The Foreign Service Journal - September 2017
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In reaction, the Foreign Service took on a culture of timidity and

self-censorship that recoiled fromdissent and sought not to give

offense or attract attention. The culture put at risk each step in the

sequence of honesty on which sound policy formation depends:

candor in reporting, analysis untainted by predetermined out-

comes and confidential

debate of policy options.

An April 1961 FSJ editorial, "Daring and

Dissent," described what

proved to be a recurring

dilemma. The FSO, the

writer warned, “finds

that a calling which has

claimed his abiding loyalty

… is being assailed and

degraded by irresponsible

demagogues. He discovers

that what he may report

[may] be distorted and publicly held against him. He learns

that his associations can be suspect.” Each officer faced a

choice: restrict his reporting to “what will harmonize with the

temper of the times,” report honestly and place “his career and

his reputation” at risk, or simply resign.

Officers for the most part followed the safest path. Hannah

Gurman, author of a study on dissent in the Department of

State (

The Dissent Papers

, Columbia University Press, 2012),

wrote of this period: “Fear … took hold of many Foreign Service

officers,” who adopted “a strategy of hibernation.”

Professional Dilemmas of the Vietnam Years

In Vietnam the sequence of honesty at the heart of the poli-

cymaking process broke down at its starting point, leading to

erosion of discipline and rising levels of dissent. “Many FSOs,”

wrote retired ambassador Kenneth Quinn in the September 2014 FSJ , “had considerable difficulty getting their report-

ing telegrams approved and sent if they dared to express any

doubts about U.S. policy.”

The problem ran deeper than policy: it went to basic infor-

mation. Many officers recalled experiences like that of Lars

Hydle, a young FSO at the Saigon embassy in 1967. In his 1994 ADST oral history project interview, Hydle said that the politi-

cal section “was basically trying to make the South Vietnamese

government look as good as possible. … Reports were continu-

ally massaged and changed around to make them seem less

bad than they were.” Negative reports, his superiors warned

him, had to be suppressed, lest they be leaked to the press “and

used against the policy.”

Of course this attitude exacerbated the problem it meant

to solve. Journalist David Halberstam said in his 1950 best-


The Best and the Brightest

, that the inability to get candid

reporting to policy levels

through official chan-

nels encouraged leaks to

reporters like him, who

could get the news out

through the media.

As Ambassador Chas

Freeman wrote in


of Power: Statecraft and


(USIP, 1997):

“Governments that con-

done candor will get it.

Those that don’t, won’t.”

The U.S. government did

not condone candor in reports from Vietnam—not from the

Foreign Service and not from the military, whose officers faced

pressure to produce data that showed progress in the conduct

of the war. By denying itself honest reporting, the administra-

tion confirmed its preconceptions and magnified its mistakes.

For many Foreign Service officers, the clash between hon-

est reporting and Service discipline created a professional, if

not a moral, dilemma that could not be satisfactorily resolved.

According to retired FSO David Jones, writing for the April 2000 Journal , “in 1968 alone 266 Foreign Service officers, 80 percent

of them junior officers, resigned.”

The frustration and anger that many junior Foreign Service

officers felt about Vietnamwere very much a part of “the temper

of the times.” In April 1970, some 250 State Department employ-

ees, including 50 Foreign Service officers, sent Secretary of State

William P. Rogers a statement opposing the just-launched U.S.

bombing campaign in Cambodia. President Richard Nixon’s

impulse was to “fire the sons of bitches,” but the department

resisted, the impulse passed and the signers kept their jobs.

The Dissent Channel Is Born

The Cambodia statement led the department to establish

a “dissent channel,” to give its employees (including those at

USAID) a way to communicate dissenting views on substantive

policy, in confidence and without fear of retaliation, to senior

officials who were required to respond. The Dissent Channel was

meant to keep dissent out of the press; but its use, then as now,

The U.S. government did not

condone candor in reports

fromVietnam. By denying

itself honest reporting, the

administration confirmed its

preconceptions andmagnified

its mistakes.