Beginning Of a Mission

webGuinée/Etat/Diplomatie/John H. Morrow/First American Ambassador to Guinea/Beginning Of a Mission

Diplomatie. Guinée — Etats-Unis d’Amérique

John H. Morrow
First American Ambassador to Guinea.

New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. 1968. 291 p.

Beginning Of a Mission

I looked out the window of the boat train from Le Havre as it entered the Gare St. Lazare in Paris on July 21, and to my surprise saw waiting on the platform two American Embassy officers, William Witman II and David Korn, and my youngest brother, U.S. Army Sergeant William Morrow, who was stationed in Frankfurt, West Germany. Witman and Korn had remembered our friendly relations during the summer of 1958 and asked for the assignment of meeting us and arranging for our onward passage as soon as they had learned that we were traveling to Guinea by way of Paris. My brother had heard over the Frankfurt radio that we were passing through Paris, and he had come in the hope of seeing us.
A series of briefings had been arranged by the American Embassy in Paris for the afternoon of July 21 and the morning of July 22. Our departure from Orly Airfield was scheduled for the evening of July 22 on an Air France plane going to Dakar, Senegal. My wife, daughter and son, and my brother were taken on a tour of Paris while I was engaged in the briefings.
Ambassador Amory Houghton and his wife had originally planned a luncheon in our honor for July 22, to which they intended to invite members of the French Foreign Office involved in African affairs. This idea was vetoed by the Department of State because the delicate situation between France and Guinea made it inadvisable for me to have any contact with French officials while I was en route to Guinea. Ambassador Houghton had to modify the plan for the lunch to include only Embassy officers, their wives, and the rector of the American Episcopal Church in Paris and his wife. The Department of State veto of the original plan made it impossible for me to reach any of my African or French friends, either within or outside official circles. Later events proved that these precautionary measures had been taken in vain, for Guinean Ambassador to the United States Telli Diallo later charged me with consulting with the French before presenting my letters of credence to the President of Guinea.
The Embassy had arranged for us to stay at the nearby Hôtel Crillon in the ambassadorial suite. Our brief sojourn in these expensive surroundings provided me with painful but instructive experience. My travel orders provided only for the passage of my family from New York to Conakry, Guinea. I was the only member of the family who could legally stop off in Paris for consultation with the Embassy officers. This meant that I had to pay for the three rooms in the ambassadorial suite occupied by my daughter, my son, and my brother, and I had also to pay the additional charge for double occupancy of the room my wife and I shared. This edifying bookkeeping operation helped me to understand why people who work for our Government are so well versed in all kinds of curious governmental regulations.
My wife and I had decided not to attempt to arrange for separate flights to Dakar. Therefore we took off from Orly Field as a family group on the evening of July 22, and thirteen hours later, at 4:30 in the morning, the Air France plane put us down at the airfield in Dakar. Because of Air France protocol, I was the first passenger to leave the plane. lt was a relief to get outside; the ventilating system had stopped when the engines were turned off. A slight breeze drifting across the airfield made the outside temperature more bearable.
Despite the earliness of the hour, our plane was met by the American Consul General in Dakar, Donald Dumont, and several African journalists, one of whom was carrying a portable tape recorder. When Mr. Dumont stepped up to introduce himself, I told him that only a dedicated Foreign Service officer would get up at that ungodly hour. He grinned deprecatingly, but his presence made the hour wait for the plane to Guinea pass quickly and pleasantly.
Meanwhile, the reporter with the tape recorder was requesting an interview for broadcast over Radio Dakar. This was the first of many such interviews conducted in French which I would be called upon to make while in Africa. I expressed my pleasure at the opportunity for greeting the people of Africa and said that I was looking forward to the cstablishment of firm rapport and understanding between the United States and the Republic of Guinea. I was also happy to have had the privilege of meeting Léopold Sédar Senghor, one of the outstanding citizens of Senegal.
An hour later we were aboard a second Air France plane en route to Conakry. I began to wonder about the kind of reception we would receive in Guinea—not just the official greeting at the airport but the reception by the Government and the people of Guinea. There was no question that the nature of the relationship between the Republic of Guinea and the United States at that particular moment in history left much to be desired. Even though Guinea had achieved its independence in accordance with procedures set up by the French Government prior to the September 28, 1958, Constitutional Referendum, our Government had not seen fit to recognize the Government of Guinea until November of that year.
