.S. citizen by the U.S. government.  John Boykin’s biography of Habib, “Cursed is the Peacemaker” focuses largely on Habib’s mediation between Israel and Lebanon during their war in 1982. In 2006, Habib was featured on a U.S. postage stamp, one of a block of six featuring prominent diplomats.

In these excerpts, he talks about his beginnings doing crop reports, the measures taken to avoid the media during the Paris Peace Talks, the breakthrough in negotiations that was undone at the last minute, his heart attack, and the frustrations during the Lebanon negotiations in the 1980s that led to his eventual resignation.

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Go to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History


The Economics of the Peach Market

HABIB: I went straight to the Ph.D…..  While I was in Berkeley, I was a research associate assistant to one of the professors. We d

id research on various crop problems. My first publication — I was the co-author of a pamphlet issued by the University of California on the asparagus situation, or the spinach situation in California. I was the co-author, I had done the statistical research.

Q: Filed in the Library of Congress?

HABIB: I filed in a lot of places. There’s another one on the premium peach market in California. My first publication, however, was as co-author of the spinach situation in California. At any rate, it was not bad training in terms of economic reporting in the Foreign Service. Let’s face it. I later wrote hundreds of crop reports as an economic reporting officer in my first post in the Foreign Service…. I was assistant agriculture attaché in Canada.

On Avoiding the Media during the Paris Peace Talks

HABIB: I was assigned temporary duty and I was there all the time, never left except for briefing trips back home. We started out living at the Crillon Hotel and after seven or eight months of eating out all the time, I rented a little pad, a two and a half room pad up in an old house about five minutes from the embassy. I could fall out of bed and be in the embassy in five minutes if anything happened, and we began the negotiations. The negotiations were for the purpose of a total bombing halt, and to negotiate the end of war.

From our standpoint, we were willing to go for a total bombing halt, but we wanted to get a proper negotiation going including the South Vietnamese. We had South Vietnamese liaison guys there in Paris. But the actual negotiations were between us and the North Vietnamese. We started in May and by the fall of that year we had negotiated the total bombing halt under conditions of bringing about full fledged negotiations, and also with certain understandings as to what would not be done. It’s beginning to fade from my memory, but it’s still quite clear what we did, including such things as no major attacks on cities. We had all sorts of things which were quite clear from what had gone on in the negotiations.

We had two levels of negotiations. We had the formal talks every Thursday. We would convene at the Majestic Hotel at Avenue Kleber. The delegation would file into this magnificent conference hall, and we’d sit there and read statements to each other, and go out and talk to the TV cameras, and go back to the office and meet again the next Thursday.

Well, that went on for a while, and obviously we weren’t going to do anything under that spotlight, so we had a couple of private meetings, and then we set up the formal secret negotiations. They had a safe house, and we had a safe house. Our safe house was staffed by the CIA, but with Defense people living there, and a couple of secretaries took care of the safe house. And they had a safe house which was supplied to them by the French Communist Party. Sometimes we’d meet in our safe house, sometimes we’d meet in their safe house.

HABIB: [Theirs was on the] outside, on the fringe of the city. That was the Kissinger thing. Now, we ran it secretly. Nobody knew, nobody had a clue where they were. They knew that something was wrong, but couldn’t figure out what. I remember one CBS reporter said, “Now we’ve figured it out, you’re meeting on a houseboat on the Seine.” Yes, that’s right, on a houseboat, you get a rowboat and follow us out. They never discovered it, and why? We ran it, we were professionals. Nothing ever leaked from them, or from us. We had a whole series of good meetings.

Q: Maintaining secrecy on both sides.

HABIB: That’s right, and we held I don’t know how many dozens of these meetings until we negotiated the terms of understanding. As a matter of fact, they were finally initialed and signed on the last day, but I wasn’t there. When they were finalized and initialed I had been ordered back to brief the president, because there was a lot going on back here. So I came back to Washington to brief people here on where things stood. I didn’t attend the last secret meetings with Harriman and Vance, which was the only time that they allowed photographs up until that time. There were photographs taken at the last meeting. I don’t have a copy because I wasn’t there — one of the photographs I really would have liked to have because I had been one of the players right from the beginning.

Cy Vance and I had carried on most of the secret negotiations. We would bring Harriman in for the key ones. Cy and I had meeting after meeting, and a couple of times I had meetings alone, at the last stages when we were drafting terms in getting the agreement on the shape of the table. All that was done in that period under the secret negotiation.

