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Opened December 1979
Oral History Interview with
MCKINZIE: Ambassador Wilkins, I think a lot of historians are interested in why people go into Foreign Service. I wonder if you could explain something about your education and why you went into the Government service in the first place?
WILKINS: I'd always been interested in Foreign Service when I was an undergraduate at Yale. But when I finished there in 1931 it was the middle of the depression, and it was very difficult to go on studying, and, in fact, because of my father's death I had to go to work right away; I had three younger brothers. And so, living in Chicago, and then in Louisville, and later in Baltimore, I was hardpressed to continue working, rather than thinking about Foreign Service. But about 1937 they resumed the Foreign Service examinations. In my spare time I studied the exams and took them several times. I passed the Foreign Service exams in '39, and was taken into the Foreign Service in 1940. The main reason I was anxious to do it was that I'd always been interested, for one thing, and two, I was dissatisfied with what I was doing.
MCKINZIE: You were in advertising for a while.
WILKINS: Yes, advertising. Then I worked for Frankfort Distilleries Incorporated. They had distilleries in Kentucky and in Maryland. But I wasn't on the distillery side, I was on the production, bottling, side--in charge of supplies and stuff like that. And I didn't want to spend the rest of my life doing that. So then I passed the oral exams and was taken into the Foreign Service in August of 1940; my first post was at Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada.
MCKINZIE: When did you first get interested in the Near East?
WILKINS: The Near East was rather by chance, after coming back from Halifax, which was a probationary post. It was the eve of the American entry into the Second World War, and we were kept here in Washington working in the Visa Division, where there was a tremendous increase in the number of visas because of so many people coming from Europe to Canada, and then to the U.S. And after a brief month in the Foreign Service School--ordinarily that course lasts about a year, but they cut it down to a month because they needed young officers overseas--I was unexpectedly assigned to Bagdad, Iraq, and that's how I got into the Near East.
MCKINZIE: You spent most of the war then in . . .
WILKINS: I stayed in Iraq almost three years and then went to Tangier, Morocco for another three years. And once you get into the Near East it's very difficult to get out of it, because in those days the Near East Division of the State Department ran all the way from Burma to Morocco and from Greece to the Sudan. Although it was called Near East, it really covered quite a diverse area.
MCKINZIE: In that wartime experience, were you aware that there were people in the State Department--some of whom worked under Leo Pasvolsky and Sumner Welles--who were drawing up contingency plans for the period after the war?
WILKINS: Not so much at my level, because when I started out I was only a vice-consul and also I was away from Washington until 1946. So, I really wasn't aware of what work of that type was going on here.
MCKINZIE: But certainly you had input in that?
WILKINS: No. We were, in the posts in the field, preoccupied with the acceleration of Foreign Service work. For example, in Bagdad, my principal responsibility was lend-lease, which increased because of assistance to Iraq during the war. And then later on in Morocco, I was doing economic work. At that time I was the only economic officer on the staff and we were required to report for all of Morocco. The mission itself was in Tangier. We were busy, and we didn't have time to do anything else; so there wasn't any input by us into postwar planning.
MCKINZIE: Well, you must have had some feeling about how the end of the war was going to affect the area.
WILKINS: Yes, I suppose that's the case. When I was in Bagdad we used to hear a lot about what would happen in the Palestine mandate after the war, because there had been increasing Jewish immigration from Europe since 1933 because of Hitler. But this had been more or less called off, or a moratorium placed on it, during the war, because of the overriding urgency of winning it. And the British were able to persuade the Zionists not to press the issue then, to let it rest until the end of the war, in '45 as it turned out. So when I talked to Englishmen in Iraq at that time, they used to talk about the difficulties in Palestine. Fortunately, they were not pressing during the war years.
MCKINZIE: The postwar years seemed to concern three major issues of problems with the Near East: oil, communism, and the Jewish problem. During the war, from the observation post or reporting post in Iraq, did you anticipate there would be any kind of Communist problem in the area? That came to the fore, first of all, in Iran, but was there any anticipation of this going to be a U.S. problem?
WILKINS: In those years we didn't worry about communism at all; the principal discussion which took place between the American legation and the government of Iraq was related to oil. I remember that the United States had, through the American oil companies, slightly over 25 percent of the Iraqi petroleum. And we only gained that earlier because of great pressure by American oil companies on the government to persuade the British to let us have a part of it. And I was told that some of the most acrimonious correspondence in the files of the State Department related to the American interest in taking part in the Near East-Middle East.
MCKINZIE: In the middle of the war you were moved to Morocco?
MCKINZIE: Were you there in the postwar period when there was a large problem with U.S. businessmen in the area who wanted exemptions from import-export quotas that were imposed on . . .
WILKINS: This developed very rapidly after 1945, because a number of American servicemen who had been in Morocco during the war years stayed on there afterward or returned, and they expected preferential treatment for doing business in Morocco.
MCKINZIE: Did you have any dealings with those people? They had a small organization, as I recall.
WILKINS: Yes, we did. There was a man named Rodes. But I think most of the discussions took place in Washington rather than Morocco, because it was getting the State Department to do something about their rights. Even at that late date we had extraterritorial privileges in Morocco dating from the nineteenth century. Also, we were interested in establishing radio stations in Tangier, because it's a good place for a radio station. As I recall, Rodes was being hardfaced on this. I've forgotten the name now, but there was a commercial station developed there in 1945-1946; it continued on thereafter. I don't know what's happened to that.
MCKINZIE: You were there at the time the American troops were?
WILKINS: Yes, but they were mainly in French Morocco, because, you see, Morocco was divided in three parts, the restored international zone, Spanish Morocco, and French Morocco. American troops were, generally speaking, in French Morocco. They used to come to Tangier on occasion; Tangier had a free money market and you could change your dollars there for two hundred francs to the dollar, and you could only get 50 in Casablanca. You'd get a lot of troops coming up for that reason. And then, too, the Germans left the international zone area late in 1944 or early in 1945, but they didn't actually leave Spanish Morocco until the end of the war. So, we had that problem there, getting rid of the Germans from parts of Morocco.
You see, when the Germans were moving ahead on the Continent they persuaded the Spanish, who had occupied the international zone--to let them come in and have consulates there. They had a German network of officers and intelligence officers in the international zone and Spanish Morocco, and that was still in existence in 1944 when I went there and didn't disappear until 1945. That was one of the big problems at that time.
MCKINZIE: Yes. From your position in Morocco, were you apprised always of what was going on at the other end of the Mediterranean?
WILKINS: No we weren't, other than general circulars. I mean, we were so preoccupied with the events of North Africa that we didn't pay much attention to the Near East. We were more interested in what was going on in Spain and Europe. This is an interesting thing about North Africa. It's so far removed from the rest of the Near East; in fact, the local Arabic was different. If you spoke the local Arabic dialect in Morocco, they wouldn't understand you in Syria; the only way they could correspond or talk to each other would be in classical Arabic. And, my impression at that time was that North Africa was more interested in Spain and in France because they were the metropolitan powers--and in Great Britain, because of its interest in Tangier.
MCKINZIE: When you were in that post there was a lot going on--not only in the State Department, but through some international conferences--in the way of trying to set up some sort of postwar economic arrangements between countries, an arrangement which was pretty much authored, I think, by Will Clayton, or people around him, which was a kind of free trade