From the National Archives: Report on Hazards of the American Foreign Service, 1942.

Author:Langbart, David A.
Position:Commentary and Analysis - Essay

November 2016

The image of the Foreign Service Officer (FSOs) as a "cookie pusher" who enjoys a cushy existence overseas is persistent. This was certainly the case at the time of World War II, when the Foreign Service of the United States was not even twenty years old. (1) This picture was not true then, and it certainly is not true today, when every American embassy and consulate is a potential target for terrorist attack. In addition to physical danger, Foreign Service Officers experience family inconvenience, exposure to exotic disease, and other adverse factors.

Although rarely receiving proper credit for being so, American diplomatic and consular officers overseas have always been the first line of defense for the United States. In addition to serving as the eyes and ears of the United States abroad, the Foreign Service is responsible for the protection of Americans and their interests in foreign countries, the promotion of international trade, and various consular matters, such as adjudicating visas. During the early part of World War II, largely before the United States entered the war, many American Foreign Service Officers endured incredible hazards and challenging experiences far out of the norm for overseas service. In general, the specifics of those experiences were largely unknown to the American public.

Representative Foster Stearns, a Republican from New Hampshire, and himself a former Foreign Service Officer, wanted to change that. (2) In early 1942, he asked the Department of State for information about the experiences of Foreign Service officers since the beginning of World War II for use as background for his work in the House of Representatives. In response, the Division of Foreign Service Administration and the Division of Foreign Service Personnel in the Department of State worked together to prepare the following anecdotal descriptive report. It was handed to Stearns on April 20, 1942.


Even when the world is at peace members of the American Foreign Service are subjected to diverse hazards while representing this country abroad. In the Department of State in Washington hangs a plaque commemorating Foreign Service officers who while on active duty lost their lives under heroic or tragic circumstances. (4) Among the causes of death appear yellow fever, cholera, smallpox, malaria, drowning, earthquake, hurricane, volcanic eruption, murder, and "tropical" and "African" fever.

During wartime the hazards are of course much greater, particularly since the mass bombing of centers of population has become widespread. This is especially true during the present World War.

China (5)

For more than four years the American Ambassador (6) to China and his staff were subjected to frequent heavy air raids, first, in Nanking and Hankow, and, during the past three years, in Chungking, where such raids resulted in the destruction of more than two-thirds of the city. On numerous occasions bombs fell within one hundred to three hundred yards from members of the staff, causing damage to their residences and to the Embassy's chancery. On one occasion several bombs fell within fifty yards of the entrance to the Embassy's bomb-shelter, in which the staff had taken refuge. From May through October the air raids in Chungking occur almost daily, frequently with more than 100 planes participating.


While Warsaw was under siege in September, 1939, the staff of the Consulate General was moved to the chancery of the American Embassy. A few days later the Consulate General was very seriously damaged by shell-fire. Had the staff remained in the building, a large loss of life would inevitably have resulted.

Commencing with September 1st, Warsaw was subjected to daily bombings from the air. Thereafter the raids became steadily more intense and so numerous that all count was lost of them. On some days there were as many as nine raids by waves numbering up to sixty or seventy planes. Beginning about September 9th, the city was shelled by field guns of various sizes. Two officers and two clerks who returned to the Consulate General for some necessary records had just left one room of the office when a shell entered the room and exploded. A difference of perhaps two minutes was all that saved their lives.

When out in cars endeavoring to obtain food for the refugees of American, British, and French nationality needing assistance, officers had to pass through streets on which buildings as well as other automobiles were being hit by artillery fire. Nightly the sky was red from fires in many quarters; the number of civilian casualties reached into several thousands and the bodies were hastily buried in lawns of the nearest square or park; human corpses and mangled bodies were to be seen as officers and clerks went out on necessary errands. For a period of twelve days they found themselves living in the midst of a battlefield, yet not in a position to fight back, and responsible for the welfare of a large number of civilian refugees.


It is of course well known that the American Minister (7)...

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