Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened March, 1982
Oral History Interview with
MCKINZIE: Ambassador Lightner, our conversation is basically to supplement a series of lectures you gave at the Wright State University in 1970. I believe there are six of those lectures, and so much of what we talk about will be supplemental to points that have been made in those lectures. I wonder if you could provide some information quite separate from the lectures, and that is to talk at some length about how you came to join the Foreign Service, and more than that to talk a little bit about the influences on your thinking about foreign relations in your early life,
both before you entered the Foreign Service, and then the most important ideas and people in your early career?
LIGHTNER: It's quite a task -- tall order. Well, I went to Princeton -- I graduated in 1930 and I majored in history. I had no idea what I wanted to do after college. I had made a trip to Europe in the summer of 1929, an experience that gave me the travel bug in an extraordinary way. Along with this desire to see more of the world was my interest in history and in current events, which predated college. As editor of the Taft School newspaper, I remember writing editorials in 1924 and 1925 criticizing the United States for not being a member of the League of Nations. This kind of thinking originated in discussions in our current events club that was led by a history teacher who sparked my first real interest in foreign affairs.
MCKINZIE: Did they ever call you a frustrated Wilsonian at that point?
LIGHTNER: Well, they might have. I was a great admirer of Raymond B. Fosdick, who had given a lecture at the school. He was head of an organization that was very strong on America's assuming its share of responsibility in the world, and hence was very much in favor of our being part of the League and working with other nations to try to avoid the international anarchy that preceded World War I.
Well, on that European trip I visited an uncle of mine who was on a sabbatical in Lausanne from Stanford. He'd been a trade commissioner in the Commerce Department years before, and I asked him about careers in Government that would take me abroad. I asked about the diplomatic and the consular service in particular and he was very encouraging.
In any case, when I went back to college for my senior year I was definitely thinking about the field of international affairs. There was a great deal of idealism in my background. I wasn't interested in making money so much as in finding
something that would make me feel that I was doing some good in the world. This outlook was based on a long family tradition. At the same time I was having problems in accepting some of the religious beliefs that I'd been brought up on. I accepted much of the philosophy and ethics basic to these beliefs, including the idea that it was important to be of service to others in order to lead a satisfactory life. This was why I didn't look into business opportunities at that time. However, I did look into the possibility of teaching abroad -- this is probably a little long-winded, isn't it?
MCKINZIE: No, no this is fine. Let me interrupt and ask if there was anybody -- any particular staff member or colleague at Princeton -- that helped to fill out the view of Wilsonian idealism or whatever you could characterize your basic outlook at that time? At this particular point there was a man at Harvard, named Manley Hudson, who seemed to sort of grab their minds and do something
like that at that time.
LIGHTNER: Yes, I remember. I believe he was in the Secretariat of the League of Nations at about the same time that Raymond Fosdick was there. But I think of him more in connection with the World Court.
MCKINZIE: Was there the equivalent for you at Princeton at that time?
LIGHTNER: Well, there were several in the history department, but in particular there were the two Professor Halls: Walter P. and C. R. Hall. Walter, better known as Buzzer, was an inspiring lecturer in European History. His series of lectures on the origins of World War I were an eye opening introduction to the complexities of international relations. But the American history courses I took in 1928 and '29 under C. R. (Beppo) Hall, especially the period after the Civil War, influenced my outlook on the American scene in an indelible way. Professor Hall was a New Dealer
before there was a New Deal.
MCKINZIE: Professor Hall's approach then was kind of equivalent to -- or a later-day version -- of the progressive view of 1914-1917 of Woodrow Wilson?
LIGHTNER: Yes. It was exactly that. We were studying such problems as the influence of the frontier, the industrial revolution, and where we stood at the turn of the century; the rise of the tycoons like the Rockefellers, the Goulds, the Vanderbilts, etc., labor problems, the Sherman antitrust law. In short, the consequences of a system of laissez faire. We read Upton Sinclair and others who were trying to make the public more socially conscious. This was fascinating stuff and I was exposed to all this before the stock market crash of 1929. My family was quite conservative but I had become a liberal as far as domestic problems were concerned. At least we had developed an awareness of many things that seemed to be wrong with American society, such
as the distribution of wealth and that sort of thing.
MCKINZIE: You mean the group -- whole class of '30?
LIGHTNER: Well, this was Princeton University don't forget, a pretty conservative place .
MCKINZIE: I know.
LIGHTNER: . . . and our small group of Beppo Hall's disciples by Princeton standards was a pretty radical element. We didn't go out and demonstrate against anything in the streets. We were just learners in the vineyard, having our eyes opened to certain conditions in the country. Actually my views on these questions haven't changed much. It wasn't too surprising that when I'd come home on home leave during the Roosevelt years I'd seldom meet a Princetonian who had a good word to say for Roosevelt; but I was sympathetic with the purposes of the New Deal from the beginning.