The United Kingdom had been the first Western power to recognize Guinea (October 1958), and its lead was followed closely by the Federal Republic of Germany. Guinean officials, very sensitive about the slowness on the part of Western powers to recognize the legitimacy of their Government, had let it be known that they felt that the Western powers had held back out of deference to France, their NATO ally.
Our country waited until February 1959 before it sent any diplomatic representative to Guinea and then only a chargé d’affaires, who had had several tours of duty in China, and a young staff member who recently had entered the Foreign Service.
I was only too conscious that the Government of Guinea had had their Ambassador to the United States accredited in April 1959 and that I was reaching Guinea on July 23.
I reviewed some of the events resulting from the Guinean No vote, sponsored by the powerful Guinean labor leader Sékou Touré. In prompt retaliation for this “bold and fateful” action which had kept Guinea from becoming a part of the new French Community, General de Gaulle had ordered the immediate withdrawal of all French technicians, teachers, and government functionaries. The French withdrawal had been accompanied by ever-mounting rumors of the removal from Guinea of small arms for the Security Force, judicial documents and files, furniture, office supplies, medical supplies, and the uniforms of the police force. Supplies that could not be put aboard ships were burned. Whatever the details of this withdrawal, the mere fact of occurrence had deeply wounded the newly born Guinean national pride. Nothing had happened in the ensuing months to bridge the gap between France and Guinea.
While the United Kingdom, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, and the United States delayed recognition of the Republic of Guinea and hesitated to offer economic and technical assistance, the Eastern European Communist bloc nations moved swiftly to capitalize on a situation that offered excellent possibilities for establishing a strategic bridgehead in West Africa. Russia recognized the Government of Guinea on October 5, 1958, and other Communist nations lost no time in following suit. Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Russia hastened to open embassies in Conakry. East Germans moved in to establish a trade mission. These nations offered Guinea barter trade agreements that involved the exchange of consumer goods, machinery, and trucks for Guinean agricultural products. Czechoslovakia had been extremely helpful in supplying —supposedly unsolicited—a gift of small arms, light artillery, and armored cars.
The arrival of the arms in Guinea during April 1959, accompanied by a group of Czechoslovakian “technicians” headed by a high-ranking army officer, had aroused great concern in the West and had awakened rumors that the Republic of Guinea was fast becoming a Communist satellite. At this point President Sékou Touré of Guinea revealed that he had sent a request for small arms for security purposes through the Government of Liberia to the United States Government, but had never received a reply to his request. (President Touré reiterated this statement during his October 1959 visit to the United States. No formal denial of the Touré claim was made by United States officials.)
Thoughts of these and many other facts and events coursed through my mind during the hour and forty-five minutes of the flight from Dakar to Conakry. It had been raining, but as the plane came in over the ocean and arched downward through the clouds preparatory to landing at the airfield on the outskirts of Conakry, the rain stopped. The sun broke through and the sky took on that deep blue tint seen in tropical regions. The plane circled over the main section of the city, and from this vantage point we had our first glimpse of the beautiful, tropical capital of Guinea, surrounded almost completely by the Atlantic Ocean, fringed with palm trees and dotted with varicolored buildings, the most prominent being the high-rise Paternelle office building, the Hôtel de France, and the Présidence (equivalent to our While House in color and purpose).
From the windows of the plane it was possible to see a crowd gathered on the balcony and in front of the airport entrance. Assembled on the tarmac were a band, a detachment of troops, and a color guard with the flags of the United States and Guinea. The plane taxied over to the tarmac, where the landing platform was rolled into position. Waiting on the ground was a welcoming party led by the Guinean Chief of Protocol, the Guinean Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the chargé d’affaires of the American Embassy, the chargé d’affaires of the British Embassy, and three American Foreign Service officers attached to our Conakry staff. The band, trained by a French musician who had chosen to remain in Guinea, played our national anthem and the Guinean national anthem, while we stood at attention in the hot morning sun. As the notes of the “Star-Spangled Banner” wafted across that airfield in faraway Africa, I felt the same tight feeling in my throat and the tingling sensation up my spine which I experienced eighteen months later upon hearing our anthem and seeing the flag aboard a visiting American destroyer.
