The Labyrinth in Foggy Bottom: A Critique of the State Department

A widely traveled journalist and onetime aide to Adlai Stevenson, Mr. Attwood served the Kennedy Administration as Ambassador to Guinea (1961-1963), was Special Adviser to the United States UN delegation (1963-1964), and was President Johnson’s Ambassador to Kenya from the beginning of its independence until this year. He is now editor in chief of Cowles Communications, Inc. This article is drawn from his book THE REDS AND THE BLACKS, to be published in March by Harper Row.

by William Attwood

I THINK it was Ernest Hemingway who said that the only way you can really get to know a foreign country is to earn your living there. In my work and my travels up until 1961 I had been in and out of the State Department and a good many of our overseas missions. I had friends in the Foreign Service and knew of their frustrations. Abroad, I had sweated out the McCarthy period with them; in Washington, I shared their laments about the red tape and deadwood in high places that impeded action and stifled initiative. But it wasn’t until I joined them on the payroll until I began earning my living there that I really began to understand what went on in the State Department. Not many Americans do which happens to be one of its problems.

Some of State’s shortcomings are its own fault, some could be corrected by presidential action, and others are the result of congressional suspicion and niggardliness. Unlike several other branches of the government, State has no constituents — nobody who wants to increase its annual appropriation no aircraft companies or farm lobbies or veterans’ organizations to fight its battle on Capitol Hill. And State never seems to put its own case across either to Congress or to the public. Reasonable requests for more funds somehow come out sounding like a cookie pusher’s plea for a bigger booze allowance.

And so, while I may sound critical, my purpose is to shed some light on what goes on in the labyrinths of Foggy Bottom, and try to stimulate some concern about how to induce qualified and talented people to go to work for their government and help formulate and carry out an intelligent foreign policy.

The State Department is relatively small. Its 25,700 employees, of whom 3520 are Foreign Service Officers, and its annual budget of $393 million make it the second smallest department of the government. (Labor has fewer people, and Justice a smaller budget.) It is also the most far-flung - with 117 embassies, 69 consulates general, and 79 consulates scattered around the world — and the most verbose - a large embassy on an average day will receive more than 400,000 words, the equivalent of an 850-page book, and in Washington the Department’s distribution section makes copies of 70.000 incoming messages a day. So perhaps the best way of explaining what’s wrong with the State Department is to suet with the paper.

Paper work is invented by bureaucratic-minded people who, like Frankenstein, later become its victims. These are people to whom an overflowing in-box is a daily challenge and an empty one a daily achievement; for whom a satisfying week’s work consists in initialing as many reams of paper and deferring as many decisions as possible; with whom you can talk of “action” only in terms of setting up a committee, hopefully one that will spawn subcommittees. The chief considerations of a bureaucrat are to abide by the letter of the regulations, whatever the consequences, to keep a clean desk, and never to “make waves.”

There are fewer bureaucrats in the State Department than in other swollen government agencies — AID, for example — but enough to make you wonder at times how a new idea ever bubbles to the top. The reason, of course, is that there are generally a few activists at every echelon who enjoy results and do not regard moving paper as an end in itself. Keeping these activists in the bureaucracy and recruiting new ones should be a priority objective of every incoming Administration.

The production of paper is excessive at both ends and self-generating. Reporting requirements from the field keep embassy officers desk-bound when they should be getting out and around. Most of these reports are copied, distributed, and filed away without anybody’s reading them except, possibly, some specialist in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Telegrams get more attention because they are shorter, but only a few percolate up to the sixth and seventh floors or Lo the White House. (Former Ambassador J. K. Galbraith once told me the only way to get a telegram read in the White House was to put a four-letter word in it.) Since so much of what is reported is of no practical or immediate use, I have often wondered why Washington does not deal with its overseas missions the way a news service editor deals with his overseas bureaus — which is to ask for special reports when the need arises rather than to expect correspondents in the field to keep filing everything they can find out about anything. Conversely, the men in the field should be spared the eyestrain of having to read or even glance at most of what comes from Washington by pouch. (Our weekly CIA summary — naturally, stamped “secret” — seldom contained anything we hadn’t already read about in the New York Times Sunday news digest.)

Perhaps the only way to stop the flow of paper is to penalize anybody who writes reports that could possibly be avoided. But it won’t happen; there are too many people who need to produce paper in order to justify their presence on the payroll. (A Foreign Service Officer named Holmes Welch recently defined the Welch corollary to Parkinson’s Law as follows: Every producer of paper added to the government roster creates the need for an additional consumer of paper. But the latter, when hired, turns out to be a producer too.) What happens to all the paper? It piles up.

