Table of Contents Table of Contents
Previous Page  16 / 112 Next Page
Basic version Information
Show Menu
Previous Page 16 / 112 Next Page
Page Background


JUNE 2016



Dissent: No Easy Answers


t would be hard to find a Foreign Service officer who

has not at some time disagreed with his superiors on

policy—its direction or the manner of its execution. Usu-

ally, if the decision goes against him, he shrugs his shoul-

ders and does as he is told, solacing himself, perhaps,

with some muttered comments on the obtuseness of the

master minds back in Washington—or, if he happens to be

in Washington, of those upstairs.

But there are occasions when an officer finds that he

cannot shrug it off. He is still not persuaded that higher

authority is right and he is wrong. What then is he to do?

One of the options is ignoring instructions and doing

what you think is right. Unfortunately, this option is one

few career officers will wish to exercise, or would be able

to get away with for any length of time. Occasionally,

though, when dissent involves tactics rather than strategy,

one can get away with something that the high command

might not have approved had it been consulted, but is con-

strained to accept as a fait accompli.

There is a certain amount of stretch in even the most

tightly-written instruction, and it cannot provide for every

possible contingency. Modern communications and the

peripatetic habits of the top brass have tended to reduce

the ‘plenipotentiary” in an ambassador’s title to a rueful

irony. But there are still times when he can and must act

without awaiting wisdom from on high. Events are moving

too rapidly to permit his seeking instructions. He may be

secretly grateful; he is not altogether confident that Wash-

ington’s appraisal of the situation, from three to 10,000

miles away, is more accurate than his own close-up view.

He can, of course, resign. There are distinguished

precedents: William Jennings Bryan; Anthony Eden at the

time of Munich; more recently—and more apposite to our

discussion—George F. Kennan. For obvious reasons it has

been exercised more often by non-career officials than by

career men. …The career officer, on the other hand, has a

deeper commitment and a greater stake. By mid-career

he has invested 10 to 20 years in the Foreign Service. …If

he resigns, how is he going to support his family and put

the children through college? Thus practical consider-

ations reinforce his reluctance to leave the Service that he

entered with so much

zeal and idealism.

Moreover, a couple of

decades have taught

him that policy

directives, country

papers, even NSC

documents, are not

carved in obsid-

ian, unchangeable

as the laws of the

Medes and the Per-

sians. Is he not in a

better position to

work for a change

in policy if he

remains within the organization than if he leaves it

and takes his case to the people?

Provided this is not mere rationalization of timidity, the

decision to stay on, even while dissenting, can be a per-

fectly honorable one. But it carries with it the obligation to

go on fighting, to reiterate one’s dissent at every opportu-

nity, as stoutly and persuasively as one can.

It is asking much of a career officer to accept such

risks. The temptation is strong to temporize, to equivo-

cate, to conform. Critics of our Foreign Service have

charged that for at least a decade our political report-

ing was diluted and emasculated by the memory of the

McCarthy terror.

The temptation is strong, but it should be resisted. And

there is a corollary obligation upon the high command to

tolerate rather than to penalize dissent.

There are no easy answers. There is rarely an easy

answer to any question really worth asking. It is the obliga-

tion of every officer to contribute what he can to finding

the right answer, or at any rate the best answer in the

circumstances, even if it means taking an unpopular posi-

tion. Beyond that, what he does rests with the ultimate



—Excerpted from “The Dilemma of Dissent” by

Ted Olson,


, June 1966.

50 Years Ago