Some Things at State Never Change

I came across this article last night, an essay titled “The State of the State Department” from Time Magazine archives dated October 15, 1965.  Although much has changed in the last 40 plus years at State, some old habits seem to still linger.

I am thankful for the modern State Department.  Single female diplomats no longer have to resign after getting married.  The wives of male diplomats are no longer included in promotion reviews; it doesn’t matter if your wife throws terrible parties because it won’t affect your promotion anymore.  Gay and lesbian couples are serving openly without fear of discrimination.

But some traits of the old institution seem to be still around.  Then as now, we get unfairly lambasted for being “soft”:

It was F.D.R.’s Harry Hopkins who pronounced State’s men to be “cookie-pushers, pansies—and usually isolationists to boot.” From a somewhat different point of view, Joe McCarthy called State “a nest of Communist traitors and Communist sympathizers.” More recently, the department has been metaphorically denounced as a “bowl of jelly” (President Kennedy), drowning not only in its “booze allowance” (Congressman John Rooney) but under a flood of paper work springing from “the bureaucratic necessity that everyone has to write so much to justify his existence” (Ambassador to Kenya William Attwood), while working under an overall policy based on “the lowest anti-Communist denominator” (Professor Hans Morgenthau) with a surplus of “pedestrian people” (former Ambassador James Gavin) headed by a Secretary with an “irrevocably conventional mind” (Arthur Schlesinger Jr.).

Politically appointed ambassadors have always been hit or miss:

Its ambassadors are able. Three-fourths of them are careermen, and of the political appointees, none are like the blundering, bottom-pinching misfits who have sometimes embarrassed the U.S. in the past.

Managing inter-agency cooperation is like managing a zoo:

The proliferation of other agency representatives irks State Department careermen. Says former Ambassador Ellis Briggs: “They clutter up the premises. In theory, the American ambassador is the captain of this team of untamed sportsmen. But it is not much use unless the captain has control over the players.” Yet the numbers simply reflect the essential interests that the U.S. has in the rest of the world, and State might just as well settle down with the situation

And a culture of “keep your head down” still permeates the Department:

Moreover, there is a feeling throughout the State Department that boldness earns an excessive penalty if it miscarries. “The thing to do,” says a careerman in Leopoldville, “is fill the norm, do as you’re told, and above all, don’t make waves.” Veteran Diplomat W. Averell Harriman sums up the possible cost of such caution: “I have seen men’s careers set back and, in fact, busted because they held the right views at the wrong time, or for accurately reporting facts which were not popular at the time.”


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