Making a Difference
Today, many Americans cannot identify the U.S. Foreign Service, even though it is the nation’s first line of defense. It is both a highly trained organization stationed in 190 countries and also a community of 58,000 men and women who spend most of their lives in foreign lands serving their fellow Americans.
The members of the Foreign Service—and thousands more who do not pass its tough entrance tests—are motivated, more than anything else, by the desire to “make a difference.” They want to create and carry out American foreign policy in creative, effective ways.
To make a difference, a Foreign Service officer must have both the ability and the authority to make decisions and take action—often under the pressure of crisis and danger. Here, for example, are the stories of two modern American diplomats who made a difference.
“HE WAS ONE OF A KIND, UNIQUE”
William A. Eddy masterminded the historic meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia during World War II.
Eddy was born in Syria to Presbyterian missionary parents and grandparents. During boyhood summers, his father sent him to live in the desert with the nomadic Bedouins and learn their language and culture. He played varsity basketball at Princeton, and, after graduating in June 1917, he was sent to France with the Sixth Marines.
Eddy led daring reconnaissance patrols, and, within a few months, received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, and two Silver Stars, all for valor, before he was seriously wounded in the battle for Belleau Wood. His regimental commander, Colonel Albertus W. Catlin, a Medal of Honor winner himself, called Eddy “a daredevil who loved nothing better than to stalk German sentries in Indian fashion.”
After World War I, Eddy earned a Ph.D. at Princeton, taught at the American University in Cairo and at Dartmouth College, and then became president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He rejoined the Marine Corps in World War II and served as a naval attaché in Tangier before the Allies landed in French North Africa on November 8, 1942. The attaché title was a cover; he headed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) for North Africa, working with Ambassador Robert Murphy, who represented the State Department, and Brigadier General William J. Donovan, who led the OSS. Ambassador Murphy said of Eddy: “He was one of a kind, unique; we could have used a hundred like him.”
In November 1943, the State Department asked the OSS to return Colonel Eddy for temporary duty, and President Roosevelt sent him to Saudi Arabia as the American minister. When FDR decided to meet with Ibn Saud on his way home from the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Colonel Eddy organized the secret meeting between the self-taught warrior-hunter Saudi king and the sophisticated, Harvard-educated American president.
Eddy was charged to bring them together aboard the brand-new heavy cruiser USS Quincy on the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the Suez Canal. If word of the meeting leaked out, Quincy would be a stunning target for German bomber pilots.
Eddy arranged for the destroyer USS Murphy to drop anchor in Jeddah harbor on Sunday, February 11. It was supposed to look like a routine visit, but no American warship had ever stopped at Jeddah. Meanwhile, Ibn Saud and his entourage traveled overland from Mecca to Jeddah. And Eddy convinced the king to reduce his party on board from a hundred to forty-eight (still exceeding the dozen visitors the destroyer had room for).
When the Murphy sailed for Suez the next day, some Saudis ashore feared their king had abdicated, others that he had been kidnapped. The ladies of the harem dressed in mourning clothes.
To steam to Suez took two nights and a day. The king insisted on sleeping on deck; a tent was raised and rugs spread over the gray steel. His cooks prepared his traditional lamb and rice. At ten o’clock on Wednesday morning, February 14, Valentine’s Day, Murphy tied up alongside the USS Quincy; and the king, three princes, and two ministers crossed the gangplank to meet with President Roosevelt, who was sitting in his wheelchair on the cruiser’s deck. The President and king talked for more than an hour. Eddy was their sole interpreter; dressed in his U.S. Marine uniform, he worked kneeling on one knee between the heads of state.
Eddy then escorted the king to FDR’s private suite and to lunch. The only other Americans at the table were Roosevelt; Admiral William D. Leahy, chief of staff to the commander in chief; and Foreign Service officer Charles “Chip” Bohlen, FDR’s Russian interpreter at Yalta.
After lunch, the king and President resumed their talk, joined by the Saudi foreign minister and Eddy. The two most significant topics they discussed were American access to Saudi Arabian oil and the settlement of more Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Palestine. The king favored the first and strongly opposed the second.
