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 of the thirties now in U.S. diplomacy in Latin America what is your view of the charge leveled by David Green and some other people, who are semi-revisionists, that U.S. diplomacy was paternalistic toward Latin America?
LIGHTNER: You're talking about our policy toward all of Latin America?
MCKINZIE: Yes. Particularly the larger countries like Chile.
LIGHTNER: Well, you know, it's a very seamy record.
I was posted in Latin America from 1930-1937. I was in Chile in 1931 and 1932. Our policy was already changing in 1930 from the policy associated with Theodore Roosevelt, carrying the Big Stick, taking over the territory for the Panama Canal, and later sending the Marines down to Haiti, Nicaragua and so on, that period of blatant use of power and of dollar diplomacy. Many people tend to forget that this tough policy was on its way out before Franklin Roosevelt instituted his Good-Neighbor policy toward Latin America. He took over that name and exploited it, but the policy itself had been started several years before by [Henry] Stimson and Hoover. They had realized that the time had come for some drastic changes, and although they hadn't used the phrase "good-neighbor" they were beginning to act in that way.
Now this wasn't the end of the exploitation by American business of Latin America and other backward countries. It is a very difficult thing to
talk about, because if you look at it from one point of view you make it sound all bad, all exploiting in the worst possible sense. But investment of foreign capital in backward countries creates jobs for people which improves living standards and educational opportunities. Often the foreign firms produce products for export, with the proceeds coming back into the country, as well as to the stockholders of the "exploiting" company. It's not an all-good or all-bad situation.
When I was in Chile I never felt that the American copper companies were bad for the country. I knew the miners' wages were low by American standards but I never felt it was an obligation of the foreign companies to lead a social revolution in the host country. I had a chance to study the copper industry there because I found it wasn't necessary for me to spend all my time desk bound in the consular section. This gave me the opportunity to research and write a basic report on the copper industry of Chile. I visited many
of the mines, including those of the big Anaconda and Braden Copper Companies and...
MCKINZIE: Was Kennecott there?
LIGHTNER: Kennecott, oh, yes. They had bought the Braden Copper Company, which was the name used locally. Well, as I said, I didn't have the feeling in those days that the copper industry was doing Chile any harm. Chile was a two-product economy. They had copper and also nitrates. This was before nitrates were synthetically manufactured. Chilean nitrates were mined, mainly in the desert region back of Antofagasta. Well, you know, without these industries, both of which depended upon foreign investments, foreign management and foreign know-how, there wouldn't have been anything of value produced in the country except for some farm products. Wages and working conditions were below American standards but normal to Chile, and the alternative to the mines in the thirties was unemployment with little if any unemployment compensation.
Looking at the whole picture one can ask the question whether Chile or any other developing country wouldn't have been better off without attempting to industrialize or to invite foreign exploitation of resources. Is this kind of "progress" worth it? Over many years I've seen both sides of the problem in several developing countries, including Libya, when our AID program was phasing out. All I can say is that one gets more and more philosophical about these things as one tries to believe in the long term benefits of some of our programs when at the same time one notes a new set of problems that our programs have helped create. There are more questions than answers in this situation, which I suppose is true of any discussion of the effects of industrialization.
MCKINZIE: Okay. Well, I didn't want to embroil you in too long a discussion, but I was interested in your reflections on that. I wonder if you could talk about how you got out of the Latin American thing,
and how you happened to be assigned to Riga of all places on the eve of the Second World War?
LIGHTNER: Well, I had been eight years in Latin America, in four countries, and more posts than that. I had to make a decision around this time, when it was time to leave Buenos Aires in December 1937, whether to become a Latin American specialist -- stay there pretty much the rest of my life -- or not. I opted for a change to an area closer to where the action was. The chief of personnel was sympathetic; there was an opening in Riga and that's where I was assigned. I must say it was a contrast in every respect; it was also a fascinating place and a dramatic time to be arriving in the Baltic States (February 1938). (I should add that there was also a personal problem I had at that time which made it desirable for me to leave Buenos Aires, involving a young lady with whom I had become infatuated but could not marry under Roosevelt's policy forbidding marriages to non-Americans.)
MCKINZIE: Did you meet Loy Henderson when you first arrived in Riga?
LIGHTNER: Oh, no, he was not in Riga then. He'd married a Latvian girl when he was in Riga in his early career. But he was running the Eastern European work of the Department when I came up from Buenos Aires. That was when I first ran into him. No, I never became a Russian expert, although when I went to Riga I had to decide whether to study Russian there. The Latvians over the age of thirty were tri-lingual. They spoke Lettish, their native language, as well as Russian and German. I decided to study German. Several of my Foreign Service colleagues studied Russian in Riga and in nearby Tallinn taking advantage of good tutors and Russian-speaking friends. These included people like Eddie [Edward] Page, Norris Chipman, Fred Reinhardt . .
MCKINZIE: Elbridge Durbrow?
