Kaiser was an active Democrat and 'noncareer officer' in the US Foreign Service under three Democratic presidents: Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. His memoir, which is uncluttered with the trivial detail sometimes found in this genre and written with great verve, will be valued by diplomatic historians of the whole period since the Second World War. (Kaiser had served earlier as Assistant Secretary of Labor for International Affairs in the Truman administration.)
Students of diplomacy will also find it of interest, and for us chapters 6-9 are probably the most important. From 1961 until 1963 Kaiser was US ambassador to Senegal and Mauritania (chapter 6), and from 1964 until 1969 number two at the US embassy in London (chapter 7). With Nixon in the White House, Kaiser was out of the embassy but he remained in London, almost – it seems – as a political exile from Washington. Though earning his living as chairman and managing director of the British branch of Encyclopaedia Brittanica, he was also active in ‘Democrats Abroad’, and he received his reward when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. First, he was sent as ambassador to Hungary (chapter 8), and then in 1980 as ambassador to Austria (chapter 9).
There is evidence on and in some cases discussion of many interesting general points concerning diplomacy in this vigorous memoir. For example, in his chapter on Africa Kaiser indirectly takes a well-aimed swipe at a fashionable canard by reporting Kennedy’s view that in fact the independence of an ambassador varies with postings: ‘There [Africa] … a chief of mission was on his own, in contrast to Bonn, Paris, and London, where the main business was done by telephone from Washington and through regular visits from the secretary of state and other top officials’ (p. 182). Later, however, with a convincing attack on the ‘arrogance’ of the Kissinger/Brzezinski doctrine that modern communications have made ambassadors obsolete (pp. 262-3), he makes abundantly clear his view that while Kennedy’s contrast is a good one it is somewhat overdrawn. And well he might, for it is in part no doubt as a result of this attitude that the Foreign Service, as he points out, is still ‘a stepchild’ of the government and attracts relatively meagre resources. And, with his bitterness thinly concealed, he notes that it receives this treatment despite being ‘the first line of national defense’. Indeed, Kaiser concludes his final main chapter with this striking paragraph: ‘We should not forget’, he writes, ‘that in the past thirty years, a period that included the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf conflict, more ambassadors have been killed than generals and admirals, and more Foreign Service employees have lost their lives than agents of the FBI’.
Among other points of general interest, Kaiser provides more evidence in the chapter on the London embassy on why US diplomats dread visitations by congressional delegations (pp. 247-8). In his account of his time in Hungary he also demonstrates that ambassadors are still sometimes heavily involved in important and sensitive negotiations, in this case notably MFN status and the question of the return to Hungary from the United States of the Crown of St. Stephen. Among other things, Kaiser had the task – which he performed successfully – of asking the Hungarian Communist leader, JÃÂ¡nos KÃÂ¡dÃÂ¡r, if he would mind absenting himself from Budapest on the day of the Crown’s homecoming. (I would like to have seen Brzezinski negotiate that over the telephone.) It is also extremely useful to have a close-up view of the attitudes and style of operation of the great Austrian statesman, Bruno Kreisky, and be reminded of the role that he sought to play in mediating an end to the Iran hostages crisis (pp. 314-16). While noting that Kreisky failed to secure the release of the US diplomats, Kaiser implies that he is entitled to some credit for the fact that none of them was put on trial in Teheran. Finally, Kaiser provides a very balanced analysis of the pros and cons of employing ‘noncareer ambassadors’ in the US Foreign Service, and is particularly outspoken in his condemnation of the rough treatment they invariably receive from incoming presidents of the opposite party. In 1981, Ronald Reagan’s administration ‘behaved more rudely than any predecessor’, giving Kaiser and his noncareer colleagues just two weeks to get out of their embassies. It is perhaps not altogether surprising that there is a sharp and refreshing edge to this particular diplomatic memoir.