Foreign Service Expert J. Robert Moskin Discusses Vietnam and the Challenges of American Diplomacy

By J. Robert Moskin

American Statecraft Jacket

An award-winning historian and journalist, J. ROBERT MOSKIN has written nine books. He served for nineteen years as an editor of Look magazine, spending the last five years as its Foreign Editor and was an editor of Collier’s and The Saturday Review, as well as the editorial director of The Aspen Institute and The Commonwealth Fund. His latest book is American Statecraft.

History Reader: American Statecraft: The Story of the U.S. Foreign Service is incredibly thorough, covering the entire history of the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as the history of the country. What do you hope people will gain from reading this book?

J. Robert Moskin: We Americans celebrate and raise statues for our warriors but we don’t even usually know who our diplomats are. And diplomats are the ones who prevent wars and solve problems without violence. That paradox is the central lesson of this book: There are other paths to solving international problems besides death and destruction. And often, not always, they work.

HR: You spent fifteen years researching the book, delving into the history in incredible detail. Are there any events during the long history of the Foreign Service that really stand out as something interesting that people may not know about?

JRM: Two things stand out: First is that without our diplomats it is unlikely that the North would have kept the United States united at the time of our Civil War; strong forces in Europe would have preferred to see a separate U.S. Confederacy and two nations across the Atlantic. Secondly, the expansion from the original thirteen states westward over land ruled by Britain and by Spain was achieved through diplomacy (except for the Mexican War). Without our diplomats, the vast land that makes up the U.S. could have been chopped into several entities.

HR: The world has obviously changed quite a bit in the more than two centuries since America was founded. How has the role of diplomacy changed from the early days of the Republic to today?

JRM: In so many ways: In the beginning our diplomats were untrained “militiamen”; today they are for the most part highly professional careerists. Diplomacy used to be government talking to government; today, our diplomats also talk directly to the people abroad. The whole element of time has been revolutionized; it used to take months to get a message across the Atlantic and back; today it is almost instantaneous. In the early days, our diplomats who died abroad were killed by disease; more recently, they have been killed by terrorists. Those are some of the key changes.

HR: Over the course of U.S. History, there have been many notable diplomatic events and crises: multiple wars in the early days of the country, the Civil War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and recently, the attack in Benghazi to name a few. Which event or crisis do you think has had the most impact on the direction of the Foreign Service and how America conducts diplomacy?

JRM: Events and crises modify diplomacy but rarely change its direction. More often, only broader events have that much impact. The effects of World War I and II, for example, had enormous impact on our Foreign Service and our national place in the world. Before them, we were a much more isolated and secondary nation in the world. Afterwards, we were a world power.

HR: As an editor for Look magazine, your own career is very interesting. In fact, you have some firsthand experience with U.S. diplomacy abroad and even sat down with North Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. What was it like to go behind enemy lines and speak with those leaders?

JRM: I made three trips to the Vietnam War as a journalist. The first two were entirely to the South, where the war was being fought. I went to Hanoi on the third trip. It took a year of intensive work to make it possible to go to Hanoi and then we had to fly via Moscow. Once there, I found the enemy leaders controlling but helpful. What surprised me the most was that in Saigon we could hear and see the war; but (except when we were bombing) the war was nowhere near Hanoi. The cocks crowing woke us in the morning.

Posted in Contemporary History

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