The French-speaking Chief of Protocol and Secretary of State informed me that they would accompany me as I reviewed the troops. We walked up and down the two rows of troops and received a smart salute from the officer in charge. I returned the salute and stepped forward to shake the hand of the officer in charge of the detachment and of the band leader. I thanked them both and complimented them upon the appearance of the troops and for the music of the band.
Later on I discovered that this simple gesture, quite unmilitary in nature, won for me friends among the Guinean Army.
At the conclusion of the ceremonies on the tarmac, we were escorted by the airport police to the upstairs waiting room of the aiport, set aside for visiting officials. There we met other members of the Guinean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Cold soft drinks were served, and I found them quite preferable, even at 7:45 in the morning, to hot coffee, for the temperature and the humidity were making themselves felt. We descended to waiting automobiles, and a motorcycle police escort lined up outside. The escort consisted of ten police officers dressed smartly in white uniforms and mounted on Czechoslovakian motorcycles. The first car, an old, open Cadillac, had been lent by the Guinean Government for the occasion and was decorated with an American and a Guinean flag. All the cars in the procession belonged to members of the Guinean Government, with the exception of an old Ford sedan lent to our Embassy in Conakry by the American Embassy in Dakar. That old Ford with all its frailties and deficiencies was to be my official car for a long time to come—a spectacle somewhat inconsistent with our American representation elsewhere in the world. (My own new Buick arrived a long time before the official car, a new Mercury, came on the scene, and helped the representation of the American cause. The only other vehicle at the disposal of the Embassy was a green jeep.) As for the old Cadillac in which the Guinean Secretary of State, Fodé Cissé, and I rode into Conakry, it was the same car in which President Touré and Premier Nkrumah had traveled about Guinea during their historic meeting of May 1959.
I had been very much surprised and favorably impresscd by our reception at the airport, but I was not prepared for what took place during the eight-mile ride in an open car from the airport to the Hôtel de France in Conakry. We had barely moved onto the highway and started in the direction of Conakry when the Guineans lining the road began to cheer, wave their hands, and shout “Amérique, merci!” I decided that this was an allusion to the arrival of our first shipment of rice and flour. At intervals spectators, attracted possibly by the police sirens, rushed to the roadside to wave and shout words of welcome.
The procession entered the main streets of Conakry, thronged with shoppers, onlookers, shopkeepers, workers, and children, and the people began to applaud and to sing. Above the noise could be heard the greeting « Ambassadeur des Etats-Unis, soyez le bienvenu!” Truly, I felt a warm glow that morning and an empathy I never completely lost despite the crises that came later. I had not expected such a warm greeting, especially in the light of existing U.S.-Guinea relations. Secretary of State Fodé Cissé revealed that broadcasts in French, Soussou, and Malinké had merely announced that the U.S. Ambassador was scheduled to arrive that day, July 23, 1959. The people had not been organized for any formal welcome. The crowds that gathered when President Touré returned from Saniquelli, Liberia Uuly 1959), and Patrice Lumumba visited Guinea (August 1960), made me aware of the vast difference between a formal welcome and an informal one.
The kind of welcome we received in Guinea was carefully noted and reported by diplomats of the West and of the East, for everything that was done by the United States and by any one of its representatives was observed closely with the view of daccting possible implications for future U.S.-Guinean relations. The outside world was informed of what had happened during our arrival through a release that was filed possibly by a representative of the French press who was still covering Guinea. I was more interested, however, in an editorial appearing in the August 14 edition of the Washington Post, especially since it was this newspaper which had sharply challenged my appointment because of my color and my lack of experience in diplomacy and in dealing with Communists. The Washington Post observed:

