Dollars and Diplomats


‘THACKER, the U. S. consul . . . was not yet drunk. It was only eleven o’clock.’ Thus O. Henry in one of his rollicking Central American tales. Somewhere in his tropical wanderings he must have had intimate liquid relations with a consul of the old school, for with slight variations the same portrait appears in several of his stories. The consul is a broken-down politician with a steady taste for rum and a marvelous tobacco-juice aim. He has served the party faithfully, but all the home jobs are gone and so he has been shipped abroad to a port he never has heard of, in a country whose language he never can learn. A dozen beach combers constitute the American community, forgathering in a local gin mill where the consul becomes a presiding genius. Once in thirty days he sets down his glass, brushes off the dust from his Fourth-of-July coat, and rolls down to meet the mail boat with its fresh supply of plug tobacco and its stale supply of home-town gazettes. Before the ship’s funnels have disappeared below the horizon he is in a high state of alcoholic content again.

The picture was not wholly exaggerated, as I have reason to know, because thirty years ago I met my first American consul. It was on a boat trip. He was tall, angular, gray-whiskered, clad in the regulation garb of statesmanship — black coat, trimmed with worn cuffs and dandruff. After dinner, when the high balls had mellowed him, he volunteered the following: —

‘The foreign service ain’t what it used to be, sir. The reformers are spoiling everything. Would you like to know how we used to do things in the good old days? Would you like to hear how your humble servant became the representative of his native land in faroff Slongum ? ’

He paused dramatically. The necessary encouragement was supplied, and he went on.

‘My uncle, sir, was the late Senator Fussenfret of Iowa. I had been in politics ever since I was a kid; in Iowa, sir, every man is in politics. Well, it happened that the unappreciative voters declined to reëlect me to my place in the legislature. I boarded a train for Washington and walked into the office of my uncle, the Senator. “ Uncle, I lost out,” I said, “and how about it?” Well, sir, he reached for his tall black hat, and “Come with me, nephew,” he said. We walked over to the office of the fellow who examined candidates for consulships. Uncle marched in very dignified, and the examiner stood up, looking sort of nervous. Uncle said: “Mr. Ewston, this is my nephew, Colonel Hendrock of Iowa. The Colonel has been a member of our state legislature, sir; he has served as state oil commissioner, and I am sure he will make a most acceptable consul at any point to which you may assign him.”

‘With that my uncle put on his tall hat and walked out. The examiner, looking still scared, said: “Sit down, Colonel, and write your full name.” So I sat down and wrote my name. Then he said: “Write your home address.” So I wrote my home address. Then, “Write the name of the hotel where you are stopping.” And I wrote that. Then he said: “I guess that will be all, Colonel. If I think of any more questions I will get in touch with you at your hotel.”

‘ So I went back to the hotel and took a nap. Along about four o’clock I dropped down to the bar to have a nip, and a boy came in with the afternoon papers. I bought one and read that I had been appointed American consul to Slongum and that I had passed with the highest marks of any candidate who ever had been examined.’

Thus sadly spoke the ancient statesman, shaking his gray whiskers and dropping a tear in his rum. He was, as I have said, the first American consul I had ever seen.


Within the past few weeks I have had occasion to see a number of consuls of the modern type, as well as ambassadors, ministers, and attachés, in various cities of the Orient. By and large, they are first-class. The younger members are nearly all college graduates, speaking one or more foreign languages. Linguistic ability is important, but personality and judgment are much more important. The young men have both. They compare favorably with the best talent that our big corporations have been able to recruit for foreign service. They are a credit to America.

Contrary to deep-seated tradition, they devote only a small fraction of their time to drinking tea, changing their clothes, or buttoning their spats. There are ships to be cleared, cargoes to be checked, commercial investigations to be made, and reports to be sent for the information of American business men back home. There are all sorts of resident and transient Americans who must be looked after; there are delicate negotiations to be carried on with the representatives of other nations. It’s a real job, and the social part of it, like the social part of any business man’s life, is largely important in forming and keeping contacts.

Much good hard work was done previous to 1932 in raising the standards of the consular service and putting it on a basis where it could be most effective. An Assistant Secretary of Slate named Wilbur J. Carr had much to do with this. His name is seldom in the newspapers, for he is a ‘career man’ divorced from politics. Secretaries of State come and go, but he goes on forever, and no chief of the department could operate without him. Another champion of the service was Edith Nourse Rogers, Congresswoman from Massachusetts, author of the Rogers Bill. These, with other sympathizers in Congress, had managed to lift both the standards of the service and the pay. Our men were not provided with homes and offices as are the representatives of Great Britain and other firstclass powers, but their salaries and other allowances combined to make their situation quite satisfactory. The morale of the service was high.

