Dad's first diplomatic passport picture
Dad’s first diplomatic passport picture

These are the words of my father, Robert C. Amerson, as captured in his 1988 interview about his career with the United States Information Agency with Allen Hansen, and in Dad’s book, When Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, American University Press, 1995.

I came out of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1950 with a degree in Spanish and journalism and looked around for a job. The best opportunity was in public relations for General Mills, and making that choice affected my international future in a very considerable way. The manager of the PR department was Abbott Washburn, a young man of international interests who was involved with the Eisenhower campaign. He served on the Crusade for Freedom and the Jackson Committee, which helped create the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1953 to help project America’s image overseas and deal with the public aspects of diplomacy.

Hundreds of us with modest professional experience in the field of communication — men and women who had never considered working as civilians for the government but now had developed deep interests in international relations — found ourselves querying Washington about this new line of “foreign service” work. I’d traveled to Mexico while at Mac and through Europe shortly after graduating, and, as part of my work at General Mills, had become the national chairman for international relations with the US Jaycees. I stopped by Abbott’s office as often as my travels led me through Washington. My eyes were wide open and my mouth salivating.

Not that any of us aspired to instant conversion into polished diplomats. For most of us, the Foreign Service implied an elite corps. All I had ever read suggested that American diplomacy traditionally meant the Eastern Establishment, professional practitioners trained at exclusive prep schools and Ivy League universities, people born to the social graces, accustomed to cocktail parties and big receptions. One simply assumed that those assigned abroad to an American embassy personified years of applied preparation: mature men truly educated in major aspects of our own history and culture; conversant with the most educated thinking of our greatest institutions; skilled in negotiation; and able to articulate all this fluently in the language of the host country.

And here was I, five years of public relations, a BA from Macalester, and roots reaching all the way back to a one-room school house on the prairies of South Dakota. Nevertheless, amazingly, Washington seemed hungry. When Abbott became Deputy Director at USIA, I was invited to apply. My application led to a panel interview, and overseas employment became an imminent reality. My wife was willing to give it a try, as long as we waited until the baby we were expecting was six months old. The assignment: Caracas, Venezuela.

We had some misgivings, moving into the unknown and taking our child away from grandparents, but it would be our personal experiment in international living, a chance to serve the country in a special way. After all, it was only a two-year commitment: if the going got rough, we could quit and go home anytime, paying our own fare. We nosed through Life magazine’s spread on bourgeoning Caracas, considering where we might live. We wondered about how the long Venezuelan tradition of military dictatorship rule might affect our daily lives. Vivid memories returned from my motorbike visit to Spain four years earlier, when surreptitious conversations with a casual Spanish acquaintance had brought home to me the anxiety and danger of dissidence under a dictator. Remembered, too, were college classes on the fundamental human craving for democracy — some of these lectures from a man who had personally escaped from Nazi tyranny. How, I wondered, do American diplomats deal with dictators? We pored over a “Post Report” describing basic data on living conditions for embassy families in Caracas, but still felt under-informed about nuances and history. In May, we headed to Washington for two months of training.

There, a routine encounter with the Agency’s security office left me with other, more disturbing, uncertainties about working for government. Each officer heading overseas, as part of a departure checklist, had to schedule a clearance interview with those watchdogs. Those of us new to the work understandably required fairly detailed orientation: the meanings of various classifications (Official Use Only, Confidential, Secret, Top Secret); the need for caution when dealing with non-Americans; the use of bar-locks on file cabinets; and the like. About twenty minutes into my briefing, I became aware that the husky, quiet-voiced security agent was angling repeated questions concerning possible political influences in my past. Specifically, he wanted to know more about my relationship with the college professor whose name I had listed as a reference on my application form.

Before USIA decided to employ me, manifestly, I like everyone else seeking US government work in foreign affairs had undergone a “full field security check.” Various investigators — FBI, Civil Service, State Department, we were never sure — had poked around Minnesota and South Dakota asking questions, perhaps thus raising a quizzical eyebrow from acquaintances or neighbors here and there but failing to uncover anything that might constitute a “security risk.” Now, in this drab government security enclave, the line of questioning and barely masked intensity of my inquisitor suggested that the professor’s name still represented a suspicion that he had to check out. I felt indignation surge along with the sudden realization that, at this very moment, I was undergoing some kind of examination to test my patriotism, my loyalty. With government employment came vulnerability.

McCarthyism as a distant abstraction had been hateful enough: personal implication now made it difficult for me to keep from venting anger. I tried to remain outwardly calm, recognizing that this man was only doing his paperwork job. It had not been many months earlier that Senator McCarthy’s accusations of “Communist influence” had wreaked havoc at both the State Department and USIA. The Senator’s infamous minions, Cohn and Schine, had left a shameful trail of psychological wreckage around US Information Service (USIS) libraries in Europe during their witch-hunting expedition to ferret out “dangerous” books. I could see that the Agency’s security apparatus, in self-protection, had to determine for sure whether something in my past (or my psyche?) might later, under pressure from McCarthy-like gumshoes, become embarrassing. My perfunctory replies seemed to satisfy my questioner, but as I left his desk the little hairs on the back of my neck tingled. It was crazy. The Cold War, our national fear of Communists, this sickness called McCarthyism, had produced some strange results. I wondered, on the way out, whether I might actually run into Communists of some kind in Venezuela.

My first trip through customs as a diplomat when Nancy, the baby and I landed at Caracas’ coastal airport on July 3 added more questions. Some of the passengers, especially in the line for Venezuelan citizens, seemed to be having prolonged difficulties explaining to the officials scrutinizing passports and thick, official-looking books just why they desired to enter Venezuela. Several uniformed guards in high-peaked caps, cradling carbines, casually strolled about. I became aware that we had entered the turf of a military dictatorship, and dictators had to be careful about possible enemies returning from exile. George Butler, my new boss, Embassy Public Affairs Officer and Director of the US Information Service in Venezuela, ushered us through the line. I Passportproduced our crisp green “official” passports, and he pulled from his shirt pocket a small, folded brown leather card with an escutcheon and “Cuerpo Diplomatico” stamped in gold on its face. George caught the eye of an official investigating the papers of someone else in line. “Embajada Americana” he said, and the official nodded and smiled, gave our documents a cursory glance, and waved us through the gates. The diplomatic carnet was “one of the perks in our line of work,” especially useful at the airport. We moved our bags through customs without anyone so much as taking a look inside.

So we had suddenly become members of the privileged class, a circumstance that produced mixed feelings in this midwesterner who, perhaps ingenuously, had always prized egalitarianism above special favors for the rich or powerful. And I wondered — did accepting favors from representatives of an authoritarian government, like those airport officials, constitute officious collaboration between the dictatorship and our embassy?

I got the chance to observe diplomacy in action the next day. While Nancy stayed at the hotel with the baby, I was initiated into a whole new style of life and work at the American Ambassador’s annual Fourth of July party. I met dozens of experienced American diplomats who would be my superiors or colleagues. The VIP Venezuelans and expatriate Americans and international diplomats gathered at the Ambassador’s Residence represented a world we knew very little about.

It was the first day of our international life.

 

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