Eddy later said that Roosevelt assured the king that “(1) he personally, as president, would never do anything which might prove hostile to the Arabs; and (2) the U.S. Government would make no change in its basic policy in Palestine without full and prior consultation with both Jews and Arabs.” Eddy always believed that the meeting on the Great Bitter Lake enabled “the leader of Islam to face West and bind his fortunes to ours.”
A DARING ESCAPE
A second story of an American diplomat who made a difference is that of U.S. Consul General J. Hall Paxton. When Mao Tse-tung’s Communist armies swept across China in August 1949, Paxton led out the people of the American consulate at Tihwa in China’s remote northwestern corner. The Chinese had already cut the escape routes to the east and halted all air and rail traffic. Paxton had no choice but to flee by the ancient and precarious Leh caravan route over the Himalayas into India.
The son of a missionary, Paxton had first come to China when he was two. He graduated from Yale; he entered the Foreign Service in 1925 and was serving as a vice consul in Nanking in 1927. Ten years later, he was aboard the gunboat USS Panay when Japanese bombers sank her in the Yangtze River. During World War II the Japanese interned him. By 1949, he was fifty years old and in charge at the walled city of Tihwa, only 150 miles from the Russian and Mongolian borders. The primitive consulate had no indoor plumbing, and whitewashed stables served as guest rooms. The Americans were stationed at Tihwa detecting Soviet atomic bomb activity.
Consul General Paxton’s party of ten adults and six children left Tihwa on August 16, just ahead of the Chinese armies. The party included three Americans (Paxton; his wife, Vincoe, who had been a missionary nurse; and Vice Consul Robert B. Dreessen, a former U.S. Marine) and two White Russian drivers; their families; and an interpreter, his wife, and their three-month-old baby.
They left behind Vice Consul Douglas S. Mackiernan, who was actually an undercover CIA agent. A skilled meteorologist trained at MIT, he had been stationed at Tihwa during World War II. Now, the CIA ordered Mackiernan, the last American in Tihwa, to stay where he was.
Two weeks after Paxton left, the Russians exploded their first atomic bomb. Eleven days later, twenty-eight-year-old Frank B. Bessac, who had served in the OSS and CIA, arrived in Tihwa. And on September 27, Mackiernan closed the consulate. On October 1, Mao Tse-tung established the People’s Republic of China.
Mackiernan and Bessac tried to escape China through Tibet. They traveled for months, mostly riding Asian ponies. Mackiernan kept in touch by radio with his CIA handler and with W. Walton Butterworth, assistant secretary for Far Eastern affairs at the State Department. Mackiernan’s biographer, Thomas Laird, says that the State Department and CIA were feuding and failed to ask the Tibetans for permission for the Mackiernan party to pass through Tibet.
At the border on April 29, Tibetan border guards shot and killed Mackiernan. Permission to let the Americans pass reached the border guards two days after Mackiernan had been killed. He was the first CIA man killed in action and was thus honored by the State Department. Frank Bessac and one White Russian in their party survived and finally made their way home.
After leaving Mackiernan at Tihwa, Consul General Paxton drove an ancient jeep carrying his wife and Vice Consul Dreessen; the others piled into an army truck. They covered nearly a thousand miles, crossing the edge of a vast desert in 108-degree heat. At Kashgar, an oasis on the Russian border, they abandoned their vehicles and hired a caravan.
Five weeks after leaving Tihwa, they reached the last Chinese border outpost. The Chinese border guards allowed Paxton’s party to go on. They entered the Himalayas, climbed through treacherous three-mile-high Karakoram Pass, crossed and recrossed icy rapids, and suffered frostbite and high-altitude nausea. Breathing was painful. Nine packhorses died. For sixteen days they did not see another human being. Near the end, Paxton’s party had to slog ahead and leave the pack train behind.
The terrain on the India side of the mountains was even more difficult, with deep canyons and steep narrow paths. They reached altitudes above seventeen thousand feet and gasped for oxygen in the thin air. When they came to the first tiny Indian settlement, they still had to pick their way over a perilous four-hundred-foot glacier.
After their ten-week ordeal, they staggered into Leh, the capital of Ladakh. A U.S. embassy plane arrived and flew them to New Delhi. Paxton died in 1962 while serving as consul in Isfahan, Iran. His feat of leadership became a Foreign Service legend, encouraging others to take tremendous risks to achieve their goals.
Copyright © 2013 by J. Robert Moskin