LIGHTNER: Well, I don't believe Durby was ever assigned
to Riga. I have already mentioned that Loy Henderson served there but he was never an expert in the Russian language.
MCKINZIE: May I ask, even though you chose to study German instead of Russian, if Loy Henderson had any influence let's say on the way you sort of viewed things Russian? Charles Bohlen has said, and Elbridge Durbrow kind of underscores it -- that Henderson is probably the teacher of a whole generation of our Russian specialists. That his attitude had been sort of grafted on to their own. He was seminal in their own thinking. Would you attribute that role to Henderson?
LIGHTNER: Yes, but I'd qualify it somewhat. I mean Loy Henderson is a kind of a hero to several generations of Foreign Service officers who had anything to do with the Russian area, and I include myself in that, although my experience in the Soviet Union was limited to only one year. I was on my way home on home-leave when the
Germans attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 and I never returned.
Loy was quite a bit senior to the Kennan-Bohlen-Thompson-Durbrow-Page generation of our Russian experts. For many years he headed the Russian section of the State Department. He was the most influential official in Russian policymaking during the time this new generation of experts was coming along. I too believe he had great influence on the thinking of generations of Foreign Service officers in the Russian field and that they valued his judgment in later years as well. He was a great teacher, but I also note that the influence of a teacher is likely to be limited in later years and hardly likely to have a direct bearing on the decisions of mature officers who would rely on their own more recent experience and judgment. Certainly Kennan and Bohlen, and I guess Thompson as well, were not nearly as hard line in their later years as Loy Henderson has remained.
MCKINZIE: You don't think any one man had that much
influence over other mature officers? I don't dispute that at all, but I recall that Chip Bohlen made a speech to the State Department Retired Officers Club last summer in which he said very laudatory things about Henderson, and about Henderson's principles of being tough. That those attitudes were transferred almost directly to what you say was the whole generation of diplomats.
LIGHTNER: Well, I suppose that's true in a way, but I wouldn't attribute that attitude so much to Loy or any other respected individual. Everyone I've known who served in the Embassy in Moscow developed an early appreciation of the necessity of being tough in dealing with Soviet officials. In my day when there were large numbers of what we called parlor pinks writing and talking idealistically, naively, about the great Russian experiment, we in the Embassy used to grumble, "If you would only come to the Soviet Union for a couple of months or weeks and see for yourself what it's like, you'd change your tune fast enough."
MCKINZIE: Was there anything memorable about your stay in Moscow in 1940-41 after the legation in Riga had been closed? I gather it was a very small U.S. mission there. What would you call it, a sort of rear guard kind of thing?
LIGHTNER: You mean rear guard in the sense of...
MCKINZIE: The U.S. never really acquiesced in the absorption of the Baltic States. Rear guard in the sense of providing someone there to give a U.S. presence in Latvia and so on.
LIGHTNER: Wait a minute, we're not talking about our Latvian mission anymore; that had disappeared.
LIGHTNER: You're quite right. The United States has never recognized in a legal sense the Soviet takeover, but weren't you asking about the Embassy in Moscow?
MCKINZIE: Well, I understood that you went from Latvia to Moscow.
LIGHTNER: Yes. But the entire staffs of the American legations in the three Baltic States were reassigned at that time. The assignments to Moscow had no political significance.
MCKINZIE: Oh, I see, but not particularly to represent .
LIGHTNER: Oh, no, no.
LIGHTNER: From Riga Fred Reinhardt and I were transferred to Moscow. We were both assigned to the consular section, where we had a lot of work trying to help the people who had some claim to American citizenship who were living in that part of Poland that had been taken over by the Red Army. For example, there were people who had been born in the United States and then they were taken to Poland a few months afterward. They were more Poles than anything else, but they had a claim to American citizenship. Well, after
half of Poland had been overrun by the Russians in September 1939, courtesy of Adolph Hitler, many of these Poles with a claim to American citizenship tried to get in touch with the American Embassy in Moscow to see if they could get U.S. passports and go back to the United States. So we had lots of business with the Russian foreign office to try to make arrangements to get these people out.
This is where I first learned something about how to deal successfully with the Russians, because the Russians would never pay any attention to or even answer our notes or communications with respect to these individuals. Then we found that we had a possibility of doing some real horse-trading. You see, at this time the Russians were sending quite large groups of technicians to the United States for training in such industries as RCA Victor and Curtiss-Wright. We found that the only way we could get the Russians to give any kind of service to us in getting exit permits
for these people with claims to American citizenship was to hold up the visas that the Russians wanted for their technicians going to the States. I remember there was a young Polish farm boy with an American birth certificate who had been sentenced to five years in jail for failing to register a shotgun. There were other cases where prison sentences up to ten years had been handed down for the most minor offenses. Most of our cases, however, were caused by Soviet refusals for no reason at all to grant travel permits to these people to come to Moscow to the American Embassy. The Embassy's diplomatic notes on their behalf went unanswered until we held up issuance of visas to the Russian technicians. The Foreign Office would inquire why we were holding up visas for twenty-five technicians who were waiting in Vladivostok or at a Black Sea port to leave for the United States. It was very urgent because they had to make certain connections in order to fulfill their contract. So we would inform the
chief of the American section, "Well, we are extremely busy these days and just haven't been able to get around to it, but if you could possibly manage to answer our notes fifteen through thirty-five with respect to the Americans waiting to visit the Embassy, it might help us to get to the visa cases." The effect was magical and we used this ploy successfully again and again. I never forgot this lesson in the importance of holding some winning cards in any negotiations with the Soviets.