Not long ago we had occasion to comment upon the selection of Dr. John Howard Morrow, a distinguished Negro educator, as American Ambassador to the new Republic of Guinea. We observed that there was an element of condescension in the appointment of a Negro to a Negro country, and expressed the wish that a professional diplomat had been sent to this sensitive post. So far as the reception of Dr. Morrow was concerned, our misgivings appear to have been misplaced. His background of international experience will help him to represent the United States adequately in a newly independent nation subject to many pulls.
Nevertheless, the principle of assignment by merit rather than by race still needs attention. For this reason we are happy Owl, a white diplomat Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Elbert S. Mathews, has been confirmed as the new Ambassador to Liberia. For years the post in Monrovia has been regarded as a segregated sinecure for Negro politicians chosen not for their ability but for their color. …
Lei us hope that the appointment of Mr. Mathews points to the evolution of a genuinely color-blind policy meaning, not merely incorporation of more qualified Negroes into the Foreign Service, but also assignment on the basis of qualifications regardless of race.

It struck me as ironic that a mere outward manifestation at an airport ceremony or a cheering populace-would cause a newspaper like the Washington Post to reassess my chance for success in Guinea, a crisis post. Surely the basic situation had not changed in the least, for I had yet to confront the problems of this African assignment. Reading the editorial, I hoped that at the close of my tour of duty some criteria less fugitive than this might be used to assess the success or the failure of any mission, mine included. Yet I did sense, on my first day in Guinea and afterward, that the people of Guinea saw in me the symbol of all that the United States-even with its problems of racial discrimination and segregationmeant to freedom-loving people everywhere: Liberty, justice, Equality, Self-Determination, Help for the Mistreated and the Downtrodden. This, I had to tell myself, is what that American flag meant flying on the old Cadillac; this is what the representative of the United States—Negro or white—meant to the people of Guinea. Perhaps this was what the Washington Post meant when it printed its second assessment. Three rooms had been reserved for us at the Hôtel de France, which looked out on the ocean. Except for its louver boards—a concession to life a few degrees above the equator—the Hôtel de France appeared to be a grand Parisian hotel transferred to a tropical city. The hotel was still under French management, and the prices matched those of any large hotel on the Right Bank in Paris. The food and service would later begin to reflect the difficulties brought on by the severance of economic ties between France and Guinea.
The chancery had inadequate facilities, but I accepted them because of the difficulty of securing adequate office space in Conakry. The question about the chancery in Conakry was later raised in an article in the New Leader (June 27, 1960), entitled « In Guinea We Have Faith. » It was written by Dr. Norman Palmer, chairman of the International Relations Program at the University of Pennsylvania, after a twenty-five nation tour of Asia and Africa. Dr. Palmer reported:

The American Embassy was located on the second floor of an eight-story building. When I asked why no American flag was displayed—I was acutely conscious of the hammer and sickle so prominent a few blocks away—I was given lame excuses: a proper supporting base for the flag had not been found; the Embassy was in temporary quarters; the only flag available had 48 stars, etc. No United States Information Service office had been opened, though I was told that an acting USIS officer had been assigned to Guinea. The International Cooperation Administration had done almost nothing except to send several people to make surveys. By the end of 1959 no further evidence of ICA interest had been manifest.