Q: So you would have the press come around for those once-a-week meetings.

HABIB: That’s right. The press was there for the once-a-week meetings.

The time when the press arrived, after the formal once-a-week negotiations, with nothing going on, we were having intensive 7-8-hour-long meetings with the Vietnamese that the press knew nothing about. Now the way we managed it, I set up the system.

For example, let’s say the meeting was in our safe house–we had a safe house in a place called St. Cloud. We had one somewhere else and a third one in another place, then the Vietnamese had a safe house out at Choissy-le-Roi. Harriman would stay out in Auteuil. Vance would be at the embassy with me. We had a CIA guy, with an unmarked car rented by this CIA guy. He was not a guy from the station. He was a special guy brought in nobody knew….

He would rent a private car. He would park the car up by the Madeleine. The meetings usually consisted of Harriman, Vance, and myself, John Negroponte and Dave Engel, Bill Jordan. Negroponte and Engel would do the notes, and I would take notes too. If it was just Vance, it would be Vance, myself, and probably Negroponte, the three of us, or maybe Engel would.

Q: Did you each talk in your own language and then use a translator?

HABIB: That’s right. They wouldn’t negotiate in French. They wouldn’t do it even in the big meetings, they would not negotiate in French. The only time they would speak French and negotiate was privately. One night I had the deputy guy over for dinner at my apartment, and we spoke French….

At any rate, the guy would park the car up there at a given hour; let’s say the meeting was going to be at 10:00, a half-hour drive or so. At 9:00 Dave Engel, carrying the documents in a satchel, would wander up toward the Madeleine, get into the car, the driver would then drive down and he would go up the Champs-Elysées.

Meanwhile, Cy Vance and I would go out the back door of the embassy and we would walk as if we were taking a stroll in the park along the Champs-Elysées, and at a given moment we would be at the curb on a certain spot on the Champs-Elysées, the car would stop, and he and I would get in the car, and we would then drive out to where Ambassador Harriman would be outside of a flower shop at a certain time. We would pick him up and we would head out. Of course, nobody knew where the hell we were going.

“The war would have been over much sooner”

We did that from May until October, and then we finished the negotiations. We finished them actually in October. Of course, at that point we thought we were going to be a big success. Of course, Harriman was very anxious to get this done before the elections to avert, as he put it, the greatest disaster: Richard Nixon. That was the way he felt. So he was doing everything to get Humphrey elected.

Vance was marvelous. They were very political. Of course, we stayed out of the politics. In fact, I think most of those at the meetings wanted to get it done before the election too, because the Vietnamese were being stubborn as hell. From May, June, July, August, they wouldn’t give a thing. And all of a sudden, one day, we had been pressing them: What would we get if we gave a total bombing halt? For the total bombing halt we wanted, specific things had to happen. And finally, one day, the head of their delegation, a member of the Politburo, said to Harriman and Vance, “If we do so and so and so, will you stop the bombing?” At that point, you knew you had it.

It was just that stubbornness and reading reams of propaganda bullshit, even in the secret talks. They finally agreed to what we needed, and what we wanted, and the deal was cooked. And then something happened.

Q: Before the election.

HABIB: Before the election. First of all somebody got to [South Vietnamese President Ngyuen Van] Thieu on behalf of Nixon and said, “Don’t agree, come to Paris.”

It was done right here in Washington. A Republican went to a famous woman called Anna Chennault. Anna Chennault went to the Vietnamese and told the Vietnamese, “We’ll get a better deal under Nixon.” So Thieu refused to accept the agreement and sent a delegation to Paris. Clark Clifford was fit to be tied, particularly Clark. Harriman was about to climb the wall. Well finally, of course, the election was held and Humphrey lost.

Q: It could have turned out differently.

HABIB: That’s correct. I’m convinced that if Humphrey had won the election the war would have been over much sooner. I know what we were going to negotiate under Harriman and Vance, and that was not what we negotiated under the later generation, basically under Henry Kissinger and Nixon.

Kissinger was somewhat familiar because he had been a consultant. As a matter of fact, the great article that Kissinger had written about the negotiations, he really stole that from us. It was in the form of a briefing which I gave him in Paris before he wrote the article. It was exactly the position that I had in some way espoused. And also I had written a special paper for Harriman on what to do about getting the negotiations on track, which he was going to buy.