Aside from reports, there are other kinds of paper that clog the machinery and waste time, money, and manpower. Travel and expense vouchers are just two examples. When a Foreign Service Officer goes from point A to point B, he must make out a form accounting for every minute of his time in transit (0916 — departed terminal, airport tax: 70 cents; 0955 — arrived chancery, bus: $1.25). Per diem rates vary, depending on where he is and whether he happens to be stationary or in motion. The resulting voucher is both complicated and time-consuming for everyone involved in preparing and reviewing it. It has been estimated that the government spends about $10 to process an average voucher, which can easily double the cost of the reimbursement. It can even more than double it, as in the case of a junior officer I knew in Spain whose quarterly entertainment allowance, which had to be accounted for, was only $3.

The obligation to justify every penny spent not only is wasteful but can be embarrassing. A senior officer who is trusted to handle top secret documents does not have his government’s confidence where a dollar is concerned. I remember being invited to a meeting with the Guinean Foreign Minister while serving at the UN. The taxi fare to the Guinean mission and back came to $2.40. A few days after I submitted the required voucher, somebody from the administrative section called me about my taxi ride: “We have no record, Mr. Ambassador,” said the voice archly, “of any reception being given at the Guinean Embassy on that day.”

My favorite story is about the Foreign Service Officer returning to Washington on orders. His mother, who was not on government orders, traveled with him. In making out his voucher, he carefully separated his own from his mother’s expenses. But the last item was a taxi from Union Station to his hotel. In Washington, there is a different fare if two people occupy the cab. Back came a query: “Did your mother ride in the cab with you?” His reply made bureaucratic history: “No. I took the cab. My mother walked and carried the bags.”

The sensible and economical way to handle this kind of paper work would be for the government to calculate the cost of moving an employee from point A to point B. Anyone traveling that distance would then be given a flat sum to travel as he wished just so long as he got to his destination on time. Time and money would be saved. But it might be necessary to get rid of a lot of people whose jobs depend on processing the paper under the present system. The Deputy Undersecretary of State for Administration told me he was not even able to introduce air travel cards as an efficiency measure; the General Accounting Office has a vested interest in keeping the system cumbersome.

Similarly, ambassadors should be given representational funds to use at their discretion without having to make out forms in quintuplicate listing and justifying every social function for which they and their stalls require reimbursement. No diplomatic missions have such big administrative staffs as ours; other countries generally treat their ambassadors like men of integrity and judgment — as George Washington treated Benjamin Franklin when he sent him to Paris with 50,000 francs and no budget and fiscal officer to bird-dog him. But that was back when the U.S. government was too small to afford a bureaucracy.

THE average Foreign Service Officer is forty-one and makes $13,900 a year. When you take into account the education, the training, and the wide range of skills that the State Department requires of its officers, and when you consider what private industry offers talented executives in the way of salary and advancement, the wonder is that our government is still able to induce young people with drive and imagination to make diplomacy their career. Despite occasional directives commending boldness and courage, most FSO’s have become convinced from experience that the way to move up the ladder is to play it safe. As Averell Harriman has said: “I have seen men’s careers set back and, in fact, busted because they held the right views at the wrong time, or for accurately reporting facts that were not popular at the time.” Caution, of course, becomes a habit as well as a necessity for a man in his forties who needs that next promotion to put his children through college.

A good many of our senior FSO’s are also suffering from the McCarthy syndrome; they have never quite recovered from the experience of seeing some of their patriotic colleagues hounded and persecuted by the late senator without either the President or the Secretary of State being willing to stick up for them. Moreover, a potential executive who because of the seniority system is not given the opportunity to exercise his executive ability in his middle years becomes bleached out. If he does get to be a chief of mission, he has often lost the capacity for controlled indignation - for sticking his neck out — that is vital to effective leadership.

A system which rewards seniority rather than ability can produce absurd situations. I have a friend who was made an FSO-1 at thirty-nine. The next rung on the ladder is Career Minister. According to existing regulations, he could not become a CM until he was fifty. Yet the regulations also stated that an officer who is not promoted for ten years is subject to “selection-out” — a euphemism for being fired.

From what I have seen of the State Department, the greatest concentration of executive talent can be found in the thirty-five to forty-five age bracket. But most of these men and women are uppermiddle-level FSO-3’s and -4’s. Above them in the hierarchy, as of December, 1966, were 7 Career Ambassadors, 52 Career Ministers, 313 FSO-1’s, and 452 FSO-2’s. With about 36 ambassadorships available each year — of which a quarter are filled by political appointees—the chances of a substantial number getting top jobs in their most productive and vigorous years are practically nonexistent.