Toward the end of an inspection tour of Embassy property I was still in a hopeful mood, however, as we drove from Conakry to a suburb called Donka to visit the official residence for the first time.
After a drive of some twenty-five or thirty minutes the driver swerved suddenly off the main road and drove along a winding, narrow road, lined by trees and thickets that gave one of the impression literally of entering the brush. After a few moments, I saw in the distance a structure built of cement, similar in appearance to a California ranch house. It had been white originally, but the rainy season had deprived it of any luster it may once have had. The grounds surrounding the villa —as it was called—were overgrown with weeds and thickets that seemed an excellent breeding ground for snakes. (Subsequent clearing of the grounds proved that the guess about the presence of snakes—large ones—had been only too correct.) A wizened Guinean with a machete in one hand opened the gate, and the car proceeded up the drive, as yet unpaved, to the entrance.
When I learned that the Guinean who had opened the gate was the gardener as well as the guardian, I wondered how he spent his time; for the only things growing were the weeds, vines, and thickets that cluttered the place. I wondered too what the American Embassy staff had been doing. For almost six months they had known that an ambassador was coming to Guinea. For more than two months the identity of the American chosen had been known, and his expected date of arrival certainly had not been a secret.
The residence was not ready for us, we were told, because there was a dearth of capable carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and painters in and around Conakry after the hasty departure of most of the French. But I succeeded in getting the Administrative staff of the Embassy to locate the necessary workmen within a ten-day period, which led me to believe that the same thing could have been done before my arrival. The excuses of the officer who had been in charge of getting the residence ready were not impressive; I had already seen the houses and grounds occupied by him and by the chargé d’affaires. They were in excellent condition—not to mention the outdoor swimming pool with fresh water that went with one of the houses.
My first look inside the villa was no more reassuring than iiiy viciv of the grounds. The plaster was already showing the paint in some places on the walls and the ceilings, even though this villa, constructed only a few months ago, had never been occupied. The floors of the dining room and the living room or salon were done in an attractive charcoal-gray tile with a white streak, ideally suited for heavy traffic in a country having six months of rain and six of dryness. The salon, like the dining room, received ventilation through louver boards, and its size could be increased by opening folding doors that led out to a good-sized veranda, also covered with tile. The room designated on the floor plans back in Washington as the “master bedroom” turned out to be an ordinary-sized bedroom with an adjoining shower. At the end of the hall were two small bedrooms separated by a bathroom. Midway down the hall there was a very small W.C., opposite which were large clothes closets that could be entered through sliding wall panels. just off the entrance leading into the salon was a small room equipped with a commode and wash basin.
To reach the salon, when entering the villa through the doorway that looked out upon a circular driveway, it was necessary to walk down two steps. To enter the dining room from the salon it was necessary to walk tip two steps.
On seeing the small kitchen that was set off from the salon, I found it difficult to visualize how we would handle the dinners and receptions we would have to give. That this kitchen did serve these very purposes once we moved in is a tribute to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of my devoted and ti I eless wife.
There were no rooms in the residence for visiting dignitaries, which meant that these guests would have to stay at the Hôtel de France in Conakry. It was not always easy to obtain hotel reservations because many of the rooms wei-e reserved for diplomatic representatives from the various enibassies. The plans for enlarging the official residence, discussed often duringmystayin Guinea, were never acted upon.
Not all the furniture earmarked for the residence had arrived. Other pieces, designated originally to be kept in the warehouse until our arrival, had mysteriously found their way into the living rooms and kitchens of houses occupied by American personnel at the post. The furniture for the salon was piled in the middle of the floor. Beds had not been put together. The oven of the kitchen stove, which ran on butane gas—a very scarce commodity in Guinea—did not work. It was not until some weeks later when this stove burst into flames that we got a substitute stove from the warehouse. It had been set aside for nonexistent ICA personnel, but no matter how meticulously equipment is assigned in Washington, it has a way of showing up in use in unexpected spots, and we had done our share. For that matter, many, many months were to pass before the Embassy silverware, tablecloths, and napkins reached Conakry; the administrative section in Conakry had forgotten to put through the necessary requisitions before our arrival. Fortunately, my wife had had the foresight to bring along our silverware in the personal luggage, along with other necessities. Only thus was it possible to begin without embarrassing delay the luncheons, dinners, and receptions demanded by protocol.
As I surveyed the situation at the official residence during this first inspection, I was very glad to have come without my wife. She might have found the appearance of the grounds and the villa as well as the interior disarray extremely frustrating. I was able to get that portion of the grounds closest to the main gate cleared off before I took her and our daughter and son to see their new home. The cleaning up of the entrance improved the villa’s general appearance so much that when my wife did see the residence and the grounds for the first time, she immediately sensed their possibilities. From the moment of our occupancy my wife toiled until she succeeded in bringing beauty to surroundings which had been drab and forlorn.
