Old times on the Soviet desk.

Author:Bridges, Peter
Position:Foreign Service's Soviet desk - Essay

Back in the late 1950s, when Stalin was not long gone and the Soviet state remained our militarily powerful and dangerous adversary, the State Department's basic office for dealing with the Russians was a Soviet desk composed of just four members of the Foreign Service and four from the Civil Service, the latter including an archivist and two stenographers. There were of course other Washington offices that had to do with the USSR, in State as well as in CIA, Commerce, the FBI, the Pentagon, and USIA; but we were the primary interface with the two embassies, the Soviet in Washington and ours in Moscow

Shortly before Christmas in 1957 I became the junior Foreign Service officer on the Soviet desk, after completing the then three-month orientation course for new FSOs at the Department's Foreign Service Institute. My assignment was due to my having a good knowledge of the Russian language and having done graduate study in the Russian field. I had, however, no experience in government other than our orientation course and the two years I had just completed as an enlisted man in an Army engineer battalion.

The officer-in-charge on the desk, which was officially USSR Affairs in the Office of Eastern European Affairs, was a Foreign Service officer named Charles G. Stefan. Charlie, as he asked me to call him, was in his late thirties, had been an Army captain in the Second World War, and had already served in our embassies at Belgrade and Moscow. (At Belgrade, though I did not know it at the time, he had authored a report to the Department predicting that Tito would soon break with Moscow--a report that Washington found incredulous.)

Charlie Stefan had strong ideas about how to write Departmental English, as I found when I began to draft memos for him to send to our superiors. My double-spaced draft would come back to me in a day or so with unacceptable phrases neatly bracketed in pencil and Charlie's improvements, again in pencil, written above. I prided myself on writing good English and I found many of his changes hard to take. To his credit, the officer-in-charge was on occasion willing to let me remonstrate. Some of my drafts went back and forth between us for days or even weeks. In one instance this had an effect on Soviet-American relations, as shall be told.

The number-two on the desk, and my immediate superior, was Nathaniel Davis, an FSO then in his early thirties who had lately returned from two years in our Moscow embassy. Nat was, I soon decided, brilliant, hard-working, and principled.

After I had been on the desk for some months I asked him if I might take two weeks' leave during the coming summer. He wanted to know much leave had I accumulated. More than two weeks' worth, I said. Yes, he said, but you should accumulate all the leave you can; you might want to leave the Service one day and it would be good to have at least a month of paid leave as a cushion.

He agreed to my going on leave, but I was saddened by what he said. He was a dedicated Foreign Service officer, and yet he thought of possibly resigning?

It was not quite like that, but it took me two decades for me to learn what was in his mind. By the 1970s Nat Davis had served as minister to Bulgaria and as ambassador to Guatemala and to Chile. He was now the Director General of the Foreign Service, and I was happily working for him again. Each month Nat wrote a reflective essay for the Department newsletter. I offered to begin drafting these pieces for him, but he reacted rather sharply, saying that he wrote them himself and would continue to do so. I understood, having had my own prose amended if not improved over the years by others after Charlie Stefan.

One of Nat's essays had to do with principles. If, he wrote, an officer did not agree with existing policy, he or she should seek to change it, privately and not by leaking to the press. If the officer was not successful there were two choices: go along with the policy, or else resign. And because officers might see a moral need to resign, they should prepare for a second career--and meanwhile save up all the leave that they could!

Among Nat Davis's virtues was a strong belief in racial equality. He and his attractive and energetic wife, Elizabeth, invited my wife and me to a party they gave one...

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