Of course, the election was held and a new group came along. First of all, Henry Cabot Lodge was appointed head. You couldn’t get the thing cranked up until after the inauguration, which meant you marked time until January. Meanwhile the Vietnamese agreed to come, so they formed their delegation, and the Viet Cong came with their delegation.

Q: I remember the table problem.

HABIB: A round table, with no sides, our side, your side, was the formula we used. It was a simple thing to arrange. People said it took them three months to decide on the shape of the table, that was a bunch of shit. We knew what the table was going to be from the beginning; it was going to be a round table. It was the only way you were going to solve the problem. We knew that but we had to go through this whole routine of satisfying the South Vietnamese, and beating down the arguments of the North Vietnamese who wanted the VC [Viet Cong] as an equal delegation. They talked about a four-party negotiation, and we talked about an “our side, your side” negotiation.

We finally resolved the problem by a round table. We knew we were going to do that. But you couldn’t solve anything when you didn’t have delegations. And then we had an election and we had to wait until the new administration was in. The new administration appointed Cabot Lodge as head of the delegation and, of course, he had a so-called number two called Walsh, a lawyer from New York who didn’t know anything about the problem. He was a Republican lawyer from New York who was in the early Nixon administration. But Cabot insisted that I had to remain. At this point I wanted my just rewards. I could have an embassy anywhere I wanted; I might as well get an embassy….

Cabot came and we began sort of floundering around. At that point Henry Kissinger entered the negotiations by deciding that he’s going to run the secret negotiating…. He had Dick Walters, who was then the military attaché, set up the goddamn negotiation, and said nothing to us. Henry lacked confidence in the secrecy of the Foreign Service. Here I had run the secret negotiations, and he knew me. He knew me for a long time. Hell, I knew him when he was at Harvard.

And yet, instead of getting me to set up the secret negotiations, he gets a military attaché, this secretive fellow called Dick Walters, to set up the negotiations through a Frenchmen, mind you, who was a friend of Kissinger’s. I should say his wife was a friend of Kissinger’s, a guy called Jean Sainteny who was an old Indo-Chinese hand.

He gets the goddamn first secret meeting with them set up through Walters and Sainteny in Sainteny’s apartment. And they go to the meeting and Henry thinks Walters is going to do the interpreting and speak French. He finds out the guys won’t speak French in the negotiations. So he didn’t have them, instead of taking my man, Dave Engel, whom I had offered him. I said to him I knew that they were doing this. He had with him Winston Lord, Tony Lake, and this character, Walters. None of them knew anything about anything at that point compared to us…. I had Dave Engel, I had John Negroponte, I had Dick Holbrooke, Dick Smyser, and he decided to do it this way. Of course, he soon learned that he had to have Dave Engel.

Years later, years later, John Negroponte was head of the delegation, but he was working for Kissinger, not for me. He was on the NSC at that time. He wouldn’t use the mechanism that we had…. They ended up by not being secret. Lodge left because he didn’t want to hang around any longer. I became acting head of the division and lasted about nine months, and then they decided to make it appear as if we were upgrading our interest and had David Bruce come. David lasted several months; I forget how long. He was there for about nine months, and he got fed up and he left. I was acting again, and then I finally broke loose and went as ambassador to Korea….

“Professor Kissinger, you don’t know a goddamn thing about this place”

Q: Had Kissinger come on missions to Vietnam while you were there?


. The first time I met him was when he came to Vietnam. You probably never heard him tell that story about the time I threw him out of my office. The first time he ever came in, the first time I ever saw him. He was a professor and Henry Cabot Lodge called me in and said that Johnson was sending this professor out. Did I know this Professor Kissinger? I said, I don’t know him but I know who he is, he’s written that book that everybody knew about, Nuclear weapons and Foreign Policy.

So this guy shows up at my door one morning. I was in one of my particular moods, so I looked at him and said, “Professor, you don’t know a goddamn thing about this place. I’m a very busy fellow. If you want to learn something about it, I’ll give you a couple of my guys who know the language, know the country. You go around the country, spend a couple of weeks looking the situation over, then you come back and I’ll have time to talk to you. In the meantime, get the hell out of my office.”

