“Here I was on July 4, 1955, expected to assume duties as Press Attaché and Information Officer, American Embassy, Caracas, Venezuela – after only two months of practical orientation in Washington, preceded by five years of corporate public relations, a BA from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, courtesy of the GI Bill, and roots reaching all the way back to a one-room schoolhouse on the prairies of South Dakota. Not exactly elite.
Choices had resulted more from happenstance than purposeful preparation. Among us undergraduates in 1950, there had been no discussion of government service as an employment option. I’d been active on the campus in international relations – languages, a conference in Canada, summer studies in Mexico – but the Foreign Service entrance simply did not come into focus. So, journalism degree in hand, I looked for job opportunities in Minnesota and I liked what I found at the General Mills public relations department, writing press releases and traveling nation-wide on community relations projects. Little did I realize that, through the job, doors would eventually open to enticing international experiences.
The global landscape had been reorganized in the years after World War II. The United States, victorious and unscathed and now by far the most powerful nation on earth, had to assume new international obligations as leader of the Free World. Under the Truman Doctrine, Communist expansionism would be resisted. In the face of Stalin’s pressures, the Marshall Plan would provide massive economic assistance to strengthen ravaged Western Europe, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization stood alert, armed with sword and shield. After the 1952 election, President Eisenhower [the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe, NATO leader] further articulated policies of containment through a series of encircling treaties around the world that might help keep the Red expansionists hemmed in, but external containment offered little antidote against the threat of Communism subversion within.
Old empires decolonized, and the world’s nations proliferated. In 1945, charter members of the United Nations numbered fifty; then years later, membership had already grown to seventy-six, and the count of newly independent countries was still rising. Increased American obligations overseas implied that more people would be working in foreign affairs.
Moreover, the style of conducting foreign relations had changed. War-time experience had demonstrated that major nations required capabilities for gathering intelligence – the Central Intelligence Agency was created in 1947 – and more effective means to influence world opinion – the US Information Agency was established in 1953 to project America’s image overseas to deal with public aspects of diplomacy. Augmenting Voice of America radio broadcasts, USIA officers at our embassies would handle cultural programs as well as placement in foreign media of information favoring US interests.
Our PR department head at General Mills, Abbott Washburn, who had taken a leave of absence to work on the Eisenhower campaign and had played a major role in formulating American propaganda and information programs abroad, became USIA’s deputy director. He told me that the agency, needing to expand rapidly, offered opportunities to professionals in the field of communication, including public relations people like me. Not that many of us aspired to instant conversion into polished diplomats: for most of us, the Foreign Service implied an elite corps. Nevertheless, amazingly, Washington seemed hungry. Overseas employment became an imminent reality.
Application led to a panel interview, and before long – six months after our first baby had changed our carefree lives – we found ourselves in Washington for two months of training before flying off to 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 would be only for a two-year commitment; and if the going got rough, we could quit and go home anytime, paying our own fare.”
I have the pleasure of telling you about my father, Robert C. Amerson, in his own words. He wrote about his first years in the Foreign Service in his book How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship