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John M. Cabot Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
John M. Cabot

Counselor of Embassy Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1945-46, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 1947; appointed career minister, 1948; Consul General, Shanghai, China, 1948-49; Minister to Finland, 1950-52, Ambassador to Pakistan, 1952-53.

Manchester, Massachusetts
July 18, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened July 1977
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
John M. Cabot


Manchester, Massachusetts
July 18, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie



MCKINZIE: Ambassador Cabot, how did you decide upon a career in Foreign Service? Were there any particular individuals or ideas that in your younger days moved you to become a Foreign Service officer?

CABOT: I hadn't decided anything when I was sent by my father to Oxford , as a reward for getting a magna cum laude at Harvard. While I was in Oxford I went to Hungary and Rumania in



connection with the thesis I was writing. I came into contact with our embassies, or our legations rather, and with a certain number of our diplomats. It seemed a rather interesting life and one for which I had inadvertently prepared myself fairly well by majoring in history.

The idea gradually grew on me and I decided to take the exams, which I did. I came out number one in my class, and so made the Service.

MCKINZIE: Did you especially choose the Latin-American service in the beginning, or did that just fall to you as a result of being a junior officer?

CABOT: It completely fell to me. I offered French and German as my foreign languages when I went into the Service, though I was sent to a Spanish



speaking country, and spent most of my life in Spanish speaking countries. I have never gone into either a French or German-speaking country.

MCKINZIE: Could you talk a little about the political orientation you took with you into that? Very many people who went into the Foreign Service had been affected by someone else's ideas; Woodrow Wilson's ideas or, in the economic field, Manley O. Hudson at Harvard.

CABOT: I wouldn't say I had. My father was a rock-ribbed Republican, and I always used to argue with him about the League of Nations , which he did not support. To that extent I was a Wilsonian. I think that I went in without any particular preconceived notions, other



than ones derived from our history. I mean, I did believe in the Monroe Doctrine. I did believe in a strong Navy, things like that. But for the most part, I went into it realizing that I would have to subordinate my views to those which I was supposed to uphold in the foreign government service.

MCKINZIE: You became the Chief of the Division of Caribbean and Central American Affairs in 1944. Could you talk about your work, particularly about any contacts that you had with Central Americans or planners in the State Department about the postwar period?

CABOT: Well, I can divide that into two compartments, I think. The first was carrying out the policies which were necessary in the persecution of the war. My principal job as the



officer primarily responsible for Central America (it was only later that the Caribbean got included, and that was Cuba , Haiti and Santo Domingo ), was the question of procurement. We were getting sisal, hemp, rubber, mahogany, and various other things from Central America . Of course, later when Cuba got into it there was sugar from Cuba , Haiti , and Santo Domingo , and nickel from Cuba .

Mainly, we were constructing highways. We had all the arrangements made to construct a highway transversing lower California. There was a great to-do about it because the Mexicans are very sensitive on the subject, quite understandably. We'd just been able to complete arrangements when the War Department announced that the danger of a Japanese landing in Southern California no longer existed. Therefore,



they didn't want to build the highway. We had to get out as gracefully as we could.

Then we did build, more or less, the Inter-American Highway . That was quite an undertaking. A lot of money was wasted on it, and it was stopped in mid-career. Then we had a quinine project, the development of a synthetic (atrabin), to treat malaria, and then suddenly they announced that they were going to stop that program. In the meantime, we were issuing floods of apologies, and not a very substantial return for all the trouble that the Central American countries had gone through to help us.

MCKINZIE: I spoke with Jose Figueres, President of Costa Rica, and asked him if he thought that the Central American effort during the war to provide these supplies entitled Central



American countries to special consideration after the war. His response was that Costa Rica had supplied three coffee crops to the United States at OPA prices, and had not sold that coffee on the world market. The difference between the OPA price and the world price was the Costa Rican contribution. His view was that the United States had an obligation at the end of the war to make some kind of gesture in the way of development aid to Costa Rica .

CABOT: That, with due respect to Figueres, is a lot of malarky. In the first place, there were no foreign markets for coffee. Most of the markets for coffee in Europe and other parts of the world were cut off for the war, so the only place they had to sell was in the United States .

In the second place, the OPA price was put



deliberately high in order to sustain the economy of the coffee producing countries. This is the fact, but you do hear a lot of that sort of talk; that just isn't true.

Of course, by the end of the war it was quite possible that coffee prices would, through natural causes, have risen to more than the OPA prices. I cannot answer that. When I was Assistant Secretary in '53-'54, the result of raising the control price on coffee was to let coffee rise very substantially, but I don't think that was particularly true in '41-'45.

MCKINZIE: Could you comment upon the state of the "economic art" in Central America as you knew it during the war? Some people in the State Department voiced the opinion that Central American economists really were not very



sophisticated, or at least not very much in tune with U.S. thinking about the problem of development in their countries.

CABOT: Well, the question of development hadn't arisen at that time particularly. They were thinking in practical terms of attracting industry and one thing or another, but it was only toward the end of the war that the more advanced countries like Mexico and Brazil began to think that United States should help them develop. It was at that time that we did make large loans to a number of countries; for example the Volta Redonda Steel Mill in Brazil . Similar loans were made to Mexico , for similar purposes, and to other countries.

May I mention another thing. A lot of people in Latin America complain that we kept our prices down by our controls, which



was in some cases emphatically true. Most of the basic materials were kept down in price, but they overlooked the fact that we were supplying them with goods, at our officially low price, in return. They were sending us more than we were sending to them, so it wasn't altogether an equal exchange, but we were sending steel and finished products, which were short enough in the United States , at prices which we controlled and were very much lower than world prices.

I remember, for instance, that we used to send automobile tires to them and it caused an awful row. They would get in the blackmarket and then there would be a lot of trouble. We'd say, "Oh, we won't send any more," but we'd end up sending some more; perhaps a few less than we would send otherwise.

I can remember, for example, being in



Mexico during the war. We went down to see Elizabeth 's mother a couple of times. You could get things like gasoline and Kodak film, which you couldn't get in the United States . They were uncontrolled.

MCKINZIE: Do you recall having to deal with Latin-American diplomats who wanted larger shipments of capital machinery? Some records indicate that very many of the Central and South American countries wanted this and believed somehow that they had been promised it, perhaps through Nelson Rockefeller's office, Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs.

CABOT: That is undeniably true. The Latin-Americans did want a great many things. You see, they were piling up surpluses of dollars, precisely because we didn't have as much to sell them as



they had to sell us. One of their complaints is that we took off controls after the war, and the result was that they sold to us at controlled prices while we sold to them at uncontrolled prices. Of course, part of the answer to that is that they didn't control what they were bringing in. They were bringing in Cadillacs, silks and things like that; not buying the machinery they needed.

MCKINZIE: Do you think it would have been a good idea for the United States to have kept controlled prices on exports after the war, so that the dollars that the Latin-Americans had accumulated would not have been so quickly dissipated?

CABOT: No, I don't. I don't think we can control the economy very effectively in peacetime,



as we have been discovering the last two or three years. That, of course, is a matter of opinion; I'm not a noted economist and you can see that.

MCKINZIE: Would you talk about the relationship that you had with the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs?

CABOT: Nelson Rockefeller and his associates were a bunch of rather eager beavers, which had both advantages and disadvantages.

For example, they devised a blacklist which was, I think, as a whole, a good thing. Of course, there were mistakes made in carrying out this; embarrassing cases arose where people were put on the blacklist that never should have been on it. On the other hand, the whole conception was an effective means of waging economic



warfare. Of course, they did encourage relations between Latin America and the United States , and they did a lot of good.

Sometimes, there were various controversial things. I remember a meeting when Nelson Rockefeller wanted, in effect, to take over the whole educational system of El Salvador . We didn't think that was a very good idea. We were afraid that it would cause quite a row sooner or later when the El Salvadorans discovered that their little children were being educated by Americans or people picked by Americans. That was the sort of thing which had very fine possibilities, but which correspondingly had possibilities of a row.

They did a lot of their work in health. They had these servicios which established regions and all on how to wipe out malaria or to do



something else or produce rubber for example. I think those did quite a lot of good. Of course, some of their ideas were utterly wild. I've forgotten what some of them were, but they were completely crazy. Others were very sound and worked out very well.

I think it's only fair to say that Rockefeller was the real leader of the Point IV program. He's done so much good around the world on the whole.

MCKINZIE: Was Rockefeller's organization effectively controlled by the Department, from your point of view?

CABOT: No, it wasn't. You never knew what was going to turn up next. Sometimes you'd find out about it in the papers and go through the roof, but the fat would be in the fire.



That's a lightly mixed metaphor, isn't it?

MCKINZIE: It's effective.

Could you talk about how you came to attend the Dumbarton Oaks Conference? I assume this was in connection with Latin America .

CABOT: That was the other compartment of my work during the war. About 1943, Cordell Hull ordered that an organization be set up to study postwar problems. I was appointed to the committee by Larry [Laurence] Duggan to sit in and work on these things, particularly for Latin America . One of the major things was the question of an international organization to replace the League of Nations , and second, of strengthening the inter-American system.

MCKINZIE: There were many people who thought that the inter-American system was a regional arrang