webGuinée/Etat/Diplomatie/John H. Morrow/First American Ambassador to Guinea/The Call
John H. Morrow
First American Ambassador to Guinea.
New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. 1968. 291 p.
In the fall of 1958 my wife and I were living in Durham, North Carolina, where I was chairman of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages at North Carolina College. One morning in October we received a letter from a friend with whom I had taught in New Jersey thirteen years before. She was now retired and still living there. She wrote a pleasant letter, bringing us up to date and eventually asking, “Are you looking around for a new job?” I wasn’t, and we were puzzled how such a rumor could have started, though they are by no means rare in academic circles.
This was only the first of a series of letter from friends who had been colleagues in New Jersey, Alabama, and Georgia. They had moved along to teaching positions in places as widely scattered as Wisconsin, New York, and California, but they all asked much the same question. We became even more curious about how such a story could have sprung up all across the country within a couple of months, and we wrote back asking what had given them the idea. The replies came that an investigator, apparently from some private organization, had called on them and asked all sorts of questions about my wife and me. What kind of people were we? What kind of parents? How did we stand in the community? Why had I left my previous position? But since no questions had been asked concerning our loyalty, our friends concluded that the investigator was a private one and not an FBI agent, and they assumed that the prospective position had nothing to do with the Government.
We were at a loss to explain to our friends what was happening. I had been investigated by the FBI in 1957, but that had concerned top-secret clearance in connection with my serving as a member of the Advisory Committee of the President’s Committee on Government Security. I soon forgot about the queries as I turned my attention to the preparation of a paper on Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism scheduled for presentation at a meeting of language teachers in April 1959.
To be free to spend evenings at the library of Duke University, across town in Durham, I began eating dinner between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m. On April 1, I arrived home as usual at 4:00 and was greeted at the door by my wife, who said that a person-to-person call had come for me from Washington just ten minutes before. “Just as I was telling the operator you were not home yet but were expected by 4:30, I heard a woman’s voice on the other end of the line say that the White House would put through another call at 5:30.”
“This sounds to me like an April Fool joke and I don’t intend to be caught by it,” I said. “You and I both know that Fred [my brother, who was special aide to President Eisenhower] has never called us from the White House during the whole time he has been in Washington. When the phone rings next time, just ignore it.”
“I think it would be wiser to answer it,” my wife said, “because it might actually be an authentic call.”
“Do whatever you think best.”
At that moment my son came in to ask if I would help him warm up his pitching arm and bat a few flies and grounders. He reminded me about his Saturday ball game. I promised him faithfully to spend the following afternoon with him and his teammates.
After dinner I was on my way to get my briefcase when the phone began ringing ; my wife hastened to pick up the receiver, then turned and beckoned to me. The operator asked my name and said that Mr. E. Frederic Morrow at the White House wished to speak to me. I heard a deep voice say “Hello.” It certainly sounded like my brother.
“John,” he continued, “I am somewhat pressed for time, but I wanted to let you know that the State Department would like you to come to Washington for an interview as soon as possible.”
“The State Department?” I asked. “You know I don’t know anybody in that outfit, and besides, don’t you government employees have anything better to do than waste taxpayers’ money on April Fool jokes?”
There was silence for a moment, and when my brother continued speaking, his tone made it clear that he didn’t fully appreciate my reference to jokes and taxpayers’ money.
“Just a moment, John. I give you my word that this call is on the level. It’s about some kind of assignment in Africa. Will you come up tomorrow?”
“I can’t get up there tomorrow. Furthermore, I can’t go charging off on some African safari right in the middle of the semester.”
“At least,” he continued, “you ought to come up to find out what the State Department has in mind for you.”
“Tell them,” I replied, “that I cannot come to Washington until the day after tomorrow.”
“I’ll expect you. Stop by my office and I’ll see to it that you get over to State,” he promised. “By the way, please tell Rowena it’s a pity she has such a hardheaded husband. Tell John, Jr., to keep that pitching arm in shape and I’ll catch a few this summer.”
I reported my brother’s closing remarks to my wife and son, and we started wondering about the kind of cultural program the State Department might try to develop in Africa. My son said he thought the United States Information Agency had more to do with U. S. cultural affairs abroad than the State Department. I said that this could be so, but it was true also that the Department had a Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
I set out for Washington the following evening by Pullman from Raleigh, but only after having spent a rigorous two hours batting ground balls and flies and giving some last-minute coaching to my son and his teammates. I wished them well in their upcoming league game, which, incidentally, they managed to win, 5-4.
I arrived at the Executive Office Building, now called the White House Annex, a half-hour before my 9:30 appointment at the Sate Department. When the White House guard at the gate saw me getting out of the taxi he spoke up before I could ask how to reach my brother’s office. “You have to be Mr. Morrow’s brother. I might even have mistaken you for him, but I already waved him through here at 8:30.” I waited at the gate until one of the staff secretaries came down to lead me through the security maze.
My brother introduced me to several of his colleagues, each of whom remarked about our close family resemblance. During the few moments of discussion with Fred, I discovered that he could throw no additional light on the reason for the interview. He asked me not to forget to call him after my conversation with Loy Henderson, Deputy Undersecretary of State for Administration, and then walked with me to the outside gate and a waiting taxi.
