The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project: Ambassador L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer, III.

Author:Kennedy, Charles Stuart
Position:Eyewitness Oral History - Interview

March/April 2017

Q: You came into the Foreign Service in?

BREMER: The summer of '66... My father who was still in international business said, "This is the time for public service." We were in the middle of a war. As I have told you since you were young, everybody's got to do public service. You've got your education; you've got to pay your debt to the country through public service." So I went out and interviewed at the CIA, the State Department, and the Department of Commerce since I was getting a business degree. I talked to Navy intelligence, army intelligence; I did a variety of interviews and took the Foreign Service exam, the written exam. I took it in December of my second year at Harvard, passed that exam and went on and took the oral exam in Boston some months later and passed that. That helped me decide to join the Foreign Service. I had in mind that I would be in the Foreign Service for a couple of years, maybe three or four," pay my debt to society", as my father called it, and then go into business, perhaps joining him in business which I knew was his hope.

Q: This was the honey track or whatever you say. So many come in and there is something addictive about the Foreign Service.

BREMER: I got married right after I graduated and my wife who had also studied history at college shared my interest in international affairs and we never looked back. We stayed in for 23 years.

Q: Let's talk a little about the Foreign Service exam. How did you find the written exam?

BREMER: You know, I took the written exam with a friend from business school, a classmate who was an engineer. He graduated in the top 1% at the business school, so a very bright guy. We traveled to Lowell and took the exam and on the way back in the car he was saying, "Gosh that was a lot harder than I thought. They showed that picture and asked whether it was a Monet or a David or something. I hadn't the foggiest." I said, "Of course it was a Monet, it was easy to see. But the question that really bothered me was when they showed that diagram and asked, is it a molecule or an atom." I had no idea which it was. He said, "Well, of course it was a molecule." So we concluded that the exam was probably was quite fair because he was stumped by a lot of things I found easy and I didn't have a clue about the stuff he could do.

Q: How about the oral exam? How did you find it? This was sort of three on one, wasn't it?

BREMER: Three on one. I rather enjoyed it. I took it in Boston and they knew my background, obviously, so they put me in a series of situations. The one I remember was I was the French consul general in Boston and I had been asked to, I think it was to give a Fourth of July speech or do something about Lexington, I don't know. They said, "What are you going to say?"

So then I had to think on my feet as a Frenchman now thinking "what would I say?" They did a number of those, I don't remember the other ones but that one stuck in my mind. I rather enjoyed the exam.

Q: I gave that exam, I was one of the traveling people, this was in the '70s and later I think mainly because of pressure from equal rights people, the questions aren't fitted to the person.

BREMER: No, because they are not allowed to know anything about the person anymore.

Q: It's crazy but it is what happens when sort of the lawyers get into it.

BREMER: It was really rather fun and in those days they told you right away, within half an hour after the exam. I sat in some room and they came out and said "you passed".

Q: I took mine back in '54 and they said, you know, you passed.

BREMER: Yes, they told you right away.

Q: You got married before you came into the Foreign Service?

BREMER: Yes.

Q: Can you tell me something about the background of your wife?

BREMER: Francie--Frances McKee Winfield--was born in St. Paul a year later than me, in 1942. Her father was in international business too and then moved to St. Louis where she stayed until she was 12 when she moved to Connecticut. She attended what was then called Connecticut College for Women which was about an hour from New Haven. We met at a Dixieland concert there.

Q: Connecticut College for Women was basically part of the, I guess it wasn't 'seven sisters' but it was damn close to it. It was very much a major, major school.

BREMER: It was a good school.

Q: You came into the Foreign Service in?

BREMER: In August of '66.

Q: I assume you went to an A-100 course?

BREMER: Yes.

Q: How was it constituted and what was your impression of how you were trained and the people in it?

BREMER: I don't remember a lot of it. In those days a fairly large class--I think there were 54 of us. It ran the gamut from two people who had no degrees from college to a couple of PhDs and a bunch of people in between. Some people had no languages, some had several languages. I remember the consular part being quite precise. I wouldn't say it was intense but it was obviously material you had to learn. There was the law, the FAM, you had to learn it.

I remember a lecture on culture by a guy named Bostain. A very amusing, informed lecture about cultural differences.

I passed my language exam in French and did reasonably well in Spanish so I was not on language probation.

I have to go back a little bit. After were married, Francie and I drove to Washington and we stopped to visit her cousin, who was teaching at Princeton. He was a retired Foreign Service Officer, Leon Poullada. Leon had been in Africa, and served as ambassador, I think to Togo. What is relevant is we spent the night with him and before dinner he showed some movies, as they would be in those days, of his time in Afghanistan. He had been an economic officer in Afghanistan in the '50s and had been James Michener's control officer when Michener traveled around collecting information for Caravans, the book. We were rather struck by these pictures of Afghanistan.

When I got in the Foreign Service and the question came, where should I ask to go, I had three principles: I wanted to go to a part of the world I had never been to before; I wanted to go to a medium-sized embassy where I figured I would get responsibility; and I wanted to go to a developing country because I had been in Europe and had seen the developed world but I wanted to serve in a country that wasn't developed. So when the time came round for requesting my first post, I put down Kabul. The people in personnel were obviously flabbergasted. I don't think anybody had ever asked for Kabul. They obviously said, "Let's get him out of here before he can change his mind." They pulled me out of the Consular course and two weeks later we were gone. So we were very happy that we had seen Leon Poullada and seen something about Afghanistan. It fit all my requirements. It was a part of the world I hadn't been to, a medium sized post and a developing country. We wound up in Kabul rather quickly.

Q: Was Vietnam, it had to be a factor.

BREMER: It was a factor in our class because at that time the unmarried men in our class basically were assigned to Vietnam. Married officers were not at that time, in late '66, assigned to Vietnam because it was an unaccompanied tour. Some of my unmarried classmates went to Vietnam. I went to Kabul.

Q: Did you have any feelings about Vietnam? By '66 I don't think it was that controversial.

BREMER: No, it wasn't. I don't remember strong feelings about it one way or the other. It was not that controversial, as you say.

Q: Kabul, you were there from '66 to?

BREMER: We went on a two year tour but we were shortened by direct transfer two- thirds of the way through.

Q: What was Kabul like in Afghanistan at that time?

BREMER: It was a bit of a contradictory place in the sense that it was extremely primitive. On the other hand, from a political point of view, it was--I certainly wouldn't say it was progressive--but they had a constitutional monarch, Zahir Shah. There was a parliament, a loya jirga. Political life was constrained, obviously. But I think the thing that struck me most when we were there was how primitive it was particularly when you got outside of Kabul, you felt like nothing had changed for a thousand years, which more or less it hadn't.

Kabul was a city of three quarters of a million people in those days, the size of Washington. None of the streets had names, there were no traffic lights, and there were open sewers on the side of all of the streets. There were camels and donkeys and God knows what. One of the first impressions coming into Kabul was of people pushing cars along the streets either because they couldn't afford the gas or because the car needed repairs. So rather than have a car drive, you had "cars pushers" all over the place.

Q: Who was the ambassador?

BREMER: John Steeves had just left when I got there and Robert Neumann came maybe a month after I got there. Archer Blood was charge when I got there. I think Neumann came within a month or two.

Q: How did you find the embassy?

BREMER: From a physical point of view, we were working out of what was then called "the old embassy" which was a ramshackle compound. I was the consular officer. The fellow I was replacing got pulled out early for medical reasons and that's why they were able to assign me so quickly.

Q: Archer Blood was quite a figure. He was one of these people who challenged the system, quite appropriately, I guess, both in Bangladesh and also in Greece. How did you find him?

BREMER: I thought he was fair, tough minded but fair. I will tell you an interesting story from my first week there that has always stuck with me. I was the consular officer and I showed up for work, literally the first day, and there was an Indian consular assistant who came in and said, "Miss So and So is here to talk to you about her visa" and he gave me the file. Her husband was a student in New York, at Columbia, I think and she wanted to go visit him for Christmas. This was in November and in those days you had to fill out a form; I think it...

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