MCKINZIE: Well then what happened when you got a
degree from Princeton in 1930, I believe it was, wasn't it?
LIGHTNER: Yes. In the spring of 1930 before graduation I enquired about the possibility of teaching abroad. I found out that there weren't any vacancies at the American University in Beirut, or at Roberts College, but there was an opening for a teacher at the American College in Cairo. I got in touch with them; sent in an application along with a required statement of my religious beliefs. I got a very nice letter back saying that they thought highly of me, but that my attitude and beliefs on religious matters were not positive enough and that perhaps I'd better not pursue the matter any further. I guess that was a fair enough decision from their point of view because I was too close to being a Unitarian to be acceptable to them.
MCKINZIE: So that wrecked, you feel . .
LIGHTNER: That ended that. Then I heard that a retired Foreign Service officer named Dewitt
Clinton Poole was joining the Princeton faculty the year after I graduated to head the new School of Public and International Affairs, which became the Woodrow Wilson School, you know.
LIGHTNER: I went to hear him talk about his plans for the new school when he visited Princeton toward the end of my senior year. I sought him out afterwards to ask a couple of questions about the Foreign Service. I said I was thinking about trying to go into the Foreign Service, but that I couldn't afford to go to graduate school for a year to study for the exams. I said I had heard that there was a possibility of going into the service by joining as a clerk, without examination, working at a post abroad, studying on the side and taking the exams later at the same post. My question was whether this way of entering the Service through the back door would prejudice one's future career. The second question related to money. I assumed
I could live on my salary although I realized the Service was comparatively underpaid. The diplomatic Service was long considered a rich man's club. I asked Mr. Poole whether he thought a person without independent means going into the Service in 1930 could swing it over the years. To my relief he answered both questions in an encouraging way. He felt Foreign Service officers in the future were bound to have ever increasing responsibilities, and that the U.S. Government would treat its diplomatic service more and more as professionals and pay them enough to do the job and to support their families. He also felt that there might be some advantage in the additional experience of starting to work right away. I went down to Washington shortly thereafter and applied for a job as clerk, telling them, of course, of my ambition to become a Foreign Service officer. Before leaving Washington I was told they would take me on as a Foreign Service clerk. I was very pleased. I was not at all sure I wanted a career in the
Foreign Service but I certainly wanted to give it a try.
I returned to Princeton for graduation, expecting to have an appointment to some suitable post -- why not Paris, or London, or Rome? -- in two or three months. But on graduation day, while walking around the campus in cap and gown, classmate Jack Nelson asked me what I was doing in the next couple of months. When I told him that I had no special plans, he proposed that we each scrape together a hundred dollars or so, and then get a free ride on an oil tanker down to Maracaibo, Venezuela. His old man was an officer of the Gulf Oil Company, and Jack said we could go down there and stay around till our money ran out and then come back the same way. I thought this was great; that I'd get to see something of South America, and then I'd go on to my Foreign Service post later on. Well, while I was down in Maracaibo, staying at the Gulf Oil Company camp, the American Consul asked me to call at his office. When I did later
that day he showed me a telegram from the State Department reading, "Get in touch with E. A. Lightner, Jr., at the Gulf Oil Company camp and offer him a job as a clerk in your office at $1,800 a year."
Well, the depression had struck by this time and I did want a job; and I figured it would be no way to start a career by replying, "Thanks very much but I've seen Maracaibo and Venezuela, so I'm returning home and you can give me a more appropriate post in September." Anyway, the next day I accepted the job, cabled the news to my parents and asked them to send me a steamer trunk with some clothes, because I only had a suitcase with me. And there I was in Maracaibo -- my first Foreign Service post.
MCKINZIE: In the strange way that the Department works do you think they just . .
LIGHTNER: They were saving transportation, that's for sure. They had got in touch with my father
for some reason or other, and hearing where I was, decided to offer a job right there where there happened to be a vacancy. It turned out to be a fascinating year I must say.
MCKINZIE: Well you had a number of Latin American posts then before you went to Europe.
LIGHTNER: Well, having started with Spanish in Maracaibo and after passing the Foreign Service examinations, I asked to remain in Latin America. The exams at that time consisted of three days of intensive testing on a whole lot of subjects, including some I hadn't had courses in in college. I boned up for the exams after hours in my sweltering hotel room in Maracaibo. After squeaking by the written exams in December I came back to Washington (on an oil tanker) in May to take the orals. When Chief Byington told me I had passed, he asked where I'd like to be assigned and I suggested any one of the South American capitals. Asked to be more specific, I proposed Santiago, Chile.
Some Latin American hands that I had run into had spoken particularly highly of that area. I was told there was an opening in Buenos Aires, but I replied that I had heard the cost of living was very high in Buenos Aires and I doubted I could afford it. Mr. Byington said, "Well, maybe you've got a point there; we'll let you go to Santiago." So I went to Santiago after Maracaibo.
MCKINZIE: Without dwelling on this unduly, looking back on that period