A redeeming feature of the location of the residence was that the ocean lay just off the expanse of land extending from the house down to a small stretch of sandy beach. Often the lapping of the ocean waves and the voices of Guinean fishermen returning with the day’s catch were the only noises that broke the all—enveloping silence of approaching nightfall. The tepid ocean water-despite the alleged presence of sharks, as reported by local inhabitants—was the chief source of recreation and physical fitness for my family and me. The small beach area was shared later with our neighbors, Ambassador and Mrs. Herbert Schroeder, when they arrived from the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). It was visited occasionally by the Bulgarian Ambassador and his family, who lived nearby, as well as by the Soviet Ambassador, who drove out from Conakry for a swim.
The Guineans who had worked as butlers, cooks, chauffeurs, and house servants for the French were now working for Guinean Ministers or other government officials. Many had left Guinea to seek employment in Dakar, Freetown, or Abidjan. I had to interview a great many applicants, some of whom actually had the qualifications for the jobs, before I selected three of the more suitable ones. I left to my wife the responsibility of training them. For a chef, I selected a Fulah in his early forties who had once served as a dish washer and kitchen helper in Dakar. As his helper I chose an alert young Malinké who knew nothing about working in a kitchen, but did know how to iron shirts. For the third employee, responsible for keeping the residence clean, I hired a young Fulah who spoke and understood only his own dialect. We retained the guardian-gardener, who spoke no French and only a smattering of Malinké, and whose dialect was Kissi. We retained also the chauffeur who had driven for the Embassy before our arrival. He was an intelligent young Soussou who spoke fairly good French.
It was inspiring and reassuring to see the manner in which my wife and daughter trained these employees and developed them into a smoothly working team with an unmistakable esprit de corps. They learned to handle effectively luncheons, dinners, and receptions given for members of the Guinean Government, the diplomatic corps, and for visiting United States Senators and other dignitaries. Little did our guests realize the hours spent in teaching a former dish washer how to prepare delicate hors d’oeuvres or to cook French and American dishes; or in instructing two nervous young Guincans, who had never before served meals, to set a table correctly and serve without spilling soup or wine on décolleté guests. The gardener’s inability to speak French proved to be no obstacle to his learning to understand that my wife expected him to clear the grounds of all undergrowth, keep the lawns neat, and plant beds of flowers. Before our stay in Guinea was over, the gardener could understand some French and had also developed some skill in gardening. He became our most faithful and trusted employee and saw to it that no harm ever came to our persons or to the Embassy property.
The fact that my wife was an excellent cook was an inestimable asset, particularly since it was impossible to obtain trained servants in Guinea. At the outset she had to do all the cooking for the dinners and the preparation of the hors d’oeuvres for receptions in addition to being ready on time to act as hostess. At first she had to go into Conakry to do the marketing—usually done by one’s chef and his helper, if one had a real chef who knew what he was doing. The task of marketing became increasingly difficult as French ships stopped bringing fresh produce and meats to Guinea, and the shelves in the stores were gradually depleted. Fortunately for us, my wife and daughter had made it a policy from the very start to shop on the “African market” as well as in the stores still run by the French. When the French disappeared from the stores and shops in Conakry and Guineans took over, my wife and daughter benefited from having patronized Guinean merchants.
At times I thought my wife possessed the skill of a prestidigitator when I tasted the dishes she miraculously created. With eggs, fish, shrimp, chickens, mutton, rabbits, lobsters, couscous, manioc, avocados, tomatoes, rice, spinach, mangoes, pineapples, bananas, almonds, red and green peppers, and a host of other mysterious ingredients, she could prepare a dinner for twelve or a reception for 150 or more. The acclaim won by her cuisine in Conakry and Donka was well merited. It was necessary to have luncheon or dinner guests at the residence on an average of two or three times a week-not to speak of breakfasts or teas for the ladies-and to have receptions every two or three weeks, and I am keenly aware that my wife served above and beyond the call of duty. In the heat and humidity of the Guinean coastal region she also had to accompany me on the remaining evenings to dinners, receptions, and other affairs given by Guinean officials or members of the diplomatic corps. Through it all, including the six months of rainy weather and the six months of dryness each year, she retained her aplomb, patience, and sunny disposition.
The considerate treatment and the training received by the Guineans employed at the residence—news of which promptly reached the rank and file of the populace of Conakry and Donka—the volunteer work of my daughter as a nurse’s aide in the hospital in Donka and later as a teacher of English in the Girls’ Lycée, and my son’s coaching of his classmates in basketball and tennis at the Boys’ Lycée accounted to some degree for the warmth of our reception not only in Conakry, but in other cities and villages of Guinea.

[ Home | Etat | Pays | Société | Bibliothèque | IGRD | Search | BlogGuinée ]

webGuinée, Camp Boiro Memorial, webAfriqa © 1997-2013 Afriq Access & Tierno S. Bah. All rights reserved.
Fulbright Scholar. Rockefeller Foundation Fellow. Internet Society Pioneer. Smithsonian Research Associate.