How to Balance Safety and Openness for America’s Diplomats

Foreign affairs professionals have faced disease, disaster, war, and terrorism over the last 234 years. How secure should today's officers be?
The entrance to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where 63 people were being held hostage in 1980. (AP)

William Palfrey was the epitome of a patriot-diplomat. He had served as John Hancock’s chief clerk, and when American forces captured the British ship Nancy and its prized cargo of weapons during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington himself charged Palfrey with off-loading its contents. Washington then appointed Palfrey as paymaster-general of the continental army.

In 1780, Congress appointed Palfrey America’s first consul, our government’s first formal representative to another state, and in December of that year Palfrey set sail from Pennsylvania on the Shillala bound for Bordeaux. Yet, after a stop in Delaware, the 16-gun ship was never heard from again. America’s lone consul had been lost at sea.

Fast forward to August 2013. Intercepted messages from al-Qaeda operatives hinting at attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts lead the Obama Administration to temporarily close 22 U.S. embassies and consulates across the Middle East and North Africa. Former U.S. ambassador Chris Hill called the move “unprecedented.” Twelve tanks formed a ring around the U.S. embassy in Yemen.

Clearly, much has changed since William Palfrey set sail 1780. Yet, the enduring question remains: How should America balance its need for diplomatic representation across the globe against the risks to the individuals charged with carrying out such work? The State Department Wall of Honor currently lists 244 names, and 30 more are currently being considered for inclusion. A closer examination of the 274 American diplomats and aid workers killed in the line of duty reveals some important implications for how we interact with the world.  

American foreign affairs during the 1800s were managed as a cottage industry, often conducted on an almost amateur scale. Consular positions were self-funding patronage jobs, and by the U.S. civil war, the State Department still only had 42 employees in Washington and another 280 abroad.

The initial fatalities of those working abroad, as tragic as they were, evince a certain bygone era of steamer trunks and wax-sealed dispatches. Joel Barlow, the U.S. minister to France, was summoned to meet with Napoleon in December of 1812 in what is now Lithuania, but when that meeting was canceled, Barlow got caught in the retreat of the French army and died of exposure in the Polish countryside. A handful of diplomats, including James Holden, John Meircken, and Edward Gardner, like William Palfrey, were lost at sea.

Thomas Prentis and Amedee Testart, along with 29,000 other souls, were consumed by the intense volcanic eruption of Mt. Pelee in Martinique in 1902. The eruption was so powerful that only two people survived the firestorm that consumed St. Pierre, a local shoemaker and a prisoner in the cavernous city jail. The prisoner later toured with the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Disease was the greatest threat to an American diplomat during the 1800s. The American Foreign Service memorial plaque in the lobby of the State Department that honors those Americans who lost their lives serving abroad reads like a journal of tropical disease. American diplomats were felled by Yellow Fever, Coast Fever, Tropical Fever, African Fever, cholera, smallpox, malaria, and unnamed epidemics. More than three-fifths of the U.S. diplomatic fatalities in the 19th century were caused by such illnesses.

But even during the 1800s, violence against American diplomats was not unheard of. In 1825, Harris Fudger, a U.S. consul in Colombia, was the first American diplomat to be murdered at post. A terse dispatch from the embassy noted that Fudger had been, “stabbed in the heart with his own sword, his throat cut and his trunks pillaged of their contents.” In 1888, Victor Stanwood, a U.S. consular agent operating on the west coast of Madagascar was killed by a buccaneer captain when Stanwood attempted to inspect his ship.

Several points are notable when looking at the data on Foreign-Service deaths from the twentieth century. The United States lost only a single diplomat due to enemy action during World War I, Robert McNeely who was aboard the British liner Persia when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat without warning in 1915. During World War II, the United States only suffered two fatalities related to combat. Henry Antheil Jr. was killed when the Finnish passenger plane he was aboard was shot down by the Soviet navy in June 1940. Antheil was carrying a trove of secret documents out of Estonia in anticipation of its annexation by the Soviets. Russ Engdahl, a U.S. consul in Shanghai, died of an accidental fall in a Japanese internment camp.

It was decided shortly after World War II that Marine guards should be deployed to select embassies, although their primary duty was to protect classified information and equipment rather than people.

No Foreign Service officers died as a result of hostile action during the Korean War.

The State Department had done an excellent job in mitigating the risks that had traditionally been killers of its personnel. Only two Foreign Service officers are listed as having been killed at post by disease after 1961. Only 10 U.S. diplomats are listed as having died in car accidents—an astoundingly low figure. On balance, a Foreign Service officer is actually less likely to die from an automobile accident abroad than they are in Washington.

Yet, the 20th century also marked the beginning of an era when U.S. diplomats were targeted directly because they were U.S. diplomats.

No single period stands out so glumly as Vietnam when looking at the history of lives lost. More than 40 U.S. diplomatic personnel lost their lives in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos between 1960 and 1975. Almost three times as many diplomatic personnel were killed in the broader Vietnam theater than in the rest of America’s wars combined.


Vietnam was one of the largest ever deployments of civilian international affairs personnel, with officers from State and USAID used as the frontline implementers of a massive “pacification” program targeted at the South Vietnamese. Many of these officials were posted outside of Saigon in villages building schools and working on agricultural projects, and the Viet Cong viewing them as legitimate targets.

The leaderships of both State and USAID were appallingly opaque about the burgeoning death rates within their own ranks during Vietnam, and it wasn’t until 1972 that the State Department was willing to acknowledge to its own staff how many people had been killed in the field.

Foreign Service officers became increasingly vocal with their concerns about Vietnam, and junior officers quit the service at record rates. Some 50 Foreign Service officers wrote to Secretary of State William Rogers condemning Nixon’s 1970 decision to invade Cambodia, the largest ever such protest. When the contents of the letter leaked to the press, President Nixon placed a 2 a.m., profanity-laced call demanding that all the offending staffers be fired. They were not.

With the Cold War in full swing, the spike in political violence was not limited to Vietnam. John Gordon Mein became the first U.S. ambassador assassinated while in office, gunned down in Guatemala City by pro-Castro revolutionaries in August 1968. His death marked the beginning of a deadly 11-year stretch for U.S. ambassadors. In 1973, terrorists from the "Black September" faction of the PLO stormed the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, taking U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel hostage and summarily executing him in the embassy basement. Slightly more than a year later, Rodger Davies, the U.S. ambassador to Cyprus, was killed by a burst of machine gun fire when the embassy was besieged Greek Cypriots angry with U.S. Cyprus policy.

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John Norris is the executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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