That’s exactly the way I greeted him. He tells the story all the time. I literally told him to get the hell out of my office, I didn’t have time for him. But he followed my advice. As a matter of fact, I gave him Dave Engel, and I gave him Vlad Lehovich to take him around, take him up country and show him around. I think John Negroponte went with him too to show him a little bit about what the hell the war was all about. Interesting enough, Henry hated to fly, you know, at that time. He was literally pained flying, but he would do it. He would grit his teeth and he’d go up in these goddamn little airplanes and flit around the countryside. Then he came back and we became very good friends.

Having a Heart Attack before a White House Meeting

I was due at the White House for breakfast, [Israeli Prime Minister] Menachem Begin, [Secretary of State] Cy Vance and the president. And I had told Cy the night before when we got in to Andrews, “I’ll meet you at the office at 7:00 and we’ll go over together.” But I got to the office at 7:00 and barely made it to the room, collapsed, and they called an ambulance and I got hauled out to Walter Reed. So I didn’t make the breakfast with Begin and the president. They put me in intensive care in Walter Reed….

Q: They had your file.

HABIB: Yes, and I had a [cardiac] arrest that day. They had sedated me so they shocked me back with the paddles. They

kept me there for a few days, and by golly I had another arrest. I got over it, and they put me on a lot of pills, I was taking at one time something like 36 pills, each a different kind, in one day. I’d have to get up in the middle of the night and take a pill.

They were trying to adjust the rhythm of my heart by pills. What had happened, of course, the first heart attack left a scar and a bulge in my heart and that would always stay with me, and the pain. So the next thing I know, they said I’m in the hospital recuperating and when I recuperated I came back to the Department. Oh well, now you can go back to work, other people do.

And I said, no, I don’t think so. I’ll take some time off to see if I can get my health back. So I went out to Stanford as Diplomat in Residence.

The Lebanese Civil War – “That’s when I resigned for the last time”

There was practically no evidence of any hostile action from Lebanese territory directly into Israel. The Israelis won’t admit that, but it’s true. We kept track of those damn things. Now, they had this plan, [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon had this plan that had been made in Lebanon to crush the Palestinian movement. That’s what he told me when he told me about this plan, and showed me what it was.

I told him it was no goddamn good, and I was right, but he didn’t pay any attention. The next day you know the war is on and everything that goes with it. At that point we began to question, how do you stop the war? I had eleven ceasefires, then the twelfth one. Sometimes a ceasefire would last for a day, sometimes an hour, sometimes three days, it never would last.

And it was not always the Arabs’ fault. The Israelis had this strange notion that if you declared a ceasefire you could move your troops around. So they would accept the ceasefire and then they would move their troops, and the other guys would shoot at them and they’d say, “They broke the ceasefire.” I once said to the prime minister, a friend of the defense minister and the foreign minister, that I was going to have to get this new definition of a ceasefire written up in the annals of the War College.

But that’s wh

at happened. I was terribly busy running from country to country. Trying to get the Saudis and the Syrians to do things, talking to the Syrians directly to get them clued in, keeping the Israelis on board, flying in and around and up and down. It wasn’t too bad.

Well, I then got to talk ceasefire and it held [for a while] but I got to a point where I was really fed up with the senselessness that was going on. I had practically got an agreement with the PLO and the Syrians to get their troops out of Beirut. I was negotiating the details and what follows and all that, and still the Israelis were hitting the cities.

So I used to call Washington up on a secure line and said I wanted to talk to the Secretary. When they got the Secretary on the phone, I said, “Now this has got to stop. Its just can’t go on this way.” He said, “What do you recommend?”

I said, “I recommend the President pick up the telephone and talk to Menachem Begin.”

That’s what happened. That led to a disengagement of forces, and bringing in the multinational force and a ceasefire that held long enough to get an election in Lebanon. Things seemed to be going in the right direction, and the war started all over again.

At that point, we were in negotiation involving Israel, the Lebanese, a negotiation which I opposed. The Israelis insisted they wanted a negotiation. So I’m not getting anywhere. I went to the president and secretary and said, “My idea is that I should go over there now with a solution and say, ‘Look, fellows, tell me what you want and we’ll put it together’.”

I talked to the Lebanese; they were all right, I had a pretty good understanding with agreement to them. I go to Israel and I had the whole cabinet, the senior members of the cabinet. I started talking about my ideas…and Sharif pulled out a piece of paper and he said, in effect we’re way ahead of you, we’ve got this working paper with the Lebanese, this is the start of the settlement [talks] in Washington.