MCKINZIE: I see. Why did you leave Moscow for Stockholm? Was there any particular reason why you left the Soviet post?
LIGHTNER: Oh, well, in the spring of 1941 we packed up the confidential archives of the Embassy in fifteen huge mail sacks. Someone had to take these confidential archives out on the TransSiberian Railway, by boat to Tokyo, and then put them on a President Lines vessel to ship them back to the States. I was overdue for home leave,
but I didn't want to go and take these things if there was any chance that the war might get hotter around there. In other words, if the Germans might attack, naturally I didn't want to miss anything like that. So the question was, what were the chances of a German attack? And the betting in the friendly Allied diplomatic corps around May 1941 was about sixty-forty that there would not be a German attack that summer. This was early June and already conditions between Russia and Germany and the Polish area were such that it was pretty late in the season for this kind of attack. The Germans and the Russians had made some trade accommodation around this time, which was the favorable side.
MCKINZIE: But why return the confidential archives of the Embassy? Was that a routine thing?
LIGHTNER: Well, we knew there was going to be a German attack on Russia at sometime.
MCKINZIE: Oh, I see.
LIGHTNER: This was pretty clear.
MCKINZIE: The question was when it would be.
LIGHTNER: That's right. It seemed prudent in the spring of 1941 for the Embassy to do a little streamlining. I left for Vladivostok with the confidential archives on June 6. I was on the ship two weeks later between Vladivostok and Tsuruga, Japan, when word came over the radio that the Germans had attacked the Russians on the 21st of June. On the boat with me was John Scott and his wife and two kids, whom I'd known in Moscow. Actually our Ambassador [Laurence A.J Steinhardt was instrumental in making it possible for Scott's wife, who was a Russian girl, to leave with her husband. A short time before the Soviet Government had told Scott he must get out of the Soviet Union; they declared him persona non grata, because he'd filed several stories on a trip to Istanbul predicting that the Germans were going to attack the Soviet Union that summer. Steinhardt
said he couldn't go unless the Russians would permit his wife and children to leave with him. We had been working unsuccessfully to get her permission to leave for several years, but this time the Ambassador's intercession worked. So we were on the boat -- hardly had left the Soviet Union -- when the thing that Scott had predicted and the reason for his being thrown out occurred.
MCKINZIE: I see. So you rode in a sense shotgun on the confidential archives of the Embassy on the Trans-Siberian Railroad?
MCKINZIE: It must have been about the last major shipment out then, wasn't it?
LIGHTNER: I'm not sure, but you may recall that a large number of the Embassy staff were sent back to the United States shortly after the hostilities began and I believe at that time shipments of Embassy property, including some archives that had
not been burned, were made. This was also the time when the hard core of the Embassy moved with the Soviet Government out to Kuibyshev.
MCKINZIE: Why London in '44?
LIGHTNER: Why did I go?
LIGHTNER: Well, after Moscow I had my home leave and was actually assigned to Rome, but then Pearl Harbor came along so I didn't go to Rome. I went to Stockholm instead. At that time it was a fascinating listening post, you know, like Lisbon, and Berne, and Istanbul. My duties at the American Legation had nothing to do with Swedish-American affairs, but were to follow what was going on in occupied Norway. I was in touch with the Norwegians in Stockholm, refugees like Willy Brandt, who at that time was a Norwegian citizen. When he left Germany early in the Nazi period he fled to Norway where he learned Norwegian
and became active in the Norwegian Labor Party. Of course, he had to leave Norway when the Nazis came in, and along with a lot of other Norwegians, he took refuge in Stockholm, working with the Norwegian underground resistance back in Norway. There were many sources in Stockholm to help me keep track of what was going on in occupied Norway -- to a lesser extent in the Baltic States as well, and with the help of a fine group of people, mainly exiles from those countries, I was able to keep the Department informed. That was a very interesting experience for a few years.
But you asked why London? Well, it certainly wasn't because of any background in German affairs, which would have been helpful in my job there. My assignment was to be the Secretary of the U.S. delegation to the European Advisory Commission, which was being set up in London as a result of a decision of the Foreign Ministers meeting in Moscow in December 1943. At this meeting the American, British, and Russian foreign ministers,
in discussing the future of Germany, decided to set up this commission to recommend what to do with defeated Germany.
The work of the commission focused on the terms of surrender, also devising the machinery for the Allied control of Germany after it surrendered unconditionally. On the assumption there would be no German Government, the first need was to put something in its place,