Then came the economy drive. Congress had to swing the axe more or less blindly, and the foreign boys caught it in the neck. They took the 15 per cent cut along with the home workers, which was all right, but this was only the beginning. Out went all their ‘allowances,’ which in most cases constituted from 25 to 40 per cent of their compensation, and then, as a final blow, the dollar was devalued. A 59-cent dollar at home is still a dollar. Prices adjust themselves to its new value very gradually; if the cost of living advances, so also does the wage scale. But a 59cent dollar abroad is just 59 cents, and that’s that. If the dollar bought four rupees or yen or pesetas on the day before the President’s proclamation, it bought two and a half the day after. You, an American living in the foreign country, pay your bills in rupees, yen, or pesetas. You are just out of luck.

When we entered the Orient last March we found the younger men in the foreign service in desperate condition. Nervous breakdowns were common, and wholesale resignations or even suicides seemed to be on the way. Several of the youngsters, at my request, told me their personal situations. Here are a couple of examples: —

John Jones, age twenty-nine, viceconsul in an important city in China. Married, two children. Salary and allowances in 1932 just about equal to what the foreign branches of an English bank or commercial house pays beginners from home. In 1933, salary reduction, elimination of allowances, and depreciation of the dollar cut the income nearly one half. Young Jones was frantic. He owed bills he could not pay. His clothes were shabby. He often was compelled to decline an important official invitation because he could not afford a few cents for a taxicab. His wife and children were actually underfed. The amount of time he could spend thinking about the government’s business was small indeed. His nights, as well as his days, were filled with anxiety and dread.

John Smith, vice consul in a city of India. Same situation, complicated by a hospital bill incurred in saving the life of his child. ‘I’m running behind every month,’ he said. ‘Even if I could stick it out financially, — as some of the men can who have inherited money, — what hope is there in a service where all promotions have been suspended for three years? My only escape is to find someone who will lend me money enough to get home, and Heaven only knows what I shall do there. I have given ten years to the service; I am out of step with home conditions; I shall have to begin at the bottom.’

Some months later word was received that Congress had remedied the situation in part. A bill was passed to reimburse the men for the losses incurred by the devaluation of the dollar. A 5 per cent restoration in pay was provided and another 5 per cent promised. This action saved our foreign service from complete demoralization. It was a vital step, but it was only a step. The so-called ‘rent, light, post, and representation ’ allowances also ought to be restored. These are special grants, differing in each post according to the cost of living and the amount of official entertainment involved. The men should have at least what they were getting in 1932 if we are to be represented abroad as we ought to be.


Once when I was very young and just beginning to write for the press I took a little fling at our ambassadors and consuls. I pointed out that when Benjamin Franklin was our Ambassador to France he did not conform to the French styles, but set a style of his own. All Paris adopted his cut of coat and his three-cornered hat. He did not follow; he led. The moral of my youthful editorial was that we ought to send business men abroad who would disdain the precedents and customs of the effete foreign nations and blaze a path of their own. This was largely nonsense. It is a fact that we need capable, self-reliant representatives — and we have them. But it is also a fact that in foreign countries, and in the Orient particularly, what is known as ‘face’ is a force too strong to be defied by any individual or any government. If you lose face you lose all standing and effectiveness, and your government suffers. Face consists in playing the game according to the traditional rules and being so situated that you can properly hold up your end.

Summing it all up, I should say that we Americans must dismiss these two cherished notions: —

1. That any American citizen can, by the mere fact of being an American citizen, make good without background or training in any sort of job. Appropriations for our foreign service are menaced constantly by the Congressional argument, ‘I have hundreds of constituents who will do the work for half as much.’

2. That the diplomatic representatives of other nations are moustached young gentlemen who wear spats and drink tea, and that any red-blooded American can make them look like a bunch of sissies.

Both notions are wrong. Foreign service is a matter of sound judgment plus expert training. Foreign governments pick very smart young gentlemen for the service and give them every advantage of good housing, good pay, sufficient allowances for travel and entertainment, and a pension at the end. As the richest and one of the largest nations in the world, we ought to be represented at our best.

When we pick a golf team to compete abroad we do not select men who have shown proficiency in getting themselves chosen chairmen of house committees, nor are we compelled to confine our selection to men who were fortunate enough to inherit money from their parents. We choose players who can play. We need that kind of players in the tense game of world politics and commerce. If we expect to win we ought to give our players the necessary equipment: good pay, firstclass homes and offices, the opportunity for promotion, and sufficient allowances to enable them to live as well as the players of our competitors, and, like them, to be provided for in old age.