I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t know anything about it. I had not been in that part of the world in several months. I was out in California….

At any rate, it was a bad turn of events. So we began plodding back to the negotiations, and finally got them through. By the time they were finished, they weren’t worth the paper they were written on, because they obviously couldn’t be implemented. I remember I used to sometimes say to the Lebanese, you can’t demand this. You can’t demand [that] because if you do the Syrians won’t accept it. They wanted to get the maximum benefits to justify the war. But by now the war had turned sour. Those attitudes were very sour towards the war.

Q: And the Syrians were very proud of their negative reality.

HABIB: All of this took so much time. The Syrians get reinforced…. The Israelis supported the Christians; they supported that other group. The fighting began to stir up again. After the agreement was signed I was going over to Syria to talk with Assad.

I got the word back that I wasn’t welcome because I had misled him in the early days on the ceasefire. I didn’t mislead him. The Israelis would agree to the terms and then they would break them. But he held that against me.

Q: That you had deceived him on the ceasefire.

HABIB: So I said to the President, well, if he doesn’t want to see me — that’s when I resigned for the last time.


“It was an Unwinnable War”

George Ball was the Under Secretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  He supported the 1963 overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1968, where he passionately criticized the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. However, he is most known for his opposition to the escalation of the Vietnam War.

On July 1, 1965, Ball submitted a memo to President Johnson titled “A Compromise Solution for South Vietnam.” It began bluntly: “The South Vietnamese are losing the war to the Viet Cong. No one can assure you that we can beat the Viet Cong, or even force them to the conference table on our terms, no matter how many hundred thousand white, foreign (U.S.) troops we deploy.” Ball advised that the United States not commit any more troops, restrict the combat role of those already in place, and seek to negotiate a way out of the war.

As Ball was submitting his memo, the U.S. air base at Da Nang came under attack by the Viet Cong for the first time. The attack on Da Nang and the weakness of the Saigon regime convinced Johnson that he had to do something to stop the communists. While Ball recommended a negotiated settlement, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara urged the President to “expand promptly and substantially” the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam. Johnson ultimately accepted McNamara’s recommendation. On July 22, just three weeks after Ball submitted his memo, LBJ authorized a total of 44 U.S. battalions for commitment in South Vietnam, a decision that led to a massive escalation of the war. There had been fewer than ten U.S. Army and Marine battalions in South Vietnam at this time. Eventually there would be more than 540,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam.

In this 1971 interview, part of the ADST collection courtesy of the National Archives and Records Service at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Ball recounts his lonely opposition to escalating the Vietnam War, starting in 1964. You can read other Moments from the Vietnam War.

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“McNamara was absolutely horrified”

Q: I’ve had people tell me that Vietnam didn’t really engage [LBJ] probably until after the 1964 election. Of course, now we’re being told that all these decisions had occurred before then.

BALL: That’s absolute nonsense. They weren’t decisions. What was happening was that after he got the legislative program through, or even before, he became immediately involved in the election campaign, the convention and the campaign. The Tonkin Gulf [incident] occurred in the middle of that, in August.  I remember at the end of September I had become so deeply concerned about the situation in Vietnam that I sat down during the nights — because I couldn’t do this in the office and I couldn’t use any staff — and dictated a memorandum which turned out to be about 75 pages long… This was a memorandum that challenged every assumption of our Vietnam policy. And then the second section was a kind of plan for disengaging….

It got to the White House. What happened on that was that the memorandum was written the last week of September. It took me about two weeks, because, as I say, I’d get up at three or four in the morning–I had a dictating machine in my house–and I would go into the library there and dictate through the night.

I had a very strong conviction that I should never treat with the President on an ex parte basis. So I sent a copy of this to McNamara (at left), and one to Rusk, and one to Mac Bundy. I think there were only five copies made, altogether. McNamara, in particular, was absolutely horrified. He treated it like a poisonous snake. The idea that people would put these kinds of things down on paper!

We met then for two Saturday afternoons to discuss this thing. As I say, the general attitude of the conferees was to treat it as something that really shouldn’t have been done. Although I think that Rusk and Bundy were more tolerant of my effort to put it on paper than Bob was. He really just regarded it as next to treason, that this had been put down on paper.

“It was an unwinnable war”

Q: Was anybody else saying such things at that? Anybody in a senior position?

