Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the Evan Wilson oral history interview.
Opened October, 1978
Oral History Interview with
July 18, 1975
by Richard D. McKinzie
MCKINZIE: Mr. Wilson, historians and scholars are very interested in why people go into the Foreign Service and their background and their philosophies toward foreign affairs. I wonder if you would, for the record, speak to that point?
WILSON: In my case, it was a question of my having decided at a fairly early age that I wanted to go into the Foreign Service as such. I was brought up by my parents to expect that eventually I would go into some form of public service.
And as they had taken me abroad, starting with the time when I was ten years old (they had taken me to spend a whole year abroad between school and college), I had learned a number of languages. And so, as I say, early on I decided that I would like to have a career in foreign affairs.
This interest was heightened by my studies at Haverford College, where I first took international relations, and later at Oxford, where I again took international relations. And during the three years that I spent at Oxford, I never came home but went on each vacation to the Continent, living in different countries and practicing languages in France, in Germany, in Italy, and in Spain. I also spent two summers at what was called the Zimmern School, the Geneva School of International Relations, which was run by Sir Alfred Zimmern, who was my professor at Oxford.
Through the school at Geneva (where, incidentally, I met my wife), I was thrown into contact with students from a great many foreign countries, and through these experiences in living abroad, both during the time I was at Oxford and earlier on visits to Europe, I had acquired the kind of experience in living in foreign countries and dealing with foreigners which I consider to be a prerequisite for going into the Foreign Service. I had also managed to acquire some foreign languages.
MCKINZIE: Did Alfred Zimmern have a philosophy which took in your contacts with him?
WILSON: Yes. He influenced me a great deal, because Zimmern was a great believer in the League of Nations. The school was held at Geneva and we used to attend the sessions of the Assembly. I remember being present in 1932, when Iraq was admitted to the League, and I remember the
discussions regarding the Manchurian incident in the same year.
MCKINZIE: Did at that time you feel the United States had missed an opportunity by not joining the League?
WILSON: Yes, very much so. Very much so. I became very much of an advocate of international cooperation and of international organizations, and this heightened my interest in going into the Foreign Service. However, between the years 1931 and 1936 the Department of State did not give the Foreign Service examinations. I returned from Oxford in 1934 and managed to get a position here in Washington with one of the New Deal agencies, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, and worked there until the examinations were given in 1936.
MCKINZIE: All the while with the object of getting
into the Foreign Service?
WILSON: Yes, with that object, and I was lucky enough to get in.
MCKINZIE: Did you go to the Roudybush School or any of those...
WILSON: Yes, I went to Mannix Walker's School for several months. Mannix Walker was a former Foreign Service officer who ran a small school here in Georgetown and had a very high degree of success in getting students into the Foreign Service. The year that we took the examination he had a group of eight and two of us got in, which was considered quite high.
MCKINZIE: I understand in those days that one never had a choice in one's first assignment.
WILSON: Absolutely not! I had no idea where I was going. I took the examinations in the spring
of 1936. During the summer, I was notified that I had passed the written examination and that I should come up for my oral examination in October, which I did. And in those days, the tradition was that at the close of the oral examination, since it was necessary to have a physical examination if you were entering the service, the examiner would say to the candidate, "And now you may proceed to your physical examination." If he did not say that, you knew that you had not passed. And so I was sent to my physical and a month later, in November, I received word that I had passed. But I was not appointed until July of 1937, after the start of the fiscal year.
During the intervening months, I was here in Washington and tried on many occasions to find out from the Department what was going to happen to me and when I would be appointed.
But I was unable to get any information, until one day I had found in the mail a letter appointing me as vice consul at Guadalajara, Mexico.
I stayed there only about nine months (this was my so-called probationary assignment) and was then brought back here for training at what was called the Foreign Service School.
During the time that we were at the Foreign Service School, in the spring of 1938, we had lectures by members of the Department on various subjects and various parts of the world, and a talk which a man named Harold H. Tittman gave on Italian policy in the Levant inspired me to make a study of that particular subject.
In those days each member of the Foreign Service School was required to write an essay as a part of the training and I wrote an essay on that subject, "Italian Policy in the Levant." This brought me, for the first time, into
contact with the members of the old Division of Near Eastern Affairs. And when, during the course, we were asked to indicate a preference for an assignment, I said that I would like to go to the Middle East, although I had never been there. And to my great pleasure, when the assignments came out I was assigned to Cairo.
I went to Cairo and remained there for three years. During that period, I paid my first visit to Palestine, with which my work was so much to be connected in later years.
In 1940, when the war reached a pitch of intensity with the entrance of Italy into the war and the threat in the western desert, we evacuated our families from Cairo to Jerusalem and my wife spent seven months in Jerusalem, which gave us further connections with that place, as I was able to visit her a few times.
After three years in Cairo, I was given
home leave. It's interesting to recall that I was the first member of the staff at Cairo to receive home leave at the Government's expense, as that was quite a new thing in those days. And I came back to this country. I had been told that I would be transferred, and it happened that my chief from Guadalajara, George Winters, was then in charge of the Mexican desk in the Department. He asked me if I would be interested in going back to Mexico, as they were building up the staff to meet various new wartime responsibilities (this was just after Pearl Harbor). And having gone through two evacuations with my family -- my wife and child having gone home six months before me in 1941 -- and having managed to get our household effects out from Suez across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific and through the Panama Canal right after Pearl Harbor, I replied that I would be
delighted to go anywhere where I could go overland and have my family with me.
So, I was sent to the Embassy in Mexico City to do economic warfare work.
MCKINZIE: During the period that you were in Cairo, granted that this was at a very critical stage of the war and the outcome of it was by no means predictable, did you have any feelings that the colonial powers were going to have a different role in the future? Did you have any predilections what th