What is also discouraging to talented middlegrade officers is that the higher echelons are cluttered with deadwood — with people who drifted up the ladder because somebody on a promotion panel wanted to give good old Joe or Charlie a break. (I know of one of these good old Joes who was finally moved out of an African post — he had refused to entertain Africans in his house — and was transferred to a bigger post commensurate with his rank.) The deadwood are usually officers with bland records, with no black marks on their efficiency reports, with no history of ever having gotten out of line or rocked the boat or questioned their instructions. A good, energetic officer, on the other hand, can be passed over for promotion, if he lacks friends in the Establishment, on the basis of one negative efficiency report written by one superior who might not have liked the way he dressed. (I personally interceded in one such case.)

Some officers who manage to reach the top after long years of patient subordination tend to become martinets — like British public-school boys hazing their juniors because they were once hazed themselves. And their wives can be even more dictatorial: I have known of some who ordered the wives of staff members around like servants; one who put a hairdresser off limits to other wives because she didn’t like him; one who insisted the staff speak to her in French; one who would whimsically appropriate a cook or piece of furniture from subordinates. A book could be written about the dragon ladies who have dominated some of our embassies in the past.

HANS MORGENTHAU has said that elimination of half of State’s employees “could by itself not fail to improve the operation of the Department.” His figure may be high; I would say a fourth could be spared to good advantage, particularly in Washington and Europe. For State is both overand understaffed. It is overstaffed, for example, in Foggy Bottom committees, where ten people will spend twenty man-hours preparing a paper that one able man could prepare in two; and it is understaffed in places like Africa, where substantive officers usually work a sixty-to-seventy-hour week. If deadwood could be got rid of, there would still be a problem of maldistribution of personnel, both in Washington and in the field. On the sixth and seventh floors, our top officials are too busy every day of the week to do much original thinking; down below, the thinking is collective — a new idea must be vetted by several bureaus before it goes upstairs — and the result is papers and reports that reflect the lowest common denominator of judgment.

Anyone who has served on a committee understands the problem. Most people who attend committee meetings have no definite ideas of their own; they come prepared only to pass judgment on what somebody else suggests, to support or knock down a new idea, depending on how they think the man they want to impress feels about it.

In general, new ideas are not popular among the committee-minded layers of personnel that lie between desk officers and assistant secretaries. (These are the layers where senior dcadwood stacks up in Washington.) A new idea is likely to require revisions of existing policy papers, guidelines, and contingency plans. This means additional work — real work, not just going to meetings; it also implies that present policies, which everyone has spent years defending and justifying, might be faulty. (Guinea, we may recall, was labeled “lost” back in 1961.) Thus, new ideas run into a kind of vested, automatic resistance. Chester Bowles was unpopular in the Establishment not only because he promoted younger men on merit but because he generated too many fresh and unsettling ideas.

The layers of fat in State’s midsection also hold up action on all kinds of requests from the field. Clearances often take time because officers initialing a paper feel obliged to suggest some changes if only to show they have read it. When we asked Washington three weeks in advance for a letter from President Johnson to Kenyatta on a national holiday, nothing happened, even though we had sent along a proposed draft, until Wayne Fredericks of the Bureau of African Affairs personally went to the Secretary’s office and got it out to us by telegram just in time. I was told later this letter was “an example of the Department at its collective worst.”

Our European embassies are not unlike Washington. Most of them are overstaffed with paper producers. Austria, for example, may be a small neutralist country that isn’t making any history these days, but we continue to maintain a diplomatic establishment in Vienna appropriate to a major power or to an important listening post — which is what Vienna was twenty years ago. In Paris, there are twenty-one people in the agricultural attaché’s office just to cover France; in Nairobi we had one man and a secretary reporting on seven countries and handling PL480 sales as well. Four economic officers are assigned to The Hague; we had one in Nairobi. A junior administrative officer on my staff in Conakry was transferred to a large embassy in Europe; he wrote me later complaining that he could finish his day’s work by 10 A.M.—there were fifty-two people employed in the embassy’s budget and fiscal section alone.

I never talked to anyone in Washington who didn’t agree our European posts were too big. Yet nothing is done about them. The Department’s top brass is largely Europe-oriented: they spent a good part of their careers there and tend to regard anything that happens in the rest of the world as being of marginal significance, the way it was in the thirties. I remember talking to one of our senior ambassadors, a longtime member of the State Department Establishment, when I passed through Europe on my way home from Nairobi. He asked me, in all seriousness, what the capital of Kenya was and who its President was. An aide later told me that the ambassador had no interest in anything south of the Mediterranean.

THE overworked FSO in Africa and the less meaningfully employed FSO in Europe have one thing in common: they are both underpaid. Only 10 percent of our FSO’s make $20,000, which itself is not high by corporate executive standards. And the expense accounts that embellish the average businessman’s way of life don’t exist in the Foreign Service. The seventeen dollars petdiem an FSO or ambassador gets on consultation in Washington barely covers his hotel room; there is nothing left over for meals, laundry, or taxicabs. In the field, representation funds, in my experience, never fully covered legitimate entertainment, and our embassy officers were always out of pocket. In Nairobi we were the only diplomatic mission too poor to give a party on our national holiday. Travel was also restricted for lack of funds. I do not know of a company whose overseas sales managers come home as infrequently as our ambassadors return to Washington.

Even if surplus and superannuated personnel were weeded out of the State Department, the savings would not begin to meet the diplomatic requirements of a nation with such worldwide interests as the United States. If you compare the budgets for State and Defense, you will note that we are spending about 150 times more money on our military establishment than on the agency of government whose job is to defend and advance our interests without war.

One reason that our nonmilitary agencies are on short rations while Defense generally gets even more than it asks for from the Congress is public relations; State, as I have pointed out, has no constituents and no lobbies. The Pentagon spends nearly $40 million a year on its own public relations while State’s budget for explaining U.S. foreign policy to the American people is only $3.1 million. And the Pentagon, unlike State, has companies with defense contracts, veterans’ organizations, and governors and other local officials continually pressing Capitol Hill for larger military appropriations. The cumulative effect of all this public relations effort is to make it hard lor a congressman to vote to eliminate waste in the Pentagon but easy for him politically to attack “extravagance” in State, USIS, AID, the Peace Corps, and other agencies whose missions seem to be less dramatic than that of our uniformed services.

Most Americans are still prone to regard our “boys” (as politicians call our men in uniform) in Germany or wherever as deserving of everything we can give them, preferably at the expense of the dudes in striped pants. The “boy” may be in charge of the bar at an officer’s club in Spain, and the dude may be working a sweaty sixty-hour week in Burma, but the images persist and are reflected in the congressional appropriations.

Many career FSO’s have become resigned to this state of affairs; they develop an air of shabby gentility and give the impression of approaching Capitol Hill with dignity but with hat in hand. Congressmen regularly visit our embassies, but they nearly always go to Europe, where our diplomats, figuratively speaking, don’t often get mud on their boots. (In 1965, no fewer than ninety members of congressional delegations went to Paris and eighty-four to Rome; but only four made it to Nairobi in all the time I was there.) Little effort is made to arrange for ambassadors and other senior officers from hardship posts to tell their stories and explain their work personally to the legislators who hold the purse strings.

It wasn’t so long ago that a venturesome young man interested in foreign affairs and willing to live abroad would tend to think of a career in the Foreign Service. This is no longer true. With U.S. firms opening branches all over the world, opportunities for working overseas have multiplied. In Nairobi, we had men in their thirties representing American companies who not only had the satisfaction of contributing to Kenya’s economic development, but who were making twice the salaries of embassy officers of equivalent age and ability, and benefiting from tax advantages denied government employees. Not only that: they were treated with consideration by their home offices.

Under the circumstances, I don’t see how we can expect creative, enterprising, and strong-willed people to continue to enter the Foreign Service at the bottom of a ladder that is arduous to climb and not very rewarding when and if you reach the top. What we may get are prospective civil servants looking for a kind of respectable security, paper producers who will bring neither imagination nor verve to the conduct of our foreign policy.

I have found few professionals who do not agree that the State Department needs an infusion of new talent at the top as well as at the bottom of its hierarchy. In fact, it needs it at the top if it is to get it at the bottom. The Secretary and Undersecretaries are now too burdened with substantive responsibilities to direct enough attention to reforming the Department’s administrative practices and procedures. The Secretary needs a deputy with full authority and White House backing to retire, discharge, hire, and promote people on the basis of merit and promise.

I would like to see more qualified outsiders brought into the Department, both in Washington and in the field, for limited tours of duty —■ men of proved ability from politics, journalism, teaching, and industry who would not take bureaucratic routine for granted. They would improve the system and leave government, as I did, with greater understanding and sympathy for public servants. And they could be influential in helping pry needed appropriations out of the Congress so that government service would no longer be synonymous with personal and financial sacrifice.