BALL: No. None of them. Not at all.

I didn’t press to show it to the President, because he was occupied with the campaign at that time. But about the first of January, after the election, Bill Moyers was over for lunch with me one day, and I gave this to Bill. He read it, and he says that this was the beginning of his conversion on the Vietnamese issue. So then I said, “Well, if you feel that this is something serious, I had intended it for the President, and I want to give it to the President.” Which he did.

And the President read it not once, but twice, so he told me, and he was very impressed, or shaken, by it. So he insisted that we sit down and start arguments. Well, that was the beginning of a process I then employed, because then I wrote the President every few weeks setting forth, in effect, what I thought were quite serious, reasoned memoranda which were difficult to do because, as I say, I had to do them all myself.

But each one was addressed at some particular proposal for escalation, challenging the proposal and arguing that we were losing the war, that it was an unwinnable war, that the whole objective was an unattainable objective, that we could commit any number of–500,000 I think was the figure I used at one point in a memorandum–and that we still would not win. All the reasons I’ve set forth. And each time I ended up, “Therefore we should cut our losses,” that this would be the consequence in short-term problems, but in long-term we would gain by it, which I set forth in relation to each country: countries in the Far East, countries in Europe, the neutralist countries, and so on.

The President always read these things. And the reason I know he read them is because he always insisted on having a meeting then, and he would call on me to present my views, which I would do. The reason I know he read them was that he would sit there without looking at them and he’d say, “Now, George, you say on page nine” so-and-so. “I don’t see how you can possibly defend that.” So then I’d defend it. “And on page fourteen you say” so-and-so….

“The impetus toward escalation never came from Lyndon Johnson”

Q: Did they ever occasion, in being presented that frequently, what you considered really a basic reconsideration of some of the premises by the other principals?

BALL: Not basically consideration of some of the premises. But what did happen was that the President on two or three occasions said at the end of the day, “Look, I agree with George. I think he’s right. We’re not going to do this thing. I don’t agree with you, Bob, you’ve got to make your case. I don’t agree with you, Mac. We’re not going to do it.” But we ended up by doing it a couple of weeks later, because events moved on and pressures built up and so on. I think I slowed the process, let me put it that way.

Q: You were already having doubts, obviously, about the general direction of our policy at that time.

BALL: Oh, I’d always had doubts.

Q: But you favored the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

BALL: Yes, I don’t recall having opposed it. I just felt that–

Q: Did anyone?

BALL: I don’t think so. “Let’s go get this authority.” It didn’t seem to me that implied in this was much more than that. “Let’s get some authority from Congress,” rather than act entirely–again, this was perhaps a lawyer’s instinct–on the basis of the implied powers of the President, war powers of the President. I just thought we ought to tidy up. That was really what it was.…

Q: Was it your understanding that there existed in early September of 1964, as the Pentagon Papers seem to be saying, a consensus that we were going to start bombing?

BALL: There wasn’t any consensus. There were a lot of people thinking, you know, “This situation is not good. Let’s think of all the contingencies.” And everybody who was working on South Vietnam was writing papers about this or that type of program. There wasn’t any consensus at all.

Q: And certainly not a presidential decision?

BALL: Certainly not a presidential decision. No, he definitely didn’t make it. He didn’t want to make this decision. He was always a very reluctant fellow, but he always got kind of dragged along, kicking and screaming. The impetus toward escalation never came from Lyndon Johnson, I can assure you of that.

Q: There did occur that fall several instances that might have provoked the same kind of retaliation that we took in Tonkin Gulf and we didn’t take retaliatory action.

BALL: That’s right.

Q: Did they involve presidential refusal?

BALL: Usually. The President would say, “Yes, we’re not going to do this.” And then what happened really, the reason why the bombing started in February, it didn’t have anything to do with any very clear decision that something had to be done to the North, but that something had to be done for the South. There had been a whole sordid series of coups, a feeling that the whole political fabric of South Vietnam was beginning to disintegrate, and that we had to do something very fair and affirmative if we were going to keep this damned thing from falling apart. That’s what happened. It was a great buckerupper for South Vietnam. That was the whole reason for it. I say the whole reason. That was really the reason for it.