The closer I got to the State Department the more I questioned the wisdom of coming to Washington without knowing the purpose of the visit. I recalled the stories I had heard about the Ivy League atmosphere within the Department and the stuffiness and even snobbishness supposedly prevalent among career diplomats. I had occasionally seen Loy Henderson’s name in the newspapers and knew that he was one of the better-known career ambassadors who had served with distinction abroad as well as within the Department. He had been sent out frequently in the past as a trouble shooter, but I thought he had retired from the Foreign Service. Apparently he had stayed on or had been recalled to serve in this new capacity.
Upon reaching the Department, I went to the office of Joseph Satterthwaite, the new Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Satterthwaite, a tall, friendly, scholarly-looking career diplomat, took me immediately to Mr. Henderson’s office.
Mr. Henderson stepped from behind his desk as we entered and, after shaking hands, motioned us toward the leather-covered furniture on the opposite side of the office. I noticed that his hair and moustache were graying, but his step was still athletic.
He had a kind face and a genuinely pleasing smile. His sartorial effect was impressive and his manner businesslike. He asked me about the campus at North Carolina College, about my work and the trip from Durham and Raleigh. With these amenities out of the way, Mr. Henderson broached the reason for the interview.
“Mr. Morrow,” he said, “we have asked you to come to the Department because it has been decided, after very careful consideration, that you are the person we would like to send as our Ambassador to the Republic of Guinea.”
Mr. Henderson made this startling statement in the quiet, reassuring tone of a surgeon talking to a patient about to undergo a delicate, serious, emergency operation. He was studying me from head to foot and removed his glasses as he awaited my reply.
Recovering from the shock and implication of his remarks, I replied: “Let me assure you, Mr. Henderson, that I am definiltely not ambassadorial material. In fact, by training and by preference, I am a college professor, and I hope to be one for quite a few years to come.”
Messrs. Henderson and Satterthwaite smiled broadly at this response, and Mr. Henderson continued: “We know more about you than you do about yourself, Mr. Morrow.
We have read everything you have ever written and we know about your life and career. It’s true that there are a number of candidates who are anxious for this assignment. In your case, you have not sought this post; instead, we have sought you. Among other things, we have been impressed by your knowledge of African affairs and French politics, your friendly relations with many Africans, your academic record, and your fluency in French.”
Mr. Henderson made several other observations and concluded the interview by remarking that Secretary Satterthwaite and his deputy, James Penfield, would want to talk with me at greater length.
While Mr. Henderson was talking, the answers to some puzzling questions flashed across my mind. Here at last was an explanation for those queries received from our friends last fall. Did this mean, however, that a private concern had been asked to check on me before I was seriously considered for an assignment about which I knew nothing? How else could this official say that more was known about me than I knew about myself? I could have understood it if this had been a loyalty or security check following my nomination to a post. Who had decided as early as the fall of 1958 that I was to be investigated as a possible candidate for the post in Guinea? Was it possible that I had also been under the surveillance of the French authorities during the summer of 1958 because of my conversations with Africans and Algerians and because of the questions asked of French officials at the Overseas Ministry and at the Quai d’Orsay? I did not feel exactly flattered if I had been given such attention; but, I thought grudgingly, these people at State are more thorough bout some things than they are reputed to be.
Mr. Henderson stood up, and I realized that the interview was over. As I shook his hand, I thought of some questions concerning procedures for picking prospective ambassadorial nominees. I had often heard it said that they were usually wealthy individuals who had made sizable contributions to the party campaign funds and expected to be rewarded by some suitable ambassadorship. This alleged practice certainly did not apply to me, a poorly paid college professor.
I had a long talk with Secretaries Satterthwaite and Penfield about the problems confronting the United States in Africa and especially in Guinea. After lunching with Penfield at a hotel some distance from the Department, I went to brief my brother on the events of the morning. He was pleased at hearing that I was being considered for an ambassadorship and told me sincerely that he felt that I was the man for this difficult assignment. The Washington grapevine, he observed jokingly, would search in vain for any evidence of nepotism, since he had known nothing about this move. He supposed that my abiding interest in French-African affairs, evidenced for more than a decade, and my presence in France in the summer of 1958 might have played a big role in connecting my name with the Guinean post.
He was surprised by my seeming lack of enthusiasm, and I admitted that I was tired, somewhat numb from surprise, and feeling rather skeptical. I told him I was probably going to wake up in Durham only to discover that the whole thing was one bad dream.
It was not until I was on the train returning to Durham that it dawned upon me that at no time during my conversations with the three officials had I said outright that I would like to go to Guinea. On the other hand, I had not said that I would not go if appointed, nor had I requested the officials to remove my name from consideration.
From the day I left Washington early in April until almost the end of May, I never heard another word from Washington. Had I been foolish enough to talk about my trip to Washington and the nature of the interview, I would have had no proof of having been approached concerning an ambassadorship.
Finally, late in the afternoon of May 28, my brother called to say that he had just been informed by the White House Press Secretary, James C. Hagerty, that the White House was about to release the information on my nomination by President Eisenhower to the post in Guinea. The release would indicate that the President had sent my name to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. My brother promised to let me know as soon as he could get word on the date of my appearance before the Committee. This telephone call concerning a news release brought me the realization that the April experience in Washington had been no illusory episode, but the prelude to a confrontation with contemporary reality.
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