The advantages in having some qualified noncareer people scattered throughout the Establishment are that they prevent bureaucratic barnacles from accumulating; they can raise hell about red tape and personnel inequities; they can argue with the Department about policy decisions without fear of jeopardizing their careers; and they are likely to see crises as opportunities rather than headaches and to appreciate the value of other government agencies to contemporary diplomacy. The problem is to make government service rewarding enough to attract first-rate men from other professions.

STATE’S problems and shortcomings are shared in varying degrees by most other agencies of government dealing directly with foreign policy. AID, as State’s chief operating arm in developing nations, is the most important. Without economic and technical assistance programs, our diplomats in most nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America would have far less influence or leverage than they do. Unfortunately, AID is even more smothered in paper and hobbled by congressional red tape than State, and its proportion of timid bureaucrats, no-sayers, and nitpicking lawyers far higher.

The good work AID does is obscured by its tarnished public image: to most Americans it is the “give-away agency.” The same week in 1965 that we were talking with Kenyan officials about applying PL480 food proceeds to the irrigation of idle land, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat ran a cartoon showing Uncle Sam on bended knee offering a bag of gold labeled “foreign aid” to an arrogant, pothellied dictator. If we are going to save foreign aid from being progressively whittled away by the Congress. I believe drastic reforms are needed in AID.

AS FOR the Department of Defense, I was impressed during my excursion into government by the political maturity of our senior officers in the Pentagon, and depressed by the extravagance and prodigality of our military establishments. The old breed of generals who looked at the world exclusively in military terms — the LeMays and the Twinings and the shoot-firsters — is fading away and being replaced by men who have learned from study, travel, and experience that the problems of this revolutionary world are much too complex to be solved lay superior firepower alone.

What is regrettable is that so many of the Defense Department’s resources and talents are not being employed to full advantage. Even when we are involved in limited military operations in Vietnam, the Pentagon is hard-pressed to find ways of spending its money and keeping its people usefully employed. In a busy embassy (and most embassies are) it can be embarrassing and demoralizing to everybody concerned to have large army, navy, and air attaché sections around with no real work to do and bigger entertainment allowances than the ambassador.

In Kenya, Pentagon-financed studies of esoteric subjects like “Nandi expansion from 1870 to 1905” were under way shortly before I left, but I could not tap the Defense Department’s tremendous engineering potential to help build needed roads. I know U.S. civic-action programs would be welcomed in many countries if the signing of military assistance agreements — with its overtone of “alignment” — were not a prerequisite.

And I am sure that most of our military men would welcome the opportunity to take part in the global war against poverty. The frustrations of our Defense establishment are those one would expect among any group of vigorous executives and technicians sitting around a lavish firehouse, polishing their equipment, and waiting for that three-alarm fire that no one really wants or even expects.

Considering the magnitude and variety of our involvement in world affairs, it is essential that the government at least integrate its own efforts more effectively. Foreign policy can no longer be separated from domestic policy. Commerce, Agriculture, Labor, Treasury, and Interior, too, are all doing things that influence our foreign relations. Today, a rise in the interest rate, a drop in wheat production, or a change in established trade patterns can affect those relations far more than the wording of a diplomatic aide-mémoire. Foreign policy will never again be the exclusive province of State in this smaller, faster, more interdependent world of ours; and we should be reorganizing outgovernmental structure accordingly.

In fairness to State, I must point out that our Foreign Service represents us more ably and keeps our government better and more fully informed than that of any other major power. It does not generate many new ideas — as it did in the preDulles era — but this is a fault of bureaucratic procedures, ingrained routines, and leadership that tolerates mediocrity and overstaffing so long as the wheels seem to keep turning and the paper gets processed. Revitalizing State would be difficult, but it would not be impossible over a period of five years under a reform-minded Secretary with full White House backing and a sympathetic Congress.

The recommendations I have made in the foregoing pages can be summarized as follows:

1. Get rid of deadwood, and trim overstaffed posts and bureaus.

2. Promote FSO’s on merit rather than seniority.

3. Make salary scales comparable with those offered by private industry.

4. Minimize the production and distribution of paper.

5. Personalize (that is, decomputerize) personnel assignments.

6. Dismantle the AID bureaucracy, and put foreign economic assistance under the State Department.

7. Coordinate the activities of all federal agencies concerned with foreign affairs.

The support of Capitol Hill will be essential; that’s where the money comes from. This support depends in turn on greater public understanding of government operations and why reforms are needed, for people elect congressmen. Unfortunately, the American people, whose lives are most directly affected by our foreign policy actions — who are regularly taxed, drafted, and killed because of our worldwide diplomatic and military commitments — often seem as confused and uninformed as ever, in this age of mass communication and instant news, about the world we live in and America’s role in shaping the one our children will inherit.