Now the problem that I was encountering at that time, particularly with Bob McNamara–and, again, I don’t want to be unfair to him. He was the one who had the responsibility for the war in a rather special sense, in the military sense. He was under enormous pressures from his own soldiers and sailors and airmen to escalate, and he resisted. He made his own decisions, and he kept the thing under very considerable control and under great restraint. But the reaction I always had from him was–he would put up a proposal, and I would say, “Well, I don’t think it’s demonstrated that this is going to achieve the purpose at all, and I don’t think that the argument has been made in any convincing form that this can succeed or that it’s going to do any good. The cost could be very considerable, and it’s one more step on this road,” and so on.

He had a set answer, which was, “All right, George, what do you propose to do?” I had a set answer, too. I proposed that we cut our losses and get the hell out. But that was no [acceptable] answer….It was an unacceptable answer in the current mood at the time.

“It isn’t as bad as you say”

Q: Had anybody joined you by February of 1965 in that point of view in regard to the bombing when the bombing decision was being made?

BALL: No. That was the general attitude I had toward every act of escalation. I was alone in the top councils. If [former CIA analyst and then-Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department] Bill Bundy tells me he had lots of reservations, and I suspect he did–Bill is an honest man–he never argued them in any direct or vigorous way, even to me. He would always say, “You’re overstating. You’ve overestimated this thing. It isn’t as bad as you say,” and so on. I think there were people in the Department who were beginning to feel this way. My own personal assistant, George Springsteen, I think agreed with me. Abe Chayes, who was in the consular department. But they were in a position where they couldn’t make their voices felt.

Q: When the bombing did start, was it clearly understood by everybody that this was going to be a permanently instituted policy?

BALL: No. It started on a so-called tit-for-tat basis. [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General] Max Taylor was pressing this idea of gradually escalating the thing. I had a kind of sense of fatality that I wasn’t going to keep it from happening. It would indeed happen. Once you get one of those things going, it’s just like getting a little alcohol; you’re going to get a taste for more. It’s a compelling thing.…

Q: Do you think that was fully understood by the people who were so avid that we begin a bombing program?

BALL: Nobody was prepared to concede that any particular step would require any further step. This was kind of a standard assumption which I kept repeating again and again was a false assumption. The argument that I kept making through these memoranda. I remember quoting Emerson about “things are in the saddle” and “You’re losing control. You go forward with this further step, and you will substantially have lost control. Finally, you’re going to find the war is running you, and we’re not running the war.”…

Q: What was the general view of the top inner circle advisers regarding what our chances were of doing what we wanted to do in Vietnam by this time? Was there optimism in the State Department?

BALL: It depended on what parts of the State Department you’re talking about. I remember saying to Bill Bundy once on a certain measure of escalation that, “I don’t think this thing has a chance. I think it’s absurd to be putting this up and seriously going for it.” I said, “What do you think the chances are?”

“Oh,” he said, “10 or 15 per cent.”

I said, “That’s absolute nonsense for a great government to go ahead on as potentially costly a program of this kind in terms of lives, in terms of ancillary breakings that might occur on that kind of a risk. It’s just a lousy business judgment. You can’t do it.”

I think it differed from one man to another. I think that McNamara up through that period was absolutely convinced that one could make a quantitative demonstration, given the disparity in resources between the United States and the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong; that if we didn’t impose our will on the country, it was simply because we weren’t using those resources properly and weren’t being sufficiently skillful and imaginative. Therefore, it was a tremendous challenge.…

As a practicing lawyer, I had had among my clients various agencies of the French government when they went through the Indo-Chinese experience. I had heard everything before. I used to tell this to the President when McNamara was present, and it would just drive him up the wall.

I’d say, “Look, Mr. President, everything that the Secretary of Defense has been telling you this morning, I used to listen to with my French friends. They talked about the body count. They talked the relative kill ratios. They talked about the fact that there was always a new plan, and with a little increment of effort, the Navarre Plan, the DeLattre de Tassigny Plan, and so on, that was going to win the day. And they believed it just as much as we’re believing it sitting around the table this morning. I can tell you, however, that in the end, there was a great disillusion. And there will be one.”

Q: But it didn’t get through.

BALL: It didn’t get through. And as you will note, if you ever see those memoranda, a lot of them were filled with references to the French experience. That was no particular wisdom on my part. I just had a feeling that this was a terrible place to commit power, that there was no political base on which it could rest, and that the physical terrain was awful, what President de Gaulle described to me as “rotten country.”



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